Reading time ( words)
Who says a modern piano has to be a certain shape? Not Brockett Parsons, Lady Gaga’s keyboardist. He worked with Dave Starkey and Chuck Johnson to create PianoArc—a custom-designed 360-degree circular keyboard and a company with the same name. I spoke with Brockett and Dave at AltiumLive to learn more about the design efforts that went into this fascinating instrument.
Andy Shaughnessy: Brockett, I understand that it was your idea for this 360-degree circular keyboard. How did you come up with that concept?
Parsons: I was in rehearsal for one of the tours, and a colleague of mine, Kareem Devlin, who is our guitar player, had great stage presence and guitar instruments. I asked him, “I want to make my rig a little bit better. What can I do?” and he jokingly said, “Make a circular keyboard.” He wasn’t serious, but then I thought about it overnight, and I thought I could do that.
So, I called a friend of mine named Chuck Johnson, who I went to college with at Bucknell University, and he is in the music instrument production and software development business. I asked if he thought this could be done, and he said that it was a cool idea. He assembled a team, and one of the first people he called was Dave Starkey to do the electronics on the first unit. Since that time, Dave has taken on an increased role with the newer units.
Shaughnessy: Dave, can you tell us about your background?
Dave Starkey: I’m an EE. I have a BSEE from Purdue, and I’ve been designing electronic musical instruments for my whole career since the first MIDI adapters came out for pianos, which were built in the ‘80s and ‘90s; they had a good presence. Then, I worked for National Semiconductor for a period of time. When I left, I looked at that design and said, “I can do a better job and bring it into the 21st century.” I changed it from a slotted system into a reflective system. Next, we started marketing that as a piano scanning system called the PianoScan. And Chuck approached me because he used PianoScan and knew that I designed it. Brockett wanted me to take that system and put it into the piano.
It was Chuck’s idea, of course, and he wanted to cut the circuit board up with scissors and move the sensors with wires to the side. That wasn’t going to work, and I explained why. So, I re-spun the circuit board and moved the sensors into a circular pattern; that was fairly straightforward and didn’t require any software, and that’s where we ended up with the first design. Then, on the second design, they said, “We found a customer who wants to buy one, but it has to fold in half.” That broke the entire circuit, so I had to redesign the circuit boards in a different fashion to make them fit into that instrument. That was when I became heavily involved with the designs, and then we were admitted into the MassChallenge—which is a startup accelerator program—and decided to go to town and do this thing right.
At that point, I took over, learned SolidWorks, and redesigned the keys and the whole system; the new design has a 1.25-degree increment with 288 keys. Now, the keys come in 24-note modules, 24 of which make a full circle, which makes more sense musically and mechanically. You can fold it in half or split into three or four pieces. You can even make a 270-degree piano with a gap in the back for easy entry. Over the years, we have completely redesigned everything and added lights and a novel scanning system.
Shaughnessy: And Brockett, you said that yesterday was the first time you played this particular keyboard?
Parsons: Yes, I have my own personal model, which is what we made in the MassChallenge program. And they’re similar, but this new one is solid, especially with the action of the keys. Let me put this in perspective. There are many major keyboard companies in the industry that have been millions of dollars that they have spent to develop their own technology over the years. But we had three or four of people; I came up with the idea in the beginning, and Chuck and Dave did the work. What Dave has done by himself is the work of 20 people. And when I think of the instrument in terms of its reliability and the evenness of its playing, this is the PianoArc’s own action. Each key has been custom-made, and the angles are slightly different than the white keys of a real piano, so that took a lot for Chuck and Dave to do.
Starkey: We have a pocket underneath each one of these keys that matches the mass on each of those keys so that they can have a perfectly balanced feel.
Parsons: They couldn’t take the keys from an older keyboard and stick them on; they had to create these keys from scratch.
Shaughnessy: And they’re all tapered too so that they fit like pieces of a pie.
Parsons: It’s pretty amazing what Dave and Chuck have done. The combination has been pretty lethal.
Shaughnessy: Are all three of you involved with PianoArc as a company?
Starkey: The three of us own the lion’s share of the company.
Shaughnessy: How many of these pianos have you made?
Starkey: Chuck calls this one serial number 9, but that doesn’t count a couple more that I have laying around in my house. I have a 96-note section, a 72-note section, and a 24-note section, but they don’t count because they have slightly different technology.
Parsons: We have a guy playing one of these pianos for the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Their in-house musician is a talented DJ. He plays a half version of this piano. You can find him online.
Shaughnessy: I live in Atlanta. I’ll track him down.
Parsons: The idea of playing a circular keyboard has been around for a long time, but I don’t think anyone had ever done it. We were crazy enough to do it.
Shaughnessy: I also love the videos where Lady Gaga gets inside the piano with you, and you both play back to back.
Parsons: She’s incredible.
Shaughnessy: Thanks for your time.
Parsons: It’s my pleasure.
Starkey: Thank you, Andy.