Pianoteq Software Piano

I’m not a musical purist. As a composer for video games and films, I’m totally for electronic instruments that can mimic acoustic instruments. I work on tight budgets and I don’t have, for example, a grand piano sitting in my office. Even if I did, pianos are notoriously difficult to mic — that takes a fair amount of skill and a room with great acoustics, which I also don’t have. Synthesized pianos — meaning sample-based software synthesizers that run on your computer — are a “good enough” alternative, yet less than perfect.

Every time you hit a note on the keyboard, the synthesizer fetches a sample of an actual recorded piano (that resides on the hard drive of your computer) and plays it back for you. The downside to this sort of technology is: a) Sampled pianos never sound absolutely real because they can’t mimic the vast complexity of a real piano, and b) All those large samples take a while to load into your computer’s memory as well as taking up a significant amount of space on your hard drive.

Enter Pianoteq (stand alone or plug-in Mac or Windows). It uses a type of synthesis called physical modeling, which recreates the original instrument mathematically. In the case of the piano, this involves modeling the hammers, the strings, the soundboard, and even the pedals. And it’s hands down the most true-sounding synthesized piano I’ve ever played. Pianoteq captures the sounds of every key at every velocity. It accurately captures harmonics when I press the sustain pedal down. Or that weird (wonderful) buzzing in lowest octave. I’m not a maestro but, in a taste test, I can’t tell tell the difference between a recording of Pianoteq and a recording of a real piano.

But it gets better still. Using sliders, Pianoteq allows me to tweak and adjust practically every aspect of the physical model. No piano or any other synthesized piano that I know of can do this. I can adjust how much hammer noise I want to hear, or what point on the strings the hammers hits. I can change the length of the soundboard or the length of the strings, mute the strings, mic the piano in a virtual space, and on and on. All of this dramatically changes the sound. I can start with a piano that sounds like a Bosendorfer and, in a matter of seconds, I can end up with something with something that sounds almost percussive, but still very acoustic. Or I can tweak the sound toward something more bell-like.

Because Pianoteq is algorithmically based, it’s small… a mere 20 megabytes. Its sampled cousins weigh in at hefty 2 – 4 gigabytes and require around 4 gigabytes of internal memory. The upshot of this: Pianoteq loads lightning fast, which is a nice plus when I’m in the middle of writing music (or just fiddling around).

Before I encountered Pianoteq, I had always partially hid sampled pianos under a veil of other instruments. Using Pianoteq I now tend to feature pianos or even solo pianos, because they sound real. And rich. From my perspective, now I have any number of virtual pianos sitting around in my office, from a wide variety of grands, to uprights, to antique grands, to old detuned pianos, etc….

But a YouTube video paints a thousand words, or something like that. In the short video below using one of my compositions for the film The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, I’ll quickly demonstrate just a few of Pianoteq’s adjustments.

-- Robyn Miller  

Pianoteq 4

Sample Excerpts:

The Condition slider allows you to modify the state of the instrument, from freshly tuned to completely worn out. After a right click on the slider, changing the Random seed parameter will allow you to enjoy thousands of broken instrument variations.



Audioflood Waterprooof iPod Shuffle

I learned how to paddleboard this summer and after a while, out on the water, I wanted music. I bought the Audioflood waterproof iPod. (It’s an iPod Shuffle that has had its interior filled with waterproof sealant). I loaded it up with a lot of Phillip Glass, David Byrne and some Gilbert and Sullivan overtures and I set sail. Audio quality was good. The included breakaway headphones were inspired. All seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then I decided to teach my new Swiss Mountain Dog puppy how to paddleboard with me. That worked out surprisingly well, but the Audioflood iPod got knocked into the salt water bay.

In my mind, I composed several letters to Audioflood, blaming them for their poor quality iPod clips, but, of course the clips were Apple’s and it was really my fault.

Five days later, while landing my dog and paddleboard, I saw the flash of hot pink on the seafloor ( through two feet of salt water). There was my Audioflood. I snatched it from among the hungry, musical-loving crustaceans that had gathered round.

When I got home, I plugged in the headphones and “Einstein on the Beach” came blasting. Five days submerged in salt water! This is a great product.

-- Douglas Gray  

AudioFlood waterproof iPod Shuffle with headphones

Available from Amazon

Radio Journalism Gear

[Transom Story Workshop teaches new students how to create narrative stories for radio. The kind of short stories you might hear on NPR. Their tech guy, Jeff Towne, posts a current recommendation list of the best basic radio journalism tools. He keeps up with testing out new gear and is always the place I (KK) go to find the best inexpensive recording gear. This updates their previous recommendations.]

