Creating a digitally modelled piano is a fantastically difficult thing to do, but that hasn't deterred Roland... Introducing the V‑Piano — the world's first hardware modelling piano!
In 1994, Yamaha released the first commercially available physical modelling synthesizer, the VL1. Modelling technology has proliferated since then, and found its way into an increasing number of musical products. Virtual analogue synthesis is commonplace in both software and hardware: physically modelled effects, stringed instruments, brass and electric pianos abound in software, while Roland's 'V' series of instruments — the V‑Synth, V‑Guitar, V‑Drums, V‑Bass and V‑Accordion — have blazed a successful trail with their innovative designs.
Yet the one genre of instrument conspicuous by its rarity is the physically modelled acoustic piano. The only serious contender to that throne so far has been Modartt's Pianoteq virtual instrument software which, naturally, requires a computer to run it. Nobody has risen to the challenge of producing a stand‑alone physically modelled piano in hardware — until now. The announcement of the first such instrument to be unleashed upon the world has caused a considerable amount of speculative anticipation, and it is (cue drum roll and brass fanfare — physically modelled, of course) the Roland V‑Piano.
Although some other software and hardware pianos use the term 'modelled', this has, up to now, been achieved using samples as the raw material. The V‑Piano produces sound entirely by number‑crunching: no samples are involved at all. So why bother going to such lengths to recreate the complex sound of a piano, when sample‑based technology has proven itself quite capable of producing adequate results? Perhaps the word 'adequate' is itself a hostage to fortune, giving us the answer. For most of us, samples are perfectly acceptable for our needs, but ask a bunch (an escapement?) of classically trained pianists what they think of sampled pianos, and you'll get short shrift from many of them.
The problem with samples is that they are snapshots. Their character isn't inherently dependent on what other notes are being played, or how those other notes are being played. Because of this, manufacturers of digital pianos and software giga‑libraries have come up with many ways of producing the illusion of component 'randomness' and player interactivity. For example, note repetitions can be made to sound more natural using round‑robin sample assignments. Different sample layers can be used to overlay typical sonic elements of the piano: pedal noise, damper noise, sympathetic string resonance and so on. However, this is more like a form of additive synthesis, using samples as 'partials' to reconstruct a sound that behaves somewhat akin to the real thing. Being able to vary the level of a hammer 'impact' sample layer might give the illusion of harder or softer hammers, but it won't affect the harmonic character of the string itself. To model a convincing piano is no trivial matter; an accurate model of a string, or wire, is an obvious starting point, but the complex machinery of a piano has many other components. These include the hammer, soundboard, mutes, the '2nd' and '3rd' strings, dampers, frame and case, and of course the materials from which these are made.
The keyboard and keyboard action are also very important to accurately convey the sense of playing a real piano. In order to bring real‑world behavioural characteristics to the sound, the constituent parts need to be interactive. In other words, altering one aspect of the model should have a knock‑on effect across other elements that make up the model — the harder the hammer, the brighter the string harmonics, and so on. The user interface also needs to be sufficiently uncomplicated so that the player can easily tweak key elements of the model to customise the sound to their own preference, as well as providing the means for the more inquisitive user to tweak at a deeper level. Let's take a look at how the V‑Piano brings all these ingredients together.
Weighing in at 38.2kg, the V‑Piano demands a sturdy and stable keyboard stand, and preferably two people to lift it. Apart from the black colour of the casing, the overall styling owes little to the traditional lines of a grand piano. The V‑Piano's design is more angular, having a brushed aluminium effect for the top and front panel, with details around the knobs and buttons picked out in chrome, lending the piano the feel of a classic 1950s American car. Budding Liberaces should abandon the sequinned tailcoat and candelabra in favour of a leather jacket and Ray-Bans.
Rear-panel connections are recessed below the main body — no leaning over to plug things in here, you have to walk around the back for a clear view. Here we find two sets of stereo outputs, A and B, provided as both standard jack and balanced XLR sockets. Stereo output A is the 'main' output. The purpose of Output B is more complicated, and is explained in the 'Output B: The Player's Perspective' box. Next up are a pair of L/R audio input jacks, allowing an external stereo audio source to be combined with the V‑Piano sounds. MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets provide their usual functions, with MIDI Out also sending Roland's V‑Link data for the control of compatible video devices, if required.
