Philosophy about real piano's versus electronic piano's etc. (date: 2000):


Let me introduce myself. I'm a retired (Sept. 2000 and 61) electronic engineer playing amateur Jazz piano in two bands. As engineer I have some experience in audio recording. I built my own small studio (ca 15 square meter) and made our first CD recording with the main-stream Jazz combo named "Jazzica Swing Combo" with the female vocalist singing in a separate 2 square meter hall. All pre-mixed. Many people ask me in which studio this was recorded and what superb microphones I used. Well I built the stereo microphone myself from 2 electrets measurement elements (flat from 20-20kHz within 1 dB) which costs me only $10.=. It was built using the SAS (Stereo Ambient Sampling) technique, which is kind of artificial head. We rehears every week in this studio with the combo. Additionally I join a Dixieland band. In both cases I play an electronic piano P100 from Yamaha. I liked the P100 sounds when bought it and I still do. Some Dixieland band members hate my electronic piano and want me actually to play at a real piano. This is understandable because in Dixieland the original music was never amplified but played in the streets, so an electronic piano is a little bit of a dissonant in the such band.

Of course nothing goes over a real grand piano. But then of course there is the practical reason, you cannot take a real piano with you and in most environments where we play there isn't one available. And then additionally I now can play organ, vibes and strings in the combo, which is nice as well.

I bought the P100 in '93. At that time I listened to several pianos and I was convinced: only the P100 sounded as near as possible to a real piano. I hated the electronic sound of Roland and I still do. Everything else was rubbish in my opinion. I was even more convinced because Yamaha dare to give a demonstration of a real Grand Piano aside a P100 behind a curtain to show how real the thing is. I heard this from a colleague at work which joined this demo. Sadly enough I didn't join this demo. This was after I bought the P100. I was very happy to hear this because it convinced me that my ears were not fooling me.

So now we are 7 years later, I'm tired of carrying 40 kg piano 2 times a week and tired of repairing lame key's of the P100, which really are wearing out. After trying several light keyboards (16-20kg) I bought myself a P80 which is only 16kg and has a very convincing piano-like touch (which was also the case with the P100).

By the way the technique of the P100 key's and the P80 key's is completely different, but both use a piano hammer imitating principle. Since I repaired my P100 key's several times, added more gain and a few mike inputs I am quite familiar with the used technique. So I can even tell you that they use also a "hammer" like thing which touches the circuit board with a conducting material of which the resistance will depend on the speed of touching. So also mechanically it is rather equivalent to a real piano hammer.

The key technique of the P80 (which has the same "Graded Hammer" effect action as the CLP880 and CLP900 series of Yamaha) (complete CLP series, CVP series) is different. It had to become cheaper of course and may be more reliable then the P100 but also the P100 had a "Graded Hammer" effect. How the key is sensed in the P80, I don't know yet. Yahama claims that the P80 is a copy of the CLP880. The action feels near to equal compared to my P100. The touch is some heavier but the P100 keys play lighter and lighter after so many years due to wearing out (the higher and lower key's of the P100 are used less and so the new P80 has almost the same touch for those key's).

I believe that the Yamaha touch is better then anything else. And also for the very soft touching it acts exactly like a grand-piano. Not so with most others I tried, they all seem to have non linearity's at the beginning and the end (at very soft and very hard touching) which are not present in a real piano. However the sound of the P80 is horrible in my opinion (and thus also from the CLP880). Now it sounds like all the others. You name it, to me it sounds all artificial, it has nothing to do with a real piano sound. I was at one dealer who sold all the grand-pianos aside the electronic pianos (not the P80 or keyboards but the one's for in the room).
I tried to compare them. The only one which comes closer to a real piano is the GT2 mini grand piano of Yamaha. All other electronic pianos sounded "canned" to me. 

So what happened after the P100 series??? The first successors P150 has probably the same piano sound although I'm not sure. In the P200 the piano sound is already different and for my ears worse compared to the P100.  Yamaha indeed confirmed me that the samples of the P200 where completely different from the P100.

This is my theory:

The sound everyone now is trying to imitate is not the sound of a real (grand) piano but the sound of a real piano recorded in a studio. So what is a studio trying to do? A studio tries to imitate the sound of piano heard by the audience in a concert hall. This is a completely different sound then which is produce by a real (grand) piano played by someone in your room or by yourself.

So what does the average audience like?? Not the sound of a real piano. They are not use that sound. They hear 99.9% of the time music coming from CD's via a loudspeaker system. So when going to a shop buying a electronic piano or keyboard, they refer more to the CD sound then to the real thing.

