Exciting Developments in Piano Technology

So it turns out that I haven’t been paying attention to what pianos have been getting up to in the 15 years since I bought a Roland digital piano.

First of all, the lines between acoustic (i.e., normal) pianos and digital pianos have been blurring: enter the digital hybrid. This can be a digital piano with acoustic characteristics, like a digital piano with a resonant soundboard in addition to speakers (for example, the Kawai CA901). This can be an acoustic piano with a digital mode, such as a so-called silent piano where engaging silent mode disengages the hammers and activates a small digital amplifier that outputs to headphones.

Kawai NV10s action

And some hybrid pianos really blur the lines, like Kawai’s Novus series (NV5s, NV10s) and Yamaha’s AvantGrand series: these are top-end digital pianos that don’t just use key actions that closely mimic an acoustic’s keys—in most cases they literally use the exact same keyboard parts as their acoustic uprights and grands. For someone interested in replicating the touch of a grand piano without necessarily having the room or funds for one, this is of immense interest, though the prices of the top-end hybrids get awfully close to those of their entry-level acoustic grands.

(See the Philadelphia Piano Institute’s guide to hybrid pianos; this 2009 Slate article doesn’t do the subject justice. There are also a ton of videos about digital hybrids on YouTube, mainly from piano stores who would very much like to sell you one: Merriam Music’s channel is very good and full of useful detail without being too hard a sell.)

Meanwhile, I’m shocked to learn that there has been some innovation on the grand piano front. Belgian piano maker Chris Maene has designed and built two unusual grand pianos. One is a straight-stringed instrument straight out of the 19th century, but with 21st-century part and build quality. (Modern pianos are cross-stringed: there is a difference in sound.) The pianist Daniel Barenboim commissioned it from Maene in 2011 and has since performed and recorded with it, and so, it seems, have other performers, now that Maene has gone into production with it.

Chris Maene’s Straight Strung Grand Piano (left) and Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand Piano (right).

The other, the Maene-Viñoly grand, is just trippy: the keyboard is curved and the strings radiate outward. It’s something I’d have expected to see on a luxury starship. See Kirill Gerstein perform Chopin on one here.