Why Bigger Isn't Better

Generally, the bigger it is, the worse it sounds… why?
Clever marketing substitutes "realism" for beauty… what's going on?
Good samples from a beautiful piano, by good techs, and developed by good programmers, doesn't make a beautiful piano… then what does?

Today, it's not unusual that synthesizers with more ROM memory sound better. But do they sound better because more memory is used or were the sounds processed by a more mature sound design team… or is it both?

When looking at the amount of memory a piano has; here are some facts to consider. First, it takes LESS time and LESS work to develop a 3 gigabyte piano than it does a beautiful thirty two megabyte piano… a fact that has contributed to the introduction of numerous MMPs (monster memory pianos) over the past few years. Second, if you can't design a beautiful thirty two megabyte piano… you won't be able to do it even with thirty two gigabytes. Surprised?

We can begin understanding these statements by taking a look at the logic behind monster memory pianos (MMPs). Previously, memory restrictions imposed what were considered undesirable limits on sampled pianos like having to loop samples and using filters instead multiple velocity layers to recreate dynamics. So the logic goes: "…wouldn't it be better if we could have a sample for every single note of the piano? And no loops. Let's get rid of the filters and have sixteen layers of samples per note from PPP to FFF to render the dynamics naturally. And let's have four layers of samples with the pedal down so we can capture the natural resonance of the piano and let's even put in some pedal thump and the sound of the dampers being lifted from the strings just for some added realism."

This logic and using large amounts of memory to achieve it is indeed "logical" …but all the memory in the world doesn't mean you'll end up with a beautiful piano. This is not to say that an MMP piano couldn't be made beautiful but, the likelihood of that happening is slim as we will see shortly. The reality is… there are sixteen megabyte pianos that sound better than most MMPs of many gigabytes and more. So why would listeners prefer the sixteen megabyte piano over a five gigabyte one? And why would producers and writers prefer to use such a small piano when MMPs are available for less money? The answer is, because the particular sixteen megabyte piano sounds better and mixes better with other instruments, qualities that are not dependent on the amount of memory used. Obviously, this doesn't mean that any sixteen megabyte piano is going to sound great but it is saying… that more memory doesn't equate to having a better sounding piano… in fact an inverse relationship exists… the bigger the piano, the more likely it is to sound poorly.

That's because it's what you do with the samples AFTER it's in memory that makes the difference. It's months of hard work and the ability to apply a delicate balance of science and art to the development. With so much memory to edit, developers don't have the multiple life times required to correctly edit gigabytes worth of data and make the piano play properly.

A refined instrument requires that every note has to be like a mastered CD; finished and perfect in every way. A great set of samples is a good start but that's all it is… a good start. Piano development is like a chain being only as strong as the weakest link… if a single step in development is overlooked or compromised; the product is less than it could be. This explains the characteristic raw (unedited) sound which marketing companies refer to as: "realism... that's the way the piano really is." So "realism" becomes the marketing focus instead of a well refined beautiful instrument. The illusion is that a listener's attention will be drawn more closely to what they think is a real piano when in fact; listeners just want to hear a gorgeous piano and a composition that keeps their attention.

Gimmicks such as samples that add pedal thump or the swishing of dampers lifted from the strings might be interesting for techies because it's "realism… it's natural" but so is an out of tune piano. And for the past 75 years, engineers dreamed of a day when they could get rid of annoying pedal thumps and other "natural" noises a piano makes. They went to great lengths to position and EQ mics so that they could eliminate these sounds.

The greatest factor for adding realism to pianos has been the increased polyphony of current products. This enables more samples to sustain simultaneously which emulates the resonance of sustaining strings in a real piano.

My first piano album was recorded using a Sample Cell card which provided a sixteen voice stereo piano. The sixteen megabytes of RAM cost $1350.00, the Sample Cell card was about $1600.00 and the ProTools system to run it about $12,000.00. The pianos that came with Sample Cell were so unusable that I had to create my own and when everyone tried to get their hands on them… I realized I had stumbled into a business.

Are the frills really adding anything?
Although MMPs come with pedal down samples, most engineers find it easier to mix the piano after disabling the pedal down samples and it's interesting that without these samples the piano generally doesn't lose any realism in the mix. Pedal down samples have proven so problematic that one new product (a software playback module) has included two very obvious buttons on the front panel for the convenient disabling of pedal down samples as well as release velocity samples.

MMP demos
A quick listen to some of the demos over the past year reveals a number of MMP developers have worked feverishly to improve their product much to their credit. But in most cases, it's impossible to determine the quality and usability of these pianos without hearing it stripped of all the effects and played in a way where you can really hear it. Whiz-bang demos make it impossible to hear defects. And typically 90% of the effects added will have to be removed if you place the piano in context with other instruments; so you need to hear the piano completely stripped of all processing. And what you're listening for is ambience IN the samples. If samples contain any detectable ambience, it can mean trouble getting the piano to mix with other instruments. Less ambience means you have more control over your production.

Years ago, I had been working with the Korg O1W Pro 88 for about a year at a local Church. One day, after Mass, a local high school student was hanging around raving about the new piano in the O1W. He seemed so convinced that I let him play the demo built into the unit. I'd never heard it. After a few bars, I came running over to see in which bank he had found the piano. I thought I had been through every sound in that keyboard and I was a little embarrassed that I'd somehow missed knowing about a good sounding piano right under my nose! Satisfied that he'd put one over on the head cheese, he quickly left when his mother called him. I couldn't believe my eyes; I was looking at the same piano that I'd decided not to use because it sounded so poorly. How come it sounded so good when I heard it in the demo? Well, in the demo, there was some fast playing and runs where only the real part of the piano strike was coming through, the first 1/3 second or so. As I peeled back the layers of chorusing, reverb, EQ etc and finally got to the real piano it sounded horrible. Lesson learned.

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