GUEST POST: The “Custom” Piano Sound; the “Real” Piano; and the Modern Home

Pianists, unless they’re professional musicians, have to make compromises. A grand piano, for example, is too big for most domestic rooms – and costs too much money for most wallets. So the home pianist looks for an upright piano, if he or she wants a natural sound; or an electric (otherwise known as digital) piano if he or she wants an instrument that’s easier to take care of.

Versatility vs Sound Quality

One of the key considerations for any pianist is between versatility, which digital pianos like Roland pianos have in spades, and sound quality.
It’s very difficult to properly reproduce the sound of a piano being played. All digital pianos have two hoops to jump through in the hope of getting it right. First, the quality of the sampling has to be excellent; and second, the quality of the speakers through which the sampled sounds are played must be equally good. That’s how Roland pianos work. Each note (in a good digital piano) is sampled individually, from real pianos –  then when the player plays, he or she triggers that sound to be played from a speaker.
A high-end digital piano is likely to have a bank of piano sounds, recorded in different environments and from different types of source piano. A lower-end digital piano may have a similar breadth of instrument choices: but these may have been created from samples of samples, or by altering the pitch of existing samples, rather than actually recorded.

 Sound Recording and the Actual Note

Of course no-one wants an instrument where you hit a key and a recording of someone else playing the piano comes through a speaker. This is where the better quality Roland pianos begin to make themselves heard.
A good quality digital piano uses the sampled note of a real piano as a basis for the noise you actually hear. The specific characteristics of the sound that comes from the speakers are defined by how hard you hit the keys; and by whether you have your feet on the sustain pedal or the dampener.

 Key Feel

Besides the sound quality of the digital piano, the key difference between it and a real piano is the feel of the keys. This is in many ways even harder for the digital piano maker to reproduce.
The problem, for the manufacturer of digital pianos, is this. A real piano makes a sound by hitting a string with a hammer. The hammer is operated by the key. So when the pianist hits the key, he or she gets feedback from the string – how tight it is, and how well felted the mallet is, as well as how vigorously he or she has struck the note.
A digital piano finds it very hard to match this feeling – which is why people used to playing real pianos find it difficult to play responsively on a digital equivalent. The best digital pianos, for key feel, are the ones that have weighted keys –  and a block of felt underneath the keyboard, which returns something of the sensation of the hammer strike through the fingers. Even here, though – unless you have the ability to pay thousands for an instrument – the sensation is not quite analogous.

 Size and Price

The size of a non-portable digital piano is smaller than the size of the smallest (expect child sizes) real piano. It’s also lighter and easier to move around.
In price terms, an entry level digital piano may cost a fraction of the price of a basic, brand new real piano. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to find a real piano for free just by trawling through the free ads in your local paper.
The real cost associated with a real piano is that of tuning and maintenance. Digital pianos, particularly for beginners, sidestep this inconvenience.