Piano Finders

Piano Finders

Pianocchio: by Kendall Ross Bean

or, Should I buy an electronic (digital) piano or a real one?

A lot of people who sell electronic pianos would take issue with that question. "What do you mean, 'or a real piano'? It is a real piano!" Unfortunately, the electronic piano is still much like Pinocchio: Although it looks and acts sort of like a real piano, it still hasn't quite arrived yet. Like Pinocchio, though, it can be very entertaining at times, and many of the things it does seem like magic. It still has the problem with the long nose, from time to time, pretending to be something that it's not (or not yet, at any rate). In this respect, it must be said that the electronic piano still bears no more resemblance to a real piano than a marionette to a live boy, or (to remember another classic tale) a mechanical nightingale to a genuine one.

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Before proceeding further, it is important to understand that, while electronic (or digital, as the latest ones are often called) pianos have been around for awhile, there is still quite a bit of disagreement on what to call them, especially in relation to the more "traditional" type of piano (i.e. the type that doesn't need a plug or batteries). "Digital," of course, is in reference to the type of electronics used, but there still exist many of an older type of electronic pianos that don't use digital electronics. Many people, like myself, consider "digital" an awkward term, simply because all the pianos I'm aware of are made to be played with digits or fingers. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but every time I hear someone refer to an electronic piano as "digital" I have to smile. O.K., well, let's accept, for the time being, that there exists a large group of "electronic pianos", a general term, and then within that group, a smaller subgroup of "digital electronics" pianos, (or "digital" for short), a more specific term. But what does one call the "normal" type of piano? Is it "Conventional?" "Acoustic?" "Traditional?" "Real?" "Antique?" or "Historical?" Here the arguments go round and round in circles. Advocates of digital pianos are reluctant to budge an inch on this point. Their piano is acoustic: it makes sounds, doesn't it? And it is conventional, and it is real...

For the sake of this article, therefore, I am simply going to use my own terms and dispense with niceties. Henceforth, "electronic piano" refers to all pianos that utilize electronics in some way to create their sound, and "real pianos" to the more traditional type (without a plug or batteries) that everyone usually thinks of when pianos are mentioned. Digital will refer to the newer subgroup of electronic pianos that incorporate digital (or computer-type) electronics, i.e. computer chips, computer memory, etc. Most of the discussion that follows will refer to the newer, digital type of electronic piano. By the way, many people have started to use the word "acoustic" for the more traditional, "old-fashioned" kind of piano, but I think that is as silly as the word "digital" for the newer ones...

In all honesty, and to be faithful to our little analogy, the achievement of the people who conceived, and designed, and built the electronic piano is nothing short of miraculous, as was Gepetto's wooden puppet when it came to life. To one hearing or witnessing a digital piano for the first time, it seems nothing short of wizardry of the highest order. How can such realistic sounds be coming out of that little box? How can something smaller than, and a fraction of the price of, a normal spinet, create sounds like a concert grand? The digital piano is amazing, if we look at how far it has come from the primitive electronic pianos of yesteryear. Most digitals weigh in at 1/3 to 1/2 the weight of the lightest spinet, and are priced anywhere from less than a third of the cost to slightly more, depending on which model you get and what features (options, or bells and whistles) are included.

To say, however, that the digital will do everything a real piano will, is to ignore or overlook how far it still has to go. What the digital piano can do seems like a form of alchemy, but it's designers still cannot make gold from lead. One of the most difficult accomplishments on earth is to synthesize the sound of a real piano: the sheer numbers of different sounds, timbres, dynamics and nuances possible are staggering. If you ever want to appreciate what a real piano can do, just try to create an electronic device that imitates it, a feat that hundreds of engineers, sound technicians, and designers are now spending a good part of their life attempting. In a way it is like trying to imitate, or create, life itself. This desire to emulate nature is certainly one of the worthiest of goals, and to the degree that the engineers of the digital piano have succeeded in doing this, they are to be commended. It is an achievement paralleled by few others of our age. Much has, and will, come of the foundation they have established.

