Roland V-Piano Review

THE ULTIMATE IN PHYSICAL MODELING?
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FIG. 1: The V-Piano uses physical modeling to emulate every component of an acoustic piano. It lets you modify its virtual components in unprecedented ways, and it offers a touch-sensitivity that's impossible on sampled pianos.

Until fairly recently, the only practical way to virtualize an acoustic piano was to sample each note at numerous velocities and then format the resulting data for a sample player. That technique has been the basis of every digital piano since Kurzweil introduced the K250 in 1984. Then, in 2006, an upstart software developer called Modartt introduced Pianoteq, which successfully reproduced the sound of a grand piano using physical modeling. Until then, attempts at piano modeling were relatively crude and unconvincing. Since the late '90s, Roland has been independently pursuing the dream of creating a completely convincing modeled piano through its own R&D efforts.

Fast-forward to NAMM 2009: Touting the V-Piano as the pinnacle of its V Series — which includes the V-Guitar, V-Drums and V-Accordion, among other products — Roland hosted a major press conference with some dynamite performances (see Web Clip 1). The assembled members of the press saw video clips demonstrating the V-Piano's core concepts; you can watch the same clips on Roland's dedicated V-Piano site (roland.com/V-Piano).

The V-Piano is an 84-pound, 88-note keyboard instrument that re-creates the sound and experience of playing a fine acoustic piano (see Fig. 1). Physical modeling emulates components such as the strings, frame, soundboard and damper. The V-Piano lets you specify all the parameters that make up a piano's components and then change them at will. You can build a virtual piano from scratch, defining characteristics such as the number, tuning and resonance of the strings. You can change those parameters in real time using a front panel dial or an expression pedal, or call up an entirely new piano by simply changing programs.

The Whole Package

The V-Piano was delivered in two very large boxes: one containing the piano itself and the other containing the impressively hefty KS-V8 stand. I spent most of my setup time assembling the stand, which has four adjustable feet and channels that attach to the legs for hiding cables. The piano attaches to the stand with four knob bolts, which should make tear-down and setup a snap as long as you have at least two people to handle the weight. Once assembled, the stand is absolutely rock-solid, without the least bit of wiggle. It doesn't collapse without disassembly, though, so you'll need plenty of room to transport it if you're in a hurry.

The generous monochrome LCD on the V-Piano's sloped control panel has four assignable function buttons below and a large Value dial to its right, with Write and Exit buttons below that. On the left are knobs for volume and ambience (reverb depth) and buttons that enable Roland's V-Link and instant transposition. Another button accesses the 4-band parametric equalizer (you can switch the high and low bands from peaking to shelving). Four more buttons summon any four presets, called Tones, that you indicate. On the far-left, a USB jack accommodates a memory stick or CD player. A ¼-inch headphone jack is conveniently located on the piano's front-left corner, with a nearby hook for hanging your headphones mounted on the piano's underside.

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FIG. 2: The Mac- and Windows-based V-Piano Editor simplifies the process of designing and modifying virtual pianos. The Unison Tuning screen lets you detune all strings played by a single key, relative to one another.

The V-Piano comes with a very nice pedal housing containing three pedals for sustain, sostenuto and soft-pedal functions; the latter two are reassignable. A single cable with a DIN plug connects the pedals to the piano's jam-packed rear panel. Also on the back, three ¼-inch connections let you connect an additional footswitch and two expression pedals or footswitches, all of which can control various parameters in real time. Real-time control of parameters such as hammer hardness and string resonance opens up new dimensions that other pianos can only dream of.

In addition to a coaxial S/PDIF output, you get four balanced ¼-inch outputs and four balanced XLR outputs. The concise manual suggests a four-speaker setup, with two speakers positioned near the performer carrying the dry stereo signal and two spaced farther away carrying the ambient signal. Other rear panel connections include Type-A and -B USB jacks; a pair of ¼-inch inputs that let you route a line-level stereo signal (from an iPod or synthesizer, for instance) through the V-Piano's outputs; and MIDI In, Out and Thru ports. One minor complaint is that there's no way to control the input's level except at the source.

Play Me, Please

The fully weighted, 88-note keyboard comes as close to a real piano keyboard as any I've played. Roland's PHA-III (for Progressive Hammer Action) keyboard is designed for quick repetition and emulates a real piano action as closely as possible. The black keys look and feel like real ebony, and the white keys appear to be the slightly off-white synthetic ivory used for fine piano keyboards in recent years. The keyboard's dynamic response is excellent. When I closed my eyes while wearing headphones, I could easily imagine I was playing a miked grand piano in the studio.

However, the action of the individual keys is much more even than I'd expect from an acoustic piano, and I can't predict how much that would change after weeks or years of playing. Considering that my review instrument is brand-new, though, it's likely the action will loosen up considerably over time, as it does with most electric pianos.

Key Parameters

In a real piano, pressing a key moves the damper away from the strings so they can vibrate freely, and then a hammer bounces off one or more of them. Vibrating strings cause every other part of the piano to resonate, and those resonances largely determine why one acoustic piano sounds different from another. The V-Piano emulates the physical characteristics that determine how a particular piano sounds by modeling all of its parts.

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FIG. 3: All of the parameters that affect a Tone are available on the V-Piano Editor's Advanced Tone Edit screen, grouped by category.

