Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Creepy Isn't Good When Playing Keyboards

I love portable digital pianos, when they're made well. My favorite digital stage piano, in terms of sonic power, keyboard "action" and its built-in amplification system, is the Yamaha CP300. One of the people who uses the CP300 is Chuck Leavell, former keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band, who has played with the Rolling Stones for many years.

But even though it's one of the best professional digital pianos available, there's one feature which the CP300 is missing: A solution to the problem of "pedal creep". (There are other areas of improvement which I could also suggest, but I'm not focusing on those areas in this article.)

If you don't play keyboards, or if your primary experience with playing keyboards is creating monophonic leads with synthesizers such as the Moog, then you probably have no idea what I'm talking about when I say "pedal creep". So let me explain.

A real grand piano is connected to a system of three pedals (soft, sostenuto and sustain) by means of a rigid column which suspends the pedals just above the floor. The pedals are connected to upright pianos by means of the wooden piano case. Home digital pianos similarly have pedals which are attached permanently to the case, so those pedals work fairly well, too.

However, real pianos and home digital pianos are hard to transport to and from gigs (including live performances, rehearsals and professional recording sessions).

Of course, one could transport a home digital piano to gigs if one had a custom flight case for such a piano, and if one also had a van or cube van in which to haul the instrument. A home digital piano in a flight case certainly wouldn't be any bulkier than the Hammond B-3 organs many professional keyboard players used to haul around with them. But many keyboard players lack proper vehicles with which to carry such instruments to such gigs; and even if they have driving licenses, renting such vehicles can get expensive if one has to do so on a regular basis.

Another issue is that home digital pianos often lack some of the important features found on stage pianos such as the Yamaha CP300 (such as pitch and modulation wheels, for use when playing guitar sounds, sax sounds, etc.).

Both of the aforementioned reasons help to explain why digital stage pianos are used by most professional keyboardists today, if they prefer to use instruments which sound and feel as much like high quality acoustic pianos as possible, and which are also easy to amplify without worries about feedback, and which don't get knocked out of tune whenever they're moved around from place to place. I am the type of keyboard player who feels a strong need for such an instrument, especially when I'm playing solo gigs, but also when I'm playing in a band with other musicians.

A digital stage piano is usually connected to the sustain pedal by means of a flexible cord plugged into the piano. That's preferable in terms of portability, but it creates a problem during performances, regardless of whether one is sitting down or standing while playing the instrument. Specifically, it causes the problem of pedal creep.

One may start out playing a tune with the pedal in the perfect position, only to discover at some point prior to the end of the tune that the pedal has crept so far away from one's foot that one can no longer reach the pedal. In the intermediate stages of such movement, one can still reach the pedal, but not comfortably. This can be frustrating! Trying to retrieve one's increasingly distant sustain pedal with one's foot in the middle of a performance tends to greatly diminish one's ability to turn in a top notch performance. If it's a solo piece, one isn't free to take one's hands off the keyboard, bend over, and move the pedal to the proper location once again.

In addition to hindering the quality of one's performance, pedal creep can also cause physical strain on one's leg and one's torso, especially if one is standing up. At the end of such a performance, one may feel far more exhausted than one would feel when performing on a real piano.

One possible solution to pedal creep is to tape the pedal to the floor using gaffer tape (similar to duct tape, but with a low-tack adhesive which doesn't leave harmful residue when removed). But that isn't a great solution. The tape tends to come loose after a while (at which point the pedal starts to creep again, dragging the tape with it), and such tape sticks to some surfaces better than others. (It works very poorly, for example, on carpet.)

Another solution, which I tried back in the late 80's, is to build a custom pedal board which holds one's pedals in place, eliminating the possibility of creeping pedals. Mine was made by a friend who was a woodworker. It worked pretty well, especially since it was designed to hook around the legs of the keyboard stand so that the stand held the pedalboard in place. It had holes in the back rail so that the cables for the pedals could poke through and so that they could be plugged into the keyboard controller (which was a big Yamaha KX88).

The main problem with my custom pedalboard (in addition to its cost) was twofold. First, the pedalboard was big and heavy, adding to the considerable overall bulk of the equipment I already had to carry (which also included a rack mount case for my sound modules, an amplifier with its own flight case, and the keyboard stand and a stool on which to sit). Second, since it was wood (and since I had no custom case in which to carry it), it started to splinter after a while. It also had no built-in carrying handles, so it was a bit of a pain to carry it around.

A few years ago, I bought a product called a Creep No More. I saw ads for it in Keyboard magazine. It was small and portable, and the ads promised that it would cure the problem of "pedal creep". Unfortunately, it didn't work very well.

Korg, it would seem, has come up with an excellent solution (albeit an imperfect solution) for its SP-250 digital piano and its Pa588 Professional Arranger Keyboard. Click the preceding links, or read the following description, to get an idea of what I mean.

The SP-250 includes a high-quality damper pedal that is so important for proper piano performance. It provides the ultimate expressive control thanks to half-pedaling, which is a variable damping effect based on how deep you press the pedal, rather than the simple on/off switch found on cheaper instruments. The dedicated stand is both simple and stylish, and fits securely into a recessed area in the bottom of the piano providing a remarkably solid feel. The stand’s lower crossbar even prevents the pedal from “creeping” forward in performance. Best of all, the SP-250 can be easily removed from the stand for moving and taking around for live performances.

The Korg design seems to be well thought out. My only gripe with the design is that it only has one pedal, not three. (The Yamaha CP300 has 3 assignable pedal inputs in addition to the input for the Expression Pedal, so you can have a soft pedal and sostenuto pedal, not just a sustain pedal. That's essential for replicating all of the effects of playing on a real piano. Adjusting the dynamics with a "soft pedal" is NOT the same as using a volume pedal, as any pianist could tell you. As for sostenuto, that pedal is rarely used except for classical music --- but if you've got to have it, you've got to have it.)

The problem is that the Korg solution seems to work only with the two aforementioned Korg keyboards. (For one thing, the polarity of Korg's sustain pedals is different from the polarity of Yamaha's sustain pedals.) Neither one of those keyboards is my idea of the ideal digital piano, even though there's reason to believe that they both have fairly decent digital piano sounds and weighted 88-note keyboards.

I'd like for a keyboard stand manufacturer to collaborate with a company which makes keyboard pedals (such as M-Audio) in order to create and market a universal digital piano stand which emulates the general design of the Korg stand insofar as its solution to pedal creep is concerned, but the product would have three piano-style pedals plus a volume control pedal, rather than being limited to just a sustain pedal. (Versions with fewer pedals could also be sold, for people who didn't need more than one pedal.) As in the case of the universal sustain pedals currently being made by M-Audio, the piano-style pedals (for soft, sostenuto and sustain) would have switchable polarity so they'd work equally well with keyboards from all manufacturers, not just Korg keyboards.

I'm posting this blog article with the idea of sending e-mail messages to makers of keyboard products, hoping to persuade them to make a product similar to the one described above.

I'm thinking that some existing commercial keyboard stands could easily be modified with add-on products designed to connect to those stands and to keyboard pedals. For instance, the stand being sold for the Yamaha CP300 looks as if it wouldn't be hard for someone to design a crossbar which would connect to both ends of the existing stand in order to secure one or more pedals to that stand. Such a crossbar could be removed at the end of the night for ease of transport.

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