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What makes piano sound so hard to reproduce?

post #1 of 191
Thread Starter 

It's something I heard and which I can attest to with my HD650. Piano just doesn't sound anywhere close to real. What are the special characteristics of piano sound which make it hard to reproduce?

post #2 of 191

Unless it's a binaural recording or you use some other kind of DSP it's not going to sound real on any headphone.

post #3 of 191

I agree that it's the recordings that suck not the transducer. I was appalled when I first got good equipment and heard what sounded like severe clipping on some Nora Jones songs (mainly from her early Come Away With Me album). The piano note attacks sound harsh and really badly distorted. But it does that at any volume, so it's not my equipment clipping. I'm no expert, but it sounds to me like someone wasn't watching the levels on their mic (and they were probably using just one).

post #4 of 191
I disagree. I listen to a lot of classical piano music, and it's some of the hardest sounds to reproduce accurately. I use piano music as one of the main ways to judge the quality of speakers. it's devilishly difficult to get right, and there's not much hope of tweaking your transducers to do it if they don't do it rigt off the bat. I think I know some of the reasons why....

First and foremost is the dynamics. Sound pressure can go from zero to sixty and back down again instantaneously. A hard hit on a key creates a big percussive hit out of the note. Headphones have a tendency to swallow up and flatten out big percussive strikes like that, and speakers can mush right over it. It can make an acoustic piano sound like an electronic keyboard with evened out note weights. Or, the pressure can come through without the note being behind it creating a thumping in your ears. i don't know what causes that, but I've heard it in some headphones.

Also, when a pianist does a run down a keyboard, they're very careful to maintain clean and even articulation of each note. Frequency response imbalances can jag that up, and harmonics on the notes can be exaggerated or nonexistent,

In order to have an accurate and realistic reproduction of the touch of a pianist, you need a system with lots of headroom, plenty of dynamic punch and totally flat response. Once you achieve that, even older mono recordings of piano music sound great. The information is embedded in the recordings. You just need the right transducers to present it properly.
Edited by bigshot - 12/20/12 at 10:39am
post #5 of 191

It is recording technique that is the first source of the trouble. Binaural, when done right, will always eclipse anything else when reproduced on headphones.

 

Piano has one of the greatest dynamic range in all of instruments. The greatest dynamic range is in percussion - and one can include piano in that category as well.

 

Not many headphones, let alone speakers, can do live uncompressed feed from the microphone justice. You would be shocked to learn just how much compression is being used in modern mastering - all done in order for the finished product to be playable by majority of the buying public and not only by the audiophile lunatic fringe exclusively.

 

It is much like with cars - would you be happy when all of a sudden there would be no cars but Ferraris and Lambos and other high end exotica, requiring much higher levels of diving skills that normal people possess ( ignoring the money issue altogether ) - NO easy driving from A to B anymore, at all ? 

 

Most audiophille headphones can not play live uncompressed mike feed - usually the bass will overload them. Guess orthos should go loud eneugh with low enough distortion to do it right -

along with practically any IEM. This is regarding bass only; how it will sound higher up, is entirely different matter, but not so hard as the bass. The high frequency overtones are the second hardest thing to get right when reproducing the piano, etc, etc.

 

And yes, it is and will remain hard to reproduce piano correctly - particularly using CD or 44,1/16 bit resolution recordings ( not to mention lesser resolutions ); piano tends to  sound glassy with them, live feed from the mike is light years better than CD quality; DSD recording, particularly DSD done at 5,6 MHz ( double DSD or DSD128 ) does not produce any glassines anymore and is very faithful to the mike feed or live sound.

 

So, it is and can not be exclusively headphone related problem.

post #6 of 191

You're talking about rock music, right? There are many, many wonderful solo piano classical recordings, on CD or even 50s recordings in mono.

 

In fact, I was thinking about it the other day. Someone in the groups was complaining about the sound of Rubinstein's Chopin. I can't imagine that, because they're Living Stereo recordings, which are among the best. I tried to figure out why they thought it sounded bad. I think it's because older piano recordings tend to be recorded at a little distance, so the sound can bloom into the room. This requires really good dynamics in playback to be able to maintain the feel. A lot of "audiophile" (read amateur) recordings are close miked, so every bump and thump seems monumental. Not natural, but BIG. Perhaps headphones are unable to reproduce subtle dynamics on a piano and require exaggerated recording techniques to be able to maintain the touch of the instrument.


