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Here is a reprint of an article I published on my blog recently:

Many people today try to claim that digital pianos are now superior to their acoustic brethren. In some cases, they may be correct depending upon the situation and the needs of the musician. However, as I will try to explain, there are very subtle, but distinct differences between the two instruments, and to the casual observer these differences are usually not apparent.

Most digital pianos are created by sampling real acoustic pianos and providing the mechanisms, through software and hardware, to replay those samples.

More advanced (and probably more expensive) digital pianos re-create the tones of a piano by various means of modeling, but in the end, the result is the same as a sample in my opinion. Whether the tones are sampled at a given bit rate or created through a modeling algorithm, both remain mere representations of a live, continuous analog wave form.

On a digital piano, a method of sensing how hard the keyboard is played - usually by measuring the velocity by which the keys are struck - is employed to add the ability to control dynamics. Other digital pianos feature partial "actions", which is an attempt to recreate the kinetics of a real piano action. The action of a piano is comprised of the levers, stops, hammers, and other components that control how the strings are struck and dampened, or muted when the key is released.

Many digital pianos today can create surprisingly realistic simulations of a real piano, and to the casual player or amateur who has not had any real exposure to a real piano, that may suffice. However, for a person who has played acoustic pianos for any real length of time, and who endeavors to develop a highly polished technique, a digital piano often falls far short of a an acoustic.

Why this is true has a lot to do with the action. Depending upon the type of piano, i.e., spinet, console, studio, upright grand (now extinct), baby grand, or grand, the actions can differ significantly. However, the underlying principles are still the same, and it is these principles and the resulting personality of the acoustic piano that sets it apart from other keyboards, including their digital brethren.

When a piano key is struck, a series of events are set into motion that ultimately result in the hammer hitting the string. Depending upon how hard the key is struck determines how loud the note sounds. This is the simple explanation.

However, once one attains a certain level of technique, the finer aspects of the instrument begin to become apparent (and much of this discovery can depend upon the quality of the piano, the state of repair and regulation of the action, and how well tuned the piano is).

In the final analysis, the major difference between the acoustic - or to use a more correct term, analog - world and the digital world comes down to just that: the analog world is organic and open to an infinite number of possibilities based upon the physical laws of nature and the universe. The digital world is merely a representation of the analog world, and depending upon the skill and intentions of the engineers, as well as the level of technology at the time of the device's creation, it is fixed at a particular level of interpretation and accuracy, and there can never be any extension of the device's ability beyond that level.

When a pianist plays a real piano, he is using the piano's analog abilities to his advantage. The subtle changes in his technique throughout a piece, the response between his actions, the piano, and the feedback received by his ears and ultimately his brain, all conspire to produce a truly organic, dynamic, and musical creation.

But, that is just half of the equation when observed from the kinetic side. The other side of the equation has much to do with the laws of sound, tone, and pitch, but to a larger extent, resonance.

The designers of digital pianos can in no way anticipate the actual performance of any piece of music, let alone the entire collection of any artist's repertoire. Since it is only during an actual performance that music is finally made, all of the work that went into trying to capture the true sound of a particular piano - key by key, falls far short because the interaction between individual notes, chords, arpeggios, etc., is recreated in the vacuum of individual keys. The dynamic interplay between the various components of the performance is never really produced because there is simply no way to anticipate the performance when considering only the individual keys.

Part of the reason this is true has to do with resonance. If you own an acoustic piano, try this experiment: hold down two keys in the bass, say two C's an octave apart. While holding these notes down, strike and hold a C chord with the right hand in the treble area of the keyboard. You will hear the bass notes sound when you strike the chord. This is resonance.

During a performance, all of the keys, chords, arpeggios that are being played at any given point in time are resonating amongst themselves and it is this resonance that serves to produce rich harmonics that further enhance the aural experience of the listeners. This resonance is enhanced by the use of the sustain pedal as well, and hence, the resonance can be controlled to a measurable extent by the intelligent use of the sustain pedal.

Now, recent products claim to feature "piano resonance" technology that simulates the resonance of a real piano. While this my be a clever simulation, I doubt very strongly that it can match the kind of resonance that is produced by an acoustic instrument. From what I have read about this technology, it is based on a number of algorithms that simulate resonance, that when combined serve as the modeling system. However, I frankly don't see how a series of canned - and ultimately non-dynamic mathematical equations can accurately simulate a live resonance, continuous wave, acoustic event such as is found during a piano performance. To do so would probably require an extremely powerful computer that is capable of processing a large number of calculus equations in real-time - and certainly not the kind of computing power found in even the most expensive digital pianos. Nice sales gimmick, but not even close to real resonance.

