Engineering a Robotic Piano That Speaks English

Engineer Mark Rober recently introduced “Chopsticks,” a robotic piano that speaks English. While it seems unusual to want a talking piano, musicians have been on this quest for a long time.

Engineering a Piano that Speaks English

Getting an instrument to replicate the sound of a human voice has been the unattainable goal of musicians for centuries.

Instruments like the French horn, violin, and oboe were popularized because their range is so close to certain human vocal types. To achieve a more “vocal” modulation effect, trumpet and trombone players have been known to muffle their instruments with a plunger. This produces a “wah” sound (think Charlie Brown’s teacher).

Even as music became louder with electric guitars, musicians still wanted to produce speech. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix used a Vox “Wah-Wah” pedal to get an electrified version of the plunger sound on guitar. This transformed the instrument and sounded amazing, but it still wasn’t talking.

The persistent challenge of a talking instrument remained: How do you make the sounds of consonants? The vowel sounds are easy: “aaaahhhh,” “eeeeee,” “oohhhh,” and so on, but how do you get an instrument to make the sound of “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do,” or even “tee, see, dee”?

In the late 1960s, Kustom Electronics introduced the first-ever “talk box” — an electronic effect used by Stevie Wonder, Peter Frampton, and many others to make electronic keyboards or electric guitars sound MUCH more like a human voice. This was clearly cheating, though. With a talk box, the instrument signal is routed through a tube and into the player’s mouth, where it can be modulated and then heard by a vocal microphone. The person’s vocal cords are not making the sounds, but their mouth shapes the notes into vocal forms. Back to the drawing board.

Engineering the Talking Piano by Edelweiss

In the video, engineer Mark Rober takes a deep dive into the engineering of a piano, beginning with the keys and the action to strike a string. A piano’s engineering seems overly complicated, but in reality, the movements of its inner workings have been refined for CENTURIES.

The keys are designed to strike the string and let it ring. This is why a simple lever cannot do the job: If the piano key’s action was a first class lever, then holding the string would create a single, dull note and not the ringing tone pianists are accustomed to. By adding a “jack,” a single keystroke will engage and release the hammer, delivering a ringing note. With the final addition of a second lever and a damper, releasing the key stops the note from ringing!

And so we get to this fantastic creation by Edelweiss, nicknamed “Chopsticks.” It’s really a super-powered player piano, but it can play some AMAZING songs. Admittedly, it played the intro to “Still D.R.E.” perfectly, so bonus points were earned!

However, while Chopsticks creates some very interesting “vocalizations” with the notes, listeners have a hard time understanding it without simultaneously physically looking at the words it’s saying. Technically, “talking” has not been achieved.

Watch the full video, where Rober breaks down all of the awesome engineering in the Edelweiss Chopsticks: The Talking Piano (that doesn’t talk):

Yeah but Chopsticks is just a player piano, dude!

Yes, but…did you see it’s made of clear acrylic?! That’s pretty awesome, right?

Yes, Chopsticks is a fancy player piano, but it’s been completely re-engineered. A traditional player piano uses a paper scroll with holes in it, and air blows through the holes and plays the note. This means it plays every note at full force, making it a little tough to get very “musical” with the timing.

Chopsticks is fully electronic, using solenoids to strike the key like a human finger. Unlike a human, Chopsticks is not held back by speed, endurance, or 10 fingers. Chopsticks has 127 levels of force, so it can play notes fast or slow, and quiet or shockingly loud. It can even strike all 88 keys at once!

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Adam Beck

Director of Marketing at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A Marketing graduate from the Miami University, Farmer School of Business in Oxford Ohio, Adam has years of experience in marketing and design for a variety of industries.