[aarontech] crazy tech Fw: [BCT] from NY Times

  • From: "Valiant8086 \(on laptop\)" <valiant8086@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <aarontech@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 1 May 2008 07:35:48 -0400

This here's nuts!
----- Original Message ----- From: "jean parker" <radioforever@xxxxxxxxx>
To: <bct@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: Thursday, May 01, 2008 1:50 AM
Subject: [BCT] from NY Times


I want one of these for Christmas


What do you think: In times of unemployment, rampant foreclosures and
imminent recession, would it be tasteless for me to review a home
entertainment component
that costs $42,000?
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personaltech/17pogue.2.190

The Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV is a real piano with hammers and springs, but
it also connects to the Internet.

Good. I didn't think so, either.

It's a piano, actually. A
Yamaha
grand, 5 feet, 3 inches long. (It comes in longer versions, actually,
costing up to $150,000. But one step at a time.)

This instrument, the Disklavier Mark IV, is the first piano in the world
with an Internet connection. And since it's also a digital player piano, all
kinds
of eyebrow-raising possibilities open up.

Like previous generations of Yamaha's self-playing pianos, the Mark IV looks
like any other grand: a gleaming, polished, stately presence in the living
room. The only indications you have that something unusual is going on are
the power and Ethernet cords sneaking out from underneath and a
two-inch-tall
control panel peeking out from beneath the lower-left skirt of the
instrument.

Maybe you've seen digital player pianos in a hotel lobby or shopping mall,
playing holiday tunes all by themselves, keys and pedals madly going up and
down.
This is not an audio recording, mind you; the hammers strike real strings,
making live acoustic music. It's a re-creation of a real pianist's
performance,
faithful to the tiniest grace note.

It's also very freaky to watch.

In the past, the well-heeled owners of these Disklavier pianos bought floppy
disks or CDs containing recorded performances by famous pianists. At $30 to
$35 an album, they're not cheap; then again, who's going to complain after
buying a piano that costs as much as a Lexus?

The Internet connection adds a twist, however: it lets you subscribe to
live-piano "radio stations." For $20 a month (or $200 a year), you can tune
into
channels like Classical, Broadway or Rock. Your grand piano can now play
itself all day in that musical style. It seems like a natural fit for what
must
be the Disklavier's core market: hotels, malls and McMansions.

You can also buy songs à la carte. The
Yamaha store
is something like the iTunes store, complete with a 30-second preview of
each song. The difference is that in this case, the previews (and the songs)
are
played live by a friendly ghost on the piano right next to you.

Songs are pricey, still $30 to $35 an album. They're tiny files; most
download to the piano's 80-gigabyte hard drive in about two seconds. (The
piano can
also play standard, free MIDI files, which are available by the thousands
online.)

Now, I know what you're thinking: "$42K? C'mon - even with all those
features, this thing can't be worth more than, like, 35 grand."

But wait, there's more. When a piano comes with a hard drive, Ethernet jack,
video output, stereo speakers, audio/microphone input, CD and floppy drives,
U.S.B. jacks and an open-source Linux operating system, all kinds of new
tricks are possible:

Alarm clock. You can schedule particular songs to play automatically at up
to 99 different times and dates.

Piano teacher. Some of Yamaha's song files come with sheet music that
appears on a computer screen or TV, if you connect one. At this point, the
Disklavier
helps you find the next note by physically half-pressing the key a couple of
times. It's not for the easily startled, but it works.

Accompanist. Some of those teaching songs come with a built-in orchestral
accompaniment that follows you as you speed up or slow down. (The Disklavier
has
a built-in library of sampled instrument sounds.)

Karaoke. Lyrics appear on the screen as the piano (and its synthesized
orchestra) accompanies you, and you can add plenty of reverb.

Commercial audio CD piano highlights. This one is almost impossible to
describe, and almost as difficult to justify, but here goes: You can buy
live piano
parts that are designed to play along with existing CD albums. For example,
as your own
Elton John
CD plays through the Disklavier's speakers (or your stereo system), the keys
come to life, playing the piano part along with the recording.

Quiet mode. At any point, you can turn the piano into a completely digital
piano. (Inside, a bar actually blocks the hammers so that they don't strike
the
strings.) At this point, you can put on headphones and practice in silence.
Or you can make the piano sound like a trumpet, bass, drum kit, or whatever.
Of course, any cheapo kiddie keyboard can do that trick - but on this piano,
you get the satisfaction of playing actual, wooden, weighted keys.

Sing backup with yourself. The piano can multiply your voice as you sing
into a microphone, creating virtual backup singers. How does the piano know
what
notes they should "sing"? It analyzes what keys you're playing at the
moment. Clever.

Record music. You can easily record your own piano performance - and then,
on playback, speed it up, slow it down or change the key. A metronome is
available,
and you can re-record only the parts that you muffed.

I tested the free 3.0 software update, now in beta testing (and due in
July), which lets you record live audio along with your piano performance.
That is,
you can record yourself singing as you play, or record a friend playing
flute or violin while you tickle the ivories. You can then transfer the
resulting
mix to a PC, using a flash drive or network connection, for burning to a CD
or sending by e-mail.

You manage all these stunts using a Wi-Fi wireless color touch screen remote
that looks like a particularly beefy PalmPilot. The software isn't always a
masterpiece of polished perfection, but navigation isn't difficult, thanks
to the prominent Back button. The halves of the remote slide apart to reveal
a thumb keyboard that you can use for naming your recordings and searching
the store. (The 3.0 software will also include software that duplicates the
remote's functions on a Mac or PC.)

There is a two-second lag when you press the physical playback buttons on
the remote (like Play or Stop), and Internet operations sometimes present
the
Wait screen for several seconds at a time. It would be nice if the remote's
battery lasted longer than an hour or so once it's out of the charging dock.
And the Wi-Fi should have been built into the remote; right now, it's an
ugly, protruding card in a slot.

For such a niche product, though, the Mark IV over all is surprisingly
polished. Its biggest potential drawbacks have nothing to do with the
technology,
but with the concept itself.

First of all, the various playback features described above require a
dizzying array of song file formats, and they go by a dizzying array of
names. The
karaoke, music CD playalong, piano-teaching and other files have names like
PianoSoft Plus, PianoSoft Plus Audio, Smart PianoSoft and so on.

Worse, there are precious few songs available in each format. Yamaha offers
only 167 albums of songs that the piano can play by itself, piano-part
playalong
files for only 575 songs on music CDs, and so on.

You'd have to be concerned that the novelty will wear off, too. Suppose you
actually have the $42,000 to spend. After six months, are you still going to
be loading up those Chopin files to show your friends when they come for
dinner?

If the answer is yes, then you, the affluent owner of this amazing machine,
have a lot to look forward to. Grafting the very new (Linux, Wi-Fi, Internet
connection) onto the very old (classic grand, hammers hitting strings) might
seem like a recipe for a Frankenstein monstrosity - but they mesh
surprisingly
well. The result is one of the most imaginative, unusual and expensive
home-entertainment modules to come along in years.

E-mail: pogue@xxxxxxxxxxx

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