The Quest for Excellent Sound #1
Unity as a New Path for Concert Grand Pianos
November 21, 2023
Yamaha’s history of piano manufacturing started over a century ago in 1900. Since releasing its first concert grand piano FC in 1950, the company has accelerated its efforts in achieving new heights of sound. This includes establishing the Piano Technical Academy to train top-level piano technicians and launching Artist Services to work closely with some of the best musicians in the world.
This relentless pursuit of excellence also gave birth to the new CFX Concert Grand. Released in March 2022 after twelve long years of development, the new CFX opens countless possibilities for piano performance. It allows the player to become one with the instrument and have full creative freedom to express themselves in their music.
Reaching Every Corner of the Concert Hall
Released in 2010, the original CFX incorporated all the technological knowledge Yamaha could offer at the time. Designed to be the pinnacle of the company’s concert grand pianos, the flagship model was highly acclaimed for its unprecedented sound quality.
At the same time, however, some of the world's leading pianists pointed out its lack of presence in large venues. They wanted the sound of the piano to resonate even more, especially in concerto performances when the piano needed to stand out from the orchestra.
Soon after the first CFX was born, Yamaha was already on its quest to develop a new CFX—one that could deliver sound to every corner of even the largest concert hall.
Yoichi Nozaka, who worked on the development of the new CFX’s sound quality related components such as the soundboard and hammers, joined the team three years into his career at Yamaha. It was the sound of the first CFX, in fact, that inspired him to first pursue a job in piano development.
Nozaka was filled with awe when he first saw a performance on the CFX at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2010. He couldn’t believe that, despite the piano being an instrument with hundreds of years of history, Yamaha was still able to find ways to refine it. This breathtaking experience set him on the path to develop next-generation pianos.
A concert grand piano may look glamorous on stage, but the process of developing one requires patience and perseverance. First, the team talks to professional pianists to determine the kind of sounds they are looking for. The goals for sound design are then shared with the craftsmen working on the components such as the soundboard and keyboard. Once a prototype is developed, it is tested and evaluated by pianists to determine how close it is to their ideal sound. This process, which can take between six months to a year per cycle, is repeated over and over until completion.
This rigorous development process eventually gave birth to a design philosophy that Yamaha calls the “Unibody Concept.” The engineers hypothesized that if all the parts of the piano are integrated into a single, unified body, it can minimize the loss of expressivity that occurs in sound transmission. This is what allows the pianist’s intended sound to resonate across the entire concert hall.
“We reconfigured the specifications of each and every component so that they would all fit closely together,” Nozaka says. “Every sound vibrates through the entire instrument because it functions as one fully integrated whole. This makes pianists feel like the piano is an extension of their own body.” One pianist, after playing a prototype of the new CFX for three hours, expressed his delight, saying, “It feels like the hammers are completely attached to my fingers. This piano lets me express myself exactly the way I want.” This sense of unity between piano and pianist was exactly what the team was striving for.
Incorporating Japanese Sensibilities to an Age-Old Instrument
To most, spending twelve years to develop a single product sounds like an extraordinary feat in itself. However, development lead Tetsuo Hotta says that the challenge reaches far beyond the twelve-year scope of the project. In truth, the team was taking on a question that Yamaha had been tackling for 73 years since developing its first concert grand piano.
“Historically, classical music has been passed down and refined predominantly in Europe,” Hotta explains. “As Japanese engineers, we believe that having a deep understanding of European culture and sensibilities is a crucial part of making good pianos. It’s fascinating to think about, but easy to forget when you are caught up in the bustle of everyday tasks. We have to consciously keep our minds on the origins of what we are making.”
Influenced by his older brother, Hotta began playing the piano at the age of three. Having conducted research on concert hall acoustics in university, he was naturally drawn to Yamaha where he could combine both his experience as a player and as a researcher.
Between 2011 and 2013, Hotta spent time as an expat in Germany, immersing himself in European music culture. While he still maintains a deep respect for the piano’s European origins, seeing the new CFX to completion has left him confident that Japan-made pianos can bring new possibilities to classical music.
He elaborates. “Japanese sensibilities, such as the devotion to the finest details, are ingrained in Yamaha’s DNA. I believe that by integrating Japanese aesthetics into Western culture, we can reach people's hearts in ways that are distinct from traditional European pianos.”
Sviatoslav Richter, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, was also known to have adored the Yamaha CF. In his words, “Yamaha’s pianos can express the sensitivity of the heart.” Hotta says that these words are finally starting to resonate with him.
Thoughts From the Past, Echoing in the Present
Nozaka began taking piano lessons at the age of six, and Hotta has been playing since the age of three. As one delves deeper into their backgrounds, it starts to seem like fate that they ended up working together to develop the new CFX.
The International Chopin Piano Competition, where Nozaka had his first encounter with the original CFX, was not the only classical music performance he went to see as a student. In fact, he saw numerous competitions in his youth, including the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, held in Hamamatsu City where the Yamaha headquarters is located. He now sits in many of the same venues he visited as a student, but as an engineer enjoying performances on the Concert Grand he helped develop.
Meanwhile, Hotta was an avid listener of Sviatoslav Richter in his student years. He says it was Richter that taught him what a genuinely good performance sounds like. Now he feels an even deeper connection to the recordings he listened to so frequently in his younger days, knowing that they were played on Yamaha pianos. The technicians who tuned Richter’s pianos were also Yamaha employees. “It was the collaboration of Richter, the Yamaha piano, and Yamaha technicians that gave birth to the music I was so deeply moved by. It almost feels like destiny that I am now developing pianos at Yamaha.”
Yamaha’s technicians and Yamaha instrument engineers have been sharing passion with pianists for over 123 years. Having taken the baton from their predecessors, what do Hotta and Nozaka see on the road ahead?
Hotta believes that the new CFX can encourage artists to take up fresh musical challenges. “We are confident that the new CFX and the Unibody Concept will open new possibilities for piano expression. We want to be the tailwind that pushes artists to pursue their highest potential.”
Nozaka adds, “If pianists realize that this piano can allow them to express themselves in ways that other pianos cannot, it may become increasingly common in the next 10 to 20 years for concert venues to own a CFX. I hope we can deliver the sound of the CFX to audiences across the globe.”
Yamaha's continuous pursuit of excellent sound is not limited to its Concert Grand. In the next article of this three-part series, we will focus on the story behind Yamaha’s flagship headphones "YH-5000SE," which achieve unparalleled sound quality via Yamaha’s best audio technology.
(Interview date: June 2023)
Hotta is a member of the FP Group, Musical Instruments Business Unit. He started playing the piano in his early childhood and studied concert hall acoustics in his university architecture department. In the new CFX development project, he led a team of sixty, including the piano development department, the research and development team, and the elemental technology development team.
Nozaka is a member of the FP Group of the Musical Instruments Business Unit. Hearing a performance on the first CFX at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2010 inspired him to pursue a career in developing next-generation pianos. For the new CFX, he worked on the technical development of parts related to sound quality, being mainly the soundboard and hammers.
*Bio as of the time of the interview
- Photo at the beginning of this article: Premium concert commemorating the launch of the new "CFX" model, Pianist Akira Wakabayashi, Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall (March 2022)
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