Sunday, 8 May 2011

Real or Fake ?

Thought it'd be worth sharing my thoughts on this one.. I'm sure many people out there prefer the touch & feel of 'real' but others amongst us prefer the greater opportunities provided by 'fake'.

I'm talking Pianos here, or rather Analog vs Digital, or Thing-with-lots-of-strings-and-tiny-hammers vs Thing-with-an-electrical-plug. However you want to describe them, I've played both, used both, abused both, and learnt a few things I tend to love / hate about them. I thought I might share my thoughts on both here...

When I grew up, before I owned my own little synthesizer we had a Piano in the house (yes, Piano has a capital P). It was this uprighty thing that stood in 'the only place possible' where it wouldn't get too much sun, or heat, or spaghetti sauce. It had a friend that came to visit it every so often to reach inside & recover the meatballs and long lost takeaway leaflets, usually he'd adjust it a bit so it didn't sound quite as sad. I never really played that Piano, it would be a few years after it had been replaced by a nice 70's style diy desk, adorned with a bbc micro, that I would start learning keyboard.

As did any schoolchild of the 80s/90s .. I had the opportunity to play on many 'electronic keyboards', the School Music Room was filled with many.. they all had demo buttons.. and we were only allowed to play such exciting tunes as 'greensleeves', or 'nameless christmas carol number 12'. In retrospect, this was likely because they sounded so awful the teachers sanity may have been irreparably harmed should anyone have attempted anything more complex on them. In amongst this sea of tiny keyed Casio & Yamaha mediocreness, there were a few exceptions; the large keyed Yamaha, clearly bought by mistake, for it had a halfway decent set of raspy synthesizer sounds, the large keyed Casio, probably only bought for it's almost pleasant sounding demo tune, and the Kawai K1 which must have dropped from orbit after a teacher training session, it was so out of place amongst the other instruments. Other than the Kawai, none of these had any sort of velocity sensitive key response.

To balance this lot out, there was also a grand piano, and 2 uprights, along with a steel drum set, 2 drumkits, a few guitars, and some touristy looking instruments that mistakenly got shipped to us instead of a school in africa. It was here that I had my first chance to play around on 'real' pianos, and learn just how quickly they stopped sounding nice after the man who came to remove the chewing gum isn't paid to do it anymore. I'm sorry to say that grand piano quickly became the first 'honky-tonk' grand I've ever played. (And the uprights being some of the only unit's I've had to learn songs in other keys, to avoid the ones that no longer played, lack of ivory coating I can cope with, lack of working hammers is harder to play around)

So, how to compare these beasties.. is it even fair to? I think first, you have to give the electronic variants credit for variety.. Pianos are well.. just that, they can't even pretend to be a harpsichord, or a fretless bass, let alone a saxophone, or a chorus of dogs barking. But the Piano's did give a richness, and a depth, that back then you'd have to spend a huge sum to achieve without real stringy hammery bits & bobs. Plus, back then, velocity sensitive digital keyboards cost a large amount.. and learning to play things 'with expression' pretty much meant 'on a real piano' or 'creative foot pedal control'.

An often unsung benefit of Pianos is that they don't need power, which means you can take them busking in the subway, don't let that be the sole preserve of the guitar or sax player, just lug that piano down the escalator, and you'll soon see that an unpowered piano isn't really benefiting from being playable round a campfire, or from the backseat of a roadtrip, or all that practical for serenading ladies on balconies from dark alleyways. At best this unpowered advantage is used by the odd pub landlord to provide entertainment without needing to pay the electric bill for a jukebox ;-)

Pianos can be locked, sometimes.. I've yet to see a digital piano where the keycover is lockable.. but given that in their locked state they merely prevent themselves being played, that's not really an advantage I'd support.

Digital Pianos by comparison can be a little more portable, can come with a nice wide palette of sounds to play with, and can offer digital computery hookup goodness that their plugless companions can't even dream of. This can be too much of a good thing, so much so that some now come with a a 'Piano' button, (even shaped like a piano) to return them to a piano mode after the nephew has reconfigured it into a jetplane / baboon chorus instrument.

Gradually over the years, the digital versions have improved, arguably to the extent now where I'd think they are 'good enough' for most usage. Sure there are always people who enjoy, require, lust after, or generally prefer the real thing, but the digital ones are these days generally pretty decent.

From my experience, I generally find the digital ones are easier to 'adapt' to. That period between sitting in front of an instrument for the first time, before you get that link going between fingers & brain. Something about each instruments touch response that has to be learnt when you encounter it, Real Pianos are all a little different, sometimes notes stick here & there, sometimes notes sound a little quieter in some places, sometimes there's this tiny little off-putting tonal variance as you lift a finger & the note is damped.. All these things both 'make' a Piano, and vanish (in the majority) from the players perspective after those first few minutes of Piano-Human integration are complete. The digital ones just seem more consistent across the notes, and if the overall velocity / volume response isn't as expected, just move the volume slider.

Maybe it's my background of having learnt on mainly digital instruments, but I always find real Pianos a combination of a puzzle, and a joy to play on. There's something about how if you want that response from a real Piano, you have to tolerate the fact that everyone in the room is going to hear you play, and that what & how you play that Piano will likely be very different to another, even for the same song. Playing a grand piano in a good hall sized space can produce very nice sound, that a digital one might not quite achieve (out of the box). There's just too much that can make that Piano sound unique in that space. The puzzle comes from how long it takes to recalibrate the fingers to go into automatic for that instrument.. it can take a while before the sound coming out 'sounds right' enough for the fingers to know what they are doing again.

Of course, a digital piano in a pub will likely cost a lot more to recover from a patron deciding it looked thirsty, than its analog counterpart ;-) but the analog will likely be higher cost to keep in tune.

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