Students at the Transom Story Workshop tend to be beginners. Many have never picked up a mic or turned on a recorder before. So, it was important for us to choose a field recording pack that both sounded good and was simple for novices to use. Plus, since the workshop started from scratch in the fall of 2011, we needed to find gear that fit our start-up budget. We landed on the following and feel we made the right choices:

sonyRecorder: The Sony M10 ($209). We can’t say enough about how good this recorder sounds. It’s VERY quiet. And, it has a solid, built-in limiter. Those two components were important to us when selecting a recorder for students because new producers often don’t pay close attention to the levels. Having a quiet recorder and a good limiter helps a student make better recordings. I would have preferred, maybe, the Sony D50. It seems more durable. But, the M10 is solid, lightweight, and has fewer bells and whistles to learn — and it’s half the price.

micMics: We have a slew of mics on hand for the students including the Electro-Voice RE-50 ($169), the Beyer-Dynamic MC-58 and MCE-58, and the Audio Technica AT8010. I’m a fan of the RE-50 and the MC-58 for new producers because they are more forgiving of mic handling noise. But, all of these are excellent mics.

headsetHeadphones: For the price — $28 — the Sennheiser HD202 is a good set of “cans.” They help isolate external sound, they’re fairly comfortable, and they reproduce sound well. Yeah, they aren’t the Sony MDR-7506s we love, but we were on a budget and everyone is happy with these headphones. Never a problem.

-- Jeff Towne  

Standtastic Double Keyboard Stand

Thirty years ago keyboard players would stack their second keyboard on top of something sturdy, like a 350-pound Hammond organ, or 150-pound Rhodes piano. The top keyboard (such as a clavinet or monophonic analog synthesizer) did not bounce no matter how hard you played it.

Thankfully today a 20-pound rompler [a keyboard that plays pre-recorded samples instead of generated waveforms] can replace all those old heavy keys, but I don’t like the light bouncy feel of X-type stands.

A few years ago I heard about the Standtastic series, and found it simply does not bounce. It’s as solid as granite. I bought two and keep one in our practice room and another for my gigging rig.

-- Mark Hicks  

Standtastic 122 Double-Tier Keyboard Stand with bag

Available from Amazon

Ten-Tec Rebel Ham Radio

I’ve been an active ham radio operator, writing about the hobby for over thirty years and I have seen many advances in technology in that time. The Ten-Tec Rebel low-power amateur radio transceiver is a modern return to the era where hobbyists would routinely modify, change and improve their equipment. But now, in addition to modifying the electronic circuit, the ham hobbyist can further enhance this radio through re-programming the processor.

Generating 5 watts in the 20 and 40 meter CW (Morse Code) ham bands, as shipped, any properly licensed amateur can get on the air immediately by simply connecting an antenna, key, and 10-15 VDC power. As a standalone, low-power (QRP) transceiver, this unit is already a useful tool. But this is only the beginning of the adventure. It is built around the Arduino-compatible ChipKIT Uno 32 processor.

Using the open-source Arduino programming environment, the user can adjust and modify the existing functions of this unit, or go further to add features beyond its basic design. Internally, the transceiver contains direct pin-outs to all connections on the processor board, making it possible to design “shields” to enhance and improve the radio’s performance. Active online groups supporting the Arduino, the ChipKit Uno 32, as well as the Rebel itself are already building a base of user ideas and experiments to take this rig far beyond its basic platform. Many of these resources can be found here.

Electronic hobbyists who want to join the world of amateur radio will find this $199 unit an excellent way to get on the air. Hams who want to experiment with Arduino hardware and software now have a great place to start.



-- Thomas "Skip" Arey  

TEN-TEC Model 506 Rebel Open Source QRP Transceiver


I’m always interested in free software and web tools that allow community members to become digital storytellers. If you have the skill to send an email file attachment (by choosing a file on your computer), you have the skill to create a YouTube video — for free — by marrying an image file and an audio file of your choosing. The web site I use for this is called MP32TUBE.com. (Below is a sample digitl storytelling project I created using this free service.)

I recorded the audio using the free audio recording/editing software called Audacity. The graphics in this video was created in the AppleWorks draw program — after scanning the two photos of my mom and dad. These days I would use the LibreOffice Draw program — or maybe Inkscape — both of which are free.

