Yamaha has long been at the forefront of incorporating
digital elements into acoustic pianos and vice-versa. Upright and grand
models have been fitted with sample-based engines that provide
additional piano and non-piano sounds, and MIDI has allowed for highly
pianistic and musical control of external sound sources. In the other
direction, instruments like the GranTouch series married bona fide grand
piano actions to all-digital sound engines, with the more recent
AvantGrand pianos adding multi-channel sound, careful speaker placement,
and cabinet design in the service of realism. Yamaha now makes their
latest statement of this hybrid philosophy with the TransAcoustic line:
real acoustic pianos with supplemental digital sound engines that—here’s
the kicker—use the piano soundboard itself, not conventional speakers,
as the amplification system. It’s an intriguing proof of concept and
hugely engaging to play, but do the practical benefits add up to more
than that? Let’s investigate.
How It Works
Yamaha sent a U1TA for review, a piano that begins life as
their 48-inch tall U1 upright—an instrument so widely used that the “U”
should stand for “ubiquitous.” There’s also a TransAcoustic baby grand,
the GC1TA, which measures in at five feet, three inches and a $31,099
list price. Of course, the keyboard is MIDI’ed with optical sensors,
which drive the digital sound engine—or an external synth of your
choosing, thanks to the inclusion of five-pin MIDI in and out ports. The
interface to all things digital is a black panel that resides
discreetly under the bass end of the keyboard and provides 19 sounds
ranging from Yamaha CFX concert grand to electric pianos to harpsichord,
mallets, strings, and pipe organs.
Now for what makes it “TransAcoustic.” The digital sound
engine drives two transducers—located on either side, as shown in the
main photo above—that convey vibrations to the wooden soundboard. This
idea isn’t new in itself; “vibration speaker” is the generic term and
piano builders have experimented with it before (though not always in
products that made it to market). The trouble is, physically mounting a
speaker onto a soundboard is the last thing you want to do, as it
dampens the soundboard’s vibration and can lead to damage if the wood
contracts or expands over time. The traditional other option is pointing
a speaker that’s mounted on something else at the soundboard. No
matter how close it is, you still lose energy in the air between
transducer and soundboard, and things won’t sound right.
Yamaha’s solution is basically to split the difference.
Only the voice coil—the little wire-wrapped cylinder from which the rest
of a conventional speaker funnels out—is mounted on the soundboard
itself. The coil is so lightweight that it doesn’t cause any dampening
issues. The magnet and other heavy bits are mounted on the surrounding
bracing, such that the voice coil can surround the magnet without
actually touching it. When the speaker is energized, the voice coil’s
movements vibrate the soundboard without weighing it down. In effect,
the soundboard plays the role of “speaker cone.” The image at left shows a closeup of the whole assembly.
What does this sound like in practice? Incredibly
convincing. With every other type of acoustic-piano-plus-digital
layering I’ve experimented with, I could never quite get away from the
sense that the digitally-generated sounds were coming from point-sources
different from the piano itself—even if the speakers were cleverly
integrated into the piano’s cabinetry. With the U1TA, sampled grand,
electric pianos, strings, and other sounds “bloom” from within the piano
and benefit from its natural reverb in the exact same way as the
piano’s own strings. Even if I disengaged the acoustic side using the
mechanical “silent piano” feature (more on this shortly) and listened to
just the digital sounds, I was hard pressed to localize their origin to
where those transducers actually sit; all the sound was just
wonderfully there. I’d even mike the U1TA for recording a layer
of piano and another sound where I wanted everything to seem like it’s
coming from the same acoustic space. Because it is.
Feature-wise, the U1TA’s digital sound engine is akin to a
fairly basic digital slab piano, albeit with the stunning multisample
of Yamaha’s CFX concert grand I first encountered in the NU1 (reviewed
May ’13) taking center stage. Sparkly DX7-style electric piano, Rhodes,
and Wurly are covered accurately and are fun to play, though the latter
two could have a bit more attitude. Four pipe organs provide
registrations from sparse to full, and all sound lovely given a
combination of the onboard reverb and the piano’s natural acoustics. The
“Jazz Organ” patch is standard ROMpler fare, but with the nice perk of
the soft pedal toggling the speed of a surprisingly good Leslie
simulation. The soft pedal also toggles chorus on electric pianos and
vibrato on the vibraphone. The final three programs layer the CFX sample
with strings, synth pad, and DX7 electric piano, letting you cover
David Foster-style ballad layers with aplomb.
A simple MIDI song recorder includes a metronome that you
can adapt to any time signature, as well as song storage/playback via a
connected USB drive. Note that the U1TA is not a Disklavier piano, so
MIDI songs will play only the digital sounds as opposed to triggering
the real piano action.
Of course, it’s important that the acoustic and digital
sides be in tune with one another. Strings, pads, organs, and the like
sound different enough from piano that your ear forgives small tuning
discrepancies, but these become more obvious if layering the acoustic
piano with the CFX grand sample. Your UT1A’s acoustic half is the domain
of a professional tuner, but a couple of parameters help you bring the
digital side in line. There’s overall fine-tuning, then you can select
from three stretch tuning curves: upright, baby grand, and concert
grand. Stretch tuning is the practice of tuning notes slightly lower or
higher than their “correct” values as you progress towards the
respective extremes of the keyboard. In general, larger pianos require
less stretch, but that’s one variable among many—this is a subtle art.
