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Frankie Moreno's Hero Piano

Frankie Moreno's Hero Piano

What if I told you that the same piano appears in both of these pictures:


That is exactly what Frankie Moreno and the "Under the Influence" design team wanted when they came to Sin City Scenic to build their “Hero Piano.” Towards the end of Frankie’s show they wanted a classic, sleek, black piano for a very intimate moment where the lights came down and he would sing one of his favorite songs "Bridge over Troubled Water". Immediately afterwards the stage springs to life, Frankie kicks the legs out from under the piano, and he jumps on top of it to dance and play while the piano tilted and rotated along with the music. To top it off this complex piece was to have around 1500 individually addressed pixels of RGB LEDs allowing the piano to have its own flair and style fitting for this high energy finale number.

This was a very complicated project and our time to build it was relatively short so we had to work quickly to identify what tools we could use to make this design a reality. My primary role on this project was focused on the automation and the LEDs. There were some assets from another automation vendor that we ended up incorporating for the rotate and to allow the piano to travel from storage to the position it was used onstage, but everything else was up to us to design, specify, and construct in about six weeks.

The automation for the piano was a challenge because the profile of the piano did not allow for much room for equipment. As a worst case, we knew we would have to design for a stout man to be able to "dance vigorously" at the very edge of the piano 4 feet away from its pivot point. This was going to leave us at a severe mechanical disadvantage. We also needed around three feet of travel on each side so the piano could tilt to a point where both the keys and the end opposite them could touch the ground. After days and days of collaboration on the design we decided to use a heavy duty linear actuator from Progressive Automations (link) rated for 2,000 pounds of load. This would allow us to keep the actuator small enough to fit in the space we had available while still overcoming the mechanical disadvantage with enough headroom to make everyone involved feel comfortable. The actuator itself had built-in adjustable limits to allow for fine adjustments so that once the piano was touching the platform below it the actuator wouldn't continue to try to drive through it.

This left us with the issue of how to stop the piano in a flat position with no positional feedback from the actuator. The easiest solution would have been to do exhaustive testing to find out the exact time required to move from both tilted positions to flat, but that was undesirable for several reasons including mechanical wear over time and the potential of stopping the piano mid-move. We threw that option out almost immediately. We started to think about putting limit switches to stop the piano in the flat position in the middle of its travel. One switch for each direction would certainly work, but we needed the ability to select if these limit switches were active or not because we didn't want hinder the creative team with a piano that can only move half of its range of motion in a single go. We eventually settled on a four channel DMX relay board from Blue Point Engineering (link) that would allow us to add each center limit switch into the control loop as desired. This actually worked so well that the limit set could be changed while the piano was in motion without disrupting the movement.

The creative team had previously worked with Environmental Lights products and they wanted to stick with them for the LEDs on the Hero Piano. Their RGB PixelDMX LED Strip Light (link) had several advantages for us. The biggest advantage was its ability to take direct DMX without an external decoder. This huge reduction in necessary equipment and space made it an obvious choice for the project. 13 reels of this rather pricey LED strip was certainly the largest LED order I have ever made, but after talking with the application experts I was certain that, in the end, this was the right choice for the desired effect. 

The individual pixels take up 3 channels of DMX data each. This meant that the piano would have ~4500 channels of information split up among 13 different DMX universes. This is no small control task obviously. The show's lighting team provided a d3 server that allowed them to pixel map the piano to make content creation manageable. The d3 would work in conjunction with the show's grandMA lighting console to communicate with the LED array through a single Ethernet cable using Art-Net that we then broke out into individual DMX universes inside the piano with two Art-Net splitters.

LED layout map

The LED strip light can only be cut into one meter sections and the direction of data flow matters so the LED array's layout took quite a bit of planning. A single DMX universe can control up to five meters of the product, but the piano is a very compact and translucent space so cable management was very important. This meant that for several universes optimal cable runs cut the LED tape down to 3 or 4 meters per universe. Luckily we had the spare universes on the Art-Net node to handle the less than optimal LED layout. We also had to deal with the fact that the piano was an object that our metal fabrication team was in the process of creating from raw materials, and although they did their best to build it to the exact size and shape that fit in AutoCAD the realities of the physical world didn't always allow that to happen. There where several mid process changes that both teams had to work to accommodate. Particularly in the area around the piano keys and on the side profile. Luckily the electrics team is a flexible group and we worked closely with our fabricators to achieve a product that was very close to the initial design while also making the piano rigid enough for the exuberant song and dance taking place on top of it during the act.

The piano LED bed during construction

The piano LEDs lit up during pixel mapping

After everything was all put together we were extremely pleased with the final product. During the construction process it had been noted that any backlash in the actuator would be multiplied several times at the end of the piano, but the final piano was very stable. We had also wondered if the actuator would move at noticeably different speeds depending on the load it was seeing, but even after loading it well past the designed maximum load it soldiered on at a constant speed regardless. We covered the whole unit with a thick piece of tempered glass top that felt so sturdy it seemed like it would probably outlast all of us on this earth, and the LEDs underneath allowed the lighting designer endless creativity to augment the high energy number. Sadly, Frankie Moreno's run was very short lived and the show was loaded out not that long after opening. Hopefully he finds a home for his show somewhere else in the future and the Hero Piano will live again. 

LED array test for Frankie Moreno's Hero Piano
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