IRCAM Prepared Piano: A virtual ‘prepared piano’ at your finger tips

Review of the IRCAM Prepared Piano software instrument by UVI. Photo: Prepared Piano: Wiki commons

COLLEGE PARK Md., September 27, 2013 – As far back as Beethoven’s time, composers have been seeking to coax and even force new sounds out of the piano. But it was the 20th century composer John Cage (with some significant precedents) who would eventually expose both composers and audiences to the full potential of non-standard piano techniques.

The sound of a “prepared piano” – or piano strings played with various implements or altered with internal modifications each of which generates unusual, nonstandard tones – has since become an accepted timbral component of modern concert and film music.

In John Cage’s heyday – which mainly unfolded during the years after the Second World War and into the 1960s – prepared pianos were individual undertakings, with modifications largely performed by or under the supervision of the composers or performers themselves. Strings could be modified by inserting objects, such as rubber erasers, nails, or tacks, beneath certain strings. The sound could also be altered by the piano soloist who might simply reach over and pluck a string or strings with the fingers or set a cluster of strings vibrating with a slap of the open palm.

Fast forward to 2013. If a composer or performer wants to perform a program of compositions for prepared piano, why go through all this painstaking piano prep when today’s sophisticated computer technologies can do it for you? Furthermore if a composer working on his PC or MAC application of choice wants to actually “hear” his intended effect emerge in the digital setting, the option is now available.

An intriguing cooperative venture between France’s IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique or roughly, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music) and French audio software company UVI now gives composers an opportunity to bring a virtual instrument – a beautifully sampled prepared piano in software – into their digital-audio workstation (DAW) or into a notation program of their choice. It can be used on PC and MAC platforms, either as a stand-alone program or inserted as a software instrument into DAWS or notation programs capable of handling third party software instruments, such as recent Sibelius and Finale releases.

For the purposes of this review, the IRCAM-UVI digital virtual instrument, IRCAM Prepared Piano, was tested on a Macintosh computer running OS X 10.8.3 in stand-alone mode; and as a software instrument in music notation programs Sibelius and the DAW Logic.


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IRCAM Prepared Piano runs on the company’s proprietary UVI-Workstation software, although the interface that loads is quite specific to the needs of this sample package. UVI Workstation may be downloaded free of charge from UVI’s website, and can house any number of software instruments from UVI. It also comes packaged with the Prepared Piano installer DVD, which may require an upgrade after purchase.

From the outset there were no compatibility issues of note, while the software instrument integrated seamlessly into a number of existing compositions using other memory-intensive software instruments such as this reviewer’s Eastwest strings collection.

Users are given the option to initially load a sound bank consisting of a full battery of recorded sounds, or any one of the individual prepared piano techniques applied to each string. These include alterations such as bow, clothespin, coins, the commercial e-bow placed on string, eraser, glass slide, mallets, harmonics, mutes, phone, string scratch, screw and nut on string or screw alone, as well as standard piano tones.

The sounds themselves are high quality, with the lush and evocative quality of UVI’s own online demo easy to achieve right out of the box. The bowed piano is a particularly deep sound resplendent with highly resonant harmonics, while the pick produced a rich and almost dulcimer-like effect. The various hard items such as erasers, nuts and screws were particularly useful in creating novel timbres for rhythmic applications.


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One disappointment was the e-bow, which sounded too thin and did not include the “harmonic” option available on certain e-bows. For this reason, it may not be a good alternative for composers looking to use e-bows in their prepared piano compositions. An excellent touch to inspire instant creativity (or a bit of Cage-ian randomness) is the option to “roll the dice” on your prepared piano and receive an entirely randomized instrument.

The standard acoustic Yamaha grand piano – sans effects – is also quite effective, and could easily hold its own in a thicker mix. The sounds themselves are thankfully recorded very dry, while this reviewer was not able to locate any strange artifacts or errors in the recording of these samples. That being said there was the occasional tendency for a strange “click” to precede playback; it is uncertain whether or not this was a Sibelius-induced bug or a problem with the instrument in question.

Perhaps the most exciting compositional aspect of IRCAM Prepared Piano is its ability to layer up to two piano sounds – that is, any prepared technique or standard piano sound – per string. In the screenshot presented here, you can see a mixture of standard piano along with certain strings prepared with multiple techniques (pick + eraser on D3, mallet + string harmonics on F3, and mute with e-bow on G#3.)

Prepared Piano Screenshot

A few rolls of the dice applied to a pre-existing MIDI rhythmic passage eventually lead to a highly effective African-esque sound that would have taken hours to create from scratch. When paired with e-bows or bowed effects on the second option on certain strings, one suddenly possesses a dynamic percussion section with haunting sustains of each pitch. Putting this IRCM creation through its paces was great fun, to say the least. Whether you are looking for a software instrument to precisely mimic your score instructions, or are seeking to create an otherworldly keyboard instrument to explore new timbral possibilities not reproduce-able on a standard prepared piano, the options in this package are legion. For example, at the very bottom of the keyboard below the C-O range, you will discover a further small collection of sampled percussive strikes on the string, a nice touch especially useful in rhythmic passages. In the settings menu, a user can also modify whether these available “bar hits” are done with the hand, a mallet, or a small stick.

Those unfamiliar with the UVI-Workstation interface should be aware that it includes its own full battery of effects and reverb choices, allowing the composer to color and modify his newly prepared piano in just about any way imaginable. It is clearly an extra-added attraction that UVI makes such a powerful suite of standard effects and plug-ins free with their player. Further settings allow users to mix the two microphones used to record these lovely samples, modify release parameters and intonation, as well as adapt the envelope for each type of prepared effect.

If there is one major drawback to this joyful collection of sounds it is the price tag. $399.00 maybe a steep investment for the average academic, student, or garage band composer, especially considering that the same amount of money can purchase a high quality string or piano library in today’s competitive sample market. UVI could certainly offset the punishment of its high price tag by including a new update of samples such as more bowed and picked options, more hand techniques (including finger picking, an astounding exclusion in this library) and more of the standard, low-range, muted “knocks” possible on a piano – let alone the oft-used ping pong ball effect.

Despite its steep price tag and a few notable sample omissions, the UVI-IRCAM Prepared Piano software instrument is a deep and frankly gorgeous collection of highly functional sounds that inspires creativity in both traditional and experimental contexts. Billed as an “avant-garde instrument,” the techniques contained herein could nevertheless add new elements to a tonal or traditional composer’s musical vocabulary, making it a tool with wide appeal. Given a few minor additions and upgrades (or a lowering of the price), this product could have easily flirted with a four star rating.

Rating: *** .2 (3.2 out of 4 stars)

 


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Mark Nowakowski

 

Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

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