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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:


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