5. Sound Production

The first thing that a stage piano should offer is a good range of acoustic and electric piano sounds. Thanks to the rapid advancement of digital technology most models are able to do this masterfully; ‘bad sounds’ are rarely encountered anymore. Nevertheless there are pianos, in the upper price class, which offer especially authentic acoustic sounds and more refined details such as a simulated sounding board (resonation). While in a recording session or playing in the quiet room these subtleties can make a big differences but they often go unnoticed during live operation. Which might be a reassuring insight if you only plan to play live and don’t have the budget for a top model.

For a stage musician the number of typical piano sounds available is often more important. For example, rock and pop music often require high-pitched, high-impact pianos, while ballads or even jazz tend towards more muted, natural piano sounds. Ideally a stage piano offers at least two or three different, separately sampled acoustic pianos. Though the quality of the samples can vary greatly with cheaper models due to the reprogramming of one piano sound to sounds like others, meaning you get less ‘natural’ sounding results.

Over time rock and pop music have made specifically e-piano sounds popular, most of which can now also be found in a stage piano. You could argue over the relevance and number of these sounds needed but at minimum a good Rhodes and FM piano sound (like that of a DX7) should be included. More sophisticated models will include a Wurlitzer (Supertramp!), the already mentioned CP70 or clavinet like sounds.

If you have specific sound preferences or requirements you should check before purchasing that the stage piano you are looking at fulfills them. The scope of sounds offered varies greatly across models, at the lower end only 32 sounds may be offered while top models offer well over 300. Some top models, such as those from Roland, even have the capability to add more sounds and samples via new sound boards.

Top models of stage pianos have sophisticated sound libraries equaling their synthesizer and keyboard cousins.

Thanks to modern DSP technology the number of ‘voices’ offered in current stage pianos isn’t as important anymore. Even models in the middle price range are beginning to offer 128 or 192 polyphonic voices. Although at the lower end you can still find models which offer less than 64 concurrent voices. This isn’t a huge issue but it should be taken into account that the number of voices is halved when using an instrument that sampled with stereo, meaning the instrument can reach its limits if the sustain pedal is used expansively. In addition, there are fewer reserves available when more than one sound should be played at the same time. As is the case when stacking sounds (e.g. piano and strings at the same time) or when using a sequencer.

What is meant by polyphony or polyphonics?

The term polyphony refers to how many tones can be heard simultaneously. The technical capabilities of an electronic instrument is, as with a computer, limited by the capacity of its built in chip(s). The more tones an instrument should control, the more data the processor needs to be able to…well…process.

If you check the technical specifications of a digital piano you will see polyphonic specifications of 32, 64, 128 or even 258 notes. Your first reaction may be to think that you would never play more than 10 or so notes at once (unless you’re Jerry Lewis who also played with his feet). But you need to be conscious of the fact that you’re in the digital world now and that every note received, from a pedal for example, must be counted in terms of the polyphony. For digital pianos with stereo samples you’ll need to pay attention to the fact that the polyphonic value given is halved, as there are two ‘’voices’’ for each sound or sample. The higher the polyphonic value, the more closely the sound will resemble a real piano because multiple resonations and overtones can be played concurrently.

What is MIDI?

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a data transfer protocol that allows digital information about pitch, tone length, and sound type to be communicated, recorded, or played back between individual instruments or between instruments and computers. More information about this subject can be found in our online guide for keyboards.

Many digital pianos have a MIDI-interface, generally an input and output, designated as MIDI-IN and MIDI-OUT. This allows you to access another keyboard or connect to a computer with a sequencing program. Notation programs also usually support MIDI protocols. Another option is to download songs with MIDI ports, especially onto devices which don’t have an USB port.

What should I look for in the controls?

When selecting a digital piano you should make sure that the knobs, sliders, panels and other controls are easy to reach while playing. Is it, for example, possible to switch easily between sound settings? Is it possible to select built-in effects and other functions with the press of a single button? Is there a touchscreen? Or are all parameters only selectable through a tiny LCD screen with cumbersome controls? An e-piano is essentially a computer developed by hardware and software specialists, and sometimes they just forget that a musician isn’t interested in reprogramming the entire system. So make sure the instrument will do what you want it to, and that you can ask it to do that on the fly!

What is arranger?

Arranger is a function which allows the player to be accompanied by (play along with) different styles from several instruments. This function can be found on most keyboards as well as digital pianos. At the push of a button an entire band or orchestra can be imitated according to the rhythms and styles of the player. For example, the player can make a cymbal rhythm in C major with an orchestra sound.

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