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Topic: How to process a piano sound

  1. #1

    Wink How to process a piano sound


    What is the best way to process a piano sound to achieve the profession/commercial sound. The piano libraries are PMI Old lady, and Vintaudio C7 Yamaha, both GS3 versions. I have my GS3 computer hooked via SPDIF to my sequencing computer.

    What kind of plug ins and EQ's to use. I use Cubase SX 2.0, I also have Ozone 3 (isotope mastering plugin). Then I have some free stuff like glaceverb, SIR, Ambience reverb, etc. I also have soundforge 7 and sony noice reduction and CD architect. Shoudl I EQ at the GS3 level or at the Cubase level. Way too many controls as I am learming the tecniques of mastering.

    Is it possible to achieve the profession sound using these modules or do I need something like Waves stuff (but! Waves is way out of my budget).

    Thanks for any input here. If you can give as much detail as possible.

  2. #2

    Wink Re: How to process a piano sound

    Can somebody shed some light on this


  3. #3

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    Use your ears (first) and your imagination.
    Ears: what frequencies do you dislike? Get rid of them with an eq. Try not to add things that aren't there with eq, removing unwanted frequencies works better. In fact lowering all ok frequency bands and leaving the weak ones unaffected often works better for putting an emphasis on them than amplifying them with eq.
    GS3 eq's are ok and use less CPU than most VST eq's.

    Next, listen to the dynamics of the piece with your speakers turned so low you can hardly hear the piece. When does the music completely disappear? You'll have to work on these pieces with compression/enhancer.

    Next, with the speakers still all the way down, add reverb to taste.

    When you turn up the volume after these adjustments you will find the piano sounds a lot better than before.

    Now the fun part begins.
    You can use a mixer channel send to add a second signal feed to the mix with a very limited frequency band (say just the +6kHz band). Use this with extreme compression and reverbs to add some magic. Or, if you are looking for the larger than life piano, add a stereo imaging plug-in that swims in reverb to make the piano fill the whole stereo field.
    As for free plug-ins that do wonders for piano: PianoVerb (PSP software) WOW, this one adds resonance and reverb "tuned" in the key of your song. A must have to bring piano tracks to life.

    Naturally your budget is the limiting factor (if your imagination isn't letting you down). The Waves stuff IS absolutely worth every penny, nothing compares. The L3 plug-in for example (multi-band and UltraMaximiser) can bring a whole day work on levels condensed in one minute. No free or cheap plug-in can touch this. On the other hand, given some extra time I guess Ozone should be able to produce good results also.
    Best regards,
    Michiel Post

  4. #4

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    Just as a note, there is a particular presentation of the piano that many many people use from film score to electronic music (Michiel eluded to it with his extreme compression suggestion). The most notable instance would be that Moby song that was playing everywhere in 2000, it's off his album Play. It's a very distinct sound. To a trained ear, it sounds like over-compression, which is exactly what it is, but to the average listener it sounds like an extreme and ghostly sustain. It's such a warm sound that you can almost feel the felt hitting the strings.

    Anyway, any good compression plug-in can reproduce it. Just bring the threshold down anywhere from -20 to -30, with the ratio anywhere from 2 to 6 and of course you'll have to gain the crap out of it with such a low threshold.

    There's nothing quite like an over-compressed piano.
    Michael Peter

    If music be the food of love...
    play on

    William Shakespeare


  5. #5

    Smile Re: How to process a piano sound

    Thank for the information, they are very good advice that I am going to heed.

    I know the piano is the most difficult and dynamically complex instrument to model. So I would be very happy if I can get reasonably modest results. I was initially afraid to use compression on piano as I though that might make it sound unnatural. But I think I am going to have to start experimenting with this more.

