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I've been playing piano using the Garritan CFX Concert Grand for a while now, and while I've found a sound I like, I notice that the dynamic range tends to be too great. I don't notice it much while actually playing it with headphones, but when listening on a speaker setup like my car, for instance, it's much less pleasant.

Specifically, the default output is very quiet when recorded. So I simply raise the volume in my DAW before exporting. But that results in a difference between the softest and loudest notes that's apparently way too great:

too much dynamic range

For comparison, here's the range of a solo piano track on a commercially released classical album:

normal dynamic range

Here, the quietest notes in the centre are about as loud as my mid-dynamic notes, and the loudest volume is fairly constant throughout.

So I'm wondering what I'm doing wrong and what I should address. I have no training. Maybe you fine folks can help me sort it out.

  • There is a dynamic range setting in the piano VST that "determines the difference between the softest and loudest notes; use 50% for the piano as sampled". Well, the range you see there was with this setting at only 45%. Here's what the loudest part sounds like. If I change it to 17%, the extremes do sound somewhat better to me. Is the answer just to drop the range way below what the manual implies is normal? Should I be going even lower??

  • Should I use a compressor instead?

  • Should I adjust the velocity curve instead? In the VST or on my actual keyboard?

  • Should I equalize the highs quieter? (These tend to be the the ones that make me wince when they get too loud after correcting the overall track volume.)

  • Should I work on my tone so that the quiet notes are clearer? Similarly, should I manually edit the MIDI velocities of the lowest and highest notes?

  • Should I manually reduce pedalling so that the quieter notes can be heard more clearly without raising the track volume as much?

  • Am I wrong that this is even a serious problem?

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  • What keyboard are you using? Nov 29 '21 at 6:31
  • Many audio recordings have their dynamic range artificially reduced knowing that they are not going to be played in perfectly silent environments (for example in cars). So perhaps your keyboard is just fine.
    – abligh
    Nov 29 '21 at 8:18
  • 2
    "My playing doesn't sound like a mastered commercial recording. What's wrong?" Is that the question? Nov 29 '21 at 8:51
  • @KrisVanBael It's an RD-700NX; not the most optimized for realistic piano, but fairly respectable, no dime-store plastic keys :) abligh and piiperi, fair enough — this explanation is making more sense the more I read. It sounds like I would have to trade off dynamic range for competition with noisy environments. And I guess that unless I can do so "master"fully, I might just end up with the "boring" range that leftaroundabout refers to... Nov 29 '21 at 11:52
  • Playing at an even/intended velocity is not easy. It requires practice & technique. Poorly weighted keyboards make it even harder to control. Nov 29 '21 at 11:53
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I don't think that VST is excessively dynamic. A real grand piano does have a large dynamic range, by design. And many professional classical recordings actually do have a similar-looking peak-envelope.

But obviously, “with great power”–and so on. Masterly playing the piano has many facets, and dynamic fine-control is definitely an important one. Your recording sounds by no means bad to me, however I can see what you mean – some notes have a bit of a hiccup-ey quality, outliers that are either surprisingly loud or quiet.

In the 17% setting this becomes less obvious, but IMO it does not sound better, just overall more boring. The 45% has at least a character of its own.

And again, good pianists use the dynamic range that their instrument offers. Limiting the range is no good, it just sweeps the problems under the carpet. (Although, playing some organ or harpsichord is of course great – only, it's a completely different approach!) So what would be best if that you work on avoiding unintended dynamics while playing. I can't give much advice on piano technique, but one thing I've heard recommended as a good exercise is to practice playing extremely quiet. That's where it will be really obvious when you occasionally hit notes too hard. I suppose the other direction could also be worthwhile: practice through a MIDI plugin that completely removes all notes whose velocity falls below a threshold (e.g. 60), and make sure you can play the passage without any notes getting swallowed. Or, something that's less artificial, just practice with the dynamic sensitivity cranked to 80% or even higher.

I suspect it's probably your playing that's the cause for this, but definitely also make sure there's no technical problems working against you. Maybe your keyboard isn't weighted enough, or has glitchy keys? Maybe your monitoring isn't great? Is the latency too high?

Only if you've tried hard to tackle the problem from the playing side, should you consider fixing in post. Adjusting the velo of some freak notes – well, that's hardly a crime. Still, again, any reduction in the input range runs the risk of making the final result sound sterile. Definitely don't run amok with this, listen many times and only adjust notes that you're sure are just impalpable.