The V‑Piano comes supplied with a hefty triple pedal unit (for sustain, sostenuto and soft pedals) and this plugs into a dedicated seven‑pin DIN socket. Three additional standard pedal sockets are also included — one is permanently hardwired for sustain pedal, while the other two can be assigned to various functions. A contrast knob for the LCD display comes next, followed by a USB connector, one of three on the V‑Piano. This one connects the V‑Piano to a host computer, specifically to communicate with the V‑Piano's Editor software (see the 'V‑Piano Editor' box). An S/PDIF coaxial digital out duplicates the signal from Output A, while the second rear USB connector is used for applying updates to the V‑Piano's operating system.
As you can see from the photos, the V‑Piano doesn't have a great many controls, yet all its editing functions are accessible from its front panel, even without using the editing software. Central to the panel is a 240 x 64‑dot backlit LCD, which provides a view to the inner workings; four buttons labelled F1 to F4 facilitate navigation through the menus, and values are edited using the rotary encoder dial. The V‑Piano ships with 24 tone presets, which cover the various piano models and their variations. The 24 presets are not overwritable, but can be edited, and the results can be written to any one of 100 User memories. By default, the presets' F1 to F3 buttons provide direct access to three parameters of the selected piano model (unison tune, hammer hardness and cross‑resonance) without your having to enter edit mode; if preferred, these can be reassigned to adjust any of 14 different parameters, and F4 can also be assigned to one of these if desired, rather than the default Utility menu option. These assignments, along with any tone edits, can be saved as a user preset.
The piano models are divided into two types, Vintage and Vanguard. The Vintage types represent 'real life' pianos: Vintage 1 is modelled on a famous American piano that might start with an 'S', while Vintage 2 hails from Europe — a famous brand that might well begin with a 'B'. There is a marked tonal difference between the two. Vintage 1 is full, bright and solid, with a lot of presence and a powerful bottom end, well suited to situations where the piano needs to cut through a dense mix of other instruments. Vintage 2 has a more mid‑range tone, with a slightly more pronounced attack and a plumminess that lends itself to romantic classical works. Your choice of basic model will depend on personal taste, of course, and in both cases the dynamic progression is perfectly smooth all the way from the gentlest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo. This can be especially appreciated thanks to one of the real benefits of physical modelling: the absence of velocity switching inherent in the sampled alternative.
The Vanguard types take us away from reality to theoretical pianos that exist only in the world of physical modelling. For example, the 'All Silver' model replaces the standard copper strings with silver ones. Because silver is heavier than copper, this would necessitate increasing the length of an actual piano by another six feet or so, along with the use of larger, extra‑hard hammers. The V‑Piano makes such an instrument possible, and the result is a gorgeous sound — deep and fruity, with shimmering upper harmonics and bags of sustain. Three other models have three strings for every note, producing a fuller sound with a thunderous bottom end. Both Vintage 1 and Vintage 2 pianos are provided with several preset tonal variations, with subtitles such as Studio, Concert, Session and Mellow giving suggestions as to their application.
Roland have fitted the V‑Piano with their latest PHA‑III Progressive Hammer Action 88‑note weighted keyboard. The keys feel very realistic to the touch, being finished in a non‑slip, moisture‑absorbing material that has the look and feel of ebony and ivory. Furthermore, the PHA‑III features a simulated 'escapement' for every key — that satisfying 'click' feel produced by a real piano action. You really begin to appreciate the subtle control over dynamics when playing fast repetitions and extreme pianissimo notes. In the case of repetitions, the tone even responds to the rate of acceleration, exhibiting the typical tonal fluctuations of the real thing.
Up to now I've not been overly enamoured of electronic weighted keyboards, but I absolutely love this one — it feels positive and fully responsive, and gives the distinct impression of a physical mechanism making contact with the strings. Dynamic responsiveness can be adjusted to suit the individual's playing strength via five velocity curves ranging from super‑light to super‑heavy. I found myself opting for the light setting, which allows comfortable access to the loudest dynamics while still retaining fine control of pianissimo.
