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Designing a Portable Stage Piano that Sounds Like a Grand

Designing a Portable Stage Piano that Sounds Like a Grand
A discussion with ProKeys 88sx sound designers Christian Martirano and Chris Griffin

When most people think of sound design, the first things that come to mind are usually video games, film and television, and music production. But the craft of sound design extends into many more areas of audio production. The creation of a sample-based instrument, be it hardware or software, is actually one of the most challenging tasks an engineer can undertake. The creation of sound banks for hardware pieces can be especially challenging, since it requires a careful balance between sound quality, playability, size and CPU cycles.

When designing the ProKeys 88sx, sound designers Christian Martirano and Chris Griffin went to great lengths to ensure that this digital stage piano would provide the most realistic and expressive playing experience possible. And with a list of sources including a Yamaha C7 concert grand, Fender Rhodes®, Wurlitzer Model 200, Hohner D6 Clavinet, and Hammond M-3 with a Leslie 145, the 88sx delivers a playing experience that truly belies its 17-pound chassis.

Capturing the Magic

The first step in designing a top-shelf stage piano like the ProKeys 88sx is deciding on and acquiring the appropriate source instruments. This process involves careful analysis and judgment of each selection to ensure that the instrument in question exhibits the best possible qualities of that particular make or model. “The Rhodes® was a vintage Mark II Janus from 1978 that had been played on hundreds of hits and was previously owned by Earth Wind and Fire,” says Griffin. “The Wurly was a late ‘70s console model with eight-inch speakers and a factory-installed recording output, and the clavinet was a 1975 Hohner D6 which was reworked especially for these sessions.”

Prior to any recording, each of the source instruments went through an extensive round of tuning and restoration to make sure that every note played and behaved properly. “Finding a great piano or other great vintage acoustic or electro-mechanical instrument takes time and a selective ear. The instrument has to be in great condition before any recording can happen,” Martirano explains.

From there, the process moves on to the actual recording of the original instruments. Martirano and Griffin went through the exhaustive process of recording every note, of each instrument, at multiple velocity levels—up to 24 passes per note in some cases. Furthermore, they employed only the finest Class-A recording equipment, which included vintage Neumann mics, a restored Neve console and outboard mastering equipment from George Massenburg Labs. “The engineer and player have to work together to monitor the consistency of the performance—that each note is played the same level with the same feel—and utilize proper recording techniques. It is critical that nothing changes once the process has begun to insure consistency throughout the recording process,” Martirano continues.

“I like to record instruments past the limits of their natural ranges,” Griffin adds. “For example, many electric piano patches miss the ‘bark’ that occurs when a player really slams on the keyboard. I nearly ruined my fingertips recording each ‘bark’ velocity, and was afraid I would break something else, but the resulting patches on the 88sx were definitely worth the pain.”

It's All in the Details

No digital piano has room for the gigabytes of samples that Martirano and Griffin recorded, leaving the team to edit the wealth of data into a practical collection of sounds that would yield useable instruments. This process involved selecting the best subset of samples for each instrument, trimming the beginning and end of each sample, as well as less obvious processes such as noise and hiss removal, and proper EQing.

“The raw samples are mapped out across the entire playing range in a virtual sampler like NI’s Kontakt or Reason, where every sample can be auditioned,” Martirano explains. “The sound designer must then select a subset of samples that best represents the instrument they are trying to capture. Each single sample occupies a specific range on the keyboard, and therefore it must sound good when stretched up or down below the original pitch. This process is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience, experimentation and evaluation. A team of people listen and comment, and the designer eventually arrives at the best possible subset that meets the memory requirements for the ROM space.”

“Good looping techniques go a long way toward memory conservation, but looping has received a bit of bad press lately because so few people can loop efficiently and imperceptibly,” Griffin adds. “As a player, I certainly don’t want to hear a bad loop as I hold a long note. If the sound was recorded poorly, a good loop is nearly impossible to get, so memory conservation starts with the recording process. Lastly, samples can be eliminated from a keymap to conserve memory. For example, many patches contain several individual samples per octave and velocity. A keymap with fewer samples naturally uses less memory, but at the expense of realism. It takes an accomplished musician to decide where the tradeoff is noticeable, and it takes great programming to blend a keymap so that samples are never missed.”

Musical and programming expertise are the main reasons why Griffin and Martirano were selected for the ProKeys88sx project. Both have played on hit records and programmed factory sounds for some of the best synthesizers on the market.

Once each instrument subset had been created, the root samples had to be trimmed and processed. Martirano and Griffin relied on products such as Bias Peak and Sound Soap Pro, Waves Platinum and Restoration bundles, Antares Infinity and a number of other items to ensure that sounds were as uncolored and true to the original instruments as possible.

Back to the Black and Whites

The final steps in this process involved loading the sample banks first into a development version of the ProKeys 88sx instrument software and then into a test version of the digital piano itself. At this stage, the designers had to tweak each sample—at each velocity level—in order to ensure a natural and fluid playing experience.

“We had to adjust the volume, the filter and envelope settings of each sample to create a single programmed sound, such as a piano program,” says Martirano. “In doing this, it is very important to use a keyboard controller that has a very responsive action and a realistic velocity curve so that you can make the sounds behave as they should. Also, we used techniques like cross-switching between multiple samples when playing the same note at different dynamic levels so that the user gets the most authentic representation possible whether the instrument is played loudly or softly. Filtering is used to smooth out the transition between the different dynamic samples minimizing the switching effect, and to smooth out the transitions between different adjacent samples used for the same dynamic level.”

The team then bundled the resulting instrument programs together and loaded it into a version of the production hardware, which contained the real engine and flash ROM. Martirano then worked with other engineers and keyboard players to critique the results, further tweaking the sounds until all the parties were satisfied. The final 88sx sound set includes seven premium sounds, including Grand Piano, Piano 2, Fender Rhodes®, Wurlitzer E.P., Yamaha DX7 FM E.P., Hammond B3 Percussion Organ and Clavinet. The unit also boasts 126-note polyphony, chorus and reverb effects and much more.

The ProKeys 88sx began shipping in January 2006 to critical acclaim, and is widely available from numerous retailers. To learn more about the features of the ProKeys 88sx or its bigger sibling the ProKeys 88, click here.