Haydn variations and virtual pianos

Haydn variations and virtual pianos

Today I published my first 100% digital recording.

By “100% digital”, I mean that no acoustic pianos were harmed in the making of this recording (*). All the sounds are computer-generated. This is both exciting and a little bit scary for me.

For many years, my thinking has been along the lines of — electric pianos are to pianos as instant coffee is to coffee. Convenient for some purposes, but to be avoided whenever possible. But at least for pianos, the technology has improved a lot over the years. Even a good weighted keyboard still feels icky compared to the real thing. You still don’t get the responsiveness, the feeling of the musical instrument as an extension of your body. But listening to recordings, I’m struggling to hear the difference. And right now, when I can’t round up a live audience in a concert hall, it’s a good time to be questioning old biases and trying out new things.

So we start with a set of variations by Haydn. It’s one of his late works, written in 1793 after he’d already outlived Mozart. To start with, it seems to be a throwback to the Baroque style of Haydn’s youth, essentially a series of set-pieces rather than the continuously unfolding sonata form that Haydn largely invented, and with plenty of ornamentation. But there’s a big surprise towards the end…

It’s a piece that I learned not long after finishing high school, but then it sat on the shelf for many years. More recently, John Polglase has written a few excellent piano pieces in variation form, and that’s inspired me to pull out some older sets of variations. (More on the music of Polglase in a future post.)

My recording setup is a Casio keyboard plugged into the USB port of my computer, and two pieces of software called Pianoteq and Reaper. It’s all connected up via MIDI messages. When I press a key on the Casio, a signal goes down the wire along the lines of “key number 60 pressed with velocity 78”. Then Pianoteq gets the message and translates this into sound. (The Casio has its own built-in sounds, but I don’t use them. Pianoteq is better.) Meanwhile, it’s saving a file with all the MIDI messages and their timing. Later, I can use Reaper to view and edit the file.

The first step in making the recording is to play the piece from beginning to end on the keyboard, much as I would in a live concert. Then I say “yuck, that was terrible”, delete the file, make a cup of tea, and try again when I’m feeling better. After a few goes, I’m getting used to the feel of the keyboard and producing things that are slightly less terrible. I ended up with three complete takes of the Haydn, plus a couple of extra goes at some of the tricky bits.

Next is to choose which piano sound I like for this music. Pianoteq contains a number of different virtual instruments, plus some settings for modifying the basic sounds. In this case I’m struggling to decide between (a digital simulation of) a modern Steinway model D and a Bechstein from the year 1899.

The Steinway is the sort of sound you’d hear in many concert halls. The Pianoteq version has been criticised a little bit for being too “neutral”. But neutral suits me well. It’s a starting point from which you can create a bunch of different sounds, without the instrument itself pushing you in one direction or another. You’ll hear more of the Steinway when I get on to Polglase.

The Bechstein has a bit more personality. It’s a lighter sound than the Steinway, with more of a percussive attack but less sustain. It can sound harsh if you’re not careful with it, or too muddy if you try to soften the sound by drowning it in reverb. But after swapping back and forth a few times, and fine-tuning some things, I decide the Bechstein is well suited to Haydn’s clear, classical style.

Next up is editing. With Reaper, it’s easy to splice together the least dodgy bits of each take, much as you’d do with acoustic instruments in a recording studio. But MIDI lets you be a bit more precise as well. If there’s just one note out of place in a section, there’s no need to do a retake of the whole section. You can just click the offending note on your screen and drag it to where it needs to be. It’s a bit like Photoshop for music, letting you touch up the blemishes.

The challenge here is to be discreet with the editing. It’s tempting to fix up every little imperfection, but (a) with nearly 6,000 notes in the Haydn, considering nuances of timing, loudness and pedalling, I could be at it for months; and (b) the end result would be robotic and boring. I’m aiming for something that still sounds like me, just a slightly flattering version of me.

It’s interesting how many details you can see on the screen in the MIDI editor. Most chords don’t go down simultaneously: one note is usually a fraction of a second ahead of the others. Is my piano technique really that bad, or is the electric keyboard just harder to control than my acoustic piano? In any case, if the higher note is the earlier one, it still sounds simultaneous. But if the lower notes come in early, it sounds messy. So I need to be guided by my ears: only fix the things that sound bad, don’t try to fix up every chord in the piece.

On similar lines, there’s evenness of ornaments. Sometimes it sounds as if one note is a bit late. But when I look at the screen, I see them evenly spaced in terms of time — but one note is much quieter than the others. In this case it’s a bit harder to blame the keyboard. Looks like my technique really is that bad, and I’ve been counting on the atmosphere of live performance to hide all the flaws.

The other thing to edit is pedalling. My digital piano only has one pedal, for sustain, and it’s a simple on/off switch. But Pianoteq can respond to half-pedalling, and I can add those nuances in Reaper. There’s also the left (una corda) pedal, for getting a softer tone. On a real piano, una corda is just on/off as well. You can put the pedal half way down if you want, but the results are unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant. Here, Pianoteq goes one better than reality, and you can use all the in-between positions of the una corda pedal.

There’s a lot of other Pianoteq settings I could play with, but I’ll stop here while it still sounds like a real piano. (Perhaps one day I’ll deliberately make it sound quite unreal. One step at a time here.) So finally, I hit the “render” button in Reaper for a final audio file, add some pretty pictures, and off to YouTube we go!

(*) I’m always bemused when parents tell their young kids: “Don’t hit that piano too hard, you’ll break it”. What a child can do to a piano is nothing compared to the thrashing that an adult concert pianist will give it during a Rachmaninoff concerto. Don’t let your kids put ice cream inside the piano, but thumping it is just fine. (The opposite of how you should treat a human!)

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