Monday, June 8, 2009

Piano vs. Synthesizer

I just read an interesting article on the cost of pianos and why you should maybe get a synthesizer instead (thanks @tarabusch for retweeting @podcasting_news). Most of the reactions are in the “good idea” category, but some have been in the “I’m never coming back to this site again” category. One in particular caught my eye, saying simply “They most definitely do not sound better than a real piano.”

Here’s my reply.

I think we have to define what we mean by a “real” piano, rather than simply throw out knee-jerk reactions. I’m a musician. I have probably 20 synthesizers, a couple of guitars, and three pianos (although the “three” might need an asterisk).

One piano is a baby grand in the family summer home (built by my parents in the 1960s), another piano is a spinet in my apartment, and the third is a Yamaha digital piano. Which sounds best? The Yamaha, by about a thousand miles. The spinet is old and almost at this point unmaintainable, and in fact I’m thinking of simply putting it on a couple of dollies and rolling it out to the dumpster as I can’t get anyone to take it from me, not even for free, and frankly I don’t blame them. It needs work, and hasn’t been in tune in decades. The baby grand is in slightly better shape, but as it’s 200 miles away from where I live and I might only see it every other year or so it’s just not worth putting the money and time into it to maintain it properly. In comparison, the Yamaha digital is small, fits in my living room, sounds great, and never goes out of tune or needs any sort of maintenance other than dusting.

As to “real” pianos sounding better, sure, a US$35,000 Steinway concert grand is going to be unbeatable. However, I don’t think I’ll be able to fit it into my apartment somehow let alone ever being able to afford one. I’ve had the immense privilege of being able to play them a few times in my life, and yes, they’re incredible, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that my Yamaha is in tune and can be played. It sounds good, too. Is it as good as a Steinway? No, but on the other hand the Yamaha is in my living room and the Steinway isn’t. It even has a hammer action, so in a blind taste test I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference.

But, my Yamaha is not a synthesizer (although that could be argued both ways). It’s more or less a piano. Some of my “real” synths have semi-weighted keyboards, though. The action of a semi-weighted keyboard is much lighter and faster than a piano. In fact, I prefer these to unweighted synth keyboards as I feel they have a better “feel” than a “regular” synth keyboard. (Sorry for all these double quotes. I’ll try to control myself from here on out.) While my Yamaha fits nicely into my living room, it simply won’t fit into a car. For playing out I need something much more portable. For that I use a rather old 1980s device from Roland called the P-330. Plug a MIDI keyboard into the P-330 and you’re ready to rock and roll. Nowadays, though, there are much better choices (although I still use the P-330 now and then).

But wait, I just got distracted. The P-330 isn’t a synth either. I’m more of an analog guy myself, but pretty much any modern digital synthesizer nowadays will have have a dozen or so onboard piano sounds. Even though I play the piano, I’m not a pianist, but it would be interesting to have someone who was play a short piece with both an acoustic piano and, say, a Korg Oasys and then play them back for a group of listeners without telling them which was which. Done well, I think the success rate for identifying the correct instrument would be around 50%, no better than a random guess. I admit that the Oasys is itself somewhat large and maybe a bit, uh, expensive, but I’m pretty sure the results would be the same with a more affordable synthesizer as well.

So here’s the bottom line. Is a synthesizer a piano? Nope. There’s no room acoustics, you need good speakers, and when designing one you need to pay attention to things like the sympathetic vibration of strings when pedaling. However, with a good synthesizer that’s well recorded, it’ll sound just as good for most purposes. Solo recital in Carnegie Hall? Well, no, I’d use a concert grand (as if!). Rock and roll fightin’ against two guitar players? Definitely. Your 10-year-old in your living room? Absolutely, and you’ll be thanking me later when they can practice with headphones on so you don’t have to listen to them.


Torley said...

I enjoyed your post, good considerations!

Have you tried Pianoteq, or even Native Instruments Akoustik which does model sympathetic resonance? Some realism which was too CPU-expensive to do 5 years ago is amazingly accessible now.

I also note a lot of modern piano recordings (not classical but rock and pop), even if recorded on a "real piano", use digital sweetening techniques to boost the EQ and compress it, such that it sounds more... electronic.

Seth Elgart said...

Thanks for your comments, Torley!

Yeah, I did think about doing another paragraph on software, but I liked the ending I already had, and I also didn't want to give anyone a heart attack either. If people can get this upset about non-acoustic pianos, do I really need to rile them up any further? :-)

Torley said...

Heh, I reckon they'll rile themselves up. :)

Matt Mower said...

I have a Kurzweil SP3X which I bought (well, actually, I bought an SP2X... it's a long story) because I wanted something definitely not computer to practice piano on. I think it sounds and feels great.

That said I played a 15,000 Bechstein upright last weekend and the sound and feel were awesome. But it costs 15x as much and if i'd be uncomfortable travelling with the Kurzweil there's no way that Bechstein is going anywhere.

That said I would still have the Bechstein in my lounge for those moments when I want something totally organic.

On the subject of software I have NI Akoutstik Piano and for grand piano sound I think it beats the SP3X but it's using, what, 3GB of samples and my computer to do it.

I guess this ramble amounts to my agreeing with you. Better a decent sounding piano you can play conveniently than something else ;-)

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