Play us a song: the hyperpiano man

Play us a song: the hyperpiano man

September 8, 2016

Christopher Taylor has the hands of a musician, his fingers most at home striking the keys of a piano, and an analytical mind honed by years of computer programming. Now after tackling his latest endeavor, Taylor can also call himself an engineer, a builder, a maker.

Taylor, a professor in the School of Music at UW-Madison, recently finished building a Hyperpiano– an instrument of his own design– in the Fab Lab of the Medical Engineering theme at the Morgridge Institute for Research. The master instrument has two keyboards that outsource sound by wirelessly sending signals to two secondary pianos.

“I’d never done any woodworking before, and certainly nothing in the machine shop,” Taylor says. “Going into this project, I barely knew the different sizes of screws. But designing and creating has been very satisfying, and I’ve enjoyed learning all these new skills.”

Kevin Eliceiri, director of the Fab Lab, says it was Taylor’s unique vision and passion for the project that made him and his piano a good fit for the Fab Lab.

“He’s quite the renaissance engineer,” says Eliceiri. “He writes code, he solders, he machines, and he’s one of the world’s great pianists.”

The inspiration for the project came from a Steinway piano built with two keyboards in the 1920s, currently housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s an instrument unique in the world that expands the technical possibilities of a normal piano.

With two keyboards, a pianist can play chords outside the reach of human hands on a traditional piano, and play music where the two hands continually cross each other without getting into collisions.

After learning UW-Madison owned the instrument, Taylor learned to play it and toured the country performing on it.

“I got to know the instrument quite well,” Taylor says. “While I appreciated its many merits, I was also aware it has certain technological limitations.”

The Hyperpiano: Nuts and volts

Taylor decided to take advantage of modern technical approaches to create a new instrument, one inspired by the original piano but by no means fettered by it. He intersected several disciplines, including electrical engineering and optics, to enable communication between a master piano and two secondary pianos.

The master instrument has two keyboards and many of the same mechanisms that a traditional piano has, like keys and hammers.

“Those mechanics are there to make the piano feel normal when you’re playing on it,” says Taylor. “But the hammers don’t strike strings and they don’t make any music.”

Instead, electronic sensors optically monitor the motions of the keys and relay the information to two ordinary pianos situated somewhere across the room or stage. If you play a note on the lower keyboard, you’ll get a response from one instrument, and if you play the upper keyboard you get a response from the other.

The two responding pianos are each outfitted with 88 artificial fingers in charge of pressing the 88 keys on the piano. The sets of artificial fingers can be hooked up to the front of any ordinary pianos.

Multiple instruments playing together from different locations in a space creates a stereophonic sound effect, with music hitting the ears from various directions.

“It’s not just a duplication of sound from a musical, technical or aesthetic point of view,” says Eliceiri. “I think the real beauty of it is you get to have two Chris Taylors playing at once.”

The Fab Lab: A resource helping to bring ideas to life

Building a piano is no small task in the first place, and this novel design required a lot of mechanical and electrical work over the almost five years of the project. The Fab Lab team offered resources and technical assistance to help Taylor accomplish his goal.

George Petry, a Master Builder in the Fab Lab, trained Taylor on the machines and acted as a sounding board for the technical aspects, but Taylor, with a few assistants of his own, did the hands-on work himself—he made the parts, assembled the instrument and wrote the software that made the communication aspects possible.

“We’re here to collaborate and help people create something, not just perform a service,” Petry says. “We teach people. Chris is creative, artistic and now has developed a lot of technical skills and isn’t afraid to use them.”

The Fab Lab has grown extensively in the past few years and offers unique resources to those looking to make their ideas a reality. New projects are vetted based on novelty, the technical and resource capabilities of the Fab Lab, and the project’s impact on human health.

“With a few exceptions, we mostly take on biomedical projects that impact human health. But I do think music plays an important role in the human experience,” says Eliceiri. “This piano intersected with our interests in engineering design and was going to result in something that improves the human condition, though in a unique way for the Fab Lab.”

Taylor could always be found working in the Fab Lab that became a second home to him over the years, and now he gets to see “the realization of a long-standing dream.”

Taylor plans to debut the piano in a solo performance October 28th in the Mills Concert Hall at UW-Madison.

Besides some tweaks Taylor wants to make on the piano after the October concert, he doesn’t have plans for future Fab Lab work.

“But who knows?” Taylor asks. “Now that I’ve gotten the inventing itch, maybe I’ll come up with something else.”

Morgridge Institute for Research
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