The evolution of the piano has taken many forms through the years. First came the acoustic piano, then came the digital piano, and finally we now have the hybrid piano looking to find synthesis between the former two. Most are familiar with the first ones, however, few understand what a hybrid piano is. By definition, a hybrid — whether a rose, a breed of dog, or a car — results from the combination of two different backgrounds or technologies. Now the piano has joined the ranks of the hybrids. Therefore, a hybrid piano combines electronic, mechanical, and/or acoustical aspects of both acoustic and digital pianos, in order to improve or expand the capabilities of the instrument for keyboard lessons. While applying the term hybrid to piano designs is a recent development, the practice of combining elements from acoustic and digital pianos is actually more than 25 years old.
A hybrid piano* can be created from either an acoustic or a digital piano, but we need to be clear about our definitions of acoustic and digital. The essential difference between acoustic and digital pianos is in how the sound is produced. In an acoustic piano, a sound is produced by the mechanical act of a hammer hitting strings, causing the strings to vibrate. In a digital piano, the sound is produced electronically, either from previously sampled acoustic pianos, or by physical modeling that employs a mathematical algorithm to produce sounds like those of an acoustic piano. Please note that we’re speaking only of that aspect of a digital piano that is designed to produce a piano-like sound. Digital pianos can of course typically produce many other instrumental and non-instrumental sounds.
The pros are already using it! :O
*It should be noted that a hybrid piano should not be confused with a silent piano. Silent pianos are predominantly acoustic pianos with digital add-ons. Therefore they are still big, heavy and need tuning and proper care just like any other acoustic piano.
What makes a piano a hybrid?
A hybrid piano is simply a digital instrument with some kind of acoustic piano action inside. Or, viewed from another perspective, it’s an acoustic piano with an amplifier and speakers instead of strings and a soundboard! Depending on the make and model, hybrid pianos feature either an upright or grand piano action that has been only slightly modified from the original acoustic construction.
Unlike digital pianos and synthesizers, hybrid pianos don’t generally feature extensive rhythm and sound libraries or on-board multi-track recording. This is left to digital pianos which are designed more for stage performance and recording studios. So hybrid pianos are mostly about the piano playing experience rather than having lots of bells and whistles.
In essence, all hybrid pianos possess a small piano cabinet containing physical piano action with sensors on the hammers that trigger a sampled piano sound through speakers instead of hitting strings and being amplified by a soundboard. Hybrid pianos have taken the effort to get the speaker wattage and placement right creating a beautiful sounding experience for the player. The piano sampling is nuanced and majestic allowing each section of the piano to showcase the ideal sound in that range and to replicate the different ways a player may strike a key changing in volume and tone.
Why would I want a hybrid piano when there are already digital pianos?
Now, you may wonder: If you’re just going to use a piano to interact with a computer, play piano sounds silently, or make other instrumental sounds, why bother with an acoustic piano at all? Why not just use a digital piano or keyboard lessons of some kind? The reason is: the experience. Digital pianos are long on functionality but short on, shall we say, atmosphere. For those used to the looks, touch, tone, or other, less tangible aspects of acoustic pianos, digital pianos, in their “pure” form, just don’t cut it — so digital piano makers have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to mimic one or more of these aspects of acoustic pianos. The closer they get to duplicating the experience of playing an acoustic piano, the more they earn the right to the hybrid designation — because, when you get down to it, the function of an acoustic piano is really the experience.
The first aspect of an acoustic piano that digital piano makers mimicked was, of course, the looks, and a large segment of the digital piano market consists of acoustic piano look-alikes. But that alone isn’t enough to earn the title hybrid. Next, the mechanism of the acoustic piano found its way into the digital piano. Much engineering has gone into the numerous action designs in digitals, always in the attempt to make their feel and response as close as possible to that of a “real” piano. For example, the Yamaha GranTouch line of digital pianos uses a slightly modified acoustic piano action to trigger the piano’s sensors (the hammers are small and don’t actually strike strings). With such an action, there’s no need to simulate certain action processes, such as escapement, because it actually occurs mechanically. Many digital piano actions these days have weighted and/or wooden keys, and other enhancements that do a reasonable job of emulating an acoustic piano action; still, advanced pianists, especially classical ones, are unlikely to be satisfied by most of them.
Will hybrid pianos become a trend?
One area in which digital pianos are not intended to emulate acoustics is that of price. The Hybrid Pianos, with the sound and, in some cases, perhaps the experience, of a Yamaha concert grand, are priced similarly to some of the company’s least expensive acoustic grands and verticals. Truth be told, such comparisons are barely possible as the acoustics lack many of the digitals’ features, such as onboard recording, USB memory, transposition, and alternate tunings.
Have you played one?
As the market for hybrid pianos heats up, buyers will increasingly have to choose between acoustic pianos with digital enhancements and digital pianos that try to create the acoustic experience. Decisions will be made by weighing the relative quality, and importance to the buyer, of action, tone, looks, price, and features. More advanced classical pianists whose digital needs are modest, and buyers who, among other things, are looking to fill up a living room with a large, impressive piece of furniture, will probably tend to stick with the acoustic-based hybrid for now. Those whose musical needs are more general, or who have a strong interest in digital features, may find digital-based hybrids more cost-effective.
