updated: 08 Feb 2009

The Piano

Chuck Leavell, Leon Russell, Keith Godcheaux, Page McConnell, Bruce Hornsby, man those guys got it made. Well, maybe not Keith cuz he's dead. But still, nice big ole grand piano up there, nice big old crew to move it. Wouldn't that be nice. Well, the rest of us have to make do with more practical solutions to the rock and roll piano problem. For most of us, that means either an electonic piano or a piano sound module. We'll I've certainly owned my share, but my buying experiences has been pretty hit-or-miss.

Korg SG-1D Sampled Grand Piano

This was the very first keyboard I bought new. I guess I got lucky because it turned out to be one of my better purchases. It's definitely a piece of gear that I will never part with. It has its faults, to be sure. It makes some pretenses at being a master controller but the MIDI implementation leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. It's good for key event info, and that's about it. The internal sounds are fine, though. Of the four built-in sounds, I mainly stick to Piano 1. This is pretty ancient technology - 12-bit samples, and I think it only has 8 or 12 notes of polyphony. What's apparent, though, is that Korg's engineers spent a long time tinkering with the amplitude envelopes, and I think they did a great job. This piano is a joy to play live. The notes have a nice, graceful decay curve, so playing ballads is effortless. But if you bonk it it gets nice and percussive too. I think the one complaint everyone has about this instrument (myself included) is it's a little weak in the upper octaves. Still, it's a seriously decent instrument. At the time I bought it, I was considering the Roland RD-300 as well, and ultimately I went with the Korg on the strenth of the piano sound. After all these years I still enjoy playing it. On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a solid 8.

It amazes me to see the stuff that comes out today, with tons of sample memory and 128 voices, and bitchin filters out the wazoo. It all looks so good on paper, and then you play the thing and it's utter crap. Perhaps I have such a soft spot for the SG-1D because they did so much with so little. The downside is that it weighs a ton. In retrospect I probably could have gotten by with the 76-key version which is a bit lighter. But anyway, I have this big ole heavy thing, and it's nice, but really I also want something smaller and lighter for short gigs, small stages, or those times when I just don't feel like dealing with 100 pounds of piano controller. For awhile I was using a Roland A-30 as a controller, which has a semi-weighted keyboard which worked out okay as a reasonable comprimise for piano and organ. It has 76 keys, is nice and light, and can even run off batteries if you need it to. Now it's just a simple matter of finding a good piano module. How hard can that be?

They all sound good in the store

I have found that when it comes to auditioning modules in the store, I am completely incompetent. When it's just you and your headphones, they all sound great. Sure, each piano has its own chartacteristics but I find myself saying "hey, it's a little funky but it sounds pretty good" and invariably when I try to use it with the band, it's just awful. Here's my theory: manufacturers want to sell their stuff, and I can't blame them for that, obviously. But what happens is, they know that people will walk from keyboard to keyboard in the store and ultimately make their buying decision then and there, based on whatever impressions they have. So, they make the piano sound splashy and animated and cartoonish. It's the aural equivalent of laundry detergent boxes. You know how it is, Tide, Cheer, whatever, people just buy the one with the most obnoxious package. What I find is that I'll try to listen through the bullshit and figure, well, I can edit the patch, bring the reverb way down, tweak this, twiddle that, etc... but apart from all that it sounds great! So I'll end up bringing the thing home, it still sounds okay sorta, but then playing it with a full band doesn't work. That "animated" piano sound ends up being a distraction. It's either too loud, or too quiet, or you can't get the volume set right without the jangly sound taking up too much room in the mix. Or sometimes (as in the case of the NanoPiano) it's no fun at all to play, but then you go back and listen to the tape of the gig and you say "wow, that sounds amazingly good." Sometimes the sounds can be tweaked, sometimes not. Most of the time it's just an excercise in frustration.