Nearly half of the V-Piano's parameters let you control the various resonances within a virtual piano. User parameters determine String Resonance, Damper Resonance, Soundboard Resonance, Key-Off Resonance and Cross Resonance. String and Damper Resonance affect the sympathetic vibrations of other strings when you play a note, including strings that are already sounding. Increasing Soundboard Resonance emphasizes the soundboard's contribution to piano tone, and its effect was very obvious to me.

Cross Resonance has the greatest effect on a tone's harmonics, and hence its waveform; the higher the Cross Resonance, the brighter and more metallic the sound. When you change Resonance in the V-Piano's display, you're changing Cross Resonance.

Pianos have one, two or three strings per note. If a note has more than one string, the Unison Tune parameter detunes them relative to one another. When you change tuning in the display, you're changing Unison Tune because it has a profound effect on the overall sound. Stretch Tune, on the other hand, affects an entire range of pitch; normally, it deviates from equal temperament to more closely simulate how real pianos are tuned. Raising the Sound Lift parameter increases the amplitude of playing softly and reduces the overall dynamic range.

One aspect of the V-Piano's physical modeling didn't meet my expectations. My impression from presentations I'd seen at NAMM and online led me to believe you could define the materials from which the virtual strings were made — copper, silver or steel, for example. In reality, Cross Resonance had the greatest influence on my perception of the strings' metallic nature. Like most V-Piano parameters, Cross Resonance offers a continuous range from -100 to +100 rather than letting you select from a list of virtual metals. Hence, when Roland says that a preset Tone's strings are wound in silver or copper, that's a purely subjective impression.

The Softer Side of Modeling

Making major changes to presets, as well as creating virtual pianos from scratch, is considerably easier when you use the included V-Piano Editor (Mac/Win). The software offers numerous views, some providing clever uses of animation. When you move the value slider in the Unison Tune screen, for example, you see a 3-D representation of wood-handled tuning levers adjusting the onscreen piano's tuning pins (see Fig. 2). The Hammer Hardness screen shows the felt changing in size and thickness. You get similar views in the Basic Tone Edit and Cross Resonance screens.

The Advanced Tone Edit screen displays most parameters in a single window. It presents all of the variables that make up a Tone in an easy-to-grasp format (see Fig. 3). Most sections allow individual settings for each string, and each has a button to access a graphical note map. For example, the Tuning page lets you graphically tune individual strings. You can specify exotic or even microtonal tunings and save them within user presets. Most parameters can be graphically adjusted on a per-string basis, making it possible to program a custom piano in which every note is completely different from all the others.

As Real As It Gets

What Roland has accomplished with the V-Piano is simply stunning. Never before have you been able to control so many aspects of a virtual piano's sound — from string tuning and overtones to the hardness of individual hammers. Because you can push the V-Piano beyond the boundaries of physical reality, it doesn't have to sound like a conventional piano unless you want it to.

Synthesis Engine Physical modeling Polyphony (128) voices Keyboard (88) keys, Progressive Hammer Action III ivory-feel with escapement, note-on and -off velocity Audio Outputs (4) balanced ¼" TRS, (4) balanced XLR, (1) ¼" stereo headphones Audio Inputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS Additional Connectors (1) DIN piano multipedal, (1) ¼" footswitch, (2) ¼" control pedal/footswitches Presets (24) factory Tones, (100) user Tones, (100) Setups Effects Ambience (12 types), 4-band EQ Sequencer 1-track; records Type-0 standard MIDI files; plays Type-0 and -1 Standard MIDI Files, MP3 and 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV audio files Onboard Memory 4 MB Display 240×64-pixel backlit graphic LCD, monochrome Dimensions 55.56" (W) × 20.88" (D) × 6.56" (H) Weight 84.25 lbs.

Programming your own piano sounds is not so different from programming synthesizer sounds. If you intend to design your own Tones on the V-Piano, it will help to thoroughly understand the physics behind them; that means not only understanding pianos, but understanding all the V-Piano's parameters. The manual doesn't go into enough detail on that score, so you'll be on your own.

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The V-Piano sounds more like an acoustic piano than any non-acoustic instrument I've heard, but it has limitations. For example, an acoustic piano has no maximum velocity threshold; if you strike a key really hard and then strike it even harder, you'll hear a difference between those sounds. An electronic instrument, however, has a maximum velocity level; after a point, striking a key harder has no effect. In addition, the harmonic complexity of long, sustained notes didn't always vary enough to fool my brain completely. But I could hear such artifacts only when I listened very carefully and critically; they would be completely lost in the context of a musical performance.

The V-Piano plays beautifully, with an action that comes as close to a real grand as any digital piano I've laid my hands on. Although it may lack the organic quality of hammers bouncing off physical strings that a real piano has, I'm afraid that technology will never completely convince any player who's experienced enough to know the difference.

Nonetheless, the Roland V-Piano easily delivers the most realistic playing experience of any digital piano I've played. It sounds absolutely wonderful, and it's the only one that lets you design your own piano from the ground up. Its price will put it out of reach for most musicians, but I'm hoping it will be the first of a new generation that will include less-pricey models. It's still much less expensive than any acoustic grand and many times more versatile.

EM senior editor Geary Yelton has always loved pianos (and not just because they're big complex machines). He currently lives on the edge of Charlotte, N.C.

Roland V-Piano Specifications