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The Alexander: Why did you build such a long piano? (alexanderpiano.nz)
884 points by kurthr on July 16, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 186 comments

Okay, this is just straight up awesome. I've played piano for 37 years. I've built things all my life. But I never even considered the possibility of building a piano from the ground up. Let alone the difficulty of engineering an instrument that defied all the normal parameters. This is real world hacking at its finest. Not to mention it sounds great.

In his later years (and as dementia was beginning to set in) my dad spontaneously decided to start building acoustic guitars in all sorts of shapes and sizes, trying out various weird ideas he had. He hugely enjoyed it and it's left behind some interesting heirlooms and a legacy that he otherwise never expected to leave. A piano is at a different scale (pun intended) but if you have a modicum of practicality, you can build something like that with enough time.

My dad is starting to get dementia, but all he does is watch TV. I wish he would build guitars.

I had a similar experience with my grandmother. Her motivation and curiosity left her. I tried to interest her in new things a number of times, thinking she'd be so much happier. The data, though, led me to decide she was in fact happier when I just accepted who she had become.

This is my greatest fear, more than death: to stop learning, to stop creating, to stagnate. I wonder if nutrition or exercise has an impact on this. I would eat broccoli every day if I thought it would improve my chances.

Check out the whole-food, plant based diet: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/alzheimers-and-atherosclero...


Credentials of research scientist behind the whole-food, plant based diet: https://wfpb-wolf.netlify.app/maturity.html

OTOH,the brain needs animal fat for DHA:


I'm vegan and supplement DHA via this product: https://ca.freshfield.life/products/vegan-omega-3

Grab a joint/vaporize some loose leaf herb; I don't know why people don't give cannabis to their disoriented, chronically disengaged elders more.

Because they are already disoriented and disengaged so they don't need more.

On the contrary, in many cases with medical problems.

Hmm, maybe try figuring out what things he likes and/or can engage in without effort - whatever he can do well without thinking.

And maybe track this over time. Borrowing the analogy of HDD/SSD corruption, which can impact critical filesystem metadata just as easily as file contents, it's impossible to predict how that fundamental capacity to engage will shift and change in confounding and lateral ways.

and access to either some very enthusiastic amateur smelters, one enthusiastic professional smelter, or some really good welders, because wood you can easily find, but a pre-cast plate for an unusual size piano... very not so much.

I'd think that welding would be the sensible route if you're just doing one, as long as it's made sturdy enough. Casting the whole frame in one piece makes more sense if you're mass-producing pianos. Also, it's traditional. I don't know what welding equipment was like a hundred plus years ago during the piano-manufacturing boom, but casting piano frames was a well-honed art.

I wonder how much of the necessary structure could be obtained by drilling and bolting.

Better be really well-engineered as the the string tensions on a conventional grand piano ranges into the low 10s of tons. Yamaha pianos, for example, are around 20 tons.

any photos?

I only took some yesterday but here's a look: https://imgur.com/a/u2r41Eq

This would make for a fascinating post of its own

very interested in seeing what those look like

I only took some yesterday but here's a look: https://imgur.com/a/u2r41Eq

Yes and incredibly well balanced, listen to the Funérailles von Liszt recording if you want to get the bass sounds. You get both really nice bass with clear high tones. Chapeau.

Direct link: https://youtu.be/sOILiAIwwFM

It is a great showcase of the instrument

Came here to mention this. I'm not exactly a connoisseur when it comes to classical music, but if there's one thing I like it is Liszt, and I haven't heard it like this before. I mean this bass reminds me of 'proper' bass in electronic music (synth or guitar), unheard for a piano in my limited experience.

> Not to mention it sounds great.

I grabbed my best pair of headphones and monitors ... but I imagine that any recording just does not do this monster of a piano justice.

Yes, I'm sure the deep bass it can produce can only be heard and felt in person. Also in some videos, especially the 480p ones, the low bitrate artifacts are clearly audible.

TIL that youtube has trash audio quality for no good reason even when it's a trivial component of total bitrate.


I wish there were FLAC (or other lossless) recordings, seems that the site only links to YT videos.

Yes, which makes me wonder why hasn't this been done before? How were the standard length in today's piano determined in the first place? The piano making history and a whole loads of questions unanswered and need time to dig deeper.

Designs for instruments are always a practical balance.

See also: lutes. A theorbo might allow for greater expression, but it's not very practical. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVabz8LneI4

Thanks for the link. I'm not into lutes, but i found this among the suggested videos, and now am in love.


