Yamaha Strikes a Wi-Fi Chord

When most Americans think of a player piano, they imagine an old upright version spinning its rolls and tinkling away in a dusty Western bar. But those pianos have about as much in common with today’s version as the Pony Express does with Federal Express.

Yamaha recently introduced to the market the newest version of its player piano, the Disklavier (pronounced disk-LA-veer) Mark IV, which lists amongst its special features two full-color touch-screen Wi-Fi controllers, which can operate the device from any room in its owner’s home. This modern-day version of an old-style entertainment staple provides wealthy music aficionados with a very fancy new toy.

Starting at around $35,000, the Mark IV isn’t for everyone, but for those who can afford to splurge, it offers a robust set of features including the ability to give a private concert-quality performance (without requiring a pianist)—perfect for cocktail parties or intimate dinners for two—or for more rollicking gatherings, it can serve as a vehicle for karaoke or traditional holiday sing-a-longs. Using Yamaha’s SmartKey Technology, it can even (try) to teach you to play for yourself by signaling the right key for you to strike as it guides you through simple melodies.

Dane Madsen, marketing manager for the Yamaha Disklavier line, calls it “the crown jewel to the ultimate home entertainment system.”

Built to look and sound just like a concert baby grand piano, the Mark IV has carbon-steel strings, felt hammers, 88 wooden keys, and a shiny wood cabinet. But it also has a PDA-style pocket Wi-Fi remote, a 10.4″ touch-screen LCD, a compact disc drive, a floppy disk drive and an 80 GB hard drive, which can easily store thousands of songs.

It can be played by hand, just like any acoustic piano, but it will also perform magic tricks—like playing along to a Nora Jones or Elton John CD. The piano will perform with concert-level quality more than 1,000 song titles, which are stored in the Yamaha PianoSoft library, and with an additional 600 titles, which are part of the Smart PianoSoft library. Users just pop in the CD they want to hear, along with the corresponding Yamaha disc, and they are treated to vocals and fully orchestrated accompaniment compliments of the onboard sound system, while the piano part is played “live” in perfect synchronicity.

Once a CD has been inserted, the files become part of the piano’s memory, and can be accessed later via the remotes without having to re-insert the disk. The disk drive is discreetly located on the bottom left-hand side of the instrument. It’s contained within a slim black Media Center where both CDs and floppy disks can be inserted.

The wireless remotes utilize specially designed software to help make the Disklavier experience as intuitive as possible. “The tablet gives you different graphic environments, like stage settings, home settings, or your own digital pictures so you can run slide shows,” says Madsen. “It’s bigger and brighter and better than the handheld remote. If you put a thousand disks in, you want to get around and you can do that more easily on a large touch screen remote control.”

The tablet remote also displays karaoke song lyrics. The Disklavier can be purchased with or without the tablet remote. Users choosing to opt out of the tablet remote option would need to use a cable to connect their television or monitor to the piano in order to view song lyrics for karaoke.

Pianists who invest in the Disklavier Mark IV can record their own versions of popular songs—or their own original work. “You can just sit down and play, hit record and capture whatever you are playing,” says Madsen.

The piano uses a grayscale sensor system. “High-powered solenoids make the keys go down,” explains Madsen. “For capturing the recordings and calibrating, it has grayscale sensors—fiber optic light sensors—that send beams of light through film attached to the hammers and keys. The light gets dimmer and brighter depending on where the hammer is in relation to the key and can recreate performances more accurately. There is a piece of film that goes from clear to dark gray, depending on how much light is passing through the film. That conveys the position of the key and the hammer—not a physical contact strip—so nothing is physically attached to the action of the keys that a classical piano player could feel. It simply breaks beams of light. There’s no affect to touch, which is important to pianists.”

Yamaha has been making acoustic pianos for a century, and introduced the Disklavier line in 1985. The Mark IV has added three big new features that its predecessor, the Mark III didn’t have: the 80 GB hard drive for storing MIDI and audio files internally, and the two wireless remotes. Older versions of the Disklavier used traditional infrared remotes that required line of sight in order to initiate commands. With the Mark IV, a user can connect their piano to their home audio system, and then use the remote (operating on the 802.11b standard) to select songs from the patio, upstairs bedroom, or anywhere else in the house.

While most Disklavier customers are music lovers, they are not music players, reports Madsen. “The typical Disklavier buyer does not play the piano. These are people who love music and often times it’s the person whose interior decorator said, ‘You need a grand piano over there,’ and then they realized ‘Oh, I could have it play for me as well.’ That’s what a Disklavier customer is.”

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