Marketing learns fast. What sells is not a real piano sound but a "recognizable piano sound". Of course if you start buying very expensive stuff like a GT2, you must be an experienced piano player, so for those people they try to do a different (better) job. They claim 30MB only for the piano sound. But it is not only the number of MB's, but also the sampling technique (miking) which makes the difference. Even the GigaByte pianos still have  the same "canned" or "nasal" sound to my ears.

So there are roughly 3 sorts of listeners:

1. The average public which likes to hear "canned (recorded) pianos" (this is the majority).
2. The piano player who sits behind his piano and likes to hear a real piano.
3. The critical listener (any experienced classical or jazz musician) in the room or lounge who likes to hear a real piano.

Marketing is only interested in the opinion of the average public. When Yamaha  started, there first issue was to imitate a real piano sound. So they started to make a dammed good thing, which with the present technique (8 years later) could have been something which was near to a perfect copy of a real piano, I should think. But that does not sell. It is to good for the average public and so to expensive and it is never good enough for the critical musician and so expensive that he rather buys a real piano.

They want to satisfy the majority of common public which hasn't the space nor the money to buy the real thing. The common public is not interested in a good piano sound but in hundreds of different sounds which could be produced by the touch of one finger. And at the same time Yamaha, Korg and others want to sell there real pianos and there real grand pianos as well. So why copying the real thing in an electronic piano?

Listen to any great concert pianist on your CD? If recorded live it has the concert hall sound (including the reverb). If recorded in the studio, the concert hall is imitated by means of adding reverb. But ask the same pianist to play this on the real piano in your room (if you have one) or listen to an entertainment pianist in a hotel lounge and you cannot compare these things anymore.

Listen to all demo's on electronic pianos. They are played by fabulous pianists and added with lots of reverb so it sounds like one of your good CD recordings. Mostly you are knocked out by the quality of music (Chopin), the quality of the pianist (who-ever) and the alikeness with of your good CD recording. But these are not real pianos. The sounds are always completely merged in reverb. Really it has nothing to do with an original real piano sound. Try it. Put a real piano aside an electronic piano in your room of any brand whatever the price.

In my opinion the P100 and the Yamaha's from that time were a good try. But they didn't sell as good as some others, who had horrible unreal artificial sounds but could produce 100 other horrible unreal artificial sounds but also 100 new sounds which were nice from itself. So after that time nobody has really tried to make something better. On the contrary they chase for a CD recording sound. May be the GT2 is a better try, although here the wooden case is adding an additional sound effect. I did hear the CLV970 but it was very disappointing while this is Yamaha's top model. It sounds horribly "canned" for my ears despite a lot of memory. But my ears are not your ears so judge for yourself.

Canned or nasal sound:

What do I mean with canned or nasal sound and what are the causes? Everybody knows the horrible sound coming from speakers used in stadiums where you need a very directional strong sound to reach the audience. That sound is produced by horns. In practice horns have resonant-chamber like properties which will create a very "comb" like frequency characteristics. Also the directivity will add many extra lobes, which are different for different frequencies, adding an extra "comb" like frequency response if the speaker is not directly pointed to your ears. If you talk through a pipe you immediately will recognize the canned or nasal sound. Here again the pipe will be resonant for certain frequencies and not for others which causes a "comb" filter for your voice. In fact to reach an "open" true sound, your speaker system should be a perfect omni-directional radiator. This is also what hi-fi speaker builders mostly try to create. Despite all efforts the reproduction is still a poor copy of reality. Sadly enough the piano is one of the most difficult instruments for reproduction because it produces an enormous amount of harmonics. Especially for the middle octaves the ear is very susceptible to recognize comb filtering effects and so any tendency which adds comb filtering and there inherent phase mistakes will immediately be heard as a canned or nasal sound.

However despite these problems the average public, but also many critical listeners have become used to the nasal piano sound which comes from a speaker system. There ears even will switch over immediately to another "recognition" system. It is like somebody who starts to wear vary-focus glasses. At the beginning all straight lines you see become curved, but after a few weeks everything is straight again. And what is even more strange, if you take of your glasses the lines are still straight. So your brain has in fact two references and you switch over as you need it. The same happens with listening to a real piano and listening to a piano via a speaker system. However if you hear both side by side then of course you hear a huge difference and your choice is undoubtedly in favorite of the real piano. 

Recording, amplification, sampling mistakes ?:

Many recording technicians are convinced that they should use two directional mikes in the grand piano relatively close to the low and high strings. And sometimes they add a large membrane mike at a distance. I will not discuss all the valid reasons why they do this, but just point out that this creates results which horrifies a pianist who likes to hear a real piano sound.

Another valid approach of course is: I don't want to hear the real thing but I want to hear an admirable sound. In other words I don't want to hear a Grand Steinwaybut something what I like as well for whatever reason. But this is not the approach of this philosophy. I like to point out why an electronic piano never sounds like a real piano.

