I suppose it has to be said that the piano is a bit of a one trick pony. I mean, it has one sound set whose sounds can only be affected by the velocity with which you strike the keys, and the level of sustain you apply using the pedals. Maybe opening the lid has another effect, but that’s really about it. And yet, the piano has prevailed for centuries, and is still one of the most powerful and evocative instruments that human beings have created. It’s one of only a few instruments that can be equally powerful in isolation as it can be with other instruments.
Its method of use has become a universal standard, adopted by the world and manufacturers of many other instruments. I mean, who decided that the de facto method of playing a synthesizer should be a piano keyboard?
Whichever way you look at it, the piano is almost our universal symbol for music. My little studio is full of instruments with piano keyboards, but the piano itself is limited to one voice. It can handle 88 note polyphony, although you’d need nine people to achieve that. But it’s effectively mono-timbral. Try selling an instrument nowadays that has one voice only. You’d struggle.
Of course, if I personally want to make a myriad sounds from my piano style keyboard, I can. I have, quite literally, every sound I can possibly imagine at my fingertips. I can just dig into any preset, any library, and have any sound at my disposal. But before this technology that we take for granted was invented, a piano was a piano.
Unless you prepared it.
And that’s exactly what John Cage, avant-garde composer and experimentalist did in 1938. Whilst he wasn’t the first person to ever “prepare” a piano, i.e. alter the sound by placing objects between or on the strings or on the hammers or dampers, he certainly made the practice more popular and well known. From 1940 until around 1953, he composed numerous pieces for one or two prepared pianos, as well as ensemble pieces that featured other instruments.
The preparations allowed a pianist to make alternative musical timbres as well as having a range of distinctly percussive, non-chromatic sounds at their disposal, and making this so called (by me) “one trick pony” more versatile.
Of course, to recreate a prepared piano, you’d normally have to have a piano available to prepare, and not every piano is the same, so different preparation techniques would apply, something Cage himself was aware of when he created different preparation techniques for different piano styles. Hands up who has an actual piano at their disposal? Exactly. Not many of us at all. So, it’s something that has evaded us for some time. That is, until now.
On the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth, our friends across the Channel (or la Manche, just in case they read this!) at UVI in Paris, have released an instrument for MachFive3 and their UVI Workstation called IRCAM Prepared Piano.
For those that don’t know, IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) is a European institute for science about music and sound and avant garde electro-acoustical art music. It was commissioned in 1969 by the French President Georges Pompidou when he asked Pierre Boulez to set up an institution for research into music. Since then, its impressive studios, labs and anechoic chambers have been at the heart of much groundbreaking research and composition since it first opened it’s doors in 1977. Cage even composed there himself, along with many other famous composers of the time and style such as George Benjamin, Luciano Berio and Frank Zappa. So what better place to set up and record a prepared piano!
And that’s exactly what UVI have done. They’ve taken the fabulous Yamaha C7 Grand and prepared it in a vast number of ways and then given the user complete control over how the preparations are used and combined. On top of this, multiple mic positions were used and recorded. UVI have then added two proprietary effects (Delay & Reverb) and then given the user controls over mic levels as well as amplitude envelopes, dynamics and even bar hits, a technique that, quite simply, replicates the hand hitting the bars of the cast iron frame that supports the string tension. You can even assign the Una Corda & Sostenuto pedals to any MIDI CC number for complete pedal control as well as assign a MIDI CC to the effect of strumming the unused sections of the piano’s strings.
When preparing your piano you can have up to two independent layers of preparation per note. You can tune each note independently as well as set it’s volume and you can also choose which method of stimulation you want (e.g. stick, pick or mallet). In addition to the traditional preparations such as screws, bolts, erasers and clothes pegs, UVI have added a host of more modern ones such as iPhones and Ebows!
So how does it all sound? Quite unlike anything else you have heard, is how! This really is a truly experimental instrument, allowing the user almost complete freedom to play with different preparations as they see fit. There are numerous presets, of which there are a raft of Cage inspired ones. You can load up all preparations, all mics and all settings or, if you fancy a lighter load, just those preparations you prefer. There is also a randomiser function, so “roll that dice” for a bit of pot luck!
There are over 10,000 samples in here, along with the typically exquisite UVI scripting and if you load the full set up, make sure you’ve got a good system to back up your intentions.
Without preparation, this is a lovely sounding piano, but of course, what you are paying $399/€399 for is the preparations and all the potential combinations.
I have but one criticism. And it all revolves around mechanics.
If you approach a real piano and play it, what do you hear? You hear the sound of the mallets striking the strings. You hear the same sound but affected by the pedals when they’re applied. But what do you also hear? That’s right. The mechanics. The sound of the action. The levers, keys, sound boards, all of that mechanical shenanigans that goes on. And for me, it is completely a part of the piano’s sound. As much as the notes themselves. For a long while, it wasn’t possible to recreate this in a sampler, but with the advent of “note off” samples and complex multi-sampling some years ago, it is now easy to simulate these extraneous sounds. Much in the same way that people argue that the removal of certain frequencies in MP3 compression affects the overall perception of the audio, the removal of the mechanical sound from a piano affects the overall sound of the piano. And IPP doesn’t have the sound of the mechanics. If this library was $99, I’d let this go, but this is four times that price and has had a lot of time and meticulous work applied to it. It seems such a shame that it has been omitted, be it a conscious decision or otherwise. I recently had a play with Propellerhead’s Radical Piano Rack Extension and it includes these sounds and, to my ears, it is the best sounding piano instrument I have ever heard. It’s not a game changer and it certainly doesn’t put me off recommending this instrument at all, but it would have completed it for me and I would have quite simply told anyone that wanted a piano, prepared or otherwise, to go and buy this.
Aside from that, this is a spectacular instrument with a spectacular sound and an amazing array of experimental capacity. There is nothing quite like it and it looks and performs on a UI level as good as it sounds. This isn’t a library of samples that you can just fire up and start playing with. This demands that you dig in, tinker, experiment, play, tweak and have fun.
The price may put some off, but I see it as a filter. It will prevent anyone from buying this that simply wants a good quality piano and nothing else. However, those that appreciate the avant-garde or simply want to take a piano and mess it up, should snap this up without hesitation and won’t feel short changed by the price.
Here’s the video review…
And don’t forget to check out the amazing audio demos and the video trailer to hear what this unique instrument sounds like. Also, the detailed manual is available HERE.
If you want to try some prepared piano sounds out for yourself, the official John Cage Prepared Piano app is available for iPhone, Android and iPad for free or for $0.99 (Tablet Versions). Check HERE for more details.