Finally within the discipline of audio engineering there are two types of distortion: intermodulation and harmonic. Intermodulation distortion is unpleasant to the ear, and it is caused when one frequency range distorts another frequency range in a manner that produces odd harmonics. Harmonic distortion is pleasant to the ear, in that it adds harmonics that are even, and in a sense, reinforce the primary harmonics that constitute the original tones. In fact, aural exciters are sold today that actually add this harmonic distortion to a performance or recording to "sweeten" the sound.

Therefore, an acoustic piano has the ability to produce sound in an infinitely variable manner, as well as providing its own "aural excitement" through resonance that is controlled by the pianist's selection of notes, variations in technique, and intelligent use of the sustain pedal. Digital pianos, although greatly improved in recent years, fall far short in these areas.

As I hope I have succeeded in my attempt to explain, when one approaches the question of digital vs. acoustic pianos from a scientific as well as an artistic point of view - while taking into account all of the subtle and infinite variables that go into a piano performance, the argument becomes essentially moot. There simply is not now any substitute for a real piano. Perhaps someday there might be, but I suspect that it is either decades away, or it will never happen at all because there are simply too many variables to capture and reproduce accurately.

Only God can create something as beautiful as the physical world with its infinite potential. Man will never be able to re-create God's genius in any form, and certainly not the laws necessary to create a realistic facsimile of a real piano.

Bob


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There's no argument here - they are different instruments.

Another example is: acoustic classical guitar and electric solid body guitar.

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This is great and all, but the main reasons people choose digital pianos here are a little more black and white.

-Financial reasons. Though you can get a cheap upright for about the same or less than some digitals, an acoustic piano will always need tuning, regulating, etc. Some people can't afford this, so a digital piano isn't a bad alternative.

-Living situation. Those of us who live in apartments, with parents, or who move from place to place often would be burdened by owning an acoustic piano.

-Ease of recording. Some of us are techies. We like recording, playing instruments other than piano on our keyboards, MIDI, etc. A digital piano makes more sense here as it is the 'only way'.

-Commitment. Those of us who are just getting our feet wet may not want to plunk down the cash for this huge machine that we may not grow to love. We can get a digital piano that approximates some of the best things about an acoustic for now, in hopes of moving on to an acoustic later on down the road. I think I can speak for most of us here when I say that I think an acoustic piano is in many individual's long-term goals. However, those goals may not be able to be accomplished yet due to Financial Reasons, Living Situations, Commitment, etc. I do know that renting a piano is an option, but in the long term the price of that will probably come close to the cost of buying a Casio PX outright. If you decide you don't want to play piano, you can't get a refund on your rental costs. But you can resell your digital on Craigslist or Ebay for just about what you paid for it if it's still in good condition.

I don't think we're kidding ourselves here on the Digital Piano board. We know what the shortfalls are in digital pianos, we just want the best that we can get for our hard-earned money. When space is tight and finances are slim, a digital piano just makes more sense.


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Those are real nice words, Bob.

I just bought a lovely Yamaha Avant Grand N3 digital piano, and I'm happier than a tick on a fat dog.

Have you tried one out?

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Originally Posted by LesCharles73
I think I can speak for most of us here when I say that I think an acoustic piano is in many individual's long-term goals.


I don't have an acoustic piano as a long term goal. I could have bought one years ago, but I just can't stand listening to them go out of tune.

Acoustic pianos will eventually become curiosities, like the parlor organ, and to a lesser extent, the harpsichord.

The acoustic guitar's popularity is not just it's sound...it's portable, requires no power, and is great for taking on camping trips. wink

Taking an acoustic piano on a camping trip is not recommended by park authorities. wink

You can, however, take your Yamaha NP-30 with you, because it operates on batteries.

Digital pianos are just better.

Snazzy





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I would agree with a lot of things the OP said....
But have you ever tried Pianoteq?

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Pianoteq is a VST is it not?

They work for some, but I want to be playing an actual instrument, like my CP-300, or my P-85, or my Roland HP-1700.

They are themselves, instruments. They each have their own character and feel.

How do you access your Pianoteq? Controller, etc.?