In addition to the tone-modelling parameters, a number of other factors affect both the sound and the player's control over the sound. Firstly, the V‑Piano's global Equaliser (accessed from the front-panel button) provides four bands of parametric EQ, which can be switched in or out on the fly. Ambience (reverb) can be applied from a choice of 12 algorithms ranging from rooms and studios to clubs and halls, with the amount of Ambience adjusted via the front-panel knob. Real‑time manipulation of modelling parameters is also possible using pedals connected to the assignable FC1 and FC2 pedal sockets. The left and centre pedals of the triple pedal unit can also be reassigned to control modelling parameters; all three of its pedals are, in fact, continuous controllers, so half‑pedalling of the dampers and progressive application of the soft pedal are also possible. Panning width of the stereo output is also adjustable and, naturally, the keyboard can be transposed by up to ±12 semitones. The settings for all of these features, along with the desired piano model, can be saved as Setups, of which 100 are available. Once a Setup is selected, returning the display to Preset mode allows you to surf through the different piano models without altering any other settings.
The V‑Piano is able to record and play back your performances with its built‑in, one‑track, 30,000 note real-time sequencer. Songs can be saved as SMF files to internal memory, or to USB media via the front panel's USB connector. The V‑Piano not only plays SMF files, but WAV and MP3 files as well, directly from the USB media.
Playback speed of audio files can be changed by up to ±25 percent, and pitch transposed by up to plus five or minus six semitones. When changing speed or pitch, audio quality suffers considerably, but it's a useful facility to aid practising, nevertheless. An internal GM2-standard sound chip is included for multitimbral playback of SMFs. There is no physical access to this from the V‑Piano, nor from the Editor software — it simply kicks in and does its stuff when you play an SMF. The playback level of the GM2 engine and audio files is adjustable relative to piano tones via the Utility System menu. Alternatively, they can be routed to Output B and controlled using an external mixer. USB media can also be used to archive sequencer songs as SMF files, and back-up your V‑Piano Setup data.
There will always be those for whom only the real thing is acceptable, regardless of how good the imitations become. Even those who are keen to embrace electronic alternatives have their own highly subjective view as to what constitutes a 'good' piano. With that in mind, I can best sum up with the following thoughts. If an instrument engages both performer and listener, then it's doing something right. As a performer, I can only say that for the entire time spent playing the V‑Piano, I felt completely immersed in the experience in a way that sampled alternatives don't quite match. The combination of sound, keyboard action and highly controllable dynamics provides a real sense of connection with the instrument, with the impression that there is something 'alive' beneath your fingers. People who dropped by during the review period gave the same unreservedly enthusiastic response — that it sounded like a top‑flight, beautifully recorded piano.
Nevertheless, early adoption usually comes at a price, and at nearly $6000 the V‑Piano is hardly a casual purchase. In that respect, Modartt's Pianoteq software offers some stiff competition, and is probably going to be the preferred choice of the average impecunious computer musician. Roland market the V‑Piano as a 'stage piano', but have omitted to incorporate any form of music stand in its design — a factor that may alienate pianists who need to play from a score. It will therefore be interesting to see what kind of musicians make up the initial demographic of V‑Piano users. Undoubtedly, we'll see the technology filter down to future products at more affordable levels — as well as upwards to more expensive 'boudoir' models. Until then, I wouldn't be surprised to see the likes of Elton being amongst the first to tread the boards brandishing a V‑Piano. Regardless of price, it's worth giving the V‑Piano a road test. I fell in love with it — will you?
As mentioned in the main text, the number of alternative physically modelled pianos available numbers just one at present — that being Modartt's Pianoteq software instrument. However, there are plenty of sampled stand‑alone pianos out there that do a pretty decent job both in terms of sound and keyboard mechanics, and which also represent more affordable options.
Even though presets are fully editable from the V‑Piano's front panel, the big‑screen, graphical approach to editing sounds is always a more pleasurable alternative to scrolling through small‑screen menus. The V‑Piano Editor comes in both Mac and PC versions, and takes mere seconds to install. The Basic editing screen presents three key parameters: Unison Tune, Hammer Hardness and Cross Resonance. Selecting one of these plays an introductory animated graphic appropriate to the chosen parameter. Each parameter can be adjusted positively or negatively via the large slider beneath the graphic, which animates as you make adjustments, to provide useful (if not entertaining) visual feedback. Clicking Advanced Tone Edit changes screen to reveal all the V‑Piano's modelling parameters. A detailed description of these can be found in the 'Piano Model Parameters' box on page 32.
