The cameras used to professionally record the opening night of The Million Dollar Piano were there filming a documentary available for sale in the future. The concept for the new Million Dollar Piano show dates back to four years ago when Yamaha first started building the piano. This high-tech piano could have easily overshadowed the player or at least been a distraction. You’d think that the million dollar piano would be enough to entertain a Las Vegas audience, but behind Elton is an elaborate stage designed by Mark Fisher.
Since September 2011, international mega-star Elton John has been playing a residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas based around Yamaha’s amazing technological achievement, the Million Dollar Piano. Where the visual wow-factor really comes into play though, is the state-of-the-art 3mm HD-resolution video LED panels, which delivers crisp and ultra-vivid colour.
Built-in MIDI sensors in the keyboard not only mean that technicians are able to trigger and manipulate light, sound, video and other effects in real time but Elton too has a degree of control. Make no mistake, the instrument, which weighs 3,200 pounds (1,451 kg), is not just a visual showpiece.
The Million Dollar Piano project began as a collaborative creative concept between Elton John and Chris Gero of Yamaha Entertainment Group. It was 29-year old Akie Hinokio of the Yamaha Design Lab who came up with the final piano design.
The LA Times said of the show: “To fully appreciate the spectacle that is Elton John’s new show The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, you have to pay attention to the details, such as the jumbo piano-roll swirls that flank the piano player and change colors throughout the night, shifting from gold to ruby to emerald to sapphire.
The wonderful band featured in the Million Dollar Piano film includes Davey Johnstone (guitars and vocals), Nigel Olsson (drums and vocals), the late Bob Birch (bass), John Mahon (percussion and vocals) and Kim Bullard (keyboards) plus 2 cellists (Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic), backing vocalists Rose Stone, Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon and Lisa Stone. Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano show is an ongoing residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and tickets can still be purchased, or you can watch the DVD or Blu-Ray in the comfort of your own home. Today we are talking to the founder and Vice President of Yamaha Entertainment Group who single-handedly spearheaded the incentive to create a one-of-a-kind work of pianistic art for iconic Grammy and Tony Award-winning rock legend Elton John to utilize in a spectacular new concert experience called THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO - the passionate and dedicated Chris Gero.
PC: You have curated a number of all-star Elton John benefit concerts over the years, could you tell us a bit about putting those events together and if we will ever get to see them someday?
CG: Well, Ray had said yes, Elton had said yes, Little Richard had said yes and there was just one or two holdouts, but that kept it from reaching the ultimate desired goal of what the event could be as a live televised thing. PC: Did that ultimate piano project lead into the 88 documentary you have been working on for a number of years?
CG: With THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO, Elton and I had already known and worked together for 20 years so we had worked on various projects already. CG: It was a really, really remarkable experience, let me tell you - and, for about four years, Elton didn't really see anything! PC: How would you describe your partnership with Elton on THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO project?
PC: Has Elton had any input or suggested any minor refinements since you unveiled the final finished piano to him and he first played it?
PC: Is there a back-up that you built just in case something ever happens to the original one? CG: Well, personally, I feel that if you have perfect pitch then you have perfect pitch and not all of us are fortunate enough to have that.
PC: Is the basic piano underneath similar to what we saw Alicia Keys and Paul McCartney use on the Super Bowl, then - the standard Yamaha grand piano?
PC: Are you familiar with what he specifically played at his recent iTunes Festival performance?
CG: Well, Elton has five different touring pianos he uses that are stationed at different places around the world, so I am sure he used one of those for that. PC: Fathom presented a Lang Lang concert previously, so I was curious if Elton has mentioned being a fan or if you were aware of them perhaps working together at some point in the past - or future? CG: Well, I did one last year with Sarah McLachlan that was really great, but we are basically just lining up artists right now. CG: Actually, I was just watching this documentary on him from 1975 and he was just on fire in it and then I realized that he still is! But before the movie hits the big screen, Yamaha piano retailers are inviting Elton fans to special wine and cheese nights, featuring an exclusive free screening of a 20-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film and the piano. Having established its own longstanding presence within Sir Elton’s orbit over the years, Clair Global came to The Colosseum stage for Million Dollar to manage audio orchestrations, with company veteran Matt Herr taking charge at front-of-house and independent engineer Alan Richardson given the keys to monitorworld.