First of all when adding the three mike sounds you will get a comb filtering effect (some frequencies will be amplified and others will be decreased or even distinguished by phase cancellation). And anyone knows that comb filtering causes a "canned sound".  Whatever you do, ones you start adding sounds from more microphones the technique is not able to prevent phase cancellations and your are stuck with a problem which cannot be solved.

Second of all if you listen with your head in a grand piano the sound is "canned" as well because of all reflections inside the wooden enclosure creating local dips and amplified frequency effects for the different frequencies as well. However at a distance it will produce a warm bright sound. And this last sound is the sound what should be captured for your samples. 

Third of all the ratio between the sound of the resonating properties of the wooden case itself and the strings is completely wrong compared to the ratio heard at a distance of the piano. So the sound you hear on your CD recording has nothing to do with the real thing.

The same mistake (but what to do else?) is made on the stage. Most of the times a grand piano is amplified with only two directional mikes near to the strings. However mikes at large distances are practically impossible since you need to separate the piano sound and all other sounds on the stage and you want to prevent interaction between mike and loudspeakers or other sounds produced on stage. But to be very honest most , amplified grand pianos sound horrible. Many times it seems to me nothing but an electronic piano.

The same applies if direct contact elements are used on the sounding board, which sound very artificial to my ears. These will never be able to produce a real sound. But who cares. 

So if you hear a soloist (classic) pianist in a good concert hall, they do not want to be amplified at all, because they know that the sound will be degraded enormously. This of course is valid for other instruments as well, but even more for a piano since it covers a very large frequency range and is very rich of harmonics.

If samples are made one tries more or less to imitate the recording sound I think, one does use the same 3 mikes in the studio, although I don't really know what they do.

Since the pianist is sitting very near to the piano I found that in several sound modules one tends to exaggerate the hammer-touch effect, the left-right strings effect as well as the soundboard and string reverberation effects, which is all heard by the pianist, but not by someone at a distance of say 2 or 3 meter. So if a sound module produces these effects some people tends to get an impression of realness. They seemed to forget the "canned" or "nasal" sound which comes from the speakers. Especially the middle, most played notes are sensitive for a nasal coloring effects. Not so with the P100 there Yamaha did a better job, although you should not hear the P100 in mono. Then it is "canned" again. This is logic because if you add left and right you are stuck again with the "comb" filtering effect.

So who is to satisfy?

In my opinion I don't think you should satisfy the piano player nor the average public, but the public in your room or lounge or your band members. So I want a more "open sound" like which is produced by my P100 if it is used with a good speaker system. I tried the GEM real piano. A very nice piano sound, you hear the strings, the reverberation of other strings and the soundboard anything you would like, however it is still "canned" but many times better as a P80. The Minigrand is horribly "canned". The CLV970: "canned". The Alesis Nano-Piano bright but "canned". The Kurzweil KM1: "canned". The Kawai M9000: "canned". The Giga-sample pianos: all "canned". I am desperate.

They all use the "wrong" sampling technique I think. Although I'm not sure how to get a good result, I think one should use a stereo mike, a mid-side or crossed directional one (which both allows you to play mono without getting comb filtering effects) positioned at the normal position of a piano's player head or at a little bit larger distance recorded in a completely dead studio. All reverb for room, hall or whatever has to be added afterwards by the player and should not be already present in the samples (as I heard also many times in different sound modules and pianos in spite of switching off all reverb).

So my big question is what am I going to do? First of all I am using a GEM real piano module since 23 february 2001 together with a P80 keyboard. Secondly I do not want to get rid of my P100, I will use it for recordings and in general in the studio. So I will repair lame key's every time.

I had the luck to be able to buy a forgotten GEM real piano since they are out of production nowadays. Additionally I got the new version E-prom (V1.13, jan.2000). It has also a vibe which is missing in the P80. After 2 month experience I am quite satisfied. You better compose your own sounds. The basic vibe is not usefull but if you add the correct effects it is bareble. I  created a great fender-piano and a great hammond-organ. The basic piano needs an external reverb (if any) like the Nano-reverb from Alesis. The internal reverb is not nice. The GEM-piano demo can be downloaded from my webpage (128kbs-stereo-stream).

At the same time I'm still looking for better options. May be a sampler in the hope that in the great number of available CD's with samples something less "canned" (than the GEM) is or becomes available.

I am aware of my limited experience in sampling technique and I know that a lot of literature must have been published which deals with the same problem and which is based on a lot of more experience. So if anyone can give me a hint to increase my knowledge I will be very obliged. I like to hear your opinions as well.

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