Monthly Archives: August 2014

August 2014 – Affordable Mid Range – Digital Pianos

The last weekend was heavenly, Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at Dawsons in Reading, trying out almost all their weighted keyboards, portable or home oriented non portables (i.e the stuff you simply cannot lug arround with you)….

There are no clear winners. In these days of the internet/online, it is rare to have the opportunity to try out a variety of keyboards in one physical store….I’m enjoying this while it lasts. I recall how Turnkey,  probably the world’s most famous music equipment store, in London – United Kingdom, is no more…., my guess is that online price wars killed off brick and mortar music stores, whose overhead in prime time real estate no longer had a place! While reviews on Youtube give you a good indication, of the sound, nothing compares with you playing the instrument yourself.

Caveat emptor. My priority in all of the comments below was how well the pianos felt through my fingers and how well they sounded, and supported my perfomance and emotional intentions with each pice of music.

All of the digital pianos I encountered had in-built speakers, amplifiers, and a weighted 88 note keybed.

Why digital piano(DP)?

1. The cost of a high end, well regulated acoustic piano, is definitely beyond the means of most hobbyists such as I predominantly am, at the time of this writing. Regulated here refers to the even touch, you feel on the more expensive acoustic pianos, with no sudden unsettling changes in tone from key to key and from loud to soft playing. Even is the word that comes to mind – No surprises, like you find on low end acoustic pianos.

2. Volume Control and support for Headphones..

3. Portability. Most digital pianos are still relatively portable and you may not need the services of a dedicated piano removal professional, if you wish to relocate.

3. Always in perfect tune.

4. Easy to record, no need for arcane microphones.

5. DP’s can easily serve as the master keyboard controller for a home studio, using MIDI or MIDI over USB.

6. Nice looking furniture piece. Would look great in your study or lounge, if you had the space.

7. In general I’ve found the touch of most DP’s of the non portable kind to be more consistent than the portable stage piano variety. Could be that the much stronger support, devoid of any microshifts in the stand/support, improves the feel. This could be an impression only and maybe a strong firm stand on a stage piano could be the answer. I find that when you need to play some very loud notes, where a bit of downforce on the keyboard helps with your expressiveness, the last thing you need is minute wobbly movement of the keyboard or individual keys, e.g. from left to right.

YAMAHA

The new Yamaha’s (e.g CLP 525, 535, 545, edit more recently after this was initially written, I have come to love the 585 also which was not available in store in August 2014) were the most balanced of the new keyboards – In general they represent a safe bet, and would probably appeal to those aiming for a middle of the road piano. average – and probably the most consistent, no major surprises. caveat, these obviously will not sound like a Steinway, as the pianos sampled are Yamaha acoustic and Bosendorfer which is also now owned by Yamaha.

Furthermore, they seemed to have the most consistent sound between different models, getting darker and brighter (yes both ends of the audio spectrum are enhanced as you go up the price range). But of all the piano ranges, these had the most consistent sound, in my opinion.

Compared to the older CLP’s the new ones are a definite improvement. That characteristic bright tone that Yamaha acoustic are known for, have been somewhat toned down with the CFX samples. The sparkle is still there when you need it, but you have to dig in a bit to tease this out of the piano. The Yamaha’s consistently had the most useful electric pianos. Unfortunately Dawsons no longer carry the Motif and MOX’s in store, but I guess from previous experience, I have a pretty good idea how these compare. The Motif/MOX have the most useful electric pianos I have ever heard(edit in more recent times the Roland RD800 has set a new bar in a polished new wave electric piano sound), not particularly authentic a la the Rhodes, but the most usable, and also have a good variety of pleasing options in this category of epianos.

There was nothing to complain about the Yamaha CLP action, especially with higher end models. Overall a bit lighter than I have found on older Yamaha products such as the Motif ES8 and the Yamaha CP33. Nothing significant to have to adjust to here. I am a bit more familiar with the Yamaha action. Not saying that I like them, but they get the job done.

