Ultimate electronics: the 333 grand piano

Music: No need for lessons

Yamaha's pricey, Pentium III-powered instrument comes with its own digital virtuosos.

June 05, 2000|By Benny Evangelista | Benny Evangelista,San Francisco Chronicle

A new high-tech piano could be the perfect toy for the musically challenged dot-com magnate with extra cash to burn.

Lots of extra cash.

The glitzy, chip-powered Yamaha Disklavier Pro 2000, on display recently in San Francisco, can literally play itself and run its own video of the pianist. It's so talented it can recreate an evening with the late George Gershwin, with the same flair and style of the master himself.

The fully loaded musical instrument has enough power to make the common desktop PC jealous.

This voice-activated grand piano is powered by a 600 MHz Pentium III processor, with 128 MB of RAM, a 6X DVD drive, a 20 GB hard drive, a 1023x768, 32-bit color LCD touch panel monitor, a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, MIDI in and out ports and fiber-optic sensors.

The price? Just $333,000, or about 12 times more than it would cost to spend one year studying music at Juilliard, the world-class arts school in New York.

"That's more than we paid for our last house," quipped Larry Magid, a computer industry expert and syndicated columnist from Palo Alto, Calif. "For that price, it should come with a year's supply of virtuosos."

"I can see one of these dot-com billionaires saying what the hell, that's chicken feed," Magid said. "For $333,000, you can take a lot of piano lessons or send your kid to Juilliard."

Yamaha spokesman Paul Calvin said the Pro 2000 was like a "concept car" that represented the "future of the grand dame of musical instruments," partially because you don't have to know how to play the piano to enjoy it.

Yamaha has already found a growing market for high-tech pianos. The company, which began making pianos 100 years ago, first marketed its Disklavier series of computer-aided player pianos in 1988. The high-tech pianos range in cost from $10,000 to about $130,000.

Those pianos can also play prerecorded music from floppy disks, including songs converted from the old paper player-piano rolls that captured performances from artists of the past, like Gershwin.

Yamaha's Disklavier uprights and grand pianos now bring in about $100 million a year in sales in the United States and account for about 25 percent of the company's overall piano sales, said Calvin. And 50 percent of the buyers don't know how to play the piano, he said.

Yamaha is not the only company that makes computerized pianos. The Van Koevering Co. of Anaheim, Calif., for example, makes a line of computer-powered digital pianos costing between $9,400 and $18,000. The top-of-the-line Baby Grand has a 333 MHz Celeron processor, 128 MB of RAM and a 56 kbps modem.

But Calvin argued that a digital piano or even a stereo system cannot match the sound of an acoustical piano.

At $333,000, the Pro 2000 isn't close to being the most expensive piano ever. In 1998, a Steinway grand piano originally commissioned in 1884 was auctioned for $1.2 million, and a 30-year-old Steinway upright used by John Lennon to compose "Imagine" is expected to fetch $1.6 million at an auction next month.

The Pro 2000, with its brushed aluminum legs and key cover, cherry wood siding and Plexiglas lid, is loaded with bells and whistles.

During a press demo at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, the device replayed a song played by renowned pianist Garrick Ohlssen and recorded on a DVD. As the keys played the song, the monitor displayed a video of Ohlssen playing the work, originally recorded at Belmont's College of Notre Dame.

Later, Yamaha software developer Craig Knutsen sat down and actually played the piano while the computer displayed the musical sheet, following him along and automatically turning the page at the appropriate point.

Anthony Thomas, district manager for Sherman Clay, said CEOs and other "entrepreneurial types" with disposable income are the most frequent buyers of high-tech pianos. But he said the pianos are also popular among physicians, particularly heart surgeons.

"It's a stress-relieving thing for them," Thomas said.

As for the Pro 2000, he said, "we're not going to sell one a week, but it wouldn't be surprising to me to sell two or three of those within a year's time."

Still, Magid said, no technology can turn someone into the next Vladimir Horowitz.

"An electronic high-tech musical instrument is no substitute for theory and training," Magid said. "The analogy is a food processor doesn't turn a lousy cook into a great chef."

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