Here’s a truly “retro” device from the folks at Moog — the PianoBar is a device that retrofits your acoustic piano as a MIDI instrument, without the nasty installation process that usually entails.

The device is actually the brainchild of synth legend Don Buchla, not Bob Moog as you might assume. The design is relatively simple: a Scanner Bar fits over the top of the keys of your Bösendorfer (or Young Chang, if you’re less fortunate), and optically reads the motion of your fingers on the keys. Not only can it tell which notes you’re playing, but how hard you’re hitting them. An additional scanner underneath the pedals covers pedaling. It’s not quite as easy as plugging in a digital piano, but it’s a far cry from what it normally takes to make a standard acoustic into a MIDI instrument. Moog has a video that shows the whole process.

With MIDI on your piano, lots of possibilities open up. You can enter notes into a notation program like Sibelius from the piano, or control digital sounds (via soft synths or one of the 300 sounds included with the device’s built-in library). Throw it in a carrying case, and your laptop and PianoBar become a custom digital studio that works with any piano handy.

These features were exciting enough to win the attention of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and Suzanne Ciani (Suzanne shown above). But while US$1500 is a steal compared to the price of a new digital piano, others have been slow to snap the PianoBar up. So Moog Music this week is introducing its “Be the First” promotion. Be the first, second, or third person in your U.S. metro area (Moog has identified 364), and you can get the PianoBar for as little as US$995. (You also have to be a school teacher, gigging musician, or someone else who can convince other people to buy them, so you can’t get the discount and take it to your cave — the Phantom of the Opera is totally disqualified.)

Be the First Promotion [Moog Music]

Still not biting? Here are some more digital/acoustic hybrids:

Yamaha Disklavier: Yamaha’s player piano not only sends MIDI; it responds to it, too. That means you can use your computer’s MIDI out to play the acoustic. Bonus (you can tell this was invented in Japan): you can disengage the hammers so you don’t wake the neighbors writing your new piano sonata at 3 AM. Last fall Yamaha even built a Wi-Fi version for wireless control (via engadget). (shown)

Roland Intelligent Piano: Not quite an acoustic hybrid; this all-digital piano packs speakers into a full-sized soundboard for a more realistic sound. It provides further evidence that computer monitors look terrible on pianos.

Bösendorfer SE: Think the Disklavier for the independently wealthy; Bösendorfer’s computer player piano combines new tech with one of the best acoustic pianos you can buy. Best feature: you can send a MIDI file to pro engineers in Vienna and have them burn a CD of your performance. Bad news: they’re currently sold out, though the company promises a new model “real soon now.” Bet you can’t afford a used one, either. If you can, do get in touch — especially if you happen to be, oh, Chick Corea or Dave Brubeck or Pierre Boulez or Oscar Peterson, all of whom own one. So does Stevie “I buy every high-end digital piano product” Wonder.

See also:
The Computer-Piano: Post’s Post Piano

The Giant Piano: “Big” Movie Piano Revisited

M-Audio ProKeys 88 (budget $600 all-in-one digital piano if money is tight!)

NAMM: Akoustik Piano – 3 Grands and an Upright” (Sample library)

iPianos ’05: 5 Mac Grand Pianos, $55

Exploding the Piano with Kathleen Supové (NYC new music pianist who works with the Disklavier regularly)