When it comes to classic Chicago house, even passing fans of dance music know that the piano is king. More specifically, chords playing a regular rhythmic pulse using a somewhat metallic piano sound. But did you know that the sound that launched the genre back in the ’80s was generated by a synth, not a sample or loop? That’s right. The most recognizable “house piano” came from the Roland MKS-20, which was the rackmount version of their RD-1000 digital piano. Introduced in 1986, the RD-1000 used Roland’s “Structured Adaptive Synthesis” (SAS), an additive method that produced harmonics in real time, and is arguably a forerunner of modeling. It was so superior to the era’s sampled pianos (unless you plunked down $12,000 for a Kurzweil K250) that Elton John was a fan. While purists can find an MKS-20 on eBay in the $500 range, we can approximate the sound using a software piano and a few common effects.
03-2011 Dance Mix - Get the House Piano Sound by KeyboardMag
Step 1. In retrospect, the MKS-20 and RD-1000 had more of an upright piano than a grand piano character. One of the better uprights is in Native Instruments Kontakt 4, so we’ll use that as our starting point. Synthogy Ivory Uprights is another good choice.
Step 2. Next, the MKS-20 had very bright upper-mid frequencies, so we’ll apply a generous boost in the 3kHz range.
Step 3. The MKS piano sound had a vaguely detuned undertone. It was much subtler than a honky-tonk ROMpler preset, but a little “off” nonetheless. Adding a very gentle touch of chorus can help nudge the sound in that direction.
Step 4. Finally, since the MKS operated at 12-bit resolution, fire up your favorite bit-crusher and dial down the sample resolution (a.k.a. bit depth) while leaving the sampling rate intact.