Disklavier Dreams

This morning my friend Peter Giles — I don’t know his exact title, so we’ll call him the Communications Director for Yamaha Digital Music — announced a “strategic partnership” with a company called Zenph. I’ve been trying to decipher the claims that are being made about this partnership or product or whatever it is.

Peter’s post on Facebook said, “In my view, this new alliance is a game changer in the piano industry.” The phrase “game changer” is a red flag for any journalist reading the words of a communications director. What it typically means is, “This is a minor advance at best, so we’re going to trumpet it as loudly as we possibly can.”

The headline on PRWeb, on the press release to which Peter’s FB announcement links, says, “Yamaha and Zenph Form Strategic Partnership to Demonstrate Unlimited Potential of Yamaha Disklavier .” The phrase “unlimited potential” is another of those red flags. Let’s be clear: Nothing has unlimited potential, not even the entire biosphere of the planet on which we live. The best evidence we have suggests that not even the entire universe has unlimited potential, though we’re hardly in a position to know for sure. But the Disklavier in particular … it’s a reproducing piano. I believe it has an optional built-in General MIDI module. In musical terms, it has far, far less potential than the computer on which I’m writing these words.

Digging a little deeper, we find that what is actually being announced are three new software products from Zenph: Home Concert Xtreme, RePerform, and Internet MIDI. Or possibly they’re not new software products but simply Mac and Windows versions (newly ported or just updated, it’s not clear which). The fact that Home Concert Xtreme is described in the press release as “award-winning” is a clue that it’s not new.

Home Concert Xtreme is described as an “interactive learning and performing environment that provides intelligent accompaniment that actually follows the soloist — slowing down, speeding up and getting softer and louder in a musically coordinated fashion.”  A piano soloist? A soloist on some other instrument? The press release glides blithely past such details, but as it turns out, we’re talking about a keyboard soloist playing a MIDI keyboard (such as the Disklavier). No audio pitch detection is employed. The synthesized accompaniment will then follow the student’s tempo and dynamics.

While this is happening, the student has to read the music from the computer screen, and that’s a can of worms. How do you write fingerings on the music displayed on a screen? Answer: You can’t. So how many piano students are going to be ready to play a piece with no written-in fingerings?

For the record, the people who make Finale, the notation publishing program, have had accompaniment software that could follow an instrumental soloist’s tempo — in the form of audio, played by a flute or saxophone, for instance — for several years. What’s new, then, is that Zenph is scaling down a well-known concept to MIDI performance in conjunction with the Disklavier. I can imagine that such a system may be useful in a few situations. Speaking as a teacher, however, I’m far more inclined to feel that the student ought to learn to keep proper time by following the recording, rather than the other way around.

RePerform is a program with which you can edit Disklavier files. Useful, I’m sure … if you already own a Disklavier. The base model Disklavier, with no frills, costs a little less than $20,000 on the street. Not a stocking-stuffer.

What really set my teeth on edge, though, was the description of Internet MIDI: “…a software program that connects two Disklaviers or other MIDI instruments over the Internet for real-time teaching and performance.” As it happens, I teach cello to private students. I can state with complete assurance that it is simply not possible to teach anyone how to play a musical instrument over the Internet, not in real time or any other time. Can’t be done.

The phrase “distance learning” is used three more times in the press release. In a nutshell, these folks are getting all excited about something that will never have any significant impact on the process of learning to play the piano. And that, we’re told, is a game changer.

But what about real-time performance over the Internet? Wouldn’t that be cool? Well, first, this system requires that the two people who are connected via the Internet both own Disklaviers. (Ka-ching.) Second, “real-time” is a chimaera in the Internet world. There might, without warning, be a two-second interruption in the data stream. Even an interruption of .2 second would make utter hash of a musical performance. For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as real-time performance over the Internet.

And what about the other instruments in the performance — you know, the non-pianos? Is Zenph planning to stream real-time audio over the Internet at the same time? It seems rather unlikely. What if the two pianists sitting at their Disklaviers, one in New York and the other in Beijing, want to play a piano-four-hands duet? How will their performance be synchronized? Who’s going to count “1-2-3-4” before they start? And what, if they were able to actually do it, would be the point of this performance, other than a few minutes of gee-whiz novelty? This software would seem, to someone who understands the technology (namely, me) to be of rather limited utility.

And that’s the news from Disklavier land today. The point I’m making, in my usual heavy-handed fashion, is that music hardware and software are sometimes heavily over-hyped. I’m happy that Peter is excited about these new products. It’s his job to be happy. But he’s between a rock and a hard place. If he’s realistic about the very modest potential of these new software products, the press release is going to make dull reading indeed. A few Disklavier owners may be breathing hard, but if Zenph sells, oh, a few dozen copies of each program, or even a few hundred, heads will roll. Not Peter’s head, of course. He’s just the messenger. I’m not trying to shoot the messenger here, I hope that’s clear. I’m just telling the truth about the latest bit of hype to pop up on my screen.

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2 Responses to Disklavier Dreams

  1. A few things to point out:

    (1) Peter Giles is not a Yamaha employee and does not have the title, “Communications Director for Yamaha Digital Music.” To my knowledge, there is no company called “Yamaha Digital Music.”

