A dynamically tuned keyboard instrument: the Seaboard Grand

The Seaboard Grand “piano”

This thing looks fantastic — all the appeal of ten notes at once (or more!) with the advantages of flexible temperament. I’m making several assumptions about it, though:

1) The pitch of each pseudo-key should become gradually sharper as one slides one’s finger UP toward where the fallboard would be, and gradually flatter as one slides one’s finger DOWN toward the key edge.

2) This would result in, for example, an F gradually sliding up a full half-step and becoming equivalent to an F# along the high margin of the F key, and sliding down a full half-step and becoming equivalent to an E along its low margin. So each pseudo-key would ideally have a full half-step range up AND down (in other words, a whole step range centered around its assigned pitch in equal temperament).

3) The touchboard should ideally be colored similarly to a piano or organ keyboard to keep it from being visually disorienting to the pianists and organists who would be its early adopters. Or at least a piano-colored touchboard should be an option.

4) Each key should further be marked with what amounts to inlay dots marking its highest and lowest pitch range, the points at which the F pseudo-key for example results in an F# or an E. Whether the pitch level between those dots is linear or logarithmic is something that probably needs to be determined by beta testing or can be left as a user-selectable option in the software.

5) For gawdzsakes, it sounds like boopity-boop crapo-synth elevator music. Give it a proper piano sound! Again, at least as an option! And classical organ stops would *ahem* not go unappreciated. 🙂

6) In an ideal world, this thing would have a normal-looking and normal-feeling piano interface and not this rubberized mooshy-looking thing, but that’s probably a matter for future versions. (Also, building a correctly regulated piano keyboard is something that’s probably beyond the current means of this particular company, and more suited to a company that already builds digital piano actions.) In a world where technology has made so many other things possible, I see no reason why a normal-feeling piano interface can’t already simply sense where along the key the musician has placed their finger and adjust the pitch accordingly.

In general though, this thing looks wonderful. It remains to be seen whether or not a good musician has enough processing power in their brains to manage dynamic tuning while playing gobs of notes at once, but it’s worth a try, and I suspect it is possible. The Well Tempered Clavier on something like that would be heaven.

At any rate, bravo on a beautiful first step, ROLI. I’ve got my eye on this for sure.

ETA: You know though, with rapid prototyping, it might be possible to create a mechanical key that would “feel” right and still present dynamic pitch capability. We already have properly non-“mooshy” interfaces for touch-sensitive devices like iPods and iPads; they can be made less glassy and more similar in feel to the Ivorite currently used on pianos with the addition of those screen overlays that people use on their iPads to prevent fingerprints.

So, we can make the surfaces of piano keys touch-sensitive and with a non-glassy “feel.” Think of each key as an individual iPod display. The difficulty lies in giving these keys a similar moment arm to normal piano key levers, in other words, a similar distribution of mass along their length so that they would respond similarly when struck. Calculating this should be doable; I have no doubt that there are measuring devices available to engineers that can measure this. Build a key lever with dynamic pitch response, measure its moment arm, then remove the bits that make it respond dynamically, leaving only the key body. Measure its moment arm and thus that of the pitch-sensitive components.

Then, grab a key from a proper grand action, measure it, and calculate what the moment arm of the dynamic key body would have to be to mimic that of the key taken from the grand action.

Render the result in Blender, and send it to a rapid-prototyping service like Shapeways.

One would have to do this calculation 88 times, but really that’s trivial. And it would make the mass production of pitch-sensitive piano keys possible even for a startup company like ROLI, provided they were willing to farm out their fabbing. And let’s face it, 3d printers are becoming consumer devices nowdays. They could easily buy a couple …

Anyhow. I need lunch.

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