Generally speaking, edits made to these parameters apply global offsets to the whole piano model. However, the 'Key' buttons adjacent to a number of parameters allow for specific changes to the model on a per‑key basis, a feature of the V‑Piano that holds the secret to creating highly personalised variations on the basic models. Taking the Unison Tune parameter as an example, rather than simply detuning the three strings against each other to an equal degree, we can adjust not only the unison tuning of entire groups of notes, but of individual notes. The accompanying screenshot shows the results of using three different methods of selecting notes for unison tuning. Firstly, groups of strings can be edited by specifying a note range, illustrated here by the area coloured in red. Secondly, individual notes can be edited by adjusting individual bars of the graphic curve with the mouse (shown in the middle range), and thirdly, the mouse can be used to draw a curve directly onto the screen, as seen towards the top end of the graphic. A total of eight different parameters can be edited to this level of detail, and the ability to customise every note of the keyboard in this way is immensely powerful, introducing a degree of 'mechanical imperfection' that really adds to the sense of realism. You can also select presets and save your edits directly from the Editor window.
The V‑Piano Editor software divides the modelling parameters into six groups, as you can see from the accompanying screen. Let's take a look at each group in turn, to see just what the V‑Piano Editor is capable of.
- Sound Lift: raises the relative level of pianissimo playing, effectively reducing the volume difference (but not the timbre) between soft and loud playing. This obviates the need for audio compression, helping the V‑Piano to compete against other instruments in a band.
- Soft Pedal Sense: affects the overall degree to which the soft pedal mellows the sound, and can also be adjusted for individual strings.
- Tone EQ: Up to four individual key zones can be specified by range, each with its own one‑band parametric Equaliser. Useful if, for example, you need to tame just the bass frequencies of the low range, add more 'honk' to the mid range or more sparkle to the top notes.
- String: adjusts the amount of normal sympathetic vibration between strings.
- Damper: adjusts the amount of sympathetic string vibration when the damper pedal is held down.
- Soundboard: varies the amount of soundboard resonance.
- Key Off: alters the amount of resonant sound produced when keys are released.
- Unison Tune: detunes the 1st and 3rd (outer) strings in equal and opposite directions relative to the 2nd (middle) string.
- 1st and 3rd String Offsets: independent detuning of each outer string relative to the middle string.
- Stretch Tune: opens a graphic display where users can choose from three preset stretch tuning curves, or create their own curves. This also allows for tuning of individual notes, and therefore the creation of customised tuning temperaments. Eight preset temperaments, such as Equal, Pythagorean, Werckmeister and Kirnberger, can be selected from the V‑Piano's front panel via the Utility System menu but, oddly enough, not from the on‑screen Editor.
- Hammer Hardness: softens or hardens the felt of the hammers.
- Cross Resonance: adjusts the metallic resonance of high frequencies — especially effective in the low registers.
- Decay Time: shortens or lengthens the time it takes for notes to decay, having a particularly noticeable effect on the decay time of higher harmonics.
- Tone Colour: changes the harmonic content from dark to bright, emulating the effect of making the strings thicker or thinner.
- Damping Time: the time taken for sounds to decay when the dampers touch the strings.
- Damper Noise Level: the amount of 'swooshing' noise you hear when pressing the damper pedal.
The V‑Piano's Ambience effect can be routed independently to Output B, allowing the reverb part of the sound to be sent to a second pair of speakers. This option is accessed via the Utility menu's Sound Perspective parameter, with three settings on offer: 'Off' sends the complete stereo sound with Ambience to both Outputs A and B. 'A: Dry — B: Ambience' sends the Ambience effect to Output B, while Output A has the dry signal. The third and most interesting setting is 'Grand Ambience', which emphasises specific components within the piano model and directs them to the separate outputs. The idea is that Output A should feed a pair of speakers placed immediately behind the V‑Piano, close to the player. Output B feeds a second pair of speakers placed a few feet further away, as if they were at the far end of a piano. Mechanical action noises such as the hammers and dampers are emphasised by Output A's speakers, while the more resonant qualities (those coming from deeper within the piano) come from the speakers fed by Output B, giving an increased sense of depth, as if hearing a real piano from the player's perspective.