Technology - Audio
Spirio, Part Two
More on this amazing player piano technology from Steinway & Sons.
BY GEORGE MCCLURE
FOUNDED IN 1853 BY GERMAN IMMIGRANT HENRY ENGELHARD STEINWAY in a Manhattan loft, Steinway & Sons is the most iconic name in the piano business. Over many years he 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.
Steinway’s latest innovation, the Spirio, is the world’s finest high-resolution player piano, which provides an unrivaled musical experience. 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; this is the second part of that interview.
"You can watch Thelonious Monk performing from 1956 and hear the acoustic piano playing. That tends to be sort of a jaw-dropping experience."ERIC FEIDNER
Steinway & Sons CTO
GEORGE: To sum up from Part One of our interview, when you buy a Steinway piano equipped with Spirio technology and plug that in your home, 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. And when you open it up, you have access to the thousands of tracks in the Spirio library.
That's how it all works, and the app is key. There's featured music, featured artists, featured playlists and whatnot that you see when you first open the app, but then it's a database of music. This is kind of interesting. You can scroll through any way you want. You can browse through composers, songs, artists and more.
GEORGE: You can search in a number of different ways.
ERIC: Yes. Find music anyway you want, build playlists any way you want, and search by any genre of music. So that's what Spirio is. And then Spirio | r is the instrument that also allows you to have recording technology to use. In that case, you can also simply switch over to the record section, push Record, and start playing the piano, and everything that you play is captured using that technique that I just described.
GEORGE: A lot of artists must really love that. I mean, that's an elegant way to get their music recorded.
ERIC: Right. It’s great for artists because you can not only play and record, but you can also edit your recordings in high-resolution, which is unique. There are lots of music editors for music data files, but they're all MIDI. The only high-resolution data editor an artist needs is built into the Spirio app, so you can play whatever and then edit the content if you want, and artists do use this for recording. Make your recordings in the data, save them, play it back, and all of your changes will be saved in the file that you then can hear.
GEORGE: Who are some of the artists available on the app? I think I saw Ramsey Lewis — he's an old favorite of mine.
ERIC: Yes. There are literally hundreds of artists that have recorded for Spirio. Great jazz artists like Ramsey Lewis. Bill Charlap has recorded a lot for us. Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, so many. Lots of well-known classical artists, lots of well-known jazz artists. Christian Sands, Aaron Diehl, so many great living artists. There also is another part of the Spirio catalog, which we call Steinway Immortals, which are historic audio recordings that we have brought back to life through Spirio, which is another process whereby we take an audio recording and then translate the audio file into a data file, which is our data format, in an approximate fashion. But then we meticulously edit the file measure by measure to match the original audio recording. And we usually do this with video as well, so Spirio-synced videos, which is another part of the Spirio experience. You're watching the artist perform in a video as if it were on YouTube, but you're seeing it on the iPad or on an external monitor that's connected to the piano, but the acoustic piano is playing.
So for the Immortals, for instance, you can watch Thelonious Monk performing from 1956 and hear the acoustic piano playing. That tends to be sort of a jaw-dropping experience for many people. Oh, there's Horowitz, there's Art Tatum.
GEORGE: That's amazing.
ERIC: And it’s like they're playing your piano.
GEORGE: Now I am going to have to see if I can find a deal¬er and listen to this, because it just sounds awesome.
ERIC: Yes, to experience that, that's something that you would not otherwise be able to do, certainly. You're never going to have a live musical experience with Glenn Gould or Horowitz, Rubinstein, other than through Spirio, because it's actually the piano playing.
GEORGE: Incredible. When did Spirio first hit the market? When did you first start developing the product?
ERIC: Bringing music technology into Steinway was a new thing for the company certainly, and that's part of what I do, that's my team. The short story is, I joined Steinway through an acquisition. I sold my company to Steinway in 2008, a music and technology company. In 2014, we really joined the piano company to build the music technology and media di-vision of Steinway, and the first project was to develop the greatest high-resolution player piano that we could. That was what then became Spirio, which we released then in 2015 in test markets, with a global rollout in 2016, with great success.
Then we followed that up with Spirio | r, which I described as the instrument that records, in 2019. So sort of a succession of developments. Everything we do, again, technology, it's constant iterations of new features and improvements, so from Spirio to Spirio | r and ongoing incremental software releases for Spirio. New music also is added to Spirio every month, so when you buy a Spirio piano and you get that app and you open it up, every month you also automatically get new music that's added. There's a Spirio Spotlight every month that features all the new recordings that come out, that you see in the app every month.
GEORGE: Has it fulfilled the objective of helping you sell more Steinway pianos?
ERIC: Yes, it has. In terms of overall for our business, we have a few key drivers. Yeah, you'd think, oh, historical company selling pianos, been around for a long time, what's the new story? And the story is, one of constant innovation from the very beginning in 1853. We don't always talk about all those innovations, but over the years, the Steinway piano just got better and better and better through many, many incremental improvements in how we build the piano itself, which is why we say the best pianos we've ever built are the ones that we're selling today. But then over this period I mentioned, starting from 2014, this is definitely the latest era of rapid innovation at Steinway, and especially for Steinway, extremely rapid. Spirio as a part of our business grew very fast, about a compound annual growth rate of 33 percent since we started in 2014. Now Spirio pianos are 50 percent of our Steinway business.