Just where the electronic piano lies on the spectrum between novelty and piano, however, is a subject of much controversy. Innumerable editorials have been written on the future of the digital piano, and it's cousin, the synthesizer. On one end of this spectrum, concert pianists look at the digital piano and say it's still just a toy; it's light years away from having the capabilities of a real piano. I have to say that this position does smack a little of snobbery; the unspoken implication being that only a real piano is valid, which is simply not true. On the other end of the spectrum, in an oft-repeated scene across the country today, a father buys a digital piano for his child and says, "now son, this isn't just a toy: it's a serious instrument." There we simply have to take the word "serious" with a large grain of salt.

"Got no strings" is often the cry from salespeople who are dedicated to selling digital pianos, and of course, as with Pinocchio, that is one of the main attractions, and in more ways than one. Real pianos do come with strings attached, and you have to tune them, and take care of them. Real pianos are fragile also, like a real child. If you drop them they may break. Digital pianos purport to be more maintenance-free, and indestructible, than real pianos. While it is true that you may never have to call a piano tuner (or mover) again, many people have found that the digital is often in the shop for repairs, sometimes as often as the other type of piano needed to be tuned. Some feel that, in this case, the tuner has simply been replaced by the serviceman, and at a higher hourly rate. And on a hot day, or a humid one, the phones start ringing in the service shops, as one digital power supply after another gives up the ghost. It is amazing sometimes, how a primitive wooden action designed over a hundred years ago can often hold up better than space-age electronics. As a matter of fact, I read an article recently where a woman had given up her computer and gone back to a pencil, out of frustration...But I digress.

Electronic pianos have been with us, actually, for many years. The newest breed, commonly known as digital pianos, create sounds by means of electrical patterns stored on computer chips, unlike real pianos, which create sound by mechanical means (felt hammer hitting string).These new digital pianos have names, like Clavinova™ (Yamaha), Celviola™ (Casio), as well as numbers and letters with gender connotations (SX-P101, C50G)(Technics, Korg) as well as names and numbers together, for the indecisive, (Mark 5)(Kurzweil) much the same as you would find on cars (Camry, 280-ZX, 300-SX)(Toyota, Nissan) The older versions of the electronic piano, which can still be found in college group piano labs and among certain pop and rock musicians and groups of yesteryear, created sound in different ways, some more mechanical, like a real piano, some less mechanical and more electronic, closer to the new digitals. These went by names like Fender-Rhodes™, Baldwin Electrotone™, and WurliTzer™. Because the new digital pianos have no strings, and do away with most or much of the action mechanism of the real piano, they supposedly eliminate some of the problems of real pianos, such as having to be tuned, voiced or regulated. Electronically speaking, the new digital pianos are light years ahead of those first electronic pianos, (some of which still required tuning and regulation in spite of their electronic innards). In their ability to duplicate what a real piano does, however, they leave much to be desired.

The digital piano does have many advantages over a real piano. With headphones, you can practice without disturbing anyone. This makes it ideal for apartment dwellers or class piano programs, where it's important to be able to play and not bother the person next to you. As mentioned before, you need never call a piano tuner again, or have to pay one. As a matter of fact ,with merely the press of a button, many electronic pianos will allow you to try historical tuning temperaments, or transpose up or down in steps, or fractions of a step. With a press of another button, you can record your practice sessions, and play them back...press still another button, and change the sound of the piano: make it bright and jangly, like a honky-tonk piano, or deep and mellow, like a concert grand. On many models you can even change to the sound of strings, or choir or guitar, alone or in combination with each other. Some models also have a rhythm section you can switch on or off, so you can play Bach to a Bossa-nova or a Boogie beat. Or you can even be your own little musical ensemble, complete with string bass, drums and piano. Hook it up to a computer and use it to write music, or communicate with other electronic pianos or keyboards via MIDI. Piano movers will become a thing of the past. Now YOU have become the mover... Some of the models with fewer than 88 keys are so portable you can literally carry them around with you, ideal for musicians who do weddings or other events where they're not sure what kind of piano will be there, or even if there will be an instrument. Some models even use batteries, for when you go to places where there's no electrical outlet. And of course, there's much more. Just ask the salesperson for a demonstration. They'll show you all the buttons you can push. And maybe that will even push some of your buttons.

