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Essential Listening: Classic Piano Sounds

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening: Timeless Guitar Tones

Welcome back to Essential Listening. Last time we took a look at some timeless electric guitar tones that seem to transcend the decades, but today it is all about piano! Don't let the title fool you, these piano sounds are not just for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but for rock, RnB, and just about every genre.

In the piano world, there are a few makes and models that work on everything. However, there are differences! Understanding these key differences can go along way to getting the perfect piano sound for any track. Even if you cannot afford one (I know I can't!), you will always be able to find excellent sample libraries. There's simply no excuse for not choosing the right piano!


Steinway and Sons

Steinway and Sons Logo

Steinway and Sons Logo

If there ever was a piano that all others were measured against, it would probably be the Steinway D. As one of the world's oldest piano manufacturers, Steinway has been a driving force in the perfection of pianos in all forms, whether they are grand, baby grand, or upright. Along with their lesser brands, Boston and Essex, Steinway offers a piano for just about every need and budget.

But why are the German-American pianos so popular? The primary reason for Steinway's huge popularity is in the instruments exceedingly well-balanced tone. With a clear, well-balanced sound that is not too bright and not too bassy, a Steinway (particularly a D model) with fit in any genre. Coupled with smooth action and good projection, they are often a piano players dream piano.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The even tone throughout the entire range of the piano from top to bottom. Nothing is ever too much on a Steinway.
  • Clear attack with plenty of sustain. The piano never fights itself and allows all notes in a chord to ring evenly (unless the player voices the chord differently).
  • The balance between the piano's resonance and the natural sound of the strings themselves. Some claim Steinways can sound stringy at times (particularly older ones), but that is not always a bad thing. Achieving a balance between the sound board, shell, and strings can be a daunting task, but Steinway has perfected the art.

Yamaha

Yamaha Logo

Yamaha Logo

If the Steinway D is the epitome of balance and the standard reference for all pianos, then Yamahas are the kings of clarity and attack. With their flagship C grands (traditionally the C7 but a variety of C, CFX, CX, etc. exist) Yamahas are known for their bell-like quality and pristine tone.

When playing fast, intricate runs or extended chords, everything will shine through on a Yamaha, with no mud whatsoever. While some players may find this extreme clarity less desirable (since it will reveal even the smallest mistake), there is no better piano when clarity and punch are needed.

Often Yamahas will be found with many jazz and rock players who love their clear punch so they can cut through a big band or distorted guitar. Classical phenoms often love the clear tone to showcase their virtuosity in difficult pieces.  

Here are some points to listen for:

  • Clarity of the attack, particularly on runs or solos. Every note speaks cleanly!
  • Smooth tone during the sustain, with almost no beating between octaves (unless tuned otherwise). With a piano as clean as a Yamaha C7 or similar, accurate tuning is especially important.
  • Even sound throughout the entire range of the piano, but notably different to the Steinway. When compared against a Steinway, Yamahas are often considered to sound more bell-like in their attack.

Bösendorfer

Bosendorfer Logo

Bösendorfer Logo

While currently an entirely owned subsidiary of Yamaha, the Bösendorfer grew to be breed of piano all its own. While the Steinway and Yamaha strive for balance or clarity, a Bösendorfer goes for a thick rich tone; and a whole lot of bass.

What sets Bösendorfer apart physically with a few models (particularly the 290 Imperial model) is the additional keys extending down into the bass range. On the 290 Imperial these extend down a full octave, reaching a total of 97 keys! If you want bass, you've got it here!

While traditionally used more for classical music, Bösendorfers have found their way into the hearts of other genres as well. Jazz and rock players who seek a lush, full sound, or require a bombastic bottom end, easily gravitate towards Bösendorfers over other brands. In fact, when producing harmonic chords (an extended technique used often in Bebop and similar styles) a Bösendorfer resonates better than all others, and producers a full tone and a pseudo fundamental that was not actually played. 

As a company, Bösendorfer goes all the way back to 1828, and even Franz Liszt was a proponent of Bösendorfer pianos, stating that only they could withstand his intense playing. Here are some points to listen for:

  • Rich tone with massive bass. Even when playing higher notes the lowest strings still slightly resonate to give the instrument a full tone across the entire piano.
  • Sensitive and harmonically rich treble keys, thanks to the instruments removable capo d'astro bar.
  • Overall harmonic complexity of the instrument due to using spruce wood. Spruce lends itself to better sound transmission than reflection over other woods. This unique feature allows the weaker harmonics to sing through more easily on a Bösendorfer.

Conclusion

While all the pianos discussed here are different, they maintain a world-class tone, and evenness through the entire instrument. The differences come in their target goals for manufacturing.

Need an even sounding piano? Go with a Steinway. Is clarity and diction more important? A Yamaha would do wonders. Would a richer tone with extended bass be beneficial? Bösendorfer is the way to go.

Keep in mind too that by changing the micing on the instrument can drastically change the tone the piano in a recording, but always start at the source if you can! Until next time, thanks for reading!

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