Even the best weighted keyboards and sample libraries offer only an approximation to the feel and sound of an old-fashioned piano. So what if you just can't do without the real thing, but need to have your notes output as MIDI? Enter the Piano Bar from Bob Moog and Don Buchla...
In the early pre-MIDI '80s, someone came out with a product called the 'Pianomate' or suchlike. This was a three-octave bar with little switches that sat on top of a piano keyboard: when you played a key, a switch moved down with the key and sent a signal down a wire to what I seem to recall was a control box with preset sounds. It never took off, but you would have thought that the idea of being able to enter the world of technology from your piano keyboard had legs. So why has it taken so long for someone — in this case Moog, in concert with Buchla — to come up with a usable interface that allows just that? Probably a combination of two factors: a limited market, and the expense of developing and producing a scanner bar that works.
The Piano Bar is an ingenious, non-invasive device that enables an ordinary acoustic piano to send MIDI information to a sound module or sequencer. The concept is simple enough: it determines what piano key is being played and how fast, generates the appropriate note and velocity data, and sends that data to a control module that acts both as an independent sound source and as a converter to MIDI for sending to further MIDI devices. The complex stuff is in the scanner bar itself: if the piano's action is subtle enough, the sensors work; all the remaining electronics in the control module are standard, familiar fare.
In principle, this could be the answer to the technically minded pianist's prayers, yet at the same time, there are obvious pitfalls in such a marriage of new and old, electrical and mechanical technologies. Let me state at the outset, therefore, that provided you go for the Piano Bar for the right reasons and have a piano action that is reasonably well adjusted, you should have a ball. Approached in the right spirit, the device opens doors that hitherto simply weren't accessible to the piano player, unless you had the ultra-expensive Bösendorfer or Steinway systems, or the less expensive, yet still pricey, Yamaha Disklavier system. All these, of course, are built into the piano and therefore not transferable, unlike the Piano Bar. The ability to extend the sonic palette of your humble Joanna is, if not mind-blowing, pretty marvellous.
I had been seeing the ads for the Piano Bar for some time, but it wasn't until I started working on a piano-based project that I became actively curious about the possibilities this device offered. My good friend and budding media composer Peter Falkner was leaping down my throat demanding that I try it on his piano, so over Christmas, he and I cleared away the tinsel and spent a merry few hours torturing the system with outlandish chords, unfeasible runs and otherworldly dynamics to see what it could and couldn't do.
Getting some sort of result out of the Piano Bar is actually relatively straightforward: place the scanner bar on the piano keyboard, calibrate it and off you go. If your piano has no mechanical action imperfections, and it's tuned to A=440Hz, the Piano Bar will almost certainly bring a smile to your lips, and a very wide one at that. If you're a piano-based musician or composer who feels that the musical instrument industry has ignored you for far too long, Moog and Buchla should become the object of your undying devotion. Once my co-reviewer Peter and I had installed and calibrated the system, we were recording the piano's MIDI output from the control module, and its audio via a pair of AKG C414s, into Logic Audio on the Mac. The ability to use one's tried and trusted steam-driven piano in the sitting room to write and improvise directly into a sequencer, as everyone else has been doing from their MIDI keyboards for over 20 years (sounds of shackles breaking, rusty bolts being drawn and prison doors squealing on their hinges as they open), is awesome. And the timings of the MIDI signal and audio recording are to all intents and purposes identical — we detected no latency.
This heavenly scenario is, however, ringed with caveats, qualifications, yes-buts and wagging fingers: the course of true love never did run smooth. For an insight into our insights, read on.
The system comes in an imposing package: a large, flat and lightweight, hi-tech-looking flightcase made of some synthetic material. Considering the compact nature of the system's components, the dimensions of the case come as some surprise until you try to mentally reorganise the contents — you can't. Opening the case reveals the system nestling snugly in foam cut-outs: the scanner bar, the control module and separate 'wall-wart' power supply, the pedal sensor, one little flash-RAM library card and two long cables. The scanner bar itself comes in one piece, so the overall length of the case is preordained. I can imagine that if sales of the Piano Bar prove to be healthy, a future improvement might include chopping the scanner bar in two so it is easier to carry around, but this is technically tricky, for the reliability of the sensing depends on the absolute rigidity of the bar, and introducing a break might compromise this. It's as well to remember that the scanner bar is the core component: damage it, and you lose everything. Considering its length, lightness, manoeuvrability and the delicacy of the necessarily exposed sensors, the potential for mishaps is certainly something to watch out for.
