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The Well-Synthesized Piano

Should I be surprised by the aesthetic ambivalence even devoted creative electronic musicians feel toward synthesizers? Hardly. Being as jazz is music of spontaneous self-expression, the instrument that offers the most direct path to emotional fulfillment is the one musicians will gravitate toward. And when it comes to intimacy and immediacy, the sound of a good acoustic piano is so intoxicating it’s easy to see why its practitioners are utterly devoted to it.

Of course, when contrasting the enduring appeal of acoustic pianos with that of their contemporary digital brethren, it’s worth noting that synthesis is a relatively new performance technology, while the piano has been evolving since the dawn of the 18th century. At that time, the harpsichord remained the instrument of choice among the leading keyboardists, who no doubt regarded this upstart instrument much as pianists today sneer at synthesizers, as if to say, “If it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.” The original bebopper, J. S. Bach, wasn’t overly impressed with the nascent pianos of his day; he did his damage on those big pipe organs, though he had a warm spot in his heart for the tiny clavichord.

Having heard Malcolm Bilson perform on a fortepiano from Mozart’s day, I can tell you that while it had a brilliant tone with a very complex set of overtones, it was a much more delicate instrument than what we’re used to. And it’s worth noting that it took roughly 150 years for the physical and technical demands of players such as Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt to force the descendants of the original fortepiano to deliver a bigger, more complex tonal palette, while allowing for faster, more pliant action to accommodate the swift, complex, rhythmic phrases of an emerging generation of virtuosos. But it wasn’t until the 1840s that the American maker Chickering and his great rivals at Steinway perfected a one-piece cast iron frame that was able to accommodate the increased tension of heavier strings, and from that point on, this musical child of the industrial age evolved into the expressive orchestral instrument we know and love so well.

So even for all the devotion to the acoustic piano, I urge jazz pianists to remain open to the possibilities of today’s emerging technologies as both composing and performing vehicles. Because where creative musicians are concerned it’s easy to forget how often form follows function. For instance, among the many historic pianos on display at the Smithsonian’s Piano 300 celebration is the Upright Transposing Piano that the Weber company of New York customized for Irving Berlin in 1940. By inserting a special transposing lever beneath the keyboard, the composer was able to play in any key using only white or black keys. This is now a standard feature on some of the most humble of digital keyboards. So should we be at all surprised to see how some 60 years later the Yamaha company celebrates its centennial as a piano manufacturer with an aesthetic and technical flourish by demolishing the boundaries between such never-the-twain-shall-meet categories as acoustic piano, digital synthesis and the home computer with the Yamaha Disklavier Pro 2000.

Yamaha italicizes this synergy by harmonizing a brushed aluminum case and fittings with a cherry hardwood rim and a two-piece clear-acrylic lid. While deploying MIDI triggering and receiving devices in acoustic grand pianos has been gaining acceptance for a couple of years, it seems as though intimations of new technologies employing optical sensors and servo-control drive systems have been popping up at NAMM Shows and retail sales floors for going on 20 years. The end result is usually some ghostly manifestation in a hotel lobby, where bemused tourists can observe a player piano of the gods tinkling away at Roger Williams transcriptions (“…born freeeeeee…”).

I did not get to enjoy an extended conjugal visit with this $333,000 instrument at my home studio, but I was most impressed at a demo during the Disklavier Pro 2000’s U.S. tour. The pure piano functions are magnificent, and for a well-heeled performer or studio, the Disklavier Pro 2000 is the ultimate workstation-Bach would’ve had time for another 20 children. The on-board Pentium III computer can be activated via a touch screen monitor or IBM ViaVoice speech recognition software; and of course there’s the latest notation software which allows the user access to a screen score and guide. It would take a Proust-sized book to adequately delineate all of the things this unit is capable of, but I was particularly taken by the performance possibilities of mixing acoustic piano and digital samples in subtle gradients, multitrack recording and by the optical sensors’ incredible sensitivity and the manner in which they tracked both the up and down strokes of keyboard and hammers. They registered the subtlest aspects of articulation, including the ghosting of certain keys for their string overtones as other keys are struck and strings sounded.

