Most musicians can tune their instruments whenever they like. The exception is the pianist, who typically isn't trained to tune the piano's 200-plus strings. Instead, both amateur and professional piano players must hire a technician to get their instrument in shape. But Don Gilmore has accomplished an engineering feat that he says could do away with the need for tuners: a self-tuning piano.
Gilmore, a mechanical engineer whose day job is to make customized machinery for the military ammunition industry, started developing a mechanical self-tuning device in 1993. But, a new idea soon overshadowed the project.
One evening as Gilmore sat in his Kansas City home watching a "Cheers" rerun, he had the elusive inventor's epiphany: why not run a current through each string to change its frequency? So, Gilmore walked over to his pile of instruments—he is an amateur musician from a long line of music men, including a great-grandfather who composed Methodist hymnals and a grandfather who was a bandleader, saxophonist and singer—and grabbed his steel string guitar. He hooked one string to the alligator clips of a variable desktop DC power supply and was able to change the string's tuning by applying one or two volts.
The same idea, he thought, could be applied to a piano.
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HOW IT WORKS
First, Gilmore, whose expertise is in mechanics, had to teach himself electronics. He worked through around 12 prototypes before finally coming up with the current version of his electronic piano tuner.
The system starts when the player pushes an "on" button, located on the lower right side, directly under the keys. Next, individual circuit boards activate magnetic coils that simultaneously sustain the notes from all of the piano's strings. An infrared sensor measures each string's frequency, or how fast it is vibrating, and a computer compares that frequency with a note that was previously recorded after a tuning by a professional (and human) piano technician. If the original tuning seems off—room size and temperature, for example, can affect how the piano sounds—the owner can retune the piano and save that setting in the computer.
If the pitch needs adjustment, the system sends an electrical current through springs that touch each string's tuning peg, heating it slightly to around 95 degrees. The heated strings expand, lowering the pitch.
But, the strings can't be cooled in order to raise the pitch. Explains Gilmore: "The piano is tuned while the strings are warm. When you switch it off, all the strings go sharp (tighter) when they cool, which is its natural state." So, in theory, the device will never have to increase the frequency in any of the strings.
The system tunes a piano in under two minutes and the device remains on while it is played. Gilmore estimates that the tuner costs seven cents an hour to run.
QRS, a company that makes player pianos, licensed Gilmore's technology in 1999 (first, the mechanical device, and later, the electronic version). But, the company wasn't able to put the time and money into further developing the idea, and when the five-year contract ran out, Gilmore decided not to renew.
Today, he's tinkering with the device on his own, sending CAD circuit drawings to a Sierra Circuits in Sunnyville, California. The process has drawbacks. Once, says Gilmore, half of the chips on the main circuit board were inadvertently soldered on backwards. Another time, Gilmore ran the voltage too high and blew out all of the circuits on another board. Each mistake requires reshipping the circuits between Kansas City and California.
WHO WILL USE IT?
Another problem is who might use the device. Gilmore estimates the price at around $1,000. A regular tuning costs around $100, and the casual player has their piano tuned just once or twice a year. If you break out the cost of keeping a piano in tune daily, the $1,000 price tag isn't so bad. Still, the average player may balk at the cost.
Concert pianos, on the other hand, are tuned once or twice daily. But, says Bruce Brubaker, Chair Piano at the New England Conservatory, the self-tuning piano might not help. Aside from tuning, two key factors to a piano's sound are voicing, which impacts the tone, and regulation, which changes how heavy the keys feel. In concert pianos, technicians often service the tuning, voicing and regulation, says Brubaker. While technicians tune more often than anything else, an automatic tuner wouldn't totally replace them. Changes in a piano's sound due to room size and temperature could also require extra service.
Kent Webb, the technical manager at piano manufacturer Steinway and Sons in Queens, NY, which also services pianos for Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, worries about the placement of the circuit board, how well the tuner will match the subtleties of each note and the impact of the heat on the piano's wood: "We're always thrilled by seeing people try to do something new with pianos, but we also must look critically at how it is going to affect the long term integrity of an instrument."
But, if Gilmore can overcome some of these obstacles, "it could be a very marketable and helpful device."
Gilmore is still looking for a manufacturer, after which he'll decide whether his invention might be installed when the piano is made, or if it will come as a kit that a user can install at home.
Webb is doubtful that Steinway, one of the few remaining U.S. piano makers, will use the device with its current design. Still, Steinway makes just 2,500 pianos annually. At least a million more are manufactured globally each year, mostly in China, and making The Self-Tuning Piano on a large scale could drive down the price. "Even if I got one percent of that, I'd be tickled," says Gilmore.
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Really cool concept! I had a piano in my house when I grew up and it was always out of tune.
Noble effort, but like Mr. Webb of Steinway, I worry about long-term damage. A $50,000 piano is nothing to experiment with, other than musically, of course.
The first thing that came to my mind was the heating process. Anyone will tell you that by heating and cooling an object causes them to expand and contract. Although this is the point of the tuning process in Mr. Gilmore's invention, that expansion and contraction will inevitably weaken the strings and cause damage to them over a much shorter time than through normal wear-and-tear.