It all those buttons, however, that the piano teachers have learned to hate.They know from experience that kids end up spending their time pushing buttons, to see what they will do, and for instant gratification, listening to the pre-recorded sequences, rather than painstakingly learning which combinations of the eighty-eight keys produce beautiful music. A real piano does not provide so many convenient distractions. Piano teachers also know something else the salesman probably won't tell you: that the main drawback to digital pianos is that they simply don't feel or respond like a real piano. You might compare it to the difference between regular and power steering on a car, or between a manual and an electric typewriter. With the electronic piano there is a certain sponginess, or some people even say "delay," in the action; with a real piano you always can feel exactly where you are in relation to the sound, much as a fine sports car lets you feel the road rather than insulating you from it. "Real" pianists, by the way, play as much by feel as by sound, relying on their fingers as well as their ears to tell them what's happening. Going from a real piano to an electronic one can be quite a "shock" to the young student, if you'll pardon the pun. "Real" piano teachers will be teaching your child, or you, some very subtle things about tone production, and about using a piano's action to create sensitive and sophisticated effects. Many of these effects are simply not possible on the digital piano because it's action is so rudimentary compared to that of a real piano. For a skilled pianist trying to play advanced literature, performing on a digital piano can be a frustration, and often, an exercise in futility, as he or she vainly tries to do things that they could do almost effortlessly on a real piano. Most often we find digital pianos being traded in, within a year or two, because the teacher said Jimmy or Susie needs a "real" piano to practice on.

In all fairness, sales literature for digital pianos often gives lip service, at least, to addressing its present shortcomings: you will read about manufacturers' attempts to make an action that feels like a real piano action, a sound that sounds like a real piano sound, a cabinet that looks like a real piano cabinet. And many of the glossy brochures appear to give the impression that with this or that new innovation or device or system, they have finally bridged the gap between electronic and real pianos. Stereo sampling, real wood keys, and actions that have "hammers" and "weights" like a real piano are being heralded as closing that supposedly very small gap. Unfortunately, these new innovations still lie more in the realm of marketing gimmicks than any real progress. But hope springs eternal among salespeople and manufacturers alike.

In spite of it's professed efforts to emulate the real piano (might we say, delusions of grand-eur?), the digital piano still appears to be having an identity crisis: It can't quite seem to be able to make up it's mind what it is or wants to be. Some digitals are frustrated piano wannabes: the desire is there but somehow they just don't quite yet look the part. They may have eighty-eight keys, and pedals, but the cabinet is just in really bad taste, inappropriate for a mature piano. Or they may not even have eighty eight keys yet. Or else the sound hasn't quite developed yet, like a youth trying to talk like a grown man and all of a sudden his voice cracks. Some digital pianos have multiple personalities: They can't decide whether they're a banjo, a choir, a string section of an orchestra, or a recording studio.  Perhaps this why they are still not taken seriously by serious pianists. Yet other digital pianos suffer from separation anxiety: They seem lost and out of place when taken from the store and placed in a traditional living room or home. Still others have obsessive-compulsive behavior: the thing they seem to do best is play that pre-recorded song, over and over...

Most authorities agree that because of the complexity of the sound wave from a piano, the most authentic sounding digital pianos are the ones that utilize sound "sampled" or recorded from a real piano. This is accomplished by using technology similar to that of the CD or compact disc. These sampled sounds are then placed in computer memory, inside the digital piano, on computer chips (integrated circuits). Each manufacturer seems to have their own proprietary method for doing this, often with a fancy-sounding hi tech name, such as "Spatial Hysteresis Sample Replication", or some other intimidating pseudonym that just reeks of engineer-ese and technical-ese. Sales literature for certain digital pianos may testify that their sound has been "sampled from the best concert grands", but it's how the manufacturer manipulates that sound within the digital piano that causes the problems. (Incidentally, not all digital pianos use sampled sound.)

Scientific articles have been written stating how it would take literally thousands of megabytes of computer memory to faithfully replicate all the different possible timbres and graduations of tone you find in a real piano. If you inquire as to how much memory any given digital piano has, you will find it is only a fraction of that amount. Memory, by the way, is one of the most expensive components of the digital piano and hence one of the major design limitations.

