Why reproduce in digital form something that's worked perfectly fine for hundreds of years as an analog device? That's the question I had for Yamaha about their new AvantGrand piano. The answer: So you can save five feet, 1,100 pounds, and $80,000.
Unlike, say, a digital SLR camera, the AvantGrand isn't meant to perform better than the traditional analog device. It's meant to perform exactly the same. But it makes that performance accessible to more people. Despite packing 16 amps and speakers, it's still a lot smaller (four feet long) and lighter (480 pounds) than the nine-foot, 1,500-pound, $100,000 grand piano it's meant to replace. And it's a lot cheaper to make, retailing for $19,000 when it hits the market this summer.
For feel, Yamaha retained the mechanics of a traditional piano. The AvantGrand has a full-scale "action" -- the keys, weights and hammers that would hit the strings on a regular piano. But instead, they hit a padded bar and pass by optical sensors that measure their speed so the synthesizer knows how loud a note to play. To simulate the vibration a player feels, the AvantGrand has two transducers under the keyboard. Strike a high note on the right-hand side, and you'll barely feel anything. Strike a low note over on the left, and it feels like the whole piano is reverberating. Yamaha also creates this feel, as well as sound, with an omnidirectional speaker right behind the keyboard.
So I asked: If he were blindfolded, would he know the difference? "Yes," he said, without hesitation. A real piano creates a more enveloping sound -- especially if you are playing it or standing right next to it. "But if you were blindfolded at the back of the room, you'd barely be able to tell," he quickly added.
(Thanks to Canon for providing the FS11 camcorder for this video.)
At home, Cameron plays on a Yamaha Model C -- a six-foot piano selling for about $40,000. So then I asked the crucial, rubber-hits-the-road question: If the $19,000 AvantGrand had been available when you were on the market, would you have bought it? "Definitely!" he said, with a force that made me think he meant it.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.