To start with, you place the scanner bar — a lightweight length of hollow-section metal that contains the scanning electronics — on your piano's keyboard. There is a vertically adjustable foot at each end of the bar, and these feet sit on the keyboard's cheek blocks (the bits of wood at either end of the keyboard). Much research went into this aspect of the design, and the makers claim the scanner should be compatible with 'virtually every' 88-key piano out there. The feet are vertically adjustable so the scanner bar can be placed at the designated height (this is all well explained in the manual). The scanner bar is supposed to sit right at the back of the keys, out of the way by the lid or fallboard... unless, as was the case with Peter's piano, the piano happens to be of the type where the black keys end short of the fallboard by some six millimetres or more. Moog say that this can affect the performance of the Piano Bar: the scanning is confused, rendering the system unusable. To get around this, you can bring the scanner bar forwards a little. This is what we did, but the consequence is that it reduces the amount of space your hands have to move in, and we found ourselves regularly knocking the bar by accident. Knocking the bar had two major repercussions: the bar moved, which meant that it sometimes had to be recalibrated (see below) and, more alarmingly, it sent out a large number of note-on signals to the control module, which emitted a sudden huge blast of notes — not something you want to happen mid-performance. We got around the accidental moving of the bar by using Blu-tack and gaffer tape to secure the feet to the cheek blocks and the back of the scanner bar to the fallboard, and this in turn cured the note-sneezing.
Something we couldn't get around was the fact that Peter's piano — a lovely inter-war German baby grand by Robert Seidel — had a slight concave bow (no more than a couple of millimetres' worth) in the middle of the keyboard. This made no difference to its playability, but it meant that the scanning of the black keys in that middle region produced slightly different velocity values to the rest of the keys (yes, a couple of millimetres makes a difference to the scanning sensitivity). In time, an owner might attune to this and compensate, but it shows how much the Piano Bar's design is dependent on the mechanical setup of an instrument over which it ultimately has no control.
The scanner bar connects to the control module via a lead, as does the pedal sensor; the latter is a plastic wedge that sits under the pedals and senses the depression of the brake and accelerator. Here, too, the potential variables can and do rear their ugly little heads, namely the different heights of pedals and, more critically, the point at which the sustain, in particular, starts to bite. Taking these in turn, you're supposed to ensure that the sensor is no more than about 25 mm from the pedals, which might entail experimentation with shims of hardboard and gaffer tape until the sensing is rock-solid. If your piano is one where the pedals are rather high, an optional height adjustment accessory is available, though Peter felt this should come with the system as standard (on my own Chappell upright piano, the heights were fine, but the nuisance was the cable coming out of the rear of the pedal sensor rather than the side — it prevented the pedal sensor being pushed back and tucked neatly under the pedals where it belonged, a simple design oversight). The other variable concerns the point in its travel at which your piano's sustain pedal lifts the dampers of the strings to produce the sustain. You want this to be the same as the point at which the pedal sensor reckons you have pressed the pedal and sends a 'pedal on' signal to the control module, so the sound you're triggering also gets a sustain. In our experiments with the Piano Bar we never fully got on top of this aspect, despite our pedal sensor height trials, though it was close (also, making adjustments is tricky when you're listening to two instruments, one virtual, one real!) I think more experimentation would have done the trick, but again, it shows how Moog are hostages to fortune with this product.
Powering up is followed by the all-important calibration routine: you have six seconds to tell the module you want to calibrate the scanner bar and pedal sensor to your piano. This is something you do once the two items are in place and correctly aligned. After pressing the Enter button on the control module, you play a chromatic scale up or down the keyboard, not too fast. Play deliberately and concentrate — any fluffs, and you'll have to start calibrating from the start again. Now press each pedal once fully, and then press the Escape button. Providing all is in order, you won't have to calibrate again unless and until something shifts or goes out of alignment.