Compared to other pianos’s the Yamahas had an excellent tonal variation between the darker – warmer – more intimate Bosendorfer tones and the brighter CFX tones. In general they had the greatest tonal range across the variety of piano samples, which could lend them to a much wider application, without sounding samey. The Bosendorfer definitely sounds different to the Yamaha tones, on each of these pianos, not as prominent, but this works to the advantage of some music pieces, allowing the player to dig in a bit more without the piano drawing attention to every note! On the Bosendorfer, you hear the whole music in perspective, like a panorama, from a certain distance. With the Yamaha CFX tones, its more of an introspection, with every note announcing itself, that bit more than with the Bosendorfer.

It was shocking to discover that the Yamahas were the least bright of the digital pianos, not in a bad way, but quite unexpected, as Yamahas traditionally have been one of the brightest digital pianos. I’d say that the Yamahas could be bright, but need a bit of effort(velocity) to achieve their brightest tones.

I’d also say that the Yamahas had the greatest tonal range between bright and dark tones, in response to velocity, i.e they got brighter the harder you played.

The other pianos, were already a bit bright and especially with the new Rolands also quite percussive at all but the lowest velocities. On the other hand, the Yamaha’s felt a bit restrained(soft) until you applied some effort to your strike, and never ever sounded over the top(artificial, plinky), no matter how hard you struck the keys.

Fortunately the relatively lighter touch of the current crop of Yamahas did not discourage a heavy handed approach to the keyboard, to access those brighter tones.

KAWAI

The Kawai’s were superb, but the sound varied quite a bit between the various models. Each good in their own way.

The CN24 is bright, an excellent replica of an upright piano sound. I really enjoyed playing this.

The CN 34 is darker, also derived from an upright piano. Sometimes it felt a bit too dark

The CA65 is bright, derived obviously from a concert grand piano. Somehow this was one of the few pianos I have ever played that really did not do it for me. Nice sound, excellent action, but something did not quite convince me.

The CA95 is a masterpiece, deep but not dark – glorious sound. both of the CA pianos had really excellent long sustains. Nevertheless the Kawai’s obviously emulate a Kawai sound which may not be what you want. While brighter, the Kawai’s has the least percussive sound, a pleasing accompaniment instrument that feels a little veiled in comparison, with the least ear fatigue.

Maybe I need to define percussive, which to me implies a piano sound tending towards the striking almost honky tonk, you hear on rock and American gospel music, and Abba’s pop music.

Piano sounds are quite subjective, and vary in their suitability to the specific genre, and music piece, you need the piano to support. The long history of piano development – over several hundred years, with variances across continents, has spoiled the listener of recorded or live music with such a wide spectrum of tones.

Electric pianos on the Kawai’s – were generally ok, not spectacular.

I found the touch of the Kawais the most luxurious. Very consistent, really enjoyable action, light on the CA’s like a concert grand should be. Almost too light, but in a good way.

I’d say the Kawais, were the most pianistic of the lot – if a bit bright.

ROLAND

Roland seems to be striking out in a new direction, with an interesting and somewhat enchanting acoustic piano sound, somewhat brighter, and quite percussive – definitely easy to cut through a mix in a live environment. Mellow would definitely not describe the new Roland acoustic piano sound. I did not like the electric pianos on Roland in general – more effect based, than the actual electro piano sound. The percussive sound of the Roland’s is like nothing I have heard before. The work plinky comes to mind. Rich, resonant, sustained – Pop piano, drawing attention to itself without effort. You end up restraining your playing on a Roland, cos it can sometimes be a bit over the top, like excessive power that needs to be held in reserve.

The FP130R was a revelation for the price. I liked it, like a really good upright – dark chocolate with an inviting tinkle. deep dark and bright at the same time. Very percussive. It drew you in to its sound. – Intimate. The touch was not the most consistent, but in a way it replicated the slightly inconsistent feel of most acoustic pianos, that the average Joe would have access to. In this sense it was probably  the most authentic digital piano. This in itself introduced a wackiness, a slight quirkiness to your playing, only ever so slight, unpredicatable, but this was also exciting, every note a delight, a bit of a surprise. This was the piano that in my opinion revealed to me in the most amazing way, the sonic power of the Roland Supernatural sound.

The HP504, 506, and 508 were even more consistent in their quality, really excellent pianos, each very slightly different in tone.

The LX15E is glorious, deep dark – and very full sounding, begging for a real pianist to grace its keybed. The quality of the full range samples and speakers shines through. Yes a bit dark, and had the most bass of all the digital pianos I tried, not excessive, but unapologetic.

