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Piano || Respons || DIALOGUE

1 Dialogue

In a previous newsletter we described that we create musical instruments that allow for a dialogue between instrument and musician. While many acoustic pianos allow for such a dialogue, up till the present no digital piano ever came close to such functionality. At first glance we might believe that we talk to our digital piano and that the piano sings back; just as well as the mechanical counterpart would do. But by pressing the keys on the digital, we rather give instruc- tions to the machine. On its turn, the machine signals its state to us; usually by playing an audible sample of a recorded piano. This is not a dialogue, these are two monologues. We do not sense each other or negotiate. We have no common ground with those machines; we don’t understand each other and we speak a different language. The machine is unaware of all the sub- tleties that we try to input, and we are unaware of the fact that they are not processed as we do not get any error message but just an authoritative autocorrected re- sult. The lack of understanding of those two species forms a very a- musical match.

How is it possible that we can have this understanding with the mechanical instrument, but that we do not have this at all with its digital counterpart? Humans are “designed” for mechanical interactions. When we press a lever, we naturally understand what will happen. But with digital instruments there simply is no mechanical response. The input will be interpreted by a computer, and an output will be generated. Even upon reading that sentence, one feels the simplification that goes with it. The output is not natu- ral, but rather subject to machine interpretation. By definition, this is the case with any digital instru- ment, however, this does not have to be a problem as long as its out- put is fully predictable and makes sense.

Current digital pianos are all designed as surrogate acoustic pianos. They are extreme simplifications of their mechanical counterpart. The most confusing part is that they still feel predictable while they are certainly not. With the mechanical instrument you notice every unevenness in the action very easily and you get the sense of sloppy playing. That is because of the fact that your precise finger movement is used to generate a tone. When the instrument is very uneven you get very uneven results unless you can quickly learn the differences between each key. With all cur- rent digital instruments only the average velocity during the key travel from top to bottom is mea- sured and is used as an input for the sound engine. This kind of smoothing of input data creates a sense of predictability, while it is in fact the exact opposite. The fact however, that almost instantly after depressing the key all the way down, you hear a sound, triggers your brain to believe that your precise finger movement was actually responsible for that. While the interaction with the sloppy acoustic is very difficult, you still maintain a dialogue. You still negotiate for the result you like, and the instrument still gives you, based on your playing, varying feedback in a very open and hon- est way. On the other hand, the interaction with the current digi- tal machines is just very authorita- tive. With a great lack of under- standing of your input, it shouts out what it believes you mean.

1.1 Lousy Instruments

My definition of a bad instrument is primarily one that does not al- low you to have a dialogue with it. A bad instrument is stubborn and authoritative. It decides for you what it will sound like. It is important to understand that – while by far not as bad as the current digital instruments - even the modern concert grand very much fits into that picture of a lousy instrument. There is an enor- mous quality difference with what was common 100 years ago and what is common now. Accordingly there is a long history in erosion of tonal beauty and character with newer instruments. But more important is probably the fact that while the digital instrument makers tried to make their instruments more like acoustic ones, the makers of modern acoustic instruments have tried to build their instruments more like digital ones: on or off, with as little nuance as possible. So, by lack of a proper example, neither the surrogate instrument makers nor the modern acoustic instrument makers tried to make their instruments really musical instruments. They never envisioned a dialogue with the instrument as was very common 100 years ago.

So what makes a current digital worse than a modern acoustic? The Achilles heel of the current digital instruments is not even the very underdeveloped sound module, but rather the interface module, or as musicians usually simply call it: the keyboard. The sound module only generates a sound that is slightly correlated to your intention as it does not bother to process your actual keystroke. Via two measuring sensors, only the average velocity of your complete keystrokes is measured. Thus, only those keystrokes that pass both sensor gates are processed at all. This means that in order to get a sound at all, you can only play the full key from top to bottom. If you are lucky, there is a third sensor in the middle that works a bit like a repe- tition action. This means that you can replay the key the moment you pass this middle sensor on your way upwards. In that case, the av- erage velocity between those two sensors is used. The problem is: this average velocity measurement has very little to do with actual pi- ano playing. It is just slightly cor- related to the intended output of the professional musician.

You can compare this idea to a really limited acoustic instrument, for example a textithonky tonk piano at a cafe. Due to its limitations, we can often only bang on it loudly. We just play in a way that does not need nuance: either on or off. The same is true for all the current digital instruments. While these pianos may be well-designed home trainers for your fingers, they entirely hamper your ability to sculpt the tone in any dialogical sense. Thus, the current digital pianos are indeed surrogate instruments for muscle-training purposes and not actual musical instruments.

On a side note, a modern concert grand is also less sensitive because it auto corrects the tone with the help of mass. The inertia of all the components prevents great variability in tone. But while the action of the modern concert grand may be inefficient, heavy and uneven, it still responds to your actual touch as it cannot do anything else.

1.2 A Musical Approach

The professional pianist is knowingly or unknowingly concerned with playing three aspects of the instrument: The ballistic aspect of the instrument, which is connected to the launching of the projectiles towards the strings; the percussive aspect, which is connected to the keys hitting the keybed; and the variable damping aspect which is nothing more than the ability to vary the damper pressure from full on to full up and everything in between. All this has very little to do with average key velocity.

