Thursday, October 30, 2008

Playing boldly

Sawtooth and Monica have already heard this, so y'all go on while I catch everyone else up on the most recent piano lesson I learned.

I'm trying to record a clean take of Ombre. By "clean" I mean relatively error-free. That's all. It doesn't have to be musically expressive... I assume that will come some day. You haven't heard any of my Ombre recordings yet. There's good reason for this. I haven't been able to play it acceptably. As you've heard from my Limbo recordings, I'm not against posting something in a less than totally polished state. So the fact that I've not posted an Ombre recording should suggest to you the problems I am having with it. Lots of problems.

So the other day, I did something I've not done in months. I fired up the iPod, and tried to keep up with a recording. This was a stunning exercise. My observations, as I recall them, in the order they came to me.

1. "His (that is, Einaudi's) tempo is all over the place!"

Ombre starts out with 8 bars' worth of whole notes. I thought I had developed a pretty good feel for the timing of these notes, until I tried to play them in unison with the recording. Surprisingly, I wasn't able to stay with the recording, even when counting. Out loud. Like the beginning music student that I am.

It didn't take long to figure out what was happening. legato ed espressivo. Einaudi had taken liberties with the written notes, and went with whatever tempo his internal metronome suggested. This became more obvious when the music turned to 8th notes, and those were played unevenly. While I had tried to play the 8th notes straight up, he sped up and slowed down between (and even within) measures. As a result, his version (natch) sounds much more expressive, musically, than the robotic, calculated notes I had grown accustomed to playing.

2. "Oh, wow, that's fast."

I looked up Andante in Wikipedia. "Walking pace", it says.

I can dial in a number on the Ap-200's metronome, and matched it to the approximate tempo of Einaudi's recording. I learned that his version of Andante is about 15 beats per minute faster than mine. Whoops. Then when you factor the ebbs and flows in his tempo, it makes it very hard to play along with his recording.

On the other hand, he's the composer, he's the professional pianist, and I am a software technical sales geek trying to teach himself how to play piano. So between the two of us, who's more likely to be doing this correctly?*

* - "But aw2pp", I hear you say, "you're entitled to your own interpretation!" To which I say, "Poppycock!"** Once I am far enough along to actually choose to interpret a piece in multiple ways, I will then evaluate which of those I like best. For now, scrambling furiously just to play the notes (and not quite succeeding even at that) does not qualify as an interpretation.

** - I have a good memory for these things. As far as I can recall, that is the first time I have ever used that word. And almost certainly the last, unless it's to order up some of this. Glad you were here to enjoy this moment with me.

3. "Wow, the dynamic says p (piano signifying quiet), but when he jumps into the right hand, it's more like f (forte, or loud)."

It had never before occurred to me that two hands could be playing at a different volume. It's not that I had thought you couldn't do this... I had just never given the question any thought. In retrospect, how silly of me. Different instruments in an orchestra can play at different volumes. The instrument playing the melody had better rise above the supporting players. Why would this be any different when playing the piano?

Let me stop here and say, this turned out to be a really liberating discovery. Not to steal my own thunder, but the main point I took from this exercise was to play boldly. I had been trying to play this piece quietly, at least at the beginning, but the result was not so much a quiet and peaceful sound, but rather a timid, halting, uncertain one. Playing the right hand with bold certainty is actually much, much easier than trying to keep things quiet and mellow.

But I get ahead of myself.

4. That break around midway through (measures 49-52) make a great time to readjust music sheets.

Nothing Earth-shattering here. But one of my few complaints about the Ap-200 is that the music desk can only accomodate about 3 and a half pages of sheet music at a time. Ombre is 5 pages long. Problem solved. If you ever get to see a Youtube of me playing this, you'll get a kick out of seeing me furiously scramble to get everything set up for the second half, during a time in the music which would otherwise seem quiet and peaceful.

5. Wow, that's loud.

The second half then begins mf (mezzoforte, or "medium-strong"). Einaudi's mezzoforte is my fortissimo. Again, I assume he's right about this.

