Closer than a Brother

Depth. I could write this word a thousand times, and it captures the essence of the “Brothers in Arms” album by Dire Straights.

Again I caveat, you need to hear this on a really good highly resolving  sound system, no headphones in my humble opinion can do justice to this work of irreplaceable art.

One more masterpiece where the words are not important, for you to enjoy it (it could have been sung in Swahili and you would still enjoy it without limitations) .

Layers of sonic overlay, lathered from front to back of the virtual hall(Z), from left to right(X), from bass to tinkly sparkly percussion(Y), were talking 3 dimensions here, of spectacular sonics laid bare in front of you. The melody is a 4th dimension, harmonies a 5th, lyrics a 6th, arrangement a 7th, and putting it all together its transparency and indelible impact and residue of emotions, is akin to an 8th dimension. It should not be possible – from a stereo source. I never felt the need for a higher definition version, extremely realistic presentation, truly like being in the studio – a cliche but true- the band is right there in front of you.

Whatever audio processing has been applied was done skillfully augmenting rather than taking away, balance, always an easy listen, what an ear test/sonic exploration. Textures ad infinitum, soft , hard, mushy, spiky, subdued, struck, pinched, tension, release, enveloping – 2 speakers felt like I had a surround system, filling the whole space and room with sound, and I could hear every note from anywhere, beyond space, beyond time, effortlessly, like having a magnifying glass.

Unconstrained, like peering through a completely opaque vista, no screens between you and the performers – live, dare I say it, this is better, much better than watching it live, cos you can enjoy this on your own, without an audience interrupting soak in all the sounds.

I had listened to a few tracks, before my mind attempted to consider the genre, but that was now irrelevant – it did not matter, this was art, using a medium to express something very human, a message from one mind to another, not needing an intermediary or translation. And the message was understood, without having to think of meaning, felt not just heard, every thump, snap, growl, pick, and synthesizer zips appearing in Money for Nothing, from beyond momentarily like shooting stars. Really serous about the caveat, on a good system, all these things stand out, not subtle at all, bold, and you wonder, I never heard all these sounds before. Is this really what Soul to Soul means, telepathic communication with the musicians, and the speakers literally disappeared, all I was left with was the music and its impact.

I listened to another album by a leading lady of pop which was released in 2008, and then I understood, this other pop album which was very well received almost sounded like a mono version, in comparison, gone were the highs and lows, and gone were the dimensions, and gone was the meaning.

Brothers in Arms should be compulsory listening for Audio Engineering students – this is how good a finished work of recorded audio can sound, like butter.

Art that conceals the science and engineering within it. No seams. Timeless. Very Satisfying.

Advertisements

Performances and Recordings of Note – One Night Only – Gregory Porter

Every so often I hear things that really standout, in various ways, sometimes in more than one way, e.g emotionally, musically, lyrically, production values, musicianship, tone. And I thought I’d share these here.

Typically these are recordings that made me take notice and I definitely want to hear them again.

Fair warning, some of these recordings need a music system that I would describe as accurate and highly resolving, ideally able to reproduce evenly frequencies down to 40hz, better still 35hz, with ease, and clarity all the way to 20Khz with balance on the top end and pretty accurate in between these extremes. Otherwise the detail is lost. You need this to hear the triangles without obstruction.

The 1st recording that touched me, recently, enough to highlight here, was Gregory Porter’s – One night only live at the Royal Albert Hall – 2018.

Comments: This is not about perfection, as on a highly resolving system, I can hear things that I would have loved to correct in a studio recording, but for a live recording, this album captures the essence of being there, in row 1, sitting right in front of Gregory, pretty much the same distance between us, as the distance between me and the speakers I am listening to.

A recording which you want to turn up, and hear in surround, the limitations of stereo as good as it is are apparent. But that’s the best you can do, a recording that makes you want to hear more.

This is probably the best recording of his voice I have heard, not in its accuracy, but in its authority and clarity. It’s difficult to go back and listen to other things after this.

What I’m trying to say is : this is a keepsake, a beautiful recording, that simply propels you into the virtual Albert Hall, to the limit of your speaker placement.