    Good advise Michael, Imagination, Imagination !! is the key (Sometimes I get my self into a rut because I am always thinking is there something else missing, is there some other knob I could tweek to make it sound even better, some other plugin, etc. it's like a cycle that never stops in my head)

    I should just use my ears. I've also learned that you should give your ears a little break once in a while also. I have also been practicing subractive Equalizing, where you just subtract the frequencies that sound nazel or too
    high pitched, etc. So I guess I've been atleast doing somethings right so far. I've made a note of the list of stuff you've said to try. I am going to give them all a try. I downloaded PSP pianoverb a while back but really never tried it. I am going to give that a shot.

    But if you get a chance could you expand more on your advice below. Are you talking about adding a FX channel is Cubase SX (Which is what I use) or are you talking about something in GS3. I would like to find out more about this "Magic" you'r talking about.

    Now the fun part begins.
    You can use a mixer channel send to add a second signal feed to the mix with a very limited frequency band (say just the +6kHz band). Use this with extreme compression and reverbs to add some magic."

    Lee Blasko
    The kind of sound I am looking for is more of a darker piano sound. Something that sounds very natural and distictive as a solo insttrument. (But something that can also sit just as well within a symphony orchestra). I am not looking for the pop piano sound, or atleast not yet.

    His Frogness
    To me there is nothing quite like the warm sound of the felt hitting the strings. Its priceless. I am going to play around with threshhold and compression ratios that you suggested.

    I would love to have WAVES stuff. But hopefully someday I can afford it.

    Really appreciate you feedback and help. And one of these days I'll post my Music. If you have more advice for me just keep it coming. I am all ears.


  6. #6

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    Hey DD,

    I probably have a different perspective & different ears than most, but I'll give you my opinion & maybe it will make sense. I get the impression that you're falling into the most common trap when you write this:

    > Way too many controls as I am learming the tecniques of mastering.

    A couple things must precede any technique. You must learn to really hear and think about what you are hearing, and you must learn the characteristics and controls of your tools.

    Take for example the compressor. People will tell you to throw a compressor on everything with such and such a setting. So you do that and maybe it doesn't take your sound into magic groovy land. In fact I'm sure it won't, because you have just munged up your audio without really thinking what problem are you trying to solve. Do you know why you might put an individual compressor on each of 6 drum feeds but not on the resulting submix? If you don't, you probably shouldn't put a compressor on a full piano mix. (And I know people will say you should put a compressor on a drum mix; these same people will submit a drum mix that pumps out of control and they either won't hear it or understand what is happening).

    So why do you compress? To reduce dynamics. But why? Well it's easier to mix things when they don't change in loudness. And it's easier to make everything loud when it doesn't get too loud or quiet. And you can bring a sustain tail up to the loudness of an attack, that's a great effect on a solo voice. All these things are super useful if that's a problem you need to solve. But if you don't need to shape your sound this way, a compressor is just going to trash your sound.

    When you learned to play the piano, you might have spent years trying to get your dynamics and voicing and expression under control. Do you want a processor to change these things? Do you want the loudness of the bass to affect your treble volume? Or the loudness of the bassoon? Do you ever madly jerk a fader around when you're recording a mix? That's kind of what a compressor will do.

    Compression or reverb or EQ or an exciter or whatever the trendy processor of the year that everyone is raving about won't magically give you a good sound. How's the sound before processing? Hows the performance, and the sample, and the arrangement? Ultimately, it's all additive synthesis; every note you played in it's time, every instrument you added, every EQ and reverb tail, it's all part of the additive composition that is you final mix, and hopefully this is not just the amalgamated noise of a bunch machines, but they're part of your intention to communicate something extraordinary.

    If it didn't sound great before processing, you should understand why and address that, you can't polish a turd. If the sound (mostly composition and performance) works dry, you can apply some tools with specific intentions to make it work better with other things, cover weakness, add to a mood, whatever.

    Then who cares if you have 30 tools with 700 controls, you know which one to pick and how to set its 4 controls to get the result that will finish your sound.

    So just spend some hours in the wood shed, learning the sound and characteristic responses and limitations of your tools, and thinking about why things sound the way they do, and what could make them sound better. Then it will get much simpler!

    Hope that helps!

