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Greetings to all who enjoy and get satisfaction from playing the piano!

Most of us who have been able to play on an acoustic and a digital one have perceived the difference between both types of piano.

It is a difference that may be subtle but is clearly noticeable. It is also difficult to identify, to locate, and even more difficult to describe accurately.
But it is there.

To describe it, many resort to the metaphor that an acoustic piano, unlike a digital one, has "life" or has "soul."
I think it would be useful to try to discover what exactly that "life" or that "soul" of an acoustic piano consists of.

For this, it occurs to me that it would be helpful to observe what happens when comparing four different cases involving acoustic pianos and digital pianos, as well as a tuning fork, when they emit the sound of 440 Hz (A4, la3).

Case a) 440 Hz sound emitted by a good enough acoustic piano.

Case b) 440 Hz sound emitted by a tuning fork of that frequency.

Case c) 440 Hz sound emitted by an acoustic piano of very poor or inferior quality.

Case d) 440 Hz sound emitted by a digital piano.

In my experience the feeling that the sound, or the instrument that emits it, has "life" or "soul" only occurs in the first two cases: a good enough acoustic piano and, to a lesser extent, on a tuning fork.

In the other two cases there is no such feeling of "life" or "soul".
In the lowest quality acoustic piano it has no place because the sound is deafened and drowned out by a soundboard that is made of cheap and useless laminated wood, apart from the poor quality of the bridge, the strings, the cabinet, etc.
In the digital piano it has no place because the small piece of thin cardboard that vibrates in its speaker is unable to generate sound waves "wide" and "thick" enough to produce the sensation of "life" or "soul".

From this experience at least two hypotheses can be formulated:

Hypothesis A
The feeling of "life" or "soul" that is perceived when playing on a good enough acoustic piano depends mainly on the "width" and "thickness" of the sound waves emitted by a thick, massive and large structure such as it is a good soundboard activated by good strings that transmit their vibration through a good quality bridge and which is enhanced by a good quality piece of furniture.
These "broad" and "thick" sound waves are capable of producing not only a particular mode of vibration in the eardrum and in all the sensitive structures of the inner ear, etc., but they are also capable of producing very subdued and very subtle vibrations in the cartilaginous structures of the outer ear (and even in other cartilaginous structures such as those present in the nose, etc.). These vibrations are perceived by the brain, although the perception remains at a semi-conscious level in the mind of the person. This unspecific and diffuse perception contributes in a very important way to produce the sensation of "life" or "soul".

In addition, the tactile vibration perceived in the hands when pressing the keys occuring simultaneously and in coordination with the sound, contributes to the formation of that feeling of "life" or "soul" in the person's mind. That tactile vibration is very strong on an acoustic; on the other hand, in most digital ones it is much weaker.

Hypothesis B

The feeling of "life" or "soul" could be obtained in a digital piano if it were equipped with speakers capable of generating "wide" and "thick" sound waves. Maybe 18-inch speakers or 15-inch minimum, with corresponding external amplification, including a cardioid subwoofer. Such speakers have a fairly large and thicker vibrating area than the small speakers in today's digital pianos. They should also be attached in direct contact with the cabinet of the digital piano to transmit the vibration. Of course the volume should be set very low to avoid damaging your ears.

Those speakers would probably not achieve the exuberant sense of "life" or "soul" that a good mid-sized or large grand piano provides (or a baby grand or even an upright ), but it would be very close.

__________


What do you think about the plausibility or implausibility of Hypothesis A and Hypothesis B?

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Do tuning forks produce "broad" and "thick" sound waves?


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Your version of soul sounds like a combination of technical perfection and volume.
I think of it as more like character or x-factor. An acoustic piano that's lousy by many measures is more likely to have it than a digital instrument is. A classic car is more likely than an electric car. Hooking a digital piano up to some massive speakers will not introduce soul.


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Saying an acoustic piano has a "soul" is just romantic bs. I think digitals sound different from acoustics because of their always perfect tuning(perhaps too perfect) but mostly for the obvious reason that their sound is produced differently.

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Saying an acoustic piano has ‘soul’ is easily understood by everyone here. Is anyone really expected to come up with a string of adjectives as a replacement? Shouldn’t need to.

For me, yes it is the sound, with all it’s imperfections, the responsiveness, the feel and sound of the keys, and the view of the piano while sitting at the keyboard. I don’t need good speakers or headphones. Just me and the keys.

All senses go into the effect of playing an acoustic. Even if the sound were identical to a digital, I would still prefer the acoustic.


"Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow" - F. Chopin
"I never dreamt with my own two hands I could touch the sky" - Sappho

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Don't get the wrong idea, I prefer analog stuff. But analog devices are finicky, because of the moving parts at the very least. Trust me, I play violin and mandolin as well. They are only in tune temporarily. DPs are in tune permanently. This means nothing if you only play by yourself. It's quite important in a band setting.


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It's a question I find interesting.

