Tech Page: Touchy-Feely

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FIG. 1: The editing software that comes with the V-Piano lets you adjust the tuning of each note as well as many other parameters.

Last year at this time, I profiled an interesting new synthesis technology from Roland called SuperNatural, which was unveiled at the 2008 Winter NAMM show (see “What Goes Around Comes Around” from the April 2008 issue). At this year's show, Roland did it again with the V-Piano.

Roland has employed several technologies to create piano sounds over the years, including Structured Adaptive (SA) synthesis, sampling, and SuperNatural. But unlike sample-based and SuperNatural instruments, the V-Piano does not use PCM samples, which can consume gigabytes or even terabytes of storage for a full-blown piano. Another drawback of sampled pianos is audible looping and Velocity switching, both of which are dead giveaways that the sound is not natural.

Instead, the V-Piano relies entirely on physical modeling to reproduce the sound of a piano. In this regard, the technology is closer to Roland's Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM), though in this case, the acronym means Component Object Sound Modeling, because each component of the piano — such as the strings, frame, soundboard, and case — is modeled independently and combined to create the final sound.

The V-Piano comes with graphical editing software for Mac and Windows computers (see Fig. 1), which lets you specify things such as the number and composition of the strings on each key and the soundboard material. With all these parameters, you can create a piano that would be impossible to make in the physical world. How would a piano with three copper-wrapped strings on each key sound? What about silver strings, or a glass soundboard, or maybe a 15-foot-long case?

Users can also “voice” the instrument from the software or the front panel. In this process, you set the tuning, the hammer hardness, several types of resonance, and other parameters, which can be applied globally or individually for each key.

Another innovation is a new Progressive Hammer Action (PHA-III) Ivory Feel keyboard action with its own dedicated CPU. This allows a higher repetition rate than most synthetic keyboards can manage, more accurately re-creating the behavior of an acoustic keyboard, including hammer inertia. An escapement mechanism emulates the feel of an acoustic piano's key release.

In Roland's hotel suite at NAMM, I heard an amazing demo of the V-Piano. Two of the presets — American (probably a Steinway, though the rep could not officially confirm this) and European — sounded exquisite, and far better than any sampled piano I've heard. The voicing parameters were very effective at tweaking the presets, and the editing software let me hear what a piano with silver strings would sound like. I'm not a keyboard player, but I heard several pianists remark that the instrument offered far more expression and control than any sampled piano they'd ever played.

The reason for their enthusiasm has much to do with the instrument's sound, which is incredibly convincing, but perhaps even more with the fact that the tone is affected by the pianist's touch. This is something no sampled piano can ever offer, because different keyboard Velocities simply play the same sample at different volumes or, at best, trigger different samples. Such touch sensitivity puts the V-Piano in a unique position: it's a digital piano that can be used to teach touch in addition to the other aspects of keyboard technique. Until now, you could learn touch only by playing an acoustic piano.

So far, there is only one model of V-Piano, which has an 88-note keyboard and should be shipping in May for a list price of $5,995. But I'm sure the technology will be applied to many more products in the future, and I look forward to hearing — and feeling — them all.