That was fantastic. Both informative and enjoyable, and the comments were an unexpected trove of giggles.

"Shouldn't it have a blinking red light on the end? You know, for airplanes."

Perhaps the dimensions of someone's barn were a factor.

You can get grand pianos in many different lengths, look at for example Yamaha's products

For example here https://www.robertspianos.com/top-makes-of-piano/yamaha-pian...


Nothing listed there is half as long as this piano.

I think the point being made was that there is no "standard" piano length, and that it's controlled by the engineer. Which suggests that the answer to the question of "why has nobody made such a long piano before?" is "nobody wanted to" - and I can see why, because this particular piano is incredibly inconvenient to move, and pianos are expected to do that.

Organs are much larger and don't move but lots of organs are built.

true, and lots of trombones are built, as well. organs and trombones have absolutely zero effect on the things a piano must do. they're different instruments entirely, so the fact that large organs exist doesn't change how pianos are used in any way.

Because you get drastically diminishing returns as you increase past a certain size, as a huge piano is a hassle in its own right. The linked super long piano won't work even in concert halls -- it's too long to move around backstage!

I don't know that there's so much a "standard" as just tradition - smaller grands are largely, as I understand it, about space constraints, but while I knew a place growing up with an almost-ten-foot Bosendorfer, it doesn't look like much ever broke the 10' mark. Most variation seems to happen in the 5-to-10-foot range.

Lots of products are limited by the cost shipping, size of roads and train car boxes, etc.

Would that dimension be called _pianomax_?


1. 8 x 40 feet (standard "long" shipping container), or

2. 15 feet, 9 inches x 72 feet (largest modular home size allowed on some US state highways)

I think 8 x 40 would be pianomax, 15 x 72 would be super pianomax. Alexander Piano is ~18 feet so it should fit inside of a standard 8 x 20 ft container with sufficient bracing. You're probably looking at 60-80 tons (guess) of wire tension for a 40' piano, maybe more.

there certainly are pianos that are incredibly long for this reason.

Those bass notes really do sound glorious.

Fun story: four years ago, I hired Adrian to move a second-hand piano into our house. We lived on a very steep area with a narrow elbow driveway. Adrian has this incredible spatial memory and fine motor control that I still find it hard to believe how he did it.

He loaded the piano in his trailer and basically backed his BMW all the way up with half meter at most on each side, slowly through that elbow bend and parked the trailer's door right on where we planned to unload the piano. Maybe 2cm away from where he intended to land it.

If you tell me that you live on Baldwin st, it's gonna blow my mind.

> I think because I was so young I absolutely knew it was totally possible to do, I was fully determined and without consulting any professionals I had no barrier stopping me.

IMO, this is the mindset of greatness to come. So many who have failed before us are quick to proclaim the impossible. Time and time again humans have displayed that the impossible may in fact be nothing more than a lack of imagination.

I miss having this attitude - as a teenager, I created a two minute long animation with ~200 bytes of code and ~1700 bytes of data (demoscene-style). Now as a professional software engineer if you asked me to do that, I’d say “it’s impossible - the unit tests alone would break the 2KB limit!” :(

Unit Tests don’t count against the byte limit. ;-)

I would also assume it’s compiled code too, not source code?

Depends on the language though as there are JavaScript compos nowadays.

"Time and time again humans have displayed that the impossible may in fact be nothing more than a lack of imagination. "

Sure, but there is still no working Perpetuum Mobile, despite many freaks are working on it.

And I mean, who knows, maybe one of them accidently invents cold fusion in that approach, but most of the time, youthful optimism can be very blinding for reality. (And I mean not the reality of old cynics, who failed to achieve their dreams and conclude that since they could not make it work, why should the young and dumb ones succed, who lack experience and skills) But actual reality, with physical boundaries of time and matter.

But nothing was impossible with this project, it was just lots of work, so congratulations.

Yeah it's a really interesting human trait. There's clearly hazard in falling prey to the sunk costs fallacy and spinning your wheels forever, but naive determination is an integral part of the human success story.

Oh man, it's a normal width keyboard and it's the strings that are long. This is way cool, but I was imagining it to be the other way around, like the 500 seat piano in the fantastic and too-overlooked movie The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Pic of the movie piano: http://manapop.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/vlcsnap-2014-0...