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Originally Posted by snazzyplayer

I don't have an acoustic piano as a long term goal. I could have bought one years ago, but I just can't stand listening to them go out of tune.

Acoustic pianos will eventually become curiosities, like the parlor organ, and to a lesser extent, the harpsichord.

The acoustic guitar's popularity is not just it's sound...it's portable, requires no power, and is great for taking on camping trips. wink

Taking an acoustic piano on a camping trip is not recommended by park authorities. wink

You can, however, take your Yamaha NP-30 with you, because it operates on batteries.

Digital pianos are just better.

Snazzy



As an accompaniment, digital pianos are fine. If you just want to hit some notes and produce some music, it's also fine.

But for serious solo performances, an acoustic is still the way to go.

The human's brain is capable of so much more than what a typical digital piano can allow. A human is capable of creating fine nuances and subtle variations (and hear them!), such details that are impossible on a typical digital piano. Yes, a digital piano has a beautiful tone. But it lacks the artistic expression even an old out-of-tune upright provides.

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Originally Posted by snazzyplayer
Pianoteq is a VST is it not?

They work for some, but I want to be playing an actual instrument, like my CP-300, or my P-85, or my Roland HP-1700.

They are themselves, instruments. They each have their own character and feel.

How do you access your Pianoteq? Controller, etc.?

Snazzy


Connect your keyboard (a digital piano counts) to the computer via MIDI.

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Originally Posted by snazzyplayer
......Acoustic pianos will eventually become curiosities, like the parlor organ, and to a lesser extent, the harpsichord....

Hey, whaddaya trying to do, make us suicidal? ha

I know that what you said could be true. I just hope it won't be.

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Glenn's response reminded me of a radio interview with a guitarist from an alternative band (Metallica or Alice in Chains...I think)I heard a year or so ago. He was saying that when the band played unplugged, it was a real challenge. It took a lot more focus and skill to play an acoustic guitar instead of an electric guitar. The sound was more "naked". He couldn't hide mistakes. Playing unplugged improved his skills as a guitarist.

I don't play guitar so I don't know if acoustic guitar is harder than playing electric guitar, but for me, it's harder to play well on an acoustic piano than a digital. Only my touch makes the difference between pianissimo and fortissimo. I hear and feel every single mistake I make. It's naked, raw, but true. I'm glad I learned on an acoustic piano and I'm glad I can play and practice on one at home.

Of course, for playing with a band, digital pianos are the way to go. The silent practice and recording to an iPod is a really great convenience too. For a 2nd piano, a DP would be a really attractive choice. As long as I still had my acoustic piano to hone my skills.

Last edited by j&j; 12/06/09 07:01 PM.

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Sometimes I like to think of technology in reverse. Consider e-books, for example. Some say that printed books will be obsolete before long. Perhaps. But imagine if the world used only electronic books, and then printed books were invented. Would people buy them? I think they would. They're easy on the eyes, make good gifts, and are especially good for large formats with pictures, etc.

Imagine if all we had were digital pianos. If acoustic pianos were invented, I think they would sell, since they are the higher technology. The calculations that are used in digitals are limited by the power of the computers in them. But an acoustic piano is a massively parallel-processing machine. The forces at every string, node of vibration, wood fiber, etc. are calculating how to transfer energy into sound waves using the extremely complex formulas of physics.

In a decade or two, looking back on this thread will likely be much like looking back on a thread about whether cars really are better than horsedrawn carriages. But remember there was a time when horsedrawn carriages still really were the better product. Cars needed time to develop.

One factor that isn't often addressed is that, in addition to the complexity of the interactions among strings that create the sound coming from an acoustic piano, the speaking surface is hard to imitate. Kawai now has digitals that use a real wooden soundboard as the speaker (with voice coils attached) for this reason. (Let me vent my frustration: I discovered this after I came up with the idea and was looking around to see if I could patent it -- unfortunately I was about ten years too late.)

I would mention, finally, that one thing I've always is missing with digitals is a certain 'punch' in the initial attack, and the perception of the connection of your fingers with a hammer hitting a string. Pianos are percussion insruments. I've never heard anyone seriously argue that digital drum sets will replace real drums in any performance setting. (Maybe some have but I've never heard anyone do so). You could take digital drums on a camping trip, too. The question is, if you're a serious, advanced drummer, what allows you to express yourself best in the night club where you're performing your next gig, where sound quality is the foremost concern? And what is the best for you to practice on in your home, where portability is not a concern at all?




