The Sympathetic Piano: v2.9 and v3.0 released

Hi all, it’s been a second, and I never got around to announcing v2.9, so what better time than with the release of v3.0, which is a big one! Versions 3.0/2.9 include:

  • a new Resonance preparation, inspired by the sympathetic resonance in acoustic pianos
  • an equalizer on the output, to tailor the sound of bitKlavier to particular speakers, halls, and so on
  • velocity curves, to customize the feel of bitKlavier to your keyboard (or make it feel bizarre!)
  • the bitKlavier Grand: a new sample library, created for bitKlavier, of a Steinway D, with nine different stereo mic images
  • the Dunleavy Double Seconds: another new sample library, also created for bitKlavier, of a beautiful set of steel pans
  • direct-from-disk streaming capability, so you don’t have to load those large sample libraries into RAM
  • flexible resource paths for sample folders, so they can be put wherever you like
  • bug fixes! new bugs!

One of the driving forces behind bitKlavier is the use the traditional piano (its physical layout of keys, the action, its sound, and so on) as an inspiration for a new instrument, enabled by computation. The aim is NOT to try to simulate the piano and make something that sounds as close as possible to an acoustic piano (Pianoteq does that quite brilliantly already, as do many of the sample-based instruments out there). Well, I suppose we do TRY to get as close as possible, and the details of how the acoustic instrument works can be an important part of the inspiration, but ultimately the aim of bitKlavier is to make it our own

This reminds me of learning a fiddle tune from an amazing player (for those of you who don’t know me: fiddle is my main instrument): it’s important to get into the tiny details of what, say, Hauk Buen (one of the players I learned the most from, while he was alive) is doing when playing a particular tune (the bowings, the ornaments, the melodic variations, the tuning, etc…), but in the end, I can never REALLY play like Hauk Buen, and at some point I need to make the tune my own, let it be what I can make it. Same with bitKlavier.

Speaking of the fiddle, the instruments that I play—the Hardanger fiddle and the Hardanger d’Amore—feature sympathetic strings that ring along as we bow; it’s gorgeous, and this is what we point out first when describing the instrument. Sympathetic resonance is not something that people typically talk about with the piano, but it’s also a beautiful part of the instrument’s sound. If you’ve never done this before, try quietly holding down, say, a low register C on an acoustic piano (C2), and then striking/releasing these notes: C3, G3, C4, E4, G4, Bb4… similarly, hold any of those higher notes and strike/release the C2. Listen to the subtle ringing; this interaction is caused by the overlap of the overtones of all the sounding strings (the bitKlavier manual has some illustrations of this): 

Of course, that kind of ringing is going on all the time while playing, and while it is subtle, it, to my ears, acts as a kind of glue between all of the notes, a kind of halo around the “main” sound we are listening to.

bitKlavier’s new Resonance preparation models that sympathetic resonance in a flexible way that should invite a range of approaches, from a “natural” subtle resonance, to a more intense resonance (perhaps without the “main” sound of the instrument), to totally different structures (perhaps using overtone structures from, say, gongs or pipes, or “undertone” structures, or something totally invented). These sympathetic strings can also be tuned however you like: the same as the “main” (Direct) sound, or not. And of course they can be used with whatever sample set you like. So, definitely inspiredby the piano (and the Hardanger fiddle!), but not constrained by it. We’re making sympathetic resonance in bitKlavier our own.

The sound of bitKlavier depends SOOOOOO much on the speakers used; it’s probably the most important factor! While you can’t fix everything with EQ, it can help minimize problems with particular speakers, or address boominess in a particular room, or even just modify the sounds of a particular sample set, in subtle or extreme ways. Rather than having to plug into some external eq, you can now use a built-in 5-band EQ to tailor the sound as you need, and the settings will save with the Gallery.

Different keyboards have different feels, and different players have different preferences in terms of how the instrument responds to how forcefully they play it. bitKlavier now enables that response to be tailored, flexibly, so you can have different feels within a single Piano if you like. Tucked inside the Keymap settings, you’ll find this new pane that you can use to customize the 
velocity curves for your setup. As always with bitKlavier, you can do subtle things that mimic conventional instruments, or wacky things like, say, inverting the velocity curves, so playing more forcefully results in softer sound.

bitKlavier can’t work with commercial sample library packages like Kontakt because we need direct access to all of the samples, and I’m not particularly keen to get into some kind of licensing arrangement with a commercial outfit. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many super high quality and freely available piano sample libraries. For years we’ve used the excellent “Salamander” sample library of a Yamaha 9’ grand; one of its nice features is that it’s recorded from the player’s perspective (low sounds towards the left, high sounds towards the right), which makes sense for bitKlavier since it’s really for the player, as opposed to for recording. But, I’ve longed for some alternatives (not replacements!), just for some variety in timbre and so on. Also, some years ago while recording Olagón, the wonderful producer and engineer Jesse Lewis pointed out that, for recording, it would be great to have some other perspectives of the piano (some audience perspectives!), and also some options that are higher resolution (the Salamander set is 44k/16bit). 

Over the past several months, we’ve had a small team developing a sample library of a new Steinway D that we have here at Princeton. Our engineer Andrés Villalta designed a mic setup with nine different stereo images of the instrument, and Matt Wang spent several days playing samples of the instrument at various velocities. This was followed by months of post-production, with Jeff GordonKatie Chou, and Christien Ayers doing a lot of heavy lifting to help create a beautiful, quiet, and rich sample library. For details and download info, visit the bitKlavier Grand website.

A while ago, we also spent some time with Josh Quillen recording a beautiful instrument of his made by Kyle Dunleavy: double-second steel pans. We finally got around to editing and processing these and are happy to share them as well; thanks Josh! Check out the Dunleavy Double-seconds.

To support using these libraries, which are LARGE can take a lot of memory and time to load into memory, bitKlavier can now stream samples direct from disk. This only works well with an internal SSD or Thunderbolt SSD drive (traditional drives are just too slow), but if you have those, it’s amazing; the app loads super quickly, and you can switch between very large libraries almost instantaneously. 

In addition, we’ve made it more flexible where you keep these libraries; in the past, the “samples” folder HAD to be in the Applications/bitKlavier folder, but now you can put it wherever you want (as long as you tell bitKlavier, in the “preferences” settings).

Finally, we’ve done a fair bit of work on how bitKlavier handles sample playback, particularly with regards to velocity and release resonance; in spite of my fierce arguments that bitKlavier is not about simulating the traditional piano, we DO want to learn as much as possible from that venerable old instrument (just like I wanted to learn all those fiddle tune details from Hauk). In any case, I think it should feel and sound better than it has in the past.

e years, has moved on to graduate school (the NYU Game Design program); I’m very sorry to see him go (he’s been a brilliant coder for bK, and also super smart about design questions that come up all the time), but very happy for him, and I look forward to following his work for years to come.

I also want to thank Jeff GordonKatie Chou, and Theo Trevisan for their contributions to these new 2.9/3.0 features; they did terrific work!

Coming soon… new music for bitKlavier by yours truly, Jenny Beck, Chris Douthitt, Noah Fishman, Molly Herron, Pascal Le Boeuf, Nate May, Annika Socolofsky, and Bora Yoon. Cristina Altamura and Adam Sliwinski have been hard at work learning these new pieces, and will be recording them in the coming months; more soon!

thanks for reading! and for bitKlavier’ing!