By John Norton
From time to time, Roland introduces a new V-series electronic musical instrument to signal a product that it hopes will take music technology to the next level. In 2009, the company introduced its first digital piano with this moniker: the V-Piano. With the V-Piano, not only did Roland strive to develop a world-class, expressive instrument, but it also used the research and development behind the V-Piano to create core technologies to enhance the expressiveness of the rest of Roland’s digital piano line.
V-Piano — A completely customizable piano
What makes the V-Piano unique is that it is not based on the technology found in other digital pianos, including previous Roland models. When Roland began developing the V-Piano over ten years ago, it wanted to give pianists an instrument that would inspire their highest level of expressiveness and creativity by allowing the player to determine the fundamental characteristics of the instrument. In researching the physics of how acoustic pianos work, Roland’s large R&D team, at the company’s facilities in Japan, performed possibly the deepest, most detailed analysis of the piano in the 300-year history of the instrument.
One key development that emerged was the PHA III Ivory Feel keyboard action. PHA stands for Progressive Hammer Action, in which the heaviness of the touch increases from the low range to the upper range, just as in an acoustic piano. The action is a true counterweighted mechanism with no springs of any kind; the resistance of the keys is entirely gravity-based, as in a grand piano. The feel of a grand piano is further achieved by simulated escapement — the point of increased and then decreased resistance one feels just before and after a hammer’s release. This gives the player more dynamic control and expressiveness, even allowing sound to be produced when playing from the escapement point.
Unlike some other digital pianos, which use two sensors to detect the velocity of the key (and thus the volume), the PHA III design uses three sensors, enabling faster repetition and an even higher level of performance. Roland’s Ivory Feel keyboard features black and white keytops made of a synthetic material that simulates the feel of real ebony and real ivory. Like ebony and ivory, this material absorbs oil and moisture, giving the player a more secure feel at the keyboard; but unlike ebony and ivory, it will never crack or yellow.
The other key development of the V-Piano is a powerful piano-sound technology based on physical modeling: Piano Component Object Sound Modeling, or Piano COSM®. A piano uses an intricate system of strings, felt-tipped hammers, bridges, and soundboard to produce and amplify its fundamental tone; additional factors, including cabinet construction and action design, also influence its ultimate tonal character in subtle but critical ways. With Piano COSM, the V-Piano not only accurately models the way acoustic pianos produce sound, but also allows the player to modify these components, and thus the piano’s performance characteristics. While physical modeling is not new — it has been applied to software-based pianos for several years — the V-Piano is the first hardware-based modeled piano. (For more information, see “Digital Piano Basics, Part 1: Imitating the Acoustic Piano” and “An Introduction to Software Pianos,” both in this issue of Piano Buyer.
With Piano COSM, players can alter many parameters of the V-Piano’s virtual components to create their own custom-designed pianos. For example, the “unison tuning” of any single note or group of notes can be adjusted, just as a piano technician would do when tuning an acoustic piano. While digital pianos have long had the ability to raise or lower the overall tuning of the instrument, the V-Piano is the first digital piano to allow tuning at the single-string level, an option that many players have found creates a warmer, more acoustic sound.
In a similar fashion, players can alter the hardness of the hammers, just as a technician would do when voicing an acoustic piano. This lets pianists create a brighter, bolder timbre or a softer, mellower tone, depending on personal preference and/or the music to be played. String, damper, soundboard, and cross resonances can also be customized to dial in the perfect tone.
The V-Piano includes 16 Vintage and 12 Vanguard piano model presets on board. The Vintage pianos are inspired by a variety of actual piano types, while the Vanguard presets represent piano designs that do not exist in the real world, but are possible with the V-Piano’s ability to drastically alter fundamental components of the piano. Roland recently introduced free downloadable software that allows V-Piano owners to upgrade their instruments with the latest presets.
SuperNatural Piano Technology
A third key development that emerged from the V-Piano is Roland’s new SuperNatural piano technology, which is a key component in the expressiveness of the V-Piano and is now included in the newest of Roland’s finest digitally sampled pianos. As discussed in the Digital Piano Basics article mentioned above, conventional digital pianos use sampling, in which digital recordings are made from an acoustic grand piano. When done using very high recording standards and powerful digital processing, sampling can yield a superb piano tone. However, even the best sampling-based piano sound engines have certain inherent limitations or shortcomings.
One is called looping, in which the last few seconds of the sampled tone are repeated over and over as the volume diminishes. This requires less memory and therefore costs less, but many critical listeners and/or skilled players will find it unsatisfactory. With SuperNatural piano technology, decaying sounds linger and fade away naturally without looping, for a more realistic sound.
Another shortcoming common to most digital pianos is that groups of as many as seven adjacent notes are based on the same basic sample. The critical ear will often detect an abrupt change in tone color as the player moves from one sample “zone” to the other. Roland’s SuperNatural piano technology uses a discrete sample for each of the instrument’s 88 notes, resulting in a smooth tonal transition across the entire range of the keyboard.
Yet another problem of sampling-based digital pianos has to do with dynamic range. In acoustic pianos, as one plays more forcefully, not only does the volume increase, but the tone color changes, as more high-frequency overtones come into play. With small dynamic changes, this tonal change is very subtle and smooth. However, sampling-based digital pianos often have an audible and unnatural change in tone color as the player moves from pianissimo to fortissimo. With Roland’s SuperNatural piano technology, there is a seamless variation in tone across the dynamic range, just as with an acoustic piano.
For more information: A brief video at www.RolandUS.com/Supernatural includes audio clips of the SuperNatural sound vs. the sounds of traditional sampling-based instruments.
John Norton is Product Specialist, Pianos & Specialty Keyboards, Roland Corporation U.S.