Very open, life like, very clever use of compression, which is not immediately apparent. IMHO, this is a watermark to compare any other recordings to. This one will test your sound system to the limit, especially in low end clarity… And the audience hand claps are like they are all around you. Superb….

It’s warts and all, some plosives are apparent, but worth the excess to assure capture of that rich deep dark bold masculinity, I think Gregory’s nickname should be the Lion King, cos on this album, he roars majestically , from the speakers, to overwhelm every sense. There is nothing I have ever heard that sounds quit like this. The smoothness of the orchestra, as an enveloping backdrop, to the rasp in his every syllable, periodically explosive, there may never be anything else like it again.

One night only. Very true, I doubt that Gregory himself can repeat this. You can sense the inspiration and elation – it must have been a special day for him also.

This would be even more amazing to hear in 24bit/96Khz…..

It is the most dynamic collection of music I have heard for some time, for the geeks, it had crest factors as high as 13.5 dB. A lot of pop music has a dynamic range – by crest factor of only 6 dB. This one needs turning up the sound system, so you can hear it as intended – life like, but then the voice becomes larger than life. What a performance – one man and an orchestra – absolutely no backing vocals. Awesome..

You can listen to this a million times, and hear something different every time, the 1st time I heard it,  I did not bother with the words, the music was simply so enthralling. Oh and no Auto Tune (pitch correction by a computer algorithm) in this one, you can hear all the inflections, its a man singing. He’s human, enhanced by microphone and audio production technology, to sound flatteringly superhuman on this recording, imperfectly perfect. This is real music. and live – no retakes….

On the songs that I know well from his previous albums, there is no sense of formulaic sameness, each song is fresh, and this applies to his vocal delivery. I must check – did he win a Grammy for this one, cos if he did it was well deserved.

Seriously this sets a new standard… for what modern recording and expert musicianship can achieve.

Good music is definitely not dead. Vintage, Classic, yet rendered with space age sonic authenticity.

1st and 2nd laws of Audio Engineering

The 1st two laws of audio reproduction, mixing, mastering and anything else you do to audio., in a studio, recorded or live performance.

2 quotes from “ardis” on a gearslutz forum thread.

“”Funny no analogue or digital process will “improve” audio quality. Anything you do to sound degrades it. Cracks me up when people use that argument. It actually starts with the performance that you alter and degrade in the first place and goes downhill from there. The magic is actually turning that into a positive.””

“The operative word is “perceived”. Our job is to interpret the performance through the tools we have at hand, to make an alternate reality conform, to what our interpretation of that performance is. Perception literally is reality in sound.”

I’ll add, this also applies to all audio equipment, including playback systems anywhere. It’s all a bit of a pleasurable con, when done right, and explains why a lot of this also has to consider the look and feel of the product or service, perception…, faith…., not reality.

Awesome

 

3rd time lucky? – CP88 aftertaste

Another hour with the CP88.

I had noticed something on the most recent review, which I needed to investigate further. It has two stereo analog outs.

  1. A set on 1/4 inch jacks, with the Left also labelled “mono”, implying that if this is the only output plugged in, the piano would sum both channels. This is a feature pretty common on all the Yamaha digital instruments, I have ever used. In many circumstances, especially when playing live, you may have only one channel on the mixer assigned to the keyboard, for convenience, and one of the reasons why this may be acceptable is because most audiences at a live event are listening in mono.
  2. Another set on balanced XLR’s with the Left channel ominously not having any additional labeling, regarding “mono” summing.

Because the balanced XLR’s did not explicitly have any “mono” designation on their Left output channel, it was foolhardy to simply assume that this feature would apply to them also. Solution to my inquiry – test and hear if there was a difference.

I did and true to the omitted “mono” labeling, the balanced XLR Left channel does not sum Left and Right. So Yamaha to their credit labelled this accurately.

What’s the difference? The mono summed 1/4 inch jack left channel has a collapsed depth of field, and sounds tiny, and I no longer enjoyed the sound. My earlier audition had the keyboard connected via one cable to the speaker, on the left XLR channel., and reverting to a balanced XLR connection, after listening to the mono summed version via 1/4 inch jack, I definitely preferred the non-summed sound via XLR.