I'm 99% sure this is the movie I've been trying to re-find for over a decade. I had this strangest memory of watching a movie while very young that involved hands and a large number but I could never find it. A 1953 musical would definitely fit what my mother would have watched on VHS in the early 90s.


“It was the only feature film written by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who wrote the story, screenplay and lyrics.”


It's a really freaky and surreal film that deserved, at minimum, to have become a cult classic. See it if you get a chance.

I imagined this at first too and was confused because a wider piano makes no sense. The 88s keys already cover almost the entire range of human hearing. Adding just one more octave (a few keys below and above the range) would basically cover it all.

Of course, you could argue that there is merit to having low keys whose fundamental is below human hearing because the overtones would still be audible. But that seems to be of pretty limited use to me.

Bösendorfer makes some large grand pianos with 92 or 97 keys. The 92 key one has 4 extra bass keys. I don't know about the 97 key one. The extra bass keys are under a little wooden cover that you can flip up if you want to play them, but I think the real purpose of the extra strings is to vibrate sympathetically with the regular strings, giving some additional bass oomph. Maybe the long strings on the Alexander piano provide oomph enough while staying more in tune.

At the upper end it's perfectly possible to reach the end of the treble scale, so maybe the 97 key Bösendorfer has extra treble keys in addition to extra bass keys. I haven't seen one though.

Stuart and Sons, a boutique piano manufacturer in Australia, made a piano with 108 keys:


They have an elaborate explanation of why they did it, and they are a commercial outfit, but the basic reason still seems to be "we wanted to see if we could".

> The 88s keys already cover almost the entire range of human hearing. Adding just one more octave (a few keys below and above the range) would basically cover it all.

This was surprising for me, I thought no way is this almost the range of hearing.

But a quick calculation showed it to be right: The range of human hearing is approximately from 20Hz to 20kHz which is ~10 octaves (20*2^10 ~= 20k). 10 octaves would need 120keys, so ~2.5 Octaves more than the 88 keys range.

a piano has wide range but less than 8bits of precision.

Did Dr. T get a good deal on leftover helmets from Nickelodeon's Double Dare?

In case anyone remembers, there was a company called Dr. T's music software, they developed for the Atari and Amiga. I did some work for them in the late 80s

I definitely remember! He later worked for BorisFX doing video plug-ins, which is how I met him. Interesting guy!

That would be Emile Tobinfeld?


What a classic movie - I remember it as being one of those Saturday afternoon movies that came on once.

I transported this piano once when I was a roadie (instrument transporter) for the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra.

We had a _long_ day that day!

For anyone into VST's, Native Instruments has a great sampled instrument of Una Corda. And their instrument "The Giant" is based on the Klavins model 370i. The product page for the 370i is blank, but it seems like the Model 450i is their new version of the same concept.

I hope that one day I'll be able to play one of the real models, but until then The Giant is my favorite virtual piano because of how massive it sounds.

I originally thought The Giant was a modelled instrument (as opposed to sampled) because it looked like something out of a Studio Ghibli film

Also see the Earth harp: https://www.williamearthharp.com/

Here's a ring piano: https://pianoarc.com/about/

not to be negative, but various shaped controllers that are electronic, there's tons of those. That's not interesting in the same sort of way as an acoustically-distinct sound-production device

I think that's a very rock and roll controller. Picture Elton John in the middle of that.

Jean Michelle Jarre had a marimba-like version of this in his early-80s concerts, along with a laser-light keyboard


Ah, the Zorak model

A larger version from the same manufacturer was built and installed in Ventspils, Latvia. Supposedly it's the largest concert piano in the world right now.


With the Giant, why put the keyboard at the top? If you put the keyboard at the bottom, it can be like a normal upright piano that is just incredibly tall, and doesn't require a ladder. Is this about where along the string the hammers are hitting?

> Is this about where along the string the hammers are hitting?

I suspect you are right, I studied a bit of classical guitar and I know for a fact that plucking the strings near the bridge or near the fretboard creates very different sounds. It is probably a similar problem with pianos.

If I understand correctly, I think the usual strategy is for the hammer to strike at the spot along the strings that's the nearest 7th harmonic node from the end. The reason being that by striking there you don't set up as much 7th harmonic vibrations, which don't mesh well with 12-tone equal tempered music.

