Earlier this year I met a fascinating designer at the San Diego Altium Users Group. Dave Starkey told me about a circular piano he and his partners had designed and built called the Pianoarc. In this interview, learn more about Starkey’s background and how he came to co-create this unique instrument that now graces a Middle Eastern Palace and is played around the world by PianoArc visionary Brockett Parsons, keyboardist for Lady Gaga.
Dave Starkey and Brokett Parsons in Abu Dhabi
Judy Warner: Dave, tell us about your engineering career and how you came to design and develop the PianoArc.
Dave Starkey: In high school, I decided I wanted to either be a professional musician or, as a backup, create musical instruments. It became abundantly clear the musician thing would not work out. So, I focused on the technologies that enabled electronic musical instruments while pursuing my BSEE from Purdue. I then spent many years designing a wide variety of musical products which lead to 16 patents and selling my engineering company to National Semiconductor. After leaving National, I developed a system for generating MIDI in acoustic pianos. I got to know Chuck Johnson, who was in business, developing and installing musical education labs for universities. In college, Chuck and Brockett Parsons were in a jazz band together — Chuck was on keyboard, and Brockett played the trumpet. Brockett went on to play keyboards as a session musician, reality TV winner, and eventually joined Lady Gaga's band. Brockett had the idea to make a visual statement of the piano with the same level of grandeur and excitement that is typical of the Gaga experience.
Dave Starkey testing out the Pianoarc
That’s when Brockett called Chuck. Chuck called me to ask if I could adapt my system and integrate it into a circular keyboard. Well, I love a challenge, so we were off to the races. I re-designed some existing PCBs using Altium Designer and reconfigured the existing key scanning system. This all resulted in getting our first unit out the door in about three months at 900lbs. Nothing about that unit was production-ready or even reproducible.
Brockett Parsons and Lady Gaga
Warner: What features does the Pianoarc have that makes it appealing to musicians?
Starkey: First, the “wow” factor on the stage is spectacular. But beyond that, the 288 color-coded keys allow the mapping of a complete pallet of sounds in a continuous plane. For instance, Brockett often runs with a piano in the front, a wailing synth sound to his right, strings to the left and a full drum kit behind him. As a wow factor the continuous position sensing of the keys allow this keyboard to repeat faster than any other keyboard on the market. So yes, it is a novelty, but it is also one of the best keyboard controllers on the market.
Custom Piano Keys for Pianoarc
Warner: What engineering challenges did you face when developing the PianoArc?
Starkey: Here’s the not-so-short list:
- Making a design work without expensive tooling
- Finding the right material to make the keys--we went through eight iterations to get the fit and finish required.
- Reducing weight to make it transportable. The first unit was 900lbs, the new units are 300lbs in shipping cases.
- Make it modular so setup and takedown can be accomplished in minutes
- Make it shippable by common carrier, preferably airline checkable.
- Getting up the guts to fund and build prototypes.
- The design evolved to the point where the circuit boards are part of the mechanical alignment system for the keys.
- Finding a way to make it affordable.
Pianoarc with neon light set
In today's world, keyboards are mass-produced with costly tooling. Our engineering budget is minimal, and the price of tooling plastic parts is far too high. 3D printing of 300 keys is enormously expensive and does not come close to holding the tolerances musicians demand. So we found a very cooperative machine shop that has been enthusiastically with us every step of the way. We have gone through many different materials and processes until settling on the keys we have today. In short, this was a very challenging product design!
PCBs and Keys during design phase
Warner: What kind of PCBs are underneath the "hood" so to speak?
Starkey: Now the design is down to five PCB designs, and a total of 34 PCB assemblies for a full 360 degree, 288 note system. Thirteen of them are four layers. The others are two layers. The rack-mount control box also has a four-layer PCB. These boards use a total of 18 Kinetis microprocessors each with a USB port. All of the processors in the circle communicate with the control box, which aggregates and translates all the information. Then the data is forwarded onto a computer or synthesizer by way of a USB, or good old-fashioned MIDI.
Pianoarc team at trade show
Warner: Whom has the PianoArc appealed to from a market perspective?
Starkey: Product-market fit is a challenge! For many, our asking price seems astronomical. That being said, there are passionate piano/keyboard fans who want to stand out and whom can afford to revolutionize their performance rig--like people who like bad-ass stuff in general, like say Princes and Stadium-filling megastars!
Machining custom piano keys for circular fit
Warner: Thank you so much, Dave, for sharing the story of how you and your partners developed the Pianoarc. An extra special thanks for agreeing to bring a PianoArc to display at AltiumLive in San Diego and bringing along Brockett to play it. We are all eager to see PianoArc look forward to hearing it played by Brockett!
Starkey: My pleasure, Judy. We look forward to sharing the PianoArc with the AltiumLive Community as well.
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