The Piano Man
“Some people ask me why I do not develop guitars and I say it’s not necessary, Mario Aiwasian (45), explains, “For me guitars are in perfect condition and shape. But with electric pianos there are many ways to get a new style, a new feel and make a high quality piano.” So, seeing a niche, Mario set out to revolutionizing the concept of the grand concert piano, blending tradition with technology and tying it all up in dazzling design.
The future encapsulated
A new chapter for pianos; Photo credit: Alpha Pianos
Over a cup of tea in a quaint Viennese café, Mario, who actually studied guitar and composing, explained in layman’s terms why the piano business was badly in need of a disruption. On the one hand, there are the grand pianos – amazing sound, dignified look, but “very expensive, huge and needs a lot of maintenance and care.” Grand pianos, he said, could set you back between 50,000 and 130,000 euros and weigh anywhere between 500 and 800 kilos. Imagine lugging that on tour. It takes up space on stage, causes transportation issues, requires special conditions because of the wood, and a tuner has to travel along to keep it in shape. On the other end are the electric pianos – cheaper, lighter, easier to maintain but “not as good as they should be, [because] they don’t have the touch and feel and sound of grand pianos.”
“So I made a product with the best of both worlds,” Mario says in a soft, modest tone “the compact measurements and lower price of a digital piano and the sound and the feel of a grand piano. I put it all together, the real hammer action and the electronic sound.”
If that is not enough to impress you, one look at the product definitely will. The Alpha Piano really is the Porsche of keyboard musical instruments, not least because it boasts their distinctive design. When you start with an unknown company or product, you have to have a great design,” Mario says, “So I went to Porsche Design.” The simple, clean lines of the piano, immediately stand out from everything else you have seen or imagine when thinking of a concert grand, yet it functions in much the same way. “It is important, also for the artists on stage, thousands of people watching them play the piano, they want to be proud of it, have a unique instrument on show,” Mario, who has had his share of big stages, says.
When tech meets tradition
In order to create an electric piano worthy of the big stage, Mario recreated the key features of the bulky grand piano with innovative materials and technologies: “A grand piano has hammerheads, keys and another important element, which is not digitally useful, but it is important for the feel – namely the tamper pads,” he said. “The really innovative part of our piano is the hammerhead sensorboard. Physically, it feels like piano strings, but it also measures the velocity of the hammerhead – the more strength you apply, the further it bends, acting as a tamper pad. We developed the technology especially for the Alpha piano and protected it by a patent.”
The really innovative part of our piano is the hammerhead sensorboard. Physically, it feels like piano strings, but it also measures the velocity of the hammerhead.
To keep the feel, the keys are also original, from the same company that produces a Steinway or a Bösendorfer grand piano keys. “We use the same parts and this is the heart of the Alpha Piano,” Mario adds “the fact that we are using the key feature of the grand pianos and incorporating it with new technology.”
Sounds simple, but in fact, it was the fruit of almost ten years of work, first in local piano producer Bösendorfer and then on his own, after the Austrian company was purchased by Yamaha. While at Bösendorfer, he helped develop the electric grand piano called CEUS and the CEUS Master – a digital keyboard with a real authentic hammer action. Although the piano went on tour and was well accepted, the new owners of the Bösendorfer chose to stick with tradition and stopped all digital development. This pushed Mario into taking all his good ideas elsewhere and founding his own company.
But the patented soundboard wasn’t Mario’s only disruptive idea – the Alpha Piano is the first height adjustable piano – at the click of a button, it can go low enough to be comfortable for a child and as high enough to be played by a grownup standing up. As important as this is for the correct posture and hands angle while learning how to play from young age, it is also a great perk for pop pianists, who can finally move a bit more freely on stage, just like everyone else in the band. In the same way as design was a crucial point, “I decided height adjustability needs to be a feature from the very beginning,” Mariosays. As a result, his is the only piano that can literally grow with its owner and, despite the hefty price of 20,000 euros, he has already sold one to a six-year-old girl.
From Kravitz to classics
A man with a vision: cofounder Mario Aiwasian; Photo credit: Alpha Pianos
The unique design alone is a great magnet, but combined with the piano’s light weight of only 80 kilos (10 times less than the concert grands), realistic sound and feel and the lower price, it is more than enough to convince the biggest names – and some of the biggest sceptics, too.
“After our interview, I am going to meet Lenny Kravitz, he is in Vienna right now,” Mario says. “We met yesterday, unfortunately he got sick, so the show today is cancelled and the next two concerts too, but we had a meeting and he wants to play the alpha piano for his next concert in January.” Had he not gotten sick, Lenny Kravitz would have played the piano on stage in Vienna that very same day. That missed opportunity aside, the piano has already toured with some big names. Roger Hodgson, the lead singer of Supertramp was the first international artist to play the piano in 2010. After that first taste test, he wanted to take the piano with him on tour right away, but Mario couldn’t part with the only prototype.
While pop and rock artists, who often use electric pianos, are more likely to quickly adopt the Alpha Piano on stage, Mario admits that he wants to go even further. “I would like to see it with top artists, of course, but also on classical stages, because classical piano players do not touch an electric piano. I hope this will change.” In fact, the wind of change is already blowing his way, as the piano has been rigorously tested at the Mozarteum in Salzburg for a two-week period. “They were really fascinated by the touch and feel and they said it feels the same as a grand piano, because it has the same action, so they can’t really tell the difference,” Mario says with a smile.
An emotional startup in a traditional industry
“The music business as a whole is not really that traditional, every year on the electronic side, there are great developments,” Mario says. “But in our case, in pianos, it is very traditional. So we are developing a product to connect the traditional and electronic world and I think we’re on the right way.” The support he has received so far seems to prove it. Although he bootstrapped his business, he says he wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything without the support of the local ecosystem. “I am a lucky guy, because we got good support from aws and FFG and Accent in Lower Austria, so this is why I have no credits in the bank.” Setting up the company back in 2010 and transferring all of the intellectual property, for example “was only possible with the support of aws.” The company now has six patents to its name, but Mario admits he isn’t out of the woods yet.
It is a very emotional product, so you need a very emotional investor, but that’s not easy to find.
“The big problem with being a startup is that you have very good ideas, you are very motivated, the day has 20 hours but there is no money – so I think I’ll feel successful, when this very critical time is over, when I wake up and do not sweat how can I make the day, the next two months,” he says with a pained smile. As he looks ahead, he can see that the break-even point is within his reach but it would depend on whether they find investments, and whether their plans for the next year all work out. “We are looking for about a million euros in investments but it is not a priority at the moment. I would say okay to an investor but as late as possible – the more we are into the market, the more we’ve managed to sell, the better for us,” he says. And because of his good connections in the business, he would settle for someone from another area, as long as they as they invest more than just cash. “It is a very emotional product, so you need a very emotional investor, but that’s not easy to find.”
A revolution is coming
Speaking of moving on – a lot hinges on the reception of Alpha Piano, but Mario also has another, probably bigger ace up his sleeve. While his new project is still confidential, he gave me a sneak peek and it is definitely something unseen before, something that has the potential of changing the way we all experienceconcerts. It is, Mario hopes “the future of music”, and indeed it has the potential to create a new kind of live music – something which people were only able to do in the studio until now. Developing it, Mario looked for inspiration to another pioneer: “Steve Jobs never used target groups to ask people what they would like to have. He was a genius this way, he always thought about what he would like to have and that is what we try to do,” he says before he heads out to meet one of the greatest rock stars of his generation. “We focus on our ideas and what we would love to have. I hope it goes in the right direction, but we will see next year.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.