While an acoustic piano may be the preference for a studio or live gig, it’s not always the most practical choice. Here are tuning tips and suggestions for alternatives when it comes to providing piano for your next gig.
For acoustic pop, hip-hop, blues, and so many other genres, the sound of an acoustic piano can add power and percussion, movement and emotion. So when it comes time to bring acoustic piano sounds to your music in the studio or on stage, where do you begin?
There are countless options when it comes to acoustic, digital, and virtual pianos, and the choices can be daunting. Here are just a few guidelines to help you get started making the right choice for your gigs, recording sessions, and music as a whole.
Know your options: Acoustic, digital, or virtual?
Whether you’re in the studio or on stage, there are plenty of ways to get great piano sounds.
As a lifetime piano player and gigging professional, I almost always prefer to play a traditional acoustic instrument. There’s something about making music with a quality, well-maintained piano of any size or make that, to me, cannot be matched.
That said, good pianos are not always available at a venue or in the studio. Moving or touring with them can be expensive and unwieldy, especially since grand pianos can weigh over one thousand pounds and require regular tuning and maintenance. And if you’re in a loud setting, getting a good mic setup on an acoustic piano can be challenging. So while I recommend using acoustic pianos whenever feasible, they are not always the most practical option.
Luckily, digital keyboards and software emulations have come a long way in delivering great piano sounds. When a real acoustic instrument isn’t available for a gig or session, my go-to alternative is Synthogy Ivory, a sampled digital instrument that can live on your laptop and be triggered by a MIDI keyboard.
Ivory comes in packages that emulate beautiful-sounding American, German, and Italian grand pianos, as well as a variety of uprights. You can tweak nearly any aspect of the tone through a simple user interface — and if you’re recording, it’s easy to erase a bad note or edit your performance. Ivory isn’t the cheapest piano emulation out there — and it requires a good amount of hard drive space for its large sample library — but if you have the budget and digital storage space, it’s a great option.
It’s also worth looking into self-contained digital keyboards or digital pianos for a sound that can get the job done on stage or in the studio. Companies like Kurzweil, Roland, Korg, and Yamaha all have excellent and unique propriety piano sounds in their keyboards and stage pianos. Spend some time in your local music dealer and on manufacturer websites, try out different keyboards with a good set of headphones, and see what inspires you. Also, keep an eye on this blog for future articles on keyboards with great piano sounds.
Choose the right piano for the sound you want
Like guitars, snare drums, and nearly any other category of instrument, different brands and models of piano can give you very different sounds, both on stage and in the studio. Yamaha grand pianos are a popular choice for touring pop and rock acts, for example, due to factors like tonal consistency and a powerful sound that generally sits well in a dense mix. Some pop artists, like Tori Amos, choose Bosendorfer pianos for their depth and richness. Herbie Hancock relies on expressive Fazioli pianos while many stars of jazz, classical, and pop swear by Steinways for their overall beauty and versatility.
Most indie artists don’t have the luxury of choosing between an acoustic Steinway and Fazioli grand for their next gig or studio date, but it’s still worth paying attention to the nuances that different pianos bring. Digital and virtual pianos often mimic the sonic characteristics of the acoustic instruments they emulate, so if a physical Yamaha grand’s sound is right for your blues-rock act, chances are that a quality digital reproduction of such an instrument will be great as well.
Also, keep in mind that grand pianos of any sort may not be the best choice for every situation. Sometimes the more contained and intimate sound of an upright piano will be a better fit. Many acts (including Coldplay) choose upright pianos over grands when they go on tour or record.
Whether you’re looking at a physical or digital instrument, grand or upright, try out different pianos and see what works for your music; the sound samples posted on many acoustic and digital piano makers’ websites can be a great place to start.
If you’re recording acoustic piano, make sure to pay attention to tuning. After all, pianos have hundreds of strings, and all it takes is one funky one to taint an otherwise pristine performance.
The safest thing to do is make sure the piano is tuned the morning before you start recording, and that the piano has not been moved once that happens. This is also the most expensive option, as getting a piano tuned will likely cost around $100, depending on where you are and who you call.
If you’re recording a jazz jam, classical album, or a prog project with thick or complex harmonies, you will almost certainly want to invest and make sure that your piano is in tune; the same will likely go for piano ballads, where the piano is exposed and needs to fundamentally lock in and support the vocals.
But, if you’re tracking southern rock and want a honky-tonk upright piano sound, tuning may be less of a concern as a detuned instrument an be an integral part of the sound.
If you’re not sure whether to tune a piano or not, the best thing is to visit the studio, test out the instrument, and trust your ears. It’s also worth asking whether the piano lives in a climate controlled room, if it gets moved around a lot, and how often it gets tuned every year. If the piano stays relatively stationary, has been kept in a stable atmosphere, and gets tuned more than once or twice a year, chances are it will still sound decent, even if its last tuning was more than a few days earlier.
How careful do you need to be about tuning on a live gig? Live performances are generally much more forgiving when it comes to tuning than recording sessions, but it’s still worth the effort to test a piano out beforehand, ask about its tuning schedule and maintenance, and think about the context in which it will be heard. If you’re presenting a solo piano-plus-songwriter evening in a concert hall, good tuning is pretty important; if you’re providing just a few high-register texture notes in an industrial rock show, pristine tuning will probably not be a high priority.
When it comes down to it, how careful you want to be about tuning is an artistic decision that reflects how you want your listeners to experience your music. In most cases (in the studio at least) I recommend spending the extra bucks and tuning the piano day of, just so you don’t have to worry about it — and so your listeners won’t get distracted by a stray, sour note. But in the end, trust your gut and do what’s best for your music.
When it comes to using real or emulated piano sounds in your music, this is just the beginning. What tips can you share about integrating piano into your performances, on stage or in the studio? Tell us in the comments below.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.
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