Studio711.com – Ben Martens

Music

Piano Music Without A Piano

I wrote a while back about using some digital software to take the output from my piano and run it through an extremely high quality piano recording. I’ve quietly continued to make recordings of the various pieces I learn. Some of them end up on my YouTube channel. I usually post them there if it was especially hard for me to learn and/or I don’t see any other recordings of that particular arrangement. When you’re learning a new piece, it’s nice to hear someone else play it first so that’s my contribution.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve found some new (to me) technology that has opened up new possibilities: I’m now able to take a piece of sheet music, and turn it into a recording without ever touching a piano. Here’s the process:

  1. I start by scanning in the sheet music and making it a PDF file.
  2. MuseScore is a free download for creating and editing digital sheet music. I’ve used it before to create simpler versions of songs for Elijah when he was taking lessons, but it also has the ability to import a PDF. So I give I the PDF from the previous step and it spits out a Muse Score file.
  3. The digital sheet music has been very close to correct in my experience but usually needs some fixes so I make those right in MuseScore. I save the output to a MIDI file.
  4. At this point I have a MIDI file which has all the right notes, but it sounds very robotic because every note is timed exactly correctly and there’s no use of the sustain pedal. I suppose I could add the sustain pedal into the sheet music, but I’ve found it easier to add the pedal via the free MidiEditor software.
  5. I have already purchased the “Embertone Walker 1955 Concert D” piano software which renders a MIDI file out into an unbelievably good sounding audio file. It’s available for as little as $39.
  6. Now that I have a good MIDI file, I import it into the free Cakewalk software and set Cakewalk to render out through the Embertone piano software. I adjust the volume levels a bit and voila, in a few seconds I have an MP3 or WAV file.

The output sounds great! I suspect that many people would never know that it was produced without touching a piano. I’m interested in playing with the MIDI file even more to see if I could make it sound even more realistic. I’m curious how it would sound if I wrote some code to slightly alter the timing and velocity of each note to give it a bit more of the variability that you’d get from a human.

Today I’m using this to help our choir at church. I can easily scan in each piano piece and make recordings of the full accompaniment without taking the time to learn it. I also make manual recordings (because it’s faster) of the individual parts. All those files get posted to a share and now everyone can easily practice at home.

Have I ruined music by making it too nerdy? Not in my book. I still end up needing to play a lot of this live, but it’s really handy to have all these tools in my back pocket to pull out when they fit the situation.

P.S. If you’re not overwhelmed by software recommendations yet, I’ll throw in one more recommendation for Nail the Pitch which is a free app that tells you what note you are singing. As I practice the choir song, I can visually see if I’m hitting the right notes.

The Church’s One Foundation

I’ve really been enjoying the new piano software! I’ve been tweaking the settings so that I can play live through my laptop without any noticeable lag. Hearing the beautiful piano sound makes me realize the shortcomings of the default sound that comes out of the piano.

My recording process was a bit different for this song. I recorded video and MIDI, processed the MIDI into a WAV file and then combined the video and audio to make the final video. This piece is “The Church’s One Foundation” and it’s arranged by Cindy Berry. (Full lyrics)

Embertone Walker Piano Review

My Korg C303 piano has MIDI input/output and I’ve been recording my songs in MIDI for the last couple years with the thought that maybe someday I’d get a nicer piano and then I could hear all these songs again. It’s a bit silly since lots of MIDI recordings of these same songs are available from better performers than me, but hey, it’s a hobby. It doesn’t have to make sense. Well the time has come. I’ve purchased a nicer piano, or at least I’ve purchased the soul of one.

I understood very little about this when I started but here’s what I’ve figured out so far. You can make a digital version of any instrument (or anything that makes sounds) by taking samples of it. Press a key, record the sound, press another key, record it and so on. If you do enough of these and have good software, you can synthesize the sound of the entire instrument. Companies have immensely complex rigs set up to sample instruments and Embertone is one of them. I purchased their “Walker 1955 Concert D” package. They sampled each key of a 9′ Steinway Concert D Grand pressing at 36 different velocities, with every pedal combination in for various durations to create over 10,000 samples and oh yeah, they did the whole process six different times with the microphone in various places. I purchased the “Lite” package which gives me a subset of those samples but it sounds great to me and has been more than enjoyable for me to play around with.

It took a long time to figure out how to actually use the package when I downloaded it. I had to download the virtual instrument, set up Cakewalk (Digital Audio Workstation software), hook them together, plug in a MIDI file and voila, it worked! There are seemingly endless customizations that can be made to the sound in the software but it sounds great even with all the defaults.

But blah blah blah, what does it sound like?! I recorded a quick sample and I edited it to flip back and forth between the default sound out of my piano and the default sound out of the virtual piano.

Most of the organ and piano pieces for our virtual church services (youtube.com/calvarylutheranwa) are recorded by two other members of our church but I fill in every once in a while. It will be fun to use this package for those pieces. I think I’ll be playing the preservice music for this Sunday’s service if you want to check it out in action. Or for much better pianists and much nicer recordings, check out the demos on the product page.

For the Beauty of the Earth

Here’s one I recorded a while back, but in the Lutheran church we generally use this tune in the season of epiphany and call it “As With Gladness Men Of Old”.

In Jon Schmidt’s recording, he has a beautiful cello playing along with it. So in addition to my normal piano-only recording, I also messed around with digital instruments and added in a cello. There’s no video for this but you can hear me playing along with my digital cello attempt. I played that cello line on my piano, recorded the MIDI file for it and then ran it through this program to make it sound like a cello.

I used Bandlab with a free cello VST plugin so it’s all free and doesn’t sound amazing, but it was such an interesting rabbit hole to dive into. For example, check out the Embertone digital instruments and listen to some of those cello samples! Some day I would love to get a really nice piano file and make my piano sound even better.

Christmas Piano

Hopefully you’re not burnt out on Christmas music yet because this post has a bunch of it! Elijah has been learning Silent Night and I’ve recorded 3 songs as well. Two of these videos will be popping up on our church Facebook page leading up to Christmas as well. I put out a call for people to submit videos of themselves playing Christmas music and we got a good response. There are some amazing musicians in our congregation! The first video will launch today at 4pm and then continue daily up to Christmas.

Onward Christian Soldiers

I finished another song in Jon Schmidt’s “Hymns Without Words” book. This time it was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The title of the hymn can lead to some misunderstanding. The hymn isn’t promoting a militant church body as the world would see it. It reminds us that the battle against the devil is real and requires daily focus. (See Ephesians 6:10-18 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5.) You can view the full hymn text on hymnary.org.

Homecoming by Jon Schmidt

I’m still chugging my way through this piano book by Jon Schmidt. The latest one I learned was Homecoming (Spotify link). I decided to just record this one at home instead of doing it on the nicer piano at church. I plugged an audio recorder into the headphone jack on the piano and that worked well, but I couldn’t get a good camera angle so it’s more obvious when I change splice two clips together to take out my page turn.

Song of the Ocean

I’m plowing my way through the Jon Schmidt piano book and the next one was “Song of the Ocean”. I probably didn’t polish this one as much as I should have, but I never got totally hooked on this one and I’m ready to move on.

Group Hymn

Three weeks ago, we decided to try a “socially distant group hymn” with church members. The idea isn’t unique, but it felt like a fun way to join together virtually. It was tough to convince people to send me videos of themselves singing, but eventually we had 28 people who participated. Editing it was more of a challenge than I expected as even my beefy new PC had trouble rendering all of those video streams at the same time. But I was able to render out each row by itself and then combine those rows into the final video. We used it in our online service last Sunday and then posted it by itself as well. Enjoy!