Basic player-piano systems share a number of features:
- playback of piano music with a good reproduction of the artist's performance
- playback of piano music with a full band, orchestral, and/or vocal accompaniment (yes, it will sing!)
- a repertoire of thousands of songs and the ability to download music from the Internet
- connectivity to home sound or home-theater systems
- remote control
Other capabilities, in a variety of applications, are considered valuable tools for composers, educators, and students, as well as performers. They include:
- a system of sensing key and pedal motions that can capture and record the nuances of a live performance for later playback or editing
- playing every instrument of the orchestra (and then some!), using the piano keyboard coupled with an onboard and/or outboard sound module
- the ability to import and export performances through a variety of wired/wireless connections, including MP3s, iPods, the Internet, etc.
- synchronizing a solo-piano performance on your piano with a commercially available CD or DVD of a famous performing artist
- Internet radio that streams data specifically formatted for the player system, for a virtually unlimited supply of musical input
- connectivity to a computer, facilitating music editing, enhancing, and printing
- connecting to teachers and other players anywhere in the world via the Internet
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 on floppies, CDs, or DVDs, or as downloads from a website. A significant caveat is that one manufacturer's software may — by design — not work unconditionally with another player's hardware.
Questions to Consider
To list and compare the wide variety of features and capabilities offered by each of the 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.
- Installation: Can the system be installed in any piano (retrofit), or is it exclusive to a particular brand of piano? If exclusive, this will limit your options as to what brand of piano to buy.
- Music Source: Do you have a preference of source of music for the system: CDs, floppies, Internet downloads, iPod, MP3 player, etc.? This will influence your choice of system brand and configuration.
- Recording: Do you need recording capability, or the ability to use the system as a MIDI controller? This will also allow you to play silently with headphones, or to connect to a computer to edit and transcribe music, among other benefits.
- Wireless: Do you need to operate the system from a distance? Most systems have a wireless remote control available. Some can also be adapted for wireless transmission of music from the control box to the piano — for example, in a commercial establishment, where a CD player must be located some distance from the piano.
- Visibility: Is it important to you that the control unit not be visible or be very unobtrusive? Some models may be more suitable in this regard than others.
- Equipment: Do you need a system with a CD player, floppy disk drive, and/or iPod included, or will you be supplying your own? Do you need speakers or a video monitor, or will you be connecting the system to your own stereo system or home theater?
- Memory: Do you need internal memory for data storage, or will you be using external data storage? Can external memory be connected?
- Software Compatibility: Can it play the music libraries of other manufacturers' systems? It's important to note, however, that because competitors sometimes change their formats and encryption, the ability to play the data format of a particular competitor's software may not be guaranteed.
- Dynamic Resolution: How many gradations of volume can the system record and play back? Most systems record and play back in 127 increments, which is more than sufficient for most uses. Some pre-recorded CDs play back with as little as 16 levels of expression — still probably enough for casual use, but you should test out the type of music you expect to listen to to see if it meets your musical expectations of dynamic range (gradations of loud and soft). A few systems can handle 1,000 or more increments. This may be desirable for high-level professional or recording applications, or for the most authentic playback of complex classical com-positions. Likewise, some have higher processor speeds that scan the system a greater number of times per second for greater resolution. Some record by sensing only key movements, while others, for greater accuracy, also sense hammershank movements.