Sunday, April 13, 2008

Math Makes Music

I've written before about the intersection of art and technology. As a musician and an engineer, I'm always interested in art that is techie and tech thats artful. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of discovering a little piece of technology that I think is one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life, ever. It's a software-based piano synthesizer that turns the whole world of digital piano technology on it's head.

Piano players can't really lug a piano around easily, so you never know when you show up at a gig what kind of instrument you'll have to play on. I've seen everything from a Bosendorfer to a beat up electronic Casio with the sustain pedal polarity wired in reverse. The notes wouldn't stop until you stepped down on the pedal, exactly the opposite of how it normally works. It was like trying to drive down the freeway backwards.

Like a lot of other pianists, I sprung for a decent digital stage piano that I can take to gigs with me. It's also good for recording, because miking a recording on an acoustic piano is hard to do properly. With digital, you can go back and fix your mistakes! For a number of reasons, a digital piano is really useful. But they have never been able to fully replicate the sound of a real acoustic grand piano.

In recent years, software based "sampled" digital pianos have gotten really good. Some take up hundreds of megabytes or gigabytes of disk space, with each note on the piano recorded at different velocities for up to 60 seconds, with and without the sustain pedal. Playing a moderately polyphonic piece of music requires a ton of memory and CPU power. If you have too many notes sustaining at once you can get clips and drop-outs. No matter how good they sound they are just not the same as playing a real piano.

Pianoteq takes a totally different approach. Rather than trying to record every nuance of an acoustic piano and replay the sound samples in software, Pianoteq builds a mathematical model of the physics of a piano. Everything from the length of the strings to the hardness of the felt hammers to the impedence of the soundboard is taken into consideration... and presented in the clean user interface so you can tweak it. You can build a10-meter long piano if you want to! As a bonus, there are no gigabytes of sampled data to download; the whole program was less than 14 megabytes! It mathematically calculates what the waveform of the sound will be, taking all the parameters into consideration, and then constructs the sound image in real-time.

At some point in their musical development, an instrumentalist comes to the realization that a truly fine instrument can actually make them play better. After you've spent years working on your chops, you sit down with a really great instrument and notice all sorts of ideas and techniques suddenly bubbling out of your creative reservoir. That's when you can really tell a great instrument from the mediocre. And you know, nothing is going to compare with a 9ft Bosendorfer, but after playing just about every model of grand piano out there, and dozens of digital pianos and software synths, I sat down with this Pianoteq software and was blown away. It made me play better. In one evening of jamming with it I came up with more ideas, changes and riffs than I have in months.

After keeping a careful eye on a dozen or so digital sampled piano packages, waiting for something truly convincing to come along, the wait is over. Pianoteq has what it takes.

Although I agree with another reviewer that some of the preset piano models sounded a little bit flat in the mid-range right out-of-the-box, I'll be quick to point out that the onboard EQ and reverb settings, not to mention the individual harmonic overtone settings, let you tweak the tone color to your heart's content. Actually, I suspect whats happening is that Pianoteq is almost too realistic, and those of us who've gotten used to the heavily-processed sampled piano sound just are not used to the natural purity of tone coming out of our headphones. And no other piano software gives you the range of configurable parameters to construct any type of piano model from a 9ft concert grand to a1980's vintage Yamaha CP80 electric stage piano.

Created by a pianist-turned-mathematician, Pianoteq is a great example of the combination of art and technology to produce something brilliant.

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