Edited by bigshot - 12/20/12 at 11:18am
post #7 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post

You're talking about rock music, right? There are many, many wonderful solo piano classical recordings.

Nope. Classical. There are extremely few uncompressed piano recordings that are commercially available. For the reasons stated. Of the good ones, 

Telarc's Rachmaninov piano rolls spring to mind http://www.amazon.com/Window-Time-Rachmaninoff-Performs-Piano/dp/B000009RCS, as well as Reference Recording's http://www.amazon.com/Plays-Fats-Waller-Dick-Hyman/dp/B000001586. There were few goods direct to disc piano recordings back in the day, like Apassionata on RCA Japan http://www.popsike.com/php/detaildata.php?itemnr=4717638077 .

 

Most other recordings, as wonderful and pleasing to the ear as they might be, are more or less compressed.

 

My opinion on mastering techniques used for rock music is better left untold - but from the above you can pretty much guess what it might be like.

post #8 of 191
Quote:

Originally Posted by analogsurviver View Post

 

Piano has one of the greatest dynamic range in all of instruments. The greatest dynamic range is in percussion - and one can include piano in that category as well.

The dynamic range is about 70 dB if you hit the key really hard, from a few meters distance. A more realistic figure is about 40-50 dB (checked on a couple of recordings).

 

Quote:
And yes, it is and will remain hard to reproduce piano correctly - particularly using CD or 44,1/16 bit resolution recordings ( not to mention lesser resolutions ); piano tends to  sound glassy with them, live feed from the mike is light years better than CD quality; DSD recording, particularly DSD done at 5,6 MHz ( double DSD or DSD128 ) does not produce any glassines anymore and is very faithful to the mike feed or live sound.

Why? The harmonics that extend beyond 10 kHz are very weak and the dynamic range clearly fits easily into 16 bits. As harsh as it may sound I call BS on your claim.


Edited by xnor - 12/20/12 at 12:04pm
post #9 of 191
Piano rolls are another can of worms because they have only a little more than a dozen levels of dynamics anyway.

Dynamic range close miked would be radically different than twenty feet away in a hall. There's no reason that compression would have to be used in normal classical recordings. The compressors in the 50s pumped like mad. I doubt they used them on Living Stereo. If they're used at all in classical music, it's going to be more in multi-miked recordings. The trend is away from that anyway.

I think the claims of audiophile labels about absolutes when it comes to compression and equalization are sales pitch. Almost all recent classical recordings sound great, even budget labels. Paying more money for mediocre performances on audiophile labels is for suckers.
Edited by bigshot - 12/20/12 at 12:15pm
post #10 of 191

Here''s my take on this issue. Do a Google Image Search on "piano microphone technique".

 

What do you see as the most common microphone arrangement? Do you usually listen to live piano with your head under the lid, somewhere between 12 and 24 inches from the strings?

 

Out in the concert hall, one hears a mix of direct and reflected sound. I've always wondered if producers of such recordings, having been pianists themselves perhaps, favor a balance that is similar to what the pianist hears rather than what members of the audience experience. I exchanged quite a few messages with a violinist a few years ago who was upset that no headphones or IEM's reproduced violin correctly. I asked him why he'd expect any recording miked from a distance to reproduce what he heard from a few inches away...he said that he never considered that!

post #11 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post

.... Almost all recent classical recordings sound great, even budget labels. Paying more money for mediocre performances on audiophile labels is for suckers.

Not to run too far OT, but I agree 100%. Back in the days of budget LP's, the background noise was so awful on those pressings that many were unlistenable as far as I was concerned...but I now have far more Naxos in my classical collection than any of the traditional "mainline" labels.

post #12 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post

I disagree. I listen to a lot of classical piano music, and it's some of the hardest sounds to reproduce accurately. I use piano music as one of the main ways to judge the quality of speakers. it's devilishly difficult to get right, and there's not much hope of tweaking your transducers to do it if they don't do it rigt off the bat. I think I know some of the reasons why....
First and foremost is the dynamics. Sound pressure can go from zero to sixty and back down again instantaneously. A hard hit on a key creates a big percussive hit out of the note. Headphones have a tendency to swallow up and flatten out big percussive strikes like that, and speakers can mush right over it. It can make an acoustic piano sound like an electronic keyboard with evened out note weights. Or, the pressure can come through without the note being behind it creating a thumping in your ears. i don't know what causes that, but I've heard it in some headphones.
Also, when a pianist does a run down a keyboard, they're very careful to maintain clean and even articulation of each note. Frequency response imbalances can jag that up, and harmonics on the notes can be exaggerated or nonexistent,
In order to have an accurate and realistic reproduction of the touch of a pianist, you need a system with lots of headroom, plenty of dynamic punch and totally flat response. Once you achieve that, even older mono recordings of piano music sound great. The information is embedded in the recordings. You just need the right transducers to present it properly.