Guided by the tenets of solid musicianship and dedication to a common dynamic, John and his band are a collaborative entity that puts playing first, foremost, and above all.
Eschewing even the casual notion of using a click track, the group is as free-flowing as one of Sir Elton’s pant legs as it flaps in the tempest of sonically-displaced air coming from his wedges.
The sum product of musicians of this caliber is known in many cases to cry out for the good old warmth of analog, and in this instance Herr heeded that call without any reservations.
So it comes as no surprise when a pair of Yamaha PM5000 consoles are discovered at the house mix position. Housing tympani, xylophone, marimba, tubular bells, chimes, roto-toms, congas, vibraphone, enough toys to satisfy the child musician in a dozen adults, and much more, Cooper’s world leaves a sizable footprint within the 125 feet of horizontal space that the stage opens up with onto the audience. All of the channels on the smaller desk are sent to a stereo out, then subbed into the 5K, where they can be controlled via a single fader and flown into a VCA.
A 34-space, two-sided rack provides the real estate necessary for effects, which among a number of devices, includes a TC 2290 for vocal delay and Klipsch harmonizers for background vocals. Among his inserts, Herr maintains five gates on Cooper’s tympani, and four more on his roto-toms. While Herr is simpatico with the PM5000, he also had the opportunity to mix John on a new Yamaha CL Series digital console at the Yamaha 125th anniversary celebration held at Disney’s Hyperion Theatre during the recent NAMM Show in Anaheim.
Left to right, long-time Elton John Band members Ray Cooper, Davey Johnstone, and Nigel Olsson. Countryman was the DI of choice for bass and Bullard’s keys, while guitarist Davey Johnstone miked his electric guitar cabinets with both Sennheiser 409s and 609s, which are used selectively as needed. At any given moment, you may see anything from Versace-inspired designs to video footage of past performances and ambience-enhancing expressions matching adjacent scenery or lighting effects. Pushing the scales at nearly 2,000 pounds, the Million Dollar Piano stays put at Caesars, moving in-and-out on a lift in accordance with his dates at The Colosseum. No mics are used on Blossom, which is a good thing really, because the stage volume around the piano is so loud that their presence would only promote unwanted bleed. A historian of monitoring trends in the business, Richardson has carefully charted the progression of John’s escalating use of sonic horsepower onstage and applied lessons learned to his own strategies in use today.
Working from a Yamaha PM1D, Richardson does all of his cueing on headphones, this to provide him with the advantage of hearing feedback before John does, and also because it gives him a chance to react quickly if things are getting too loud in the house. Beyond the full-frontal wedge approach, most of the remaining stage is on in-ear monitoring, with band members each giving expression to their own preferences on earbuds.
In late September, performances of The Million Dollar Piano kicked off at the Colosseum theatre, where he also performed his previous show, The Red Piano.
Elton worked with the engineers and designers at Yamaha Pianos in Hamamatsu, Japan to bring to life his vision of the most exciting piano ever played. However, the piano’s responsiveness to Elton’s playing integrates it into the show and it becomes an extension of his music rather than a sideshow. The stage is flanked by gigantic and golden Roman columns and scrolls featuring bas-reliefs of Elton’s two cockers spaniels, Arthur and Marilyn.


You may have been lucky enough to see the show live, many international travelers to Las Vegas have. Audiences have not only been able to experience many of the legend’s worldwide hits such as Bennie And The Jets, Rocket Man, and Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting), but also marvel at this unique piano.
Apart from Elton’s incredible repertoire and showmanship, the piano itself shares equal billing.
Sixty eight LED video screens and programmable LED lights are used to transform the piano into an ever-changing array of images, patterns, lights and colours. Depending on how hard or soft he makes contact with the keys, he is able to add sonic enhancements and trigger visual effects.
