Category Archives: Music

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!!!

 

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.

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….

Music

I am glad that I can experience many wonderful things, and probably the most profound has been music. I am amazed at the profound ability of musicians and singers and creative audio related artists, to touch hearts and minds.

The technology in my time has taken the potential quality of recorded audio to truly impressive levels, with a variety of media, including streamed.

Ultimately I am amazed at the undisputable inference of this experience to a God who has created so much for us to enjoy.

If Youtube is still available when you read this (an assumption) kindly listen to these recordings by India Arie and Isreal Houghton