To record the highest quality audio, I suggest using a USB microphone, such as the Logitech Clearchat USB headset — or the Blue Snowball microphone. You can easily edit out the uhms, ahs and pauses in your audio recording by selecting the short segments and pressing the delete key on your keyboard. Make sure the sound level (sound volume) of your recording is good. That might mean visiting the Sound control panel on your computer to adjust the Sound Input slider.

Your Gmail login is all you need to create a YouTube channel. Surprise your friends by becoming a YouTube producer — without owning a camcorder. Possible digital storytelling projects? Interview a family member or friend. Tell an amusing story from your childhood. Record some a capella singing. Make up a funny tall tale. Surprise us with what you make.

I sure hope YouTube buys MP32TUBE.com and folds it into their digital storytelling tools. I love showing this tool to people, but cringe to think that one day it might just disappear.

-- Phil Shapiro  


OP-1 Portable Synthesizer

Musicians beware! The OP-1 is a synthesizer that some may love and others may dismiss as a mere overpriced toy.

For myself, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 has been an indispensable addition to my synth arsenal: partly because it produces sounds I can’t find elsewhere and partly because it’s so incredibly easy (and yes, even fun) to use. (See video below.)

The color-base interface took me by surprise! There’s practically no learning curve for adjusting the eight separate sound engines (and effects) — the machine is highly visual in this regard. In fact I love handing my OP-1 to non-musicians and watching them as they almost instantly begin “programming” a sound. For a performer, this kind of ease-of-use is power: to effortlessly turn a few knobs and get to the sound one is after. No fiddling around. In this regard, the OP-1 is a musician’s instrument.

The portability is a nice plus. I can throw it into a backpack, take it anywhere, sketch out an idea for a song anywhere (using it’s built-in “four-track recorder” which operates much like a reel-to-reel tape). They advertise the batteries to last 16 hours… I haven’t tested that, but I have no frustrations in that regard.

More coolness about the OP-1:

* It has four intelligently designed sequencers that I absolutely love and continually use.

* Teenage Engineering occasionally releases new system updates with added functionality (new synth engines, new drum machines, etc…) And new new accessories, such as pitch bending knob and crank wheels for added functionality.

* It features both a built-in microphone and a built in FM-radio for sampling.

Is there anything bad about the OP-1? Yeah, its price. $849 is a lot to spend on any hardware synth where software synths are beginning to cost less and less.

I do wish the keyboard was more substantial. The Korg NanoKey midi controller is just a little larger and it has a nice resistance (and is velocity sensitive), whereas the keyboard on the OP-1 feels a bit cheap.

Is is a toy? I don’t believe so. I just produced a movie soundtrack and I often used the OP-1 for sounds I couldn’t achieve with any other synth. As an electronic musician, I now depend on it. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a great machine for use in the studio and, because of its small size and ease of use, it’s probably an even better instrument for use on stage.

The interface of the OP-1 is entirely color-based and very intuitive. For
example: the knob changes the blue number on the screen, the white knob
changes the white number. The above video (about one of the
sequencers) demonstrates this.

-- Robyn Miller  

Portable Synthesizer

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Teenage Engineering

Homemade Musical Instrument Guides

Here are three great guides for making your own musical instruments. Advantages of making your own: 1) Personalized, 2) Cheaper, 3) Types no one else sells, 4) Satisfaction of making.

There is not much overlap of instruments featured between these three books.

The coolest of the three guides is Making Gourd Musical Instruments. It has very explicit step-by-step instructions for making 60 instruments using lightweight gourds as the sound amplifiers. Gourds enable wind, string and percussion instruments — so you could make an entire orchestra. This book has the most variety of musical options and great examples of world-wide traditional instruments for inspiration. If you can get only one of these three books, this should be it.

Making Musical Instruments by Hand
Jay Javighurst
1998, 108 pages
$9+, used
Available from Amazon

Sound Designs
John Scoville, Reinhold Banek
1995, 224 pages
$8+, used
Available from Amazon

-- KK  

Making Gourd Musical Instruments
Ginger Summit, Jim Widess
2007, 144 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

>From Making Gourd Musical Instruments


Cut keys (lamella) from an old leaf rake.


Position the keys in the bridge and tighten the screws. If you need to adjust the length of a key slightly, loosen the screw, then readjust it.


Completed kalimba.



Drill the peg holes precisely at the marks.



As you tighten the lacing, make sure each loop is brought around its peg and that the bead is next to the peg. Later on, the peg may be pushed up on the lacing to further tighten the head if needed.