Obviously perfection isn't a requirement for "soul", because even the greatest pianos aren't perfect. (For starters, they go out of tune.)

I would say having integrity is a key component. A tuning fork has integrity.

I suppose even a very modest digital piano can have a sort of integrity, if it serves the purpose for which it was intended. Sometimes I have to play an older Yamaha Clavinova. It's fine for what it is, but I prefer even a mediocre acoustic piano to it.

Having character is another component. The Clavinova, and probably most digital pianos, don't have a ton of character.

Sometimes I wonder about this in regard to pipe organs and even the most state of the art digital organs. I am a professional organist, and there are definitely instances where I could choose a decent digital organ over a poorly-built, ugly-sounding, pipe organ, or one in very poor condition.


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Well, I suppose we can call it "soul" if we wish. Some call it "funky". How about "Funky Soul"? smile

Personally, I much prefer my acoustic pianos. But here lately I've been playing my digital a good bit with the drumbeat accompaniment. The digital doesn't sound as good as my acoustic, but the drumbeat sure does help me with my timing, and with my playing, singing, and the drumbeat accompaniment, it almost sounds like a full band playing.

I have played the acoustic piano while using the drumbeat accompaniment of the digital. But that seems like a lot of effort; guess I'm lazy. smile
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Perceptually, three things may be at play. The sound of an acoustic is much more complex than that of a digital, and that makes it less 'predictable' (over short time scales) for auditory systems, and therefore less boring/more interesting. The digital sound could be as complex if it is a good recording, but often it is compressed/simplified so that it fits in on board memory. Also, the acoustic consequences of overlapping notes are only modeled in a simple way in a digital, leading to simplification that you brain (unconsciously) will pick up. Second, over long time scales (hours and days) the sound of an acoustic changes, which prevents it will be completely predictable. To make music interesting, there should be a balance between predictability and surprise.Thirdly (but I am less sure about this idea), auditory systems are very fond of human voices, and the simplified digital sounds (in cheaper DPs) may not only more boring, but also less 'voice like'. The human voice is also an acoustic instrument, think of singing.

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There are so many ideas expressed in the original post that I am tempted to join the conversation but it is difficult to know where to start. I will however try to resist the use of sound propagation theory.
Much that I like the sound of a well tuned piano I have never thought that the sound is alive or has soul. Music being played on it can be made alive or with soul and equally could be made to sound dead but that is another matter. A piano is incapable (?) of producing a tone of 440Hz as there are always overtones.
I was introduced to classical orchestral music through recordings some of it through reasonably large loudspeakers which would have been described as hi-fi. This didn't prepare me for my first experience of listening to a live professional orchestra which produced sound so much more vibrant than I expected. So much more alive one could say and my only explanation is that the sound was not confined in stereo, there was no clipping of overtones, and it was being played live.
These are a couple of personal feelings which bring sounds alive for me.
To my mind a tuning fork does not produce a vibrant tone. Isn't it just a simple harmonic oscillator producing no overtones (or perhaps very quiet ones, I can't make up my mind) ?

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I agree with your hypothesis whilst playing.

But even like listening to a good piece played on a nice stereo Vs a nice grand/similar sized quality upright.

Even with the best moneyed high end speakers/high fidelity setups. There's a certain analog warmth/vibration/complexity that digital can't seem replicate. Even when sophisticated and played loud.

Maybe that's what you mean by acoustic "soul"

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Originally Posted by Pianolover1
There's a certain analog warmth/vibration/complexity that digital can't seem replicate. Even when sophisticated and played loud. Maybe that's what you mean by acoustic "soul"

+1

Maybe this happens the same way that the eyes can be tricked by a good mirror, reflecting ones face. The reflection may be as perfect as possible, but in the end we can see the difference and, of course, pay attention to the real person. Also ears can be tricked by excellent digital sounds, but in the end we notice the difference. In the absence of the person, a picture of her face can bring good recalls, but it is not her face. In the absence of a sound originally produced and heard, people even get accostumed to memories of sounds, digitalized. Reflections and copies seem to have less "soul" because they just emulate the original. But there will always be those who (say to) prefer the copies.

Just my 0,2 cents.


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I've discussed this with scientists at Los Alamos National Labs (as their tuner after tuning over coffee).

The consensus is that *in theory*, it should be possible to make them indistinguishable.

The gap between theory and reality according to them can only be filled with computing power that will never be devoted to the task, and speaker design no one will ever spend the money to create - because neither national security nor a fat pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are involved.

These are the folks that create computer models of the entire universe, so to them, in theory, it's a pretty trivial problem on a technical level.

What isn't trivial are the resources required to do it.

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The difference to me is simple. Acoustic pianos are analog and digital pianos are well, digital. 1s and 0s. Some audiophiles prefer vinyl records to DVDs. Many guitarists prefer acoustic guitars over electric.

Whenever I play my Casio, it’s always the exact same. Every day, every month, every year.

