WHEN a jazz or rock musician walks into a studio to compose music, he has hundreds of musical sounds at his finger tips -- thanks to digital electronics. Now the home musician has the same opportunity to re-create authentic sounds of musical instruments in the way professionals do. Kurzweil Music Systems of Waltham, Mass., has just unveiled the ``Ensemble Grande'' -- the first digital keyboard synthesizer geared for home use.
``This instrument is designed for having fun,'' says Robert Moog, inventor 22 years ago of the Moog Synthesizer. Dr. Moog (rhymes with ``vogue'') now works for Kurzweil as vice-president of new product research.
And it is fun. I tried it out in one of Kurzweil's studios. The ability to switch back and forth between instruments -- with a push of a button -- was sheer delight.
The Ensemble Grande looks like an upright piano, with a thinner cabinet. It weighs only 240 pounds and has a beautiful wood finish suitable for a living room.
The most notable difference is a long panel of buttons and levers directly above the keyboard. Flick the on-switch, press a button, and one can select up to 33 instrument ``voices'' and combinations such as grand piano, electric piano, organ, vibes, guitar, and acoustic or electric bass. Complementing those sounds are a variety of percussion sounds, tone and brightness control, and the ``keyboard split'' option, which allows one to play double bass, say, with the left hand and guitar with the right.
But how is this different from all the other electronic keyboards so popular these days? For years, electric organs have boasted push-button access to trumpets and flutes and glockenspiels and cha-cha rhythms -- turning the neophyte into a one-man-band. More recently, small portable keyboards of all shapes and sizes have brought sophisticated sound into the home.
Kurzweil begins with high-quality digital recordings of real instruments, which are then processed by computer. The information needed to reproduce these sounds is stored on just a few memory chips inside the Ensemble Grande.
``The part of the sound that is stored is that part that tells our ears that we are listening to piano, or vibes, or guitar,'' Moog says. ``We call these `sound models.' ''
So the instrument creates sounds that are authentic -- not electronic. The bass sounds like a real bass, and the grand piano -- well -- you'd have to hear it to believe it.
The Ensemble Grande has the feel of a real acoustic piano. The keys are of weighted wood -- just like a real piano -- and it has two foot pedals that function just as they do on a regular piano.
When I first tested out the instrument, I was skeptical. But as I continued to play, my ears and fingers were telling me amazing things. There was full dynamic potential, from soft to loud, over the entire range of the keyboard. The action was amazingly similar to a good acoustic piano. As I played some Chopin, I was able to produce expressive tones and a surprising degree of subtle shading.
The Ensemble Grande will be sold for about $8,000, starting this month in piano and organ stores across the country. ``A good home baby grand or a high quality studio upright would cost you about what this instrument does,'' Moog says.
My ears, though, were not used to where the sound was coming from in the Ensemble Grande. It has a speaker in the lower back side for the bass sounds, and under the top lid are the speakers for the midrange and treble sounds. So I felt slightly removed from what I was playing.
``What you're looking at here is not a replacement for the piano,'' Moog says. ``It is much more than that. It may not do literally every single thing a fine grand piano will do, in the way of duplicating the action and every single nuance that's found -- but the basics are there.''
For the piano connoisseur, it is unlikely that the Ensemble Grande could ever be a true substitute for an acoustic piano. No electronic keyboard, no matter how advanced, can duplicate the control and feeling of felt hammers on strings. But the more I played, the more I forgot all that. This instrument, I thought, could really make a difference in someone's home -- especially a home with children.
Educationally, the Ensemble Grande offers a lot. Having different voices to choose from prevents students from getting bored with just one kind of sound. And piano students can learn to keep accurate time with the built-in rhythm patterns.
``It's much more conducive to learning ensemble playing and learning rhythmic performance than a traditional piano,'' says Moog.
In discussions with piano teachers, Moog says, many were delighted to learn that the instrument has a four-track digital recorder. When teaching duets, the piano teacher can select a track, then ``load in'' one part just by playing it. Later, when the student wants to practice, he or she presses the button that activates the teacher's part and plays his part along with it.
Another bonus is the ability to plug headphones into the keyboard. One could practice in a room full of people without bothering them. And, because the sound is controlled digitally, the instrument never goes out of tune.
``Your children and your friends and their children are going to be excited by being able to make the sounds that have become familiar to us through today's pop music,'' Moog says. ``Their creative juices are going to be turned on by the ability to record four individual tracks and put that all together into their own composition.''
The Ensemble Grande can also be connected to a home computer, and with the right software one can play music and have it appear in musical notation on the computer screen -- to be edited and printed out. The instrument can also be hooked into other synthesizers.
``I don't want to say this is more of a musical instrument than the piano,'' Moog says, ``but certainly it offers things that the piano doesn't, and for a great many people in today's homes the things that it offers are very relevant, and that makes the instrument very worthwhile.''