Non-acoustic Piano Taxonomy (part one)

Digital, Electronic, Electric, Synthesised, Sampled?

It requires a little patience to sort out the terms. We are all familiar with the modern acoustic piano, the direct descendant of Bartolemeo Christophori's 'pianoforte', itself a descendant of items such as virginals, psaltries.

The piano works by hitting stretched strings with hammers when a key is pressed. Hitting something with a hammer doesn't seem all that impressive but consider the mechanism's most ingenious ability: sustain. Put yourself back in the seventeenth century and try to solve this problem.

Your instrument requires 'sustain', the notes must linger after being struck. Ah but only sometimes–on demand, in fact. Other times, you need to strike the note as often and as quickly as fingers can press the key. Even with some vague idea of the hammer system in a modern piano, this dichotomy of purpose would stymie the most creative of inventors.

Just have a look at the picture for proof of complexity. And under each and every cute little black or white key lies this taut circus act.

The acoustic piano is an orchestra in a box, it's by far the most versatile of all instruments, yet, despite this, it has several drawbacks:

  1. It is unwieldy. Or how else shall we put it? BIG. It's the least portable orchestra instrument. The difficulties of other large items such as timpani, double-bass, even concert harp, etc, pale in comparision to moving around a huge crate of metal like the piano.
  2. Tuning. An out of tune piano is a useless piano, and unfortunately it doesn't take much to set them off. Moving (see 1. above), heating, cooling, aging, playing(!), barometric pressure. You get the idea. Tuning it up is no picnic either: a piano may only have 88 keys but it has around 240 strings (and you thought your old 12-string guitar was a nightmare). Some chap here has written a paper on the notion of a self-tuning piano.
  3. Volume. There are situations where the piano has to compete with, rather than compliment, electric guitars, basses, and drums. Microphone placement and balance is a tricky job with a grand piano.
  4. Maintenence. It's a huge piece of furniture; hinges, finish, castors, heat and cold, etc. Did we mention those tuning problems?

Move forward several hundred years to the advent of electricity, and we enter a period of experimentation with electronically generated sounds. Because of the factors listed above, a quest for an acceptable piano replacement begins. More on this later…