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I am currently using a cheap digital piano, but will be purchasing a decent one in next week or two. I have narrowed my choice down to the Yamaha P105 or the DGX 650. What attracted me to the DGX 650 was that it had a lot of different sounds built in which I would quite like, e.g drums, guitar noises, harp which I would like for some songs I would like to attempt etc.On the downside, it is quite bulky compared to the P105.

After doing some reading, I also found I could get a sound module instead which has a lot of effects. So I popped down to my local music shop to ask what they had on offer, however they didn't have much selection, plus the ones they did have were VERY expensive. They informed me that they are mostly going out of fashion, as most people use software now instead.

Now I play Guitar as well, so I already have an audio interface (focus rite 2si). So now I am thinking of getting the P105 and plugging into my Audio interface, then into laptop and using software to access the different sounds. However I am unsure of what the sound quality is like compared to a real sound module.

Could someone who has experience in this area tell me what offers better sound quality? I was also hoping someone could tell me what popular software is used that contains a lot of different sounds, e.g. drums, harps, organs, steel string guitar, electric guitar etc.

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Could someone who has experience in this area tell me what offers better sound quality? I was also hoping someone could tell me what popular software is used that contains a lot of different sounds, e.g. drums, harps, organs, steel string guitar, electric guitar etc.

I've never used hardware sound modules (the notion seems rather quaint to me), and I'm not a huge stickler for sound quality in the first place, so I can't answer the first part of your question. Except to say this -- film score producers do use digital instruments rather frequently. Sometimes these end up in the final soundtrack, and sometimes its only in the scoring process, to be recorded live later. But non-live scores are becoming increasingly frequent.

When it comes to digital sound, I'd say the biggest potential pitfall isn't low quality, but avoiding latency. You don't want the sound to wait 100 ms after pressing a key, or it will throw you completely off. You have an external audio interface, so that should already give you a huge benefit over someone using a built-in soundcard, but it's still something you may fight with from time to time.

Regarding digital options, there are very, very many options out there, although your options will be different depending on whether you use Mac or PC. For PC's (which is what I have) most DAWs will load a type of plugin called a VST (Virtual Studio Technology). These can include all sorts of audio effects (reverbs, EQs, virtual amps, etc...), but the kind that acts like a synth, converting MIDI into audio, is called a VSTi (for VST instrument). Many companies will have their own proprietary synth format as well, but VSTi is a widely-recognized format that many people provide and support. Again, these are PC-specific. Mac has its own technology, but I don't know anything about it.

To start out with, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of free VSTi's out there, and there are several sites that collect massive lists of them. Google can get you pointed in the right direction. Some VSTi's work as complete synthesizers, with programmable parameters like attack, sustain, and release. Others act as samplers, and can read sample files, either proprietary or open-format (the later include soundfonts (*.sf2) and SFZ files). Sound quality can vary a lot between these, and sometimes the best thing to do is download as many as you can find, and then "audition" them all.

As a side note, I'll caution that not all the free instruments (especially samples) that are floating around out there are, strictly-speaking, legal. People have redistributed samples of commercial sound modules or proprietary digital instruments. Unfortunately, there's really no easy way to distinguish the legal ones from the copyright infringements. However, I'd expect the VSTi's that perform their own synthesis (instead of using samples) to be OK.

At any rate, you can do quite a lot with what's available for free. In fact, I've personally never bothered to buy a professional digital instrument because the free ones have always been good enough for my purposes. But once you're ready to move beyond the free options, there are a number of commercial options available as well. As with sound modules, these can start to get rather pricey, depending on what you're getting.

Pianoteq is the de facto digital piano instrument out there. It physically models the workings of a piano, and lets you adjust all sorts of parameters to design your own piano sound. I don't think you'll find organs, guitars, drums, and harps in here, though.

For orchestral sounds, Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) gets mentioned as a relatively affordable option. I'm considering the possibility of upgrading to this. They also have other sample libraries available.

