Category Archives: Music

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.


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.

Love yourself

Part 1

The following response was triggered by on online post which discussed depression amongst musicians.

My view : Depression, whether medical, mental, social has received increased attention in recent times as a condition that needs attention and various health/social professionals propose solutions – identifying it, and hoping to solve it. I’m adding mine to the pot.

By its very self description, depression is some kind of gap between where we are and where we would like to be, or where society thinks we should be. A gap between expectations and reality. A place in life where fulfillment is absent. Something is missing and it is almost impossible to figure out why.

Once upon a time, where I live, it was good enough to just have a car, any car, as long as it was serviceable. But now we aspire to much more – with German or German owned manufacturers and Japanese brands being the preferred choices, for very good reasons, but must it be a BMW or Mercedes? Is it because we really need one or cos you also need to show it off to others, to increase our own sense of worth. Symbols of status and upward mobility. Have we increasingly veered into a world where worth is determined more by other’s opinions of us, than what we really think of ourselves? How much of our time and energy is expended to please others, hoping that some of this expressed effort will be reciprocated by their praise or enhanced attention to us?

My deux cents. In summary a focus on unseen personal private success has been subsumed by an externally focused effort to achieve public success – to be seen to succeed becoming the priority – a focus on external appreciation that is an unsustainable energy sap – which erodes and depletes rather than refreshes.

Every person benefits from acknowledgement, affirmation and acceptance, having their opinions understood and accepted, and being able to achieve some of their hearts desires, and of course living in some measure of comfort/quality of life.

The challenge with these aspirations in today’s world is establishing a realistic personal set of goals for these targets. Why? – society’s benchmarks for these targets is such a moving target. If we tie ourselves to these moving targets usually brought on by the success of others, it drives us continually from our core – who we really are and want to be, to a place where we are no longer ourselves but try to be like everybody else – Elton John, Steve Jobs, Prince Harry, Ed Sheeran, Usain Bolt, Slash, or whomever else our heroes are.

It is good to be accepted, however it should also be ok to think differently, sometimes so differently like certain scientists and artist whose work was only understood or appreciate long after they had died. In other words how much of our own acceptance must depend on being accepted by others. It’s wonderful if this happens but so much of who we are, and know, and have, or can be, will never be seen, heard of, understood by others, and it is increasingly important to rest in this quiet acknowledgement of who we are, without seeking external validation. A very significant component of acceptance must come from within.

This is the fundamental heart of depression – a gap between where we are and where we would like to be. Sometimes also including a realisation that the world is demanding you to be something that you are not, or are looking for skills and attributes which you do not have and this gap creates a disjoint. The final aspect of depression is discovering that people(and things) are not all that they claim to be, when promises are broken, by us or by others.

I give a small example – discovering that so many products and services are “sold” as having extra features that have absolutely no benefit and it is not worth paying extra for them, or the truth is tucked away in fine print. Throughout life, we discover that people are almost certainly not all that they claim to be, and this includes ourselves, as we all without exception portray or expose only a subset of the real person, also known as being civilised or cultured, masking the truth behind our choice of masks – cosmetics, clothes, accents, mannerisms, affectations that portray us in one way or another as we would prefer to be seen, this includes our public lifestyle.

Negative peer influence – doing things to be appreciated by others, is very exhausting.

We are not helped by the mainstream media and social media where a relatively small number of reviewers and presenters and icons drive so much of the opinion/focus across very large swathes of our human experience – e.g Simon Cowell – I appreciate what he has achieved and love him- great man, but in many respects, every budding “producer/music executive” sets their sights on such large end results like Simon Cowell, without fully grasping that Simon has had 20+ years of honing his success – following a unique path that he created for himself – before Simon Cowell, there was no other person who created similar success in the same way as he has done. This is the same with every other person we look up to as ideal or the pinnacle of our chosen area of improvement – We cannot follow in the footsteps of any other, we must create our own path, to that which will fulfil us, and which we are perfectly comfortable with.

