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Best Digital Piano Sound

I have been in the trenches with digital pianos since I bought my first Ensoniq Mirage in, I think, 1986.  It featured a whopping FOUR SECONDS of memory and had some screwy little 8-bit floating point sampling scheme.  It was kind of awful, but Mitch Forman sure played the crap out of it!  Things evolved;  in the ‘90s I played the Emu Proformance piano module, which was actually really great for what it was:  a 2 megabyte (approximately 12 seconds of stereo samples, I think) module that played pretty well.  Then came the Gigapiano, this giant 650 meg piano sample in Gigastudio, the big PC-based sampler;  couldn’t play jazz on it but boy did it sound like a Thomas Newman score with the sustain pedal down. 
 
I was never a fan of the Ivory pianos until they released the Italian Grand;  I heard it at the NAMM show and bought it on the spot.  I am REALLY, REALLY PICKY about my piano sounds;  90% of what’s out there sounds “canned” to me;  I think the piano isn’t mic’d to my liking (in the case of some of the other Ivory pianos I question the way they are TUNED!), or sounds like it’s coming from “over there”, or it’s full of honks and resonances and hot spots that are just ugly to me.  But the Italian Grand is a great instrument, plays really big, seems to be coming from the right place if I’m using stereo wedges or my in-ear monitors, responds well and VERY CONSISTENTLY, has a big, rich, but strangely slightly thin sound coming out of the box.  The one thing about it that I really don’t like is that the sustain pedal emulator doesn’t really do much for me.  It does indeed sustain the notes, but a real sustain piano on a real piano opens up every string on the instrument to vibrate in sympathy with the notes you play, which is a whole other phenomenon than just keeping your notes ringing.  So Ivory on ballads is really pretty 2-dimensional to me;  you’re never going to get the whole instrument singing like a real piano can.  Still, for anything from a medium tempo up, or for pop pieces or rock piano, it works great and is fun to use on the gig.  Most of what you hear of me on YouTube is the Ivory, including this piece:
 
 
This piano is one I’ve refined over several years, and I’m going to include screenshots of the settings on EQ and compression I’ve arrived at doing hundreds of live gigs through all sorts of amplification.  I do all the front-end work on these in my studio at home, where I completely trust my monitors;  how the house sound system mangles it is beyond my control (or is it?  Read on!)
 
But the quest for a better solution to the sustain pedal dilemna has, so far, been best answered by the idea of taking two sets of samples:  one with the sustain pedal up, and one with it down and the whole piano ringing in sympathy.  This ain’t perfect either, since we usually depress the pedal AFTER we’ve played the notes, and these pianos with the sus-pedal-down samples usually switch to those samples only when you’ve pressed the pedal on your keyboard.  Still, we are often pedaling these passages a lot, which means you’re getting these samples most of the time.  And it’s actually pretty damned cool, I think!  The original Gigapiano had these samples, and while it wasn’t really the same thing as what a sustain pedal does (you can depress the sustain pedal while you hold a chord and hear your whole sound expand in that great way), it really did have a cool sound that was better than anybody’s emulator.  We have to be close to having a physical modeling means of doing what a real sustain pedal does;  maybe somebody already has a good one and I just haven’t heard it yet.  Things evolve every single day out there!  
 
Enter the East West Platinum Steinway.  This is a different beast than the Italian Grand.  The Italian Grand is wide, but not deep, and somewhat flat rather than round.  The Platinum Steinway is wide, deep, and very round and pearly, and the atmosphere around the notes, especially with the sus pedal down, is really just heavenly.  But it does not play as consistently as Ivory does, I don’t think, so while I love to do my “Digital Keith Jarrett” (yes, I am going to hell for saying that) on it, I still use Italian Grand about half the time.  But these are my go-to pianos;  I do a fair amount of recording on film scores and the like using the East West and people seem to really like it, and they love the editability of the MIDI aspect.  
 
So let’s discuss how we get the best piano experience out of these two pianos (or any others, for that matter!).  There are a couple things that matter here to me, so we’ll discuss them:  The sound itself, and the response of the piano.  
 
For the sound itself, I think it’s easiest if I just upload my presets on these two;  I like to have the same piano for everything if I can (Herbie Hancock’s rider specifies the REAL Fazioli Italian Grand at every gig, for example), so I don’t really do too much changing of presets on these.  So I’m going to upload my Ivory preset and my EW Platinum Steinway preset (note that you have to buy the piano plug-ins themselves, with their 40 gig of samples or so per piano, to use these presets).  These will be Channel Strip presets, so they’ll give you my settings on the piano plug-ins themselves, and also my EQ and compressors in the bargain.
 
