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May 29

Pianos, digital versus real. Apples to Oranges

Pianos, digital versus real

 

First of all, before we get in to the nitty-gritty, let me state that my piano of choice for any application would be a nicely tuned and well situated real grand piano. That said, there is a place for digital and here is my take as an experienced user.

The idea behind the digital piano is to bring the sound of a real piano to a player in a form that is practical and economical.  Money not being a hurdle, I would guess 99% of us would choose a real grand.  Modern digital pianos use samples, or recordings of real piano keys being struck and as it requires a real piano to make a digital piano in the first instance,  this is not a direct comparison, but rather a discussion on the practical application of both instruments.

As digital pianos become more refined the line is becoming really hard to find in terms of comparison of sound.  The obvious sticking point revolves around dynamics and tone.  I have 3 digital pianos and play many (mostly Yamaha and Kawai) grand pianos in hotels and restaurants.  As a travelling musician playing clubs, bars, restaurants and wedding receptions, I have become used to the challenge of playing a different instrument each day.

I’m not a classical pianist although like everyone who ever took a graded piano exam, still play some pieces for pleasure and some of the more popular “classics” at weddings.  It always “feels” nicer to do this on a real piano and at my level as a performer and in the gigs I do, the mere sight of a real piano can give you a head start.  You can, with some careful thought, make almost any ballad into a playable piano solo and they adapt well and attract the attention of at least a few guests, more so on a grand piano than a digital piano.  You see them lean back in recognition or catch them mouthing the lyrics.  But it’s not always the practical choice and here’s why.

Steinway

The Buisness end of a Concert Steinway

A grand piano has an aura, a mystique.  In a setting where the public don’t go every day, say a beach wedding or playing for a garden party under a nice canopy,  the sight of a grand piano adds gravitas.  You feel eyes on you as you walk up and lift the lid – which is sometimes flecked with tiny fingerprints where children have attempted to open up and take a peak inside. If the piano is in a public area you see fingerprints along the lid top where people sit for a photo maybe, and “play” a tune on the closed lid.  They can’t resist.

When I am playing in these kind of situations you often find nervous Mums and Dads supporting curious toddlers, crouched at a safe distance pointing at various parts of the piano and me, as if just being there will rub something off on to their children.  The Mozart effect? Is that what it’s called?

If the situation allows and we are on the same floor level with nothing to separate us, I always encourage them to come up and have a look inside at the hammers and dampers dancing on the strings.  People are intrigued and mostly totally unaware of the mechanism that’s happening to get the sound they are hearing.  Even the highest in command in the nicest hotels can be in the dark on this.

I played in a 5 star hotels restaurant at the turn of the century.  It was a full-sized, but old Steinway, the model of which I am uncertain.  It was badly in need of attention and because of our geographical situation had been neglected, if not abused, for quite some time. Time-served piano tuners are thin on the ground on my island.  The keys all acted differently and getting an even volume took concentration and was quite distracting, uncomfortable even.  The place was busy but hushed as 5 star places can be, and a waiter was despatched by the manager to ask me to “turn down the volume”.

Knowing I couldn’t manage this by backing off in my playing due to the awful condition of the piano, I finished the song and closed the lid to make use of the shorter lid support.  After a while I was asked again so I closed the lid completely, that was it, two levels of volume on the “volume knob”. Thirty minutes later, as the restaurant was emptying and readying for close, the Big Boss came in to eat with an important looking customer and sat close to the piano smiling and gesturing at me to his guest, as a proud father would about his child.  They ordered from the menu and listened attentively to me in silence until their drinks arrived and they got down to business.

After a few minutes the waiter was once again dispatched with the message that the Boss loves what I am doing, but could I just “turn down the volume” a bit.  My only option now was to stomp on the soft pedal, which ruined the tone completely, but I had a kid on the way and was not about to lose the gig because I was a bit uncomfortable.  The soft pedal on a grand physically moves the keys, all 88 of them, and action slightly to the right so that only two of the three strings per note are struck and holding down the pedal takes an effort.  For short passages it’s not a problem but with twenty minutes still to play it was going to be a task.  I hung on and twenty minutes later, left leg shaking from thigh to calf I finally released the pedal, packed up my music and limped out to the car – to the applause of the Director and his guest, I am happy to report.

This situation can be in reverse too.  Mic-ing up a grand piano is not a straight forward task as this article explains.  The crucial point being;

“Mic-ing a piano is never easy; I have found it to be the most frustrating, yet rewarding instrument to work with.”

Capturing the sound of a grand piano requires lots of mechanical obstacles be overcome that differ with each player.  How they pedal and if they breathe heavily, or even, as the great Glenn Gould did, hum along with certain passages.  There are lots of parts moving in a piano and not all are quiet when held up to scrutiny.  On stage you can have problems with other instruments bleeding through the piano mics and so you always see the piano lid closed at an Elton John or Billy Joel gig.