The scanner bar sits discreetly and darkly until you start to play, whereupon lights above each key blink when the keys are depressed — orange for the white and green for the black keys. All very Star Trek and great fun, especially when you come to play MIDI from your sequencer back into the control module, as the notes trigger the lights on the bar so you can follow the fingering: slow down the sequence and it could help you work out passages you're trying to learn! The lighting system also provides feedback on which pedal is being depressed, on stuck notes and other problems, plus you can remotely change the 'setups' in the control module by covering a photo-sensing LED with your finger and hitting the key that corresponds to the desired setup. In a live situation this might not make sense, as pressing a key necessarily plays the piano (duh!), so you can use the Value knob on the control module instead. Going back to the pedal-sensing lights, at one juncture the sustain light was telling us that it was 'ghost-triggering' without the pedal being touched, so we had to resort to yet more adjustments to the pedal sensor's height to quell that, after which we had to recalibrate the whole system — you can't calibrate the pedals only. Do you want to be doing that mid-performance?
This points up an important issue: only time will tell how stable and 'bullet-proof' your system is with your piano. I suspect that the vast majority of people will experience 'funnies' when they start to use the Piano Bar, but that these will iron themselves out as they work with it and attune to it. Some people, however, may find that their Piano Bars just aren't happy with their piano's action or pedals. Others may find that the system works perfectly OK at home, but play out in a bar or concert hall only to find that it isn't happy there. You absolutely cannot assume that you can turn up to play a venue's piano and that the Piano Bar will calibrate and work flawlessly throughout the evening. It's just too risky, especially if you have prepared a whole evening's entertainment around it. Just as crucially, the action on a venue's piano may produce scanned velocity values that are markedly different from the last piano you played: the output velocity values are directly related to the quality and functionality of the piano's mechanical action.
To my mind, a major consideration Moog or their distributors need to bear in mind when trying to convince people to purchase a Piano Bar system is that it sinks or swims according to its compatibility with the purchaser's piano. I wouldn't want to buy one, only to get home and find that my piano was one of those that simply did not allow me to use the Piano Bar. It's not enough to have one permanently set up in the showroom, since its usability with one piano does not mean it will have the same responses with another piano. There is an excellent chance that everything will be fine, but as you're buying a non-standard accessory to your piano this, by definition, means that you may run into problems.
My advice to Moog and their distributors would be to treat the Piano Bar as a completely separate type of product from the rest of the firm's electronic gizmos. It needs to be proactively marketed by a dedicated sales force, who will come to your home and demonstrate the Piano Bar on your piano. I feel this would result in healthy sales and be well worth the effort.
The control module provides the 'brains' of the Piano Bar system, which will not work without it. It appears to function the way it's supposed to, but it's not exactly a fun piece of kit to use, thanks to its multiple layers of menus, dull stock General MIDI sounds, and a manual which really didn't help me or Peter in our efforts to navigate the module, despite its large display and the manual's 'glib' (my word) and 'patronising' (Peter's word) attitude. Peter comes from a more traditional side of music-making and is not as into technology as I am. In that sense, he would be a natural potential customer for the Piano Bar, so his input was invaluable in preparing this review — and as he said, many of those people interested in the Piano Bar are likely to eschew or perhaps even despise technology, so this manual is a real turn-off. The design of the control module's housing rather supports his contention: it comes in a 'tasteful', retro 'the organist entertains' type of wooden housing with a top in solid black-stained ash, designed to sit discreetly atop the piano.
The control module outputs (rather noisily, compared to other MIDI synths we were triggering) its built-in sounds via a stereo pair of quarter-inch jack sockets or a headphone mini-jack. The sounds are enough to get you started and might even induce you to create an evening's worth of 'muzak-while-you-hold' telephone soundtracks. The module's 'setups' enable you to layer sounds, zone them across the keyboard and so on, but of far greater interest are the MIDI outputting capabilities: the module is able to send out on any MIDI channel and on up to 16 at once (apparently — the manual kept tripping us up) to your samplers and synths for true programmability. It set us wondering whether Moog would consider a version that purely outputted MIDI, without any of the General MIDI circuitry, but we concluded that the sound-producing side of the Piano Bar probably cost them very little in any case. Don't forget that at no time will you ever hear the MIDI-generated sounds on their own without your acoustic piano! Unless you are able to completely mute your piano (Yamaha Silent Piano, anyone?) your piano will always be heard... until you come to play back your MIDI performance from your sequencer, when the sounds you will hear are the samples stored in the control module.