The only success that society is increasingly predisposed to acknowledge is the kind that is very public, global in nature – industry awards, in-company awards – best employee of the month or year, Oscars, Grammys, Gold medals – no one remembers the silver and bronze winners,  Nobel prizes, Queens honors lists, etc. In all of these someone else is responsible for our acknowledgement. Even where these honors are well deserved and well earned, we still need others to say well done to us! What if they never do?. There is also an overt competitiveness that can be somewhat disconcerting – the ones who lose out on the top award, which the majority of contenders – feel like a bit of a loser. It’s pretty much like a lottery – the public reward mechanism has most participants becoming losers…. Must we not rethink this assumed human societal norm of external praise, to rather teach people to appreciate themselves and not just wait to be appreciated or recognised. I dare to add – money and wealth have become such a significant sign of public acknowledgement of our value, and retaining it consumes our energies.

What is the remedy – establishing realistic goals that fit in with who you really are, to succeed in the things that really make you happy and do not need anyone else to acknowledge you – doing and being things that give you a sense of achievement for yourself – a sense of your own worth each day – that does not need anyone else to appreciate or know about it. It starts with enjoying the simple things – sleep, fresh air, being alive, being relatively fit and healthy and mobile – you do not have to be or look like Arnold the former governor of California, having a decent meal each day, enjoying your abode however small or humble, recognising that greatness starts with very small but consistent steps, and much greatness, like an iceberg, is submerged – rarely seen by others.

We need a recalibration from this overwhelmingly public notion of success acknowledgment, which is also fuelled unconsciously by our window into social media, where everyone else posts only their successes but much of the truth is hidden away and we never really know the people we interact with virtually – only the “clean” images they portray of themselves – ramping up a desire in us to match what we see or hear which may all be contrived – like an act for the camera/audience…

Society, including our immediate social network, sets so many of our targets – we want a new toy or piece of gear, cos someone else has one, same with a dog, car, house, wife, children, a particular job/professional achievements. So much advertising by those who profit from selling us or enabling these “assets”. No harm in wanting these things for yourself if that really is what fulfils you and not because we want to impress anyone else with these achievements – but we really need to think through what we really want, to be certain that upon achieving these things – they have real value, and are not a mirage of disappointment, which for example is why many marriages end – unfulfilled expectations.

Our ambitions should be for things that really make us happy – even when no one else is aware of their achievement.

Surprisingly – when you start to fully love yourself, accept yourself, value yourself no matter how undervalued others may have thought of you, this assurance becomes infectious and others will begin to value you the more. But we must never revert to seeking external affirmation – it is only a bonus, we must not depend on it. May I add that this applies to all relationships including the closest ones – family, wife, children, friends, co-workers, where sometimes appreciation of who you are could still surprisingly be quite lacking, cos they really do not know (or care that much about) who you really are, or hope to be – shocking but true.

Avoid the temptation to expend too much charity on others, which leaves you drained with very little in reserve for yourself, else everyone will happily take advantage of your generosity and as you will discover, rarely give back.

For me, at the heart of all of the above is a foundation in a personal lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, which in its purest form, gives you a confidence that is beyond whatever affirmation society can provide to you, and beyond any negative self images that society may have inadvertently hung on you, from their uninformed opinions of you. Society(including much of what we call the church or religion today) will fail you, but the confidence that Jesus gives does not fail.

We also live in this interesting world where “feedback” from others needs to be taken with caution, cos the intentions of some of this feedback may not be as altruistic or genuine as they appear. Whatever our situation in life, including our mistakes, we need a very positive image and knowledge of ourselves to have the confidence to take each next step to our own personal joy. We must balance what others say of us with the truth we know of ourselves, a truth which we create each day by our thoughts, conclusions and actions to develop who we are, in the direction we wish to be fulfilled in.

Ultimately a life where we can achieve complete personal joy, with absolutely no need to depend on others to acknowledge us, cos we already have confidence in God’s acknowledgement of who we are, and we also acknowledge that we are valued, is success indeed. The world can never know who you really are – not even your closest friends and family know all that you are – but you do, and God does.

Loving others is wonderful but not at the expense of loving yourself, which is the prerequisite. It is only when you know and love yourself fully and have taken care of your own needs, that you can truly love others.

As I consider it, there is something especially important in the bible account where God explicitly acknowledges Jesus as one in whom He is well pleased. What is our desire, to please man – who will never be pleased – their pleasure is transient, or to please God who demands very little really, in comparison to the insatiable demands of man, and in God’s case he provides us with all we need to fulfil His demands, as he did for Abraham.

By pleasing God I also refer to that inner conscience of right or wrong, when we do those things that are right, not because of any reward, or public praise, not even because we seek a reward from God, but do the right things because that’s the best thing to do, not just to please God, but also to please ourselves, because we know the truth.

