Technology - Audio
Steinway & Sons, the preeminent piano maker, takes the concept of the player piano to thrilling new levels.
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
TO PUT IT SIMPLY, STEINWAY & SONS IS THE MOST ICONIC NAME IN THE PIANO BUSINESS. The company was founded in 1853 by German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway in a Manhattan loft. Over the next thirty years, Henry and his sons developed the modern piano, building their instruments one at a time and applying skills that have been handed down ever since. Steinway has become the choice for over 95 percent of concert artists, none of whom are compensated to endorse the instrument.
The very first Steinway & Sons patent was granted in 1857, and since that time the company has received more than 140 additional patents. Steinway’s latest innovation, the Spirio, is the world’s finest high-resolution player piano, which provides an unrivaled musical experience that’s indistinguishable from a live performance.
We recently sat down with Steinway & Sons Chief Technical Officer Eric Feidner to discuss the brand’s unique history and the compelling new experience that Spirio brings.
"Spirio is an instrument that comes embedded with music. It’s a player piano, and when you push Play in the app, the music that you hear coming from the acoustic instrument is virtually indistinguishable from a live performance."ERIC FEIDNER, Steinway & Sons CTO
GEORGE McCLURE: Most of our readers are probably familiar with the Steinway name. Can you tell us a little about the company’s origins and history?
ERIC FEIDNER: Sure. As you mention in the intro, the company was founded in New York City. And that’s something that not everyone knows. It’s an American company. This German family moved to the states from Hamburg and basically learned the piano business in New York, because there were literally a hundred piano companies at the time, and then founded a new piano company, Steinway & Sons, in 1853. One of the sons later left and went back to Germany, as he didn’t like New York, and then opened a second factory for Steinway in Germany.
Today we still have two factories, one here in Astoria, Queens, New York, which is also where our corporate offices are, and one in Hamburg. These two factories have operated over this very long period through so many ups and downs, two world wars, pandemics, etc., separated and brought back together, but still one company.
We build and sell the Steinway & Sons grand piano, which is considered to be the finest piano in the world, certainly the best known brand name, I would say, probably of any musical instrument, and just a very well-known brand name overall. Steinway pianos are played by the majority of concert pianists. I think our latest statistic is 95 percent plus of pianos played by concert pianists on concert stages around the world are Steinway pianos, so in terms of the professional and the high end of the market, Steinway is a very big name.
GEORGE: Yes, please tell us more about your relationship with the artists.
ERIC: Basically, the marketing plan for Steinway has always been to have the finest pianos in the world and have the finest pianists in the world playing our instruments — and they do. They don’t get paid to play Steinway pianos. They own them. It’s actually one of the criteria for becoming a Steinway Artist — you have to own a Steinway piano. But it’s a big part of the story that these great artists are the testimonials and advocates for our instruments, and playing them on concert stages is a testament to the quality of our instruments. So that’s some of the history of Steinway, and obviously well known in the musical instrument business and the music business as the standard for the modern-day grand piano.
GEORGE: That’s an impressive history. So what was the impetus for the Spirio?
ERIC: Well, one of the reasons was, those great Steinway Artists that I mentioned, the ones playing on concert stages all around the world, those artists all know why they want a Steinway and why they need to play a Steinway. They know it’s this instrument that is going to allow them to play at their very best, to be able to perform at the very finest level, to be able to connect with their audience, realize the music that they imagine, and create that emotional response. The Steinway is the instrument that allows the musician to speak.
The thing is, many pianos look a lot alike, especially if you’ve seen a lot of pictures in architecture magazines and whatnot. It’s a big black piece of furniture. So how do you get someone who doesn’t necessarily play the piano very well, or maybe even at all, to understand what makes this instrument so great? Why is a Steinway piano so much better than any other piano? Which is why we sell Spirio.
Spirio is an instrument that comes embedded with music. It’s a player piano, and when you push Play in the app, the music that you hear coming from the acoustic instrument is virtually indistinguishable from a live performance. It’s meant to reproduce the experience of having that artist live with you, letting someone like me, who doesn’t play the piano very well, understand what makes a Steinway so great, understand where the value is. So you really have to understand the music and what’s coming out of the piano to understand the true Steinway story. That’s the goal of the Steinway Spirio — to broaden the audience for the instruments that we sell, not just to the artists that are looking for this truly exceptional instrument, but for this much wider audience of people who can afford a Steinway, but who may not necessarily feel that they deserve to own one, because they don’t play the piano well enough.
GEORGE: That’s really fascinating to me as someone coming out of the high-end audio industry, where the goal is to try to recreate the sound of live performance with speakers and electronics in the home, but no matter how great the system is, you can tell the difference. So to me, this is like magic to be able to have the actual instrument playing in your home the way the artist would.
ERIC: Yes. And it’s true, that is the absolute sound. You actually have the acoustic instrument, and the sound waves are getting generated in exactly the same way, and it’s being reproduced, not with wonderful speakers and amplifiers, players that are trying to replicate it, but it’s the real thing.
GEORGE: I don’t want to get too technical, but tell me a little bit about how this all works. These performances are supposed to be from specific artists, and so there’s some type of process that can determine that somebody’s hitting the key this hard to produce the sound. Do you know what I’m driving at here? That sounds like really innovative technology.
ERIC: I’ll tell you how the technology works, sort of in simplified form. There are a few key things about what makes this such a unique and special instrument. One is that it’s a Steinway, so everything that we’re doing with the technology is meant to showcase the sound of a Steinway. That’s our goal. So we’re putting technology into these instruments with the idea of reproducing this acoustic sound, and at the same time, putting it into the instrument in such a way that it’s completely transparent and virtually invisible. You don’t really know it’s there as a listener, you just see a beautiful instrument. And as a pianist, you don’t feel any difference when you play the piano. It plays exactly like a standard Steinway piano. No hardware or electronics actually touch the action or keyboard in any way in the piano, so what’s happening is we have the instrument itself making the recording.