6. And yet, his way is actually easier.

And this is the big lesson I learned. Even though he played a very different version of Ombre than the one I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to teach myself, I picked up on it very quickly. The third time through, I made it the whole way through, pretty much keeping up with him, with just a few errors. My mind didn't have the luxury of playing (well, plodding) slowly, carefully, and indecisively. Who has time for that at 90-something beats per minute? My hands (especially the left hand) don't have time to measure the next octave / jump. They need to go. NOW! Once I reached that point, it was much, MUCH easier.

And a heck of a lot of fun.

I had one more observation about the interplay of resonances on the loud, booming, sustained low notes at the end. There was a whole new character of sound brought on by playing those like they were supposed to be played. But I need to make more sense of it before I say anything more on it.

Recital recordings are due in two weeks.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Meaning no offense to any Database Administrators here...

AW2PP: ...ok, we got the file adapter listener cleared up
AW2PP: trying to get update_email to work
AW2PP: it complains: "a1 Customer record for insert must have validated profile record defined"

ISSW Guy: hmm
ISSW Guy: damn...that makes no sense to me

AW2PP: ...seriously, right
AW2PP: i'm going through the email and phone maps to make sure they match up where they should
AW2PP: oh wait
AW2PP: N1 CREDIT_HOLD has an invalid value
AW2PP: that's much clearer

ISSW Guy: that would do it
ISSW Guy: should be set to N

AW2PP: ...I had a lowercase n
AW2PP: I hate databases

ISSW Guy: ha
ISSW Guy: yep
ISSW Guy: the other day I had a failure because the "h" key is just above the "n"

AW2PP: ...and you have skinny little fingers... imagine the trouble corpulent DBA's have with this sort of thing

ISSW Guy: :)

AW2PP:'s enough to drive them surly

ISSW Guy: I'm cracking up here

AW2PP: ...come to think of it... most DBA's I've ever known... ah, never mind

ISSW Guy: :)

AW2PP: ...success! should I chance to update it?

ISSW Guy: awesome!
ISSW Guy: Heck no, don't touch it. It might break. hurry up and show the customer before it does!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Don't listen to this, either

Sawtooth pointed out that yesterday's Limbo clip had some scratches in it, starting about halfway through. I listened to it on the train today, and I'll be darned, he's right. And if I can hear them on the train, they're pretty fierce.

I think this one might be cleaner.

Limbo - Ludovico Einaudi (recorded by aw2pp October 21, 2008)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Here's a clip, but don't listen to it

Since we've last caught up, I have probably put in about 6 hours of bench time.* During that time, I have tinkered a little with pieces from Alfred's Book One, including The Entertainer. And I have been working on the three Einaudi pieces in my bag of tricks, those being Limbo, Ombre, and Stella del Mattino.

* - For those of you just joining us, that's what I call the time I spent on the piano (bench). Just so we're clear.

Those six hours have basically caught me back up to where I was back in August. I have returned to the point to where I can sort of struggle through Ombre (although I've yet to play it error-free... still having trouble with the LH jumps and octaves near the Big Finish at the end*). I have the first RH phrase of Stella at the "Ok, that's passable, but it will hopefully improve while you work on the rest of the piece" stage. Stella is happy music, which in and of itself is a pretty compelling reason to get it up to speed soon. Which leads me to Limbo.

* - Duh, where else would a Big Finish be?

Limbo, as I am sure you recall, was my first (and so far, only clip). There will be more, I promise, but there just hasn't been much piano playing in the last couple of months. I posted a reasonable take of Limbo, by my standards. It wasn't perfect, and it needed a lot of polishing, but it was a reasonable representation of my level of expertise at the time. After having put in a few hours on the bench, I think I have returned to at least that level. But there's a difference this time... I have this fancy new Ap-200, which I can use to record my practice sessions. And in order to overcome the petrifying tension I feel when that little red LED begins flashing, I have begun to record EVERYTHING. Thankfully deleting is easy, because I delete pretty much everything. But once in awhile, something slips through relatively cleanly. For example, the Limbo clip you hear below. It's not bad. So why do I suggest that you not listen to it? Two reasons, really.