I was comparing the HD598 with my Mad Dogs today. At first, I've experienced the same thing, about the piano sound being like, "an electronic keyboard with evened out note weights" on my Mad Dogs, which are as you may know a highly acclaimed planar magnetic headphone. I thought it was because I was used to the HD598's less neutral presentation that perhaps created false dynamics. But no... clearly in a recording of Partita No. 4 Gigue by Bach, the artist's intention was much more clearly understood with the HD598. The weights of the keyboard had the proper dynamics, and even gave the impression that the HD598 extended lower in the bass than the Mad Dogs. Obviously it does not, for the Mad Dogs reproduce the subbass of the organ much more clearly. I have yet to understand this phenomenon... the Mad Dogs flatten out every kind of dynamic changes, which can be good for certain music but not great for piano music. 

 

I am debating whether to return these Mad Dogs... 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46PgAog8OR4

 

1:24 - 1:27 --> very unclear on Mad Dogs, with no accents at all. Strange because the Mad Dogs are much faster cans, clearly evident from a lot of other recordings I've listened to. And not just the bass... the treble and upper midrange also has less dynamics and accents on the Mad Dogs. Everything is very flattened out and I do not think this is because the Mad Dogs is a neutral headphone, but rather due to its design (possibly because it's closed?). 

post #13 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by xnor View Post

The dynamic range is about 70 dB if you hit the key really hard. A more realistic figure is about 40-50 dB (checked on a couple of recordings).

 

Why? The harmonics that extend beyond 10 kHz are very weak and the dynamic range clearly fits easily into 16 bits. As harsh as it may sound I call BS on your claim.

Yes, the dynamic range you cite is about correct. When listening/recording "normal" piano music. I was really taken by surprise just how loud or hard the piano can be played for real - about two years ago when recording a piece by a modertn compser that is extremely seldom performed due to the extreme demands on the part of the pianist. It is so demanding that the pianist refused to play it for me in order to set the recording levels right during the rehearsal. I did adjust for about - 4 dBFS ( please note when recording DSD, there is no brick wall at 0 dB as with PCM, there is yet 3 dB headroom over 0 dBFS available without objectionable distortion ) - in effect, giving me 7 dB headroom above anything played at the rehearsal. Come the concert ... all peak LEDs turned red ! When trying to ressurect that piece, a guesstimate of about + 8 dB was made, according to the general trend seen on the computer ... Any Beethoven piano piece is cat's meow vs lion's roar, as far as sheer loudness is concerned - never thought it is possible to attack the piano with such ferocity ! An absolute extreme, but - I learned the hard way it exists and that it is real. That would add up in the end for the piano dynamic range exceeding 80 dB - still no match for some percussion, that go from zero to 100++ dB within a single stroke.

 

Regarding high frequency overtones - I might well have said upper midrange overtones. There are numerous mechanisms to distort the sound of the piano, from microphone through all amplification to the end transducer, be it headphone or speaker. Most troublesome are resonances in the end transducers - but even through these weakest links in the chain it is easy to hear the difference between live microphone feed during recording, that mic feed through DSD recorder and the same mic feed through CD-R recorder. Please note that commercially available CDs which I assume you have used to measure their dynamic range, were subject to mastering, with further losses of fidelity along the way. The first to suffer is the dynamic range.

 

Level of overtones ABOVE 20 kHz, which is accepted as high frequency limit of hearing of humans, is really minuscule - but it does make the difference. I guess it is on average below 1 % in amplitude vs "main sound" - but is the same as salt in soup - totally without it is soup not tasty for most people, too salted is undegestible. It is this extension above 20 kHz that allowed analog to survive and return in ever bigger numbers - CD just would not allow for the correct presentation of recorded acoustics, for which correct phase and therefore frequency response is mandatory - CD with the brick wall filtering above 20 kHz is inherently uncapable of doing it. 

 

If you do not believe me - try it by yourself. If you want to improve the quality of your bass, the right thing to do, provided your woofers are at least respectable in the first place, is to add - supertweeter. Of course, you have to feed it with a source that extends above 20 kHz - ruling out the CD.