My overall favorite of the Rolands was the HP506. The 508 is rich and grandiose like a proper grand, but the 506 seemed to combine the best of both worlds. The 504 I found somewhat muffled, and the keybed/action was not as refined.

The Roland action is different, with the most pronounced ivory feel effect(anti sweat). In a way I had to adjust my playing a little bit more for the Rolands. Their ivory feel surface felt the most artificial, almost distracting, like wooden keys which had been sandpapered.

On the brighter side of the spectrum, the Rolands had the most significant variance between dark and bright, with their dark/soft being already notably bright, unless you played really softly.

KORG

Two words – don’t bother. Nothing exceptional here.

SUMMARY

If I had to pick one, it would be one of the Rolands, especially for POP music, which had the most easily discernible variation in tone, between low and high velocities, quite “dynamic” and for this reason the most expressive. They had the greatest measure of “instant gratification” – A finished polished sound, with no need for any further effects, in the way that Motifs once ruled, back in the day. Probably not the most realistic or authentic compared to a real piano, but somewhat excessive, like a new age futuristic version of a piano. It’s obvious that the technology from their VPiano is paying dividends. Nothing out there sounds anything like the new Rolands. Nothing. And nothing has ever sounded like a recent Roland digital piano – Nothing. They do occupy a certain exclusive high ground of their own. To sum this up, however unrealistic, the Rolands felt most like an instrument – something with which to express a believable emotion. The Yamaha’s felt a bit restrained, after listening to the Rolands.

With the Rolands, I tended to lower their volume a bit more, to avoid drawing attention in the store, and at the other end of the volume spectrum, I’d usually leave the Yamahas at the higher end of their volume slider.

For some reason the layout of the Yamahas and the Kawais, were so similar… Is there something we need to know? 

Of course all of these keyboards are a step ahead of their previous models, so my comments are comparative.

What’s consistent with all of the newer keyboards is the volume levels and clarity are so much better than previous models. Louder, clearer. And I would add brighter, more distinct than previous models.

The Roland is the new king of the pop digital piano. Shiny, almost unrestrained, new toy. It commands you to pay attention, not just to the pianist but to the piano itself.

In contrast the Yamaha does not draw attention to itself, but supports the intention of the player. 

I am quite surprised at this change of fortunes, as a few years ago, these roles were reversed, with Roland pianos having the darker woodier piano tones.

I could be wrong, but it appears that the Rolands are adding some extra harmonics and richness that you may not find on a real piano, while the Yamahas leave it the way it is – unsweetened, like good yoghurt – a bit bland but definitely good for you.

The Kawai CN24 and the CA95 were also standouts for me.

While I am definitely not in the market for a new keyboard, at this time, the technology has certainly moved on a bit from the Yamaha CP33 stage piano, which is my main board. The touch in the newer pianos has improved, and is not quite as heavy(read sluggish) as the CP33. It could also be the fact that the CP33 is a stage piano, while the aforementioned digital pianos are not built to be portable, so their action may benefit from the rigidity of their frames.

In comparison to the CP33, which came out at least 5 years earlier, the newer pianos are definitely more interesting, and more enjoyable to play, as the sustains and sample lengths have become longer.

I suspect that the CP33 also does not include release samples, so the “air” around notes is a bit dry – quite bland in comparison.

It could also be the listening environment. In the store I observe that there are obviously high ceilings, and smooth floors, with occasionally smooth shiny partitions and walls, while at home I listen to the CP33 in a bedroom with duvets, carpets and a studio monitor. The CP33 in this environment has relatively shorter decays, requiring me to be a bit heavy on the sustain pedal, and make a bit more effort to add more notes to “enhance” the performance, in the melodies and chords. I definitely have to work a lot harder on the CP33, busier piano style to fill in the “spaces”, to make a good impression. Maybe the term close miced may be a more appropriate description for the Yamaha CP 33 sound overall, as it has relatively shorter, quicker note decays.