In order to create a musical digital instrument, the instrument must be able to provide proper output towards the sound module and proper output towards the fingers. All the aspects, from the ballistics to the percussive elements and the damper pressure, should be conveyed towards sound, but should also be felt by the fingers. As the piano is mostly an acceleration sensitive instrument, we should feel our acceleration as we do on an acoustic instrument. Also, we should feel all stages dur- ing key depression, for example when the projectile is forcefully launched as the jack flips away. So it is very important that both the data for the sound module as well as the haptic feedback of the instrument make sense in di- rect relation to each other. Cur- rently, there is no digital piano in which the haptic feedback makes any sense in relation to the sound module. What you feel is sim- ply not connected to the informa- tion that goes to the sound out- put. The addition of a “real” grand piano action only makes it worse. Since the sound module re- ceives the average velocity value with the forced smoothing, the “real” piano actions only further enforce your false sense of control by giving you haptic feedback in an unrelated way to how the sensors factually register your touch. It reminds me very much of kids playing a game on an arcade machine in demo mode, convinced by their playful imagination that they are the ones in control. We are getting the question all the time: does Respons have an action as good as digital product X ? The an- swer is no. Instead of misleading you, instead of giving you the illu- sion that you play an instrument that allows for completely different handling, our action is fully con- nected to the way in which you play the piano and the way in which you play our instrument in particular. It does not obscure in- formation, it does not suggest a different kind of relation between stoke and sound than there in fact is, but it provides you with mean- ingful information that helps you to further explore the richness of a real ballistic instrument; which it is. We will write more about the action another time.

After drifting off a little bit, it is time to get back to two of our own products: Respons and Tendens. By now, you have started to get to know Respons little by little. Respons is an interface module of a full instrument. Tendensis a sound module of a full instrument. Together Respons and Tendensform a full instrument. As you are aware of by now, we believe in the modularity of musical instruments. You already bought Respons. Now the next thing you need is a sound module. You can connect Respons to a wide variety of sound modules. You can use software on your PC such as Modartt Pianoteq and use loudspeakers or headphones to hear your playing, you can use most current digital pianos via their midi-input as sound module or you can even buy an official sound module from brands as Roland or Yamaha and connect those to am- plifiers and loudspeakers. Ten- dens is still in development. The marriage of Respons and Ten- dens is intended to replace the acoustic concert grand. It will be a better instrument in all ways. But we will share more about this later. I hereby conclude the most basic information that I felt was necessary to know for all who have bought Respons. For those of you who are interested in the tip of the iceberg of the complexity involved in the sensing and analyzing part, we have a slightly more technical last paragraph.

1.3 From Touch To Sound

I mentioned in the last paragraph that the professional pianist is controlling three aspects of the instrument while playing piano.

The most obvious one is the ballistic aspect of the instrument: the pianist is launching projectiles (hammers) towards the target (strings). The projectile goes through a so-called internal ballistic phase; that is while the projectile is in contact with the launch vehicle (the action). In this phase the projectile is susceptible for our touch. Next, we choose when the projectile enters the so- called external ballistic phase, or the “free flight”. This can be done when the action forces us into free flight, which is when the jack flips away under the roller, or it can be done earlier for a multitude of reasons. Only at the terminal ballistic phase, when the projectile hits the target, sound is being initiated in the second part of the instrument. After this, the re-entry vehicle (the action again) picks up the projectile and everything can be prepared for a next launch. Even the vibrations in the projectile that are induced in the internal phase, matter in the terminal phase. In other words, if the hammer is vibrat- ing in a different way while hit- ting the strings, it generates a dif- ferent audible transient response (onset of the tone) and influences the decay rate of several overtones (length of the tone). Also, one can use the left pedal in order to change the impedance characteris- tics of the projectile that is being played with.

The second part of the instrument that is being controlled is the percussive aspect: the pianist is simply hitting the keys against the keybed. The vibrations of this collision travel towards the soundboard where they are made very audible. The pianist is in full control of this aspect. In the most extreme cases, the pianist might decide to accelerate the key at a very low rate in the beginning of the stroke and at a very high rate at the end of the stroke; so that the hammer never reaches the string and you only hear the percussion with the keybed. The other extreme is the exact opposite: fast acceleration at the beginning and even deceleration before the end. This results in a tone without a percussive element at the beginning. In less extreme cases, the percussive element is part of the transient re- sponse (the onset of the tone) of every keystroke: you first hear the bang and then the tone. This is what makes the sound defined.

The third part of the instrument that is being controlled is the pressure of the dampers on the harp. You can play with all the dampers at once or with those of the keys you touch individually. By varying this aspect, you play with the dispersion of the energy in the soundboard and in the strings, and you influence the decay rate through continuous control. With the two previously mentioned aspects, you have (some) effect on the length of the tone, but you have a very short timeframe in which you can control them: you only have a few milliseconds. These occur before you even hear the tone. The dampers however, can be controlled for the full length of the tone. In the same way that a screwdriver functions as an extension of your body to give you direct contact with the screw, the key and the damper give you direct contact with the vibrating strings. This important aspect is very often overlooked by instrument makers and tutors.

1.4 Conclusion

As you can see, a complete dialogue between pianist and instrument requires the ability to control many aspects of the piano. A large part of the appeal of a piano is that it is easy to learn, but hard to master. The current digital instruments however share the “easy to learn” part, but are mastered only by their authoritative design- ers and autocorrect the musicians in a not so musical or expressive way. For this reason they become very unappealing when you really start to make music, and for this reason I do not consider them musical instruments. Just as an upright piano and a grand piano are different instruments in their own respect, they are completely inter- changeable. Our instrument is the next in that family of piano–like instruments. And that, I think, is truly amazing.

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