There's also East West Symphonic Quantum Leap (EWQL) which has its own line of products, including a highly-recommended symphonic library.

Another name I see a lot is Native Instrument's Kontakt.

There are lots of others out there, these are just the ones that came to my mind first. You can also ask at your music store what software instruments they would recommend. Most of these company's websites should have examples of their sounds available on the website, so you can hear what you're getting before hand. Note that these are likely to be created with carefully-crafted MIDI files, with post-processing effects added as well. As such, they show what the instrument is capable of, but may not represent exactly what you hear in a live performance, without additional work.

  • Thanks for the info. I think I am going to go for the P105 and use software to get the sounds I want, seems to be a good bit of choice. That Pianoteq sounds software sounds amazing, so might have a look at that one!! – AdamM Sep 26 '14 at 8:39
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I've put a lot of thought into this for my own situation. There is nothing about software pianos or garden variety digital pianos that make them sound any better than each other, nor any better than samplers, romplers, or sample-based synthesizers and workstations with piano patches. All of these use the same essential technology to reproduce sound. Sample playback is sample playback.

(There are now digital pianos which use modeling technology instead of samples. The Roland V-Piano is one such instrument. But it sounds like you want something that offers you more versatility than "just" a digital piano.)

Whatever sound source you choose for piano sounds, you'll want to consider a few things, and the sample rate and bit width of the samples is probably less important than you might imagine. I said, "sample playback is sample playback," and indeed it is. What makes the difference, then, is the quality of the samples themselves.

Traditionally, pianos are sampled at three different loudness levels. When you perform, the keyboard input velocity determines which sample is played back and the chosen sample is then finely adjusted by reducing or increasing its playback gain. Traditionally, one sample represents several notes. So, playing B3 might actually play back a sample of A3, sped up to hit the right pitch. These compromises reduced the amount of ROM needed to implement a digital piano, which used to be a serious hurdle (in the 90s when this technology became commercially tenable). You'll now find piano sample libraries that sample each note separately and each at numerous volumes. On the surface, you'd think that would be a good thing, and, potentially, it is. However, sampling a piano is relatively easy. Editing those samples to be good enough to be used in a commercial product is costly. If you were a publisher of a sample library, you'd know the market expects technology to improve and costs to continually decrease. So you can see that if a manufacturer wanted to look good on paper, they could say, "our samples are now at 192 kHz by 24 bits, and we've sampled every note at 16 different velocities." However, it's the editing process that makes samples sound good, and with many times more samples combined with an expectation of falling prices, what will suffer? Older hardware, therefore, is actually a great place to look for awesome piano samples if you're on a budget. Look at sound modules from the early naughties, like the Motif series from Yamaha, the XV-5080 or Phantom sound modules from Roland, or the Triton and Trinity racks from Korg.

The beauty of using a sound module is that it can be exchanged for or complimented with newer technology as it becomes available. You can combine a favorite keyboard interface with numerous sound modules. And sound modules won't eat up your CPU the way software instruments will.

Ultimately, it takes a lot of research to find what's right for you. Audition as many things as you can and read the professional reviews. A lot of software instruments are truly amazing. It's easy to be taken in by the latest and greatest stuff in the catalogs. But a used sound module will offer a lot of very high-quality bread and butter sounds, and many more sounds beyond those. You'll hear the argument that software instruments keep you 100% "in the box" with no going back and forth from analog to digital to analog to digital. That's true. All things being equal, I'd rather start digital and stay there, too. But this makes less of a difference than the quality of the samples. Lots of sound modules, even those from 10 or more years ago, have digital output anyway. With a sound module, I am future proofed to a greater extent than than someone using software. With every operating system update, DAW update, or driver update, there is a chance something will stop working, become incompatible, or suddenly and inexplicably need to be reinstalled. If I want a decent sampled piano, I want to be able to press the "on" button and forget about it.

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