Leverage your computer or iPad to upgrade your piano experience!

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:50pm
Written by GeorgeWhitty

A quick thought for those looking for a way to get a really nice piano experience at home, but who don’t have the space, or the $, or the money to get a real piano:  I heartily recommend getting a first-class sampled piano plug-in for your computer (or even, these days, for your iPad or I think your phone).  These have gotten so sophisticated that they’re a pleasure to play;  not to the extent that a real piano is, but even many years ago I made the leap to playing a sampled piano onstage rather than face the vagaries of the pianos one encounters on the road:  they’re often way out of tune, way out of regulation, badly miked, incredibly stiff action, or on any given night, you can end up with what Hal Galper calls the dreaded PSO:  a Piano Shaped Object.  Fred Simon, a great pianist who used to work in Oregon, where I grew up, told me a funny story about the PSO at a long-defunct jazz club called Chips Mahoney, in North Bend, Oregon.  Chips Mahoney ran on a very, very shoe-string budget, and had a battered old piano there that was murder to make music on.  But one day, before Fred was to play there with his duo Simon and Bard, they told him that they had “done a lot of work on the piano, and they thought he was really going to appreciate it”.  And Fred thought “thank God, maybe they finally tuned it, or got the dead mice out of the action, or did a little light regulation, and it’s playable this time”.  When he got there, he beheld the work they had done on the piano:  they had painted it purple.       You can get a pretty decent sampled hardware piano for about $300 these days;  Casio and Yamaha both make pretty nice ones, albeit with somewhat marginal built-in speakers.  But for about $150 or so, you can put a world-class sampled piano to work in your computer, and control it with the keyboard of even the cheapest weighted keyboard, and the improvement in the sound is quite worth it.  Working with Gino Vannelli recently, a famous picky piano-sound connoisseur, we worked with a couple great sampled pianos:  the Garritan CFX Abbey Road, which is a huge, broad, beautifully tuned monster of a piano, leaves no doubt that you’re listening to a 9-foot grand piano, bright and very powerful (this one reminded me of the kind of pianos Chick Corea favors), and the Giant piano by Native Instruments, which is actually an enormous upright piano with 15' bass strings (see pic below), and which plays beautifully on a ballad, even extremely exposed, and is pearlier and sweeter than the Garritan. 



For what it’s worth, Native Instruments includes the Giant in their “Komplete” package with nearly a hundred other instruments that make it, even though it’s nearly $1000 (watch for their 50%-off sales!), a great resource for people producing music on the sequencer.  My go-to piano for years has been Ivory’s Italian Grand (the only Ivory piano I like), but it’s a little flat and one-dimensional compared to more recent offerings, and I am looking to jump ship.  Still, it’s a huge improvement over most $300 hardware “digital pianos” at the music store.  Any of these sampled pianos can provide you with a piano sound that’s actually a lot of fun to play and much closer to the real thing;  I highly recommend checking them out!