It would have been great to hear what the right XLR channel, on its own would sound like, solo, but I had already bothered the store attendant more than probably anyone else reviewing this keyboard over two session, that I felt reticent to ask for more.

I could write a whole piece about auditioning pianos in a store, digital in particular

This really changes things….., and as much as I gave the Yamaha a glowing recommendation, in this configuration, via mono summed 1/4 inch left output only connected, this is not a piano sound I would recommend.

The other thing that nagged me was this unshakable impression of stumpyness, a heavy footedness in the piano sounds especially the acoustic,  where you had to really make an effort to play delicately, a bit more so than on a Yamaha CP33 stage piano, which I play most days, and am pretty familiar with. So the CP88 does the forte well, but no piano (soft)…the lower velocities having not been sampled very well…., especially on the acoustic pianos.

The Utube video at the link or image below, sheds light on this challenge of digital pianos. I do find that the more expensive hybrid Yamaha pianos do a better job of this dynamic range, however playing them is not as even handed in touch as pianos like the CP88, which are so well regulated. I guess it takes a lot of money to regulate the more expensive actions perfectly, cos there is so much more physics and components to get right.



So it really depends on what kind of music you make, and how much you want in one keyboard. Not too sure if the default sound on the CP88 would do classical very well (not that that is my genre). While most of my review to date has been to hear what the basic pianos in each category sound like, especially without all the effects, to hear the pure sound as much as possible, well I kinda left the reverb on – it was not distractive and in the default setting adds just a bit of effective realism to all the sounds, otherwise everything sounds too close miked. Distractive – is that a real word in the English language??

The third category of the CP88 sounds, with acoustic and electronic being the 1st two broad categories, which are all individually layerrable, has accompaniment sounds like strings, pads, organs, and let’s say I was underwhelmed, Yamaha should not have bothered. If you want lush strings, look elsewhere… what I heard in this category is unmissable.

So if looking for a recent single stage piano, in hardware form, keys and sound engine on one device, the current alternatives would be :

  1. Nord Stage 3
  2. Nord Piano 4
  3. Nord Grand (soon to be released – which bumps up the piano memory from the 1GB on the Nord Piano 4 to 2GB, and replaces a Fatar action with one from Kawai)
  4. Roland RD2000
  5. Korg Grandstage
  6. Korg Kronos
  7. A used Yamaha Motif XF, XS or S90ES
  8. A used Roland RD800 or RD700NX.
  9. A used Yamaha CP33 or new/used Yamaha CP300 (Yes this 9+ year old keyboard can still be bought new, and has great sounds – Yamaha still makes them…new)

A little research indicates that the Nords also have a challenge with the difference in the sound of mono and stereo, in their case having a dedicated mono button, but I have it on good advice that similar to my experience with the Yamaha, some prefer to avoid using it., and make do with the subordinate sound of one half of the stereo pair, in circumstances where only one channel is amplified, or recorded.

I have not tried the comparison of the RD2000, in stereo/mono, so cannot say.

Why bother with all this minutiae? Partly because a lot of the demos one hears of these instruments, on Utube, are in stereo, and if you think this is what you will hear on a live stage connected with just one audio channel active, think again.

This challenge is as old as the invention of stereo capable digital pianos, and I am a bit surprised to find out that it is still a major issue, if you are picky about your piano sounds. And I think you have to be, if you wish to be as emotionally authentic, and/or give value to your paying or non paying audience. If the experience of listening to you play is or should be an important one, then you want to get it as good as possible.

While the samples may not be as pristine and accurate, it was comforting to discover a more satisfactory resolution of this stereo summing issue, when I got back later in the day to play the CP33, which IMHO, has a more balanced resolution of the dynamic (forte/piano) challenge, and it’s mono sound when using only the Left 1/4 inch jack output, is acceptable….

I am tempted to have one more go, to review what are known as Yamaha’s Live sets, which are combinations of the three main sound categories, kind of like their master programming of production ready sounds which you can use without having to tweak yourself, i.e part of what you pay for is Yamaha’s expertise at creating combi sounds, something they should be good at – should – from their EX5, Motif and Montage pedigree. But that assumption, like everything else needs to be verified.