This is contentment indeed, the antidote to depression, living for yourself and God, not according to the dictates of others. If others join you on this journey great, and even where you are the only one living this way, you are content in being alone in living right. Content with yourself under all circumstances, secure in the knowledge that God is aware of your situation at all times and He has your best interest at heart.

For the musically gifted, including those who may only listen and not play or sing, this ability in itself, whether it becomes a commercial benefit or not, is an important acknowledgement that we are loved by God, to have been given our own unique perspective on creativity, which starts with something we were naturally predisposed to, by a God who made the air to convey sound, the ear and brain to hear, our bodies to play, and other people to collaborate with, and who gives us inspiration and musical ideas to experiment with. This in itself is evidence that we are already loved by God, who provided these blessings, and we should love ourselves, the more, even if we are the only audience of our music, we still therefore have a lot of value – to God, so let’s make the best of it, as time and opportunity affords. Let’s have fun with music – lots of laughs, joy, surprise, exploration, discovery – depression has absolutely no place with these benefits of good music.

Part 2 – Edit 30th Nov 2017

A further related comment on social media, where I shared the following points required me to add these here, cos the topic is the same, rather than me posting another blog item.

Jon Sine(who posted the original video on youtube), your summary is excellent, like many professions, football, music, art, even in business, most of the money(and power/influence/attention over other people) is made by just a few people – that is the way of society, and nothing will ever change that. It is the result of a feature of human psychology, we cannot keep up with too many heroes, so the few that catch our attention retain it for a very long time – i.e. they become a trusted brand, we cannot keep up in our memory with too many of these in any area of life.

Musicians must set realistic targets, their music may never be appreciated and valued in monetary terms by many people, this is a risk and a possibility, and it does not mean it is not good, just means that there are so many others competing for attention, it is somewhat like a lottery.

Except for those like Michael Jackson, Prince, Beyonce, Elton John, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Cory Henry, and Stevie Wonder, and Lady Gaga, who have developed – through an extreme immersion, so much talent that music literally oozes from every part of their being, that they have no compulsion except to pursue music as both an art form and a source of income, all others should be realistic and recognise that for many, even where they are talented, music might remain a hobby – a gift from God to be enjoyed by them and maybe a few close associates, even if it never makes any money – nothing bad about that.

I think also there are two kinds of pressure – a positive one, which propels you to create amazing things, cos you are not thinking about what people’s opinion is, just going with the flow and the greatest creative results come from this, especially when you are not afraid to experiment and be surprised by things you never had in mind, lucky accidents – most good noticeable music is the result of lucky accidents – and yes a lot of hard work, but the unique elements are usually not premeditated – cos they are discoveries – you try things out and it works. The other pressure is negative, driven by fear of failure or fear of success or both where you are locked in by our own hopes/expectations – kind of paralyzed, not able to move forward.

This morning I created a most amazing music theme, in just a few minutes, when I was simply accepting the truth, I may never be a professional musician, and my creativity simply exploded, I was making music for myself, to enjoy, and this creative freedom took me to places in music that I had never been to. I was not under any pleasure to please any one else, the ultimate freedom. I am assured that some of the very best commercial music originates from this place, where there is no severe external pressure, like bills to pay. We are free to do what comes naturally to us – our undiscovered best, when we are not afraid of failure.

While the business of music is a lot of hard work, if we accept that core elements of this are down to a bit of luck, experimentation, and totally unplanned – inspiration – where does it come from?-good question – who knows!, we can relax and be happy with whatever portion of creativity we have been apportioned and enjoy that and be content with what we have been given and what we have achieved, no matter how small it its. The associations required to be commercially successful are lucky accidents or predestined – whichever you believe, so let’s not make the music as a profession too serious a commitment, just in case it does not work out commercially – even if the music is very good.

I conclude by saying for many, music can only be a creative passion, that needs to be sustained by some other employment – however boring that other job is, so that the two balance each other – we are inspired by the music we make, even if it does not make any money – we enjoy it and it gives us energy to fulfil other aspects of our lives – like a non musical day job. The day job gives us money to afford decent music tools, and we strike a balance – this is the de-facto for most people who are passionate about music. If the music we make makes us enough money to quit the day job – that’s a bonus, not something we can always control, manipulate – cos fashions and people’s preferences/musical tastes will change. One more thing, even for artists who have been successful with music at some point in time, not all of them pursue music actively for a whole lifetime, cos that lifestyle is also very very demanding, lots of travel, and the workload of running the business side of things to keep the money they have earned – which is another whole set of wisdoms that take time to learn – ask Dolly Parton. Music as a profession is a risk, and not one that everybody should take.

