Digital effects electronically change a sound in ways the originally sampled source instrument typically could not. Effects can be loosely divided into those that mimic the acoustic properties of a performing space and those that modify the sound in non-acoustic and, in some cases, downright unnatural ways.

The most popular effect--in fact, the one most people never turn off--is Reverberation, or Reverb. The easiest way to understand reverb is to think of it as an echo. When reflective surfaces are close to the sound source and to you, the individual reflections of the original sound arrive at your ears from so many directions, and so closely spaced in time, that they merge into a single sound. But when the reflective surface is far away, there is a time lag between the original and reflected sounds that the ear recognizes as an echo, also known as "reverberant sound." The strength and duration of the echo depends on a number of factors, among them the volume and frequency of the original sound, and the hardness and distance of the reflective surfaces. Different amounts of Reverb lend themselves better to different types of music. Although you can just leave Reverb on the default setting, you also can broaden the instrument's tonal palette by exploring alternate settings.

The other common effect is Chorus. When a group of instruments play the same notes, the result is not simply a louder version of those notes. Even the best performers will be very slightly out of synchronization and out of tune with each other. This contributes to what's variously referred to as a "full," "fat," or "lush" sound. The Chorus effect is frequently built into ensemble voices like Strings and Brass and, of course, Choir.

Before we leave the subject of effects, there is one other application to be covered here: dedicated effects speakers. Some upper-end digital pianos now come with speakers whose role is not to produce the primary sound, but to add to the apparent ambience of the instrument and the room. These speakers and their associated effects can significantly alter the sound of instrument and room. When done well, these effects are not noticed until they're turned off, when the sound seems to "collapse" down to a smaller-sounding source.

Other Methods of Voice Production

Before sampling became commercially viable (i.e., affordable--when introduced, the first sampling instruments cost as much as a small house), various forms of "synthesis" were used to produce electronic music. Oscillators, filters, modulators, envelope generators, and other electronics worked together to make sounds never before heard, as well as sounds that vaguely mimicked those of familiar acoustic instruments. The classic model was Robert Moog's modular synthesizer of the late 1960s and '70s--the instrument that allowed Wendy Carlos to produce Switched-On Bach. Some of today's digital pianos retain the ability to modify their voices in much the same manner as these early synthesizers.

Looking to a currently emerging technology, we find a method called physical modeling. While modeling has been used before in software-based pianos, Roland has just released the V-Piano, the first digital piano to rely solely on this technology. Modeling breaks down an instrument's sound into discrete elements that can be represented by mathematical equations, or algorithms. In the case of the acoustic piano, these algorithms represent the behavior of the primary elements that affect the tone--hammers, strings, soundboard, and dampers. Whereas in sampling, a preexisting sample is retrieved from the piano's memory, in modeling the tone is created in real time, based on a complex series of calculations. Sampling requires large amounts of memory for storing high-resolution sample sets, whereas modeling requires powerful processors to instantaneously make the many calculations needed to produce a given note.

Alternate (Historical) Tuning

One of the advantages offered by the digital piano is the fact that it never requires tuning. This does not, however, mean that it cannot be tuned. Just as we tend to think of the piano as something that has always sounded as it does today, we similarly tend to think that tuning is tuning, and has always been as it is now. In fact, our current practice of setting the A above Middle C at 440Hz, and the division of the octave into intervals of equal size for the purpose of tuning, are relatively recent developments.

Evidence suggests that international standard pitch, while a bit of a moving target depending on where, when, and for whom you were tuning, had pretty well settled down to A = 440 Hz by the mid-19th century. And by the late 19th century, following a few centuries of variation, we had arrived at the tuning system of equal temperament.

Now that all that has been settled, why bother with alternate tunings? You may never use this capability, but for many it is a profound experience to hear firsthand how the music of J.S. Bach sounded to Bach himself, and thus to realize why he wrote the way he did. Instruments that include alternate tunings list in a menu the most common historical temperaments (tuning systems). Select an appropriate temperament, adjust the pitch control, and you have a time machine with keys. It's a simple and invaluable tool for those interested in music history, and some instruments allow you to create your own unique temperaments for the composition of experimental or modern music.


FALL 2009 -- page 116

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