The video at this link gives an example of the end user having to tweak a Roland RD2000 piano sound to provide something more suitable for classical music.

So this is something to consider, do you want to become a piano engineer, or want to focus on creating music, practice, and performance and composition. In the old days of synthesizers, you had programmers whose job was to create great sounds, and got paid for it, the most successful being Eric Persing of Spectrasonics/Roland fame. So when you got a keyboard it came with great sounds. It’s part of what you paid for.

So only you can determine if the sounds of a specific keyboard work for you or not. And the more I look at things, the dream of having a single keyboard from Nord, Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, which has ALL of the following features is slim, based on their current or announced offerings.

  1. Great keyboard action
  2. Excellent piano sounds – acoustic, electric.
  3. Very good other sounds, organ, etc
  4. Solves the mono issue.
  5. Comes with great patches in the box, so tweaking is a bonus
  6. Has some easy to use tweakability, which allows you to tailor and examine options, to create your own sound over time, but out of the box you do not have to do this, cos there are a good number of sounds close enough to what you have in mind.
  7. Durability.
  8. Of course not too heavy to take to the gig.

The ultimate solution, may be a two keyboard rig, one weighted keys for pianos action, and another like one of the Nord Electros for other sounds.

A good example of this is here. In conclusion it is not likely to be inexpensive. Or like him you rent as needed. Note all the videos are in stereo, so not sure how they will sound on stage..!! in mono… At this time, the Nord’s get the nod for an all in one that comes closest to the wish list above. – but do beware – that Fatar action has never been the most reliable, but I guess with gigging pianists in some parts of the world, not their problem, they only have to rent the item, and its someone else’s headache when the keys fail.


Sayonara..

Hope never fails

Amazing.

What a comeback. Congratulations – Tiger.. Augusta National 2019 – 5th Masters win.

I vividly recall my wife predicted, he’d be back on top.

What a smile. Encourages all of us.

Our best is still there and the future is worth the anticipation.

Yamaha CP88 – The 2nd coming of a 5* stage piano

I gave this stage piano a 2nd audition. And in my most honest opinion this is a keeper – it gets 5 stars from me.

Playback was via a Neo Acoustic LA10 speaker, this is an in-house brand of Dawsons, at the time of this writing – £349, one of those column speakers on a stick, with a subwoofer as the bass and base. As I played the piano in a sitting position, the speaker extension column was removed so that the section containing tweeters and midrange speakers was lowered to just above the base/bass, and closer to my ear height – just below.

If I may add, playback is such an important aspect of any electronic instrument. Not that I advocate their purchase, but many of the budget keyboards like the Yamaha P45 sound definitely better when played through other speakers instead of the tiny little speakers on the keyboard, which do no justice to the sounds on any keyboard. I strongly advocate that one needs a speaker with a woofer of at least 10 inches (if using a PA speaker) or at least 6 inches (if using a studio monitor), to really hear what the instrument sounds like, and this makes a huge difference to appreciating its sound.

With that out out of the way, I adjusted my seat, positioned the tweeter column angled towards me, and the audition began.

As the piano had been switched on in the store, next thing was to sort out the volume, ensure there that all the bass, and treble controls on the speakers and on the keyboard were set to flat.

What can I say?, about 80 minutes of non-stop playing ensued, and this is one of those keyboards, that has earned the kind of reverence I had for the Roland LX-17 and Roland LX-15 pianos. Three words, satiety, clarity, punch. This is one keyboard that deserves the very best of speaker amplification, it is worth every extra penny you spend on amplifying it optimally. I am pretty convinced that some of the advantage of the Roland LX-17, Roland LX-15 and the Yamaha-CLP 585 and 685 are their higher quality speakers.

By default, certain features are turned on such as damper resonance (most likely also related to a similar feature on software based samples of pianos – aka sympathetic resonance), and a bit of reverb also turned on. It’s very easy to turn these off as the CP88 provides a good number of controls without having to dig into menus.

