Buying An Electronic Player-Piano System
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.
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 Steinway Spirio and the 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.
How a Typical Electronic Player-Piano System Works
Basic player systems consist of:
- a solenoid (electromechanical actuator) rail installed in a slot cut in the piano keybed (a shelf-like part of the piano that supports the keys and action)
- a processor unit and other electronics mounted out of sight under the piano
- Some models use a control box that plays MP3s, DVDs, and/or CDs (depending on the model), and is either mounted under the keybed at the front of the piano, or sits on or near the piano. In some models, the control box contains no disc drives and is hidden away under the piano, depending instead on your own CD player, MP3 player, or other device for the musical input. A remote-control device for operating the control box from a distance is also generally included with these units.
- In place of a control box, most newer models now use as the system’s remote control an iPad or other tablet, or a smartphone, linked to a WiFi station such as Apple’s Airport Express mounted out of sight under a grand piano or inside an upright. A number of apps are available for operating and calibrating the system.
- One or more amplified speakers are installed out of sight under the grand piano or inside the upright models — unless you choose a system configuration that uses your own speaker system.
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), AnyTime (Kawai), 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:
- live playback of piano music with a good reproduction of the artist’s performance. The keys, and in some systems the pedals, actually move up and down.
- 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 audio 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 and wireless connections, including MP3s, iPads, 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 most computers, 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 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.
Questions to Consider
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.
- Installation: Can the system be installed in (retrofitted to) any piano, 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: smartphones, Internet downloads, iPads and other tablets, MP3s, CDs, 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? The addition of an acoustic-piano silencing mechanism will allow you to play silently with headphones, or to connect to a computer to edit and transcribe music, among other benefits.
- Playing Softly: How well does the system play softly without skipping notes and without excessive mechanical noise? This is especially important if you plan to use the player piano for soft background music. If so, be sure to try out the system at a low volume level to be sure it meets your expectations.
- Music Software: How well does the available music software satisfy your needs?
- Equipment: Do you need a system with a CD player and/or iPad 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?
- 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 few 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 hear if it meets your musical expecta-tions for dynamic resolution. A few systems can handle 1,000 or more increments. This may be desirable for high-level profess-ional or recording applications, or for the most authentic play-back of complex classical compositions. Likewise, some systems have higher processor speeds that scan the system a greater number of times per second for higher resolution. Some record by sensing only key movements, while others, for greater accuracy, also sense hammershank movements. It’s important to note that some systems that are theoretically capable of playing back with high resolution nonetheless come with music that has been pre-recorded at lower resolution. Music can never be played back at a level of sound quality higher than that at which it was recorded.
- Pedals: Which pedals are played by hardware (solenoids) and which, if any, are mimicked by software? Hardware provides a more authentic piano performance, but duplication of pedal functions by software is simpler. Most important is hardware support for the sustain (damper) pedal, and all systems currently provide that. Only a few also provide hardware for the soft pedal (less important), and fewer still for the sostenuto (middle) pedal (unimportant).
- Damper Pedal Performance: Does the system record multiple damper-pedal positions, allowing for pedaling techniques such as “half-pedaling,” or does it simply record an “on” or “off” position? As with dynamic resolution, the recording and playback of multiple pedal positions is desirable for an authentic performance experience. The on/off mode is sufficient for casual or simple uses.
- Pedal Functionality: Some add-on (retrofit) systems, when installed, may alter the functionality or feel of the pedals, especially the middle pedal. If possible, try playing a piano on which a similar player system is installed to see if the pedal operation is okay for you. If only the middle pedal is affected, it might not matter to you, because this pedal is rarely used
- Options: What special features, advantages, and benefits are included or are optionally available? Examples include the ability to synchronize the piano with commercially available MP3s, CDs, and DVDs, features used for teaching purposes, a built-in video monitor, subscrip-tions to Internet music libraries or streaming radio that make available virtually unlimited input to your piano, bundled music software, and so forth.
- Upgradability: To what extent is the system upgradable? Most systems are highly upgradable, but the upgradability of some entry-level systems may be limited.
How Much Player-Piano Systems Cost
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 $7,000 to $8,000 to the piano’s street price, with recording capability adding another $3,000 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 $25,000 more expensive than the Steinway piano alone, and $40,000 more expensive with the record feature (Spirio | r). The retail prices of these systems are included under their companies’ model and price listings.
Mike Kemper, a Los Angeles-based piano technician and expert on electronic player-piano systems, contributed to the original version of this article. Piano Buyer’s Contributing Editor Steve Cohen contributed to this article’s most recent revision.