Chopin on a digital???

In this article, I am discussing my recent recording of the Chopin G minor Ballade made with True Keys American Grand, a software piano by VI Labs.

When I got my digital piano back in March, my whole idea was to see how much effective practicing I could do on it, given that my time for practice is limited to evenings. I never thought the whole thing was going to go as far as it has!

Last time I wrote on the subject, I gave as detailed an overview as I could of how software pianos can enhance the experience of playing on a digital piano. The first software piano I tried out was True Keys American. I got it because it was relatively affordable, downloadable, and had lower system requirements than some other well respected software pianos. Also, it is based on samples of a Steinway D which is my preferred type of piano.

TrueKeysOnce I got True Keys up and running, I really fell in love with the sound. I was so impressed by the unmistakable Steinway D signature tone. After lots of tweaking of the many parameters available in the interface, I felt like the sound I was getting truly rivaled the sound of many professional traditional studio recordings. I was able to achieve a full dynamic range and get a very predictable, dependable, real-time response while playing.

My excitement led me to the decision to produce a recording of the Chopin G minor Ballade using True Keys. A year previously, I had recorded it acoustically at a studio in Manhattan, so the piece was somewhat in my fingers. My goal in embarking on this task was to see if I could make an end product that would sound, if not exactly like an acoustic recording, at least beautiful and convincing enough to be an enjoyable listen. I wanted to see if the music would come through and if I could wind up with a true representation of my interpretation of the piece. I don’t expect experienced listeners and fellow musicians to think it sounds like a traditional recording, but I hope it is not so fake-sounding as to detract from the music.

Now, whether or not I succeeded will have to be up to the individual listener. We all look for something different when listening to music, and we each respond uniquely. So, I will in no way state whether I succeeded in producing a recording that people would like to listen to. However, these are the positive things I can state with conviction:

  • I like the sound — especially after listening for a few minutes and getting used to it.
  • When you compare acoustic recordings, the variety among them (in the sound of the piano, amount of reverberation, amount of noise, etc.) is truly astonishing. That’s why I think that even though this sounds different, it’s not completely out of the realm of what we accept from recordings.
  • I was able to get a range of dynamics and colors that enabled me to be expressive.
  • It was truly relaxing and enjoyable to record in the comfort of my own home, late at night, with no one listening to me.
  • The fact that no complex setup of microphones was required, and that the software piano is always in tune, meant that I could spread out the recording process over many days without fear of winding up with a product that sounded like different recordings pasted together.
  • The whole production was much cheaper and more convenient than renting a studio with good acoustics, a properly tuned and regulated Steinway D, and good recording equipment set up properly. That means I could record over and over again until I was satisfied without the pressure of having limited time.
  • I believe I was able to communicate the piece as I hear it and feel it.

And now, the caveats and disclaimers!

  • I prefer playing a beautiful Steinway D concert grand piano, and if I had the resources, I would love to practice and record in a small concert hall with excellent acoustics, on my own $100,000 piano (meticulously maintained), and with top of the line recording gear always set up and at the ready for when inspiration strikes. I do not have such resources.
  • I don’t think this True Keys recording sounds completely realistic because there is a certain “sameness” to the piano’s sound that starts to sound a bit artificial to me after a while. Also, there are certain little foibles of the recorded piano that I would love to change, but with a sample-based software piano, you have to accept the sound of that particular piano and live with it. I think it sounds pretty nice, though!
  • I am recording simply for my own personal enrichment (giving myself a reason to practice) and to share my interpretations with family, friends, students, and the relatively small online audience I’ve developed.
  • Given my particular situation, I find this to be a very useful way to record. I am pleased enough with the results, and so comfortable with the workflow, that it makes more sense to me to record this way than any other.
  • For full disclosure, I will admit that, as with most recordings out there, this performance is edited together from multiple takes. However, I did not do any altering of the MIDI data. All I did was cut and paste. Just mentioning this in case anyone is curious.

So here it is. I hope you enjoy listening to it! (As with all my recordings, if you click on the “down arrow”, you can download in lossless FLAC format you can play with the free VLC player. The audio you get through the embedded player is somewhat compressed.)

My next post will discuss my experiments with PianoTeq 5. I will talk more about the pros and cons of sample-based versus modeled software pianos. I’ll also post soundclips made with PianoTeq — maybe a whole piece if I can get one recorded soon.

