Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Aural Holy Grail

In the realm of visual effects, no one has yet been able to create a CG human face that can blend in transparently with live action and withstand extended closeup shots. The closest anyone has gotten is the Gollum character created by the folks at Weta Digital, and the fact is that while it's a play on a human face, it's not an actual human in the film, it's just a fictional character. The primary problem with this issue is that we are all very aware of the nuances of facial expressions and details, as we spend a large amount of our life interpreting these cues from the people we interact with on a daily bases, whether in person or through our consumption of television. We're still waiting for a synthetic human face that can convince us that we're not seeing CG.

In the playground of musical technology, there's been a similar avatar: the simulation of an acoustic piano. Up until recent times, the best you could do to approximate the sound of a piano, was to employ instruments made of up samples of actual acoustic pianos. This approach has worked to some degree, with virtual sampled pianos including Synthogy Ivory, Akoustik Piano, Virtual Grand Piano and a host of other offerings. Part of the problem with these products is that they consist of many multisampled files, in order to convey the difference between notes struck hard and those played softly, and these samples tend to make the supporting audio files eat up anywhere from 15-35 gigabytes of hard drive space. On top of that, many players claim that they just don't feel right when played, that these sample-based instruments lack the responsiveness of a real piano, the entropy of the interactions between string, hammer and wood.

In the last year, this crucial milestone has been reached, and the very first software-only modeled acoustic piano has appeared on the market, and man, it's just stunning. It's called Pianoteq, and it's a true breakthrough that has caused huge ripples throughout the music industry. Created as a labor of love by a team at the Institute of Mathematics of Toulouse, Pianoteq absolutely nails the sound, response and dynamics of an actual physical instrument, and offers a deep level of control over a myriad of modeling and playback parameters, to the point where the average pianist will likely be somewhat overwhelmed. No matter, just load it up and play to your heart's content. Because it does not use any kind of sampling technology, the whole plugin weighs in at less than 15 megabytes, which is nothing less than astounding. Put this in a laptop, attach a nice 88-note weighted key controller to the computer, perhaps a pair of foot controllers (for the sustain and Sostenuto pedals), and you have the best sounding piano you'll ever be able to lug to a performance, for a whopping $360. While I'm primarily an electronic musician, the sound and playability of this marvel makes me glad that I'm alive at the moment in history when true innovations like this one exist. My hat's off to these folks, they've made something truly groundbreaking and uniquely special. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it awesome, with respect to the true meaning of that word. Check out the sound demos, you will not believe what your ears are hearing.

1 comment:

andycarolan said...

Its not just with CG faces that the "Uncanny Valley" exists, its a problem in humanoid robotics too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_Valley . Until robotic and CG creations can adequately mimic the human face, there will always be that bitter aftertaste of something being "not quite right"

While I respect and applaud the work the guys at The Institute of Mathematics have done with Pianoteq, im sure there will be some musicians that while agreeing that the sound is spot on, the feeling of the hardware it is run on isnt a "real" piano..... you know what those finicky "arty" types can be like lol ;)