Unlike the Roland RD’s which attempt to assuage you with lots of sounds, a lot of which is simply several different variations on the same theme – you find this approach on instruments like the Roland Fantom, lots of patches all sounding almost the same, based on the same fundamental piano samples…, the CP88 taks the less is more approach, 2 or three different main pianos is each category – Acoustic Grand, Uprights, CP (which is sampled from the original Yamaha CP80), and similar in the section for electroacoustic instruments emulating Rhodes, Clavinets, Wurlutzers and includes a DX7 electric piano sample. Rather than lots of variations of each, you get just a few typically no more than 3 or 4, and you can use the controls that are easily within reach, to tweak the sound to taste

Of any keyboard I have ever used, this was more like sitting at an instrument like the old Rhodes piano, and being able to tweak to taste with controls right in front of you. Add or reduce reverb, compression, chorus, wah-wah, and more, and the real highlight for me was the EQ, very effective, albeit I would say, I have spend far more time than I dare to admit, using EQ’s as a mixing engineer, and also adjusting eqs for pianos in a mix, so this comes more naturally to me, if I hear a sound, I know exactly what frequency and what filters to change to get me the sound I desire. So for me – the Yamaha EQ section is a big plus. With a few turns you can dial in pretty much most of the sound you want, on any piano.

So each default piano patch is only a starting point. Its easy with a few quick turns to take it much further in the direction of your intentions. With this and the volume knob, I could do 80% of whatever I wanted and that’s never happened on any digital piano – never…, and I can achieve all of this in about 10 seconds, max, on any patch….

Now to the CP88 sound, this applies to all the sounds, bold, clean, very clean, in your face, a bit bright, stark naked, warts and all, hanging it all out there in full view. Yamaha have taken a huge risk to create an instrument that is very revealing of their original samples. This is the new Yamaha sound to define a whole new world of gigging professionals. This is an instrument that does not rely on effects to cover up shortcomings. Shockingly I was very satisfied with using the sounds – plain, turning off ALL the effects on each sound, relying only on EQ to take the sound where I wanted it to go, for a particular piece of music, darker, brighter, all done with ease – and no modulation or time based effects… The sounds stand up to the utmost scrutiny – very well sampled.

At the heart of this instrument is honesty like I have never heard in a digital instrument, you may not like some of its sounds, cos this is about presenting Yamaha’s vision of piano, in digital form. You may not like the sound of the Yamaha and Bosendorfer, acoustic pianos, in their default presentation, but with some tweaks of the eq, they will take you at least 70% of the way towards most of the sound you want to hear. Yes you will probably need to adjust your chords and polyphony and inversions to suit this instrument, but I daresay, this is a keyboard that will make you a much better pianist, and I explain.

On one end of the digital emulative piano are instruments like the Korg M1, and the Motif or Fantom and the Korg Triton/Trinity, whose pianos are obviously not as authentic as the real thing, with a sound that has lots of harmonics, rich and luscious in comparison to a real piano, for pop music with minimal polyphony (fewer notes in a chord) and minimal playing, you get a fully featured result. On these instruments you are not encouraged to attempt any complex classical music, they would sound like garbage, cos too much would be going on.

The CP88 is the other extreme, pared back, not too much harmonics on each note, with very strong fundamentals, so there is no hiding place, but you have all 88 notes to create the richness you need, so hammer away, all fingers blazing, create any chord your fingers can get away with, and every single note will ring out distinctly, without any smearing. This keyboard looks at you and says – is that all you’ve got, it will take any level of complex playing, deliver all the notes with aplomb, and stare back at you without breaking a sweat. You will need to up your game on this keyboard, no two fingered chords will do here….In simple terms this is a keyboard for the pianist who can play, it will force anyone to play better and improve. It’s the closest to a high quality concert level piano in portable digital form, allowing you to perform at that level if you have the ability.

The black keys – now this is special, rather than gloss or matt, they look like some kind of wood with a grain (may be plastic but I’d have to check), which has friction, surprisingly no one else seems to have highlighted this unique feature. So the black keys are the most non slippery I have ever come across, and they look cool. Unfortunately there’s no way to see this in any of the publicity photos, you have to audition the keys in person, to see for yourself.

