The Forte MIDI-Mod
Midi Piano Conversations!
At last - a full MIDI conversion for grand pianos, Yamaha CP70s and 80s, Fender Rhodes and more. Is this 'man and machine in perfect harmony'? asks Nick Graham
The grand piano is an instrument which has its origins in the early 18th century, and which has existed unchanged for about 100 years. On the other hand, the Yamaha DX7 was invented from scratch about three years ago, its FM synthesis having little to do with previous synthesiser technology. What have they got in common?
Of course, they're both controlled from a keyboard, the layout of which hasn't changed much in 400 years - but now they both have MIDI! 'A MIDI acoustic piano?' I hear you gasp - well, MIDI isn't fitted as standard to pianos just yet, but Jim Wilson's L.A. Piano Services can now fit their Forte MIDI-Mod to any piano, and have just appointed British agents to install their product.
What is the Forte MIDI-Mod? To quote the publicity, it's 'an internally installed modification that provides a MIDI output for your piano. This output allows you to drive any MIDI compatible synthesiser or accessory, making your piano a multi-instrument keyboard'. I was fortunate enough to try out this wonderful item of technology at London's renowned Power Plant studios, where Jim Wilson has fitted the Forte MIDI-Mod to both their Steinway grands. In fact he was in the process of completing work on the second of these pianos when I arrived at the Power Plant, so I was able to get a good look at the workings of this simple but effective modification.
Before I describe that, however, I must mention that although I was prepared for the idea of a MIDI piano, I wasn't prepared for the sound. Every note I played on the piano triggered the DX7 in perfect synchronisation, and with a dynamic response which matched that of the piano beautifully. The combination of the natural piano sound blended with the synthesised sound was stunning! (Of course, any MIDI synthesiser equipped with touch response would work in an equally effective way - it's just that the DX7 happened to be conveniently set up).
Adaptation would be a better description for the work which has to be carried out to fit the Forte MIDI-Mod. If I owned a Steinway or Bosendorfer grand (on the rates we pay?? - Ed.), I'd probably be slightly suspicious of anyone who wanted to 'modify' my piano.
However, Jim Wilson assured me that there is no change in the sound, action or appearance of a piano after installation. This I can vouch for, having played the Steinway in Power Plant's upstairs studio on several occasions prior to the fitting of the Forte MIDI-Mod, I could detect no difference whatsoever in the feel of the piano now that it has MIDI. Needless to say, if for any reason the modification had to be taken out, the piano would then be 88 rubber-covered sensors (one for each note) that look like small buttons. This continuous rail fits under the keyboard (see photo 2), and the sensors are activated by the keys themselves. It is connected via a ribbon cable to a microprocessor, housed under the piano in a box which also contains the DC power input plug (12v), MIDI out socket and control pedal input. The only visible part of the installation is a plate bearing the trade mark and a tiny indicator light, and this is mounted discreetly under the lid at the front of the piano.
For the technically minded, the switch rail sits conveniently on the slats which form part of the 'key frame' of the piano, and requires virtually no fitting other than a few small securing screws. The switch rail is sprung, so that minor height adjustments can be made once the keys are in position, allowing each switch to be depressed the instant before a hammer touches a string. Scanning of the switch rail by the microprocessor takes place every 320 microseconds, allowing information about pitch, duration and velocity to be assessed very quickly. Once set up, the system has no triggering delay whatsoever and shouldn't drift, unless the piano has to be regulated at a future date.
The Forte MIDI-Mod also has some interesting additional features. Because MIDI information is transmitted from all 88 keys of the piano, any synth which can respond to full MIDI protocol will automatically become an 88-note instrument, extending the range considerably. Sustain of your synth is controlled from the sustain pedal of the piano (this too has a sensor fitted), but it also has another function. When the sustain pedal is pressed in conjunction with the MIDI-Mod footswitch, transposition can be effected from the piano keyboard - for example, press both pedals and hit G above middle C on the piano. The synth will now play in fifths with the piano part. Finally, by pressing the footswitch alone, the active range of the piano can be defined, thus allowing range limiting. An example of this would be to limit transmission of MIDI to the bottom two octaves of the piano, in order to play a bass line on the synthesiser!
Do I hear a cry of 'What good it is to me? I don't own a Steinway!' Well, neither do I, but Jim Wilson now has similar MIDI modifications, providing MIDI out not only for the Yamaha CP70 and CP80 electric grand, but also for the Fender Rhodes and the Yamaha PF10 or PF15 electronic pianos. On the PFs, his modification also provides MIDI in, so in the light of Yamaha's recent price reduction on these models it could even be worth buying one and having it retro-fitted with MIDI. To be honest though, you will probably only find a grand piano with a Forte MIDI-Mod if you frequent one of the professional recording studios which have had this modification done. However, I can forsee a time when virtually every pro studio will have a piano equipped for MIDI, so all you professional or would-be professional keyboard players may as well know what's happening! Already the response in the States has been such that, in addition to the many famous names who have had their own pianos modified (Chick Corea, George Duke, Van Halen and Supertramp to name but a few), studios are finding that without a MIDI piano certain artists and producers will not book time.
Not that a Forte MIDI-Mod could be merely considered as a studio toy to attract customers. It's definitely a step in the right direction, bringing with it a more human (or humane) approach to the control of electronics. Yes! you still have to mike up the piano (a question asked by one engineer to whom I was describing the idea), and No! you can't trigger the piano from a sequencer (another question from another engineer!). What you can do, though, is play electronic instruments/sequencers from the piano, thereby transmitting some of the feel and emotion which can be generated at the piano. The combination of acoustic and electronic sounds is amazing, and you could never, ever overdub that accurately!
Installed price around £1,500
Readers wanting more info on the Forte MIDI-Mod should contact U.K. installers Limited Time, who can be reached on (Contact Details). Alternatively, you can write to the manufacturers, who are LA Piano Services, (Contact Details)
Review by Nick Graham
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