For The Best Electronic Design Issue, A Musical Diversion

Dec. 8, 2009
Editor-in-Chief, Joe Desposito, writes about his experience visiting with Zenph Studios, which has developed software for re-creating and licensing virtual (and very famous) musicians.

Welcome to the annual Best Electronic Design issue, where each of our editors chooses the best OEM products, technologies, and standards of the past year. We also asked readers to choose the best Leapfrog and Idea for Design. While I’ve made selections in the past, I won’t this year. Instead, I’d like to talk about a technology I’ve been introduced to recently, though it has been around for a number of years.

This introduction started with an e-mail with an intriguing subject line: Can networking technology bring back the dead? Founded by ex-IBM networking executive John Walker, Zenph Studios has created a software application that recreates and licenses virtual (and very famous) musicians. The technology recreates original performances with greater fidelity than any other current means and can even make things “more” real. “It’s something you truly have to see to believe,” the e-mail said.

I thought this might make a great segment for EngineeringTV, so I accepted the invitation for a demonstration and went over to the Faust Harrison Piano Showroom in New York City. While there, I realized we would not be able to get the kind of engineering detail we needed to produce a video, but we did find out a lot more about Zenph and this remarkable software.

The software works in conjunction with a high-end digital piano to recreate a recorded performance. For example, Zenph has made it possible to listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff on a digital piano, based on recordings he made during his life. Since Rachmaninoff played his works on a Steinway grand piano, Zenph purchased a 1909 model, refurbished it, and turned it into a digital piano, complete with moving keys to show the notes as they are being played.

In the Faust Harrison showroom, we sat in front of the Steinway grand as it played Rachmaninoff and several other piano greats, like Art Tatum and Glenn Gould. So what’s the big deal? Plenty of digital pianos out there have keys that move as the music plays. The Zenph software, though, attempts to recreate every nuance of the original performance.

The company also invited us to Carnegie Hall to a performance called “Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff.” Walker was the emcee for the night. During the course of the evening, he introduced Richard Shepherd, who is the engineer responsible for outfitting the 1909 Steinway with the electromechanical system that plays the piano. As a retirement project, Shepherd developed a very high-accuracy reproducing piano system and now builds custom-made piano reproducing systems for clients’ pianos.

Watching a grand piano play on stage with an unoccupied piano chair in front of it is eerie. The music was wonderful, but the applause after each piece was awkward, as if the audience did not know who to cheer for. However, a musician friend who accompanied us said she could really picture Rachmaninoff playing as she watched the piano.

Part of Zenph’s business plan is to produce re-performances, either live or on a CD or other digital media. Zenph’s first album release with Sony Masterworks, Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff, recaptures in crystalline stereo sound his performances originally recorded from 1921 to 1942.

To gain a better understanding of what Zenph can do, its Web site hosts an Alfred Cortot recording from 1926 of Chopin’s third prelude, as well as the Zenph re-recording at

But Walker and his crew at Zenph have higher aspirations than just re-recording great piano performances. Next, the company wants to expand into other instruments, like the bass, saxophone, and drums. It also wants to make its software more readily available, both to musicians and the general public.

For instance, the software could eventually be a plug-in for professional music software like Digidesign’s Pro Tools. Zenph also envisions an iTunes model, where for $0.99 you purchase the song, but for $1.49 you might buy the song with additional software that could help you interact musically with it.

Zenph calls itself a software company that specializes in the algorithms and processes for understanding and recreating precisely how musicians perform. The company begins by taking a recording and converting it to a .wav file, just like you might do with your PC.

From there, Zenph converts the .wav file into a high-resolution MIDI file, which differs from a standard MIDI file. For example, whereas a typical MIDI file has 128 levels for NoteOn, the high-res version uses 1024 levels. Also, high-res MIDI uses precise timing, which is a staple of networking technology.

Transcribing .wav files into high-res MIDI data requires human interaction. One of the speakers at the concert, Anatoly Larkin, leads the music production projects at Zenph. According to the company, his doctoral research displays his intimate understanding of micro-timing in music performance. It also underscores why Zenph can do such a masterful job in bringing great musical performances back to life.

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