Why Hasn’t There Been A Multitouch Piano Before Now?

Thanks to this Kickstarter project, pianists can finally introduce elegant wiggly vibrato into their playing--without getting a new piano.

The venerable piano allows for ten (or more!) notes to be played at once, which makes it ideal for composing complex music. Yet there’s one thing even the electric piano has never been able to do: change the tone of a note after it’s been struck without resorting to an awkward wheel. A Kickstarter project aims to change that with the aid of touch sensitivity.

Many other instruments allow for vibrato or pitch bending, in which the pitch of the note goes up and down at the player’s discretion. On stringed instruments like the violin and guitar, the finger depressing the string can be moved back and forth, changing the length of the string’s vibration and thus its tone. Wind and brass instruments like the saxophone and trumpet can introduce vibrato by adjusting the flow of air through the instrument.

But not on a piano! The piano (we’re talking about the acoustic piano here, like a grand or an upright) is a hybrid instrument, both a stringed and a percussion instrument. When you hit a key, a padded hammer smacks down on a taut string in the piano’s body, which vibrates. But the player can’t actually change the length of the vibration on the string; if you want to bridge the difference between notes, you have to use grace notes (very quick, nonessential notes leading up to the note you want to emphasize) or play two keys at once with varying degrees of pressure and try to trick the ear. It’s not ideal!

Electric pianos, especially synthesizers, often have pitch-bending wheels next to the keys. These work okay, but they require an extra hand, which removes a lot of the strength of a piano in the first place. If your left hand is fiddling with a pitch-bending wheel, you’re missing out on five possible tones it could be playing. Some fancy synths, like the newer Rhodes series, have some sort of touch sensitivity that can trigger pitch adjustments, but they’re wildly expensive and, well, you have to be into Rhodes.

So we (and by we I mean piano players; not sure if anyone else is interested in this) are very excited about the Touchkeys, which are little touch-sensitive strips that add pitch-bending capabilities to electric pianos. Any piano that supports MIDI, which means pretty much every electric piano, can now have embedded pitch-bending capabilities. It’s pretty amazing.

The strips are embedded with capacitive sensors, like what you find in modern smartphone screens. They support multitouch, though you don’t usually need to use more than one finger on a single key. What’s really cool here is that they’ve managed to make the system work with the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard, which is what’s been used on electric instruments for decades now. You attach them with an included controllerboard and some software that processes all the tones.

Touchkeys supports two key features: vibrato and pitch-bending. To bend a pitch, you slide your finger vertically up and down the key. Slide up to raise the pitch, slide down to lower it. For vibrato, you shake your hand horizontally, in pretty much the same movement a string player would use to get that effect.

The kit’s pretty expensive; a full-sized DIY kit, with 88 keys, costs over $1,800. But it looks really, really cool, and it gives a piano powers that it’s never had before. Check out the Kickstarter here.