What is Pianobook?
From first and most practical look, Pianobook is a collection of free virtual instruments accessible to anybody to download. Not only is this a great resource of downloadable instruments (there are over 600 of them!), it is also a community that values the story and users who create these instruments, inspiring and educating users to share their own stories and sounds with the Pianobook community. I am a beginner to the world of virtual instruments, so I will try to explain it to the non-initiated who would like to better understand.
First off, what is a virtual instrument?
A recording of each note on a musical instrument is recorded, it can then be played using MIDI.
What is MIDI?
It stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It basically means that, just like a computer where you hit a letter on the keyboard and it types it, you can use different types of MIDI controllers such as a piano keyboard, or a midi drum kit - there are many types of MIDI controllers out there. The most common type is a keyboard. So that when you hit a note on the keyboard, the corresponding note on whatever virtual instrument you have loaded up will play. It is also possible to "sequence" which is a modern way of automating music. In sequencing, the word "piano roll" is still used which refers back to the days of player pianos where they had rolls of paper with holes punched in them so that when when the paper rolled through the piano player mechanism, it would play the corresponding notes to where the hole was in the piece of paper. Technology has come a long way since the days of the player piano. Using computers, when a MIDI note is pressed, a sample is played.
What is a sample?
This is the sound recording that is played when a MIDI note is triggered or sequenced. It used to be that virtual instruments were a 1:1 ratio. A key was triggered, and a corresponding sampled recording was played. However, this was the olden days of music technology - since then the complexity has multiplied exponentially. Modern virtual instruments are now said to be "multisampled".
What is multisampling?
Instead of the 1:1 ratio of a sampled being triggered, there are multiple variables and parameters that determine what happens when a note is triggered. The first type of parameter related to triggering notes was velocity - how hard or soft the note was triggered. This determined the volume of the sample was played back. Sampling has come a long way since volume was the only variable - in a multisampled instrument, when the velocity changes, like if you hit the key hard or soft - instead of the same recording being played a different volume - a different sample will be played where the instrument was recorded at a different dynamic level.
What are dynamics?
Dynamics refer to the energy in a piece of music. Words like "piano" are used to tell the musician to play soft, while "forte" is used to play loud. In mutisampled instruments, the velocity of a MIDI note will trigger a recording of that instrument at a corresponding dynamic level. Multisampled instruments that have access to recordings of different dynamic levels are said to have multiple "dynamic layers". In addition to samples recorded at different dynamic layers, there are usually multiple different recordings of a sampled recorded at the SAME dynamic layer. When a recording utilizes multiple recordings of the same dynamic layer it is called "round robin".
What is round robin on a multisampled instrument?
Round robin sampling is when there are a pool of samples recorded at the same volume so that each time you trigger the note - it gives a different recording of the same instrument at the same volume. For instance, if you have a hi-hat sample being triggered, each hit will be slightly different which will be imperceptible, but it will make the overall sound have as more natural and realistic feel. Between "round robin" and "dynamic layers" there are many different samples that are played when a MIDI note is triggered. There is one more common parameter on the multisampled instrument that refers to technique.
What is technique on a multisampled instrument?
On a percussion instrument, such as a drum being hit with a stick - the only variables that are useful in determining what sample to play are how hard or soft the drum was hit. For example on a simple drum sample, there might be 3 dynamic layers and 5 round robins. So depending how hard you trigger the sample (soft, medium, or hard) it will draw from a possibility of 5 round robin samples for each dynamic layer. That creates a total of 1:15. One note could equal 15 recorded samples. This is the case for percussive instruments, such as drums, but also things like marimba and even a piano. What about an instrument that is more expressive - such as a cello or flute?
One of the instruments I use is for a string section in an orchestra. It has multiple techniques/articulations available - there are latin words to describe different techniques used with a bow: super sul tasto, flautando, normale, sul pont, tremolo. This is just one example specific to a string section. Each instrument is different, with different expressive qualities. Using MIDI faders and knobs, I can seamlessly blend between techniques, as if I was the conductor using my hands to bring out certain articulations/techniques and dynamic layers. In addition to all these elements relating to the instrument, some virtual instruments are recorded with multiple microphones whose individual levels can be controlled. For instance, there might be close mics, mics 3 feet away, and mics 50 feet away all capturing difference levels of intimacy and ambience. Also, each microphone has different qualities that bring out different timbres of an instrument and its resonance in the room it was recorded in. You can start to get an idea of the complexity of the modern virtual instrument.
What makes Pianobook unique?
