Roll Over, Beethoven
How Yamaha's new electronic piano improves upon a 300-year-old instrument.
There are nine pianos squeezed into the back of Yamaha's music salon in the old Aeolian Building in New York, and between them they represent an abridged history of technology's assault on the instrument. Against the wall you'll find a majestic 9-foot grand and two of its 6-foot cousins—not an electric bone in their bodies. A few feet away is a modern player piano, the Disklavier Pro, which is still an acoustic piano but is outfitted with gadgets that can resurrect Art Tatum if you insert the correct 3½-inch floppy. (Think Darth Vader: still human but with a lot of gizmos for extra functionality.) And over by the door is the newest addition to the Yamaha family, the just-released AvantGrand. It doesn't even have strings.
The AvantGrand is at the cutting edge of electronic piano technology, though you wouldn't know to look at it. It looks like a small baby grand, 4½ feet deep with the usual folding lid. In place of strings, it has four speakers, but if the lid is down, the only obvious sign that this isn't an acoustic piano is a small control panel that tucks neatly under the keyboard. More important, it actually sounds like an acoustic grand piano. Since the timbre of a piano is derived in part from the way the instrument itself vibrates as the sound resonates inside, the Yamaha engineers sampled notes from a variety of locations inside the 9-foot concert grand they used as their model. When you play note on the AvantGrand, you're basically triggering an extremely high-quality recording of a concert piano, adjusted in volume depending on how hard you hit the keys.
The lengths to which the designers have gone to replicate the experience of a top-notch grand piano are almost absurd. Each key is attached to a hammer that, while it has no string to strike, imitates the kick you get when you hit a traditional piano key. Two resonators under the hood cause the entire instrument to vibrate subtly the way a real piano does when the sound is resonating inside—an effect that is solely meant to imitate for the player the physicality of a real piano. A Tactile Response System even replicates the way the pedals vibrate a little when you're really hammering away. (It's kind of like the Nintendo 64's Rumble Pak.) The pedals are also precisely calibrated to the variable resistance of a real piano. Yamaha has the graphs to prove it.
What all this means is that the bottom 95th percentile of the world's pianists will not notice much difference, if any, in the tone and quality of this piano as compared to a traditional one. In fact, the AvantGrand probably sounds considerably better than the baby grand in your living room.
I got a chance to try the AvantGrand for myself recently. A gaggle of Yamaha employees gathered round to explain the piano's virtues while I moved them all to tears with a little Rachmaninoff. (Actually, Magdalena, my handler, helpfully pointed out the correct chords as I honked my way through a prelude.) Despite my clunky playing, I found the AvantGrand entrancing, more responsive than even the expensive pianos I'd tried in college, the ones you had to get a special key from the music department to play.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
The AvantGrand piano provided by Yamaha.