This pristine sounding piano is a highly-modified, hand-assembled Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand piano, with harp and hardware made from nickel as opposed to conventional brass. It was important to Yamaha, that not only would the piano offer amazing visual capabilities but it also needed to function as a premium grand piano.
The Million Dollar Piano show was also a perfect opportunity for Elton to bring back long-time friend and percussionist, Ray Cooper.  “It’s joyous to be back again,” Ray said of the reunion, “especially with Elton.
For a taste of the show, view Elton performing I’m Still Standing from the concert film below. Discussing all aspects of the impetus, development, design and actual building and subsequent employment of the technology created to craft the Million Dollar Piano itself, Gero sheds some light on the half-decade-spanning process of bringing the technological and artistic achievement to the stage and outlines Elton John's own participation in the project.
I never really studied except for a short period of time in my late teens when I studied for just a minute, but we were a pretty scrappy bunch and we sort of just went with it and did it when I was growing up and we would play together often.
And, getting into television makes it even more complex because of all of the rights and clearances that you must have. It really just runs the entire spectrum of what you would expect to try to get to an end product. But, in the end, it was just too hard to pull off - to get all those people together and agreeing to all of the same things. 88 is really my desire to document all of these great piano players using the Yamaha Disklavier technology. Before he died, I tried to get him in the studio to record his actual physical piano performances using the technology that we own called Disklavier. So, 88 was spawned from that idea - that I wanted to capture all of these artists discussing what it was that influenced them to become an artist or become a piano player.
It's all of these artists basically cross-referencing what inspired them to become songwriters or performers or piano players or a combination of all three. What if it was part of the set and it featured into different musical pieces because it can morph with video? It was actually about three years before he saw the piano onstage and he could come and play it for the first time. Then, there is the hour-long special which will be shown as part of the DVD package and also on TV later this year.
This is a partnership - and there is a trust that exists between us; us for him and him for us. It's actually a very complex system of how they tune it, but they use tone modules and the actual acoustic sound of the piano and it is tuned before every single show. Something you may not be aware of, though, is that every single Elton show is recorded - every single night. As a special bonus, fans will also be treated to a 35-minute segment from Yamaha's 125th Anniversary Dealer Concert—an event held at Disneyland's Hyperion Theater in Anaheim, California that featured Sir Elton performing on the Yamaha Disklavier with a 60-piece orchestra.
Weighing in at nearly 3,200 pounds and four years in the making, the state-of-the-art Yamaha piano was a collaboration between Sir Elton and Yamaha Entertainment Group, and features more than 68 LED video screens that display mesmerizing imagery to complement each of the show's iconic songs.
The main board, a 52-channel model, is supplemented by a 28-channel incarnation of the desk kept to one side at a 90-degree angle. For the record, the source of all this unbridled gain is a collection of Clair 12 AMS wedges. With the backlash you got off of those cabinets onstage, you had to adopt a piercing, high-end sound in order to hear yourself. DeTogne is a writer and editor who has served the pro audio industry for the past 30 years. The centerpiece of this extravagant new show is in fact a million dollar piano created in collaboration with Yamaha Entertainment Group. If you’re at all familiar with Elton John, then you know that flamboyant is probably one of the best words available to describe his performances. The audience at the Colosseum will get to see the energy that comes out of Elton’s fingers transformed into dazzling LED images, putting a new spin on his old hits. Between these classical columns infused with Vegas-style decadence, is a large screen playing footage from his life, including famous friends, family, and defining moments of his career.
The Yamaha piano features an exterior casing made of angular panels, which creates reflections that cannot be achieved on a regular polished ebony surface. Once the piano had been created, it just required Elton’s famed performance magic to bring it to life.
Furthermore, Gero opens up about the new software developed for the project and how that has established a whole new avenue of live entertainment via the Yamaha Disklavier. So, the intention is always there - as is the intention for the next one to always reach a bigger and greater level. I mean, I was trying to arrange a show of all the piano greats - Elton John and Billy Joel and Little Richard and Stevie Wonder and Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. And, it's also a really a remarkable journey to see how all of these artists have influenced each other, as well. Then, we worked together on THE RED PIANO, and, subsequently, in the last year of THE RED PIANO show, he and his manager and I sat down and we started a dialogue about what the next show should look like if they decided to return to Las Vegas.