I'm not into pianos, but this hit me right in the "old internet" nostalgia. Anyone who wasn't there for an internet before Facebook and Amazon, there was a time when the whole internet was like this (and science research and porn and other stuff, but I was a kid and looked at this kinda thing). Just someone who is obviously an amazing person writing about something they know or did on their own website. Pure HTML with some photos dropped in along the way. Would have been 30 seconds MP3 downloads instead of YouTube videos, though. So maybe a site like this is the best of both worlds.

It even uses some obscure CMS I've never heard of, just like old times.

   <meta name="generator" content="CMS Tool www.cms-tool.net" />

A product of website world

i like it too but its gotta come from a place of "i have enough leisure time to indulge in this"... everyone else is just trying to make money and cant fault them for that really

Aside from being a local celebrity, Alex services pianos around Dunedin. Who better to ask to tune my piano than Alex. And he blessed me with a tour of his piano shop and a concert on the long piano. He is the coolest guy ever. I asked him about the possibility of making a piano which two people could play -- in the same key and he entertained the idea. He is so passionate. Such a cool person!

It's amazing what can be accomplished when you don't have anyone telling you it's impossible.

Also how much time can be wasted by not being alerted of the common pitfalls.

Fortunately there's enough people in the world for both things to happen simultaneously in different parts, allowing for a wider and deeper exploration of the problem space.

I've found, repeatedly, tho that this is the best way to really understand the common pitfalls without just receiving them as 'holy writ'.

Sure. For example, everyone knows that it is far too expensive to build an electric car because battery prices are far too high. Don't make that mistake! [1]

[1] https://youtu.be/NV3sBlRgzTI?t=55

It seems strange to think that there would be common pitfalls for a project so uncommon as this.

As someone who's tuned my own piano, the inharmonicity in the bass is really noticeably low.

This is why I love Pianoteq. It's a plug-in that virtually models a piano, so if you want 10 meter long strings, you can have that. Or you can go crazy with other parameters and get very strange pianos.

As someone who enjoys playing piano but doesn't have the space nor acoustic insulation for a real one, it's great being able to not just get the sound of different pianos whenever I want, but also virtually design my own. Modeling technology has really come a long way.

That's not to say that if I ever own a large enough house I wouldn't want an acoustic piano :-)

I second Pianoteq as a recommendation. It can run on Linux, so I have it on a Raspberry Pi attached to my digital piano. As a bonus, it also drives some addressable (programmable) LEDs: https://github.com/whyboris/Digital-Piano-LED

To install Pianoteq on a Raspberry Pi, it's a single script that sets everything up: https://github.com/youfou/pianoteq-pi

I searched this thread to see if anyone mentioned Pianoteq. :)

It's also fun to play around with alternative tuning systems, try different hammers, soundboard characteristics, etc etc.

Thank you! Reading the original article, I was wondering if exactly this sort of physical modeling was possible or being done yet.

I'm still not sure what _sort_ of modeling it's doing (surely not full FEA of the entire vibrating system), but I'm sure we'll get there in another few years of GPGPU...

If I had to guess, they probably have a fairly accurate single-string model and then model energy coupling across strings. Another neat thing it does is it lets you position virtual microphones around the piano (and open and close the lid), so they definitely have full-instrument spatial awareness in their modeling.

One curious thing I noticed from the (simpler) string modeling synth in my keyboard is that if you up the dispersion it starts sounding like a bell... and indeed Pianoteq also has a very nice tubular bells patch. Explains what that's doing in a piano synth :)

I think the low strings usually get tuned about half a semitone or more lower just to sound in tune with the rest of the instrument.

It'd be interesting to know what the railsback curve looks like for this long piano; I'd expect it to be a lot flatter.

I imagine you could also flatten out the curve on the treble end by using thinner gauge wire, but I suppose there's probably a trade-off in terms of volume or durability, otherwise all pianos would use thin wire for the treble strings. (I think most pianos use wire that's a little thinner in the treble, but not by much. I might be wrong about that, though.)


For those of us that know nothing about music, is this good or bad?

It's good.

Due to the stiffness of real strings, the overtones do not occur at even multiples of the fundamental frequency.

This means that when tuning a piano, you need to compromise between tuning so that the fundamentals are in tune with distant notes but having the overtones sound discordant with nearby notes, or having sweet overtone matching with nearby notes, causing notes to be very far off when harmonizing at longer distances across the keyboard.

With my upright, I've had more success tuning more based on the fundamental than on the overtones, because it has enough inharmonicity that tuning to the overtones causes right-hand-to-left-hand harmonies to sound noticeably off. But this makes single-hand chords sound messier.

