SuperDroid: A Piano Player… not a Player Piano

News has reached us of the latest version of the Arpeggio Piano Player. Labelled a “SuperDroid” and originally launched in 2015, this is the brainchild of Majestic Pianoworks’ Nikolas Morris.

Piano Players

Let’s first just clarify the difference between a “piano player” and the oft used term “player piano”. It’s actually quite straight forward. A piano player, or vorsetzer (Ger.), is a device that plays a piano using the piano’s keys. The obvious example is a human pianist, but piano playing devices have been around for over 120 years.

Orchestrelle Push Up Piano

Orchestrelle Player Piano (c.1900)

Details of one of the first piano players – Merrit Gally’s Autophone Attachment – appeared in Scientific American in June 1879. But it was Edwin Votey, in the 1890s, with his Pianola, who truly popularised the device. “Pianola”, became the generic term for automated pianos, but it was in fact a brand name owned by Votey’s Aeolian Company.

These devices, also known as push-up players, have mechanical “fingers” that are positioned over the keys. Performances, in many cases by top artists of the day, are encoded and this data is used to trigger the fingers and thus recreate the original recital.

The piano player "fingers"

Orchestrelle Player Piano (c.1900)

The piano roll was the most common medium for storing this information. Early machines had very crude methods for recreating the dynamics of the performance, but more recently with digital technology, every nuance of the pianists rendition is captured and recreated.

Player Pianos

Player pianos, which appeared a little later than piano players, use much the same technology, but here the mechanism is built into the body of the piano, making a self contained unit. These could be played like a conventional piano or switched to play automatically. Early examples, however, didn’t have keyboards, as they were just designed to be a kind of piano juke-box.

Harper Player Piano

Harper Electric Piano Co. Player Piano (c.1905)

Keyboards were soon added, and the player piano became more popular than the push-up player. It allowed access to the keyboard, took up less room, and was a cheaper option. My previous post about the Walled Off Piano Bar, features a player piano. Player pianos, in one form or another, continue to be made to this day.

Piano players, however, were much less successful, and today none are commercially produced in any number. However the Arpeggio Piano Player is in production and can be purchased, albeit at over 25,000 USD.

Arpeggio – The Piano SuperDroid

Majestic Pianoworks’ Nikolas Morris had a long standing ambition: to create a robotic performer that could play as well as a virtuoso pianist.

The  Arpeggio Piano Player is a mobile device (being mains or battery powered). It can be remotely driven up to a piano (or in fact any other keyboard instrument) by its operator, and then positioned over the keys. A separate ‘foot’ mechanism is connected to the piano’s pedalboard.

The Arpeggio utilises the Live Performance LX player framework. This was acquired by Steinway in 2014 and subsequently became their Spirio system, so a vast range of performances are available. Apple’s AirPlay streams the recorded data to the player.

Each note has its own ‘finger’ and 1020 different levels of expression, whilst the sustain and soft pedal actuators each have a 256 step resolution. Arpeggio is fully polyphonic, and can actually play as many notes at a time as required. As a result it can realise complex compositions such as Nancarrow’s incredible Studies for Player Piano.

To hear an acoustic piano played “live” by a top class pianist, albeit through a mechanical link, can only be bettered by that pianist actually being in the room with you.

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