Broadly speaking, “hybrid pianos” are keyboard instruments made from a combination of electronic parts taken from digital pianos and mechanical parts taken from traditional acoustic pianos. The resulting instruments deliver the convenience and excitement of modern technology-based pianos without sacrificing the nuance and control of a traditional “wood and strings” piano. Though the concept of including electronic parts in acoustic pianos is not new (manufacturers have been doing this with “player pianos” for decades), recent technological developments have made “hybrid pianos” more diverse and popular than ever before. Now, instead of the seemingly binary choice between a technology-based instrument and the traditional piano aesthetic, modern buyers can enjoy both – if they’re willing to make room in the budget. …but what’s so special about a “hybrid piano” and how are they different?
Where Did Hybrid Pianos Come From?
The term “hybrid piano” is relatively new, but the practice of combining elements from acoustic and digital pianos is more than 25 years old. In fact, the first hybrid pianos were not new instruments, but modifications of existing acoustic pianos. In 1982, with the advent of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), a computer language for electronic musical instruments, instruments from different makers could “speak” to one another. Soon after, various kinds of mechanical contacts were invented for placement under the keys to sense keystroke information such as note, key velocity, and duration, and convert it into MIDI data. This MIDI information was then routed to synthesizers, which turned the information into whatever instrumental sounds the attached synthesizer was programmed to produce (At the beginning, however, the sound of the acoustic piano could not be turned off, though it could be muffled in some vertical hybrids.). In 1987 – Yamaha introduced their iconic Disklavier reproducing piano (which was designed to be a player piano “from birth”). Today, a “hybrid piano” can be created from an acoustic instrument (like player pianos or Yamaha’s “Silent Pianos” and TransAcoustic models) or it can start out as a modern digital piano with mechanical action parts added to enhance the feel. Either way, today’s “hybrid pianos” are much more practical than their predecessors and – though some manufacturers use the term “hybrid pianos” to describe digital pianos with gimmicky components like plastic “hammers” or wooden “soundboards” – most modern “hybrid pianos” offer a traditional wood piano action for authentic feel and a range of digital features like extra sounds, headphones and recording capabilities.
Why Are Hybrid Pianos Popular?
You may wonder: If you’re going to use a piano to interact with a computer, play piano sounds silently, or make the sounds of other instruments, why bother with an acoustic piano at all? Why not just use a digital piano or keyboard of some kind? For some, the answer is the experience. As great as modern digital pianos are, some players still demand the look, feel and function of a traditional “wood and strings” piano. For those used to the cabinetry, tone, touch, or other, less tangible aspects of acoustic pianos, digital pianos, in their “pure” form, just don’t “scratch the itch.” …but an instrument that performs like a traditional “wood and strings” piano that call still offer some of the core benefits digital pianos offer (like headphones, extra sounds and recording) are very desirable. In fact, most of your favorite professional musicians (like Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, John Legend and so many more) use “hybrid pianos” on stage almost every day! Thanks to the ease in which hybrid pianos can be amplified – and the fact that their digital sound doesn’t fall out of tune under the hot stage lights like acoustic pianos do – makes a hybrid piano very practical for modern professional pianists. …and they sound fantastic! Think about the last live music show you attended. You were probably listening to a hybrid piano and didn’t even know it!
Here are just a few additional reasons why hybrid pianos are so popular:
- Small Footprint – Some hybrid pianos (like Yamaha’s N1X or N2) offer a grand piano sound and touch to folks who don’t have room for a grand piano. Since they are about the same size as a small upright piano, they can fit anywhere!
- Lightweight – Since they weigh less than acoustic pianos, they are easier to move – especially around the home!
- Temperature and Humidity Resistant – Not having strings and a soundboard means that hybrid pianos won’t fall out of tune because of the environment. (The action could be affected causing sticky keys.)
- Private Practice – Thanks to electronic volume controls and headphones, you can practice any time you want – day or night!
- Connectivity – Record your music directly to a computer or mobile device via USB or operate your piano wirelessly with Bluetooth.
- Other Tones – Lead worship or compose music at home using the onboard sounds.
- Play Along with the Band – With today’s apps and music software, you can have a blast playing your favorite music with a full band. Talk about built-in motivation!
What are the Drawbacks to Owning a Hybrid Piano?
The first disadvantage of most hybrid pianos is its price. Because they include both electronic and mechanical parts, they can cost as much as a regular piano or more. Some hybrid pianos (like Yamaha’s NU1X) sells for about the same price as their high-end CLP-785 Clavinova digital piano. …but other pianos (like Yamaha’s Disklavier player pianos) can cost significantly more than a traditional “wood and strings” piano. Of course, they do so much more too… but that value judgement is always part of the decision. Another “drawback” to hybrid pianos is the fact that they still include components from acoustic pianos and, thus, require maintenance. Silent Pianos, player pianos and TransAcoustic pianos still need to be tuned, for example. …but AvantGrand pianos only require very infrequent action regulation (to prevent “sticky keys” or other common issues with wood pianos). There is just no way to separate wooden pianos and required maintenance. They go hand-in-hand. Finally, hybrid pianos are pianos first and foremost. They have some of the capabilities that make digital pianos popular, but not all. If you’re looking for a ton of instrument sounds, drum rhythms and extra features, you won’t find what you’re looking for in a hybrid piano. …but that’s not what they are for anyway. Hybrid pianos fill the gap between traditional “wood and strings” pianos and modern digital instruments.
The Bottom Line
As the market for hybrid pianos grows, buyers will increasingly have to choose between acoustic pianos with digital enhancements and digital pianos that work to create the acoustic experience. Decisions will be made by weighing the relative quality, and importance to the buyer, of action, tone, looks, price, and features. More advanced classical pianists whose digital needs are modest, and buyers who, among other things, are looking to fill up a living room with a large, impressive piece of furniture, will probably tend to stick with the acoustic-based hybrid for now. Those whose musical needs are more general, or who have a strong interest in digital features, may find digital-based hybrids more cost-effective.
These specially-designed pianos allow for a more responsive playing experience than that of a typical digital piano, yet replicate the touch and feel of an acoustic piano with far less maintenance costs. This creates a fuller, more realistic playing experience in a sleek, compact cabinet. Furthermore, some hybrid pianos now recreate the vibrations and feedback felt when playing a traditional acoustic piano, unifying the emotional energy between the pianist and the piano by producing natural resonance that, dare we say, envelops the pianist. This is the epitome of the traditional acoustic piano experience.
Especially as technology advances (increasing authenticity and reducing costs), I bet even the most ardent acoustic piano aficionado will find themselves impressed by hybrid pianos.