"You download the Spirio app from the Apple App Store. And when you open it up, you have access to the thousands of tracks in the Spirio library."
GEORGE: I understand there are two types of Spirio?
ERIC: Yes — Spirio and Spirio | r. Spirio plays back, Spirio | r also records. And the recording technology that’s built into Spirio is also how we make the recordings. We have a proprietary optical sensing system built into the instrument, so to capture the notes when you play the notes, we’re measuring the velocity of the hammers. And you know how a piano works. There’s a hammer that goes up and hits the strings. We measure the velocity of the hammer, and the faster the hammer goes, the louder the note’s going to be. But we’re measuring it at a very, very high level, very discrete, up to a thousand dynamic levels, so from the very, very softest pianissimo to the very, very loudest fortissimo. That dynamic range is the key to the high-resolution aspect of the recording. So we captured the notes. Again, we’re not measuring what’s happening in the keys, but the hammers.
And then we’re also measuring what’s happening with the pedaling, the damper pedal that makes it more resonant, and then the key shift that makes it softer. And we have sensors there, as well, measuring up to 256 incremental positions for the pedaling. So very discrete. This is the high-resolution aspect that we’re talking about. Sampling rate for the notes is 800 times per second. For the pedaling, it’s 100 times per second.
The point of all that is, we’re capturing the motion of what’s going on in the instrument in these three different streams, two pedals and the notes, and this is captured in a proprietary format, which is stored, and that’s the music. It’s data. And then when the instrument plays, that data is activating a solenoid system in the piano, which activates each note from underneath. Again, you don’t see any of this, and there are also pedal solenoids that operate a lever to reproduce what the pedaling would do with your feet. This is all of the technology. That’s the physical technology that’s built into the instrument, with a ton of software that’s built around it that really gives it all the nuance that we’re talking about when we talk about reproducing music so accurately.
GEORGE: It just sounds amazing that you’d be able to plug that in your home and it’s like the artist is there playing the piano for you.
ERIC: Yes. And it’s all meant to be extremely seamless. It’s built into the instrument from the beginning and it’s intuitive and easy to use. When you buy a Spirio piano, you get a beautiful Steinway instrument, and with it you get the most up-to-date iPad, and you get a special key to unlock the app. You download the Spirio app from the Apple App Store. And when you open it up, you have access to the thousands of tracks in the Spirio library.
A Chat with Steinway Artist
British pianist Simon Mulligan has been described by The Times of London as “the most abundantly gifted of pianists,” by Yehudi Menuhin as “one of the finest pianists I have ever had the pleasure of performing with” and by Herbie Hancock as “phenomenal.” Following his début with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Simon has performed and recorded with the BBC Symphony, Detroit Symphony, English Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Sinfonia, Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Royal National Scottish Orchestra, to name a few.
We recently spoke with Simon about his association with Steinway and the development of Spirio.
GEORGE: I knew Steinway was a very popular piano, but until I started doing research for this article, I didn’t realize the extent of its market share amongst concert pianists.
SIMON MULLIGAN: Right. Well, it’s simply the most reliable instrument of concert halls I’ve been lucky to play around the world, almost like it’s an old friend. You can be having a terrible day of travel, getting somewhere, back in the days when we traveled to do concerts and stayed in hotels, with all the little logistical annoyances. Then you get to the concert hall and see the Steinway, and it’s like, “Oh, hey — here we are.” Whether you’ve met it before or you’re playing it for the first time, you know that there’s going to be friendship and rapport. I know that sounds very pretentious, but it’s true.
And you’re basically saying, “Come on, let’s give the people a good show.” You know? And I’m lucky to have two here in my home, one for each hand, because my ego is so large [laughs]. And one of them is a Spirio | r, which you may now already have heard about.
GEORGE: Yes, Eric explained a bit about it.
SIMON: Yeah. It’s a lovely sort of creative tool that I’m pleased to have it here at my beck and call.
GEORGE: I understand you were involved with the Spirio from pretty close to the beginning. Please tell us about that.
SIMON: This is going back a good seven years. They contacted me and said they were developing a new type of modern-day piano. And I’m sure many people would say, “Oh, please don’t muck around with the piano.” And they assured me that, above all, it’s a Steinway — but it just has this added cleverness hidden inside, which won’t be so visible. And they used me as guinea pig to go into New York and London, initially just to listen and play and to sort of give my feedback on different formats and different technologies that they had invested in.
They would swap them in and out of a piano, and I would play, and they asked me to make it as detailed and as varied as possible in terms of the sound range and the repeated notes, to really make it difficult for something to play back as accurately as possible. And I would just comment on each of these different sorts of systems that were presented.
With the Spriro | r there’s the capability to record and edit, but the first Spirio just played from a library of music connected to the iPad. And I did the first recordings for that piano, for the library. The first piece I recorded was “Fly Me to the Moon,” incidentally.
GEORGE: One of my favorites.
SIMON: I was with Eric’s brother, Jon Feidner, in his studio on 57th Street, the old Steinway building in Manhattan, and it was like a dream come true for me, because he’d say, “Well, just record some stuff.” And so, much like I do at home, if I want to relax, I love playing jazz and classical and all styles. So I just churned out whatever came to mind, and we soon built up a library of hours and hours of stuff. And I’m proud to say, though it sounds a bit arrogant, but I’m the most recorded Steinway Artist.
In Part 2 of this article in the next edition of Technology Designer, we’ll discuss the Spirio library of performances by iconic artists, as well as the exciting new technology known as Spiriocast, which provides the ability to broadcast from one piano to one or many pianos anywhere in the world.