My acoustic pianos do well being tuned every 6 months. The feeling I get when I play my freshly tuned and adjusted piano is joy. Especially with the Estonia. Nothing digital can do that.

Also, I can order a digital piano online and be confident that it’s going to be exactly the same playing experience that I had when I tried the in store display. Acoustic pianos have variations between each piano. The variations that don’t meet the standard are tuned, or adjusted in the prep area. I would feel uncomfortable ordering an acoustic piano that I hadn’t tried.

For the math nerds. There is an infinite number of points between 0 and 1. Acoustic instruments capture that, while digitals cannot. Digitals can only approximate that.

Last edited by j&j; 11/20/21 10:47 AM.

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When you walk into a room with an acoustic, you can hear it (if you listen) straightaway, without playing it. The case, strings, soundboard, resonate with voice, footsteps, other sounds, even just touching it or pulling up the bench/chair. This continues as you play it but the sounds are now deliberate or pushed to the background. You don't get any of this with a digital (although presumably you could). This is not a question of recreating the strings sound/tone, but something else. I think this is another reason people may talk about soul, alive, etc.

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Originally Posted by j&j
For the math nerds. There is an infinite number of points between 0 and 1. Acoustic instruments capture that, while digitals cannot. Digitals can only approximate that.

The output of a digital instrument is an analog signal (sound) with infinite points between 0 and 1 too.

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In my mind, it’s exactly the same difference as driving a plug-in electric Porsche with an automatic transmission vs a Dodge Charger with a Hemi and manual transmission. I think some electric cars simulate throttle noise.

The Porsche is far easier to get down the road but driving the Charger is so much more fun.


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Originally Posted by An Old Square
I've discussed this with scientists at Los Alamos National Labs (as their tuner after tuning over coffee).

The consensus is that *in theory*, it should be possible to make them indistinguishable.

The gap between theory and reality according to them can only be filled with computing power that will never be devoted to the task, and speaker design no one will ever spend the money to create - because neither national security nor a fat pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are involved.

These are the folks that create computer models of the entire universe, so to them, in theory, it's a pretty trivial problem on a technical level.

What isn't trivial are the resources required to do it.
This is fascinating.

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Originally Posted by An Old Square
I've discussed this with scientists at Los Alamos National Labs (as their tuner after tuning over coffee).

The consensus is that *in theory*, it should be possible to make them indistinguishable.

The gap between theory and reality according to them can only be filled with computing power that will never be devoted to the task, and speaker design no one will ever spend the money to create - because neither national security nor a fat pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are involved.

These are the folks that create computer models of the entire universe, so to them, in theory, it's a pretty trivial problem on a technical level.

What isn't trivial are the resources required to do it.
This is fascinating.
Originally Posted by spanishbuddha
When you walk into a room with an acoustic, you can hear it (if you listen) straightaway, without playing it. The case, strings, soundboard, resonate with voice, footsteps, other sounds, even just touching it or pulling up the bench/chair. This continues as you play it but the sounds are now deliberate or pushed to the background. You don't get any of this with a digital (although presumably you could). This is not a question of recreating the strings sound/tone, but something else. I think this is another reason people may talk about soul, alive, etc.
Your hearing must be a lot better than mine. smile

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Such threads are pointless, you want simple answer to question about extremely complex topic, there just isn't a simple answer.

Originally Posted by An Old Square
I've discussed this with scientists at Los Alamos National Labs (as their tuner after tuning over coffee).

The consensus is that *in theory*, it should be possible to make them indistinguishable.

The gap between theory and reality according to them can only be filled with computing power that will never be devoted to the task, and speaker design no one will ever spend the money to create - because neither national security nor a fat pot of gold at the end of the rainbow are involved.

These are the folks that create computer models of the entire universe, so to them, in theory, it's a pretty trivial problem on a technical level.

What isn't trivial are the resources required to do it.

Thats true, you could say that there are 3 main parts in digital piano, there is an input device (keyboard and action with sensors), sound generator and output device (speakers).

First part is almost there in Yamaha and Kawai hybrids.

Second part is extremely complex and requires huge amount of computing power but computers should be fast enough now to deal with it (I mean computer that can fit in digital piano) just nobody actually cares about it and is willing to put enough money to develop such thing.

Third part is equally as important or even more than second. In real piano sound is generated by soundboard which has comparatively big area and isn't a point source like ordinary speaker, also it is an acoustic dipole and a large one unlike ordinary speaker. Unfortunately there is no way around it, if you want accurate reproduction of piano sound you need something that is physically similar, large electrostatic dipoles with most likely multi-zone driving (extremely expensive) or distributed mode loudspeakers (which are actually real soundboards with electromagnetic drivers), as I said there is no way around it, if yo want sound of a concert grand, you need something of shape and shize of a concert grand with sound generating membrane as large as concert grand soundboard.

Last edited by ambrozy; 11/20/21 02:54 PM.
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