A piano with looooooooooooooooong bass strings can have skinnier strings that are flexible and behave closer to ideal, so you don't have to compromise as much when tuning.

Excellent explanation. We can get a little quantitative if we remember that the fundamental frequency of a vibrating string is sqrt(T/μ)/(2L), where T is the tension, μ is the linear density, and L is the length. So if we make the string twice as long, (T/μ) has to be increased by a factor of four; if we keep the tension the same we can use a string with 1/4 the linear density, which I guess would decrease the inharmonicity significantly.

The square root magnifies the effect of increasing the length, so you get a lot from making the piano a bit longer. The project is a wonderful idea.

For anyone curious, the name for this tuning technique is "stretch":



Software synthesized pianos implement this too because it's part of how we expect piano-based instruments to sound.

It's very good.

Normally, the lowest few octaves on a piano all sound a little weird; the individual notes are a little hard to tell apart and multiple low notes played together often blend into a rumbly mess. This is because the strings for those notes are shorter than they should be for their frequencies -- they're artificially made to vibrate at a lower frequency by making the strings heavier.

This effect seems to be significantly reduced on the Alexander piano.

I hear solely through a hearing aid and always thought the low frequencies were just being butchered by my hearing aid. Glad to learn it's not just me!

Thanks for the explanation! Is it noticeable at this time stamp? https://youtu.be/nj4fhdiXy48?t=178

I feel like the lower notes are much more distinct and separate but might just be imagining it.

Those bass notes are noticeably clearer there!

The sound of inharmonicity comes from dispersion -- different frequencies travel through the string at different velocities. The lower the frequency, the less the wave notices the stiffness of the string, so to speak, and the stiffer the string the quicker a wave will travel through it. If you've ever tapped on a wire fence or played with a slinky, you'll be familiar with the "pew" sound. A pure impulse consists of all frequencies at once, but when it's traveled through the fence, bounced off a post, and come back, you hear the high frequencies first, which is why the "pew" descends in frequency.

Anyway, I've found that you can notice this on the attacks of bass notes on pianos. Only the very lowest notes of the Alexander piano seem to really have it audible, and even then it's much more slight.

I thought the cause of inharmonicity was that higher frequencies cause steeper bending of the string at the attachment points, which makes the effective length of the string shorter. Sound on Sound's article on synthesizing guitar sounds (which have the same problem) has a good diagram explaining it (see figure 12):


And this model explains why the inharmonicity is higher on the attacks (higher vibration amplitude increases bending of the string).

Thanks for sharing that article. My understanding is that this bridge effect is actually what is happening across the entire length of the string; it's just that the boundary condition makes the effects of stiffness clearer.

Stiffness causes there to basically be a radius of curvature in the string when you apply a force. The boundary condition of a guitar string is that the displacement and first derivative of displacement of the string are zero at both ends. So, this radius of curvature will be visible there. But, even when plucking a string, rather than having a sharp peak at the plectrum, it will necessarily be similarly smoothed out. (Though, through time in a frequency-dependent way.)

In the wave equation, stiffness involves a factor with a coefficient proportional to Young's modulus. Based on the stress/strain graphs I could find, Young's modulus of a guitar string increases with tension, increasing inharmonicity. Of course, the pitch of the string also increases with tension, so there's a lot going on.

(I have to admit that the zero-first-derivative boundary condition having no additional effect is coming from my intuitions about linearity of solutions to the wave equation, but maybe it still has some interesting effect. I think the overall effect of stiffness would dominate this one, however.)

Some things I was looking at: https://www.dsprelated.com/freebooks/pasp/Dispersive_1D_Wave... https://www.dsprelated.com/freebooks/pasp/Stiff_String.html

> rumbly mess

The A0 key on a piano is 27 Hz. The frequency is so low it stops sounding like a single tone, and it almost sounds like the string is flopping around.

Inharmonicity means there's almost no fundamental in the notes in that octave.

The low notes on a conventional piano are a rumbly mess, but we're used to them.

Hearing a piano design with much cleaner bass overtones is a real shock.

The harmonic series is a really neat thing to learn about -- one of those "art is math" kind of moments.

This video does a good job of explaining it in a relatively short and simple way, but goes in-depth enough that even people with an understanding of music might learn something:


Inharmonicity is when the overtones (frequency multiples) are not whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency. It sounds bad. Discordant, like playing two notes directly next to each other on the keyboard.