Peter also owns a Yamaha weighted electronic piano, which he currently uses to write from, and which cost roughly the same as the Piano Bar. Would he change to using the Piano Bar on his baby grand? "I would always keep my electronic piano as the mother keyboard: its action is impeccable and, importantly, I can change the sound I'm hearing. Playing, for example, organ, harpsichord or orchestral strings from the electronic piano, each require different 'piano playing' techniques, and my acoustic piano with the Piano Bar would not allow this. However, the Piano Bar could prove invaluable when I'm recording the audio of my grand piano and I need the notation for third parties. It would also certainly be really helpful in teaching situations, though ideally both pupil and teacher should have Piano Bars. Finally, I could use it to enhance the bass notes of my piano (because it's a baby boudoir, the strings are a bit short acoustically!) by adding sampled bass notes where appropriate in a final mix. However, if I only had the acoustic piano and my writing depended on my hearing its sound, the Piano Bar is the only device on the market."
He also pointed out the importance of having a piano that's in tune with itself, and, ideally, tuned to concert pitch — otherwise, combining the acoustic and MIDI sounds gives you a "honky-tonk bar sound"! We also felt that a volume pedal, plugged into the back of the control module, was essential to be able to balance the various MIDI and internal sounds with the piano.
My perception is that the natural market of the Piano Bar comprises musicians who feel tied to the piano, either because it's the natural instrument from which they compose, or because they prefer the whole piano ethos of 'real' sound, action and moving air. These pianists have probably always wished they could compose, improvise and play directly into a sequencer (ideally generating notation while so doing) from their favourite instrument, but until now have had to do so from an ersatz piano, namely an artificially weighted MIDI keyboard.
The other natural market for the Piano Bar, however, lies in the field of on-stage or studio-based live performance, where the piano is the core instrument, and the musician's performance is duplicated on other MIDI devices to enhance and contrast with the piano's own sound in real time. I can well imagine modern composers getting to grips with this concept and triggering samplers and so on to create sonic landscapes during what is ostensibly a piano recital. Or how about all those bar and lounge pianists the world over who, until now, have had only one sound to play with? They can now trigger whatever sounds they like, layer and zone them on the keyboard, creating a veritable sonic tour de force, enough to shake any Martini or stir any cocktail. This would seem to be where the Piano Bar sits most comfortably.
Be warned, though. The Piano Bar cannot create the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear: if the sow's ear (your ropey old pub piano that's seen better days) has a dodgy action, the bar's electronics are not able to compensate for this, and you will not end up with the hoped-for silk purse — you won't get a new piano on the cheap, and that sow's ear will probably be way out of tune and will clash with the pristine piano samples you're hoping to trigger. My advice is not to try to force the Piano Bar to be what it isn't. Just because it carries a Moog label, it can't work miracles. But it is the answer to the prayers of countless piano-based souls who have felt, until now, that they have been left out in the cold.
So, where does all this leave us? Thumbs up or down? Both! The Piano Bar is an idea that someone just had to come up with sooner or later: there are too many disenfranchised pianists out there, and until now, no-one has done anything to help them straddle the worlds of the pianoforte and of technology. Whoever came up with a device would have to be brave, for the wait has built up great expectations, not all of which can be fulfilled — not because of a failing in the technology, but because there are just too many variables amongst the millions of pianos in the world. That said, I would imagine from what I have experienced that the majority of pianists will come away from their contact with the Piano Bar praising the names Moog and Buchla; some may be tempted to chop up their old pianos for firewood and buy something decent; and some, no matter what, will find the variables insurmountable and will remain unsatisfied.
Which category you come under will depend not only on the Piano Bar, but on the combination of it and your piano. Try to have someone come round to you for an hour's experimentation to ensure as many of the variables are checked out. And if the Piano Bar works fine with your piano, the more time you spend playing the system, the better you will get on with it.