GEORGE: Wow. So yes, that's been very successful.
ERIC: It's a huge part of our growth. We're growing geographically, in China tremendously, and then overall in other markets as well.
GEORGE: Well, unless you yourself are a concert pianist, it's like, why wouldn't you get it if you're going to get that nice of a piano? And even if you are a concert pianist, the high-resolution recording capability of the Spirio | r seems to make it a no-brainer.
ERIC: And that's the thing. When you look at growth for a company like Steinway, when you're selling such a fine musical instrument, and when we have a very large slice of that market, we don't have to sell pianists that they need a Steinway. They all want the Steinway already. But how do you expand to that much larger group of the people that are building those homes and putting beautiful sound systems in? And what can we give to them that would allow them to appreciate a Steinway in their home? So for us, it's a very logical progression. When we talk about the arc of innovation from 1853 until now, it's a logical path for us to take. And yes, the honest truth is, it's had a huge impact on our business. Very big impact for just that reason. We greatly expanded the market for which Steinway can be addressed.
GEORGE: It's a win for everybody then.
ERIC: Yes, it is. I mean, we're certainly very happy with the progress we've made. Software development being a big part of how we drive innovation going forward, and the latest software release is Spiriocast, which is the ability to broadcast from one piano to one or many pianos anywhere in the world. This is high-resolution data we're talking about, video and audio from one piano to remote pianos. So you can recreate the musical experience live that's happening here in New York on pianos anywhere in the world, on Spirio | r pianos, in real time.
GEORGE: And that's called Spiriocast.
ERIC: Yes. And it's literally something that can be done just using the piano and the iPad. It's now built into the Spirio app. It's simply a software release, and it's active now in the U.S. market and will be rolled out in the European market later this year and Asia Pacific also later this year. So it's the latest innovation. We had a big press event for it last October in New York City.
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 and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, to name a few.
Here's Part Two of our conversation with Simon about his association with Steinway and the development of Spirio.
GEORGE: Last time you told us how you were there right at the beginning when they were developing the technology for Spirio — you were playing, and they were figuring out how to make it work.
SIMON MULLIGAN: Yes, exactly. And then that led to playing the launch of the instrument in London and Singapore and in other places and giving little demonstrations of it. I would play, and then I would walk away, and then they'd press the magic button, and with any luck the piano would play back what I'd just played, and everyone goes, "Gosh." So little presentations like that.
I loved it, and what I can do in terms of educating, sort of passing on all my bad musical habits to other pianists and students [laughs]. And I was soon recording piano complements, piano parts to sonatas, other chamber works and concertos, so that other pianists and other instrumentalists, the singers, could practice with me at the piano — but I'm not there!
GEORGE: Oh, wow. That's great.
SIMON: I know that at the Beijing Conservatory, they were using my recording of Rachmaninoff's piano part, a sort of huge piece of music. And it's lovely to know that cello players are playing against me. And, of course, that's not the future of music in terms of performance. Nothing beats live performance, but in terms of holding together and getting a grasp on the music, it's lovely. It's important, isn't it? And it stemmed back to my early days of learning piano concertos. My teacher would record the orchestra part with a metronome clicking in time, and he would play and then we would play back the cassette tape and play against that. So this is in effect ... it's an updated, better audio version of that.
GEORGE: Eric was telling me a little bit about Spiriocast, as well, which I guess is the newest thing, where you can easily broadcast what you're playing or record it and broadcast it.
SIMON: Yes, I did the very first Spiriocast. Throughout much of the lockdown, I did evening soirees for Facebook and Instagram pages. Every evening, I played a different piece of music for 400 nights in a row.
GEORGE: That's quite a run!
SIMON: They asked me to do some tests for Spiriocast, and they put the piano [with the latest software] in my home. And in December last year, I gave the first half-hour Spiriocast, and it's all so simply done. I would just put an iPad on a stand, and talk to the iPad, and it would record my voice. And then when I stop talking and then play, it doesn't record any other audio. It just records the piano. And, of course, as Eric pointed out, it was very exciting knowing that my playing was being instantaneously heard on keyboards, Steinway Spirio pianos, around the world at the same time.
And so I did a half hour of Christmas tunes in December. I’ve got six, seven more coming up, and it's nice.
GEORGE: Easier, too, I suspect. Sometimes the road can be fun, but I’m sure it gets a little tiring after a while.
SIMON: Absolutely. I've just come back from a tour of Ireland with a group, a classical group, and it was nice to be playing in front of crowds again, but I thought, "Well, with the Spirio, I could just do this at home in my pajamas.”
GEORGE: [Laughs.] Thanks for speaking with us, Simon.