Definitely, the newer pianos especially the Kawais, and the Rolands have more “sustain” and you can “hear” more of the “delay/reverb/natural decay” of the piano sound, with the new Yamahas being the closest to the CP33, which in a way is not unexpected. On the newer pianos, you are happy, especially on the Rolands and Kawais, to simply hit a note and let it sustain, ringout in all of its glory, before proceeding to the next note. Truth be told, in a real piano, the piano case in itself is a reverberant enclosure, which adds its own “volume”, and is an intrinsic part of the sound of a piano, in a similar manner to an acoustic guitar which has a box enclosure.

On the newer pianos you definitely hear this enclosure more, which contributes to the authenticity.

My guess is that the newer technology uses longer samples, or emulates the decay much better.

It does, in my room at home, make me yearn to tweak the sound of the CP33 to add more of that gloss, resonance, sparkle.

From recall the newer pianos were somewhat easier to play, more realistic, and more enjoyable. But it could be the fact that I’m using studio grade monitors at home, in a space which does not “sweeten” the sound of the piano. I am convinced however that it’s not just the space, there’s a smoothness and excitement(read dynamics) in the newer pianos that makes them more “alive”.

However, comparing like to like, I found that the Roland stage pianos e.g the RD700NX, did not give me as much of the “excitement” contained in their newer non portable pianos, so there coule be some “mojo” going on with the new pianos, which is coupled to their casing, speaker placement. In comparison to studio monitors, the speaker placement on digital pianos makes it feel that the sound is coming from an instrument, i.e from “everywhere immediately in front of you” rather than the more directional locatable source of a pair of studio speakers/monitors. 

When I have the energy, maybe I’ll pick a pair of headphones and compare the piano sounds again, eliminating any room or speaker influenced impressions. But on second thoughts, even acoustic pianos require a partnership with the room, to produce the sound which we identify with. 

Progress indeed.

MY WISHLIST

A single piano with all of these sounds so that I could have everything in one keyboard. I know you would say – software based sampled pianos on a PC/Mac are the way to go, but I am not yet convinced. I derived a significant pleasure from playing the digital “hardware” versions which in reality are simply running software on dedicated hardware processors, with dedicated speakers positioned optimally. 

I guess this is what you pay for with a decent digital piano, the integration – of wood, design, electronics, speakers, amplifiers, plug and play, solid keybed, multiple pedals. look and feel. On the other hand you lose the portability/upgradeability. What you see is what you get.

I would also ask that the control surfaces be touch panels, that enable the user to “promote” their favorite controls, and de-emphasize non-favorite controls, with default layout presets provided by the manufacturer, and we can look forward to saving the planet, via software uogrades, and possibly component upgrades, rather than the current situation where every change to the piano results in the discarding of very previous wood, that does not need to be “thrown away”.

I think that Digital Piano manufacturers are significantly behind on component reuse, and whichever of them introduces this obvious quantum leap with interchangeable parts, especially where the piano owner can customise to make the piano their own in a much more engaged manner, is likely to steal the thunder, and break free from the pack. It’s sad to consider having to upgrade my entire piano just to get the newer sounds!

In this world of apps, its time the manufacturers of digital pianos followed suit, to let us have interchangeable sounds, that can be “upgraded” as the fashion of the day in piano sounds evolves, and enables us to remain in nostalgia, with perfect compatibility with older sounds.

Wishes.

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Reaper

While I do not subscribe to or support the mythology behind the name, and the image and symbolism thereof, I have been using Reaper 4 – a Digital Audio Workstation(DAW) to mix or edit audio for a few years.

Recently I accepted to mix a multi-tracked song, for a friend of mine. All done completely in the box.

Compared to about 12 years ago when I bought Cubase SX version 1.0 (in 2002), and needed a supercomputer to run it, while Reaper is not exactly a walk in the park, with a steep learning curve, it is truly amazing what can be achieved today.

In my recent use, my only challenges were:

1. Knowledge, especially of free plugins(effects) to apply to the tracks. Most of this was resolved by either a review of my stash of free plugins, or research on the internet. I highly recommend bedroomproducersblog.com as an outstanding source of information. Youtube was also an indispensable resource.

2. A few crashes of the application(Reaper), usually at the most inopportune time, with occasional loss of work. Most of this was probably due to poorly coded free plugins and my resorting to mix through the default audio device on my Windows laptop, using ASIO4ALL to emulate the required ASIO audio device.

