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.
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.
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.