The other issue is the way the piano RESPONDS, and this is something I’ve been fiddling with for decades now.  My rider specifies that at each gig there is a Yamaha S-90 (great 88-key weighted keyboard), Roland A-80 (obsolete but I know it well), Casio Privia (great cheap weighted action if not great sound) or “Any other 88-key weighted MIDI keyboard”.  We can’t be so picky that people have to call all over Croatia to meet my rider;  I try to be as flexible as possible. So I’ve seen a very wide array of weighted keyboards in the last 10 years or so.  And what I do, for each one I see, is I create my own custom velocity scale in a transformer in Logic’s environment, and then I save the setup.  You can see several of these here:
 
 
 
So when I get to the gig, and I see what they’ve provided (sometimes something like a Kurzweil PC88, or a Doepfer keyboard, or some weird thing I’ve never heard of, or whatever), I simply wire in the transformer I’ve created for that keyboard on previous gigs, and I’m ready to go.  If I haven’t played it before, I put on the phones and spend 15 minutes creating one.  This is what they look like (this one, below, is adapted for a Yamaha S90): 
 
 
 
And you can see here that, in my rig, the S90 plays a little too “hard” in the middle of the dynamic range;  this transformer takes an input velocity of, let’s say, 80, and softens it to maybe 72.  A straight linear response, a “pass-thru” setting, would be a straight line from the lower left to the upper right.  
 
SO, there’s that!  The basic setting I set up on the piano plug-ins themselves is just a nice, wide dynamic range that feels good on my home keyboard, which had been a Casio Privia PX-130 (which I used because it only weighs about 25 pounds and has a nice feel, I only use it as a controller), until I BROKE IT, tragically.  Looking to replace it with a Yamaha P45, maybe, nice keyboard with graded action, also lightweight.  Or perhaps a Yamaha MM8, a great deal for the money and only 35 pounds.  
 
What I’ve uploaded to the site here are channel strips that will work in either Logic (for your sequencer projects) or MainStage (for your live rig).  They will boot up the piano presets I’ve designed, as well as compression and EQ (and on the East West Steinway, a multi-band compressor to boot!).  These are my starting points, and they’ll probably play great for you.  I’ve also uploaded my faithful Logic/Mainstage reverb preset, which is what you hear on almost all of my recent YouTubes and the Third Rail CD “Ignition:  Live Across Europe”.  
 
If you’d like to use these pianos, buy either Italian Grand (currently $169 on Amazon.com) or the Platinum Pianos (a collection of 3 or 4) from www.soundsonline.com, currently about $250, but keep an eye out for deep sales.  Install it (you’ll need a lot of room on a drive), then download my channel strips and Space Designer setting from the resources section of my school.  Double-click to unzip the archive and you’ll see 3 things in there:
 
  • Ivory Geo AW Channel Strip.cst
  • ArtistWorks EW Steinway Channel Strip.cst
  • Geo AW Ivory Italian.ivprog
  • Artistworks EW Steinway D.ewi
 
The trick is to get them where you can use them.  To do this, you need to add the pianos to your “home” folder, user library.  Here are the steps:
 
  1. Click on “Finder” in your dock
  2. Hold “option” and click on “Go” from the top menu, then select “Library” (this gives you your user library, which is not the same as the main library on the root directory of your boot drive)
  3. Your library will open;  double-click on “Application Support”
  4. Find “Logic” in there and double-click that to open
  5. Find “Channel Strip Settings” in there and double-click to open
  6. Now add the two piano channel strips (ending in .cst) to the folder marked “Instrument”
 
NOW, on any channel strip in either Logic or MainStage, you can go to the flip menu at the top of the channel strip (it’s the top-most thing, likely says “setting” on it on a new channel strip), click and hold, and a menu will open and you’ll see these channel strip presets in there.  Load one and you are good to go!  
 
There are also two presets that work within the piano plug-ins themselves (these end in .ivprog and .ewi).  To use these (these just set the Ivory or Play plug-ins, there’s no “outboard” EQ or compression), put the Ivory one here:

Ivory Items / Presets / Programs / User / (put the preset in the User folder…)

And the East West piano you can put wherever you like, then from the Main Menu button in the upper left of the “Play” plug-in, navigate to wherever you put it and load!  

 
As the last step in trying to get a good piano sound out to the house, I have taken to going out front with my laptop and a 30-foot FireWire cable connected to my MOTU Ultralite interface, running some tracks while I sit out in the house, and EQing the outputs of the MOTU so that the sound is decent, something I recognize.  Every PA is tuned differently, and most kind of badly, and this lets me have some confidence that the audience is hearing what I mean for them to hear.  
 
Good sound to everybody!  Spend some time getting the curve right in MainStage or Logic so that these pianos feel good to you;  you want them to be sensitive but not jumpy, nice wide dynamic range but not out of control.  Makes a HUGE difference on the gig, believe me!  
 

 

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