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Barry Baker VIRTUAL VOICING

How often do you treat your eardrums to "a night out" of piano performances so you can explore different playing styles? In other words, do you avail yourself of opportunities to hear jazz, gospel, blues, classical, ragtime, rock, and pop (such as interpretations of Gershwin songs and those newer) on the piano? Even if you don't play these styles yourself, do you study the recordings of Art Tatum, Dick Hyman, Eubie Blake, Herbie Hancock, Dr. John, Keith Jarrett, Vladimir Horowitz, Chick Corea, or Keith Emerson? Of course, this all-star cast is but a snippet of the kaleidoscope of styles on "the ol' 88 keys," but you catch my drift--it's a big world out there when it comes to the range of approach on the piano.

But here's food for thought on the sound of the piano itself: When you pull out a recording of Earl Wild playing a Chopin waltz, then compare that piano's sound to the one heard in Jerry Lee Lewis' recording of "Great Balls of Fire," what is the difference--apart from a different artist, different notes, and different microphones used to produce the recording? Can you hear a difference in the tone quality of the piano? I'm guessing you'll hear a remarkable difference.

Many pianists have a sound that's "their's." "Their" sound is identifiable not only because of a unique, individual approach to music, but because, as artists, these musicians tend to be meticulous about the sound of the instrument they select to record. They want to ensure that their "88-noted partner" will complement their style of music-making. Just as many artists have their identifiable sound, pianos, too, have varying "personalities."

So, for optimum results, an ideal piano listening experience marries the artist with an instrument well-suited to delivering his or her musical message.

It's somewhat cliched in the piano world, but true: You'll frequently hear a bright, almost "tinny" piano quality in many rock and pop songs. (It's a sound that typically works within the mix of rock and pop instrumentation.) Compare that to the rich, sonorous tones heard in an Alfred Brendel recording of Beethoven piano sonatas. Gospel piano styling tends to commonly showcase a livelier, more "present" piano tone than the melodic sound preferred by pianists who are creating songful arrangements of Cole Porter or Harold Arlen pieces (like the timeless "Over the Rainbow").

In addition to a piano's in-born personality (hatched at the factory), skilled piano technicians may change the instrument's tonal characteristics by working with the hammers inside that strike the strings. As a basic analogy of how a hammer affects sound, tap on a wooden tabletop with the end of a golf pencil (your makeshift hammer). It produces a rather sharp, percussive tap. Now, place a rubber eraser at the end of that pencil, then tap. Different sound, right? We could spend the better part of a day experimenting with our table tom-tom, but this illustrates the tonal possibilities that exist within a piano hammer's physical makeup.

But that's the world of "the physical," where change is limited by our ability to modify hammers and the piano's structure. Not so in the world of "the virtual."

To satisfy various musical needs and preferences, Kawai gives you the "virtual tools" to electronically change the voicing of its acclaimed nine-foot concert grand piano sound that's resident in the full digital line. This "voicing" feature is found in more than ten Kawai digital piano models.

Specifically, all Kawai digital piano models that begin with "CA" (which stands for "Concert Artist"), "CP" ("Concert Performer," except for the entry level CP67 model), and "MP," as well as the ES4, EP2, and CE200 models, have this voicing feature that allows you to change the tonal structure of the digital instrument's piano sound. This puts you in the driver's seat (or at least in the supreme spot of the piano bench) with your ability to choose a piano tone according to the type of music you're expressing, or to better suit your general musical taste for an ideal piano.

On the CA model pianos, this voicing feature is found through the "Virtual Technician" button on the panel. Upon pressing this button, the option of "Voicing" will be first up. The two "Value" buttons to the right of the display screen scroll through different voicing choices (displayed in the screen).

On the CP model pianos, press the "System" button (beneath the disk drive), then select the option labeled, "Voicing" on the left side of the display screen.

Now, you'll see four choices: Normal (the default mode), Mellow, Dynamic, and Bright. When you thoroughly try out each of the four choices by playing the piano dynamically (listening to the varying tone colors from quiet to loud in each voicing choice), what you'll experience is not simply different equalizations of sound. Instead, you'll hear a different dynamic range of tone colors within each voicing choice. Sometimes when we write about sound, it gets a bit abstract, so let's discuss this:

On a traditional acoustic piano, a dynamic range of tone color (that is, the tones the piano is capable of producing from quiet to loud) is greatly influenced by the physical makeup of the piano's hammers (which strike the strings). You see, when a piano technician works to physically change the consistency of a piano hammer, all sorts of different tones become possible (mellow, bright, thin, round, etc.), as suggested in our earlier golf pencil analogy. But there's a byproduct: The succession of varying tone colors that occur between the quietest and the loudest sounds will be a different "set" on a mellow-voiced piano versus a bright one, for instance.

In other words, voicing is not just about a "bright" sound or a "mellow" one but, rather, the full palette of tone colors that follow a piano's volume from quiet to loud. This "collection" of tonalities comes alive according to how the piano is voiced.

Graphically, here's what I mean: Try the "Normal" setting in Kawai's voicing feature as loudly as you can strike the keys. Now, play at the same dynamic on the "Mellow" setting. They both sound similar, right? That's because each of those two voicing options is giving you the brightest personality possible when you play the loudest sound. However, when you play quietly, then explore the nuances of tone within the wide dynamic range, you'll hear striking, long-range differences between the "Normal" and "Mellow" settings. Think of it in terms of a technician reworking the piano's hammers each time a voicing option is changed.

Now, to heighten your pianistic exploration, take a look at the "Piano" sound category button on the instrument's panel, where you'll see differently named pianos. For instance, on many Kawai models there's a sound specifically called "Rock Grand." Contrast that to the delightfully de-tuned "Honky Tonk" piano sound, appropriate for playing "The Entertainer." There's also a "Mellow Grand" piano sound which brings heightened intrigue and romance to a Chopin nocturne, and a "Jazz Grand," aptly named for its bright treble presence.

Okay, before I sign-off to allow you to investigate Kawai's "Virtual Voicing" on your own, I'll give you a few morsels of audio that demonstrate the tone colors within three voicing options, beginning with the "Normal" setting to give you a basis for comparison:

Normal (an excerpt from Chopin's Third Piano Sonata, op. 58) – click here to listen

Mellow (from Schubert's Impromptu in G-flat Major, op. 90, no. 3) – click here to listen

Bright (humbly submitted from Barry's brain) – click here to listen

IYWKP,

Barry Baker

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