    (2) The Disklavier has built-in features. When you connect it to a computer that runs software, you effectively add features to the Disklavier experience. It is not unreasonable to refer to the possible scope of these added features as unlimited. The limitation–if any–is one’s imagination.

    (3) Home Concert Xtreme and Internet MIDI are not new programs. RePerform is new. And, yes, HCX won the Frances Clark Keyboard Pedagogy Award in 2010.

    (4) You can add fingerings and much more to the notation display in Home Concert Xtreme.

    (5) It is true that the publisher of Finale has a score-following product (called Smart Music) that follows audio input. Home Concert Xtreme, on the other hand, follows MIDI input and is a unique piece of software in this regard. HCX does not represent a “scaling down” of Smart Music. It has sophisticated features not found in any other program.

    (6) If you want to practice a piano concerto with a virtual orchestra, you really need to create a situation in which the virtual orchestra follows the player–unless you think that the soloist should sound like a metronome.

    (7) HCX also has a feature (called Jam mode) in which the player follows the sequence. So, you can have the metronome experience if you wish. The program also has a learning mode in which it waits for the player to play the correct note.

    (8) Yamaha makes a special version of the Disklavier (called the PRO) that records MIDI data in high resolution: Note-on (i.e. hammer velocity), key down velocity, and note-off (key release velocity) are recorded on a scale of 0-1023. Silent notes are also recorded, and una corda and sustain pedals are recorded on a scale of 0-255. RePerform is the world’s only software program that can edit these files with any sort of intelligence. The program has other features of special interest to owners of standard Disklaviers.

    (9) Although you can apparently “state with complete assurance that it is simply not possible to teach anyone how to play a musical instrument over the Internet,” I can assure you that this happens every day, sometimes with Disklaviers and often with other MIDI instruments. Internet MIDI works with both (contrary to your comment). Some video examples:

    (10) Internet MIDI does, in fact, work in real time. Internet connections with variable data throughput may require some buffering, but with an excellent connection, a 20 millisecond buffer can work just fine. In typical real-world situations, 250-350 millisecond buffers are common. The Disklavier itself has some mechanical latency which generally requires a minimum 250 millisecond buffer.
    In case you are wondering, Internet MIDI also has a way of managing the occasional Internet hiccup or lost data packet.

    (11) No one claims that Internet MIDI is appropriate for playing traditional piano duets with a remote partner using Disklaviers at each end–because of the mechanical latency. Nonetheless, one of the videos listed above demonstrates a successful bi-coastal duet in a case where the composition lent itself to a quarter-second delay.

    (12) Peter’s press release was far from “heavy handed.” Every thing that was stated can be supported with real world examples. It is very disappointing to see a journalist write such a piece without having investigated the facts thoroughly.

    George F. Litterst
    Chief Creative Officer, Zenph Sound Innovations

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the clarifications, George. I appreciate your taking the time to respond, and I trust it’s clear that my comments were made without actually having hands-on access to a system … which in any case I couldn’t afford. With respect to specifics:

      On point (2), you’re simply wrong. Any system has significant limitations. I’ve been working with digital music systems for many years. They all have limitations.

      On point (4), it would be interesting to know how easy or difficult it would be to add fingerings and other markings to digitally displayed sheet music. I can’t imagine that it would be as easy as using a pencil.

      On point (5), I used the phrase “scaling down” as a shorthand way of indicating that following MIDI input is technologically easier than following audio. I did not intend to convey the idea that your technology was based on or a simplified version of theirs.

      On point (8), I’m sure Disklavier Pro owners will be very happy to be able to edit their performances on RePerform. I wouldn’t dream of disputing that point!

      On point (9), I think a great deal hinges on the question of what we mean by the phrase “play a musical instrument.” To me, and to any mature musician, playing a musical instrument involves far more than the mechanical process of getting the right finger on the right lever at the right moment. Playing music is a human activity, and as such involves numerous intangibles. The Internet filters out intangibles quite efficiently and quite routinely. That’s the essence of the problem.

      The two examples of distance teaching to which you link are, in my opinion, rather creepy. One shows a highly artificial staged “lesson,” and the other demonstrates clueless colonialism. Neither gives anyone a substantive idea about what actually can, or cannot, be taught over the Internet. I should also point out that to the extent that Internet-based instrument instruction is feasible (a very debatable point), it can be handled perfectly well by Skype. No Disklavier is needed, nor any Zenph software.

      On points (10) and (11), a 250-millisecond buffer is not “real time.” It just isn’t. The idea of a composition that “lends itself to a quarter-second delay” sets my teeth on edge. But you have to remember, I have extensive experience playing in actual face-to-face ensemble situations, both pop and classical. I played a concert last weekend, in fact, in which the winds, being seated rather further to the rear of the orchestra than would have been ideal in such an acoustically live room, got a full half a beat away from the conductor’s stick during the final syncopated phrase in Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” It was a train wreck. That’s what a quarter of a second of delay is — it’s a train wreck. Until you’ve found yourself in that situation, you’re really not equipped to dispute me on this point.

      On point (12), you seem to have misread the post. I was criticizing my own blog entry as “heavy-handed.” I did not refer to Peter’s press release using this term. The language he employed — “game changer” and “unlimited potential” — was, as I said, a red flag for an experienced journalist, but I don’t think I’d call it heavy-handed.

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