However I close on a positive note – the freedom and creativity of music – even just listening to it, will add value to any other pursuit, like study or a full time job, by opening up aspects of your enjoyment of life itself. Good music requires passive or active collaboration with others(listening, responding, reacting, agreeing, negotiating, feedback, looking at things from a fresh angle the next morning, reflection), a key life skill which we can apply to anything else.


Insight – Digital Pianos – Late 2017

If I recall rightly I concluded the most recent post with the resolve that we already have enough, to get us to the next step in our journey. I believe that God provides this, and by this we can be expectant for the great future ahead, yet content that we are already in a good place to propel us into the next step.

I hear a lot about mindfulness – my interpretation of this is – being aware of now or who/what/where/why and how we are at this point in time.

Further to my most recent review of digital pianos, Yamaha released their Clavinova CLP 685 which replaces the CLP 585. Let’s see how this changes the current status quo, in non portable digital pianos.

The 685, from what I can see and hear, the key changes, of import to me are :

  1. A new keybed known as GrandTouch, which now adds escapement, more ivory like keys.
  2. To my ears, a more digitally accurate version of the piano sample. More present, especially in the higher and lower frequencies. May be improved Digital to Analog converters, or analog circuitry and what sounds like better speakers.

The latter improvement is two edged, on the one hand, it exposes a really transparent start naked, nicely oiled version of the sampled pianos – CFX and Bosendorfer, in a remarkable way, but with absolutely no wart, pimple, not a spot – very very clean.

But sometimes as with everything digital, too much accuracy can take away from the reality of a natural instrument. In this case, it lays the CFX samples, in particular, so bare that you have Marmite moments, you either absolutely love the CFX samples or do not.

From infrequent auditions over a few months, and also as I discover, as my understanding of piano sounds has improved (to my delightful surprise), I discern things that I was not aware of before.

For some songs, the CFX and Bosendorfer samples have too much of a strong character, and particularly with the CFX, a bold attack, lots of nice sustain, which you need to keep in check with diminished use of the sustain pedal, and I found myself needing to elicit the una corda (soft) pedal, to tame certain passages, such as the ending of phrases, cos the power of the piano was almost like a wild. Good foot and tummy exercise, seems to do wonders for the core.

In comparison to other digital pianos, there seems to be less dynamic range in volume and tone, needing you to play quite delicately to unleash the velvet tones, without using the una corda.

From one perspective this is probably an accurate representation of the CFX sound – bold, concert piano, that rings out loud, calling all to attention, from all of the land. Playing soft, and obtaining aural feedback of the softer tone, with less overtones, and a less prickly attack, is somewhat hard work, as the fundamental tone of pianissimo is not far off from forte, only lower in volume. The softer lower velocity notes are not wrapped in felt gloves, delicate, but rather ring out a bit too much, for some music. Pianoforte takes a fair amount of adjustment, difficult to reign in this runaway horse. It is hard to please everyone, with one piano sample – all comments above refer to the numero uno CFX preset. Some of the other presets like the Ballad piano – do provide a more emotionally engaging intimate piano, for contemplative genres.

At the same listening session, I found the Roland LX17 to have a more natural transition between soft and loud, though the piano samples are also a bit Marmite – if less so than the Yamaha – LX17 clearly an attempt to replicate a Steinway grand tone. Richer overtones than the CLP 685.

Auditioning the Kawai CA97 at the same session, revealed something I had not heard so distinctly before, too many overtones, resulting in a strident tone, so many frequencies competing for attention, that focus is diluted, and distractions like a smear on the camera lens, obstruct the main subject. It would be really hard to fall in love with this tone.

I came out of this with an impression that the CA97 is at one extreme of tone – lots of string sound, percussive overtones, harmonics, buzzing, busy bee, while the CLP 685 was at the other extreme, clinical, ascetic, bare, digital, modern, with the LX17 as a happy in between – superb key action, great dynamics, capable of being bright when you dig into it with force, zero learning curve – no need to resort to the use of una corda restraints, unless you really want to, as variances in note velocity were sufficient to “adjust” the piano sound to suit a significant spectrum of desired tone and volume, on each note.