Then there’s the physical effort required to get the piano to the gig in a state it can be played in, keeping it regulated and in tune and other issues that are always present.  Humidity, dust, temperature fluctuations and acoustics are all considerations to keep in mind when owning a grand piano.  Luckily, or unluckily – depending on your ambition, most of us never reach that level and classical pianists of note will almost always be provided with a worthy piano without them having to lose much sleep over it.

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Digital pianos have the edge for most of us who play for a living gigging in bars etc.  The advantages are obvious.  They are easier to transport and set up, need no tuning (though unlike a real piano, can not be played using an alternative tuning) and have a volume control within easy reach.  Some have built-in speakers and all of them have some mechanism to simulate the action of a hammer hitting a string.  The pedals are of course electronic and while this has practical advantages, the down side is that they are on the floor and can attract dirt and dust which can stop the pedals switch from working.  They also pivot and can develop noise in the form of a squeak where friction occurs.  There is also no standardisation between manufacturers and a pedal that works for Yamaha won’t work on a Korg.  At least that is my experience with the models I have, it may have changed now with newer models.

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The weight of a digital piano is always a compromise between portability and sound/feel.  I have a Yamaha stage piano that is light (15kg) and has speakers built-in.  It feels OK but can move about on the stand when I play hard. Its plastic case is almost empty, apart from the keyboard there are just two circuit boards slightly larger than a credit card inside.  It looks substantial but it’s all bloat.

My Korg stage piano is almost twice the weight with no speakers and stays put where ever you play it and however hard, but I have to carry more gear in the form of amplification and speakers to use it.  It’s weight, whilst at the moment is no real issue for me, I could see could put some off owning one.  It also has just two small circuit boards inside with its keyboard, but its metal case and the metal used in the action make it a much more hefty and sturdy instrument.  I pick up the Yamaha in a bag and it’s no heavier than a bass guitar in a case, I manoeuvre it up narrow and steep staircases in churches and behind the scenes in hotels with relative ease, pop it on a stand and plug it in and it’s ready to go.

They sound good in most situations with a choice of piano sounds in each but I prefer the Korg’ stability and usability.  Like on a real piano, all of my instruments allow that you can play a key silently as you can on a real piano and though it may sound like a strange feature to have, some people use the keys as an anchor point and don’t always want that note to sound. The Yamaha has a habit of occasionally sounding double notes at full velocity – notes that I am not playing – and that’s a bit annoying.  Its portability and quick set up counter this and so it’s the piano I use most.  If I lived somewhere with a city near by I would have it looked at for the random note issue, but I don’t so I put up with it.  Also the problem only occurs when I am at full pelt so is rarely an issue at a wedding or in church.

The downside of a digital piano is that they don’t look nice in a restaurant or 5 star wedding.  People look at them differently.  They sometimes call them “organs” which I hate, or just plain androgynous  “keyboards” and I have been asked many times over the years if I play the piano as well.  Children are more likely to wander up and have a tinkle because they look like the racks of keyboards in electronics shops and lack the mystique of the grand, with its locked lid. Of course there are domestic and some professional digital pianos that look like beautifully designed items of furniture, but for some reason design seems to stop at the back, as if they will all be placed flush up against a wall. They ALL need plugging in to a power source so there are wires to deal with and the pedal also is plugged in to the piano.  Unless you have a spare power supply and pedal, and you are handy with a soldering iron, you are going to encounter failure in one of these cables at some point in the pianos playable life.

Also the domestic pianos take some assembly in the IKEA style and so gigging with them becomes less practical plus they are all much heavier by design itself and use materials for vanity and not hard wearing.  I have one of these myself at home, another Yamaha. It’s great for practicing on and even recording but it has a problem in common with the other Yamaha I own.

In order that the keys feel heavy and simulate the lifting of a hammer through levers and pivots, they place weights inside the keys and some of them, around the middle of the keyboard which gets the most use, have become loose and make a rattling sound when the keys are played.  The sound is only local and probably unnoticeable to the listener, but it’s another annoyance and requires the removal of 30 or more screws to rectify.  The option of a transpose function is handy, I don’t like to use it myself, but there are times when it’s useful. Also, the electronics allow for a metronome be available which is also very useful but to keep the weight down, controlling these functions is often a complicated multiple combination of holding down buttons and adjusting a tempo using the keys themselves. And once again, there is NO standardisation so you need to carry a sheet of instructions for each instrument if you need access to these functions at a gig.

Both real and digital pianos have a place.  I think in the ideal world we would all love to have a lovely grand piano set up and waiting for us at each gig.  You have the full dynamic range that is hard to simulate using a scale of 128 steps of volume for each note available in a modern digital piano.  There is that feeling of vibration up through the arms and shoulders that still delights me and the overtones and harmonic quality that you hear sat at a grand piano don’t even come into play by wearing headphones playing a digital piano.  But for getting out there and earning a living, digital pianos are a godsend and thanks to good old healthy competition still developing and improving. I just wish they would get their heads together and implement some design standards.

 

Further Reading

Stuff about pianos

 

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