Augmenting the Acoustic Piano with Electromagnetic String Actuation and Continuous Key Position Sensing

Wed, 05/26/2010 - 4:30pm
CCRMA Classroom [Knoll 217]
Event Type: 
DSP Seminar
Augmenting the Acoustic Piano with Electromagnetic String Actuation and Continuous Key Position Sensing

Andrew McPherson, Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory, Drexel University

Abstract: The acoustic piano is a tremendously rich and versatile instrument whose sound is unmatched by any synthesizer.  Its versatility masks a surprising limitation: once a key is pressed, the performer has no further ability to modulate its sound.  This talk presents the magnetic resonator piano, an augmented instrument which brings continuous note shaping to any acoustic grand piano.  Electromagnetic actuators induce the strings to vibration, allowing control of the amplitude, frequency and timbre of each note without external loudspeakers.  Feedback from a single pickup on the piano soundboard allows the actuator waveforms to remain locked in phase with the natural motion of each string.  Up to 88 strings can be controlled using a standard multichannel audio interface.

The augmented instrument is played from the piano keyboard, which has been equipped with a new sensor reporting the continuous position of every key.  Temporal and spatial resolution are sufficient to capture detailed data about key press, release, pretouch, aftertouch, vibrato, and other extended gestures.  The system, which is easily installable and removable, has been used in concert performances, with electronically-actuated sound blending with acoustic instruments naturally and without amplification.

This talk is followed by a concert performance of Secrets of Antikythera (2009) for magnetic resonator piano, performed by Sandra Gu.  The performance will take place at 8PM at St. Marks Church, 600 Colorado Avenue, Palo Alto.  The program also includes the Beethoven sonata op. 109, selected Debussy etudes, and Schoenberg op. 33.

Andrew McPherson is a post-doctoral researcher in the Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory at Drexel University, supported by a "Computing Innovation Fellows" grant from the Computing Research Association and National Science Foundation.  His work integrates music and engineering, developing hybrid acoustic-electronic instruments offering new possibilities to performers and composers and studying creative musical expression from a quantitative computational perspective.

Andrew did his undergraduate work at MIT, double-majoring in music and electrical engineering, subsequently completing a Master's in engineering in Barry Vercoe's computer music group at the MIT Media Lab.  He earned a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009.  His principal composition teachers include Peter Child, John Harbison, and James Primosch, and his music has been performed around the country, including at the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals.  More information on his music and research is available on his website:


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