The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
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SOME OF YOU may have fond memories of gathering around Grandma's old upright player piano and pumping those huge pedals to make it play — until you could hardly walk! As with so many other devices, technology has revolutionized the player piano, replacing the pneumatic pressure and rolls of punched paper with electronics, smartphones, iPads, and MP3 files. Today, nearly one out of every four new grand pianos is sold with an electronic player-piano system installed.
The capabilities of these systems range from those that simply play the piano (often all that's desired for home use) all the way to those that allow composers to create, play, and print entire orchestral scores without ever leaving the piano bench. You can even watch a video of Billy Joel in concert on a screen built into your piano's music rack, or on your tablet or notebook, while, simultaneously, his performance, with orchestra, is faithfully reproduced on your own piano, "live" in your living room! The features and technological capabilities are already vast and are still evolving.
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Before you begin to wade through the possibilities, you should carefully consider your long-term needs. Since many of the features of the more sophisticated systems are related to recording one's performance and composing, you should first decide whether or not you want the ability to record what you or others play on your piano, or to use the piano for music notation. In many typical family situations, the piano, just like Grandma's, is primarily used for children's lessons and for entertainment. If that's the case, one of the more basic systems, without recording capabilities, will likely be satisfactory. Most systems can be upgraded to add recording and other, more advanced features, should you later want to add those. However, as technologies advance, it may become increasingly difficult to upgrade your older system.
Some player systems can be added (retrofitted) to any new or used piano; others are available only on a specific make of piano. When installed in a new piano, some systems must be installed by the piano's manufacturer, while others can be installed by the dealer or at an intermediate distribution point. A factory-certified local installer of a retrofit can usually match the quality of a factory installation. Installation is somewhat messy and must be done in a shop, not in your home; but when done correctly, it won't harm the piano or void its warranty.
The player systems currently on the market can be described as falling into two categories: those that are used mostly in situations requiring only low- to medium-quality playback reproduction, and those whose playback and/or recording functions are of audiophile quality and are intended for the most discriminating or high-level professional users. The first category includes systems by PianoDisc, Pianoforce, QRS, and most Yamaha Disklaviers. When used as playback-only systems, these are suitable for home entertainment, and for commercial use in restaurants, hotels, assisted-living facilities, etc. When outfitted with recording capabilities and/or with a "silent" feature that mutes the acoustic piano's sound, they become more useful for students, and for lighter professional use for music notation or as a MIDI controller. The audiophile category includes the Bösendorfer CEUS, Steinway Spirio, and Disklavier Pro models. However, this classification scheme doesn't entirely do justice to home entertainment systems, which can be more sophisticated in other respects, such as versatility and functionality, than some audiophile systems.
The quality of a piano performance, either by a sophisticated electromechanical reproducing system or by a human being, greatly depends on the overall quality and condition of the instrument being played. Thus, an out-of-tune and/or ill-voiced piano with a poorly regulated action would result in an unpleasant listening experience, whether played by human or machine. This, of course, emphasizes the importance of regular and proper maintenance of the instrument. When buying a piano, the performance quality of the player-piano system will be limited, to a large extent, by the performance quality of the piano itself. Don't scrimp on the piano, just to be able to afford a player system for it.
Basic player systems consist of:
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On the solenoid rail, there is one solenoid for each key. There is also a solenoid for the damper pedal and, sometimes, one for the una corda (soft) pedal. Each solenoid contains a mechanical plunger that, when activated by an electronic signal, pushes against a key or against the pedal trapwork, causing the appropriate keys and pedals to move up and down. When playing, one track contains the datastream that controls the piano solenoids; the other track provides an instrumental and/or vocal accompaniment that plays through a stereo system or through amplified speakers that come with the player system. The accompaniment may be in the form of synthesized or sampled sounds, or actual recordings of live musicians. A wide selection of piano solos is also available.
For recording, keystroke and pedaling information are recorded in MIDI format by a sensor strip installed beneath the keys and sensors attached to the pedals. Some systems also record hammer motions. This information can be stored for later playback on the same piano, stored on other media, sent to other MIDI-compatible devices, or imported into a computer.
The same sensors used for recording can turn the piano into a MIDI controller. Add headphones, a device for mechanically silencing the acoustic piano, and a sound card or other tone generator, and you essentially have a hybrid acoustic/digital piano you can play late at night without disturbing anyone. Because this feature can be used independently of the player piano, most manufacturers of these systems make it available separately under such names as Silent Piano (Yamaha), QuietTime or ProRecord (PianoDisc), and SilentPNO (QRS). Of course, the MIDI controller can also be used with or without a tone generator to send a MIDI datastream to a computer for use with composing and editing software, among other applications. (For more information, see the article "Hybrid Pianos" elsewhere in this issue.)
Basic player-piano systems share a number of features:
Other capabilities, in a variety of applications, are considered valuable tools for composers, educators, and students, as well as performers. They include:
In addition to bundling some amount of music software with the purchase of their systems, most manufacturers record and separately sell software for their systems as MP3 downloads from a website, or as CDs or DVDs. A significant caveat is that one manufacturer's software may, by design, not work unconditionally with another manufacturer's hardware.
To list and compare the wide variety of features and capabilities offered by each of the many player systems would be beyond the scope of this article. However, the most significant concerns, aside from price, are the following. Ask your dealer or installer about the ones that interest or concern you.
The costs of electronic player-piano systems vary enormously, not only from one system to the next, but even for the same system, depending on where it is installed and other factors.
A dealer has several ways of acquiring an add-on (retrofit) player system, which can affect the price at which the system is sold. Factory-installed systems — installed while the piano itself is being manufactured — are the least expensive for the dealer to acquire. Several large piano manufacturers are authorized to do this. In addition, the companies that make the player systems may factory-install them in brands that they own; for example, QRS PNOmation in Story & Clark pianos, and PianoDisc in Mason & Hamlin instruments. When installed this way, the difference in price between the piano alone and the piano plus player system may be moderate. The next more expensive options are when the player system is installed at an intermediate distribution point before reaching the dealer, or when a larger dealer, in his or her own shop, installs a system in a piano already on the showroom floor — with most brands of piano, either of these can be done. These installations require more labor that those done while the piano is being manufactured. More expensive yet is when the smaller dealer must hire a local independent installer to install a system in a piano that is on the dealer's showroom floor. The most expensive option is to have a system installed in a piano you already own. In that situation, you also incur the expense of having the piano moved to and from the installer's shop.
The cost can also vary because player systems are often used by dealers as an incentive to buy the piano. The dealer will charge well for an expensive piano, then "throw in" the player system at his or her cost. Or vice versa — the dealer lets the piano go cheaply, then makes it up by charging list price for the system. The more modular systems can also vary in price, according to which options and accessories the dealer includes.
For all these reasons, quoting prices for player systems without knowing the context in which they're installed and sold is difficult. Nevertheless, as a rule of thumb, one of the more popular, typically configured, factory-installed QRS or PianoDisc systems with playback and accompaniment might add $5,500 to $7,000 to the piano's street price, with recording capability adding another $1,500 or so. However, for the reasons given above, prices 20% lower or higher aren't unusual.
As for systems available only as factory installations, Yamaha Disklavier grands generally cost $10,000 to $15,000 (street price) more than the same Yamaha model without the player system. At the time of this writing, the Steinway Spirio is about $15,000 more expensive than the Steinway piano alone. At the high end, a Bösendorfer CEUS will set you back $65,000 to $75,000 (street price). The retail prices of these systems are included under their companies' listings in the "Model & Pricing Guide."