When designing a string or percussion instrument (or any resonator, in general, I suppose) one of the challenges is ensuring that you aren't creating undesired harmonics. With something like a piano with hundreds or thousands of strings that might be induced to resonate undesirably if even slightly out, or whose own movement might alter other parts and affect them, it becomes a significant challenge.

When played a note will emit overtones -- the same note an at higher octaves. So a low C will also have middle C, high C, etc at different volumes depending on the instrument. This is playing low notes without low volume overtones. In short, the low notes are more purely low.

That's not quite right. The overtones are the harmonic series, not just octaves (1:2, 1:4, 1:8, etc..) but an octave and a fifth (1:3), two octaves and a third, (1:5), etc..

In a piano, the bass and treble strings have a lot of inharmonicity. They don't behave like ideal strings for various reasons, so the harmonics aren't exact multiples of the fundamental frequency. Piano tuners deal with this be stretching the octave, so that the piano sounds in tune even though it kind of isn't.

Having a super long bass string instead of a short double-wound bass string probably behaves more like an ideal string (with harmonics that are closer to whole-number multiples of the fundamental), so it should sound like it has a more definite pitch and less like a gong.

Interestingly, we don't really perceive the fundamental frequencies of the low notes in a piano much at all in the first place. If you filter them out, the notes will sound about the same -- we take most of our perceptual cues from the higher harmonics, and our brain just inserts the implied bass fundamental. In the same way, playing a major chord sort of implies a bass note a couple octaves below the root of the chord -- if all the harmonics are there, then we expect it to be there.

“playing a major chord sort of implies a bass note a couple octaves below the root of the chord”

Wow! Of course! Lightbulb moment. This isn’t something that occurred to me independently but makes so much sense I wonder how it hadn’t, and it explains a lot of what chords are really all about.

Yeah, chords are interesting. Major triads are basically a 4:5:6 ratio, which is the 4th, 5th, and 6th harmonic of some low bass note. (Different inversions get you 2:3:5 or 3:4:5 or whatever.) A dominant 7th chord gets you one more step in the harmonic series: 4:5:6:7. That 7th harmonic is way out of tune in 12-tone equal temperament, though.

Minor chords are a 10:12:15 ratio, which kind of looks like a bunch of arbitrary chosen numbers, but we could rewrite that as 60/6 : 60/5 : 60/4 and then it sort of make sense that minor would be a sort of mathematical reciprocal of the major. Minor chords can be interpreted either as the 10th, 12th, and 15th harmonics of some bass note or as the first three prime subharmonics that are integer divisions of the fundamental note. Subharmonics don't really occur in nature, though.

>That 7th harmonic is way out of tune in 12-tone equal temperament

You can sing in any tuning though. If you want to hear just-intonation 4:5:6:7 chords, listen to barbershop music, where this chord is a defining part of the style. See:


Yep. It's also possible to re-tune a piano to a 7-limit just intonation scale that makes use of that 7th harmonic.


Thank you.

Chrono Trigger is a SNES game with short samples. Normally that would result in significant quality degradation, but one interesting side effect is that its short looped low piano sample (found in songs like Lavos's Theme[1]) has no inharmonicity. When the attack ends and the sample loops, it almost sounds like the harmonics go a bit flat.

[1]: https://fi.zophar.net/soundfiles/nintendo-snes-spc/chrono-tr...

Yet the timbre on this is quite different from that of an ordinary piano. Which make the experiment worth doing on its own (and successful)!

I once pitched up a sample of a very low note plated on piano, it sounds so weird! The inharmonicity manifests as all kinds of weird whistling sounds.

Funnily enough, I feel like Gareth Davies, the presumably semi-amateur player in the video set, is the only one who really gets the piano, and focuses on those unusually melodic bass notes.

Agreed. Hyperion Knight playing Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (Bach)[0] is also a really good demonstration of the incredible clarity of the bass keys. It's really astonishing to hear. In fact I feel some of the concert pianists playing it are a little sloppy on the low notes—probably because they're not used to being judged on them! My old Wurlitzer upright could never compare :)

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPb2hMJ9Ojk around 3:00

Listening on headphones is weird: usually, for an instrument, the sound comes from one direction. Here some notes were more in the centre, while others (lower ones) were coming from the left channel.

In one of the youtube videos, the uploader (piano maker?) comments that the real stereo effect of the piano is hard to capture in recordings.