Pianobook started out as user community that inspires and educates users on how to turn everyday pianos into multisampled virtual instruments. One of the reasons I love this is that its mission in in contrast that drives the creation of most virtual instruments. For instance, most virtual pianos are recorded in grand halls and sound very majestic. This type of virtual instrument is great for telling an epic story, but I also believe that each piano is unique and tells its own story, and the majestic piano in a grand hall just happens to be one. What about the old family piano in the basement? Or the studio piano in the community college practice room? As a lover of instruments, I have never played a piano that had the same sound as another. Thanks to the accessibility of the technology to create virtual instruments, users can turn the instruments they love into virtual instruments that can be shared around the world. Since the beginning of pianobook, the types of instruments sampled has extended far beyond the piano. There are celestas, church organs, treated drums, saws and other unimaginable curiosities. There are currently 600+ instruments available to download. I am honestly amazed at the scope of this project and its potential as I look forward to seeing how it continues to unfold. To get an idea of Pianobook, I encourage you to check out Christian Henson, the creator of Pianobook, as well as one of the founders of Spitfire Audio. His youtube videos are amazing. I've learned so much about music from these videos. This video shows the process of turning his piano into a virtual instrument. Enjoy!
Hey all, I wanted to let you know what I've been up to this summer and what musical ideas/processes/technologies I've recently become obsessed with.
At the very beginning of July, I was out on my friend's sail boat and had a traumatic fall. While we were docking, with the rope in my head I made a leap from the boat to the dock. The tip of sandal caught on the lifeline and I fell onto the concrete dock. I went to the ER it was discovered I had 3 broken ribs and had injured my liver in the fall. I was transferred to Harborview for observation and to see if surgery was required. Luckily, I did not require surgery and was sent home the next day. I also injured my right arm and wrist. The doctor told me I need to take it really easy for the next 3 months while my ribs and liver heal. I am thinking I will be able to ease back into teaching, but I haven't felt up to it yet, and my wrist still hurts after playing guitar.
Over the last month I have had a lot of time to watch Youtube music tutorials. I can't remember how I got there, but I ended up down a rabbit hole relating to virtual orchestration. During one of the tutorials relating to how to play a virtual orchestra, I noticed there was another layer below where the MIDI notes were being written. I instinctually knew this was very important and had to find out what it was. What I had observed was "automation lanes". A simplified explanation of automation lanes is that you can control and write parameters into the track of the instrument you are playing, such as volume. So in addition to the notes being played, the volume of the whole instrument could be written into the track to create dynamics. However, it is much more complex than just volume. There are multiple automation lanes, and each one controls a different aspect of the instrument being played. These automation lanes can be drawn in, or they can be controlled live in a real time with a fader or knob. When you move the fader up and down, it cycles seamlessly through different recordings of the note being played at different volumes using a wide array of techniques. When a producer is using these automation lanes, they are often times using multiple faders simultaneously to control dynamics and techniques of the instrument. The realism and expression this brings to virtual orchestration is astounding in my opinion.
How could this be applied? Take a simple chord progression of triads (3 note chords) on a keyboard. Play this into a midi editor in a digital audio workstation and select an instrument that has a lot of nuance, like a cello. Then copy this chord progression on 3 different tracks. For the first track, delete all of the notes except for the high notes. For the 2nd track, delete all the notes except the middle notes. For the 3rd track delete all the notes except the low ones. Now go back to each one of these tracks individually and record the automation for the dynamics and technique, either by writing it in with your mouse, or using a MIDI fader or knob. This brings dynamic and life to the each track. When you play them all back together it will sound like an orchestra breathing. If you want to see what I am talking about, this is the video that opened my eyes and ears:
If you found this video interesting, I recommend watching the follow up video. The follow up walks you through the process I described above of how to turn a simple chord progression into an orchestral arrangement.
Christian Henson is the creator of this video, as well as co-founder of Spitfire Audio. In addition to him making these amazing videos and being the founder of one of the company that makes some of the most high quality virtual instruments for professional application, here are some projects that he is also involved in that happen to be FREE!
BBCSO Discover - https://www.spitfireaudio.com/shop/a-z/bbc-symphony-orchestra-discover/
This is a virtual instrument library of the BBC Symphonic Orchestra that is free. You do have to fill out a survey and wait 14 days, but it has all of the instruments of an orchestra and ability to play with dynamics and expression for each one. This is a great tool to help you get started writing music, and you can always upgrade to the next level if you became more interested. Here is a youtube video Introduction to BBCSO Discover.
Spitfire Labs - https://labs.spitfireaudio.com/
This is another free collection of virtual instruments by Spitfire. It is a curated collection of eclectic instruments such as autoharp, synth strings and whale sounds.
Pianobook - https://www.pianobook.co.uk/
This is another project by Christian Henson with a focus on sampling your own piano and uploading it to an online library. The result is a huge collection of sampled pianos from all over the world, as well as many other instruments. There are tutorials here that teach you how to sample your own instruments and a collaborative online community of other people doing this work to help, all together creating a massive instrument library.
I look forward to getting back to playing and teaching real instruments soon. In the meantime, I will be diving deeper into what I have shared here so that I can be a greater resource for my students. In the spring of this last year, I did a group class called "How Music Works". It was my first online group class and I learned a bunch that I look forward to applying and making future classes better. In the fall, I am planning to do more online group classes that focus on music theory, music production and technology, so stay tuned by signing up for my e-mail list. Thank you!