An Interview with Hans Adamson of Art Vista Productions
We talk with Hans Adamson of Art Vista Productions who has some well-considered thoughts about keyboard controllers and sampled piano libraries.
by David Keenum, May 2017
Hans Adamson, originally from Sweden, is a graduate of the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, with a Master’s degree in Piano Instruction and Music Education where he studied under Greta Erikson, the famous Swedish concert pianist. His background is as a performer, composer, and educator, including being the musical director for the Stockholm-based R&B group, Cloud Nine & the Nasty Angels from 1984 to 1990. He also studied recording engineering at UCLA, and now lives in Los Angeles. Besides some extensive work as a recording producer, he is, with Amanda Seward, the owner of and developer for Art Vista Productions.
Hans has some well-thought-out ideas about piano controllers and their effect on sampled piano libraries. So we thought it a good idea to find out what he has to say.
SoundBytes: First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. As a matter of background, can you tell us how you came to the decision to sample a piano?
Hans Adamson: I couldn’t find an inspiring piano sound for my songwriting. The pianos included in professional keyboards at the time had no realistic-sounding soft dynamics. They all seemed to be designed to cut through a mix in a pop/rock arrangement. So I sampled the Malmsjö for my own needs. I wanted inspiring harmonics and a singing tone that could carry a melody.
SB: So the Malmsjö was your first sampled piano?
HA: Yes. It was the most inspiring piano sound for me. It was my parents’ piano and the piano I had been playing during my studies. At the time, there were only hardware samplers around, and the sample length was very limited. I still recorded the full decay of each note, mostly so I would be able to program the decay to realistic lengths when I shortened the samples to fit into the available RAM on a Roland 760 or similar. Before I could realize these plans, I happened to read a very short news article in one of the trade magazines about an upcoming software product called “GigaSampler” from the company NemeSys, started by Jim van Buskirk. It was going to use hard drive streaming combined with the onset of each sample stored in RAM. I then realized I would be able to use my complete recordings, and “Malmsjö Acoustic Grand” became one of the very first sampled pianos for the very first software sampler (GigaSampler).
SB: When I first opened Virtual Grand Piano 3, I immediately noticed that it asked for you to choose your monitoring speakers (Loudspeaker, Studio Monitor, Computer Speakers, etc.) and your keyboard controller. I had not seen this before. What led you to thinking about solutions to these two “variables”?
HA: The prompt to choose a speaker type was introduced in VGP2, and still remains in the separate VGP3 legacy “Recording Styles” presets which still has the VGP2 style interface. I had anticipated a wider range of use for the original VGP – from amateur piano students to professional music recording, and I wanted to accommodate their different needs – a piano played back through some crappy computer speakers needs a different EQ to sound “good.” As regards to the keyboard controller presets, they are calibrated velocity response curves for a large number of keyboard controllers on the market. They are available on VGP3 and on all Art Vista pianos. I invited the composer community in Los Angeles to work with me to accomplish this, and many clients and composers provided me with their keyboard just for a day, so that I could custom program the response for each particular keyboard. The original velocity response was programmed using my Kawai MP9000 – the keyboard with the highest resolution and MIDI range of all. The response that I programmed for the Kawai MP9000 was exactly mimicking the response of the physical Steinway “B” recorded. Each new keyboard tested was set up at a right angle to the MP9000, same height. I would first determine the lowest and highest velocity playable on the test keyboard, and then adjust the programming for the response by playing different types of passages and styles in different dynamics on both keyboards. A piano player may use “finger play,” or he may use the weight of the arm, etc. and the adjustments made to the velocity programming were made by ear, so that each playing technique would render the same result in the final MIDI velocity output to Art Vista Virtual Grand Piano.
The need for this type of specific velocity response programming stems from the fact that keyboard controllers differ tremendously in the way they produce MIDI velocity values based on how the controller is played. Art Vista Virtual Grand Piano was created with a philosophy and method that I would like to think of as “holistic,” to make it possible to recreate the feel, touch and sound of the recorded instrument. This would only be possible if a specific playing touch would respond exactly like the original physical instrument. There are infinite problems to be solved when trying to create a virtual piano that feels, responds, and sounds just like the original. Some people believe physical modeling is the answer; I don’t. I have never heard a physical modeled piano that sounds anything like a live, breathing, resonating true recording of a first class (or any) piano. As piano sample developers, we have to be a little bit like magicians because we are to create an illusion of a recording of a real instrument. As long as we remember that, I believe we can fool 99.99% of most listeners.
SB: When you say keyboard controllers “differ” tremendously in the way they produce MIDI velocity values – how do they differ, and what do you think would be typical for a high quality controller?
