Automated Accompaniments, Chords, and Harmony--the Ensemble Piano

Some people, even some professional musicians, will tell you that using automated accompaniments--those rhythmic combinations of drums, bass lines, and chords--constitutes "cheating." This has never made sense to me. If I use a tool to do something that I couldn't possibly have done with my bare hands, am I cheating?

Whether or not a digital piano has these automatic features, frequently referred to as styles, is the primary factor that separates standard digital pianos from ensemble pianos. If your musical interest is focused solely on the classical piano repertoire, then this capability will probably be of no interest to you. If, however, you or someone in your household plays or plans to play a wide variety of musical styles, the ability to have backup instrumentalists at your beck and call is just entirely too much fun. No matter how good a player you may be, you can't be four people at once--or eight, or twelve, or an entire orchestra. These accompaniments are typically divided into groups by musical genre: Swing, Latin, Rock, World, and so on. The best of these styles are of a caliber that the best record producers would be proud of.

One thing to watch out for is the impact of automatic accompaniments on polyphony (see Part 1). Every bass line, drum beat, string sound, and guitar strum takes a toll on the number of simultaneous notes the instrument can produce. Thirty-two notes of polyphony can get used up in a big hurry when a complex style is playing in the background. If styles are important to you, look for higher polyphony numbers. Also, see if the instrument you're considering is capable of downloading additional styles, and how many styles are available for that model.

How do these styles "know" which key to use when playing all those chords and bass lines? In the simplest "single finger" settings, if the player needs an accompaniment style played in C, for example, she plays a C with the left hand. As chords change in the music, the player makes the appropriate change in the left hand to indicate what the accompaniment should play. Once the harmonies have been determined, the instrument can also apply them to the right hand by filling in the notes of the appropriate chord under the melody note. More sophisticated systems can decipher complex chords by evaluating all of the notes played on the keyboard, so that even advanced players can use the accompaniment styles without being held back from their normal style of playing.

All of this technology can make raw beginners sound as if they've been playing for years. While many players will progress beyond the simplest settings, other members of the family may continue using these playing aids for their own enjoyment.

Memory Presets

With the huge variety of voices, splits, layers, effects, and styles, it's handy to have a way to store favorite combinations. Many digital pianos come with a number of preprogrammed presets, and almost all of the more advanced models have programmable presets as well. These presets should be able to capture every possible setting on the instrument, from the obvious to the most obscure. Aside from the number of presets available, the placement of the preset buttons themselves can make a huge difference in their usefulness. Small, closely spaced, inconveniently placed presets might as well not be there--part of the pleasure of presets is not simply to instantly recall a setting that you've worked out in excruciating detail, but also to access that setting quickly and easily while playing. Even better is being able to assign preset changes to a seldom-used pedal (anything other than the sustain), so that each time you press the pedal, the instrument advances to the next preset. This can enable the creative player to step through sonic and rhythmic changes with ease while keeping his hands on the keyboard and distractions to a minimum.


FALL 2009 -- page 121

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