If you play a really good piano you will notice that, as you strike the key harder, not only does the volume increase but the tone quality or timbre changes also. The number of timbre or tonal color changes a piano is capable of, as it goes from soft to loud, is sometimes referred to as it's "palette of colors", much as a good artist would have many colors available from which to paint a painting. Thus, a good quality piano has a "wide palette of colors". Because of memory restrictions, digital pianos are not able to accomplish these timbre changes like a real piano and therefore are referred to as having a "narrow palette" of colors. What this translates into is a sound that has been called "antiseptic" and "sterile", one which often leaves the pianist, and the listener, somewhat cold. Numerous ingenious systems have been devised to try and get around this drawback, but they have all fallen short of the mark.

In addition to this, much of the time, in order to save memory, one sampled sound may be assigned to several keys within an octave. The only change to the sound is to raise the frequency so that it corresponds to the appropriate pitch. In other words, if a manufacturer records the sound of middle "C" from a real concert grand to put in his digital piano, he may use that same middle C sound sample to make the sound for C#, D, D#,E,and F on the digital piano. Then the manufacturer might use a new or different sound sample for, let's say, G, G#, A, and B. Often when playing a scale on a digital piano, you will find that the sound changes abruptly at these points where the samples change. Unlike with a real piano, you cannot "voice" these abrupt transitions out.

Art is illusion, or so they say, and what digital piano manufacturers have done is to create the illusion of a real piano sound from bits and snippets of the sounds of a real piano. To the extent that they have been able to do this, the digital piano is pretty amazing. The main problem I have had, however, with digital pianos, is that the people who designed them apparently knew or cared little about serious piano playing (or the other possibility is that they did know, but it was so prohibitively expensive to carry out that the accounting department nixed it). One of the greatest limitations of the digital piano is the pedal, a component of the real piano that is so important that Anton Rubenstein once called it "the soul of the piano". In the digital piano the pedal is simply an on-off switch. On, it sustains the notes you just played. Off- it doesn't. Sorry, guys, but a real pedal does quite a bit more than that. On a real piano the sustain pedal releases all the dampers from the strings, making it possible for all the strings to vibrate sympathetically with the notes you are playing. In addition, because a pianist performing on a real piano has control over exactly how high the dampers are raised above the strings, a whole world of subtle pedal effects are possible, including 1/2 or 1/4 pedal, for example.

In addition to the drawbacks of the pedal on the digital piano, it is also much more difficult to control the dynamics (loudness or softness) of the music you are playing. On an real piano there is an infinite range of dynamic variation possible between loud and soft; on the digital it is limited to 127 or perhaps 256 discrete levels in theory, which is further restricted by the limitations of the action. Many salespeople will tell you that no human ear can differentiate between that many levels of loud or soft, but one has only to put a skilled pianist on an digital piano in order to hear them say "I can't control the sound like I can on a "real" piano - I can't play softly like I want to, I can't make one note soft and another loud like I want to." The proof is in the pudding, despite what the sales literature claims.

Many of the better digital pianos advertise a 32-note polyphony. This supposedly represents the number of notes the piano is capable of sounding simultaneously. 32 notes is quite an improvement over some of the first digital pianos, which may have had only 12 or 16 note polyphony. With these early digitals you could hold the pedal down and play an arpeggio up the keyboard and use up all the available notes before you finished your run. The result was that some of the notes you were trying to sustain would "disappear" or stop sounding long before they were supposed to. Having 32 available voices relieves some of this problem, but there are still times when you will miss having all 88 notes available, such as for sympathetic resonance when you hold the pedal down. Digital pianos that allow you to play two different sounds at the same time (i.e. strings and piano) compound the problem because then you use up two notes for every key you depress. Legato playing (where you overlap the sustaining of one note with the sounding of the next) eats up available notes at an accelerated rate also. Impressionistic effects like you you will find in pieces by Debussy or Ravel, where you are required to hold down the sustain pedal through a series of chords in both hands, will quickly demonstrate the problems and the limitations of the instrument.