First, there are a total of 6 errors in it, as far as I know. Two of them are obvious flubs / missed notes; these will be obvious to everyone. There are another four errors that you'll have to pay closer attention to catch. And for some of them, you may need to know the music a little. Anyway, reason #1 why you shouldn't listen to this is because it isn't perfect.

But that's weak, I admit. After all, I am a beginning piano player, you'd expect errors from someone as inexperienced as myself. Well, I have shared another, even less polished Limbo clip with some friends and family, and was surprised to find out that the music is... well, it's sad. Believe me when I say, this had never occurred to me until I listened to myself play it. Tears have flowed. I don't mean for it to be sad, but I'll be darned, when I listen to it, that's the feeling. Isn't that strange? I don't feel that way when I play it. If you're already dysthymic (I love mixing that word in from time to time), knock yourself out, give this a listen. It'll speak to you. If you're not... well, I warned you.

Limbo - Ludovico Einaudi (recorded by aw2pp, 10/21/08)

I'll do my best to balance this out with some happy music as soon as I can play it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Wow, that lawn grew in fast

Mentioned this during yesterday's epic post. On September 24, our newly seeded lawn looked like this.

Yesterday, while I was waiting for Jillian's bus, it looked like this.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

100th Post - Live-Blogging the Piano Arrival / Construction

I don't know if this is really my 100th post or not, but Blogger says it is. Wow, that seems like a lot.

Anyway, today is the day our new Casio Ap-200 is supposed to arrive from Kraft Music. Sue has taken Jason, Rowan, and Joseph "to town", so while it's just me at home right now, Jillian will be joining me shortly. It will then be the two of us putting the piano together, and taking it through its first paces.

The delivery company called yesterday afternoon to say it would be delivered today between 3:00 and 7:00. Inspired as I am by the myriad of bloggers* who kept a running commentary on last night's debate, I thought it might be fun to live blog the event. And if I am wrong about that, this will be the only time I try this.

* - I think it's ironic that a, "bloggers" is flagged as a misspelled word.

3:00 PM - Not here yet.
3:01 PM - Not here yet.
3:02 PM - This is going to be a long afternoon if I keep this up. Going back to work now, I'll let you know when it gets here.
3:10 PM - I don't blame you if you don't believe this, but it's here. The doorbell rang, and when I answered it, there were two gentlemen and three boxes. The smaller one spoke to me:

"Where you want these boxes?"
(Inspects the bill of shipment. Shows it to me. ) "Says here to leave it at the front door."
"Then why did you ask me where I wanted it?"
(Pauses, looks around. Then...) "Where around the front door do you want it?"
"Inside please."

It wasn't even that pleasant, to tell the truth. Anyhow, here is my piano. This is where it must remain, as I am about to go outside and pick up Jillian from the bus stop.

3:15 - It occurs to me that it's been awhile since you've seen the yard. The grass has come a long way. I'll post some Fall pics soon.*

* - Wow, aw2pp is gonna be a busy place these next few days. Wake the children! Alert the friends and neighbors!

3:25 - Jillian's bus arrives. She bursts into tears at learning it's just me and her. And I have a customer call beginning in five minutes.

3:30 - (Puts on customer face and voice.)

3:50 - Phone rings. Jillian answers. A moment later, she comes in and asks if she can go across the street. Great, now who is going to help me with this 122 lb. box?

You're home alone, you wish to move this box upstairs... and then you see this printed on the box.

4:15 - Call over, work day is done, now it's time to put this thing together. Since we moved, I now have no idea where my tools (such as they are) are. Before she left, I asked Sue where a screwdriver was. She said something along the lines of "Upper left in the tic-tac-toe board." By that, she meant a built-in bookshelf in our upstairs hallway. How does she keep up with all this?