Or, what if it became the epicenter of the moment, just based on the mood of the song?" Elton is very, very trusting and very faithful and he said, "You know what? In the process of building this piano, we filmed everything - the entire process; the beginning conversations between Elton and I all the way through the design process all the way through to the very first time he played it onstage, and, now, the actual finished final product of the concert. Elton gave us lots of access, as well - as you may know, Elton is sort of a bit camera shy and particular about how he is filmed, but he was very, very gracious to us for this, and, so, we have camera angles in every possible place you can imagine. The DVD part is already done, though - Elton's management is managing the release of the television aspect of it. Obviously, he is very proud of this project and we are very proud of this project, so it's turned out really well. He told everybody how amazing it was, but it's really the piano that drives the entire show - everything comes from that, and Elton.
Of course, he's had however many Top 40 hits and 300 million albums and he is one of the most prolific artists of the 20th and 21st century and he still goes out and does 150 concert dates a year, but, at the end of the day, he is a remarkable piano player. All of Elton's pianos, with the exception of his recording piano, are all 9-foot Yamaha concert grand pianos.
One thing that I have realized about Elton, though, is that he always wants to be the first to do something, whatever it is. As we moved away from S4s, however, Elton still thought he wanted to hear this wailing, high-pitched sound onstage, but he really didn’t need to anymore. As you would expect from a million dollar piano, it does much more then just provide a musical accompaniment to Elton John’s greatest hits.


This all sounds like a lot to take in visually, but according to the Las Vegas Sun, the video montages “are a noble complement, not a distraction.” Fans of Elton John might argue that his presence as a performer is more than enough to make for a fantastic show. Or the pair of cocker spaniel bas-reliefs tucked at the base of another set piece, representing John’s two canine companions, which sit beneath a handful of cupids leaning on a ledge and peering down amid bountiful grapevines. On that note, Gero shares stories detailing his participation with various Disklavier showcase events and the possibilities afforded by the revolutionary new piano tech that will be spotlighted in his new documentary 88 - which features performances by Elton John, Michael McDonald, Sara Bareilles, Jamie Cullum and more. It's always the goal for these events to have a life outside of the three or so hours that they last, so every single one of them we film. Using digital technology, the Disklavier can repeat the performance that the artist gave on the instrument exactly - identically. You are getting their actual interpretation of the song that really struck a chord, so to speak, and acted as the genesis of their wanting to be an artist or a piano player. So, I suggested making this piano that would be part of the story - because all of Elton's songs are stories, after all.
As an ancillary component of it, we are now releasing the concert in movie theaters before it comes out on DVD.
In the aftermath of all of that, there are two more projects now that are direct spins of it. But, right now, our primary concern is the Fathom Events presentation of THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO, of course.
I remember in February 2009, we were talking about some design elements for the project and he said - and this is in the documentary - that, "I want this to be a work of art and it is.
So, this was a very unique environment for creating a show - everything was built around the piano.
We had a set of meetings in Japan and then we had a set of meetings in Montreal and then we sent both pianos to Montreal to be outfitted with the video and then we sent them both to Vegas about four days before opening night and we really had no idea until we all arrived - we really didn't know - if it was all going to work and what it was going to look like. And, he is really aggressive in how he plays - he is a vicious, vicious piano player; as strong and vicious now as when he was 25.
He has always used them - 9-foot concert grand pianos; even when he started out way back when playing Steinways. So, I produced this show with him back in 2013 that was broadcast live across the world using this technology we have called RemoteLive, where it takes essentially the audio and video and MIDI data from the piano and puts them back together and spits them back out wherever you are broadcasting to. But this is my 20th year at Clair so I’ve been doing this long enough, and know a lot of the people who pioneered this route. The modified CFIIS grand piano is covered in 68 LED screens that display images inspired by the music.
However, The Million Dollar Piano, just proves that even at 64, Elton is still interested in finding new and evermore glamorous ways to perform his music.