After a few minutes of acclimatization, the keybed is one of the best I have ever laid hands on, very, very fast response, weighted but not too heavy, not tiring, you can play anything on this keyboard if you have the chops. Very even response on every key, – its got wood in the white keys for sure, a very high quality keybed, that is a joy to play.

Overall the keyboard is a professional instrument, big, bold, but not as bulky as the Roland RD2000, a good balance between having no controls like on the Yamaha CP4, and having too many controls and blinking lights and sliders, like on the Nord Stage 3, Nord Piano 4 and the RD2000 (which could be good for lighting Xmas trees – lots of lights), once you’ve tweaked the few controls you need, the vista in front of you is relatively uncluttered and you can be on your merry way focusing on the music, no light houses like the Yamaha Montage !!. The black is demure, and invisible. I can imagine though it should not take too much to get someone with the competency to change the color to something more individual – if I was a gigging pianist, or a major label artist, I’d have mine in color bands like what Elton John might have had commissioned.

As you dig into the higher velocities, this keyboard opens up, on any of the instruments, acoustic pianos, electric pianos, whatever, and more so than the authenticity of emulation, is this aspect – it behaves like an instrument, not the instrument that was sampled, but this new incarnation of the original, at your service, to deliver a performance that translates a human emotion. Now that’s what an instrument does – convey something from the ethereal and make it plain for others to see and hear – the CP88 does this more effortlessly than any other digital portable piano, to date. Does it have its own signature – yes, but in a way this is also good, it does not sound like any other instrument, and each time you play it, you can make it distinctly your own instrument, by the settings you prefer and the way you play. Rather than impose its signature on your sound, you are in control of the wheel to steer the CP88 where you want to go, with your tweaks and your fingers, and feet at the pedals.

It oozes confidence, looks like a keyboard that will wear well, and be in use in 30+ years from now and still be in contention with any keyboard of the future, no matter how good future keyboards become. Very, Very well built metal casing. You know you are playing one of the best, electronic instruments ever made.

I own a Yamaha CP33 stage piano, and get a lot of joy from it. While I was not pleased with the more recent stage pianos from Yamaha like the CP1(too expensive), CP4 (samples not very good sounding), the CP88 restores Yamaha’s leadership of portable digital keyboards, if piano is your main instrument. It may not excel at other sounds – pads, strings, etc, but what it does it does very very well. I think for an instrument with the clarity of what I have heard, that does not need any hiding place, a keyboard that looks like you will never need to replace it, and a musical instrument that may outlive you, it’s worth every penny – if you can play it – not a keyboard for beginners, but any beginner on this piano will soon become a piano giant, with consistent practice, it will force you to get better, cos it can take anything you throw at it without breaking a sweat.

If you need a good portable piano, this is the one to get, that you will never ever be ashamed of, no matter what else comes in the future, or whatever anyone else owns.

I won’t bore you with feature lists, you can find that elsewhere on the web and on Yamaha’s site, but I do hope I’ve been able to convey the heart and soul and feel of this INSTRUMENT, that translates human emotions very well, with very little coloration of your intentions, if any.

It is not the keyboard to end your need for other keyboards, but the keyboard to form the firmest foundation, of what is available today, of highly expressive tones to build your songs, encourage you to practice, guaranty your confidence at any rehearsal, bathe your audience in delight, afford your recordings a level of unashamed clarity that will stand the test of time…, and not break your back when you need to move it.

Whatever you do check with Yamaha about getting a good case for it. This is a keeper that you want to preserve in pristine condition, forever. I am certain this will be a classic…Get one while you can. My concern is that Yamaha may with its success add features to a new model and discontinue it too soon, the CP88 however reminds me of the Yamaha CP300 the godfather of stage pianos, another classic, that at the last check, is still in production well over 7 years after it was released… This must be the CP300 reincarnate.

Excellent Related Piano Sites

I thought it good when I discover really relevant other sites which amplify some of the review I have attempted to establish on my site, of piano and music.

The 1st of them is the Youtube channel of Ben Allen – really just an amazing musical and technically proficient individual. Dare say the best keyboard comparison site on Youtube, by a long mile… The quality of his videos is outstanding, and his delivery is IMHO measured and objective.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVxOGNLryVOoo_0QiRujOpA/featured