For that reason, here’s a strategy for maximizing your
enjoyment of a TransAcoustic piano. When you take delivery, audition the
CFX sample—whose source piano was doubtlessly tuned to perfection for
the sampling sessions—with the acoustic piano in silent mode. Pick the
stretch curve that’s most pleasing to your ears and then have your
professional tuner use that as the reference for tuning the acoustic side.
Speaking of tuning, not only can the U1TA pass along
external audio (from a 1/8" stereo input) to the soundboard, but it can
fine-tune that audio up to a half-step in either direction. Do tracks
you’d like to play along with from your iPod sound a bit sharp or flat
relative to the piano? Not a problem.
Like the AvantGrand and NU1 before it, the U1TA occupied a
corner of my living room over the holiday season, entertaining friends
and family and serving as my practice machine when I didn’t want to boot
up the full studio. (If you make most of your music in a technology
cave, I highly recommend having a self-contained “social instrument” you
can play outside of it.)
In acoustic-only playing, the U1TA sounds rich across the
entire range and has very good bass for its size, but of course, can’t
deliver the lows of a good baby grand. (The taller Yamaha U3 upright is
as bassy as many baby grands I’ve played and in fact better than some,
so I hope Yamaha offers a TransAcoustic version of it in the future.)
That’s why it’s very satisfying to be able to layer in some of the deep,
buttery bass of the CFX concert grand sample. In fact, when I wanted to
play with a sense of full dynamic range but an unyielding volume
ceiling, I preferred playing the CFX sample by itself.
Which brings us to the “silent piano” mode. Press the
middle pedal and slide it to the left, and the hammers decouple from the
strings, letting you play just the digital sounds, either off the
soundboard or through headphones via one of two 1/8" stereo mini jacks.
(These and a 1/8" line-level aux output comprise the U1TA’s audio outs.
I’d like to see 1/4" outs like on the comparatively modest NU1.) Your
key strikes still move the hammers—they’re just not quite hitting the
strings—so all the weight, escapement, and other tactile feedback of the
piano action is retained. Of course, you lose the sostenuto pedal in
trade (though it should be noted that the standard, acoustic-only U1 lacks true sostenuto as well). On Yamaha grands (TransAcoustic and otherwise) that have the
silent option, it engages via a lever that pulls out like a classic
car’s parking brake, leaving the middle pedal free for true sostenuto.
In terms of loudness, the acoustic U1 is a formidably
room-filling piano, and if the U1TA experience suffers from anything,
it’s that even with the volume of the digital section at maximum, some
sounds just can’t compete with the hammers and strings when used in
layers. Choosing the easiest velocity response (there are five settings
plus a fixed option) evened the playing field somewhat, and sounds that
had more high-frequency content than piano at a given note (pipe organs
and the string ensemble, for example) fared better overall. But with an
acoustic piano-plus-Rhodes layer I wanted to play on Steely Dan tunes
like “Gaucho” and “Glamour Profession,” the Rhodes sound struggled to
keep up no matter how I tried to finesse the velocity of my key strikes.
On the other hand, the “Synth Pad” program (number 16) added lovely
body to the acoustic piano in spite of having a fairly muted frequency
spectrum—playing this combo on Spandau Ballet’s “True” made me downright
TransAcoustic sound reproduction is a true technological
milestone in a keyboard industry too often dominated by marketing
buzzwords. This isn’t one of them—the success with which the U1TA and
its bigger brother the GC1TA “acoustify” digitally-sourced sounds is an
honest-to-goodness Big Deal. That said, the U1TA seems targeted at a
rather specific customer. Who’s that? First and foremost, you have your
reasons for insisting on a real acoustic piano. (If that’s all you need,
a standard U1 lists for $6,000 less and well-maintained specimens can be had
for under $5,000 altogether.) You also want the benefits of a digital piano: tuning
stability, quiet practice, MIDI recorder, extra sounds, and so on. (If that’s
all you need, consider an NU1 at a fraction of the price.) You want to
be able to combine acoustic and digital personalities on demand, without
worrying about an external sound system and without any audible seams.
At the same time, either personality has to get out of your way in an
instant if you so choose. If all of the above has you nodding your head
in agreement, there’s no question that a Yamaha TransAcoustic piano will
serve, inspire, and delight you in a way that nothing else currently
Real acoustic piano coupled with digital sound engine.
Digital sounds are amplified through piano soundboard as opposed to
conventional speakers, resulting in very natural sounding layers.
Gorgeous Yamaha CFX concert grand multisample. Acoustic piano can be
mechanically silenced for digital-only practice. MIDI output lets you
use the piano keyboard as a controller.
Some digital sounds can’t get nearly as loud as the
acoustic piano, even at maximum volume. No expression pedal input for
hands-free level control of digital sounds. No sostenuto, as middle
pedal is the acoustic piano silencer.
If you need this, you know who you are, and nothing else will do.
$16,699 list | yamaha.com