4:16 - I'll be darned, there it is, right where she said it would be. I shouldn't be surprised. She's got a gift for finding and keeping track of things, Sue does. Good thing, because this is a real challenge for me sometimes.

4:20 - You know, I can always unpack the box and bring components up piecemeal...

4:25 - Next tool challenge: Opening the boxes. I really don't know where anything is in this house. My kingdom for a pair of scissors! Or a utility knife!

4:29 - ... or a standard (flat-head) screwdriver! Found one of those in Sue's Lauffice.*

* - Laundry Room + Office = Lauffice. Sue's second favorite room** in the house.
** - In first place, the Mud Room.

4:35 - The instructions specifically tell me that I am supposed to keep the boxes and packing materials. The reasoning behind this is that I may have to return the piano if it is broken or damaged in transit. This concerns me. Partly because I don't want to have to return my piano, I hope it's in perfect working order. But more than that, you should see the packing materials. Modern Marvels should do an episode on how they get everything in there.

Yeah, I am going to remember what went where. Totally.

4:40 - Just moved the keyboard itself upstairs. Wow, is that thing heavy! I could use a heart rate monitor about right now. Anyway, time to look at the instructions. Next post might be awhile.

4:51 - "Caution: Assembly of the stand should be performed by at least two people working together."

5:10 - That looks about right. Somehow or other, I failed to capture a picture of the footpedal board attached upside down... let's just pretend that never happened, shall we? Agreed. Moving on.

5:15 - Wait, why am I doing this in silence? And why I am doing this without beer? (Goes downstairs to get the iPod... beer must wait.)

5:18 - Jillian is back home and wants to help."Sure, Jill, can you liveblog for me? I'm getting behind." She decides against this, and composes something for her own blog. (I haven't mentioned that, have I? Yes, our six year old has her own blog. She LOVES comments. Just sayin'.)

5:25 - "Lift the piano onto the stand." Uh oh.

5:30 - How's that look?

5:35 - "No, Jillian, I need to put the bench together, hold on."

Ah, never mind, knock yourself out. I'm sure that technique will fly with that new teacher we now need to find for you.

5:36 - Einaudi queues up randomly on the iPod, which is now losing the fight with Jillian's piano tinkering for supremacy. Hmm, what box are those headphones in?

Here you go, Jill, try these on.

5:40 - I was right, the first piece played on our new piano is the piece Jillian composed herself.

5:45 - "Jillian, can I put that on my blog? I'm going to need to know what you call that song."
"It's called The Dance of the Unicorns', because when Unicorns dance, they bounce around, like this..." (She makes hand motions of large, bounding leaps.) "And the music sort of bounces that way, too, see?" (She makes the same motions, only this time hums the music along with it.)

5:50 - What? The desk lamp doesn't come with a bulb? Cheapskates. At least the shipping was free.

5:55 - I still haven't played it, but I am hungry. It's pizza time. I'll check back with you later.

7:30 - Pizza was good, and we have 30 minutes to kill before Total Drama Island.* It's piano time!

* - I can't believe we let our children watch this show. I mean, I understand what's funny about it... but I don't understand what Jill and Jay see in it. The target audience is years beyond them. On the other hand, I'll be darned if I am going to let them watch without me, so I can filter what they're seeing. Some things need be properly translated, you know.

8:00 - Time to make use of the key cover and shut down for now. First impression: I have lost quite a bit of ability in the last 6 weeks or so. What's more, there were some irregularities between the key actions on our old upright that had become familiar. I could sort of identify keys by how they felt, by how they varied in height and action weight. Not so with this new piano. Everything is uniform. It's going to take awhile for me to relearn my way around.

Second impression: headphones are comfortable, but perhaps a little weak. They come with a 1'8" input plug and a 1/4" adapter to connect to the piano. I wonder if more substantial headphones might make a difference?

Ok, it's already bedtime. Later all. Hope you had fun with this.

