For a while, I’ve tried to find a way to categorize piano sounds, as over time I have become more aware than ever of the variation in piano tones, which is somewhat derived from the difference in the sonic options of the original instrument – the acoustic piano, made by different manufacturers, with diverse techniques and varying materials, and on cherished recordings – from very different rooms/recording equipment(microphones, placement, recording chains, converters, etc..).
More than ever before, for reasons such as cost, logistics, culture, location, many may not have convenient access to a real acoustic piano of acceptable or preferred sonic quality, and even where access to one is resolved, recording that instrument to a high standard – requires skills, and equipment that may be unattainable.
My 2nd serious foray (the 1st being a beginner’s 61 note Yamaha semi-weighted keyboard) into digital piano sounds, led me into the universe of sampled pianos, with a purchase of Ivory version 1 by Synthogy – a sample based piano instrument. Most surprisingly, it was not what I had anticipated. The accolades in the Sound on Sound magazine review which led me to purchase this promising tool, were unwarranted. It sounded nothing like what I heard in my minds desire. Why? Most of my aural expectations were based on polished piano sounds which I heard on popular music… Instead of a lush, rich tone, what I heard was dry, plinky, and thinner than expected. A tone which required very rich and complete chords/harmonies, beyond my abilities at the time, to bring out any life from the instrument.
After spending a tidy sum, time, effort, research, and ending up in shocked disappointment, I abandoned the software/sampled instrument approach, for a few years, reverting exclusively to piano sounds from hardware instruments.
Over time, I’ve been finally able to resolve the gap in expectation. All acoustic piano sounds, in digital format, fall somewhere in the spectrum of each of the following dimensions.
- Tone – which has string sound(almost like a jangly twangy guitar/pluck similar to a harpsichord, at one extreme, to metallic – hammer striking a metal string, somewhere in the middle of this dimension, to a woody funereal sustained mellow tone at the other extreme. Typically from very transient quick attacks to mellow felt softened woody resonances.
- Space – from very dry and upfront to distant and roomy.
- Modulation – from life like and perfectly reproduced to obviously veiled and distorted and ultimately somewhat unrecognisable as a piano.
- Clarity – from ultra realistic and modern to bit-resolution/frequency limited audio reminiscent of the earliest sampled piano instruments.
- Note length – from staccatissimo in an anechoic chamber, to ringing sustains of over 1 minute long in the bass.
- Weight – Light to Heavy/Dark
There are no right or wrong piano sounds, the only challenge is finding the one you have in mind, or learning how to modify the stock sound, as much as you need to, in the direction of your intention, where the instrument provides these options.
Each instrument obviously has a certain limit to how far the tweaks can go, yet still retain a believable sounding character of a real/imaginary piano, because it can only stray so far from the originator’s intention, so a good starting point close to your intention is of advantage. The sonic universe of piano sounds is vast, made even more complex by the opportunity to layer piano tones with other sounds.
Now when I hear a piano tone, I can analyse it and place it somewhere in each of the aforementioned dimensions, and am better able to appreciate its distance from my intention, and rather than become frustrated with the sound, simply realise it’s not quite what I had intended, time to compromise, tweak it as close to my intention, as it will allow me, or cut my losses, abandon the current search to find a better starting point, a candidate closer to my intention, for the music in my heart, at that point in time.
Somewhat like real life, fight(fix things as best as you can) or flight(abandon the current search). Both right decisions.
No piano tone is perfect for all types of music/emotion, we can either accept its compromise or reject its offer.
Ultimately the choice is ours.
For me the long search for the right piano or the best piano, is over, and this includes the perfect piano for each song – also an exercise in futility, such searches are infinite searches, there will always be a range of pianos, at our disposal, close enough to suit the specific track, once in the ballpark, each new tone will be a good enough variant, for the task at hand, not better, only different.
Therefore, from now on rather than invest time in a futile search for perfection, good enough (based on the limitations of time, and resources at my disposal) will have to do, for the task at hand.
The music is far more important than the piano tone.
Living is more important that searching for the ultimate experience or object – as there are no ultimates, only within the limits of our current reach, and these ultimates are subject to change anyway, so why bother. Today it is no longer considered an unreachable big deal to put men on the Earth’s Moon and bring them back. Getting to Mars will not make us any happier or better, cos when that is achieved, we seek to reach the stars, a seemingly laudable goal, but does it bring us any closer to contentment. Yes we may get the wreath, have our name written in the record books, for a season, but even these achievements are temporary, in the schema of ultimate time, probably forgotten by all humanity within a few years of our expiration, overtaken by new feats of human advancement.
Begs the question, which brings real contentment, to live and accept good enough for ourselves, or to forever be inadequate by incessantly attempting to be perfect or better than everyone else – a target that is never achieved – predominantly initiated by a comparison with the achievements of others, or our previous achievements. Progress is great, a wonderful thing, but not at the cost of contentment, which is an even greater place to be. One fulfils, the other propels us into a perpetual wild goose chase.
Complacency is also not ideal, not a place to be, as there is no propellant for expectation – hope, anticipation, discovery, and fulfilling one’s purpose/abilities/potential.
Is there a middle ground – an acceptable contended middle ground between the extremes of abject complacency and the perpetual frustration of incessant overreaching?
I choose to live, to enjoy today, to enjoy now. Tomorrow may be better, but today is the best day to be alive. Living – appreciating the here and now, is more important than achieving.
The piano I have today, is the best one for me – with lemons I make lemonade, with what I have today, I make and enjoy music, which is more important than the instrument I choose to use/acquire.
Comments above also apply to all manner of musical instrument tones, electro acoustic pianos, and other instruments.
What I have (or do not have today) is good enough. I learn to make do with what I have today. I learn to be alive. Today. Now.