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!