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How Do You Make a Piano Sound Realistic


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Aside from just changing the velocity of the notes of the piano, what could I do to make the piano VST TruePiano sound more authentic, or at least get close to sounding authentic? This section below has reverb and the note velocity has been changed to give it a non-robotic sound. But is there anything more I can do to make it sound realistic?

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Pianos are extremely tough to humanize with a mouse and by tough i mean time consuming.  You can easily lose hours working on a single phrase, making sure each block on the piano roll sounds appropriate. While velocity is certainly significant it's far from your only concern,  Note length, usually affected by a damper pedal, and the timing of each key all need to be spot on with what a live pianist would perform in order to get it to sound realistic. Honestly, no live piano part would sound perfectly quantized to the grid like the example you have here.  Best bet would be to use a midi keyboard to play the part then go back and make smaller corrections with the mouse.  With a little practice you can get most of your ideal take in a few minutes rather than hours.  

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Unfortunately, I have no MIDI keyboard at hand. So what I should do is slightly move the notes a tad to the left or right of the grid to give it more of a humanized feel. As for the uploaded piano section, is there anything else I can do to make it sound more realistic as far as sound goes? This is going to be apart of an electronic dance music remix, but I'd like to use the piano for this specific thing, which is why there is a lot of silence in between, because other instruments are going to fill those spaces.

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Even though you have no midi piano to play on, can you imagine yourself playing the part on a real piano, and what that might sound like? For example, if I were playing this, I would play the melody parts like 00:5 soft and legato, except for the F6 note which I might accent. And I would play rapid bass stuff like at 0:51 harsher, louder, and more staccato. I might even rush it a bit.

Also, instead of just randomizing the velocities to get a "real" sound, try basing your velocities on phrasing. Whatever makes sense "musically:" maybe the end of a phrase should be louder, or a phrase should start loud then get soft, or chords with dissonance should be louder, or higher notes should be louder. Not sure how I could describe it better.

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7 hours ago, Slimy said:

Also, instead of just randomizing the velocities to get a "real" sound, try basing your velocities on phrasing. Whatever makes sense "musically:" maybe the end of a phrase should be louder, or a phrase should start loud then get soft, or chords with dissonance should be louder, or higher notes should be louder. Not sure how I could describe it better.

This so much. In fact, this applies to any instrument you try to humanize - shape your phrasing with dynamics.

One more piece of advice for Piano specifically is to emulate the damper pedal, which sustains notes until you release the pedal in real life. One way to do do this, max the sustain envelope on the sampler to simulate the pedal being "pressed", then hard set it to zero every time it's "not pressed". That in combination with shaping dynamics with phrasing is how I get the piano to sound the way it does at the end of my FF9 track"Terraforming Gaia", for example.

It's a unique feature of the piano, so it's a good idea to look up how a damper pedal works to see why I suggested what I did. It helps a whole lot, though.

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10 hours ago, Gario said:

This so much. In fact, this applies to any instrument you try to humanize - shape your phrasing with dynamics.

One more piece of advice for Piano specifically is to emulate the damper pedal, which sustains notes until you release the pedal in real life. One way to do do this, max the sustain envelope on the sampler to simulate the pedal being "pressed", then hard set it to zero every time it's "not pressed". That in combination with shaping dynamics with phrasing is how I get the piano to sound the way it does at the end of my FF9 track"Terraforming Gaia", for example.

It's a unique feature of the piano, so it's a good idea to look up how a damper pedal works to see why I suggested what I did. It helps a whole lot, though.

I can't seem to automate the "Reverb Amount" "Keyboard Dynamics" on True Pianos. I can manually adjust them, but that's not what I want. I'll take a listen to your remix.

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10 hours ago, timaeus222 said:

You could also try moving the Keyboard Dynamics slider value further to the right to soften the notes themselves, even without adjusting the velocities.

Honestly, I've never paid attention to these things in True Pianos. I just don't know how to automate them. I did go to Tools > Last tweaked to create an automation clip, but that isn't doing anything.

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34 minutes ago, timaeus222 said:

I really just mean move the setting once, try it out, and once you like it, leave it there. It dampens your note dynamics a certain amount, depending on how large the value is. More negative = harder, and more positive = softer. TruePianos isn't a VST that is meant to be automated per se.

That's unfortunate. I did notice the difference in the note dynamics when I was sliding it around, which is why I was trying to automate it, aside from just doing the reverb. Oh well. Thanks for the tip.

