Digital Piano Basics, Part 2

Digital Piano Basics, Part 2
Beyond the Acoustic Piano

Alden Skinner

THE FIRST INSTRUMENTS we now call digital pianos were specialized versions of the synthesizers of the day (early 1980s). These synthesizers were capable of producing a staggering array of sounds, and allowed the player to exercise control over many details of those sounds. A standard feature of many synthesizers was the ability to produce the sounds of pianos and other conventional instruments, which led to the spin-off we now call the digital piano.

The first digital pianos retained some of the other capabilities of their parent instruments by including a few preset voices besides that of the acoustic piano. It wasn't long before subsequent models appeared with expanded voice capabilities, reverberation effects, background accompaniments, the ability to connect to other digital instruments and computers, and much more. In this article we'll look at each of these categories of "extras," what they do, and how they might enhance your musical experience.

Instrumental Voices

The designers of the first digital pianos correctly assumed that someone who needed the sound of an acoustic piano would probably benefit from a handful of related voices, such as the harpsichord, an organ sound or two, the very different but highly useful sounds of such electric pianos as the Fender Rhodes, and so on. To this day, even the most basic digital pianos feature voice lists very similar to those of the original models. What's changed over the years is the quality or authenticity of those voices, and the cost of producing them.

So far, in Part 1 of this article, I have discussed only samples of acoustic pianos. For most models of digital piano, the same sampling technology is used to reproduce the sound of other acoustic instruments. Typically, an expanded selection of high-quality instrumental samples is found in only the more expensive models. Remember that, depending on the sample rate used, samples may be more or less accurate representations of the original voice. Because manufacturers almost never reveal these sample rates, our ears must judge the relative quality of the voices of the digital piano models we're comparing.

Note that many manufacturers have trademarked their names for a particular sampling technology or other aspect of an instrument. The important thing to remember about trademarks is that while the trademarked name is unique, the underlying technology may be essentially the same as everyone else's. For instance, the generic term for digital sampling, discussed in Part 1, is Pulse Code Modulation, or PCM. But a manufacturer may call their PCM samples UltraHyperDynoMorphic II Sampling, and rightly claim to make the only product on the market using it. However, that makes it only a unique name, not necessarily a unique technology.

Layering and Splitting

Layering — the ability to have one key play two or more voices at the same time — is available on virtually all digital pianos. Some combinations, such as Piano and Strings, are commonly preset as a single voice selection. On many instruments, it's possible to select the voices you'd like to combine. This is frequently as simple as pressing the selection buttons for the two voices you want to layer. Once these are selected, many instruments then allow you to control the two voices' relative volumes. Using the popular Piano and Strings combination as an example, you may want the two voices to play with equal volume, or you may want the Piano voice to be the dominant sound, with just a hint of Strings. Other possible settings include the ability to set the apparent positions of the individual voices in the left-right stereo field — with Strings, say, predominantly on the left. The most advanced instruments make it possible to have only one voice's dynamics respond to your touch on the keyboard, while the other voice responds to a separate volume pedal (this is described in greater detail under "Other Controls").

The other commonly available voice option is splitting. Whereas layering provides the ability to play two voices with one key, splitting lets you play one voice on the right side of the keyboard, and a different voice on the left side — for instance, piano on the right and string bass on the left. This essentially lets the instrument behave as though it had two keyboards playing two different voices. The split point is the point in the keyboard where the right and left voices meet. While this split point has a default setting, it can also be moved to provide more playing room for one voice or the other. As with layered voices, there may be preset combinations, but you can also set up your own voice pairings; typically, additional options are available to vary relative volume levels and other settings between the two voices.