Not unsurprisingly, the LX17 also is the most expensive of the aforementioned. I only wish the LX17 included the wonderful darker tone of the previous Roland flagship, the LX15.

Regrettably, there also seems no point in purchasing many of the non flagship digital piano non portable models from Yamaha, Roland or Kawai, cos the real mackoy is in the flagship model, if you want a great tone encased in a traditional piano cabinet simile.






Digital Piano Instruments and Sounds – Sonic Dimensions

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..).

Why bother?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Space – from very dry and upfront to distant and roomy.
  3. Modulation – from life like and perfectly reproduced to obviously veiled and distorted and ultimately somewhat unrecognisable as a piano.
  4. Clarity – from ultra realistic and modern to bit-resolution/frequency limited audio reminiscent of the earliest  sampled piano instruments.
  5. Note length – from staccatissimo in an anechoic chamber, to ringing sustains of over 1 minute long in the bass.
  6. 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.


Hardware Digital Pianos – 2017

I’ll start with a short recap. In 2017, acoustic piano sounds can be obtained from a variety of sources :

  1. Samples and/or software emulations running/played back on a computer or portable device(including smartphones), which need you to complement this with an external keyboard via MIDI or USB, etc, to playback the audio in real time.
  2. Samples and/or sofware emulations played back on a self contained hardware piano device, with its own keybed.

This commentary focuses on the latter.

In my opinion after years of tryouts, and with more discernment over time, there are only two options worth considering.

Why, at the end of the day, what you need from a piano is an instrument that can convey emotions, without distractions. This is music – emotions, not sounds.

I have discovered that the human ear is very sensitive to distortions, and while most of us may not own a top of the line instrument, we are accustomed to listening to good quality instruments in some of the most popular commercial recordings, and the characteristics – especially the emotional accuracy is transparently conveyed when you hear a good acoustic piano, or simulation thereof.

Two instruments pass my criteria for authentic emotional engagement, which is an instrument that allows you to focus on the music, with minimal adjustment – just sit down and play and every note sounds like it came from a real instrument, even though your ears know it’s not real. The illusion is almost believable, and in some instances exceeds a real instrument, by becoming its own reincarnation of what a modern piano should be. May I use the term – SuperAuthentic.

The two pianos I now recommend are the Yamaha CLP 585, and the Roland LX17. Different, but both full rich, solid bass, with excellent harmonic content in each note, every note a pleasure. You can truly become lost with either of these, without that feeling of limitations, that other digital pianos give you – of having to fight with the piano to reproduce your intentions accurately.

With these two, the variation of intention from barely audible to thundering – attention grabbing – hear me now, is as effortless as I have ever experienced on any instrument.

I would dare to add that I consider these digital pianos even more superior to acoustic pianos in the consistency of touch from one key to another, perfectly weighted and able to be played for hours without fingers and hands tiring. Effortless. You forget about the keys and only focus on the music. And when you are done, you leave the instrument satisfied, fulfilled, and return to planet Earth from somewhere higher up in the planes of musical existence.

Expensive – yes, but everything else sounds compromised, and will, because the ear is such a marvel, soon become unpleasant/artificial to hear.

Why are these pianos sounding so good? One primary reason is the quality of amps and speakers and placement of these, which give a more complete image of the sound, especially in the frequency spectrum…..from bass to treble – you hear the full spectrum contained in every note, especially in the bass. This includes any bass component in higher register notes.

It could also be that their implementation of sympathetic resonance, sounds better.

I’ll end by adding that they simply sound so much clearer and less veiled, than other digital pianos. They are the top of their line, and deservedly so.




Digital Pianos – 2015

About a year ago I updated my initial impressions of Digital Pianos. In the interval, I’ve had cause to do a bit more playing and listening to a range of keyboard instruments, from workstations by Yamaha and Roland, a number of stage pianos and acoustic pianos.

My current impressions. It depends.

Caveat emptor. My primary interest in the comments below is the sound quality, playability and emotive authenticity.

