Acoustic Upright and Grand: Yamaha Disklavier Enspire

Proven player piano hits new tech heights
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The first time I encountered a Yamaha Disklavier, it was a revelation. I had seen other modern player pianos, but where they reproduced notes and relative loudnesses well enough, the MX-100A (based on the popular U1 upright) seemed to capture the player in a more holistic sense—and this was in 1987. Since then, Yamaha has steadily committed more resources than any manufacturer to refining the self-playing piano. The new Enspire line replaces the E3 as the latest generation, and I recently got my first hands-on time with it.

Fig. 1: You can select and control playback of prerecorded pieces, wirelessly. As always, a Disklavier is never a retrofit; the system is factory-integrated into 14 models from a 48" upright to the 9' DCFX concert grand. From there, you can opt for three levels of technology. Aimed at homes and businesses who simply want the experience of hearing a piece of music and seeing the keys move, the CL model is playback-only and has the same XG sound bank as the Tyros and Clavinova line. The ST models add recording, the “silent piano” mechanical muting, and a digital tone generator for layering in other sounds and/or quiet practice; this features Yamaha’s best CFX concert grand sample set. Its DSP brain is also constantly reading feedback from the keys and pedals about their speed and position to ensure consistent playback. To all this, the Pro models add even higher resolution in key velocity levels and incremental pedal positions, and read feedback from the hammers and solenoids, as well. Because key motion doesn’t always correlate to hammer motion in a linear fashion, this makes the reproduction of fast runs and delicate passages even more precise. All three systems reproduce key-release velocity, and the ST and Pro record your playing using non-contact optical sensors. Notably, the Enspire line abandons the familiar under-the-keys control box in favor of wireless control via an iOS/Android app or any HTML5-enabled web browser (see Figure 1). Over 500 songs are preloaded, and Yamaha’s mature MusicSoft ecosystem provides downloads of over 6,000 more. Via the Piano Radio and Disklavier TV services therein, you can stream audio and visual performances in which the Enspire plays the piano part “live” while you watch, for example, Elton John or Alicia Keys do the same on your television in perfect sync.

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Familiar features such as slowing down the tempo to learn a piece are enhanced by the ability to mute one piano part, letting you work on the right-hand melody while the Enspire plays the accompaniment or vice-versa, so long as the two parts exist on separate MIDI channels. On the ST and Pro models, you can record left-and right-hand parts in just this manner—either with two passes or all at once utilizing a user-set split point. Furthermore, for educational purposes, a remote function can link a teacher and student in different locations, mirroring their playing on the moving keys of each others’ Disklaviers. (Because Internet bandwidth, firewalls, and other I.T. hurdles can add latency, this is currently limited to institutional users, though Yamaha is working on a public release.)

These instruments begin shipping to piano retailers in July 2016, and I’ll be spending much more time with the Enspire to give you a comprehensive review. As of these early impressions, I can vouch that nothing comes closer to rendering performances exactly as played, right down to the elusive human element.