Hyperion Knight - What a name, he sounds like a science fiction character!

Yes, and no. The less unharmonic bass strings make a noticeable difference for the middle and high register too, when the dampers are lifted by the sustain pedal and the bass strings resonate with the higher ones. This "roominess" is also noticeable on the old long-neck lutes like the chitarrone, which had long bass strings for the same reason as this piano: avoiding wound strings (in their case, because those hadn't been invented yet)

Lol, completely agree. Scarlatti?! How silly! I have a very nice tube amp sitting on my desk (#pandemic-hifi) so I thought I'd take your rec and listen to Mr. Davies instead. The long bass strings produce a better sustained note which creates very nice harmonics!

Has #pandemicHIFI been a thing? I know I've made a few purchases this year that I probably wouldn't have on my old routine.

His performance of Maple Leaf Rag rocks! Pretty good player.

"I didn't know how hard it would be" - man I wish I had that. I feel like I know exactly how hard everything will be.

It sounds like you're either very experienced, or have never tried anything really ambitious before.

I'm reading a very short & cryptic book "Three Uses of the Knife" by David Mamet, the playwright and director. It's about the basis of great art. You've hit on something here that resonates with all of us.

"The Hero's Journey" involves the hero in Act I embarking on a quest. In Act II unforeseen difficulties beset him, maybe he doubts himself, the quest changes, and HE changes. In Act III, he completes the maybe-different task, as a changed person.

So this guy enacted some of that journey, and I admire him so much for it.

Hard things can only be hard. The rest is a function of time :)

I can't find it now, but you've reminded me of the description for an experimental optimiser flag on a perl compiler from what must have been 15 years or more ago. It promised it would always deliver a working binary that was functionally identical to the original script, but that it may not do so in finite amounts of time.

Are you good at estimating how long things would take?

I'm good at estimating what parts of a task will take a long time.

For any task? That's simply not possible.

I estimate that the time estimate for any part of any task can be calculated in approximately the time it would take to complete that task.

> I'm good at estimating what parts of a task will take a long time.

I think it's trivial. I didn't say I can estimate how long the hard parts will take, just what the hard parts will be. If I don't understand something, I estimate that it will take a long time.

There is a long guitar/lute-like instrument called 'Theorbo' from the renaissance that is a good comparison. It was originally built before they had wound strings (that could produce lower notes).

A very good introduction video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48RVcbkhNHQ

Nobody mentioning, the guy was 16 when he started the build? Just W.O.W.!

Surprised nobody's built such a thing before for eg. churches where a piano or organ will be permanent. Such a beautiful instrument and obvious in hindsight.

There are many custom-built organs that defy logic.

Here in St. Louis, the organ at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis was built over decades, and one of the ranks (sets of pipes) has pipes that are so long, they were formed in a semi-circle so they would fit within the building.

One of those pipes (a low note) was stuck on one time, and it caused a bit of a vibration in the whole place, and the organist had to turn off the pipe organ until someone could come fix the broken valve!

But it's amazing seeing how there were pipes jammed literally in every nook and cranny and closet in that place—and from what I hear that's not even that massive an installation!

Thanks for that and keep it going. “I think because I was so young I absolutely knew it was totally possible to do, I was fully determined and without consulting any professionals I had no barrier stopping me.”

I wonder also if he had the constraints of traditional obligatory schooling, or if he had the freedom of home education to pursue his incredible interest and self-education in piano crafting and entrepreneurial activity?

It's delightful to see that musicians have their own geeks just like computer science has. Their advantage is the execution of their code is universally understood by all of humanity.

Another one that fits that description would be Martin Molin of Wintergatan, who's currently on a multi-year quest to build a concert-suitable programmable marble music instrument. He's been detailing the build and concept process on YouTube.

I thought this was going to be an instrument made entirely out of marble, and wondered what it could be. I thought maybe a cymbal but settled on it being most likely a flute or recorder of some sort. Which certainly seems like it could be made from marble, but I don't know enough about sculpture to know how plausible that is.

Turns out it's played with marbles instead, which is just as cool.

Inspired, I presume, by those awesome ray-traced animations from the early oughts? I had started sketching ideas on how to make that a reality (pneumatics and magnets mainly) but never got beyond concept.

Specifically this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyCIpKAIFyo

Beautiful work, I am a little disappointed not to find a video or recording demonstrating the tonality in a dedicated listening setting: I'm curious to hear how it really sounds but perhaps it can only be done in person.

