Digital pianos vs acoustic pianos

Digital pianos are constantly improving but not everyone is altogether enthusiastic. Throughout history, changes in piano technology have generated dissent. Some people resisted changes in the design of the piano, such as the introduction of an iron frame. The warmer, rounder richer tone did not appeal to everyone; at least not at first. Real pianos are undeniably wonderful, beautiful things. Until the advent of physical modelling, I would have told people that practising even on an old, clapped-out acoustic piano was preferable to working on a dead, soulless sampled piano.

Digital pianos are not all equal

Sampled digital pianos still feel rather lifeless to me. The sound of a sampled piano is made from recordings of notes played on a fine acoustic instrument. They are great in terms of objective sound quality, but in the more subjective matter of their response to the expressive fingers of an imaginative, skilled pianist, I find them woefully lacking.

The program I use for my digital piano setup is Pianoteq which uses physical modelling rather than sampling. The sound is generated in real time and far more variety is possible. When combined with a good weighted keyboard, Pianoteq responds with an expressive subtlety, richness  and nuance that is altogether satisfying. Provided you have a powerful enough processor to handle the vast amount of data and a sound system that is truly excellent, then the quality of a digital setup is beyond reproach.

Do you know a good piano when you hear one?

My standards are exacting and my experience of playing very good pianos is extensive. I am also fiercely honest about musical matters. My musical aesthetics favour natural, human expressiveness and I dislike unnatural, over-processed music. I am an improviser and champion musical fluency rather than contriving interpretations that are rehearsed to perfection and the more natural and sensitive the response of my instrument, the happier I am playing it. And the last time I checked (recently), my hearing was excellent. So my confidence in the quality of my digital setup is completely secure and it is without any hint of defensiveness that I approach the question of why so many people believe that classical music should only be played on an acoustic instrument.

Their reasons are not really based on sound aesthetics at all. They can’t be, unless they have some kind of deficiency of hearing that makes their judgement inaccurate. Of course, there are other aesthetics at play. The mechanical pianoforte is a piece of extraordinary engineering, it has the inherent beauty of functional design, a rich history and we are bound to admire and love it much as we might a marvellous steam engine or a mechanical watch. We can add to this the enormous status value that an object of very high material value carries. A concert grand Steinway or Bechstein is a very expensive item. You would need a very large room to house one. A digital setup is perhaps marred by its competitive price, its convenience and its compact size. In short, a digital piano setup has no nostalgic design value, little status associated with elevated cost and an overall lack of glamour.

I don’t dispute any of this. I used to own a nice model C Yamaha piano and I miss it for all those reasons. Living in central London, in a small flat, I simply don’t have the space for a grand piano and I dislike the sluggish action of upright pianos. I admit that this rather prosaic, practical reason was how I came to consider digital pianos as valid practice instruments, let alone performance ones. I must also admit that the high quality of my mother keyboard, software and speaker systems actually means that I have spent more putting my digital piano setup together than I would need to spend on a decent acoustic instrument. So my setup has a certain different kind of glamour for me. As a musical instrument, however, my current setup surpasses my old Yamaha by miles. But I still miss having an acoustic piano as a symbol of something and will probably own one at some point in the future.

However, these extra-musical reasons would probably not be cited by those who believe my setup to be inferior. They would regard the inferiority to be purely musical. I have already refuted the validity of the superior tone argument. However, a few other reasons are often put forward.

An authentic instrument

One criticism I have heard is that Chopin’s music should be played on the instrument it was designed for. This argument is absurd. Chopin’s piano was very different from a modern instrument. Right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century, pianos had significant differences in design and sound compared to the modern machine that graces concert halls today. Ironically, I have access to remarkable physically modelled versions of historic pianos. Historic digital pianos strike me as a delightful paradox! My mother keyboard feels like a modern piano but it is still fun to play music on an instrument that sounds so different and that is more authentic.

Too easy

Another reason I have heard is the rather laughable one that suggests that digital pianos are easier to play. This is quite ridiculous. The resistance of the keys, the weight and the velocity response of my keyboard faithfully mirrors the feel of a fine grand piano. A keyboard without this kind of action is no use to me as a pianist. Interestingly, although some digital pianos have rather easy actions in terms of rattling out runs or trills, I would really struggle to make this kind of keyboard with its light, evenly weighted touch produce the dynamic range, beauty of tone and expressiveness I want. Therefore, I would regard it as being far more difficult to play than a piano with more resistance in the action.

Things like half-pedal and sympathetic resonances within the instrument are also often cited as missing but my setup generates them all. The only thing I can’t do, is shout into the piano, or thump it and hear its sympathetic resonance echo. Or at least, not without a microphone and a clever convolution reverb effect.

Listen or try them out for yourself

It’s true that I am a bit of a geek. I like computers and gadgets. But the truth is that you don’t need to be an out and out technophile to have a wonderful digital piano setup. I really do understand that some people simply have no affinity for technology in itself and that could account for their dislike of a digital piano setup. Of course they are entitled to their taste. That said, I might tend to regard their preference more as prejudice given that the musical result should be all that counts and I wonder how these nay-sayers would do in a blind comparison test… In the final analysis, it is their loss. But I am confident that more and more people will simply open their ears and hear the beauty of this exciting new technology.

Rachmaninov Prelude Op. 23 No. 6

The weaving lines and the glorious melody make this Prelude by Rachmaninov a remarkably beautiful and emotionally complex piece.