What Makes the Ensemble Sound Special?
March 21, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
The Piano Ensemble is available today! A group of 4 grand pianos all played at the same time, deep sampled in our favorite modern orchestral hall! The library includes a great selection of articulations: regular sustains and staccatos, plucked strings and glissandos, clusters and rhythmic banging, and ethereal tremolos. We also made custom synths from the sounds of the piano ensemble, adding even more angelic and grand sounds. And that’s just the parts! The preset programs include a selection of main parts, sounds designs, effects, and more. You can see it in action here.
We absolutely love the way Pianos play in Soundpaint, and we have quite a few available. There’s the classic, free 1928 Piano that everyone can use, the 1901 Upright piano with a somewhat softer, more intimate sound, the Estonica piano with its colorful timbre, the 1990 C7 with a stronger sound… the list goes on. We have been really passionate about the instrument in Soundpaint, especially since they feel so real with 127 dynamic velocity layers. So, what’s different about a piano ensemble? And are there any good examples of historical piano ensemble music?
If you have several Soundpaint Pianos, you could make a part with 4 different pianos all playing at the same time. It would probably sound pretty cool, too! But there is a big difference between playing back 4 pianos that were recorded separately and playing back a true recording of 4 pianos, played by 4 musicians. The sound waves mix and morph together before they reach your ears (or our mics). It’s easy to hear the difference if you listen to any demo or watch the walkthrough for the piano ensemble, but let’s take a closer look.
When played solo, the piano can produce a rich, full-bodied, and nuanced sound. The dynamic range is huge, making it a very expressive instrument (the dynamic range is actually the instrument’s namesake, initially named clavicembalo con piano e forte, meaning “a harpsichord that can play soft and loud”). The sound is intimate and focused, with clarity and purpose in every note and detail. Solo Piano can be used to create a wide range of moods and emotions, from delicate and tender to intense and passionate. The piano's profound and penetrating presence perpetuates the pursuit of perfection, placating the mind and providing a peaceful and powerful outlet for creative expression.
In contrast, when multiple pianos are played together as an ensemble section, the sound takes on a different character. The sound has more depth, and a wider range of tonal color. It has a less intimate sound - not necessarily less detailed, but the details are focused on different aspects of the sound. The blend of multiple instruments creates a unified sound that is greater than the sum of its parts. Not louder per se, but a bit more… grand.
There is a sense of community and collaboration in the sound, with each musician working together to create a cohesive whole. And while you’re in control of the whole group when you play the ensemble in Soundpaint, the human, communal spirit of the ensemble still shines through. When we talk about starting with “good ingredients” for Soundpaint instruments, that human element is so important. The final sound is enriched so much when we start with great, human musicians.
Interestingly, the attack of the ensemble is much softer than the solo instrument. The same is true of the glockenspiel ensemble, which is one of the reasons that ensemble sounds so magical. Even the staccatos, while strong, are not as sharp as a solo staccato. One of the big reasons for this is the slight difference in timing between the 4 musicians. If they played every single note with robotic precision, the waveforms would amplify, but because they are ever-so-slightly different, the initial attack ends up slightly longer than normal. This gives the ensemble a uniquely smooth sound.
The room is obviously different, too: solo pianos are usually recorded in smaller rooms or studios, but the Piano Ensemble was recorded in a large hall (the same one used for the Aleatoric Orchestra, the Majestic Series, Extreme Ensembles, and more upcoming instruments…). This allows the sound of the ensemble to react more with the room before it reaches the microphones, and gives the ensemble a grandiose sense of width.
A lot of instrument ensembles are pretty standard. It’s obvious that a solo violin has a different sound from a section, and we’re pretty used to hearing the difference. Piano Ensembles, while not entirely unheard of, are certainly much less common. Considering how difficult it is to transport grand pianos (not to mention how expensive they can be), a recording session like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But, by deep sampling the ensemble, we can preserve and share the sound with everyone, giving you access to a unique take on the Piano in a much more convenient way.
Speaking of “historical” piano ensembles, classical/orchestral pieces featuring multiple pianos are rare, but not unheard of. There are actually examples dating back as far back as the piano itself. Even in these pieces, they are usually not played in unison (that is, they don’t play all the same notes). For example, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote multiple concertos for 3 pianos (originally for harpsichord, but even during Bach’s life, early pianos were often used in place of the harpsichord). In these concertos, the pianos sometimes play together, and sometimes play against each other (counterpoint).
Those are pretty old examples, and a piece for 3 pianos is much less common than a piece for 2. For something less than a century old, there’s Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. It’s a dramatic chamber piece from the mid 1900’s. Like all 20th century music, it may take a bit of an acquired taste, but it really showcases the difference 2 pianos playing in unison makes.
For an even more acquired taste, there’s Steve Reiche’s Piano Phase. It’s written for 2 pianos, playing a 12-note phrase. They start in unison, and then speed up and slow down into different tempos for 15-30 minutes. It is perhaps the very best example of “academic music,” and is definitely worth a listen (maybe just skip around, though). It’s also been performed by one person on two pianos, which seems difficult to say the least.
Reich wrote more “enjoyable” music, too. His Music for 18 Musicians for violin, cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and vibraphone (with no motor) is a minimalist piece with a unique and truly pleasant sound. Depending on how you engage with different kinds of music, it might make for good “study music” or active listening alike. It’s also a great demonstration of Reich’s passion for trying new things in music - a passion that we certainly share!