  7. #7

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    Sorry, but have to jump in here. The thought of using compression on piano gives me spots.

    OK, it depends what you want but for classical piano, leave it alone. For pop - well use whatever you need. Stick a flanger on it if it sounds good. No rules there but if you are looking to get a full solo piano experience, concentrate on getting the source as good as possible and minimise further processing. My general rule of thumb anyway... For reverbs, I have found convolution halls or a plate work well.

    Now, onto Waves plugins. Yes, good stuff but....

    Massively over priced with a horrible copy protection system and I believe they are fixed point which means they can be driven into clipping easily.

    There are plenty of excellent if not better alternatives to Waves plugins in the native format and at a fraction of the price. You do not need to pay the obscene prices Waves charge or put up with the potential system problems caused by their use of PACE.

    Check out Voxengo, UAD (uses DSP card), Kjaerhus Audio, Spin Audio or have a look round KVR for further ideas. Contrary to what the marketing people would have you believe, you can achieve excellent results with a lot of freeware products.


  8. #8

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    OK, now that I'm done with that rant I'll try to answer more specifically the question you asked! 8^)

    There are so many different sounds out there on commercial releases. A lot of my classical recordings are too ambient; they really take in the sound of the room, but they lose all intimacy. That's a generalization and not at all universal, but I find it easy to better the sound of many of my classical releases with a sampled piano. Crucial to the sound of these ambient recordings is that the room is believable. You can place the piano in the room with your eyes closed, you can hear the reflections and feel the shape of the room and your location there. Most digital reverbs fail here, they can not sound like anything but what they are, which is a bunch of inter-routed delay lines with all-pass filters. They usually try to hide the lack of genuine space with a confusing murkiness, and most people try to obfuscate the confusedness by adding more murkiness. It doesn't work if you're paying attention. It gets worse when you reverb a wet or ambient sample; an artificial reverb is a horrible impulse for another reverb.

    Noise reduction is the devil's bargain. Often there's like a thrashy hammer or a yucky resonance that just grates on you. But if you try to selective reduce this sound with 'surgical' EQ, you will undoubtedly hollow out the overtones of other notes. This will result in a phased, boxy sound. It can be an interesting effect, but it will never sound like a realistic piano in each register; Unlike synthy instruments, we are too familiar with what sounds like real piano tone in every range, and you almost can't touch it in one place without wrecking it elsewhere. Again, people usually try to cover this murky reverb, hoping that it ends up sounding moody or atmospheric. But if you're actually listening, it sounds like a polished turd. Don't necessarily be afraid of background noise, most of my favority recordings have plenty of noise, you don't really hear it and it covers a lot of sins.

    If you're thinking about compressing, think about what you're trying to accomplish. If it's just evening out the dynamics, why don't you do that surgically in the midi file? That will either be better or worse, but it will certainly be different. The fixed note will now have different overtones, attack, sustain, and impact upon its neighbors. There's not a single right answer, hopefully you have a good reason for the best changes.

    The best wet sound starts with the best dry sound. Also, a crap full wet sound will only drag down a good dry sound; what's your best (or most appropriate) reverb? And more importantly, how do you tune your reverb? Think about the sound that is the impulse to the reverb; it doesn't have to be your dry sound at all. It could be a different take, or a different EQ'd feed, or just a sine wave of the key changes. Do you want to EQ the reverb feed, or filter the reverb reflections, or EQ the reverb return? How do these interact with the reverb's decay setting?

    To me, the best classical sounds are warm & woody, terrific dynamics (let the listener turn up the amplifier and hear the range & power of the real thing). The sound can be very legato, singing from note to note. Jazz has to be intimate, close. A pop piano has to be bold, percussive, usually bright and metallic. You can hear it in your car with the windows down, and it never gets lost beneath the drums. Be careful when you put that pop piano into a reverb, your 'room' will just ring with noise.