Hence my theory: it's almost pointless to listen to them in the store. They all sound good in the store. It's not until you play it with a band that you find out whether it's crap or not. The problem with this new theory is that it might be right. For this reason, I'm afraid to buy anything new anymore.

And here we have the ever-growing list piano modules I've kicked to the curb.

Alesis Nano Piano

Is it a good value, or is it a case of 'you get what you pay for?' You can pick these little 1/3 rack units up for $150 or less, and it has an okay sound. An amazingly good sound on tape, actually. It's just a shame that it's no fun to play. It's a little too percussive and "plinky" and there's no way to edit the patches. There's also way too much hammer "knock" in the mid-keyboard octaves, it just feels weird and unnatural, sort of disembodied. The clav sound is pretty good, though, and is a blast to play through a wah pedal. Beyond that, I can't say much else about this module. A five. I still keep it for use with my little practice amp, when I want to have a tiny setup.

Korg SG-Rack

I spent a good half hour playing this in the store before deciding to buy it. I thought the basic sound was OK, but the factory patches were too percussive for my taste. I figured I could edit these but it turns out that you can't really. The unit does have some editing capabilities, but for some reason they don't use the normal ADSR (Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release) envelope model. The problem that I found was there wasn't independent control over the sustain level - I couldn't raise it without bollocksing up the other parameters. I've tried compression, and I've tried EQ, and while these both helped a little, it didn't quite get me there. A disappointment. A three. Sold it on eBay.

Roland P-55

This was recommended to me off a Hammond email list I'm on, so I bought it off eBay without having heard it. This is without a doubt the worst of the lot. The piano sound is even more cartoonish than the Korg. I brought it to a gig and used it for half a song. That was all I could take. It really is that bad. So, there's a lesson there as well: other people's recommendations (disclaimer: that includes mine) are just a guidepost, nothing more. In the end, the only opinion that matters is your own. Anyway, this nasty little module will be recycled on eBay at my earliest convenience. Zero.

Kurzweil Micro-Piano

Also recommended to me from the same mailing list, also bought off eBay without seeing or hearing it. A pleasant surprise. It gets strangely mixed reviews. A lot of people complain about how "dark" and understated it is. Yeah, sure, understated... like a tiny white pearl next to a 4000 pound booger. Compared to a lot of piano modules out there, yeah, it does sound much less bright and animated. I'm not so sure that's such a bad thing. I find it refeshingly realisting, but in a band context it holds its own very nicely. The dynamic control is much more subtle than the other units. On the downside, the patches cannot be edited and my biggest complaint is that tail of the note decays too quickly. That's a pretty common problem among piano modules. That said, the Kurzweil Micro-Piano is still one of the best modules out there. It's also very easy to use, and it records very nicely. This is my second-favorite module, and I keep it in my rack as a hot-backup in case my favorite module fails. An eight.

GeneralMusic RealPiano

I had read lots of glowing reviews of this unit on the net, and finally I snagged one on eBay. This is a wall-wart-powered half-rack unit, approximately the same dimensions as the Kurzweil unit. My initial impressions of the unit in a gig situation were very positive. It reacts well to velocity without too much drama, and it has the longest and most piano-like note decay I've heard in a piano module. Sounds very realistic. I think we have a winner! I've been using this piano for the past year, and it's become my favorite. That doesn't mean the box is perfect, though. Unfortunately, my unit exhibits occasional weirdnesses and locks up occasionally (maybe once every 5 or 10 gigs). This piano module is in the same MIDI chain as the Voce V5, and I'll just turn the volume down when it's not in use. But, it's seeing all the "organ" MIDI data, and I think the palm glisses and smears freak it out. So, I just reboot (power cycle) the module when I switch from organ back to piano and everything's fine. Pain the butt, though. Also, be aware that at some point GeneralMusic changed the code ROM in a way that radically changes the sound quality. I discovered this when I bought the latest code EPROM from Peavey (who used to be the US GeneralMusic distributor). With this code ROM, the piano sound took on a metallic and very artifical quality and it didn't fix any of the stability issues. So, I switched back to the old software and lived to learn with the limitations of this unit. After all that, it's still my first choice. Apparently I'm not the only one, because these units have become very difficult to find. In summary, I'll give the sound quality a nine, but it loses 3 points for erratic behavior.