We have in our minds “memories” of what pianos sound like, so it depends, what piano sound do you have in mind?. What do you associate as the sound of a piano, it depends on what music you have been listening to. And while all piano music and pianos have the same root “sound” signature, they vary, even two acoustic pianos by the same manufacturer – same model, will not sound exactly the same.

As I’ve discovered there is so much that a piano tuner can do to alter the sound of a piano, by changing the feel, adjust hammers, etc. etc. I’m not the expert here. Some dark art known as preparing a piano.

Different music genres require a different sound, a ballad will need a piano with some sustain, while a rock piano will not be well served by a dull lingering sustain, preferring something short and sharp with staccato.

The overall frequency response from bass to treble, also helps define the piano sound, and this can be different for each section of the piano, low registers, mid and treble.

Therefore the manufacturer of a digital piano has to take their pick from the wide spectrum of available piano sounds, with one ultimate aim in mind – sell lots of these pianos.

The fashion of the day, the perceived need of the intended purchaser therefore has such a bearing on the target sound of a digital piano, while an attempt is made to please everyone, a target market is at the heart of each digital piano.

I think this typically includes – Home users, beginner piano players, older learners who are coming back to the piano or developing a 1st interest, those who need a nice piece of furniture to enhance their home -symbol of success, and finally professional musicians. This final category being the target market with the most discernment, who as I understand it, may prefer a digital instrument for live use, cos it avoids the challenges of micing up a real piano, with spill on a loud stage coming from other instruments/and stage monitors.

There are very few digital piano makers who dominate this market – Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, Casio. Casio being the poor cousin, in the family.

Yamaha and Kawai also make acoustic pianos, and therefore use the opportunity to “market” the signature sound of the acoustic equivalents in the digital emulations.

Roland, who does not make acoustic pianos – in recent times – has attempted to dominate the digital piano universe with modelling based on the core technology in their V-Pianos.

In practice what does all this mean.

Below $1,000, there are lots of decent sounding pianos that will fit many uses. In this commentary I will avoid naming specific models, to prevent my personal musical bias from tainting your opinion. The common characteristic of this lower end is a restricted bass sound due to the use of smaller speakers and smaller amplifiers, keybeds which do not feel/respond as beautifully as the higher end models. But they are adequate and represent good value for money.

One advantage I find in all Digital Pianos, and I make a distinction here to exclude the portable pianos from this category, is that a solid frame improves your playing, as you do not have a shaky stand (however solid, most portable stands have micro movements), even for the most inexpensive Digital Piano. furthermore, the keybed is at the right height, cos of the inbuilt stand.

If amplified by high quality monitors, I wonder how good these  lower end pianos could sound quite good. I have not much experience with amplifying non portable digital pianos, so can’t comment here.

Above $1,000 I find specific characteristics. The Yamaha’s have the lightest most beautiful key movement. and I can play really fast and effortlessly on these, Kawais having the heaviest touch, Rolands having the most bounce.

Regretfully, after years of listening, trying many electronic pianos, there are few distinctive sounds and may I qualify here, what you gravitate to is a piano that you want to play, that keeps you spell bound, hour after hour, as you go from tone to tone, from song to song, that gives you goose pimples, that makes you pinch yourself, and think – that’s incredulous – wow – is this still a digital piano?

It definitely has gotten better, the authenticity, quality of emulation/samples is definitely better.

Where have digital pianos succeeded? As an alternative for the acoustic piano, for those who cannot justify the cost of a high end acoustic which could set the owner back $20,000 or more all the way to over $300,000, the maintenance which all pianos need such as tuning, or the space required to house a large grand piano.

The digital pianos attempt to recreate some of the sound of the expensive top end acoustic pianos, such as the Kawai Shigeru, and the Yamaha CFX and CF3, or the Bosendorfer which is now owned by Yamaha, and to a certain extent they succeed, a a Steinway like sound – which is what I think the Rolands attempt to emulate.

It begs the question, what styles of music are these high end acoustic pianos predominantly used for? Pop, Classical, Jazz. I wish I had the answer with statistical evidence. I would expect that most of the music played on the top end pianos would not be Pop. That’s my challenge, I find the pianos a tad out of place for many genres.

As an example the Yamaha CLP585 is a wonderful piano, great tone, on some occasions sounds really great to me, on some occasions, not so great and sounds a bit too clean with suppressed overtones. Overtones give a piano that richness, that complexity. Clean is excellent when you have strong harmonic (strongly polyphonic) compositions as it allows the contribution of each note to be heard without being smeared in a mush of overtones, but can be devoid of that richness, when playing music or style with minimal polyphony. With the Yamaha, the CFX sound is different from what I’m used to hearing, on most popular pop music.

