Steinway Model D. Photo courtesy Steinway & Sons.

These piano breakthroughs changed music forever

Yesterday was Piano Day – a day recently christened by composer/pianist Nils Frahm in order to celebrate that ubiquitous keyboard instrument. (It’s held on the eighty-eighth day of the year.) There are concerts, marathons, project, releases – and unlike Record Store Day, this event won’t clog the ability to produce piano music. With that day as inspiration, I thought it was a good moment to look at some of the technology of and around the piano, to understand what has made this instrument special. That includes both strictly acoustic innovations as well as design features and breakthroughs that either inspired …

It's all acoustic technology. But, at last, it's 21st century acoustic technology. Photo: CDM.

Watch Una Corda, a software piano with a difference

The piano has been living with a beautiful legacy, but that legacy can double as tyranny. The Steinway Model D, favorite instrument of mine that it is, has also frozen the technological development of the keyboard instrument. And that’s why the Una Corda is different. Built custom by David Klavins, and associated with that builder’s collaboration with pianist Nils Frahm, this lightweight piano is unlike any you’ve seen or heard before. And now, you can get a taste of playing the real thing with a software instrument.


Komplete Kontrol from NI gets more control, 88-key keyboard

Do you want to buy a keyboard with integrated control for your software? Sure! What if it only controls specific Native Instruments software via pre-defined mappings? Uh… hrm. Now, that offering changes. Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE KONTROL S-series keyboards later this month get some updates that will be essential to improving the value equation – a piano-friendly keyboard, third-party plug-in support, and custom control mappings.


Sail a Sea of Sound, in Beautiful World of Max Cooper and Tom Hodge

Producer Max Cooper, alongside his collaborator Tom Hodge, this week shares an intimate reflection on what motivates him in sound and science. In the video for Sonos Studio, the Belfast-born musician describes loving when sound “wraps you up in this warm … sea.” But there’s a system that reveals itself, even as the scientific method can unfold the mysteries around us. So if this music sounds personal and secret, perhaps it has a direct analog to Cooper’s past life as a scientist, the “introspective side of science,” as he puts it. That is, ” whether it’s a piece of music …


Perfect, Beautiful Music for Free From Erased Tapes [2014 in Review]

Erased Tapes was an endlessly inspiring label in 2014. With a singular, understated focus on quality and music orbiting the keyboard, the acoustic, and minimal post-classical introspection, they were a calming counterpart to the year’s steroid-pumped festival commercialism. And first and foremost, they were about records — not fancy design accessories, not “throw everything at a wall and see what sticks” experiments in distribution. (There’s a place for that, yes, but a record label about records was nonetheless refreshing.) And Nils Frahm was a consistent star amidst all of this, a favorite live performer cutting across genres, wrangling keys electronic …

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Hear Beautiful, Melancholy Christmas Mixes from Nils Frahm

Nils Frahm is a gem in music right now, a sensitive and reflective voice. And infused into everything he does is an unwavering sense of taste. If you’re feeling the weight of the endless rotation of overplayed saccarine-sweet Christmas tunes, Nils can cure what ails you. For the second year in a row, he’s released an achingly mellow mix of favorites he’s dusted off from his vinyl collection. Curl up under the crackling analog fuzz of those records and settle in. Each has obvious touchstones of piano inspiration; last year’s he described as “your mobile campfire.” We have this year’s …


Watch a Short Film on the Play Between Musicians and Instruments, Design and Technology

From Rush to the classical clarinet to rethinking the keyboard interface, a lovely new film by Michael Shane explores the relationship between music and technology, and the philosophy behind new musical inventions. Two New York-based characters figure prominently in that investigation. There’s Martin Yee, the drum tech, who talks about humans and drums. (Sadly, we don’t get into the question of acoustic technology – that’s something I hope to cover in upcoming reports, both in transforming and augmenting the drum kit, and re-designing the acoustic piano.) Then, there’s the ubiquitous keyboardist Jordan Rudess, whom I think puts on one of …


Pianoteq 5 Improves Piano Modeling, Without Eating Up Your Hard Drive

If you want a fake piano, you can have a fake piano. You can have increasingly-good models and samples in hardware, but you can really get a fake piano on your computer. You can buy entire hard drives just to store the gigabytes of samples. You can load massive instances of Kontakt with different recorded sounds for every note, every articulation. You can have new pianos, old pianos, countless Steinway samples. You can even have a ridiculously-tall upright. Or, you can have Pianoteq. Whereas others gobble hard drive space, Pianoteq uses sophisticated modeling techniques that skip the samples, meaning it …


In Living Rooms, Homes, Beautiful Music as a Ritual: Olafur Arnalds; Matthew Flook; Free

For centuries, music was something made in a living room, made at home. It was a brief fluke of the 20th Century that music came out of a heroic process in a hidden-away studio. But if the gold-plated, magical record is threatened, some artists are trying to bring the daily ritual of home music making back. ├ôlafur Arnalds and Matthew Flook are each making gorgeous, cinematic-ambient tracks, and each have made projects that involve doing so on a regular basis in their homes. Let’s listen. Arnalds has been making some of the finest scores anywhere, and now has earned the …


Launchpad + Raspberry Pi = Standalone Grid Piano Practice Machine, Boots in 10 Seconds

A standalone grid musical instrument? Done. And it can be a new way to venture into the worlds of harmony. Marc “Nostromo” Resibois is back with another clever Raspberry Pi hack. We saw him last fall, beating KORG to the punch with his own – digital – MS-20 mini, using the Pi. It’s still appealing, in that he has some other synth ideas the analog recreation can’t muster. This time, he’s made a standalone practice instrument for grid players, using a Novation Launchpad and the Raspberry Pi computer. Some shopping around for a Launchpad could mean you could put together …