I’ve been involved in a series of performances using the Yamaha N3 AvantGrand. The AvantGrand series are hybrid pianos in that the keyboard, action and pedal work is all identical to that found on an acoustic piano. But the tone generation uses large digital samples of a high quality grand piano projected by built-in amplification and speakers, rather than a soundboard and strings.
The goal is to get as close as one can to the touch and tone of a regular piano without the need for tuning or voicing. In addition to a real grand piano action, the N3 also provides digital communication connections and comes in a smaller (460 lbs) though not always more easily moved package. While smaller than a grand piano, it is still a large, heavy instrument and should not be mistaken for a Clavinova or similar home style digital piano. Yamaha put a great deal of effort developing the amplifier and speaker system to accurately project the sound of a grand piano. This includes speakers facing up as well as down and the use of the case as part of the tone generating system.
To a grand piano professional, that overall effect is pleasing enough for this instrument to be acceptable for use select professional settings. I’ve seen it used in a recital in a small room as well as for this series of performances for school children in widely varying rooms and conditions.
In this case, the piano was used for a performance built around Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals with Frederic Chiu on piano and David Gonzales the poet/narrator. There were over 10 performance in 7 different schools, usually to groups of about 50 to 75 kids and adults. My role was to move the N3 around to each location.
I’m not going to speak for Frederic regarding the touch and tone from the pianists standpoint. I was interested in how effective the instrument would be from the perspective of the audience. Here is a serious pianist, playing a serious piece and I’m a serious listener: will I be happy or sad? And the answer is: mostly happy.
The big plus and problem for Yamaha is that the only true comparison is to an actual acoustic grand piano. The tone of the AvantGrand series far surpasses anything similar on the market so using competitive products as a measure guarantees a perfect score. But the target market are acoustic piano professionals and aficionados and the bar is much higher since inevitably the N3 will be compared to a high quality, acoustic piano. This comparison is of course unfair because you’re comparing one instrument that uses a digital recording and electronic playback of the instrument to which you’re comparing it. No matter what level of sophistication, there is always a significant disconnect and technology gap between the two. But it seems like Yamaha is working on seeing how close they can get and the AvantGrand is the current state of the art.
With all the buildup above, my actual observations are quite brief. Sitting in the audience I thought the instrument projected about 70% of the musical energy going into it and the energy that would have come out of a proper grand piano (that I had prepared of course). For a piano snob like me, that is pretty damn good. A concert grand would have had more power and punch but a normal school piano would have been a disaster. I was surprised when I was walking down the hall to the performance after it had already begun. I heard piano music in the distance and didn’t realize for a number of steps that it was a digital piano I was hearing. I was separated from the visual cues and was just letting my aural memory of hearing pianos like this – down the hall and through a set of doors . This tells me that the tone of the N3 is good but that the projection of that tone is still the primary weak link.
Do you have to move an N3? Skid it on the longest part of the treble side (opposite of normal) and expect to keep tightening your belts.