With analog and emerging high resolution digital supporting frequency response above 20 kHz, it does make sense - just check the catalog of Tannoy, for example; they would not be offering supertweeters if there were no fire behind this smoke, they have far too good reputation to jeopardize it by someone calling them just greedy for offering supertweeters for nothing but profit to themselves and no gain to the buyers.

 

It is funny how people think that an audio device will sound sharper/harsher if it has more extended frequency response. Exactly opposite is true - the more extended the rsponse, the more naturally rounded "nothing to comment upon" sound emerges. Want proof ? Go to the 

 

http://www.2l.no/hires/index.html

 

You can download the same music in multitude of formats/resolutions. The best you can do at home is to listen to DSD download played on DSD recorder or DSD DAC - no DXD devices commercially available that are known to me. And you can proceed from there to PCM - from 192/24 to lower resolutions.- at least they had it available not so long ago.

 

Or go to Linn Records http://www.linnrecords.com/linn-downloads.aspx and download various PCMs of the same piece of music - from 192/24 down to the MP3 - you can play these with foobar2000 - and hear the difference for yourself. The lower the resolution, the sharper/harsher the sound.

post #14 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by sejarzo View Post

Here''s my take on this issue. Do a Google Image Search on "piano microphone technique".

 

What do you see as the most common microphone arrangement? Do you usually listen to live piano with your head under the lid, somewhere between 12 and 24 inches from the strings?

 

Out in the concert hall, one hears a mix of direct and reflected sound. I've always wondered if producers of such recordings, having been pianists themselves perhaps, favor a balance that is similar to what the pianist hears rather than what members of the audience experience. I exchanged quite a few messages with a violinist a few years ago who was upset that no headphones or IEM's reproduced violin correctly. I asked him why he'd expect any recording miked from a distance to reproduce what he heard from a few inches away...he said that he never considered that!

BINGO ! This is the true dilemma when making a recording - from listener's perspective - or that from the performer's ? I am interested in presenting what a person with the best seat in the hall might be able to hear - NOT from the performing musician perspective. No one gets to hear it but him/herself - yet some/many/most stubornly insists on the sound of the recording most closely approaching what they hear during playing.. And yes, most musicians would tell you that their instrument, whatever it might be, is too quiet in  the recording; violinists are the most susceptible to this misinterpretation, as sound of a violin from few inches away is anything but what public does get to experience.

 

I can not play any instrument - yet, after one harpsichordist fervently declined to agree with my recording, simply sat behind the harpsichord and stroke a few keys - it must have sounded terrible indeed - but it did give me an idea why he was soooo against; the sound of harpsichord he hears and the sound of harpsichord public gets to hear are, with the exception of ( hopefully correct ) notes being played, totally different thing. 

 

And yes, producers and recording engineers that are pianists themselves most often fall into this "the closer the better" trap. I found it very amusing when a critic, writing a review of my recording of a choir with piano accompaniement, who used to be active pianist back in the day, commented the sound of the piano on my recording more resembling a clavinova than Fazioli grand; sure, for pianists, everything else must be background, but grand piano in a big church recorded from a distance that most closely coresponds to what public gets to hear with the 20 member choir and piano does sound that way - to everybody BUT the pianist...

 

The piano can be recorded using perhaps couple of godzillions of techniques - from the ones that do approach reality to the ones that emphasize//mask/whatever the sound of piano in order to cater to the mood of the song - used with discretion and a grain of salt, all of them are capable of giving superb musical pleasure if implemented correctly. Neither is capable of satisfying needs and expectations of all of the prospective listeners - one might wish for the exact opposite wish from another. Storia mai finita .

post #15 of 191
Quote:
Originally Posted by sejarzo View Post

Not to run too far OT, but I agree 100%. Back in the days of budget LP's, the background noise was so awful on those pressings that many were unlistenable as far as I was concerned...but I now have far more Naxos in my classical collection than any of the traditional "mainline" labels.

Agreed. There are more great sounding Naxos on average than on the traditional labels - back in the day I was in CD retail, it was Naxos that put real pressure on majors to improve their sonics, not the audiophille labels. Naxos has at the very least very competitive musicians, on average exceeding the musicians on audiophille labels, sometimes stunningly good sonics - together with pricing and availability, next to invincible combination.

 

Practically all recent recordings are getting better - but the desire to limit the dynamic range ( mostly because of radio requirements that find extreme dynamic range unacceptable ) is an old habit that is not likely to die any time soon.

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