As a practical matter, though, I suggest that even the most devout acoustic pianist owes it to him or herself to contemplate alternative means of expression, if not for the love of electronics, than for your own survival. I’m wondering if among those 250 or so pianos being celebrated at the Smithsonian they have the old Five Spot piano Mal Waldron played with Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and Ed Blackwell during their two week stint at that famous jazz toilet (as documented by Prestige on three volumes of live recordings now available on Original Jazz Classics). While we’re sure that some devout pianists would rather battle such a cheesy acoustic beast to a draw, I’m sure that there are some amongst you who would much rather trigger an authentic physical model of a great acoustic piano in a good acoustic space, with even, predictable, responsive keyboard action from top to bottom-thus affording you a fighting chance to fully articulate your ideas, to play in tune (or in relative increments of discrete out-of-tunedness), to access a small library of voices (should you choose to do so) and best of all: to be heard.

I recently auditioned a pair of first-rate, cost-effective digital keyboards (and two excellent dedicated keyboard amps) that I can enthusiastically recommend as paradigms of pianistic realism. Although pianistic realism is just the tip of the iceberg on the Yamaha S80, a veritable cornucopia of sonic delights and performance options, which might just turn out to be amongst the most influential, idiomatic digital keyboards since the Yamaha DX7 ruled the airwaves. Well, in truth we didn’t really get to spend that much time with the Yamaha S80, because much to my surprise, my wife, Mary, a devoted classical pianist with 40-plus years as a piano teacher under her belt-who had shown little interest in anything but the pure acoustic art-was completely enraptured by the S80 from the moment it arrived, and glommed it for her studio before I ever had a chance to set it up with my other combo instruments. She gave me such a look every time I suggested borrowing it, that it activated my male path-of-least-resistance genetic code. As a pianist she was immediately taken by the quality of the weighted piano action keyboard and by the degree of refinement in the S80’s ever-expandable library of 256 preset sounds (with storage for 128 user edits). The presence of 64 multimode resonant filters with their potential for the creation of analog-style synth sounds went right over her head, as did (for the moment) the S80’s sophisticated capabilities as a central MIDI-controller, and their use of a Smart Media-compatible storage slot (for 3.3V Cards capable of 2-, 4-, 8-, 16- and 32MB of storage of her own voice edits and preset performance banks). No, for Mary it began and ended with the natural piano feel and musical sounds, and to that end we employed the S80’s two plug-in expansion slots to load a pair of Yamaha’s ever-expanding library of Modular Synthesis boards (in our case, the Ultimate Analog and Virtual Acoustic plug-in boards). A state-of-the-art instrument at a real- world price-between $2,000 and $2,800, depending on accessories, like the BC3A Breath-Control Headset.

Out of respect for my wife I ended up spending more time with the next keyboard that came through the door, and am I glad I did. The General Music PRO2 Digital RealPiano ($1,895 list), which is distributed in the U.S. by Peavey, might not seem quite as sexy or sophisticated as the Yamaha, but in some ways it is easier to interact with and might prove more practical for some working musicians. Not that it slights the needs of acoustic pianists. Although it features only 48 basic sounds, those sounds on the whole are excellent and the user can employ dual combinations of different voices, and employ a graphic EQ, an effects bank and a variety of hall reverberation and digital effects to dial in and store precisely the performance options they require, and 128-voice polyphony to ensure clarity of even the most complex musical permutations. The GM designers went to great lengths to create a realistic piano sound and feel, and their ability to simulate damper pedal effects (programmable), fading string vibration and degrees of percussive hammer sound add to the rich acoustic realism of the piano sound. The weighted piano action has a firmer, more al dente feel than the Yamaha, and by employing an external 12-volt power supply/AC connection, when touring, one needn’t change instruments overseas-only the power supply. Of particular interest to a touring musician is the 45,000-note sequencer, which is really kind of a digital scratch pad with playback and multitrack options, so you can sketch out and improvise compositions in the relative comfort of your hotel room with a set of headphones. The basic piano voices are very good, as are the Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Vibes and String sounds (the Clavinet and Hammond sounds leave something to be desired), and the jazz players who joined me at Fat Chance Studios for sessions on it were generally inspired by its sound and feel. The Pro2 is a rugged, first-rate-professional instrument if you need something road-worthy and uncomplicated. In fact, if you can do without the EQ and the digital scratch pad,with only 32 preset voices and 64-voice polyphony, the PRO2’s kid brother, the PRO1 lists for $1,295.