Rather than being supported by wooden legs, the Million Dollar Piano rests on prism-like acrylic foundations that reflect and refract light and make the piano appear to float or hover above the ground. Additionally, Gero offers the 411 on Yamaha's participation in a wide range of specialty events, ranging from the silver piano Alicia Keys played on the Super Bowl to specially provided keys for Paul McCartney and more, as well as various Elton John charity benefits he has helmed over the years.
But, then, when you start looking at it, you have to ask: so, how are we going to re-purpose this? Then, when I got the strength up again to try all over with it, it would take six months to get someday or whatever.
So, when you hear Elton play the piano it is one thing, but when you see the piano playing back exactly what Elton played exactly as he played it, it is very, very eerie to watch. So, it became this full-circle project - you know, here's Yamaha as a product manufacturer creating this one-of-a-kind, beautiful piece of art that is the epicenter of this MILLION DOLLAR PIANO show, and, we also filmed all of the elements surrounding it at the same time. So, it is a remarkable testament to all of these guys to have the ability to pull it off and have the know-how of how to do it as well as they did it.
So, we wanted to make sure we could create a piano that could withstand that kind of furious pounding and beating that he gives a piano when he plays it every single night.
Paul McCartney uses a piano that is about a foot shorter and Alicia uses one that is even shorter than that, but they all have mini-playback capabilities built-in to them - you know, sometimes a mic fails or whatever. So, back in January 2013, Elton was playing live in front of a live audience in Anaheim, California, and it was playing back to about 250 locations in 40 different countries around the world.
We've never spoken specifically about Lang Lang, but I can tell you that this RemoteLive technology is changing how we see piano music and how even piano instructing can be done. According to Yamaha VP Chris Gero “The piano is functional as a work of art and as a playable instrument containing state-of-the-art video and lighting that explodes the boundaries of instrument and performer. All of that and much, much more in this behind the scenes look at the modern technical marvel that is Elton John's Million Dollar Piano and the multi-talented man behind it! I mean, we've filmed them all - even the very first tribute I did to Elton, 11 years ago.
I grew up in the early 70s and he had such an impact on my life that I just knew I would play the piano just because of how influenced I was by him and his music.
I mean, it's a pretty complex, moving piece of art that still is, inside, a Yamaha grand piano. So, besides the fact that it is this beautiful work of art, it is still a secure and high-functioning piano underneath all of that. They all have different degrees of electronics, but it's still the same basic piano underneath. For example, in Sydney, Australia, the sound was coming out of these big huge speakers and the chorus was on a big huge screen and the piano on the stage that was playing was actually the exact same playing that Elton was doing on his piano in Anaheim.
The press has already been really remarkable on it and we have another press day coming up soon. All of them have been filmed, but it's just a very complex process in doing things with multiple artists and they all have different requests and expectations and all of that - you know, some are really cool and some are not that cool, so it just depends. So, I feel like I wanted to pass on the favor, in a way - I wanted the story to be told through the eyes of the artists, so I chose this sort of lofty project with it being 88 famous people telling their own stories about what inspired them to become artists. I think people might forget all of that when they see it - but, it's still basically just strings and wood beneath all of it. But, for example, the piano that Alicia played at the Super Bowl was custom-made - it was silver and everything; it was something that she specifically wanted for the event.
I mean, there's a whole other level of the experience of seeing someone play piano now with this. For the first time, it’s a visual and audio storyteller.” Creating this hybrid work of art and instrument involved placing sensors under the keys that control the visual displays according to Elton’s playing.
Blossom is even equipped with cameras behind the keys, so the audience can get right in there with Elton’s fingers.
Compared to us, they came on very late in the game, though - just a few months before the show was put up. So, they essentially were going off of what we told them and what we had already mapped out, more or less. The creative director, Tony King, is very well-known and has worked with a lot of large-format acts and he pulled in two guys, Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodroffe, who really know how to design these big, huge epic shows like Cirque Du Soleil. So, for the very first time, Elton was letting this show be done on a much grander scale than anything else he had ever done previously.




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