The Kawai’s – I find missing a certain thump, and tinkle, the sharp/crack/attack I associate with piano. Rich warm tone, at the other end of the spectrum from the Yamaha. Great for classical and some jazz.

In some respects the Yamaha’s and the Kawais remind me a little of guitars, i.e an instrument with an attack, and strings, but the plink at  the front of each note is missing.

The Rolands are good sounding digital pianos, I liked the HP506 and HP508. The Roland LX 15e had a lovely rich nevertheless dark but rich tone, unlike any other digital piano – distinct and most like a real piano The Roland HP 6XX series, which I have finally been able to try out – I enjoyed the HP 605. Both the new Roland LX17 and LX7 are great pianos if you like their sound – definitely brighter than the LX15 which they replace. The touch of the LX17 definitely is a step ahead of probably anything else, feels really fluid.

The most recent pianos veer towards a realism and quirkiness, inherited from the physical piano, with such as a huge range in tone between forte and piano (loud and soft), for those who are used to the consistency of earlier generations of digital pianos, and digital workstations such as the Motif series, the current trend for a huge variation in tone between piano and forte notes, by the new kings of the block, can be a bit disconcerting and takes a while to adjust to. I daresay for those who are not familiar with real acoustic pianos, the workstations and older digital pianos have provided a safety net, allowing players to be a bit imprecise with their technique and for those familiar with the less dynamic digital equivalents, any attempt to play a proper acoustic or digital instrument voiced similarly – with huge dynamic and tonal variation, simply opens up many of the flaws in technique, a by product of the use of less capable  instruments.

Unfortunately after about a year of regularly trying out these instruments, Very few of the pianos’ attempts at authenticity bring me into that universe where I forget the instrument and simply get lost in the music. That thing that says I need one. Not sure what’s missing.

Which come closest to inspiration perfection? – the Roland LX15e, the Roland LX17, the Roland LX7, the Roland HP605, the Yamaha Clavinova CLP585, also acquits itself well.  Kawai CA97 – warm deep bass – no plink in the mid range, Kawai CA65 – bright sounding.. On most of the digital pianos, its the middle of the piano that seems weakest and least authentic- could be the cancellation or mono cancellation is strongest in this range!! I also enjoyed the Yamaha CLP 575 (nice rounded tone with a bit of harmonics yet retaining some of the brightness and what I call plink – (the piano strike/attack) and the Yamaha CLP 545 has a very nice rounded tone.

Edit: December 2015

One interesting quality to assess which explains some of the variation in their sound is how “close” is the emulated sound. A piano without the  sound of the room is an anomaly. The ambiance is such an important part of the piano sound in a theater, hall, and in any recording thereof. Some digital pianos, are voiced to give the impression of being right in front of the piano, and where the room/location in which the digital piano is played adds very little additional ambiance, the illusion is inauthentic.

It’s important to pair the digital piano with the right room. In my experience – playing the same piano e.g the Yamaha CLP 585, in 3 different demonstration rooms, left me with three different impressions. The best sound was in a demonstration room at Yamaha Music, in London, where the piano was placed adjacent to a large window, and the ceiling was of medium height, and it’s only on significant reflection that I now realise how much the room interaction affects one’s impressions of the resultant sound.

In another demonstration room where the Yamaha CLP 585 was placed in a location with a lower ceiling, with less reverberation than the location of another Yamaha CLP 575, the lower version model, the 575 was my preferred piano. It has taken a while to really appreciate how much the hall or room influences the quality of the digital piano sound.

Some pianos have the option to add ambience electronically, but this did not add as much value as a suitably reverberant room.

Special mentions :

The Kawai CN25 has a lovely close and very authentic piano sound, excellent dynamics, but not exaggerated dynamics. It sounds like a good quality close micing of a smaller grand piano, than the Kawai Shugeru which is sampled on the more expensive CN 97. I loved the action on the CN25, and it was an intimate nevertheless bright sound – with a rounded vintage edge/appeal. Especially when I consider the price – really great value, in my opinion.

I really enjoyed going back to try out the Yamaha CLP 575, – as I mentioned earlier, it could be the location/room in which I played it.

