by Stephen Fortner
By now, you've probably heard about Yamaha's flagship, next-level digital piano, the AvantGrand. We'll be getting our greedy little hands on a review unit very soon. Its goal is to duplicate not just the sound of a concert grand piano, but the whole subjective experience of sitting at a real grand piano and actually playing. So we thought, what better way to test this out than to book a studio, roll in an AvantGrand next to a real Yamaha C7, and have accomplished pianists play them side by side, voice their comments, and roll video. You'll be seeing those videos on this site very, very, soon, but I had such a great time today that I didn't want to wait that long to share it.
The studio in question is The Village in West Los Angeles, which occupies a former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, and though it looks compact from the frontage, the interior room seem to go on forever. Steely Dan's Aja was recorded here - in fact, the grand piano we used for comparison was the very same one you hear on the record! Fleetwood Mac recorded Tusk here, and studio owner Jeff Greenberg showed us a vocal iso room whose interior was designed by Stevie Nicks. The list of classic albums that were tracked, mixed, or both in this place constitutes enough data to choke a server. And, being a fan of the '60s Brit-cult spy hit The Prisoner, I couldn't resist the name.
We were in studio D, which features a gorgeous 72-input Neve 88R board (blurry iPhone pic below) feeding a Pro Tools HD system.
The tracking room is where we set up the N3 (baby-grand cabinet) AvantGrand next to the history-rich C7, as shown below. We actually used the Neve console to mix a few sources: stereo room mic, close mics on the C7 and Avant Grand, and direct outs from the AvantGrand as well, directly to the videographer's Sony EX-10 camera. (Don't tell our accounting department, but this camera is $5K and I want one BAD!)
As our video guy and the house engineer from The Village dialed in levels, Yamaha's national marketing director Mark Anderson showed off some amazing chops. Wish I had a recording to go with this - one of the things that's so great about working in this industry is that virtually everyone plays - product guys always do. Mark, who's Canadian, is actually so good that the U.S. government granted him an "extraordinary ability" visa. That's the kind of thing usually reserved for particle physicists. Though between his playing and how good the AvantGrand sounds, we wouldn't be surprised if Mark has entangled a quark or two in his day.
Mark and I were chatting about the tech in the AvantGrand, which includes an all-new sample set and "spectral morphing" technology which makes velocity switches literally imperceptible (trust me - I listened hard and critically, and could hear none). Yamaha also used four channels of sampling (as opposed to the usual stereo), and four speakers in the "harp" of the baby grand body correspond to the four mic positions on the Yamaha CF-III-S 9' concert grand that they sampled. Subwoofers underneath fire at the floor. These words really don't do the overall effect justice, but to try my best, digital pianos usually don't "take ownership" of what happens to the sound after it leaves the piano. They may have nice speakers, or nice DA converters, but in the AvantGrand's case, they really have taken ownership. What frequencies fire out of what speakers interacts with the geometry of the cabinet in a way that can only be described as uncannily like sitting at a real grand. Plus, you have these resonators underneath the keys and music rack area that transmit subtle vibrations to your fingers as real strings in a piano do. It's the musical analogy of "force feedback" in a car-racing video game. To top it all off, they put a real grand piano action in there: hammers, whip, escapement, the whole nine yards.
So what do other accomplished players think? Mike Garson (below), who graced our January 2004 cover and has played with David Bowie for Bowie's entire career, was so interested that he stopped by the studio on his way to play piano at Nine Inch Nails' farewell gig atL.A.'s historic Wiltern Theatre (anyone remember the scene at Taffy Lewis' nightclub in Blade Runner? It was shot there...) where he's probably now sound checking as I write this. "I've evaluated pianos for Yamaha and other manufacturers for over 28 years," he said after putting in some quality shred time on both the AvantGrand and C7, "And this comes closer than anything yet. Maybe by, oh, 2015 there'll be another bump in the technology, but I can't imagine digital getting any more convincing than this."
Also stopping by the Village was Joe Firstman (below), keyboardist and musical director on NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly. Joe immediately glommed on to the way the AvantGrand's frequencies interact with each other once they leave the speakers. "It's like all these little aspects and harmonics of the sound meet 'n' greet each other," is how he described it.
Tomorrow, we'll be shooting video with Randy Waldman, MD and conductor for Barbra Streisand, and Nicholas Pike, MD on the Bonnie Hunt show. Watch this blog space for the wrap-up, and the keyboard web site for the full videos in just a few days!