    Another thing I do is seriously tune and tweak all my piano patches. There is not a single sample program (patch) out there that is nearly as good as it can be. Before you spend forever trying to fix your sound in the mixdown, you might find that you can make a way richer, more beautiful, expressive, appropriate instrument. One that doesn't have thrashy FFF attacks, or one that plays better legato or pianissimo, or is better tuned or matched sample to sample.

    One final thing, you mention mastering several times. You will likely not be doing what a commercial mastering facility does, but there's a lot to be learned in the fine art of mixdown, which is all about making the parts sound as good as possible individually, and morover making all the elements work together as a whole. A bad mixdown is unmasterable (and I could give you plenty of examples of horrible commercial mixdowns!)

  9. #9

    Re: How to process a piano sound

    I'd just like to qualify what I said by reiterating that over-compression is a "particular presentation" of the piano. I know many composers here who are focused on orchestral productions will think it's a horrible idea. But, to those of us that love producing and love exploring how music can be presented in all it's forms, it's not a question of making things sound authentic, it's about presenting a mood. Not everyone records their piano pieces on a 12-foot Bosendorfer. Some actually use uprights because it's a particular sound that they're looking for.

    I'm glad Sam decided to rant because his statements emphasize the nature of producing. You don't over-compress a piano because it makes the piano sound best, you do it because it makes the piano sound a certain way, a way that appeals to your over-all sensibility about a particular piece of music. An over-compressed piano would sound unnatural if you were mocking up Rach's 2nd piano concerto (yeah right), but that's only because the scope of your piece is one of natural instrumentation (the score to Eyes Wide Shut is a good example of a compressed piano).

    At any rate, I'd venture to say that if you're interested in being your own producer and recording your own music then the presentation of an instrument, the way it is recorded, affected, eq'ed and mixed is just as much a part of your art as the composition. And just as every style of music has it's own tendencies, so does the production of that style of music. Therefore, just as exploring different styles of music compositionally makes you a better composer, exploring the different styles of production will make you a better producer. So no matter what advise you get here you're still the artist that is creating your music and you should over-compress a piano so you can be familiar with the affect that it has to the piano's presentation. Musicians tend to pick apart the music they hear to figure out the elements that give that piece it's character. As a producer, you should also pick apart the production of pieces to figure out the elements that give the production it's character.
    Michael Peter

    If music be the food of love...
    play on

    William Shakespeare


  10. #10

    Cool Re: How to process a piano sound

    Thanks again for all the valuable information Sam, Mark, and His frogness. You guys are awesome, for taking valuable time out to help me out, especially with so much detailed information.

    Just reading you comments and advice opens up new thinking new possibilities for me. I was originally tunneled by my own thinking into believing that there was this perfect "commercial piano" sound which I was
    trying to find. But some of the comments that was made was right on. Compression or no compression, or effect or no effect all depends on what you are trying to achieve. Its hard to compare the piano sound of Elton John, to that of Chopin to that of Enya or Moby. Now I have freed myself into being more creative and find a medium that would satisfy me. Of course I would love to record a live piano in a studio or intimate concert hall. But that would be out of the question, as I cannot even afford to buy WAVES stuff. But again with the technology advancing further and further, the sampled piano sounds are getting closer and closer to the real thing. I am definitely anticipating some more breakthroughs in this area. Probably just around the corner.

    I will continue my research to learn more about mixing and mastering, until I can achieve a reasonable sound. This is how I do my audible test. I record, say like 10-15 piano pieces over a week. Each with different setting on the processing, EQ and convolution reverb, etc. I then burn my musci mixed in with some pro recording of real piano pieces. I them A/B them on my way to work and back that is a total of 2 hours driving time. I study the sounds for loudness, dynamics, subtleness, background noises, reverberation or whatever. Then I take mental notes to try to narrow down to 2 or 3 of my music that sound the best. I them use that 2 or 3 as a baseline to add effects and then do another 10 to 15 takes for more comparisons. So my goal is to continue doing this until I get better and better results. So hopefully one of these days I'll settle for a sound that would put a smile on my face. I will try playing with compression, just to experiment.

    Thansk again for the help.


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