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Space Age Pianos Are Here

By Anya Wassenberg on January 9, 2023

A recent story out of San Francisco spotlighted an antique piano acquired by the Musée Mécanique, an instrument with a special pedigree. The Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso was never in general circulation, even when it was created in 1912. Today, there are estimated to be about 100 left in the entire world, and they generally auction at prices around $200,000 USD.

What’s so special about the Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso? It’s a mechanical instrument that automatically plays both piano and violin.

The 350-pound piano was named “one of the eight great scientific instruments of the decade” by the U.S. Patent Office when it granted the rights to inventor Henry Konrad Sandell. The Swedish-born inventor had previously applied for an electric self-playing violin, and the first Violano Virtuoso was shown to the public at the Alas-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington in 1909. Coin-operated versions became available to the public in 1911.

The mechanical elements used electric motors and/or magnets to operate both the piano and violin, which played music from a roll that was inserted into the instrument. It represented cutting-edge mechanical tech for its time.

Today, it’s the digital world that offers an exciting future of possibility for piano design.

Everyday Innovations: Yamaha P-S500

At the real world, affordable end of the scale, Yamaha recently announced a new digital piano with special tech designed specifically to make the learning experience easier, whether you are familiar with musical notation or not.

Notably, the P-S500 smart piano includes Stream Lights tech, which uses a system of red and blue lights to illuminate the keys and show budding pianists which notes to play. The piano runs via an app that allows access to instrument and configuration controls. Other features:

  • You can play your favourite songs by storing music in the instrument. The app will create a digital chord chart or piano score at your chosen level of playing from basic to advanced.
  • That chord chart or score will connect with Stream Lights, showing you how to play the piece.

“Learning the piano is such a rewarding process that we wanted more people to be able to experience it,” says Dane Madsen, senior manager of marketing, electronic keyboards group at Yamaha Corporation of America in a media release.

“The P-S500 opens the door for a new generation of players with untapped musical abilities to begin their musical voyage. We are excited to offer this enhanced and modernized digital piano to aspiring pianists and also those looking to pick up the piano again.”

The P-S500 will be available across North America starting in January 2023.

Fantasy and Flying Drones: the Roland 50th Anniversary Concept Piano

Roland released its undeniably eye-catching 50th Anniversary Concept Model Piano in the fall of 2022. The striking design is naturally equipped with Roland’s cutting-edge audio technology and tones, along with Roland’s legacy piano sounds, and a new keyboard touch design that’s more natural and responsive.

Unique features:

  • Moulded in one piece from a single piece of Japanese oak in a form designed in collaboration with renowned Japanese furniture maker Karimoku;
  • Low-latency wireless speakers are mounted on drones that float around it as you play;
  • In addition to the drones, there is a fixed, adjustable 14-speaker array, 360-degree speaker system;
  • There is a touch-panel table embedded in the lid, allowing access to features via Roland Cloud as well as video conferencing;
  • You can control the drone speakers as you perform.

Yoshiyasu Kitagawa, Roland Piano Development Division Head, comments in a media statement. “In this 50th Anniversary Concept Model, we’ve developed and installed cutting-edge sound field realization technology,” he says. “Beginning with the EP-10, we installed sounds from 1973, the RD-1000, JD-800, V-Piano, SuperNATURAL, and other historical sounds. This allows you to relive the evolution of technology since the introduction of the digital piano in 1973.”

The wooden frame provides a resonant piano tone. “Based on the PureAcoustic Modeling technology announced in 2018,” explains Kitagawa. “We have continued to refine our modelling technology through the Facet in 2020. More complex and advanced modelling calculations and multi-channel speakers create a realistic piano sound. We also developed an innovative keyboard sensing algorithm (patent pending). As a result, we have achieved a keyboard touch that provides a more natural response than ever before.”

The concept model may not be for sale, but the tech is a look into the future of digital pianos.

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