More on Soundfonts

So here's what I did. First, I loaded up and installed SynthFont, a tool for listening to and editing Midi files, and applying Soundfonts to them. It came with a handful of very small Soundfonts, most of which tried to provide coverage for all possible Midi inputs (not just piano) in a very small footprint. This is the sort of thing that gives Midi a bad name, since the sounds produced from these Soundfonts are really puny and fake-sounding. Nevertheless, these gave me my first glimpse into how the process works. I then did a search on PianoWorld for people's favorite Soundfonts*, and downloaded those that seemed to be mentioned most often. This gave me a rather lengthy list of free piano Soundfonts to try out. Perhaps over time, I'll find more. What's more, of course, there are geeky sound engineer / computer nerds cranking out new ones all the time.

* - I’m always interested in having others do this sort of heavy lifting for me. That’s part of the point of this blog, come to think of it. You’ve been very helpful, I must say.

Then what? Well, I wanted to get some practice converting Midi files, so I found some of my favorite piano pieces in Midi format. I learned that as long as you're keeping the search field to older music, things in the public domain, you can probably find a Midi file for it. I kept it simple, choosing things I knew pretty well: Liszt’s La Campanella (Paganini Etude #3, if you’re scoring at home) and Joplin’s The Entertainer.

Finally, I converted selected pieces using the various Soundfonts, and listened to the resulting MP3 WAV files*. I was surprised at how distinct the differences were. Of course, all pianos are not created equal, and all samples (even samples of the same piano) are not created equal. I also learned, pretty quickly, that the size of a Soundfont file is not useless information. For the most part, unless someone was really sloppy, a 5 MB Soundfont is simply not going to have as many layers of depth and interest as a 50 MB Soundfont.

* - Another tidbit I learned along the way... something I mentioned in the previous post. WAV files have all that CD (and better!) quality you expect from digital music, not Mp3's. Mp3's are fine for storing lots of music in a confined space, like an iPod, but if you are looking for the best sound, you aren't going to get it from an Mp3. There is some compression that happens during the creation of an Mp3, and this results in the loss of... something or other having to do with high-quality sound. If you want to make a CD, use the WAV files, if you can.

Let me give you an example. First, Soundfont (WST25FStein_00Sep22.SF2) is from an 1893 Steinway D. When it renders a Midi of La Campanella (Midi copyrighted by a Bernd Krüger, just so you know), sounds like this.

La Campanella - Liszt

The EXACT SAME MUSIC (this point cannot be emphasized enough, you won’t believe it when you hear it) sounds like this on an upright Bechstein. Remember, these are the same notes (pitch, volume, sustain, all that) as the first.

La Campanella - Liszt

Which do you like better? Me, I have a strong preference for the first, and not just because it’s a Steinway. (I came across a couple of Steinway Soundfonts that sounded muted, hollow, or simply too mellow for my tastes.) I will probably use this Steinway Soundfont on my own recordings, along with some others. I’m keeping the Bechstein, though, partly because the file is so small (which probably accounts for the lack of depth) and partly because I think it would sound great playing Ragtime. There could be times when a beat up piano is called for, you know?

After awhile, it became clear that there were four or five that I liked best. But the closer I listened to them, and the more I compared them, the less I could tell them apart. I think my ear / mind got tired of this exercise. So I am going to put this to rest for awhile*, and use them to render my own recordings. I'd bet after awhile, one will stand out over the others, and I will prefer it. Or maybe I’ll use them all, depending on my mood. We’ll see.

* - No train commutes in the immediate future, after all. And once the new piano arrives, I'll have enough to do. Not to mention, you know, life and work and sleep and all that.

A Note to Myself

This post is not really for your blog enjoyment / reading pleasure. Not that I don’t care about your blog enjoyment / reading pleasure. Rather, this is a note to myself, since I am annoyed by having to look these steps up every time I need them. And I haven’t done this enough (er, at all, really) to have the process committed to memory.

How does one go from “Hey, I am playing piano” to “Here is my mp3, load it onto your iPod”?