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Great post, all around.
I particularly liked this part....
Originally Posted by charleslang
.....Consider e-books, for example. Some say that printed books will be obsolete before long. Perhaps. But imagine if the world used only electronic books, and then printed books were invented. Would people buy them? I think they would. They're easy on the eyes, make good gifts, and are especially good for large formats with pictures, etc.


.....and this:
Quote
....one thing I've always [felt] is missing with digitals is a certain 'punch' in the initial attack, and the perception of the connection of your fingers with a hammer hitting a string....

Great point. Time will tell how much that will count.

Just as a general thing.....As a fairly new person here, I am continually impressed at the quality of posts. The intellectual and literary level of much of the writing here equals anything anywhere.

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I can sit down at my digital, and then go across the field to my neighbor's ranch, and play his Yamaha CFIIIs 9' Concert grand. I don't think the grand reveals any more of my mistakes than my P-85 digital...not one bit. It's nice, but I don't aspire to have one, as his is always out of tune, although he says it's tuned regularly.

Electric guitar generally has effects, distortion, and a very low action. My '57 Strat's action is lower than a gopher's basement....in comparison, you could limbo under the strings on my Yamaha LL acoustic. Apples and oranges.

There's not that much difference between a digital's action and a grand.

Early digitals were very poor at replication, and other than a bit more resistance than a regular synth keybed, they really felt nothing at all like a piano.

Now we have instruments that are actually better than most acoustics.

No, I'm on this part of the forum because I love digital pianos, not because I have a digital and wish I had an acoustic.

Else, we'd have to change the name to "Digital Piano Enthusiasts with Acoustical Aspirations". wink

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I like my FP-7. I have always owned a keyboard or synth of some kind. They serve a purpose for me. But they don't make me drool. smile

DPs are a great 2nd instrument for the advanced classical player. I actually think the opposite happens when I go from acoustic to digital: my playing worsens. I think an acoustic piano has so much more variance that when I play a digital it becomes 2-dimensional. I'm talking the same advanced repertoire. Granted, the FP-7 is not the Avant Grand, and I have yet to try that. But I've played a good many of DPs in my day, many different models, some cheaper and some high end.

So for someone who does a lot of gigging, I can see how an acoustic wouldn't be as important: the kind of music played in bands certainly doesn't rely upon acoustic properties of instruments as much as a solo classical pianist would. But to go in the other direction and claim that since the stuff one plays in a band setting sounds and feels the same on an acoustic as a DP is not really comparing apples to apples where it counts the most, IMO.


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Originally Posted by charleslang

I would mention, finally, that one thing I've always is missing with digitals is a certain 'punch' in the initial attack, and the perception of the connection of your fingers with a hammer hitting a string. Pianos are percussion instruments. I've never heard anyone seriously argue that digital drum sets will replace real drums in any performance setting.



What I miss with the acoustic, is the inability to change response and tone at the touch of a button...with an acoustic, it involves voicing the hammers, and/or a regulation adjustment. With a digital, I just turn a knob or slider.

I can't honestly agree that digital pianos lack "punch". A good digital has lots of testicular fortitude, and I must say, they beat the pants off an acoustic when you play in a combo where there's a real live drummer(strange using those two words so so close together) wink

And if you knew my drummer, you'd be helpin' me buy a set of digital drums...or perhaps slip him a set of Styrofoam sticks...that man only has one volume, and it's a teensy bit below the threshold of pain.

Amplifying an acoustic piano is a nightmare, especially in a studio. You have to put a mask over some piano players mouths, 'cause a lot of them don't realize they grunt and make noises when they play. Thank goodness the mics aren't set lower.

Poor old Glenn Gould was a riot to watch, but sheer genius sometimes has it's idiosyncrasies.

I'm glad I'm only a regular genius, and not one of them sheer ones...I'm pretty quiet when I play, and make no guttural sounds except when the level of my beer mug is running low. wink

In a more serious vein, I think acoustics have their place...concerts, intimate jazz groups, and they should be kept out of the campgrounds altogether...for one thing, it intimidates the guitar players.

Snazzy




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My current setup consists of an AvantGrand N2 (congrats on the N3 Snazzy!), Vienna Imperial and Pianoteq Pro using a Kawai MP8II as a controller. I've spent plenty of time with nice acoustics and I don't feel remotely deprived on a sonic or artistic level.