HA: To get the best analysis of the keyboard controller’s performance, you should hit one single key 127 times from softest to hardest strike. This is because one key sensor may give values 5, 10, 15, etc., while the key next to it would give 6, 11, 16, and it could give you the impression that your resolution is 5, 6, 10, 11, 15, 16 while it is only half of this. Also, you should make sure that the on-board keyboard sensitivity is set to “normal,” which in my experience gives the highest resolution. If you have it set to anything other than this, you may just shift the velocity numbers upwards or downwards, for example it could show either a velocity range 11 – 127, or 1 – 117. Settings other than “normal” may also reduce the resolution. A theoretically “perfect” midi keyboard controller should be able to produce the following series of velocity values when playing back a single key 127 times from softest to loudest:
0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, 13,14 … 115,116,117,118,119,120, 121,122,123,124,125,126,127.
In reality, some very good controllers may show a series like this:
4,7,14,17,24,31,35,43,52,59, 60,65,69,73,75,83,89,95,97, 102,107,111,114,111
In my testing of all weighted controllers represented in the included keyboard presets for VGP3, only Kawai MP9000 and Kurzweil MIDIBOARD (both with impact sensors for velocity) showed series from 0 – 127 with high resolution (a large number of discrete velocity values). Also interesting is that keyboards with spring-loaded synth action produced just as high values. On these keyboards you generally have much better control of the velocity.
An accurate velocity response through all dynamics allows the original piano to transcend through the sampling technology. It allows a piano player to record a credible performance straight to MIDI without note by note editing. The calibrated velocity presets in VGP3 also allow the performer to feel at home both in the studio and on stage, even if different keyboard controllers are used, because the response will be the same.
SB: There are a large number of “Recording Styles” presets in VGP3. What is the story behind these?
HA: When I programmed the very first version of Art Vista Virtual Grand Piano, I had a team of Los Angeles composers and artists as beta testers. I used to tell them: “If you do this or that, you can achieve the sound of this particular record or recording and make it sound like that…” I soon realized that most users do not want to spend time programming – even if the roadmap is provided. So in VGP2 I worked with simulating every recording parameter that would make the Steinway “B” sound a specific way in well-known recordings of different styles, and then created a preset for each recording “style.” The parameters would include, but not be limited to the piano’s voicing and the microphone position. A jazz combo recording should not have too much of the low frequencies from the piano’s bass strings competing with the acoustic bass, so the position of the mic over the bass strings must be “adjusted” so that it will pick up more or less bass frequencies. In real life this is accomplished by turning a directional microphone off-axis which will cut the bass frequency, room coloration, piano distance, piano width in the recording, piano reverb, recorded saturation, compression, keyboard response from ppp-fff, and more. In VGP3 all of the best simulations of actual records can be instantly pulled up with generic names from a drop down menu. All the original re-creations of actual artist piano recordings from VGP2 can still be loaded in their original VGP2 format, including Bill Evans (Portrait in Jazz), Arthur Rubinstein, Norah Jones, Elton John (Elton John when he still was playing Steinway), Aretha Franklin (Atlantic recordings, Rock Steady, etc.), Keith Jarrett (Köln Concert), John Legend (Ordinary People), and many others. Some of these correspond to the generic recording styles in the drop down menu. For example, VGP2’s Elton John preset is the same as VGP3’s Vintage Pop. The Bill Evans preset is the same as Jazz Trio.
SB: So the pianos have been an important part of Art Vista and for you as a musician. Is this your main focus?
HA: I am actually a multi-instrumentalist, and have also had a life-long love for American music. I studied classical violin and piano, but I was also the Music Director for a Stockholm-based R&B group that played vintage R&B, soul, and Motown pop. All of this is reflected in the projects I have endeavored to produce with Art Vista. “Art Vista Back Beat Bass” was an attempt to recreate the sound of vintage acoustic bass recordings, such as can be heard in the stereo jazz recordings from the early 60’s that I love. “Cool Vibes” was my attempt to recreate Milt Jackson’s vibes sound from Modern Jazz Quartet. Our most recent release, “GrooveMaster Grooves” is the final chapter in my collaboration with Motown bass player and fusion pioneer Tony Newton: An intuitive bass loop player with genuine bass patterns – transcended through the decades, straight from the birth of pulsating bass-driven American pop. GrooveMaster Grooves is the fourth and last installment in the Tony Newton GrooveMaster series, which also includes three different intuitively playable electric bass libraries, performed by Tony: “Old School Bass,” “Bright & Funky Bass,” and “Double Neck Bass” (piccolo). Our next release will be a GrooveMaster-compatible funky Clavinet loop player performed by the ubiquitous Los Angeles funk Clavinet player Dan Farrow. I have also started a collaboration with guitarist and singer Sheldon Reynolds, formerly of Earth Wind and Fire, and we have so far recorded vocals. There is also a hardware product for music production planned that will take Art Vista in yet another direction. That’s all I can say for now.
SB: Is there anything you would like to add?
HA: I’d like to send a greeting to our loyal customers, going back to when we started in 2000. Running a small company like this, we have developed many friendships and met many interesting and talented people along the way. Thank you all!