How to make a great sound on the piano

What makes a good piano sound?

A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.

I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet

So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.

Dynamics
Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours

Articulation
Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.

Timing
Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.

So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.

Pedal
You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.

Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.

A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.

Technique
We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.

A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.

Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.

So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet

Pianoteq presets
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.

Popular music – how about some more piano…

The piano was traditionally the instrument of songwriting, always perceived as the perfect accompaniment to the voice. But in popular music today, that position belongs to the guitar. I have some theories about how and why this has happened.

Status symbol

By the turn of the 20th century, the piano had become a popular symbol of the middle class elite: there were a hundred different manufacturers residing in New York alone! Classical artists like Rubinstein and Horowitz had the status of film stars. As the heyday of iconic stars and showbiz glamour peaked, the slightly terrifying character of Liberace took to the world’s stage, championing the piano’s glitzy aspirational appeal in a way that would outdo even the most tasteless bling of certain 90s rappers.

Of course, the piano was seamlessly involved in the advent of soul, blues and rock and roll and there are always artists like Stevie Wonder or Elton John who make the piano a star in its own right… But the combination of elitist snobbery and rather base status-seeking materialism in the consumer age has had a negative effect on this glorious instrument’s ongoing role in music; whilst by contrast, the guitar, in both its acoustic and electric incarnations, has naturally been given full prominence. This is because the guitar is the instrument of the people: it is cheap, lightweight, sounds great and has never been the object of shameless elitism or material aspiration.

It’s not a real piano…

Electric pianos that appeared mid-century were certainly cheaper than a Steinway… But they were still quite expensive. And worse, people tended to look down on them as lacking the all-important status of the “real thing”. They were considered fake in a way that electric guitars never were. Of course, loads of amazing music has been made on these wonderful-sounding pianos – especially those manufactured by Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hohner, but the popular music industry has never really put them front and centre as they did guitars. Keyboard synthesisers, on the other hand, have enjoyed both cult and popular status. This role of the keyboard has evolved effortlessly into the digital age and the keyboard features very prominently in produced music. But on stage, a synth – old analogue or new digital – is a very different animal: it is less alive, less natural or human and it feels much less connected expressively. Synths are also undergoing huge technological evolution: I have acquired a Roli Seaboard which feels extraordinarily organic and musically connected. But the piano remains my first love!

New piano technology

Of course, digital pianos are now very established and popular. But let’s be honest here… They are often thought of as something you buy for your children to practise their scales on! But in their stage format, they have become more and more popular, and even feature prominently, especially in jazz-influenced music! I love this resurgence. New physical modelling technology, that I use, especially the amazing software Pianoteq by Modartt means that I can combine a laptop with a lightweight portable digital piano and a sound system and I have a piano that sounds every bit as wonderful as acoustic and electric pianos. I hope manufacturers will start to develop exciting new designs for stage pianos, as looks are of course a very important part of the aesthetics of a musical instrument. Electric guitars often have beautiful and innovative designs; whereas stage pianos generally just look very techy.

Hoping for a resurgence of the piano in popular music

Obviously, the guitar is also the most user-friendly instrument for developing musical skills. The non-classical approach of learning chords and rhythm patterns fosters a high degree musical fluency in guitarists. This fluency that makes the instrument feel like a part of you, so you play it directly from the body and soul, means that the guitar is ideal both for inspired songwriting and performing. But I think the piano could regain its position as the ultimate songwriter’s instrument! The problem is that fluent skills on the piano keys are sadly rather rare and composers rely more and more on computers to do their musical thinking for them! But in the hands of a truly fluent pianist, as well as being able to generate very complete and complex musical textures, the piano is also capable of evoking an extraordinary level of musical expression and atmosphere. The autonomy and feeling of connection from the body and soul to the music that a pianist can have is every bit as strong as that of a guitarist, but on a bigger scale.

I have developed a teaching model that provides people with real fluent musicianship skills on the keys. I would love to think that when published, my course might help many students of the piano become empowered musically in a similar way that learning guitar does already. Perhaps this, combined with new portable instruments that sound acoustically rich and beautiful, means that in the future, the piano can stand alongside the guitar as the people’s instrument.

Challenge Prejudice

I feel it is important that people are challenged for looking down on stage pianos believing that their expensive acoustic counterparts are inherently better. As practising musicians, we know that this view does not really hold up to scrutiny. Whilst I’m not asking anyone to lose their love for acoustic pianos – they are beautiful machines – it would be great if people checked their true motives for denigrating digital or electric pianos and embraced the wonders of new technology as people had to do in the 18th century when the piano was a new invention.

The new C. Bechstein Digital Grand from Pianoteq

I’ve been playing with this new piano model – the new C. Bechstein Digital Grand from Pianoteq – that faithfully captures the richness, brilliance and sweetness of this wonderful piano.

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.

Pianoteq 5

Here are my thoughts on the new release of Pianoteq. It’s just great!

Why I love Pianoteq

In this video, I explain why I’m so enthusiastic about Pianoteq and its beautiful physically modelled instruments. Apart from the obvious practical advantages – such as the ability to make professional quality recordings or having a suite of pianos inside your computer etc. – there is one much more important reason why I’m such a fan!