I have absolutely nothing against acoustics, but I no longer view them as inherently superior to digitals. A $2k digital will pose a significant threat to a $2k acoustic, and a high-end digital--hardware or software-based--will give any acoustic a run for its money until you get to the large and expensive end of the scale.

The acoustic piano is just over 300 years old; in the form we currently know it its more like 150 years old. It took the better part of 100 years for the piano to overthrow the harpsichord as the keyboard instrument of choice. Time passes, things change. Will the acoustic piano eventually disappear? No. Will digital pianos continue to advance in sonic and tactile capabilities? Yes.

I truly and fervently believe that acoustics will always be available, but just as I'm not about to trash my digital camera, CDs, or Blu-ray player for their analog ancestors, I'm not going to be switching back to acoustics unless I win the lottery and can buy and maintain the level of acoustic (I would need several to duplicate the tonal flexibility I've become accustomed to) it would take to replace my digitals.

Even then, I would keep my digitals.


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A digital piano may be a simulation. But not all electronic keyboards are simulations. For example an analog synth is not a simulation of anything it's purpose it to allow the musician to design his own original sounds.

I could argue the same for any of the modeling digital pianos, that are not copies or recordings of acoustic pianos but are generating their own unique sound that may never have been heard before.

Electric guitars are a weak analogy because they are analog organic instruments but maybe some day 50 years from now DPs will be also, like electric guitars, not by copies of anything. I think we are headed that way. We have to remember we are seeing the very start of the DP, they have only been around 30 or so years. It takes longer for an instrument to mature to the point where they stop changing.

non-piano keyboards are already there, examples are a Rhodes, Hammond, moogs and some others

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Whew, thanks to the digital piano enthusiasts in this forum the timeless argument of digital vs. acoustic has gotten a breath of fresh air. I've been following this thread over at the Piano forum and it was getting stuffy with all the purist comments.

As I am very new to piano I didn't have much to back up my opinions, but snazzyplayer and Alden got them across and more.

What I found amusing in the original thread are some of the arguments that I think are totally irrational - like how some people take delight in the "caring and feeding" of their pianos, how they like that their piano "sounds different from day to day," and how any old clunker out-of-tune piano is better than any digital.

So maybe some people do delight in plunking in a few thousand $$$$$ to buy their piano, plunk in $$$ to make it work as it should, and then a few more $$$ every few months to keep it playable. The maintenance costs of acoustic pianos are quite high, and may be a major factor for its possible demise (though I hope it doesn't reach that point). If acoustic pianos are to continue existing, I think it's essential to implement changes that would make the piano a bit different from what it currently is today. It should hold more stable tunings, be easier to maintain, and CHEAPER. In the modern world, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reliability are in strong demand, and I don't see how pianos could be excluded from that. Dare I say it, but wood may just have to go. Not that piano makers have much of a choice, since all the spruce forests are dwindling fast.

The only way I could imagine a piano "sounding different from day to day" is if it's going out of tune...and unless I'm playing honky tonk piano, I'd rather skip out on that one. Or maybe they're talking about how a piano sounds harsh one day and mellower the next..? In either case, I'd be frustrated if after plunking in the $$$ to customize the sound, it still doesn't sound the way I like it.

As for old clunker pianos that do not hold their tunings being better than any digital, I wonder which piano would a beginner have a more satisfying experience learning on (or at least not make him quit). Never mind that the old acoustic has sticky and hard to press keys, a dynamic range of p-pp, dead notes, and mice in it.

All the other arguments for acoustics are valid, but only on a well-maintained piano. And going by the horror stories from the Piano Technicians' Forum, those are relatively rare (and not economically viable for a lot of people).


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Originally Posted by snazzyplayer

Now we have instruments that are actually better than most acoustics.

No, I'm on this part of the forum because I love digital pianos, not because I have a digital and wish I had an acoustic.
Snazzy


Exactly. I went to the Steinway-Haus over the weekend and tried their regular pianos, as well as their more budget-conscious Asian lines (Essex and Boston). One of the Essexes had buzzing from somewhere around the pin block (don know what it was) and generally they did not hold up to a digital (even the P-85). One would have to get at least a Boston to have something better, and even then little issues such as a particular key buzzing would drive me crazy. Evenness of keys is one of the great advantages of DPs.

If I ever got myself an acoustic, it would have to be a more expensive and very well-maintained instrument, because otherwise it would be a nightmare. I want to play, not deal with little piano glitches.

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