  1. Connect the DP to your computer using, for example, a MIDI to USB cable.
  2. Record using something like Red Dot Forever, which captures MIDI signals.
  3. Convert the resulting Midi file to an intermediate format, like WAV*, using something like SynthFont.
  4. Convert the WAV file to mp3 using something like WinLAME.

*- WAV would be a good format to use for creating CD’s. Of course you can record mp3’s to CD, but mp3’s are really more for archiving music. For CD purposes, the compression you get from the mp3 format isn’t needed, and results in some loss of depth and detail.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Piano will be delivered tomorrow

Some time between 3:00 and 7:00 PM. Schedules have been cleared accordingly.

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!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Order placed

Some time tomorrow, a brand new Casio Ap-200 with a bench, pair of headphones, and a desk lamp will be loaded onto a truck in Franklin, Wisconsin. From there, it will make the 106 mile journey to our new home, and begin teaching us its secrets. I don't really know how long it will take to get here, but the vendor, Kraft Music, said to expect seven days. I'm betting the under.

Pics and excited stories to come.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Separated at birth?

The resemblance is pretty striking.

Scott Christian, backup news anchor on The Simpsons

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich

Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If I were in the market for a digital piano...

... the first thing I would do is some basic research. I would take a look at reviews written by both professionals and laypeople, and see what they had to say. I would compare their expectations with mine, and weigh to what extent they were pleasantly surprised, disappointed, elated, mortified, or none of the above.

In one regard, this would be a dizzying way to get started. Have you seen the diversity of digital piano offerings these days? Thankfully, my shopping would be pretty narrowly focused. I would dismiss any digital piano that didn't have 88 fully weighted keys, and I would dismiss those that retail for more than $1,000. And since I have started playing all this Einaudi music, I have found that I absolutely require three pedals. Which means a stand is also a necessity, otherwise those pedals would be all over the place. Thankfully, this would drastically reduce the offerings under consideration.

I would also restrict my search to known, reliable producers. I have read far too many horror stories from folks who purchased Williams, Behringer, and other anonymous Chinese remakes of 10 year old Rolands. Why take that chance when there is modern technology to be purchased for roughly the same price? In theory, my shopping list could still include Kawai, Roland, Korg and the Yamaha Clavinova line, but the entry price for each of these is generally over $1,000 (YMMV), so they're out. This means that in two paragraphs, I have restricted my search to sub-$1,000 offerings from Yamaha and Casio, including a stand and three pedals.

The next thing I would do (you know, if I were in the market) is try the remaining options out myself. Thankfully, I haven't always been as busy as I am these days, so earlier in the year, I did indeed have the opportunity to sample some Casio and Yamaha digital pianos. In general, to my tastes, I found that I preferred the sound of the Yamahas, but I preferred the feel in the Casios. I also found that when you compared models with similar features, Casios tended to underprice Yamahas by about 15%. I think Casio is still fighting a branding / image problem, with people associating them with cheap goods. I am fully pursuaded that their digital pianos are as good as anybody's.

In either case, I found something to like, and something that gave me pause.

At this point, I would look at things like polyphony (the number of sounds the piano can sustain simultaneously), connectivity options (USB, flash memory, that sort of thing for recording purposes), and, of course, price. You may delighted to know that I am not going to walk you through that decision process today. Instead, here are the four digital pianos I would be looking at, in order of preference. If I were in the market. Which I'm not.

(Retail prices are what I commonly see these going for... nothing official, mind you.)

Fourth Place - Yamaha YDP-S30
Retail - $799

Pros: Low price; Nice sound

Cons: Cheap stand and pedals; clunky feel; no USB connectivity

Verdict: A nice entry point for Yamaha

I was elated the first time I saw one of these. A Yamaha with 64 note polyphony, a stand, and three pedals for under $800? What's not to like? Well, after about 5 minutes of Little Brown Jug, I had the answer to my question. Everything about it felt cheap. Depressed keys, after I let go of them, snapped back more quickly than I could get my fingers out of their way. The plastic pedals felt like they'd break any minute. And the thing wobbled on the stand as if it were too heavy for it. (Later, I found that this was a common thing.)

