Are Digital Pianos Better than Acoustic Pianos?

Physical formats are increasingly going digital

More and more as time passes digital technology is replacing physical media. Slowly books are becoming eBooks as they are more practical, you can fit your entire library in one portable device and back it up, CD’s would scratch, digital audio is saved on a server that is backed up by a company several times. In a way more reliable. Why am I starting talking about digital pianos like this? Digital pianos merge from the digital world into the real world where the digital meets the real world acoustic physics components. Whereas words on a page will be the same or similar to words on a screen. Audio prescribes to the physical law of sound which technology is catching up on, but not quite there. Yes, it has added benefits such as allowing the use of headphones and not needing tuning, but does that make it a worthy substitute for a natural instrument that was a long time in development to be replaced by a digital form.

Advancement in modelling technology

Until recently, digital pianos used to play back a record of a real piano. An acoustic piano has infinite tonal characteristics, whereas a digital piano was limited to a meduim sized memory bank. This was due to the fact that processor (computational power) was limited (RAM/processor speeds). This meant is was impossible to load large files quickly, hence smaller files and lesser quality. The detail of reproduction was limited. Then there were the speakers (still the main sticking point), digital piano speakers are just that, small pinpoint areas of sound. On acoustic pianos, the whole case is part of the tonal reproduction. Manufacturers are working hard to replicate this, placing several speakers around the cabinet playing different parts of the sound, but they aren’t there yet.

The main advancement in previous years is what they call digital modelling of the piano sound. Digital modelling skips playing back samples. In digital modelling companies such as Roland, Kawai and Yamaha analyse the physics aspect of an individual note. What sound wave and frequency characteristics the fingerprint of a piano sound has. They then use this to dynamically create a piano sound from the fingerprint, rather than the recording. They can stretch it in time (make it sound like a larger piano), make it more resonant, brighten it, tone it etc. Roland no longer talk about which piano model they took their sample or ‘blueprint’ from. Rather they talk about the piano sound they have gone for.

Liebestraum performed on an acoustic piano

Liebestraum played on a Roland digital piano

Given we appreciate the playing differences and room buzz on the latter. Listen to them both and listen to the character of sound. Sometimes I find it easier to listen in reverse digital piano first.

Advancement in modelling technology

Digital pianos still aren’t there yet, digital pianos still suffer from inferior speaker quality compared to an acoustic cabinet. All it takes at Roberts Pianos is a one staircase journey. If you play a normal upright Yamaha U1 or Bechstein upright piano, then run upstairs in a few seconds and play the digital piano note. You’ll notice the tone is totally thinner on a digital piano.

For now pianos win. But in the future we will see gradual development in digital pianos to the point where they have more intelligent and increased processing speeds. But until speaker technology and cabinet design is improved we may have to wait for a while for anything as rich as the acoustic experience. Be careful, never say never, acoustic pianos also went through a transformation process from two strings and wooden frames to richer three stringed instruments with iron frames.

The bottom line is, Digital pianos are effective in some situations where an acoustic piano cannot fit or is impractical. Several of our clients purchase them for a retirement home practice instrument, for use in a flat or for a student dorm (Oxford is a student city). If you are looking for a digital piano as you noise is an issue or nighttime practice is a habit. You are alive at the right time. However, in the tone department, Acoustic pianos hold the trump card of actual live materials such as wood, copper and steel. All of which resonate like to the symphony of sound.

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