GeneralMusic RP-X

I had heard rumors that Generalmusic was working on a follup to the Realpiano, and through my consulting work I attend Winter NAMM every January. In 2008 they finally showed the RP-X, and I have to say, it sounded great. I'm never really sure what the deal is with Generalmusic. They tend to make great-sounding, great-playing products, but they don't get a lot of press or hype. Which is a shame, because I like their stuff. Anyway, after hearing the RP-X I immediately bought one. It has several pianos, EPs and other instruments, but I was primarily interested in the two "big RAM" pianos, and I eventually settled on the first of these, which I think is either a Yamaha or a Steinway. Memory fails me. Anyway, I used this as my main piano sound for most of 2008. In general, it's a step up from the Realpiano - much cleaner/lower noise floor, and there's a patch editor so you can tweak several parameters, a big plus. On the minus side - and this is a major complain - the module does not work well in mono. In stereo, it sounds great, but if you just take a single output, internally the unit is obviously summing the signals to mono, and the original stereo samples are not mono-compatible. I run mono 99% of the time, so this is a concern. I don't mind stereo EFX but personally I think it's dumb to have the piano pan around as you go up and down the keyboard. Sure, it's sorta kinda what you hear when seated at a piano, but it doesn't sit in a mix which I think it a more important consideration. Anyway, the over-simplified answer is that I basically have a dummy plug stuffed in the left channel and just use the right channel. It does mean the signal gets a little hotter as you go up the keyboard, but sometimes that's okay.

Muse Receptor: Synthogy Ivory

Late in 2008 I bought the bullet and bought a Muse Receptor. This 2U sound module is actually a Linux PC which can host various virtual instrument VSTis. I ordered mine bundled with Syntogy Ivory and Native Instuments Akoustic Piano. Synthogy Ivory sounds glorious, it's nothing like anything I've ever heard out of a module before. It comes with several pianos, all of which have been multisampled at several velocity levels. I think of all the pianos, the 10-level Steinway ("German D") is my favorite. If you had a MIDI file of a piano performance that you wanted rendered to audio, it's hard to beat Ivory. It'd fool just about anyone. That said, as wonderful as the piano sounds, I never really got the hang of how it plays, for reasons which are difficult to articulate. The best I can say is that it feels somehow 'disembodied' like you're playing abstraction of a piano instead of an actual piano. It also sounds a little mid-rangely, although that could be fixed with EQ. It's possible some of these playabilty issues could be address by treaking some parameters. To be honest, I just did a couple gigs with it, and then I moved on to Akoustik Piano...

Muse Receptor: Native Instruments Akoustik Piano

OK, this is The Shit right here. I don't know if I've ever been so bold as to say something like this before, but it's very possible my neverending quest for a piano has actually come to an end. Like Ivory, the stupidly-spelled Akoustik Piano comes with several multi-sampled pianos. My favorite is the Bechstein grand. Part of why I like it is it's a very dry sample - if you select the "studio" reverb environment, you get very little ambience, and it's just about perfect for rock and roll. The midrange is especially delicious. For the first time ever, I can play a piano solo without feeling the need to jump up an octave or two just to cut through. Moreover, your ability to cut through or lay back is very easily controlled with key velocity. This is the most "playable" piano module I have ever played. It's just stunning. Like Ivory, you can control the stereo width, so you can dial out the panning if a clean mono signal is important to you. Also worth mentioning is the Steingraeber upright, which actually sounds like an upright piano. It too is quite expressive and a lot of fun to play. Right now my only issue with Akoustik Piano is that Receptor doesn't seem to like to have multiple instances of it running simultaneously. It's complicated, but because sounds load so slowly, if you want the Receptor to respond to program changes quickly, you have to set up what they call a "snapshot" which has multiple instances of VSTi's running, and program changes are used to disable and enable VSTis within that snapshot. This is the only way to switch between Ivory and Akoustik Piano and B4 and Lounge Lizard without having to wait 30-90 seconds for the new VST to load. The problem is that there's a show-stopper of a crash bug which sometimes happens if you have multiple instances of Akoustik Piano going and switch between them, which makes it difficult or impossible to have the Steingraeber and Bechstein pianos both be available and be confident Receptor will remain stable. Ivory has a similar issue. You can only have one Ivory piano reliably loaded at once. So for now, I've just stuck with the NI Bechstein, and it is truly magnificent. Dare I say it? A ten.

