Yamaha MIDI Grand
For everyone who's ever wished they could play their favourite synthesiser patch from a grand piano, Yamaha have the answer. Simon Trask discovers that old and new technology can co-exist in harmony.
While MIDI is undoubtedly the performance aid of the '80s, many players still regard the grand piano as the ultimate instrument. Does Yamaha s MIDI grand represent the perfect fusion of tradition and technology?
LETS NOT BEAT about the bush. Despite the many advances in music technology made in the past few years, ultimately there's still no substitute for a real acoustic grand piano. Not surprisingly then, many an upmarket recording studio still boasts a grand piano in its arsenal of hi-tech gear, and the beast has yet to be banished from the touring schedules of the rich and famous. Like dinosaurs, the grand piano may be on the big side, but it isn't about to become extinct on us.
As MIDI technology continues to invade the lives of musicians and recording engineers, the time is ripe for someone to unite MIDI and the acoustic grand. And who better than Yamaha, who have a long history of piano manufacturing to compliment their hi-tech expertise.
UNTIL YAMAHA'S ENTRY into the field, the only option open to musicians and studios wishing to bring MIDI to the acoustic piano has been the Forte MIDI Mod, a retrofit modification which adds extra mechanics to the piano's existing mechanics in order to achieve its ends. The disadvantages of the MIDI Mod is that it tends to alter the feel of the piano keyboard and it has a limited MIDI spec which belies the piano's potential as a controller keyboard for a MIDI setup.
Yamaha have avoided the problem of extraneous mechanics by employing a system of optical sensors which "read" light beams emanating from red pinpoint LEDs. Each piano key has a pair of light beams which are located in the path of the hammer. The optical sensors detect when these beams are broken, allowing both the speed (velocity) and the timing of the hammer to be detected just before it hits the strings, while a further optical sensor located beneath each key senses when the key is released. It's a system which works remarkably well, producing unerringly accurate response and no delay.
With the aid of a pressure-sensitive strip located underneath the keyboard (the only "mechanical" addition to the piano), Yamaha have also brought channel aftertouch capability to their MIDI Grand. Not to the piano itself, you understand (let's not get carried away here).
But this is only half the story, because Yamaha have given their piano a thorough complement of MIDI control features. These require a digital-access control panel to be built into the body of the piano, immediately above the keyboard. In case you're shuddering at the thought of major surgery being visited upon your precious grand, I should point out that the only surgery involved will be extricating it from your studio/conservatoire/living room.
Why? Well, Yamaha's background in piano manufacturing means they've been able to build the necessary electronics into their own pianos - specifically the C3E and C7E grands (without the electronics, respectively £7399 and £10,999 including VAT). The fitting is done at the company's piano factory in Japan, where it's easy enough for them to pull the requisite number of pianos off the regular production line. Not only does it make sound marketing sense, but also sound practical sense.
Yamaha's decision to go with their own piano means that if you want MIDI you'd better like the piano that comes with it. Fortunately, most people are unlikely to be put off by Yamaha's piano, which has a firm, rich tone, and a consistently fine quality over the entire keyboard. The keyboard itself feels very comfortable to play, and has above all a very musical responsiveness. The question of touch is an important one, and surprisingly Yamaha haven't included velocity scaling over MIDI as a means of tailoring the responsiveness of MIDI instruments to the touch of individual musicians.
REALISING THAT PART of the grand piano's appeal lies in its appearance, Yamaha have managed to minimise the visual impact of their hi-tech additions. For a start, the I/O panel is tucked away on the underside of the piano. Here you'll find the power switch (no jokes about "switched on Bach", please ...) together with one MIDI In, four MIDI Outs, a breath controller input, two footswitch inputs (MIDI Out on/off and memory change) and two footpedal inputs (volume and modulation). Meanwhile, at the left-hand end of the keyboard are two wheels familiar to synth users, namely pitch-bend and modulation. No, Yamaha haven't come up with the first undulating, warbling acoustic piano powered by human breath - all these controls are MIDI-only.
Foot controllers are nothing new to the acoustic piano, of course, and the MIDI Grand has the usual trio of damper (sustain), soft and sostenuto pedals. The action of the first two can be conveyed over MIDI, but for some reason the sostenuto pedal remains resolutely acoustic.
