The Roland V-Piano Grand - will it put Steinway out of business?
In contrast to my London Olympics tickets that cost me upwards of Â£150 each and were the cheapest I could get my hands on, my ticket to Roland's V-Piano Grand UK premiere in the Britten Theatre of the Royal College of Music was free. Now that's an offer I couldn't possibly refuse!
I imagine Roland must have my address from the registration card I sent in when I bought my own V-Piano, in its original stage version.
But why would I buy a digital piano? I hate digital pianos. All of them, without exception. I can play a conventional piano for personal pleasure for hours. I even enjoy practising scales (some people enjoy working out at the gym, so why not?)
But a digital piano - well there just isn't any enjoyment to be had. OK, some of them do make a noise of reasonable quality. But they don't feel good to play.
But the one thing that digital pianos do have going for them is practicality. They are more compact, don't need tuning, and you can use them with a MIDI sequencer.
Digital pianos are also easier to record. Of course it is perfectly possible to get a great recording of a good-quality acoustic piano, well maintained and tuned, in a good studio or concert hall. But try doing the same thing with your upright at home. Suddenly recording just became a lot harder.
So although I love playing my Yamaha acoustic pianos (plural, but not at the same time), I wanted a digital piano for recording. I tried them all and bought the best - the Roland V-Piano.
Stage piano to grand piano
Roland describe the V-Piano as a 'stage piano'. It's the kind of thing you would play with a band, like you would once have played a Fender Rhodes.
Turning it into a grand piano however raises a big question...
The standard V-Piano has all of the advantages of digital pianos I listed earlier, which to summarize boil down to practicality. But a digital grand piano lacks the advantage of compactness and portability. And although a digital grand piano may be easy to record through its line out sockets, a conventional grand piano is easy to record too, in a decent acoustic space.
So, before the event, I wondered to myself what the point of the V-Piano Grand could be. The only answer I could come up with was that I expected it to be superior to a conventional grand in some way.
If you're not familiar with the V-Piano, now is the time to learn that it works by modeling, not samples. And it can model grand pianos, upright pianos, antique pianos. And pianos that don't exist - like pianos with three strings for every note, pianos with silver strings, pianos with a glass soundboard.
So there is some potential here for the V-Piano to be better than a conventional grand. But is that potential fulfilled?
The V-Piano Grand in concert
On seeing the V-Piano Grand in real life for the first time, I found it smaller than I expected. On a concert stage, you expect a piano to be of a certain size. Compared with a Steinway Model D, this was pint-size. OK, quart-size.
Pianist Daniel Tong took the stage and grasped the keys in a masterly fashion. And the sound that came out...
Well it sounded like a piano. But I have to say that although the digital modeling of the V-Piano is wonderful, it sounded like a piano played through loudspeakers. I don't want to over-emphasize this point because it was only a little 'speakery', and for many purposes this would pass unnoticed. I am sure that in a blind test, many listeners would not be able to tell. But in terms of sound quality, there is no way that the V-Piano Grand is better than a conventional piano. Steinway's business model is safe, for the moment. However...
Have a go
At the end of the concert I hung around a little until most of the audience had departed. I and a few others then found an opportunity to hop up on stage and have a go on the V-Piano Grand for ourselves.
First up was a pianist of excellent ability, which gave me the opportunity to walk around the piano, as I would if I were selecting a mic position for a conventional piano. I expected the sound to be localized from the loudspeakers (you can see the grilles), but no, the sound was very full and appeared to come from the whole of the instrument.
I sidled up to the piano stool and took the next spot. I was surprised - the V-Piano Grand is very pleasant to play. This for me is the sticking point for all other digital pianos. They are not nice to play. But the V-Piano Grand plays very much like a conventional piano; the sound is alive and responsive. In terms of playing for pleasure, the V-Piano Grand could make an alternative to a conventional piano. It can't match a large, high-quality, big-name grand perhaps, but it's a contender against less highly-specified models.
Hotel lounge piano?
Having had my go on the ivories, I asked an onlooker what his interest in the V-Piano Grand was. It turned out he was a hotelier and he was interested in having one for his lounge. I'm not so sure that is what Roland had in mind, but a sale is a sale, so if they can convince him on the grounds of practicality, I'm sure he will be pleased.
Finally I had a chat with one of the Roland guys, who made everything clear for me... The purpose of the V-Piano Grand is to be a flagship product. Like car makers who produce a really high-end model in limited quantities. They don't expect to make much of a profit from their ultra-sporty or ultra-luxurious models, but the publicity they can get from them is invaluable, and the new technologies they develop can trickle down to their standard range of products.
Digital pianos are big business for Roland and they have an incredible variety of models - far more than you would expect unless you took a look at the catalog.
So in the future we can expect to see V-Piano technology trickling down to their more affordable models. I'm all for this - the digital modeling in the V-Piano is fantastic. The V-Piano Grand might not knock Steinway off its perch, but it does sound good and brings excellent playability to the digital piano market.
I don't suppose I'm going to buy a V-Piano Grand, but I'm very happy with my V-Piano (non-grand). In fact I think I'll go and practise some scales on it right now...