New digital life for old pianos

Mathematician creates keyboard replicas

Visitors to a London collection of early keyboards will be able to play the instruments for the first time after a mathematician has digitally recreated their sounds. Dr Kenny McAlpine from the University of Abertay has built digital keyboard replicas of two of the 21 instruments housed in the Fenton House collection in Hampstead.


Until now, in an effort to conserve the keyboards, people have been able to see the instruments but not play them. Some of the instruments, which include harpsichords, clavichords and spinets, are over 200 years old but many are still in playing order.

To create the digital replicas, Dr McAlpine recorded the sounds of each keyboard individually. He then used touch-screen technology and an electronic keyboard to make a digital version of the original. The other playable instruments in the collection will be modelled over the next few years.


‘The process of recording was fraught with difficulty,’ Dr McAlpine tells BBC News. ‘We were trying to capture some very delicate sounds, such as the sound of the jacks and the plectra as they make contact with the strings and return to rest – these are the subtleties that tell your ear that it’s listening to a real, organic instrument.’