From the Concert Hall to the Living Room
In some respects, musical instruments are not unlike complicated timepieces. They both feature storied histories, the skills needed to manufacture them are often learned via apprenticeship, and the fundamental mechanisms at their core have not changed in decades. Such is not the case for player pianos, however—these highly specialized instruments continue to evolve as quickly as their supporting technologies grow more intricate and sophisticated.
The origin of the player piano can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century, when the Frenchman Jean Louis Nestor Fourneaux invented a pneumatic system to play a piano, which he called “Pianist Automatique.” He built a dozen of these instruments and displayed them at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876—the first World’s Fair to be held in the United States. In the modern era, electronic player pianos have been powered by floppy disks and compact discs, and today they continue to evolve with the fast-paced advancements that are made within the computer industry.
Steinway & Sons’ new player piano Spirio is at the forefront of the industry. The instrument’s hardware and software, which are hidden from view, are so fine-tuned that it can distinguish more than 1,000 variations of how forcefully its 88 hammers strike their respective strings. It can also measure the speed of the note played, up to 800 times per second. Similarly, Spirio can detect pedal motion at a speed of 200 times per second. This means that the Steinway Spirio can now play a composition with more nuance and expression than any player-piano system ever has before. In fact, one could argue that the differences between an artist’s performance and Spirio’s re-creation of it are undetectable.
“After years of exploration, we have created a high-resolution player piano that is rich with emotion and depth,” says Steinway & Sons CEO Michael Sweeney. “Spirio captures the true essence, nuance, and soulfulness of a live performance, allowing us to bring artists and their audiences closer together than ever before.”
To be clear, Spirio is cutting-edge player-piano technology integrated into a fully functioning Steinway piano. A Spirio-equipped instrument starts at $110,000, with the player-piano technology controlled wirelessly via an iPad that is equipped with a Spirio app that features more than 1,700 songs (with new recordings added each week) as well as compositions played by a number of acclaimed pianists, including Bill Charlap, Lang Lang, and Yuja Wang. High-fidelity music reproduction has a new identity, one that returns to the origins of the music itself.