My current piano setup
I love acoustic grand pianos and spent my formative years practising on very nice ones. But it can be a problem falling in love with your own instrument when you have to play others which often have their own individual quirks. Pianos differ greatly. I used to own a Yamaha grand piano which I bought from new and loved for its tonal depth and expressiveness (even more than is usual for a Yamaha) and its marvellously responsive action. The fast, wonderfully weighted responsive action of a Yamaha piano is lovely to play but many pianos have rather sluggish actions by comparison…
Sadly, I didn’t have room for my grand piano in my London flat. I thought I would have to buy an upright piano but I find they have an inferior action to that of a grand so didn’t really want one. I had a decent Roland digital piano with a great action. This was OK but I always found that digital pianos had little life or soul to them. I hated practising on it and just felt I couldn’t really express myself fully or naturally.
After reading a rave review in a magazine, I decided to try a new digital piano made by Roland called the V-Piano. Despite the great reviews and excitement around this new instrument which used breakthrough technology, I was sceptical. I visited a shop to try it, played a few chords: it sounded good. Then I played a few more, some classical pieces, improvised a little and then a lot. After about forty minutes I stopped. I was in love! I bought it there and then!
There are two aspects to a great instrument. One is the control and responsiveness of the action which in the case of the V-Piano is lovely – very Steinway-like. Then of course there is the sound…
Until recently all digital pianos used samples – recordings of notes played on real pianos. Playing a digital piano that uses samples feels dead. An acoustic piano feels alive and it is probably because of the unpredictable nature of how the sounds unfold. The multitude of variables means that the strings, the soundboard and all the other resonant parts of the instrument generate vibratory patterns that appear and evolve differently every time.
Strangely, it is the very unpredictability of the acoustics that makes pianists feel as if they are affecting the sound even after the keys have been struck. A recorded sample on the other hand is predictable and fixed. You play a note with a certain weight and it triggers precisely the same sound every time. And that’s why it feels dead!
But the V-Piano felt expressive just like an acoustic piano because the sounds are generated using a technique called physical modelling. This produces the sound in real time. It imitates all the complex variables and dynamic acoustics of all the resonant elements of a real grand piano. It’s extraordinary! The V-Piano is satisfying to play on every level! It even has different piano models including futuristic ones with extra large soundboards.
I then discovered the extraordinary software, Pianoteq by Modartt which also uses physical modelling synthesis like the V-Piano. Pianoteq offers me a huge range of instruments – current, historic and futuristic and they all sound absolutely amazing and most importantly feel beautiful to play.
Pianoteq frees me up to use any stage piano with an excellent hammer action. For live, I use a Roland FP90 stage piano. It has a great speaker system to which I add a Maui5 portable sound system. After positioning the virtual mics in Pianoteq and sending their signals to the correct speakers, I can get this system to sound incredibly realistic and beautiful. The built in sounds also sound very good indeed.
In my studio, alongside my V-Piano which I use with a pair of Adam F7 or Behringer Truth studio monitors, I also have a very handsome Roland HP605 digital piano in polished ebony, which has the same excellent PHA50 action and physically modelled sounds as the FP90. This action feels so like a Steinway model D. The HP605 also has a 3D speaker system but I don’t find the sound clean enough for me in the upper mid range (the FP90 sounds better) so I use a pair of new M-Audio BX8s which sound lovely.
Physically modelled pianos have completely changed my life. Although my love of acoustic pianos is undiminished and I don’t claim that digital pianos are the same as acoustic ones, I am incredibly passionate about this new technology and what it makes available. I now have, in my small studio, a dazzling array of virtual instruments which I can play on various excellent keyboards.
It also means that I can take my own instrument to gigs so that I am spared the job of becoming accustomed to an unfamiliar piano which behaves very differently from my own practice instrument. I can therefore relax and focus on expressing myself fluently and naturally. And that is utter bliss!