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Dr. Walker Making Dead Pianists Come Alive

Imagine hearing great, departed pianists play again today, just as they would in person. John Q. Walker demonstrates how recordings can be analyzed for precise keystrokes and pedal motions, then played back on computer-controlled grand pianos.

What we focus on is representing exactly is how musicians perform, John Q. Walker, Ph.D., Founder of Zenph Sound Innovations said.
Using signal processing, artificial intelligence, and acoustics, Walker’s company developed new computer software that can dissect any recording – note by note.
“If they’re playing the piano, how would they have pressed the keys, where would the pedal have been, how long would they have held it?” Dr. Walker says.

Walker and his team wrote software to take a piano recording – even an old, scratchy one – and determine not only which keys were struck but exactly how they were played, including all the subtle nuances that distinguish great pianists. The result was simply amazing.

“We saw it as a very hard signal-processing problem: Can we get backwards from recordings to the notes? We all know how to go forwards, but can we go backwards? And if we can crack that problem, the whole industry changes” Dr. Walker continues.

Walker’s group indeed cracked that problem. And with their software, they were able to re-create great piano performances of the past. “Reperformance” is the word Walker uses. It may seem like remastering on steroids – but in fact it’s a lot more. Think about turning a mono recording into stereo, for example, changing the acoustics of the room and positioning the microphones differently from where they were placed during the original recording session – even letting the listener experience what the pianist heard sitting on the bench. The commercial value was obvious, which is why Walker’s company was able to strike a deal with Sony Music.

Bach - Goldberg Variations

Bach - Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations was the first album we recorded with Sony, and it’s the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. This was the first recording he made. He was 22 years old. He had had a very successful recital in New York, and Columbia Records said, “Let’s sign him up.” And normally when you sign up a young pianist, the first recording is, maybe, some Chopin or Beethoven sonatas or something. He picked a piece called the Bach Goldberg Variations, which had been rarely recorded on piano at all. It was thought you couldn’t play it on one manual. And he said, “No, I want to do this piece” and made a phenomenal recording in 1955 that has been one of the best continuous piano recordings in classical music history.

Dr. Walker has already staged robotic piano performances in front of some pretty big live audiences, recreating classic recordings at places like Carnegie hall. He’ll be performing at the Newport music festival in July. The first consumer software for piano files from Walker’s company Zenph sound innovations is set for release this summer.

Hear Dr. John Q Walker’s lecture on TED:

Hear a pod interview with Dr. John Q Walker:


  1. Bruno Says:

    While this is an interesting exercise and certainly a development in music technology, it doesn’t add significantly to the body of knowledge when the original sound recordings do exist as in the case of Gould, Katchen, Fischer etc. This concept has been exploited earlier in the reprocessing and recroding of the Duo Art and Welte piano rolls, which to their credit predate this proposition and can extend the historical aesthetic well back into the 19th century tradition and access the composer / performer tradition.It is that tradition that informs the pedagogic literature. This is an extension to the entertainment dimension for the serious audiophiles and might provide a diversion for the student. Yamaha have been promoting the DiscKlavier with a great deal of energy. This would appear to be a servant of that promotion at some level as well.

  2. Darryl Says:

    Brilliant!!! Amazing!! What a joy to be able to hear exactly how the music was played by the MASTERS!! THANK YOU!!

  3. nearenough Says:

    I am dubious Horowitz will be playing anything he has never recorded with this process. His was a subtle and idiosyncratic style, carefully formulated and thought about in great depth. And there were variations as well. He, and many great other pianists, even Chopin, were said never to have played the same piece again the same way. I will wait for a blind testing.

  4. Taschja Says:

    Amazing and GREAT! I just love it! Music to my ears! Ancore, Ancore! We need more of this!

  5. nicola Says:

    …it is quite interesting by point of view of technology. By the way I will not pay for going to a concert hall in which the piano player is a computer. I like technology. I think it is helpful for understand and to create new features.
    what i wuld like is to listen original performance by Liszt, Chopin, Brahms,…. before the incoming of Piano-rolled-Midi.
    but this is a dream because there si no recording fo origin al composer piano performances… just busoni left something on it and some other composer but is is already eraly ‘900.
    It need to think that every time a performer play may be it change something during his life. music preformances are not static with time… when a player play piano he put his moment attitudes and feelings into performances… not just mechanical reproduction of scores… if it would like this it should be no difference bertween any piano player and other.
    what dr. walker propose is just musical-tech curiosity. Nothing of deep interest for professional musicist or classic music listeners.
    I liked , very nice and interesting…. but not deeply useful for music performances…

  6. Roger Jones Says:

    Great idea! Need to do some double blind, modern tests, too, i.e. make a new, live recording, then a digital reconstruction from the audio only, then a blind listening test of the two for 1) which was the original? 2) are they identical?

  7. Connie Payton Says:

    Anything that captures the beauty of the past we cannot get back is wonderful! An open mind has room to grow forever…

  8. James G. Caddell, LMT, LMTI, NCTMB Says:

    An interesting way of recovering a performance. Did you know that similar 100 year old piano recordings are available? Google “vorsetzer” and check out some of he YouTube performances of great artists of the early 20th century. More about vorsezters here: http://brillantenontroppo.blogspot.com/2008/07/vorsetzer-musics-gutenberg-press.html

  9. Roberto Abelar Says:

    Just amazing! I wonder if its posible to do eventually with others instruments such as violins,cellos and wind instruments?

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