What is a piano?
What is a piano? Think about it for a second… OK, now think about what makes a piano sound like a piano…Now think about all the parts inside an acoustic piano… the strings, hammers, soundboard, cabinet and now think about how they all effect one another. These are all things that the research and development team at Roland have been thinking about for a long time. In fact, they spent 25 years researching, experimenting and understanding every aspect of acoustic pianos. Why would a renowned electronic musical instrument company spend so long looking in such detail at acoustic pianos? Remarkably, the answer is the V-Piano.
Now nearly 9 years down the line, the V-Piano has reached the end of its production run and it is still technologically unique and without a doubt, one of the best, if not the best digital piano in the world! Join us as we pay tribute to one of the most engaging and special instruments ever produced.
The concept of the V-Piano
Over 25 years ago, the research team at Roland in Hamamatsu, started thinking about pianos. What is it about a prestigious grand piano that is so wonderful? Is it the feeling of the keys? Is it the way the strings resonate? What makes something like a Steinway Model D so special? How do we make it better? Fairly early on in the process, they came to the rather startling realisation that a beautiful acoustic piano is perfect. It can’t be improved upon. Outside of the normal benefits of a digital piano such as, no tuning or maintenance and silent practice, what can we offer the player, performer or composer in addition to a perfect acoustic piano? Roland came up with two main ideas.
- Produce a digital instrument of the highest quality which recreates every detail of an acoustic piano’s sound and playing experience.
- Allow the user to make their own pianos to recreate classic models or invent completely new pianos that have yet to be heard
In order to achieve this, Roland would have to model every possible detail, nuance and behaviour of a piano. However, there was one crucial problem: no chip technology was available at that time to get close to creating a playable instrument! In fact it would take a couple of decades for the technology to catch up with the idea.
Fast forward to 2009 and the V-Piano was launched. So what happened in between? Roland and their competitors had launched loads of digital pianos over that 25 year period so why was the V-Piano taking so long to produce? The reason for this is that the technology used to produce the V-Piano was unique.
To explain this better, it’s best to look at how digital pianos worked up until this point. Even now, most digital pianos work through recording or “sampling” the notes from acoustic pianos. More basic instruments will use a few samples (2 or 3 notes per octave) which are digitally transposed in zones up and down the keyboard. This can sound fairly artificial. As the technology has improved, more samples can be recorded, to the point that there are multiple samples per key and in software, vast sample libraries are available. However, there is one crucial limitation with this technology. Each time you hear a note, it is playing one recording of one note, played at one velocity at one particular moment in time. It may sound like a piano but is it doing what an acoustic piano does when you play a key? Does it behave like a piano? This is a fairly controversial and very subjective question to answer, but essentially, a sample is a recording.
The V-Piano uses physical modelling to produce it’s sound. This is different to sampling because when you press a key, it does not trigger a recording of a note; It recreates the process of what is happening inside an acoustic piano. Remember our questions at the beginning of this article? What happens inside an acoustic piano? Essentially, when a key is pressed, a hammer hits strings over a soundboard inside a cabinet. Roland were able to produce some very clever algorithms which enable this to happen digitally on the V-Piano chip. So, how does this benefit a pianist?
Think about your favourite piano and the last time you played it. What made it so enchanting? How expressive was it? When you play an acoustic piano, there’s almost an infinite amount of variation available. This depends on how hard you play, what notes you play and what order they are in or whether you use the pedal etc. Outside of this, things like the instrument’s age, condition and materials all contribute to the character of the piano. All of these things (and many more) not only affect the sound you hear on their own, they are all intrinsically linked to one another. This is where the V-Piano really comes into its own. The levels of expression and detail afforded by this are unbelievable for a digital instrument and provide pianists with an incredibly realistic experience. Put simply, it doesn’t just sound like a piano, it is a piano!
The keyboard on the V-Piano has a wonderful action which has been precision engineered to feel and respond like a fine concert grand. This action has been designed in harmony with the sound engine, meaning that the keys, mechanism and all the clever sensors underneath have been designed together to get the best out of the instrument. The more you play, the more information is fed into the chip. Remarkably, the piano adapts to your playing style providing far more scope for expression than other digital pianos.
The various piano models on the V-Piano are split into two types; Vintage Pianos to recreate well known classic pianos and Vanguard Pianos which are totally new. This is where the V-Piano moves into really fascinating territory because we can physically model instruments that are not physically possible to build! A great example of this is the “All Silver” preset. This was the point where Roland’s engineers thought to themselves “I wonder what a piano with silver strings would sound like?” Making a silver strung piano would not be easy, due to the intense pressure that silver strings would put on the frame of a conventional piano. Extra reinforcement would be required and the shape of the instrument might be totally different. Anyway, why would you bother? This is the beauty of the V-Piano’s modelling; it does not matter “why?” You can create piano sounds that nobody has ever heard before! The “All Silver” model still sounds like a piano but it is richer, wider and definitely behaves in a different way to anything you’ve heard before. Other models include a piano with a glass soundboard or a piano where all the keys are triple strung. They use the physical principals of a piano to create new instruments. If you are a composer, performer or a producer, you can create a piano to fit your composition or tweak existing models to your exact specification.
To edit sounds on the V-Piano, every parameter is accessible from the onboard control piano. The jog wheel, buttons and large screen are it easy to navigate, however, there’s some wonderful free software which allows you to edit in a very visual way on a computer. Editing focusses initially on 3 main elements; tuning, hammers and resonance. Editing the tuning allows you knock the whole piano way out into pub honky tonk territory or so extremely in tune, it becomes almost mechanical. Editing the hammers adjusts how hard or soft they are, moving from a softer sound to a very percussive character. The resonance adjusts the overall resonance of the instrument. This is cool, but they are not only global settings. They can all be tweaked and adjusted for each key individually! Every single note can be changed to your own specification, allowing you to become a piano technician. Editing allows you to go deeper still with detailed EQ, ambience and a whole host of other parameters to play with. Still remember your favourite piano? You can make it with the V-Piano.
Some of the technology inside the V-Piano has now started to make its way into some of Roland’s current premium range pianos like the LX series or the RD2000, however, these instruments don’t quite use modelling to the same extent. This makes the V-Piano totally unique in the world of pianos. Remember, there’s no organ sounds, no Rhodes and no pads on board. Only piano. This is its focus and this is what it does better than anything else.
Sadly, there’s not many left now and Roland have been clearing their last units out. Here at Red Dog Music, we are very lucky to have a couple of display models which are two of the last in the UK. This is a curse and a blessing for me because I’ll be sad to see our one go as I play it most days! As you may have guessed by now, I love the V-Piano! However, it’s also a great chance for you to pick up one of these legendary instruments at a heavily reduced price. The V-Piano is an instrument that will last you forever and as cheesy as it sounds, bring you joy every day. Get in touch if you’d like to try this truly incredible instrument out before it goes. If you are looking to take one home, please get in touch. These won’t stay in stock long!
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