BOSTON — So Junior is learning to play an instrument. Just yesterday digging in the sandbox, and now he is playing Bach!
Or trying to. Deep down you know his trumpet solo more closely resembles cacophony than cantata. Wouldn't it be nice if the little tyke could, you know, practice silently?
Now he can. Music companies are turning out instruments that, with the flip of a switch, can be heard only through headphones. Brass, drums, even pianos are being silenced with the wizardry of electronics.
The "silent" trend is an important milestone in the digital takeover of traditional instruments. Purists will shudder at this, but sales of digital pianos are quickly catching up with sales of traditional ones, known as acoustic pianos. "By the year 2000, the majority of new acoustic pianos will have an electronic enhancement," predicts Tom Lagomarsino, executive vice president for PianoDisc/Music Systems Research.
The Sacramento, Calif., company, which makes digital player pianos, is one of several manufacturers offering digital retrofits for acoustic pianos. When the PianoDisc system, called QuietTime, is switched on, a rail moves in place to stop the hammers of the piano from hitting the strings. Instead, an electronic controller pad under the keys interprets the pianist's keystrokes and turns it into digital sound.
That sound can be sent to headphones, making it a silent instrument for everyone but the player, or hooked up to speakers or even a computer for further effects. The system also can imitate 128 different instrument sounds and create other special effects.
The "silent" option has some appeal. Instead of waking up a spouse or the neighbors, apartment-dwellers can plunk away at 3 a.m. If Mom's tired of hearing Johnny play "Volga Boatman" for the 50th time, she can put him on the headphones.
Japanese piano-manufacturer Yamaha has taken a different approach with its "Silent Series" pianos. The pianos don't imitate other instruments. But they use a more sophisticated system of light beams and sensors to translate keystrokes and pedal movements into digital sound without affecting the action of the keys.
With the digital system turned off, an upright Yamaha piano sounds like a good upright piano. Turned on, it imitates the richer sound of a 9-foot concert grand. Real pianists would spot the digital imposter right away. But the resemblance is fairly close.
Not surprisingly, Yamaha reports its "Silent Series" pianos sell best in large American cities and in Japan and Europe, where apartments are common and too much sound can be annoying.
None of these products comes cheap. The PianoDisc kit, which the company claims can be retrofitted to virtually any piano, costs $2,500. Yamaha says its "Silent Series" adds about 25 percent to the cost of its pianos. So a $4,000 upright becomes a $5,000 digital instrument.
Yamaha also sells electronic muting devices for other instruments. For example, its "Silent Brass" mutes can handle anything from trumpets to French horns. By eliminating 999/1000ths of the sound, the mute allows little Sue to puff her way through the "Washington Post March" without scaring the neighbors. And, with a suggested price of $300 to $330, many families can afford to buy themselves a little peace.
Drums have taken the next step in their digital evolution, moving away from acoustic sound to sensing pads that create an electronic beat. As with other digital instruments, the output can go to speakers or, mercifully, to headphones.
Companies such as Yamaha and British manufacturer Roland are pushing digital drum sets for high-end hobbyists and professionals.
Maybe digital sound doesn't always measure up to the real thing. But, oh, isn't it wonderfully pianissimo?
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