In my experience a dedicated USB audio input/output interface with properly written ASIO drivers would probably have been much more stable. I’m thinking of a Steinberg UR44 at this time…. we’ll see. I will need to save up for this… I’m not happy that the UR44 does not have digital I/O.

PLUGINS

At the last count, I had 104 instances of plugins loaded, but I’d like to highlight here a few key plugins which I used on most tracks.

In order within the audio path on each channel/track, the most used plugins were:

1. Stereo Channel by SleepytimeDSP I found this really good for setting the proper gain staging for each track, prior to any other plugins.

2. SonEQ by Sonimus, which was great for filtering out frequencies and touching up the most significant tweaks at mid, low and the high end. I discovered that less is more. Other eq plugins with lots of options and bands, could lead to paralysis via endless tweaking.

3. FerricTDS by Variety of Sound, which I found great for warming up tracks, which needed that bit of magic.

4. On some tracks I tried out R2R from CDSoundmaster, which is a great tape emulation plugin. Fairly benign, but when you bypass this on a couple of tracks, the cumulative effect can be discerned.

5. For compression – Variety of Sound’s  Density came to the rescue.

One of the challenges with using plugins is the need to RTFM – Read the manual, as there are no universal standards for how plugins should present signal flow.

These plugins also had relatively simple – easy on the eye GUI’s. In the debate between hardware and digital, some of the beauty of hardware is its simplicity. I reckon that the most renowned audio hardware also has the most efficient interfaces (knobs, switches, indicators on their faceplates), which have endeared audio engineers to adopt them as staples in the studio.

All plugin developers should take a leaf from this.

Obviously I used many more features, sends, panning,  effects on sends, etc… compression on groups, but I’m trying not to bore you with these details.

APPROACH

I created subgroups (and subgroups thereof) or if I state this the other way round, the final mix was the result of grouping all tracks into a hierarchy of groups, including a pseudo master Group track which feeds 1 : 1 into the default Master channel.

I had two main windows, the track view and the mixer channel and I was constantly swapping between these two views.

Learning to use automation to introduce some “control” or “variation” as required definitely makes a difference. I have a philosophy that mixing is like packing your bags for a trip, there’s only so much you can pack in the box(also known as headroom) and the challenge is striking the balance between of tracks to support the final impression you wish to make with the music.

How many shirts to you need, how much formal wear do you pack?, How much casual wear? How many shoes? Could be this is why we have so few of a certain gender in the audio engineering profession. It would be more difficult for them to make these choices.

Mixing is like conducting, placing emphasis on audio sources, at each instant in the track.

I guess its similar to how a composer builds harmonies, applies specific inversions and develops the chordal “thickness” i.e polyphonic complexity in a piece of music. Sometimes, less is more to enable the melody to shine through.

With appropriate sub-mixing, building the mix was made much easier as it was easy to adjust the relative levels of groups of  channels, as well as the relative volume between tracks within a group. It then became a decision between – does the section volume need to change or does the volume of a specific instrument need to change?

While I did experience one bug with the sub-mixing, using groups, which was resolved by deleting and recreating the affected track, the ease with which Reaper manages sub-mixes via groups, which can be multilevel is an absolute revelation. What a life changer.

What are the alternatives to Reaper. Avid Protools 11? Cubase? Harrison Mix Bus? Samplitude?

Here’s my opinion, each DAW requires an investment in time, to learn and become proficient in its use.

What would I change?

For anything more than 12 tracks, definitely multiple screens and large ones too, with high pixel counts, for an efficient workflow. Scrolling and swapping windows on one display is such a time waster. I’d say three screens would be most efficient. 1 for the track window, 2 for the channel window, and 3 (and 4) for editing plugins.

If I consider how major studios work, in the days of hardware based mixers and effects, I can imagine that having access to all channels and effects simultaneously, certainly helped with the workflow. My reference would be an SSL board which has eq, compression, gain, at arms length and immediate visibility for an efficient workflow.

Maybe an external MIDI controller with faders, could improve the ease of creating channel volume automation especially for riding faders….

The aforementioned suggested changes would also apply to any other DAW.

Assigning item level effects which were once the claim to fame of Samplitude, was a delight.

For the hobbyist, clearly there’s only one choice at the time of this writing – Reaper….