Compression is actually a bit of a different matter. Even strong audio compression leaves much more dynamic information intact than if you do it in MIDI, because the different-velo notes will still have a different timbre and mix differently. That means it will probably not “solve the problem” (and indeed, single loud notes may then end up squelching the other notes even quieter). However, a bit of compression does often make sense and is just what we're used to hearing for most genres of music – in classical it's done the least, but still not eschewed completely. In doubt, again don't overdo it, but IMO it's certainly a valid decision to apply gentle compression to a piano recording.

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I don't believe there is any standard for 1. what MIDI velocities should be produced depending on the velocity of the key press, 2. how a virtual instrument should respond to MIDI note velocities. In fact both of these can be often adjusted, and you should do it following your own preferences.

There are several things you possibly may be able to do, depending on the software and hardware you have

  • adjust MIDI keyboard response (there might be settings e.g. light/medium/heavy response)
  • adjust MIDI note velocity range. The best if it can be done in the VST instrument. Likely your DAW also offers you some automatic way to compress the MIDI velocities. Note, there is a downside: if you reduce the MIDI range you input to the VST, you may limit the range of sample layers that are used by the VST, which may result in less natural or more repetitive, boring sound.
  • adjust the output dynamic range of the VST instrument - this might be the best choice if the instrument offers access to this setting!
  • compression and equalization might help, but it's not great if you have to use them to fix issues. Sound processing can be used very creatively, but it also brings its own limitations and artifacts. I would recommend to try to fix the issue at the source. Also, if possible, learn what kind of sound processing was used in the recordings you use as a reference.
  • you always should adjust the way you play to the instrument you use. It's more of a question if this allows you to still play comfortably, or do you feel like being limited by what your instrument requires you to do.
  • make sure you have good speakers and try to listen to your music and the reference recordings on various speakers in various settings – studio monitors, hifi set, car, laptop/telephone speakers – this will help you to understand better where you are and what do you want to achieve.
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Reducing dynamic range is probably not what you want, as you will not be able to play the piano softly if you do so. Rather this seems like the touch simulation falls off too quickly. So I think it is best to adjust the velocity curve until the piano feels like you’d expect from a real piano.

About whether this should be done on the piano or on the VST: Probably you will have finer control on the VST. But then on the other hand midi only allows for 128 different levels of velocity. This means that if you have a signal chain like PIANO → MIDI → VELOCITY CURVE you will get a somewhat non equal velocity density. So in a part where the curve is very steep you get a rather large distance between the possible dynamic values.

So if you can adjust the curve on the piano there is a CHANCE (no guarantee) that the piano will adjust the velocity before limiting itself to the 128 values of midi, thus giving you a more equal spacing.

You might also go for a mixed approch: Use whatever settings you have on the piano to get as close to what feels good as possible and then use the more powerful settings in the VST fine tune it.

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There's nothing wrong with the VST of course. In fact it tries to stay true to the dynamic range of a real piano (which in reality is even greater!)

You should determine a set of settings that sounds good to you while playing both with the headphones and through the speakers. I.e. with enough control over velocity; loud enough to hear it when you play softly. This means adjusting the dynamic range in the VST, the volume, the reverb, the volume of your audio interface, etc. until it sounds just right when you play.

However when you want to record stuff (and esp. if you want to publish) this becomes another story: contemporarily mastered music, even the classical ones, have very thin dynamic ranges compared to the real instruments. This is for several reasons, but the main one being that due to portability of music players, people have started listening to music in all kinds of (noisy) situations. Music with a large dynamic range will be too quiet in some parts and too loud in others, so you get the urge to fiddle with your volume all the time (or simply miss out on large parts of the music) So the dynamic range is compressed during mastering (and sometimes even mixing).

I.e. the answer is: don't worry about it, it's normal. However if you want to release something, then it'll need (a lot of) touching up, but that too is normal.

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  • Thanks for this perspective. (A note on the VST: its setting for "pedal noise" is hugely offset, such that about 15% volume sounds like cannonballs going off mid-performance, while 1-2% is just enough, so I was prepared to be surprised for a miscalibrated dynamic range setting too!) Nov 29 '21 at 11:53
  • @LukeSawczak hmmm ok that doesn't sound right... I don't have that particular VST myself, so I can't verify, but yeah I understand why you think there might be something wrong. Maybe it's best to contact the developers?
    – Creynders
    Nov 29 '21 at 12:51

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