With today's software advances in frequency maintenance and the portable devices they could be installed on, such as laptops and tablets, I'd almost rather teach myself how to tune a piano than subject it to any electrical currents.
The median temperature of the Self-Tuning Piano is only about 95 F. The keys in your pocket are warmer than these strings. If you lay your hand on them, you can barely tell that they are warm. No metallurgical effects take place at such minuscule temperatures.
Yes, my device alters the tension of the strings, but then so does a human piano tuner. I use a little warmth; he uses a wrench. All stringed musical instruments must undergo expansion and contraction of their strings...that's how you tune them.
Don A. Gilmore
I want to record my mother in laws voice, then incorporate this device with an inversion tuning, then broadcast a anti canceling sound to block her speach, so when she visits I do not have to listen to her whine.;)
Gibson has the robo tuners already.
I'd question how many times a day does a person tune a piano exactly? Once a year?
jefro, depends on how often the piano is played. More importantly, how often the piano is moved.
Mr. Gilmore, expansion due to force is different from expansion due to temperature. An extreme example of this would be your local asphalt roads and the formation of potholes. I'll stick with the wrench.
Not trying to tell anybody how to do things, but I wonder if a more manual system might be easier to get going.
The sustainer/IR sensor concept is pretty interesting if it meets the accuracy requirements. Last I read, the tuners talked about 'cents' which were a hundreth of something -- frequency related, but I'm not sure if it was frequency in Hz/100.
So, what if a piano was equipped with sustainers and sensors ( or maybe just sensors) -- plus, some sort of display. Then the piano operator could wrench away in the traditional manner to correct any issues.
Don't know how dificult mechanical adjustment is, but maybe this could be made easier f it's currently difficult.
Note that this is all just speculation.
Justifying your purchase of a self-tuning piano based on how many times you would have had it tuned the old way is like justifying the purchase of a cell phone based on how many dimes you would have spent in a pay phone. You can now tune your piano every day, and if you think about $100 every time you press that button, it pays for itself quickly. Can you imagine if a guitarist had to hire someone to come tune his guitar...and only twice a year?
Don A. Gilmore
A video showing its operation:
Could someone please explain how room size could possibly change a piano's tuning? Temperature and humidity, in my mind, are the two main factors.
First, think about what it takes to change the temperature in your living room and compare that to changing the temperature in your local Walmart Supercenter.
The difference is the volume of air and the mass of the objects inside.
The temperature of a smaller room will vary more quickly than a larger room simply because of the smaller air volume and mass. Larger rooms will tend to have multiple temperature zones and change temperatures more slowly, more graudually.
About 2 1/2 years ago PopSci had an article about the Evertune guitar bridge. Invented by Cosmo Lyles. Uses a spring and lever to keep string tension constant. I had one put on my Gibson SG, and it is absolutely phenomenal!!! I only have to tune when I change strings, and even then half the time as soon as you tighten a new string up it's already in tune! Having 200 springs and levers installed on a piano would be costly (particularly a retrofit) but it seems like it would be a much better way to go. No electricity, no heating and cooling (which I think would fatigue the metal after awhile.) And your piano would NEVER go out of tune. (You'd still need to regulate keys and so forth with wear, but we're talking about a looooong period of time, like decades, before you need that) I was a stage manager for awhile, and keeping the grand in tune when it was being rolled on and off stage all the time, etc. was a definite problem. With Evertune I can take my guitar out of the trunk in a blazing hot parking lot, and go into an air conditioned studio--it's still in PERFECT tune!
I'm guessing there's a PLC in that piano. Imagine that piano getting infected with Stuxnet when you update it. Then the piano wires heat up to the point where they snap loose. Then all the hot wires grab you and it looks like a scene from Hell Raiser.
I directed church choirs in Texas and Louisiana for thirty years. If you have the money to maintain the temperature and humidity in the sanctuary (auditorium) you have a chance with your grand piano or pipe organ.
Otherwise you might need to consider a V-Piano Grand: V-Piano® from Roland or a comparable Kurzweil and an electronic organ like a Rodgers.
That's the reality.
Mr. Gilmore, (or should I say, "eromlignod"..)
I've dabbled with piano tuning myself and have often thought about ways to create an auto-tuning piano. Your idea is awesome! Some of the commenters have pointed out potential issues, but of course every new invention will have its difficulties, and only time will tell what those really will be. I wish you luck!
Quick question: Wouldn't the piano still need to have some initial tuning, perhaps tuning it a tad sharp, so that the strings are "in the ballpark", close enough to the pitch they need to be at that the heating from the electric current can bring the pitch down to where it needs to be? And, over time, perhaps the piano might need a new real-person tuning, again, to put it back in the "ballpark" again... That might need to happen every once in a while, depending on the condition of the piano...?
A comment for masada -- You'd be surprised how much the tuning on a piano varies just as a result of regular temperature and humidity changes in the room. I don't think the electric current will affect the string any more than it is already, as Gilmore has indicated.
Sounds like what I could do in the future if this had not been invented.
The piano is tuned at the factory while it is warmed up and this tuning is "stored" in memory. When it is switched off, it cools and the strings all contract and become sharp. Since the strings start sharp, flattening from warmth is always necessary for tuning.
Don A. Gilmore