The non portable (unless you have a roadie) digital piano with the best tone – though a bit bright, at this time is the Roland LX17, and it has an excellent ambient sound – but this could be the room in which I auditioned it at Dawsons in Reading.

One fairly consistent impression is that the top end of the range is where the money usually is, with the most superb key action, expressiveness and that “response” that is closest to a living instrument.

Having said that, I listened to an old favorite – Joe Sample – Spellbound, the album, Seven Years of Good Luck, the 1st track being a good example one of the 1st CD’s I ever bought, at a time when I did not have a decent sound system, my 1st CD player played back via what would be considered a very very cheap and poor set of headphones, probably not anywhere near as good as the stock fare you get on airline flights. I realise that I have not heard anyone else with the same piano sound – on this album, you recognise that he’s playing both synth/workstation keyboards for the rich pads and sustain sounds, and acoustic piano, but that piano sound is so unique to him – whatever effects, the preparation of the piano, is such a unique sound to this artist. My point is this piano sound is imprinted in my mind, and similarly the pianos I have heard on many other albums each have their own sound, imprinted in my memory. From the piano on classical recordings to the piano sound of Lyle Mays – such a variation.

We are used to hearing so many types of piano on so many recordings, recorded and played in so many different types of ways, on so many different genres of music.

That’s why no digital piano will ever sound right. The piano technology – recording techniques and effects used over the most recent 80 years establishes such a wide expectation range, with each track you know having its own relatively unique slant to the piano sound, that nothing will quite fit the bill, cos your ear recognises that something is missing. It is within reason, not exactly, what you want to hear or are familiar with in your mind.

If your vocabulary of piano sounds is vast, from the variety of what you have listened to, the subset of piano sounds provided by most digital pianos will simply not satisfy that quest…..That’s my challenge…

A lot of the piano we hear in our minds has been processed by the microphones used, microphone positions, blend of microphones recorded, and further processing, oh of course the room in which the piano was recorded also plays it’s part, recording medium – tape, converters, equalisation, that it is hard to find instant gratification on many digital pianos….

I think it’s that challenge, to capture so many piano sounds, from the authentic reproduction of what a real piano sounds like, which is very different from what we hear on a lot of pop music, and there are so many variations of the authentic classical/jazz piano sound, and then the many pop/gospel piano variations, and so many variations of piano – from the different acoustic piano manufacturers – Grand, Uprights, in so many different states of maintenance and age – with developments especially over the most recent 150 years in piano manufacturing and design technology. Advancements in recording and the vast resource of available recorded material with piano components, has spoiled us in our time, that the piano player needs a piano for every type of music, close to what their ear is familiar with, for that genre of music. It’s akin to trying to design the perfect car – the same car which can transform into whatever car we need – a bus, a truck, a sports car. Probably impossible.

We are spoiled for choice in our piano sound vocabulary in 2015, from such a huge history of piano playing and recording, and the digital piano manufacturers will struggle to keep up with the demands of the most discerning.

And were are talking here of just acoustic emulations. Today’s keyboard player also needs incredible electric pianos and hybrids.

It is difficult to please everyone, and do this in a cost effective way.

Edit – January 2016

Listening to recorded sources such as videos on Youtube informs me that there is quite  bit of variation between the sound of the digital piano, via its own speakers and when it’s played back on alternative amplification systems.

To fully evaluate a digital piano, I think in addition to hearing what it sounds like via its own speakers, one needs to hear what it sounds like on a good pair of monitors. Why? In addition to a home setting, many digital pianos are used in public settings amplified via their line outs, so its good to have a perspective on this angle of their sound. I have been quite surprised at the difference in sound, e.g on a Kawai CN97 between the in built speakers, and the recorded sound on YouTube, I perceive that the sound board amplification system “dulls” the initial attack, leaving me with the impression that its not as percussive as I expect. While the sound board amplification system emphasizes the bass notes, when I compare with other Kawais which do not use a soundboard the wonderful treble end of their sound shines forth. The Kawai CN97 sounds really nice online.

I really need to find time to compare these pianos via headphones, but that takes away from their presence… My love for headphone listening is over – Even in the studio, I definitely prefer to listen on speakers…..

Comparing digital pianos in a store, via an identical set of monitors, hmmm – that will need quite an undertaking and negotiation!!!