Creating the electric distortion harpsichord

When Beethoven first published his sonata opus 27 number 1, the title page said (in Italian) “Sonata, almost a fantasia, for harpsichord or pianoforte”. The received wisdom is that it was always supposed to be a piano piece, and the harpsichord bit was just marketing to sell a few more copies. But I think it could have been a different story if the Electric Distortion Harpsichord had been around in Beethoven’s lifetime!

Every pianist should spend some time playing harpsichords. At first, it’s frustrating. On the piano, you’re used to two main tools for expression: dynamics (loud and soft) and sustain pedal. The harpsichord has neither. Playing the harpsichord expressively is a much more subtle affair. The instrument has a fantastically precise attack to each note, so that small variations in articulation and timing become far more meaningful. Good harpsichord performances have a wonderful intimacy to them — but in a large modern concert hall, they don’t have the same impact as a grand piano.

What if you could have the best of both worlds, combining the grace and precision of the harpsichord with the dynamic range and power of the piano? Now I know there will be some purists out there telling me I’ve actually got the worst of both worlds here. But I’m not relying on album sales for a living, so let’s have some fun creating a new instrument.

We start with Modartt’s Pianoteq:

Now there’s three things to notice here. See the word “Dynamics” near the bottom in the centre? When you first put it into harpsichord mode, that slider will be all the way to the left, meaning that it doesn’t respond to dynamics. All the notes come out the volume regardless of how fast or slow you press the keys down, similar to an authentic harpsichord. But in Pianoteq, you can move the slider to the right if you want to be less authentic, and now you have dynamic contrasts!

Secondly, you’ll notice that it has a full set of pedals. So you can use the sustain pedal and set it resonating just like a piano. And as well as the soft pedal, there’s a slider above for soft pedal amount. So by changing the position of that slider, I can get a brighter tone for some parts of the sonata, and a more mellow sound in other places.

The third feature isn’t visible in the screen shot, and that’s the fact that Pianoteq responds to MIDI pitch bend messages! In other words, you can bend a note the same way you can on a guitar, and even apply vibrato.

Now the next element is to electrify it. My first attempt was with The Emissary from Ignite Amps:

If you’re going to electrify something, this is the image you want! And indeed, running a harpsichord sound through a high-powered guitar amp was very exciting. But the problem is — the harpsichord isn’t actually a guitar. It’s close: were dealing with plucked strings in both cases. But the pluck of a harpsichord is a lot brighter than the average guitar, and when you amplify and distort it, it’s liable to blow up.

Perhaps with a bit more skill I could have brought it under control. But after a few failed (but interesting) experiments, I reluctantly decided to go for something slightly tamer.

U-he’s Zebra is an electronic instrument in its own right. But you can also run it in “Zebrify” mode, meaning that you can process another instrument’s sound using a selection of Zebra’s filters. It’s modular: you can choose which filters to apply in which order.

The interface is slightly confusing: on the left, the modules are in menu order, not in the order they process the sound. You have to look at the grid in the middle to see the actual signal flow.

First up, VCF1 is in shelf filter mode. I used it to subtly take some of the high end off the harpsichord, so that there’s more room to amplify and distort it before it totally breaks up. There’s also a gain knob for VCF1: turn this to the left and the sound gets more mellow; to the right for a more strident tone. The nice thing about playing with these electronic instruments is that each knob on the control panel is potentially another mode of expression.

VCF2 is a bandpass filter. By twiddling the cutoff, you move the band between lower and higher frequencies: this is your classic guitar “wah pedal” effect. But I found that if I put all of the signal through the bandpass, then it sounds thin. (Another difference between harpsichord and guitar!) So there’s a mixer too, to dial up or down the amount of wah.

Next, XMF1 is a “cross-modulated” filter. Actually, I didn’t modulate it at all, and you’ll notice that the cutoff is on the maximum setting, so it’s not filtering either. The trick here is the dial that says “over”. This is the overdrive part. Zebra’s XMFs have a few different drive modes, which give you different types of distortion. XMF1 is set to analogue distortion, which is the gentlest type, just warming up the sound a little. Most of the way through, I just left the overdrive on the middle setting and didn’t mess with this one.

VCF3 is next. Again cutoff is at max, so I’ve got a filter that isn’t filtering. But in “vintage lowpass” mode, it has a slightly different flavour of drive/distortion, closer to a guitar “screamer” pedal, but not as extreme. So for the parts of the “moonlight” that need to be more intense, I turn up the drive on this filter.

Finally XMF2: it’s off the bottom of the screen (with six active modules, Zebrify can’t show you everything in one go; you have to scroll up and down), but this is set to U-he’s own “XMF” distortion mode, which is described in the manual as “plenty of bite”. It has a bit of the Emissary’s character, but not quite as explosive. Just what I needed for those dramatic moments in the third movement.

And last of all, the visuals. Of course we needed some moonlight. I was delighted to find Celestia, which lets you explore the moon from any angle you want. But our solar system has several fine moons, so why stick with just one?

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