Another factor that may come into play is that of life expectancy. A good acoustic piano will typically function well for 40 or 50 years, if not longer. Few digital pianos made 15 to 20 years ago are still in use, due either to technological obsolescence or to wear. True, the relevant technologies have evolved, as has the design of digital pianos and the quality of their construction. Realistically, however, if past experience is any guide, pianos that are largely acoustic with digital enhancement may well last for many decades, while those that are digitals enhanced with acoustic-like features are unlikely to last as long.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid pianos?
There are a number of advantages to hybrid pianos:
- Slim Profile – saving space.
- Smaller size and weight means you don’t need piano movers to relocate them.
- Very Little Sensitivity to Temperature and Humidity – No strings and soundboard mean that environment won’t affect tuning. (The action could be affected causing sticky keys.)
- Volume Control-through speakers or headphones.
- Very Little Maintenance – No tuning required or repairs to strings or soundboard.
- Easily connect to recording/MIDI/laptops/iPads / USB MIDI Connectivity-to-computer.
- USB Connectivity is a huge advantage if you want to do any recording. This gives the ability to edit with MIDI, allowing notes and rhythms to be changed, and then output to a high quality audio track from the keyboard’s line outs.
- Variety of sounds available to explore for composition.
- Many include play-along keyboard lessons options so that you can enjoy playing with orchestras.
- Many hybrid grand piano actions can be regulated, just like an acoustic.
We believe hybrid pianos are definitely here to stay.
The are few disadvantages to hybrid pianos:
- Still expensive relative to Digital Pianos (MSRP upwards of $4000, though street price will be lower).
- Weight. About half the weight of a piano (from 170 – 240 lbs), but not easily moved on your own.
- They use electricity.
- They won’t work in a powercut.
- Some of them are really quite expensive.
- Some will say their actions and the sound produced are inferior (but this is highly debated).
- Regulation of action may be required occasionally (3-5 years) in comparison to digital pianos which require almost no regulation in the same time period.
Helpful tips when considering buying a hybrid piano
Most hybrid piano manufacturers have gone to great lengths to faithfully reproduce the look, shape and feel of an acoustic piano with the added benefits of digital piano perks. Bearing this in mind, we believe there are particular features you should look out for when purchasing a hybrid piano.
Firstly, the feel and response of the action is critical. Check to see if the hybrid’s action faithfully recreates the acoustic action? One way to test this is with fast repetitions. Clunky or basic digital actions cannot faithfully recreate fast repetitions so this is always a useful test to perform. Test that the key can repeat without being fully released (this is a feature only available on grand piano actions and should function the same on grand hybrids). The quality of the action is crucial if you’re going to only be using hybrid pianos in your studio and teaching, or learning for your own performance practice.
Sound is the second most important element in my opinion. If it doesn’t sound great, then who’s going to want to play it? Make sure you test the sound with headphones and without – many hybrid pianos actually tend to sound better with headphones on than off as you really feel immersed in the soundscape with headphones.
Polyphony (the number of notes that the instrument can play at the same time) needs to be a minimum of 256 notes in order to work well reproducing the nuances of complex pedalling. 256 is the standard currently available, but no doubt this will increase over time. You might also like to take into consideration the music rest and control panel – how easy is it to read music on the stand and how easy is it to use the controls? Some are much better than others. You may also want to check how many headphone ports it has (this is important for band practices and group teaching). Perhaps also check where the socket is located. Oh, and be sure to check if there is a place to put your wine on top. 😉
Are YOU able to discern the difference?
The bottom line:
The latest hybrid pianos employ real acoustic actions, with every key an extension of the pianist’s art. These specially-designed pianos allow for a more responsive playing experience than that of a digital piano, yet replicate the touch and feel of an acoustic piano without the cost or maintenance. This creates a fuller, more realistic auditory experience – in a sleek, compact design. Furthermore, hybrid pianos now recreate the vibrations and feedback felt when playing a real acoustic piano, unifying the emotional energy between the pianist and the piano by producing natural resonance that, dare we say, envelops the pianist. This is the epitome of the traditional acoustic piano experience.
We’re more than convinced of the merits of hybrid pianos and hope that you’ll consider how digital instruments can positively impact learning and performing. Technology is impacting every aspect of our lives and while some may want to keep pianos out of it, the time has come to open our eyes to the enormous potential digitalised instruments offer us.
The piano has evolved a great deal since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented it in 1700, and that evolution continues. Today it is possible to buy a piano with an ABS-Carbon action (Kawai), a carbon-fiber soundboard (Steingraeber Phoenix), or one that looks as if it was made for the Starship Enterprise! The hybrid piano’s blending of acoustic and digital technologies is just another step — or branch — in that evolution.
Do you use a hybrid, if so, what do you think? If you’re more traditional in your thinking of pianos, what’s holding you back? What’s your favourite hybrid? What are the things that most annoy you about either acoustic or hybrid pianos? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 🙂
- Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer: Hybrid Pianos
- Casio Music: Grand Hybrid Piano Live in the Berlin Philharmonie
- Casio UK: Award-winning Casio Celviano Grand Hybrid Pianos
- Miller Piano Specialists: What is a Hybrid Piano?
- Tim Topham: Hybrid Pianos: The Best of Both Worlds?
- Treblemakers: Why Hybrid Pianos Solve Digital vs. Acoustic Debate For Most Buyers
- Yamaha: Hybrid Awareness
- Yamaha Corporation: Yamaha Hybrid Piano NU1
- Yamaha Corporation: Yamaha NU1 Hybrid Piano / Musikmesse 2012