Have you tried something with real strings?

One day, many years ago, I stopped into a local music shop and saw a used Helpinstill Roadmaster. I'd read about these but never seen one before. It's basically an upright piano with a very small soundboard built into a road case. Built-in pickups, small keyboard, 64 keys, something like that. The action had this weird linkage which enabled you to fold the keyboard down into the lower part of the case. When it was all folded up it was pretty flat - it looked like a big mixing board flight case... with a sustain pedal sticking out the bottom. I forget what I paid for it, $300, maybe less. I used it for a few acoustic gigs and had fun with it. Strange beast. Mainly I kept it at home but it was set up all the time.

I was living in a funky cottage in Ocean Beach, and this total loser family moved into the unit in front. They'd spend the day drinking scotch, not that I have a problem with that, but these were not happy drunks. Invariably at 10pm or 1am or 3am the screaming and throwing things would begin. The mother would accuse the daughter of stealing $20 from her ATM card, she'd scream back, ugh, it was pathetic. So I was out of there. Fortune smiled upon me, I found a killer new place, I was moving, and had packed up my old place and had spent the day cleaning. The old place was completely empty. Bucket, mop, some cleaning supplies, one chair, and the Helpinstill. That was it. I was exhausted and figured I'll come back and get it in the morning. Earlier that day I'd shown it to the loser daughter's ex-husband, who stopped by for some reason. I guess I should have been suspicious because he's never stopped by before. But I'd never met him before, and didn't think anything of it. Next morning, I have trouble opening the door, and the piano's gone. Near as I can tell, the asshole pried a window open and crawled through, unscrewed the lock from the inside, wheeled the piano out, and re-assembled the lock. Must have been a tweaker. I mean, he puts the lock back together when he's done? It makes no sense. And... who steals a piano? What, is he going to set it up on the corner and busk for meth? ("Sing us a song, you're the (stolen) piano man...") I don't get it. Anyway, I checked the local pawn shops and filled out a police report but I never saw it again. Fortunately I did have renter's insurance.

Yamaha CP-70

About six months later, a CP-70 popped up in the paper. The CP-70 (76 key) and CP-80 (88 key) were introduced by Yamaha in the early 80s. It's an actual grand piano which separates into two road cases, each roughly the size and weight of a Rhodes piano. The high notes are double-strung (as opposed to three strings on a normal piano) and the bass notes are single-strung. The bass strings are fat and sound pretty strange, still it was a decided improvement over the Helpinstill. The action is great - apparently the design is based on the action from a regular Yamaha grand piano. Keith Godcheaux played one during the latter part of his tenure with the Grateful Dead, Brent Mydland during the beginning of his. Phish's Page McConnell toured with one up until 1993 or 1994. And of course Duke and Coster and all those heavies had 'em at some time or other. It was a great deal of fun, but it's pretty cumbersome to set up and tear down, and even though mine came with Anvil flight cases, I'd only actually gigged with it a couple times. I mostly had it set up in the studio.

Eventually, though, I sold the CP-70. Even still, I do a have soft spot in my heart for these instruments, and made a CP-70 resource page.



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