Sing backup with yourself. The piano can multiply your voice as you sing into a microphone, creating virtual backup singers. How does the piano know what notes they should “sing”? It analyzes what keys you’re playing at the moment. Clever.
Record music. You can easily record your own piano performance — and then, on playback, speed it up, slow it down or change the key. A metronome is available, and you can re-record only the parts that you muffed.
I tested the free 3.0 software update, now in beta testing (and due in July), which lets you record live audio along with your piano performance. That is, you can record yourself singing as you play, or record a friend playing flute or violin while you tickle the ivories. You can then transfer the resulting mix to a PC, using a flash drive or network connection, for burning to a CD or sending by e-mail.
You manage all these stunts using a Wi-Fi wireless color touch screen remote that looks like a particularly beefy PalmPilot. The software isn’t always a masterpiece of polished perfection, but navigation isn’t difficult, thanks to the prominent Back button. The halves of the remote slide apart to reveal a thumb keyboard that you can use for naming your recordings and searching the store. (The 3.0 software will also include software that duplicates the remote’s functions on a Mac or PC.)
There is a two-second lag when you press the physical playback buttons on the remote (like Play or Stop), and Internet operations sometimes present the Wait screen for several seconds at a time. It would be nice if the remote’s battery lasted longer than an hour or so once it’s out of the charging dock. And the Wi-Fi should have been built into the remote; right now, it’s an ugly, protruding card in a slot.
For such a niche product, though, the Mark IV over all is surprisingly polished. Its biggest potential drawbacks have nothing to do with the technology, but with the concept itself.
First of all, the various playback features described above require a dizzying array of song file formats, and they go by a dizzying array of names. The karaoke, music CD playalong, piano-teaching and other files have names like PianoSoft Plus, PianoSoft Plus Audio, Smart PianoSoft and so on.
Worse, there are precious few songs available in each format. Yamaha offers only 167 albums of songs that the piano can play by itself, piano-part playalong files for only 575 songs on music CDs, and so on.
You’d have to be concerned that the novelty will wear off, too. Suppose you actually have the $42,000 to spend. After six months, are you still going to be loading up those Chopin files to show your friends when they come for dinner?
If the answer is yes, then you, the affluent owner of this amazing machine, have a lot to look forward to. Grafting the very new (Linux, Wi-Fi, Internet connection) onto the very old (classic grand, hammers hitting strings) might seem like a recipe for a Frankenstein monstrosity — but they mesh surprisingly well. The result is one of the most imaginative, unusual and expensive home-entertainment modules to come along in years.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.