How Do Self-Playing Pianos Actually Work?

It seems so magical: you select the song you want on your iPod, hit play and your piano bursts into life! But how does a piano that plays itself work…? This article seeks the remove the complexity and explain as simply as possible the workings of a Self-Playing Piano.

As obvious as it may sound, a self-playing piano is literally a real acoustic ‘standard’ piano that is playing itself – it can be played by a pianist just like any other piano. Before exploring the technicalities of the self-play piano mechanism itself we need to first understand the basics of how any acoustic piano works.

How does a ‘Standard’ Piano Work

With any acoustic piano, a pianist presses down a key causing the hammer to strike the string and sound a note. The controlling force of how loud or soft, how staccato or sustained this note sounds, is the strength and speed with which the pianist plays the key. The diagram below shows a simplified cross section of a grand piano action with arrows indicating the key being pressed down or played, and the correspond upwards motion or striking of the hammer onto the piano string.

It is important to see that the key is actually pivoting on a central rail, known as the balance point, and when in its fully depressed position, the back of the key is raised from the key bed. It is this pivot motion that enables a totally concealed self-play system to bring any piano to life!

The Self-Play Workings

Instead of a pianist, the Edelweiss Self-Play System uses electromagnetic solenoids to push that back to the key up from underneath – the front of the key presses down in exactly the same way causing the hammer to strike the string and sound a note. This time, the controlling force is the strength and speed with which the solenoid pushes the key up, and this is very precisely controlled with every solenoid having just over 1,800 gradations of ‘force’ when playing each key. With normally one solenoid for each note on the piano, that is a total of 158,400 touch variations to be calibrated for every song you choose to have your piano play for you!

But how does the piano know which note to play when?

Every self-playing track originates with an actual pianist performance of the song recorded on a specially set-up piano. Using infrared technology, our recording pianos have an infrared sensor rail installed underneath the front of the keys which precisely monitors exactly which keys are played, the speed and force each note is played with and how far each key depresses. All this data is saved into our computer systems, our software then converts this data into a MIDI file which in turn relays all this information into the electromagnetic solenoid rail (shown below) that is actually playing your self-playing piano! This detailed process means that every nuance, every crescendo, every diminuendo, all the expression the pianist is putting into the original performance is perfectly captured and replayed exactly by your self-playing piano for the ultimate ‘Virtuoso’ live music experience.

What about the songs with singing / band accompaniment?

The piano part of such albums is recorded in the same way as set out above. The accompanying vocals/bands etc. are also recorded in studio and seamlessly blended with the MIDI file created for the piano track into one song for your piano to play. When selected, the MIDI file is sent to the solenoid rail while the accompaniment is played through the concealed speaker mounted underneath your piano (or behind if you have a self-playing upright piano).

And all this is controlled from an iPod?

Edelweiss self-playing pianos are all operated wirelessly from an iPod or iPad. Every piano is fitted with its own, standalone WiFi router. This router is not connected to the internet and is solely to enable to wireless operation of the piano. From your piano’s iPod, simply connect to the pianos WiFi, select your song from the standard iTunes Music App and press play!

Wow, so can I play any song through my player piano?

A self-playing piano is only able to play songs that are in this exclusive MIDI/MP3 format, so unfortunately we are unable to play literally any song through a self-playing piano. However, the Edelweiss Music Pianos library is very extensive, with thousands of songs available from Beethoven to Michael Jackson, Adele to Gershwin and Ed Sheeran to Mozart and the list just keeps growing as we are continually updating our selection. You can even request a specific song, and our studio can make this to order for you!!

Or why not go one step further and build your own, fully customisable self-playing piano through our Piano Configurator? Create it to match your style or get in touch with one of our team to help you through this process.

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