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, CDs, and iPods. Today, nearly one out of every three 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 while, simultaneously, his "live" performance is faithfully reproduced on your piano! The features and technological capabilities are vast and still evolving.
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, you should first decide whether or not you want the ability to record what you or others play on your piano. In many typical family situations, the piano, just like Grandma's, is primarily used for the 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 find them desirable. 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, while others are available only on a specific make of piano. When installed in a new piano, some must be installed by the piano 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 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 intended primarily as home entertainment systems or for lighter professional use (including commercial use in restaurants, hotels, etc.), and those whose playback and recording functions are of "audiophile" quality and are intended for the most discriminating or high-level professional users. Generally speaking, the first category includes systems by PianoDisc, Pianoforce, QRS, and most Yamaha Disklaviers; the second category includes the Bösendorfer CEUS, Live Performance, 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. With new pianos, the performance quality of the player-piano system is limited, to a large extent, by the performance quality of the piano itself. Don't scrimp on a piano to afford a player system.
The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
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