Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Whole New World...

No, it hasn't arrived yet. But when it does, I want to get up and running quickly. So I have already downloaded the owner's manual, and fretted about locating a decent Phillips-head screwdriver. I have also ordered a Midi-to-USB cable, so I can connect the piano to my laptop. And yesterday afternoon, I downloaded and installed the various programs I'll use in the chain of events required to transmogrify* piano sounds into an MP3.

* - Calvin and Hobbes reference there, in case you missed it.

And oh mercy, I had no idea. It's... it's... a whole new world!

Ok, so maybe I'm overstating the case a little. But did you know (I didn't until yesterday) that you can save the electronic signals emitted by your digital piano, and encode them with something called a Soundfont, which then reproduces those signals as sounds from some other instrument?

The concept of a Soundfont is supposed to be aligned with text fonts. With text, you have the underlying characters, which take on a different personality depending on what font you use. I read twelve years ago that the preferred font for the Web should be Verdana, given its informal friendliness. Want to seem formal and authoritative? Times New Roman. Want to sound like a robot? Courier.

Likewise, with a Soundfont, you have the underlying notes, including pitch (high and low), dynamics (volume), tempo, sustain, attack (how abruptly / decisively the note begins) and other characteristics. Those remain the same for a given recording. But you can take those underlying notes, like text, and add a Soundfont depending on what sound you wish to portray.

In the case of pianos, people have recorded and freely distributed Soundfonts for pretty much any piano you can think of. Yes, there are Soundfonts sampled from 50 year-old Wurlitzer spinets. I'm sure there is a Soundfont out there sampled from a 100 year-old beast like Ole Bessie. (And in fact, I will probably be looking for such a Soundfont, so I can create an authentic recording of The Entertainer. Ragtime should sound at home on an ancient upright, don't you think?) But the most interesting Soundfonts, to me, are those sampled off the world's best pianos, including concert Steinways and Bösendorfers. I've got a few loaded up that I will be listening to on the train the next few days.* I'll let you know which ones I like best.

* - Now that I live 41 miles west of downtown Chicago, train trips take about 70 minutes. Glad I don't have to do that every day. But when I do go downtown, the train trip leave me with an unusual amount of "Hmm, now what do I do?" time. It used to be that I could queue up an entry from Tuesday Morning Quarterback, which would take me about 40 minutes to read. As soon as I'd be done, there would be my train stop. I just completed today's TMQ, and still have 40 minutes to go.

This means, among other things, that the recordings I end up posting here will NOT be the actual recordings of sounds coming out of the Casio Ap-200 (still en route, thanks for asking, but you knew that, right?). What you will hear, however, are recordings what Jillian, Jason, or I would sound like on a 9 foot Steinway D. Or 100 year old ancient upright, if the mood suits us.

I am fully aware that some of you have no idea what I am talking about, or interesting in the subject. I am likewise aware that some of you know so much about this topic, you aren't even reading this far, having long ago clicked on something else much more interesting and informative. But I think it is totally cool.

Upcoming topics: live blogging the some-assembly-required stage of digital piano ownership, comments / observations on various Soundfonts, figuring out where in the house the piano should go, first impressions, and what the kids have to say about all this. Good times!

1 comment:

sawtooth said...

These quick notes on assembly remind me of something I need to attempt one of these days. Build a more useful music rest for my FP-7. It becomes useless when trying to stand up single sheets (They like to flop and then fall onto the keys while playing) and even one heavier spiral book I have bends over a bit while on the rest. The material used for the top section is even an unobtrusive clear plastic. They could have easily made it taller than the 7 1/2" inches it is currently and avoided these slight problems. For now, I usually stick some card stock back there for support but that gets annoying. I hope your music rest adventures work out a bit better. :)