Steinway’s New Piano Can Play A Perfect Concerto By Itself - Wired.com
By Liz Stinson - wired.com
The black and white keys move so fast it’s hard to tell if Jenny Lin is even touching them. Lin, a classical pianist known for virtuosic speed, is sitting at a grand piano in Steinway’s New York offices, as the rest of the room listens intently, focused on the keyboard.
No, she’s definitely not touching the keys. Not this time. Minutes earlier, Lin played a hyper-speed arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” The same song is playing now, except this time Lin hands are on her lap. It’s uncanny, really: The exact same keys are pressed, the exact same trills are heard, the same dynamics are present. It’s a little magical—or “almost scary” as Lin puts it—as though you’re witnessing a prodigious ghost mimic her every move.
It’s not a ghost, of course. It’s technology. Which, considering Steinway’s old-school legacy, is nearly as unlikely an explanation as a poltergeist. Lin is demonstrating the Spirio, Steinway’s newest and first self-playing piano.
When you buy a Spirio—not you, necessarily; they run upwards of $110,000—it comes with an iPad loaded with a Spotify-like app. This app communicates with the piano via Bluetooth, prompting the piano to play any one of the 1,700 songs recorded specifically for the instrument. New songs will sync every week. By itself, an iPad-controlled piano is nifty, if not exactly a technological marvel. What makes Spirio different is that it can play songs with an unprecedented level of accuracy and nuance.
Better Data, Better Music
To understand Spirio’s magic, a brief primer on pianos is in order. Each of the piano’s 88 keys acts as a lever. When you push a key, the hidden part of this lever forces a hammer to hit the piano strings, causing a vibration that creates the sounds you hear. When you release the key, a felt-covered hammer called a damper lands on top of the string, stopping the vibration.
Whereas most player pianos reproduce human performances solely by recording the key strike, Steinway amassed Spirio’s catalog with a far more sophisticated system. Hardware and software embedded into the piano measured the velocity of the hammer hitting the string in 1,020 increments, taking stock of the the hammer’s location and speed 800 times a second. The pedal motion was similarly documented at 200 times per second. This data created a vastly more nuanced picture of what the pianist was doing at any given time, meaning the piano’s built-in songs capture dynamics, repeating notes and the subtleties of the transition, say, from staccato to legato.
A software-controlled solenoid (electro-magnetic) system that’s installed underneath the piano activates the notes. Think of it this way: If you give a robot a paintbrush and tell it to paint Picasso, it might get the lines exactly right. What’s missing is pressure of the brushstroke, the depth of color, the expression that makes it art. That’s what Steinway is trying to achieve with the Spirio.
Generally speaking, there are two types of people who buy pianos: Those who plan to play them and those who plan to use them as extraordinarily expensive pieces of furniture. This breakdown ignores the many potential buyers who can’t play the piano but might throw down big bucks if there was some additional justification for the purchase.
If you’re a company like Steinway, that’s a problem. For more than a century, its been the piano of choice for top-tier artists. In order to grow, it wants to position itself as the piano for top-tier listeners, too. Player pianos have always been a little cheesy. They’re the stuff of old timey saloons and Christmastime mall shopping. They are not well regarded in the world of classical music—at least not yet. You can think of Spirio as the world’s best hi-fi for classical music lovers. Except it’s not playing a reproduction of the music—it’s playing the music itself.
Steinway has been developing the technology for Spirio since it bought a company called Live Performance over a year ago. Founded by engineer Wayne Stahnke, Live Performance is considered to be one of the forefathers of autonomously-playing piano systems. “What he was working on was a much higher resolution system,” says Steinway CEO Mike Sweeney. Steinway didn’t want to create a high-fidelity speaker; it’s aiming to create an at-home, autonomously-playing concert piano. “The finest audio equipment only hopes to replicate what the acoustic instrument actually sounded like,” Sweeney says.
The first version of the Spirio will introduce the idea of a high-fidelity player piano to consumers. But it’s interesting to think about where the technology could go next. Tapping your iPad to pull up a Chopin Nocturne is great, but imagine if you could listen to Lin or any number of artists playing a piece in real time. Maybe you can’t make it to the Village Vanguard, but perhaps you could settle in for the same concert in your living room. Artists, too could play duets with themselves. Grandkids’ recitals could be transmitted to other pianos across the country, or preserved for later enjoyment. In every case, it could drag the self-playing piano well out of the dusty old saloon.