The lack of USB connectivity means I would have to shell out another $30 or so for a cord to connect it to my laptop.

That said, that sweet Yamaha sound is hard to top, even with puny 6 watt speakers. And once in awhile, back when I was watching eBay with annoying tenacity, I remember seeing these there for $584. (A strange figure, $584, but more than once, I saw one of these available for that price.) I'm guessing the street price is in the mid- $600 range, which would make it a pretty compelling offering, warts and all.

Third Place - Casio PX-720
Retail $799 (?)

Pros: Great feel; metal pedals; Costco has an insane deal on these

Cons: Cheap stand; sound not quite as good as Yamaha's; no USB connectivity

Verdict: Best QPR in the market today

Supposedly, this piano is not available in the United States. Curiously, it has been on sale in the rest of the world for nigh on a year now. Is the rest of the world our QA department? Did they get all the kinks out? Is the piano finally ready for prime time?

The piano itself is the base Privia, the PX-120 (which itself retails around $500). To that, Casio adds a stand, metal pedals, and some upgraded (if ever so slightly) speakers. This should, in theory, push the price up into the $800 range. But Costco, in their mysterious way, found a way to sell these for $649. Including a bench. I can't explain that, but, if I were in the market, I would try to find a way to relieve them of one of these. I regard this as the best buy in the low-end digital piano market.

I still have some complaints, of course. The stand is cheap. I'd still have to buy a cord to connect it to my laptop. But at this price, it's funny how little that matters.

Second Place - Yamaha YPG-635 (or its twin, the DGX-630... don't ask)
Retail price - $699

Pros: Looks and sounds cool, USB connectivity, Jillian likes it

Cons: Clunky feel, Optional stand and pedals are not only cheap, but, well, they're optional (IE, cost extra)

Verdict: If IKEA made a digital piano, this would be it. Cool, stylish, perhaps a little overpriced.

If it were simply a matter of buying a keyboard, putting it on a tabletop somewhere, and plugging the thing in, this would be my choice. It looks cool and modern. The settings are easy to dial in. There is a little LCD display showing you the notes you are playing. You can hook it straight up to a laptop with a USB connection. And it sounds really nice. Yamaha has marketed this less as a digital piano (which, of course, it is), but more of a learning tool. They have lots of neat little features for beginning piano players and students. You know, like me and my children.

The problem is this is not quite the bargain that it first seems. Adding a stand and pedals puts you north of $800. And though, for that price, you get an attractive keyboard with nice sound and features, you still have a cheap, somewhat wobbly stand and plastic pedals. Which wouldn't be so bad if there weren't a better all-around package from Casio...

First place - Casio AP-200
Retail price: $799

Pros: Cheapest entry point to a solid, furniture-style stand; great Casio feel; better speakers than anything else on this list

Cons: No USB, speakers still wimpy compared to other furniture-style digital pianos

Verdict: The whole package.

There are probably 10 to 15 digital pianos I might consider for $800 to $1000. Some Yamaha's in that price range have upgraded keyboards, which are equal to the Casios in terms of feel (to my experience). Others have lots of voices (irrelevant to me, but maybe fun for parties). Otherwise sneer at the little 8 watt speakers in this thing, and come back with big ole house-vibratin' 40 watt monsters. "Honey, you're waking up the neighbors!" There are some very compelling offerings at the same price as this Casio, and even beyond it.

And yet...

... if you gave me $1,000 to purchase a digital piano, I would buy this $800 Casio, and spend the rest on a nice dinner with Sue at Fogo de Chao. (With a Catena Malbec, of course. Great grilled meat wine.) This piano has almost everything I would be looking for, but doesn't price itself out of the market with unecessary features. It's a bare-bones, no frills, no nonsense digital piano, on a solid, heavy stand.

Of course, if I were in the market, I would be giddy at the thought of playing any of these.

If, that is.