Zen of Recording

The Keys to Your Heart

A big part of any producer or recordist’s job is the time-honored task of problem solving. Over the course of a single recording session, hundreds of tiny assessments are made and acted upon: more vocal in the ’phones, less 315Hz on the guitar, a different microphone on the vocals…

Most of these challenges are easily surmountable, but if there’s an Achilles’ heel to studio recording, it would have to be centered around one of the most elemental and ubiquitous of musical instruments: The Piano.

Ironic, considering the majority of the musicians I’ve ever worked with have shown at least a passing relationship with the ol’ black and whites. It could be because they can be found in so many homes. Maybe it’s because the feedback from it is instantaneous. It takes a while, for example, to learn how to produce sound, much less music from a brass or reed instrument, or to fret a simple chord on an acoustic guitar; but hold down a key on a piano and presto, you just played a B flat! Okay, so drums are even simpler, but no one ever tells you to “take that damn piano outside to practice,” now do they? The point is that regardless of your present instrumental forte, the piano was probably an early inspiration for you as well.

This common experience gives us a universal chalkboard to communicate with if nothing else, even if you’re not actually recording the piano, which brings up yet another set of physical challenges: its enormous size (especially grand pianos), its need for skilled maintenance, and its preference for consistent temperatures. These particular reasons are why I personally keep a Wurlitzer electric piano in the control room. Among the positives: it doesn’t need to be plugged in and it doesn’t go out of tune. On the negative side: it ain’t no grand piano.

For many of us, the answer lies in synthesizers or sample-based performance keyboards and while they definitely solve some problems with regard to portability, there are still limitations. If you are primarily a pianist, for example, the desire for feel and expressiveness are going to drive you to find a keyboard that feels good to you. Weighted or semi-weighted keys go a long way toward solving things here, but the actual sound coming out of the keyboard may still leave something to be desired.

Your next stop would be virtual instruments. Most digital audio recording programs come with a few virtual instruments by now, and all of those offer a piano as part of that “suite.” But pianos are very complex by nature when it comes to capturing them. Picture someone at the piano in your mind. Place yourself right there, next to the piano. You can hear every bump of the damper pedal. The hammers striking the strings. You are surrounded by the sound of the room’s characteristic reverberance. You feel the resonance of the entire performance enveloping you. This is not an easy thing to replicate.
As a result of this complexity and the failure to fully recreate it, most hardware or software-based sampled pianos kinda work in a mix, but don’t hold up under the closer scrutiny of piano-based arrangements in recordings and performances.

There are some virtual pianos that do a fine job of capturing all that vibe and expressiveness, but they can be very costly, both in terms of finances and computer resources. I wonder how many of you can share the story of having a great piano sound that hogs up all of your RAM and drops notes as it maxes out its polyphony (number of notes that can play at once). Many is my guess.

TruePianos ($180.00 PC/Mac) from 4Front Technologies (truepianos.com) aims squarely at these concerns and addresses them in a very intuitive way. TruePianos is essentially five different instruments or modules, as they refer to them: Amber, Diamond, Emerald, Sapphire (two flavors), and the new Atlantis piano. After installing the program and each of the modules, I opened PreSonus StudioOne 2, created an instrument track and loaded the TruePianos interface. The first time you use it, you’re shown the options screen, with check boxes for Increased Polyphony, Multi-CPU Engine and Sympathetic Resonance, as well as a variable slider to match the application’s velocity curve to your preference. I checked them all and left the velocity as is, as my weighted keyboard controller seemed well-paired with the default setting.

The instrument was instantly playable and the first sounds I heard coming back from my cursory playing was actually inspiring. Most of the time, I’m Rolodex-ing through the presets by now, in search of something, anything that will come even close to what I’m looking for, but I’d already found it and was simply enjoying playing it! I started loading the different modules and comparing the various tonalities on offer. All of them were of the “Grand” variety, with deep resonances at the bottom and clear, realistic “plinking” in the upper registers.

Atlantis seems the “smallest,” like a Kawai baby grand with the lid closed. I dug its semi-muted sound and found it most suited to modern jazz and R&B styles.

Sapphire is more of a open concert grand, with a well-balanced overall tone rife with upper harmonics and rich in the bass end. Unfortunately, making a realistic piano sound that doesn’t use up a ton of memory involves some looping on sustained notes and this was most detectable when using this module.

Emerald is my favorite by far and definitely has been the go-to module around here. This piano has a delicious, velvety chocolate bump in the lower octaves that really gets my creative juices flowing. It sounds great in solo passages and with pop and classical ensembles.

Diamond seems most suited as a pop piano; its aggressive upper-midrange keeps the piano established in a dense mix, without muddying things up.

Ditto for Amber, which exhibits many of those same traits and sounds a little more “lid-open.”

Sapphire Pedal is a really cool extension of its namesake, adding the mechanical sounds that accompany the use of pedals in the real world. This makes it even more suited to capturing concert-like performances!

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that each of these modules comes with its own unique set of presets, making them infinitely more usable and applicable to a wider set of styles and situations. I should also remind you that because it’s a MIDI virtual instrument, you’ll be able to edit and manipulate your performances into exactly what you want.

Overall, this is probably the best sounding piano you’ll find for under $800. The fact that it’s priced at under $200 is yet another reason to add this great instrument to your audio arsenal.

Contact Sven-Erik Seaholm at kaspro.com, svensongs.com, Facebook, or Google. Or call (619) 287-1955.

  • May 2012

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