One of the most impressive electronic instruments to hit the market these days isn't another wonderbox flying off the factory floors of Yamaha, Korg, or Casio. It's coming from the 150-year-old B"osendorfer company in Vienna, one of Europe's most prestigious piano builders.
B"osendorfer has taken its Imperial Grand - the largest grand piano in production today - and linked it to a computer that allows the piano to play back exactly what a pianist performs. After a few years of development, the instrument is now making inroads into the professional recording business.
Like a lot of other industries, the piano industry has gone global in recent years. With instruments from Japan, Korea, and the United States battling for a slice of the world market, B"osendorfer, owned by Kimball International, is not about to be left behind. Though B"osendorfer pianos have long enjoyed a powerful reputation among pianists around the world, the company is making a first-time leap into digital electronics.
The bold move will give B"osendorfer a leading role in the fast-moving technology race that instrument development has become. Kimball's background in electronic organs has eased the way for its B"osendorfer division to take on digital electronics - and the competition. The highly respected name of B"osendorfer cannot help adding clout to Kimball's marketing efforts.
In hot pursuit is Yamaha International, whose piano division is marketing an upright piano with capabilities similar to B"osendorfer's product. Yamaha will be adding a grand piano version next January. These moves are not surprising for a company that has dominated the world market with its sophisticated electronic keyboards and has become an expert in mass-production techniques of acoustic pianos.
B"osendorfer, meanwhile, has hit the campaign trail with its revolutionary Recording Piano, the 290SE. At Wellesley College this spring, music teachers, pianists - and perhaps a few skeptics - hovered around the instrument like curious children. They were hearing pianist Frederick Moyer play one of Felix Mendelssohn's ``Songs Without Words'' - only Mr. Moyer wasn't there. The bench was empty, but the keys were dancing, repeating exactly what Moyer had played just one minute ago.
The gleaming black instrument was a normal-looking B"osendorfer beast - 9 feet long with nine extra bass notes added to the standard 88. The felt-cushioned hammers and dampers went up and down, and the bass gently rumbled like a giant set of bells. This was the real thing, for sure, but in ``instant replay'' mode.
Anyone who has ever seen an old-fashioned player piano spin out a tune can imagine what it's like to watch the 290SE. But unlike the piano rolls of the early 1900s and their successors, this instrument perfectly reproduces every crescendo, every subtle nuance, and every unique tone of the pianist's interpretation.
``I'm not keen on gimmicks, but this is phenomenal,'' said Jean Alderman, a member of the piano faculty in Wellesley's music department, who watched the instrument's demonstration and concert.
The 290SE is definitely a new chapter in the history of B"osendorfer. According to Vic Geiger, vice-president of international sales, ``it's important for a company to look to the future and not just to rest on past laurels.'' This innovation, he said, ``brings the piano into the 21st century.''
The B"osendorfer Recording Piano has already generated enough respect from pianists and sound technicians that conductor/composer Gunther Schuller has agreed to produce the first compact-disc recording of a solo performance on the instrument, featuring Moyer's live concert at Wellesley.
``This is the purest, most perfect kind of reproduction known to man thus far,'' said Mr. Schuller, whose own GM Recordings will release the CD this fall.
As a pianist performs a piece, optical sensors ``watch'' the exact speed, force of attack, and release of each hammer, taking measurements about 800 times a second. Sensors are focused on the pedals, too. The measurements are turned into digital information and sent to a computer terminal nearby.
Here the data are processed, and in a few minutes it can be shipped back to a large box mounted under the piano, where voltage-driven solenoids, or linear motors, play each key exactly the way the pianist played it.
For the first time, ``a pianist can go out into the middle of the hall and hear what his playing sounds like,'' said Moyer. Watching the keys up close is ``instructive,'' because every little imperfection shows up. Even an accidental brushing of a note is recorded, he said.
Universities have been the primary users of the recording piano so far - and realistically, the only consumers able to afford the average $100,000 price tag. Ms. Alderman, the piano teacher, said she could see why it ``would be most exciting to have in a studio,'' because with the computer, one can slow down the tempo of the playback, allowing a student easily to hear and analyze what he or she just played. Or a student could play a duet with himself. Or historic performances of world-class pianists could be saved and then played back ``live'' for a piano history class.
``No one knows where this is going to lead us,'' said Moyer. Conceivably, a pianist could play ``live'' on either side of the ocean at the same time, he said, using a satellite to transmit the computer data from one B"osendorfer to another.
The recording piano represents ``the marriage of 19th-century piano building with 20th-century technology,'' said John Amuedo, a research scientist formerly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the prototype was developed. Because it's an actual acoustic piano, he said, ``it preserves the great tradition of piano performance in a way that this year's top-of-the-line synthesizer doesn't.''
Frederick Moyer's performance at Wellesley was captured in the form of digital data. The actual recording of the CD took place later in the same building - without audience noise. Since Moyer had already done his part, the engineers took as much time as they wanted setting microphones, testing balances. Then they switched on the B"osendorfer to make the ``perfect'' recording of a performance originally inspired by a live audience.
This perfection is what more audiophiles are demanding. ``Record buyers are leery of applause and coughing,'' said Rick Oakley, who attended the concert and owns a stereo store. He said that nowadays, most people prefer clean, quiet studio recordings.
This recording technique, said Mr. Amuedo, is even more faithful to the original performance than today's state-of-the-art methods. And the editing process - which most modern recordings go through - is now simply a matter of punching buttons on the computer. Notes can be taken out, added, and made softer or louder.
This leaves pianist Moyer somewhat troubled.
``I have to decide how good a recording I'm going to make - because I could make the perfect recording with every single note in the right place.'' But he said that's ``almost stepping on the greatness'' of past recordings by famous artists in which mistakes are noticeable.
Mr. Oakley is also concerned about ethics.
``A live recording can be ruined by one clinker note,'' he said, but ``somebody unscrupulous could correct more than a few clinkers and make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.''
Though touch-up editing has been practiced ever since people could cut and splice tape, the invisible editing capability of the 290SE ``makes the controversy even wider,'' said Moyer.
Could an entire piece be typed in on the computer?
The possibility exists, said Amuedo, but it would be incredibly time consuming, and ``you'd end up with something very sterile and dead.
``The recording piano is a tool, not an end.''