>From Making Musical Instruments by Hand

Tip: Stretching Thicker Skins

Thicker skins may require more pressure to tighten before stapling. Use a pair of locking pliers with a thin rope attached through the handle. Make a loop at the bottom so you can step onto it. Apply tension firmly with your foot, without tearing the skin, and with the staple gun held vertically upside down, fire the staple. Then follow the stapling instructions in step 9.




>From Sound Designs

Dimple Gongs

Simply, mark the center point on each plate or disc. Place it on the end of a fairly wide piece of soft wood, say 4 by 4 inches. Put the round end of a ball-peen hammer on the center mark and smite it hard several times with a small sledge or heavy hammer.



The resulting dimple gives the plate not only a distinct pitch, but its name as well. Though if you look at it from the other side, it becomes a pimple gong. We found by experimenting that generally the smaller the dimple the lower the pitch would be, so tune yours accordingly.



Tube Drums



The Soundscape

The sound of modern life has a 60 hertz hum in the background because that’s the frequency of electricity (in North America). Add to that all the other vibrations of technological artifacts and all the sounds made by nature and you get the soundscape of the world. I learned to hear this sonic environment from this master observer. He gave me ears. Once heard these vibrations can be tuned, altered, muffled, amplified.

-- KK  

The Soundscape
R. Murray Schafer
1993, 320 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The Flat Line in Sound

The Industrial Revolution introduced another effect into the soundscape: the flat line.

A few years ago, while listening to the stonemasons’ hammers on the Takht-e-Jamshid in Teheran, I suddenly realized that in all earlier societies the majority of sounds were discrete and interrupted, while today a large portion — perhaps the majority — are continuous. This new sound phenomenon, introduced by the Industrial Revolution and greatly extended by the Electric Revolution, today subjects us to permanent keynotes and swaths of broad-band noise, possessing little personality or sense of progression.




The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers and its composers. Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?


Another continuous rhythm is that of breathing, which also varies in tempo with exercise and relaxation. Normal breathing is said to vary between 12 and 20 cycles per minute, that is, 3 to 5 seconds per cycle. But breathing may be slowed down during relaxation or sleep to cycles lasting 6 to 8 seconds. Part of the sense of well-being we feel at the seashore undoubtedly has to do with the fact that the relaxed breathing pattern shows surprising correspondence with the rhythms of the breakers, which, while never regular, often produce an average cycle of 8 seconds.


Another biological tempo which relates significantly to the acoustic environment is that of the resolving power of the sense receptors. In humans this hovers around 16 to 20 cycles per second. It is in this frequency range that a series of discrete images or sounds will fuse together to give an impression of continuous flow. Film employs 24 frames per second in order to avoid flicker. As far as aural perception is concerned, a rapid rhythmic vibration will gradually assume an identifiable pitch at about 20 cycles per second. Thus, as the tempo of human activities increases, the rhythms of foot and hand are mechanized, first into the rough, “grainy” concatenation of the Industrial Revolution’s first tools, and finally into the smooth pitch contours of modem electronics. The resolving power of the senses makes it possible to turn some of the nervous agitation of the soundscape into drones which, being less turbulent to the ears, tend to have a pacifying quality.


In Turkish cars, horns are tuned to the interval of a major or minor second. While in some cultures this is considered an exceedingly dissonant diad, there are examples in the Balkans, for instance from certain regions of western Bulgaria, of folk singing in which two voices sing together in major or minor seconds, the singers considering this a consonant interval.

iLuv Earphones

I’m writing a review about that goes against the spirit of Cool Tools in a way. While I love these headphones, the price is very reasonable, they aren’t necessarily “the best” of their kind. What I really want to evangelize is the idea of the flat headphone cable.

I love earbuds. I hate dealing with tangled cords. I would stuff my headphones in my bag, and they would come out in a Gordian knot. All the solutions proffered seemed just as labor intensive as untangling them afterwards, involved wrapping them so tightly I couldn’t help but think it was going to damage the wire or give it a memory (so it would revenge-tangle itself when I turned my head for a moment), or both.

Flat cables don’t “feel the need” to twist, and so drop them in the bottom of your backpack, pull them out and they’re ready to go.

I simultaneously bought MEElectronics flat cable earbuds and the iLuv on Amazon. I didn’t like the former as much; weird static-y shocks when I walked on my treadmill; the latter have the remote to pause/play/skip ahead, turn volume up and down and take calls w/integral mic.

I’ve noticed flat cables featured on SkullCandy and other brands; I’m sure an audiophile can buy $300 noise-canceling flat cable headphones. The main point for me is that the no-tangle principal worked great, look for it, then figure out what else you need and go from there.

-- Taylor Bryant  

Available from Amazon