It is with great pleasure that I introduce my good friend Gary Motley, Director of Jazz studies at Emory University.
While most people know me as a traditional jazz pianist, few are aware of my fascination with technology-especially when it comes to music. This stems from my early interest in electrical engineering. In those days, keyboards were more synth-like and recreating a decent piano sound was primal at best. Fast- forward twenty-five years and Yamaha introduces the N3 Hybrid piano.
Needless to say the announcement of this instrument peeked my curiosity. As I was a bit skeptical, I headed off to my local music store to check out this new arrival. Upon inspection, I was remarkably surprised not only by the sound but the feel as well. Could it be that Yamaha actually figured out how to recreate the feel and expression of a real grand piano in a virtual environment? This question would lead me on a two-year journey to learn more about this instrument and whether or not it would suit my needs.
Like many other pianists, I spent years trying to find “my sound”. From trying various pianos to experimenting with multiple microphone placement techniques, I always walked away feeling that I was close but not quite there. This new hybrid piano promised to remedy all of that. While skeptical I was about to be enlightened.
After doing my homework, I finally took the plunge and acquired the N3. A bit nervous about my decision, I began to explore this new instrument, pulling out all of the stops to see what it was made of and whether or not it could handle what I was prepared to dish out.
I began by simply playing melodic lines, listening for sample loops or anything that might suggest that the sounds being reproduced were artificial. To my surprise, I could not detect anything. I proceeded to explore harmonies, moving from sparse to dense and got the same result. From legato passages to brief staccato spurts, the N3 responded, giving me exactly the sound that I would expect from an acoustic piano. From full pedaling to half pedaling, the appropriate sound samples were activated in a smooth, seamless manner. From Ellington to Monk and Bill Evans with a bit of James P. Johnson thrown in for good measure, I was pleasantly surprised by the richness of the N3’s sound (which also rattled my ceiling and a couple of glasses on a nearby table).
Once I embraced the sound of the N3, I moved on to its playability. Most pianists shy away from keyboard instruments because they don’t feel like a real piano. Consequently, there is an inherent belief that one’s technique might suffer from prolonged use of a non-acoustic instrument. Yamaha’s solution was quite simple. They decided to use the same action as used in the C7. This along with a transducer that recreates vibrations in the keys creates an additional sensory experience when playing the instrument. I was amazed at the power I felt in the lower register of the instrument. Psychologically, I had to adjust to hearing the sound of a concert grand piano coming out of device that was barely 5’4’’. Closing my eyes, I quickly got over it and continued to immerse myself in this virtual world.
Even when playing the N3 using headphones (be sure to use good quality studio headphones), the transducer is still engaged so that you can feel the vibrations through your fingers. Again from slow passages to boogie-woogie and stride piano, the N3 felt great, responding in a balance and fluid manner. My only complaint is that it was a bit sluggish when I tried to play rapid repeated thirty-second notes. It was here that I realized that the N3’s action was designed slightly differently from true acoustic action, which would allow the hammers to bounce off of the strings (silly me, I forgot that there were no strings attached-literally). However, this was a small price to pay, considering everything else that I was able to execute effortlessly.
After exploring these crucial aspects of the N3, I wanted to determine its overall usefulness in a studio environment. My first instinct was to place microphones on the piano in a traditional fashion when it occurred to me that the piano had already been miked when the sound samples were created. So I decided to connect the audio outputs directly to my audio interface, only to discover the most incredible piano sound that I had ever heard from a sampled device. The signals were clean with no distortion or pops. Reverb effects can be adjusted or removed from the output, making the signals as clear and quiet as possible for studio applications. Recording the N3 using the midi-out was equally as effective with no dropouts or latency. I even tried triggering the N3 from my semi-weighted portable keyboard with no problem.
However, doing so really highlighted the limited velocity sensitivity of my keyboard. It was here that I really appreciated the attention to detail by Yamaha in developing a sensor system that allows for a far wider velocity range. This combined with their complex multi-sampling technique separates the N3 from the rest of the pack. This range of expression was accurately reproduced by the instrument (midi-in) in real time from the sequencing software in my workstation. Again, I was quite impressed.
I have spent the last three months immersing myself in the world of the N3. With its consistent sound, balanced action and interface capabilities, I have been able to focus on creating music rather than how to get the best sound on record. This instrument allows me to spend my time exploring my ideas. It is rapidly changing how I work in the studio. It will also change how I teach. It certainly has changed how I play-since I now am virtually the proud owner of a concert grand piano!
Gary Motley is a professional jazz pianist and composer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also the director of Jazz Studies at Emory University.
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