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Review: Yamaha’s Genetic Experiment Splices Digital Grand Piano Onto an Upright

A few years back, it occurred to someone at Yamaha Corporation in Japan that something fruitful might emerge if they combined the very old (pianos) with the very new (computers). Thus began a series of absolutely fascinating, sometimes rip-roaringly controversial hybrid instruments — instruments that look and feel exactly like pianos, but whose guts are electronic, or partly so.

And, yes, they are controversial. Last year, I wrote in The New York Times about the Yamaha NU1: a piano with real hammers that hit sensors instead of strings, triggering samples (digital recordings) of actual grand-piano notes.

Yamaha NU1 piano
Yamaha NU1 piano

These new, hybrid instruments have huge, obvious (I thought) benefits: You never have to tune them. You get a grand-piano sound in a much more compact instrument. You spend $4,500, a fraction of a new upright piano’s price. You can practice with headphones on so you don’t disturb the rest of the house (or the apartment building).

But, to my surprise, many pianists responded with seething hostility. Here’s a typical sample:

David: I find your article offensive. You don’t know the difference between a real piano and a keyboard instrument.

A real piano is made of strings and wood. When a string is struck, it vibrates, creating overtones, and the other strings vibrate sympathetically and generate a complex set of tones that intermingle with the primary tone.

A digital piano can indeed be made to have the exact hammer action as a piano, but nothing else is the same. The final sound comes out of speakers. There is no natural comingling of natural overtones, reflecting from wood and off of walls.

This is sad. Soon someone will be touting a robot has been made that is the equal to a real human.

Somehow, these readers thought that I was proposing replacing traditional acoustic pianos with hybrid ones, rather than welcoming a new category of instrument.

No, of course it’s not the piano you’d choose for a performance onstage — but it’s a great jump forward in realism compared with, say, a plastic synthesizer.

Enter the TransAcoustic
Presumably, my angry correspondents would be happier with Yamaha’s newest effort, the TransAcoustic U1TA.

TransAcoustic U1TA piano
TransAcoustic U1TA piano

This time, there are strings. In fact, with the power turned off, this piano is a full-blown, traditional, absolutely acoustic piano. When you press the keys, hammers hit strings, which reverberate. Boom: real upright piano.

Piano strings
Piano strings

But here’s the “hybrid” part: When you lock the middle foot pedal (push it down and left), the hammers get pulled away from the strings by a fraction of an inch. They no longer strike the strings. You’ve made the piano completely silent.

Piano pedals
Piano pedals

Playing it this way is a really creepy experience, because it still feels like you’re playing a regular piano. It’s like seeing someone play the drums 10 feet away from you — but there’s no sound.

Piano strings
Piano strings

The point of the TransAcoustic is that when the hammers are off the strings, you can turn the electronics on, using a control panel tucked below the keyboard on the left side.

Yamaha piano control panel
Yamaha piano control panel

After a generous startup period (12 seconds — too long), the piano is now digital. Now, those same weighted keys trigger rich sampled (digital) sounds taken from a grand piano.

You have a wealth of digital flexibility at this point. You can turn down the volume. You can plug in headphones and practice silently. You can choose 17 other instrument sounds, like electric piano, harpsichord, organ, strings, or choir. You can record and play back your performances. You can connect the piano to a computer to record, edit, and play back your performances.

This hybrid electric piano does not contain an amplifier or traditional speakers. Instead, Yamaha has installed a pair of beefy transducers (components that convert data into sound energy) against the soundboard. (The soundboard of a piano is a huge piece of wood that transmits and amplifies the strings’ vibration.)

Piano soundboard
Piano soundboard

So when you’re playing this piano’s digital instruments, you can’t pinpoint a physical location for the source of the sound. Or, as Yamaha puts it: “The soundboard — in fact, the entire piano — effectively becomes one giant speaker, producing the acoustic fields and natural sounding tonal characteristics of an acoustic piano, and projecting a digitally sampled sound in the same manner as if it were doing so acoustically.”

Well, whatever. I can tell you that the sound truly is all around you. It’s a crazy experiment to build the piano this way, and I can’t believe it works.

Two become one
The TransAcoustic, therefore, truly is two complete instruments in a single handsome piece of furniture. It can be a straight-up acoustic piano or a full-blown digital one.

But perhaps the wildest part is that you can turn on the piano electronics and then unhook the middle pedal. Now the hammers hit the strings again, but the digital part is still turned on. When you play, you hear both sounds simultaneously — the acoustic and the digital.

When you’ve set the electric part to the grand-piano sound, you get this crazy, rich, full piano sound: two pianos simultaneously — really, one sampled and one live.

But doubling the other keyboard sounds can be equally interesting. In my video above, for example, you can hear how cool it is to hear the real piano doubled with the sampled strings or choir. It’s fantastic.

This dual-instrument flexibility is really amazing; owning this baby seems like it would be terrifically rewarding. I’ll never know for sure, though, because its price is over the top: about $16,000.

I mean, what?

The classic Yamaha upright piano on which this one is based, the U1, costs $7,500. It doesn’t seem like it should cost $8,500 more to add the digital elements. But what do I know? Maybe that transducer/soundboard business is super-difficult to engineer.

Still. I mean, 16 grand. For that kind of money, you could buy a nice grand piano. Or two wonderful Yamaha uprights. That price will kill the deal for a whole lot of interested parties.

Note, furthermore, that this hybrid lacks one virtue of its predecessors: This one you have to tune. Over time, a piano’s strings slowly loosen — and on this one, as they do, they drift out of tune with the digital sounds. If you try to play them simultaneously, in the doubling mode, they’ll sound pretty awful.

For a while, you may be able to put off the tuning by tweaking the digital instrument; you can shift its entire pitch quite a bit up or down. But eventually, you’ll have to have this piano tuned.

I was also surprised that the digital piano, at full volume, isn’t very loud. Maybe that’s the downside of the transducer technology. But, in any case, it doesn’t get any louder than the acoustic piano strings. You can’t crank it.

The stringless piano I reviewed last year — the NU1 — wasn’t a “real” piano. OK, fine. But its size, price ($4,500), and silent-practicing features made a lot of sense for apartment dwellers, students, and practice rooms.

This TransAcoustic model is, of course, much more desirable, because it can be a traditional acoustic piano, a rich sampled digital piano, or a mix of the two. But at $16,000, the target audience isn’t as clear, and it certainly isn’t as large. That goes double for the grand-piano version of this TransAcoustic, which is coming in the fall. That one will be $31,000.

Maybe these models are like the first Tesla car: a gorgeous, high-performance, ridiculously expensive machine intended for people in Oprah’s tax bracket. The rest of us just have to drool quietly to ourselves.

If so, maybe Yamaha will follow Tesla’s example even more closely and follow up these ultimate hybrid pianos with successor models. And maybe they’ll perform just as beautifully but without the price tags that seem way out of tune.

You can email David Pogue here.

This story has been updated: The description of Yamaha Corporation has been corrected.