I recently had an opportunity to play the AvantGrand, the new Yamaha digital piano that represents the current state of the art, and wanted to share my experiences with it with key-notes readers.
First, as a classical pianist I must caution that no matter how good digital piano technology gets, nothing replaces the real thing, and I don’t see that changing even in the distant future. After all, Stradivarius and Guarneri violins have only become more valuable over time, and the best modern technology has been unable to match the beauty of their sound. Where digital versus acoustic pianos are concerned, a recording of a note (called a “sample”) triggered by pressing a key and played by an electronic speaker just isn’t the same as a real hammer striking a real string causing a real soundboard to vibrate.
It’s no different with the AvantGrand. The sound is certainly very good. Yet there’s no mistaking that it’s a digital piano. The speaker system is the most advanced of any digital piano, with the larger model N3 digital grand piano being the more impressive of the two models on offer. I believe the N2, an upright, to be the better value though, since the only significant difference between the models (besides their size and appearance) is the speaker system. The N3’s speakers do sound a bit better, just not five or so grand better. Further, the N2’s upright form factor makes it easier to fit into many rooms.
Although it’s indeed very good for a sampled piano, I’m not satisfied with the sound. (Remember that I’m comparing it to a real acoustic grand piano, to which this technology aspires, rather than to other digital pianos.) Yamaha’s engineers sampled a Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand piano from inside it, meaning they placed microphones above the strings rather than outside the piano. This method of miking a piano is sometimes used in jazz and pop recordings, though rarely for classical (although Glenn Gould preferred such a setup). It makes for an extremely immediate and bright sound. There’s nothing in the sound that ever makes me suspend reality even for a moment and think that I’m listening to anything but a digital piano.
Yamaha calls the AvantGrand a “hybrid” piano. There is a wooden soundboard into which speakers are embedded, so the wood essentially acts as a speaker cabinet. The resulting sound is definitely closer to the real thing than any other digital piano I’ve played, but it’s still very far removed from a real concert grand. A nine-foot piano does have such a large case and soundboard for good reason after all, and no amount of digital trickery changes that fact.
The N3 has something Yamaha calls a “Soundboard Resonator,” which they says allows for “a more subtle reproduction of the buildup of sound felt by pianists when playing a grand piano.” This concerns vibrations felt by the pianist, as does the “Tactile Response System” shared by both models. The TRS causes the digital piano to vibrate while playing, and there are three levels, the highest being overkill (read: unrealistic) for my taste. While they do add an extra touch of realism, I suspect most players will consider these features to be gimmickry rather than truly useful. (For that matter, if this really is a hybrid instrument with a wooden soundboard, why would vibrations need to be simulated?)
Where the new Yamaha digital piano excels, however, is in its touch. The action is that of an actual grand piano, and it therefore feels just like the real thing because it is the real thing. I do like the way the keyboard interacts with the sample library. I didn’t detect any “gaps” in the sound as exist with many sampled pianos. Often, say, the original acoustic piano was recorded at a mezzo piano dynamic level and at mezzo forte, but nothing in between. The digital piano then triggers the closest sample (mezzo piano or mezzo forte) and adjusts the playback volume for notes in between. This makes for a terribly artificial sound, and fortunately the new Yamaha digital piano doesn’t suffer from that problem.
I think the AvantGrand is good enough for serious classical pianists to accomplish real work on it when they’re not able to play an acoustic piano. This is its most significant development, and that qualifies it as a milestone in digital piano technology. It really is possible to work not only on technical passages due to its authentic piano action, but also on your interpretation since its sample library is of sufficiently high quality. (I used to have the AvantGrand’s predecessor, the GranTouch, which also had a real piano action that was a pleasure to play, though the sampling technology wasn’t as sophisticated.)
That said, the AvantGrand is indeed a pleasure to play… but pianists won’t mistake it for a real grand piano. It’s the most expensive digital piano on the market and it is most definitely the best. Potential buyers do need to consider that any technology will be obsolete within a few years, however. By contrast, a quality acoustic piano will outlast a lifetime.
Read more about this remarkable Yamaha digital piano on the product’s dedicated website.
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