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Let me start from the top. Reverb isn't realism. A perfectly dry performance with a half-decent piano sound will sound more real than a robot playing on a real piano. The most important thing is performance, and it's more important to the music than the sound of the piano itself. So let's not worry about the sound as much as the performance.

A real pianist will not hit every note exactly the same velocity. But it's not random either. The suggestion to imagine playing the part is good, you can even pretend your desk is a piano, and figure out the velocity levels from there. Be mindful of how hard, how quickly, and for how long you "press" a "key". Also, listen for any changes in velocity layers in the piano sound. If you can hear a different sample between two close velocities, it's not a good piano. But you can use it to your advantage. Decide to use velocity layers to emphasize or de-emphasize particular notes in a phrase. I know I did this with a Majora's Mask remix (got NO'd, but for other reasons). The piano becomes very emotive that way, it feels like a performance with just this one change. I don't know about this particular VST, though, it might be better than that.

A real pianist won't use perfect timing, even if they wanted to. Some notes will trail behind the beat, others slightly ahead. There might be a slight swing to it all. Again, pretending to play a piano on your desk might work here. There might also be a keyboard->midi tool in your DAW, that lets you use the computer keyboard to record notes. It'll get you the timing needed, though the computer keyboard doesn't read velocity so you'd have to do that manually. But you were gonna do that anyway.

Those are the two important ones. But velocity has to actually do something to the sound itself. Some pianos have a setting for how strongly note velocity affects the sound. There should be a small but noticeable difference between notes that are 20 velocity levels apart, and a very noticeable one with notes 40 velocity levels apart. If there isn't, you'll probably want to use a different piano. Obviously, there'd be huge differences between extreme values.

Provided the piano is responsive to velocity, this should be enough. But if not...

A real pianist will use the piano's pedals, depending on what they're playing. Among the midi CC, there should be sustain. A real piano can have three pedals: sustain, sostenuto and soft. I doubt (but I don't know for sure) this particular VST has support for the other two, but sustain is a given. If you think the writing would benefit from sustain, use it. I would recommend starting the "on" level a few ticks into the first note, and switching to off just before the end of the measure/beat, on whatever beat you want to change it. This is optional, however, and given your piano piece is an element in an electronic mix, so the sustain might just make the piano too dominant.

Then there's reverb. If you want the piano close and clear, make sure to keep the dry/wet mix strong on the dry side, and make the reflections rather late.  Experiment with the settings. Large or small room? Near or far from the listener? Reverb-y or dead room? These would all be available in a decent reverb plugin, but the piano VST might just have a single reverb knob. I recommend using a separate reverb, so you have more control. In general, for an electronic mix, I would try a large room (size), close to the listener (long pre-delay, more dry than wet), and a fairly reverb-y room (high reverberation/length, medium-low damping)... but it depends on what the rest of the track is and how the piano should fit in there. Finally, there's also track level (volume), which will help fit the piano into the soundscape too.

Reverb isn't always the best solution. In some cases I might try a rather small, soft, or quick reverb, and use a delay instead for making it big and atmospheric. Maybe a compressor with long attack (~200ms attack) after the reverb and everything else. Sometimes I'd want a really dry (no reverb, few other effects) sound, but filter out the low frequencies for a bright but brittle sound, or filter out some of the low mids to take out the body of the sound. You can use EQ to do that. It all depends on how exactly you want to use the piano.

It's okay if it sounds like a real musician on a fake instrument. A fake musician on a real instrument is usually not what you want. But you gotta make that real musician part at least plausible. Good luck.

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Depending on the daw you can lay down the patterns with quantize on. If you can quantize with some swing in the notes (60% is a good ratio, assuming 50% is straight ahead with no swing) it will help it sound more natural. After you lay the track down turn quantize back off and move the notes slightly ahead or behind...but try to listen and move the notes so they sound more like how a pianist would play them. Or better yet, how you would personally play them if you could. Also adjust the lengths of the notes and the velocity. And I can't stress enough how much the ratio of swing used for quantize makes it sound more natural and groovier if you want groovy. 

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If that isn't up to snuff try and get a cheap but full midi keyboard (even a Cassio keyboard at a garage sale has midi in and out). Just make sure you have an audio interface with midi input unless you are going the usb rout. Last but not least, if you don't want to get a decent condenser mic and record real piano, just get Kontact. It uses live recordings of each piano note struck with different velocities and it comes very close to emulating a real piano. It's awesome. I think there are free demos out there for you to try. I highly recommend it!

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