The other drawback to digital pianos is that while you will most likely never have to tune them, they do, as we said, often need servicing. And that can be a problem. Piano tuners are still much more prevalent, you will find, than digital piano service personnel. Obtaining parts can be iffy: as with automobiles, if you own a digital piano more than a few years beyond it's date of manufacture, it can become difficult, if not downright impossible, to get parts for it, especially if the manufacturer stops producing that model or goes out of business. With real pianos pretty much any one built in the last 150 years can be serviced, even if the manufacturer is no longer with us. There are a goodly number of piano parts suppliers around, and with a few notable exceptions what parts are not commercially available can usually still be fabricated or repaired. Very few service technicians, however, have the wherewithal to repair, let alone fabricate, a defective computer chip that is no longer being made. In essence many of the components of the electronic piano are designed, either deliberately or not, for obsolescence, and are part of our "throw-away" society. In other words, in five years you may not be able to get replacement parts for your new digital piano.

Speaking of obsolescence, one of the most dismal outlooks for the digital piano is that of resale value. While a real piano will often retain its value over the years, or in many cases, actually appreciate in value, the electronic piano will always sell for much less than you paid for it. In this area they seem to follow the path of most electronic devices: the path of least resistance to depreciation. They are only worth something until next year's model, new and improved, with new gimmicks and gadgets, arrives. In this they seem to follow the same path as desktop computers, stereos, and digital watches, which once were found behind the glass counters of finer jewelry stores, but which are now more often found on the racks at dime stores. One of the major problems is with the continued perception, and marketing, of the electronic piano, as a budget or low cost substitute to the real piano. And despite the technological advances, the digital piano is still a fairly labor intensive object. As with the real piano, as long as the quality of the digital bears a fairly direct relationship to the costs of production, you will continue to get pretty much what you pay for.

Don't misunderstand me. The digital piano does have its place. It offers an alternative for many people who may have neither the space nor budget for a real piano. It has a place in class piano programs. Through an electronic-musical interface called MIDI, the digital piano is indispensable for entering music into a computer, either to create music or manuscript (I have one in my office for just this purpose). It can do many things that a real piano cannot. It often seems to solve many of the problems that people have with real pianos, problems with weight, space, maintenance, privacy, and climate sensitivity. Over time the manufacturers are addressing the limitations of the electronic piano and in many cases, improving it. The electronic piano has cornered much of the market for new spinet and console pianos, according to a recent industry report. Notwithstanding all the limitations of the digital piano, it is becoming quite prevalent. You now find it in restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and other commercial establishments.   Whether by gradual public acceptance of it's limitations, or by the achievement of actual improvements, the digital piano is here to stay, in one form or another.

For the present, at least, there is no substitute for a real piano. For you see, a real piano is so much more than 88 black and white keys and the sound they make. It is tradition. It is furniture. It is woodworking, art. It has size, massiveness, weight. It is imposing. It represents many of the cultural traditions and values we are trying to pass on to our children. It takes up quite a bit of space. It does go out of tune, and require regulation, voicing. It does need constant attention, just like a child. But, also, like a real child, it does things for you that an electronic keyboard cannot. It gives you something back. You can feel it vibrate under your fingers, not just in your head. It has warmth. It has all the range of colors. It has a heart.

When I play a real piano, it fulfills needs in me that an electronic piano does not. I guess you could say it could be compared to the difference between Gepetto's wooden boy and a real, living child. The electronic piano is a marvel of ingenuity and electronic engineering. But the real piano has a soul.

I guess one of the major reasons why the real piano is still so pertinent to our day is because it simply does require so much more attention, care, and often patience. There is something just a little self-defeating about devices that do everything for you at the touch of a button and don't need any maintenance. Mostly because the person using them doesn't grow as much. And that really, is much of the reason for the piano: personal growth. I have always believed that pianos were made for people and not the reverse.The significance of the piano experience is directly proportional to the amount of work and effort the person puts into it. (In other words, easy come, easy go.) And it is possibly for that simple reason, more than any other, that the electronic piano has not yet achieved a position of lasting permanence.

Most of the things we do in life that are of lasting effect, like raising a family, creating a work of art, or teaching a child, are activities that are inefficient, messy, costly, time-consuming, chaotic at times, require personal sacrifice and effort, and often leave us wondering if there isn't a better or easier way. In the divine economy, there is not.