The best of the youtube collection he shares seems to be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k54XzhuACrg for judging the quality of the piano - I hear what seems to be a longer than usual reverb on the lower strings but possibly I'm just imagining it: could be the space itself or I'm just paying particular attention to it as a pianist, to compare to my own. Oh, and this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPb2hMJ9Ojk&t=186s

Well that's an amazing instrument, i presume it's straight strung? I didn't see any clear images of the inside of the piano, how the harp was constructed etc.

For the rest of us who want to play around with piano lengths, there is an awesome physically modelled piano software plugin called Pianoteq by modartt (https://www.modartt.com/). This is a virtual instrument, but rather than taking the conventional approach of sampling a real instrument, instead this is a model of strings, hammers, sound board etc. This means that the model can be modified to produce a synthetic instrument with different properties. There is a 'length' parameter which allows you to modify the model to be up to 10m long if I remember. There are lots of cool and subtle effects to be had from altering how the hammers behave (how hard they are, the overtones they produce, where on the string they strike etc) to how the piano is tuned (how the unison strings are detuned, how stretched the octaves are etc).

This is my favourite kind of content on the web, it always makes my day when something like this pops up on HN.

It honestly sounds fantastic. It's like the most piano sound of any piano I've heard.

This is fantastic! Most of the videos, unfortunately, are of pieces that avoid the lowest register of the piano.

The video of the Liszt Funerailles performance towards the bottom was the only one I found that demonstrates what makes this instrument unique.

Spruiking another channel on YouTube (but more on the memeish side of things), Matthias modifies old pianos in amusing ways.


Most recently, he replaced the hammers on the piano with real hammers, with interesting results.

In the past he also replaced the piano strings with bass guitar strings.

What's the piece in the first video (I think it starts properly at about 1:00) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dmH5maOUeHc&t=1m0s

A youtube comment asks if it is "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" by Rachmaninoff, but no answer.

Yes, but it's only the 18th variation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koqOEd10GdI&t=899s

It's a piece for piano and orchestra, but you can find transcriptions for solo piano (e.g., in IMSLP https://imslp.hk/files/imglnks/euimg/2/20/IMSLP329319-PMLP05... )

Thanks so much!

Wow, I really wish he included details of how he shaped the metal parts and how he made the curved wood portions. Seems like highly specialized techniques or skills would be needed for much of this, often requiring equipment that can only be found in well-stocked university/craftsman workshops. Did he hand-make the action, for instance? That seems impossible.

I only see one mention of a year towards the end -- 4 April 2009, the date of the first concert -- and the only other date I see is that construction began the 24th of October (with no year). Am I missing something or should I assume he built an amazing sounding piano, like no other piano in the world, with no prior experience, in <6 months?! Unbelievable.

I thought it (or someone here) said he started when he was 16, and finished at 20, or thereabouts.

He said in a talk that the project took 4.5 years to finish.

This is sort of the motivation behind fanned fret electric bass guitars. The low b string on a fanned fret can gain 2-3" of extra length which makes quite the difference in string tension. It's no where near the fundamental note like the piano but increases the playability

I love the simplicity of “I just wanted to see what a long bass string sounded like”.

I'd need to hear it A-B because I couldn't detect a significant advantage from the videos of playing. Admittedly my ears aren't what they used to be.

I was a guitar and bass player. I would like to say, that's the freaking reason that we need fan fret guitar in 8 string guitar. The deep solid low bass!!

Wow. Build a beautiful, long piano and they will come!

Yea, but does it play the boogie woogie?

Close. It plays the Maple Leaf Rag, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-XTA_ORK38

When they said long...

The piano is very interesting, and Molly McGee singing "Life on Mars" is fantastic.

It would be an interesting computer model to simulate an infinitely long string

God, those bass notes sound divine. So clear, punchy, and in tune.

I was expecting a badass base, but it sounds like a piano

Interesting rattly/tinny timbre on the low end. I had to re-listen on better speakers to get a sense of how different this sounds from a normal grand piano (and even those can sound very different from each other).

The bass definitely has a character on that piano. I liked it.

Deepest Piano?

Does someone knowledgeable want to comment on the actual sound please? Thanks.

Very clean sounding low end, otherwise sounds like a good piano. The problem with piano IMO is the lowest notes are often kinda muddy sounding. This doesn't have that issue.

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