Also, I’ve just gotten a new, much more powerful, computer. So, I look forward to trying out other sample-based software pianos like Garritan Yamaha CFX and Synthogy Ivory II. This stuff is so fun!


in Digital Piano Tech

17 Responses to Chopin on a digital???

  1. Great article. My experience (for what it’s worth!!) is that software pianos fall into 2 categories: those made mainly for playing (i.e., almost all of them) and those made for recording (practically none of them). UVI’s product tries to do both, but (personal judgement here) is not as convincing as others for “recording” purposes. The “for recording” software pianos, on the other hand, while they can sound virtually indistinguishable from a reasonably high-end solo live classical piano recordings, are actually not that much fun to play!! (Hence, they get very little attention. Bear in mind, the market for sampled piano technology is almost exclusively non-classical. The portable gigging synth piano is a product of, and is made to meet the needs of, jazz, rock, and country artists.)
    One sampled piano company does, in my opinion, actually succeed in straddling both the recording and the performing world: “Production Grand”. This is either a semi or full-sized Yamaha grand, which provides 8 different microphone perspectives, a few of which, in my view anyway, provide a pretty convincing “recorded” result. But it’s a Yamaha, and (again in my view only) this kind of rules out classical work. Sue me, but I just don’t like the sound of classical on Yamaha grands. We’ve all grown up with the “sound” of recorded Steinway grands, at least in classical; anything else doesn’t sound quite right to my ears.

    • What software pianos would you categorize as best for recording purposes?

  2. Chip says:

    Sounds quite nice. Watch out or soon you’ll be chasing the software dragon, looking for (incrementally) better sound…. and that starts to get expensive!

  3. bachplease says:

    Hi, can you please play a JSBach piece next time?

  4. bachplease says:

    maybe something from WTC

    • I’d be happy to do that. However, Bach sounds effective on *anything*, so it’s not the best test of a software piano, in my opinion. 🙂

  5. Charles Cohen says:

    I believe I was able to communicate the piece as I hear it and feel it.

    That's all that matters.

    Since I have tears in my eyes listening to it, I think you succeeded. I guess that matters, too.

    . Charles

  6. Charles Cohen says:

    A thought:

    You have the MP3 file that was driving TrueKeys.

    . . . What does it sound like if you run it through Pianoteq 5.1 ?

    I’d be interested in hearing the comparison, even knowing that if you [i]intended[/i] to render with Pianoteq, you would have played just a bit differently.

    Just an idea . . .

    . Charles

    • Ricardo says:

      Not mp3, but the mid file with the midi performance. 🙂

  7. Ricardo says:

    BTW, perfect recording and performance.

    which is one of the problems people seem to perceive with such recordings: there’s no noises, such as some subtle coughing in the background or some Gould-like humming. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the comments! I, too, think it is too pristine. Every recording has some subtle noises, even if it’s just the pianist’s breathing! It is tempting to mix in a little ambient noise of some kind. 😉

    As for using the Chopin midi file to render a PianoTeq version, I might do it with an excerpt if I can find one that doesn’t sound too bad in PianoTeq. It is amazing how differently one plays depending on the feedback you get from the instrument. I’ve tried listening to my Chopin midi through PianoTeq, and for the most part, it doesn’t seem right to me.

  9. Russ says:

    Digital recordings often benefit from being fed through an analogue stage of some kind in post production. Sometimes just running a digital signal through a decent tube circuit without adding other processing can soften that “pristine” too clean quality and add a little real world colour. experiment.

  10. David Bantle says:

    Nicely done! What controller do you use again? My friend William Coakely (Coakely Perfect Piano series) 1980-1995 likes Truekeys American Grand better than their Ravenscroft. I use the American grand and so far I think it’s the best of all that I have tried to date. Please be warned about the Vienna Imperial. It was the most expensive vst I ever purchased and what a dissapointment. Out of tune unisons and glichy host and just not that rich of a tone in my humble opinion. I’m layering my Truekeys American grand with Pianoteq 5 Bluethner trying to get an amazing hybrid piano. Thank you, Dave

    • For that recording, I used a Yamaha P-140. These days, I’m using a Kawai VPC-1. Thanks for your comment! I’ve played around with layering, and I’m now testing out various configurations. I have Ivory American Concert D, Galaxy Vintage D, Pianoteq, and Truekeys American.

    • David Bantle says:

      Hello Rachel, I have a Yamaha S90es for my controller and all of the Vst’s you mentioned and I think Truekeys American grand is best. It just seems like it has a more powerful sound than the others. I use an Edirol UA-101 for my usb interface what are you using because it sounds really clean. The Bluethner in Pianoteq 5 is pretty impressive but it still has a little bit of that nasally midrangy sound that I try to avoid in my opinion. You must be great at sight-reading something I could never master no matter how hard I try. I can’t get past stopping everytime I make a mistake. I can read good enough to learn a peice especially if I know how it goes but that’s it. I never looked into a teacher because I figured sight-reading couldn’t be taught. Thank you for responding, Dave

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