Finally, while some keyboardists invariably choose to go direct through the house PA, we’re not in the habit of taking our life (or sound) and putting it in someone else’s shaky, “I know what I’m doin'” hands. So allow me to suggest that you check out one (or both) of these superb dedicated keyboard amps, the eminently portable Motion Sound KT-80 (26 pounds), and the (grunt), relatively portable Peavey KB/A 300 (87 pounds, but comes with removable casters). Both are superb, multifunction, cost-effective, high-performance devices, ideal for the singer-songwriters amongst our keyboard brethren, whose attributes parallel each other, and whose differences are mainly a matter of focus, function, portability and style. Both feature XLR outputs and XLR inputs for low-impedance microphones, although the multichannel Peavey (one mike, three keyboards) also offers an input for high impedance mikes.

Motion Sound of Salt Lake City, Utah, is a real comer among amplifier manufacturers, with an expanding line of multichannel dedicated keyboard amps, some featuring real 12AX7 preamped rotating horns (for the ultimate in organ sounds). The diminutive KT-80 ($499.95 list) is the most musical little keyboard amp I’ve ever played, featuring separate tube and hi-fi channels with their own inputs or a switched input (which I mainly employed) triggered by a footswitch. In this way one can enjoy a really pure hi-fi quality midrange and sparkling highs for acoustic piano sounds from the KT-80’s 12″ driver and 3.5″ x 3.5″ Dynamic High Frequency Horn and 80 Watt RMS Power Amplifier or switch over to the tube channel, were you can adjust pre- and post-gain levels (treble and bass roll-off with what is essentially a midrange contour at a frequency center of 800 Hz) to overdrive a single 12AX7 vacuum tube, which is a very musical effect if you want to add warmth and sweetness to a B-3, Rhodes, Wurlitzer or synth sounds-or if you want to make them growl and snarl. It is really hard to clip this baby, and it remains clear, articulate and detailed even at cranked volume levels. The laws of physics only intrude in the very bottom octave, where the KT-80 loses punch on 88-key configurations, but it should prove ideal when mated with 76- and 61-key modules in a portable rig.

By contrast, the ruggedly built, 150-watt workhorse Peavey KB/A 300 ($739.95 list) has the massive transformers, large acoustic cabinet and powerful 15″ Scorpion speaker to reproduce the entire frequency range-particularly massive, fast bass transients-with grace, power and balanced tonal presence. You can hook up three keyboards and a singer (or acoustic guitarist in the mike channel), with an effects loop in Channel One, and 1/4″ line level input with gain/level knob, reverb sends and four-band EQs throughout (which is particularly helpful, as many digital sources, when pushed, can get a tad brassy); or you can route both left and right channels of a digital keyboard to channels two and three to balance out your frequency extremes, with a final main stage to adjust overall gain and reverb levels. Among its many back panel features, the ground switch might prove the most useful for removing AC grunge and ground noise from the signal path. There is more than enough power and refinement to maintain a clean output while projecting over electric bass and drums, and as with all of the products emanating from Peavey’s massive Meridian, Mississippi facilities, the KB/A 300 offers no-compromise professional performance at affordable prices.

Originally Published