Also on the underside of the piano (but readily accessible) is a lever which allows the piano sound to be muffled (pulling the lever forward brings a row of felt pads up against the strings). Assuming that you don't want to layer acoustic piano over all your electronic sounds, the muffler is a very good compromise - with even modestly-amplified MIDI instruments, the piano is barely audible.
The most visible sign of hi-tech influence on the MIDI Grand is the aforementioned control panel. Though Yamaha have made it as unobtrusive as possible, there's no getting away from the centrally-located 2X40-character backlit LCD window. Operationally the panel is well thought-out, with many dedicated function buttons and never more than two parameters per button - all of which helps to lessen the potential headache of digital access.
THE MIDI GRAND'S parameters can be stored in 64 Performance memories which are selected from the front panel (in bank/number format) or remotely via MIDI patch changes. These memories can be SysEx bulk-dumped to an external MIDI storage device (Yamaha's MDF1 MIDI Data Filer, for instance) for subsequent recall if required.
The MIDI Grand uses two processors running in parallel to handle MIDI Outs A+B and C-D respectively. For each processor you can define volume, pitch-bend, modulation, sustain, aftertouch and breath controller on/off status together with values for low/high level scaling (+/-15), low/high key limit (A1 to C7), transposition (+4/-3 octaves in semitone steps) and MIDI Out channel (1-16).
Additionally you can define portamento time (0-127), volume level (0-127), patch number (1-128) and on/off state for each of the four Outs. The control panel has a dedicated on/off button for each Out, together with a global on/off button. In addition, as mentioned earlier, MIDI transmission can be turned on/off globally from a footswitch. Fortunately, Yamaha have successfully avoided the potential problem of MIDI drone notes.
The key-limit settings allow you to define two MIDI zones - one for each processor. Each zone can cover any range from an individual note to the whole keyboard (so of course it's an easy matter to overlap zones). Level scaling allows further variation by letting you determine how and where MIDI'd sounds will fade in/out across the keyboard.
With an instrument hanging off each Out you can layer two MIDI'd sounds per zone, with independent patch selection on each instrument and the ability to preset the volume balance. Of course it's also an easy matter to limit MIDI'd sounds to selected area(s) of the keyboard, leaving the rest piano-only, while further textures an be created if your slave MIDI instruments themselves allow split textures.
To take advantage of the MIDI Grand's zoning features you need to use at least two of the piano's MIDI Outs, a consequence of the piano's "hard-wired" system architecture. Another consequence is that you can't take advantage of multitimbral instruments, while if you want to record into a MIDI sequencer then you have to forgo the piano's zoning features altogether.
Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that although the piano itself is 88-note polyphonic, for MIDI transmission purposes polyphony is reduced to a more modest 16 notes.
If you're into MIDI diagnostics (no, it's not a new lifestyle religion) then you can summon forth the MIDI Monitor display, which allows you to read the output of the two processors and the input to the MIDI In socket (in hexadecimal, I should add). Courtesy of the User Program function, you an also enter your own MIDI messages in hex, up to a total of 40 bytes, for each Performance memory. The same data sequence is transmitted over all four Outs, though transmission can be turned on/off for each Out. The uses (and abuses) of this feature depend on your ingenuity, but obvious examples include sending a Start code to a drum machine, and sending additional patch changes to MIDI'd signal processors.
The logical next step for Yamaha would be to turn the MIDI Grand into a late '80s player piano - with MIDI sequencing substituting for the traditional piano roll. This would allow the Grand to be fully integrated into a modern-day sequencing setup. In fact, Yamaha already produce an upright player piano (the MX100R, £6250 including VAT) which offers limited MIDI features coupled with internal sequencing and storage to a built-in disk drive. However, it looks as though MIDI Grand owners will have to wait until next year for a playback option.
ITS HARD TO overestimate the scale of Yamaha's achievement. The bottom line is that Yamaha's system works, and that it affects neither the feel of the keyboard nor the sound of the piano. The MIDI Grand represents a significant merging of old and new technologies, with neither side losing out in the process.
Quite simply, it's in a class of its own.
Prices C3E (6 ) £10,909; C7E (7'4") £14,999.