Digital Music and Solid-state Drives: A Grand Match

When it comes to creating high-quality music on digital platforms, developers and digital artists need the latest platforms and the fastest technology. One of those tools, the Ivory II–American Concert D engine, has the ability to faithfully reproduce a renowned 1951 New York Steinway Model D concert grand piano, which has been played by some of classical music’s leading pianists, including the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould and the intellectual Rudolf Serkin.

Of course, in order to get a sound that’s close to these prolific pianists, digital musicians need powerful technology. While Ivory is great at recreating the sounds, the engine requires super-fast storage and is perfect for mobile computing platforms, such as an Ultrabook with a solid-state drive. Here, we give an overview of the software and how to optimize it for digital musicians.

Inside the Technology

At a recent trade show, Jerry Kovarsky, a 30-year music industry veteran and jazz pianist, was hired to demo American Concert D, the newest member of the Ivory II family of virtual pianos by Synthogy.

“Ivory uses a great many samples — digital recordings — to achieve a level of realism that’s never been achieved before,” says Kovarsky. “The library includes samples of everything from the initial strike of each hammer to the sound of each string decaying or fading out to full silence, with up to 18 velocity levels for each of the piano’s 88 keys,” he adds. “Ivory gives you all the nuance and tonal variation of a real piano.”

Ivory combines its extensive array of samples with advanced sample interpolation technology for ultra-smooth velocity and note-blending. For instance, velocity correlates to volume; the harder and faster you strike a key, the louder it sounds. Note-blending makes the transition between samples seamless.

Digital signal processing algorithms are used to simulate string resonance, half pedaling (the sound of the sustain pedal being partially depressed), and even pedal noise. The software instrument can run on its own or be installed as a plug-in to popular digital audio workstations.

“Ivory streams its samples off the storage in your computer,” says Kovarsky. “As you play, samples are loaded in RAM so that the moment you play a note or chord, it’s ready to sound.”

Optimizing the Engine and Going Mobile

The delays between when you strike a key and when you hear it — called latency — disrupt the creation experience. This means that fast storage is essential.

Even using a 64-bit operating system and loading your system with as much RAM as it will hold won’t deliver the kind of experience Kovarsky described. For that, you’ll need a system equipped with a solid-state drive, which acts as a large, fast data cache, such as one of the new Ultrabook devices from Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo or Toshiba.

While setting up for the tradeshow, Kovarsky discovered what a difference an SSD makes. “It was the first time I used Ivory on a computer with an SSD in it,” he says. “When you play a real acoustic piano, if you hold the sustain peddle down, each note that you play continues sounding after you’ve played it. To recreate that digitally, you need software that’s capable of sounding a great many notes simultaneously.”

“At home, when I play Ivory on my laptop with a core i7 processor, 4 gigs of RAM and a fast FireWire hard drive, I can play up to about 50 voices at once,” he says. “Pianos have 88 keys, so you might think 50 voices would be more than enough. But I like to ride the sustain pedal, so I find myself having to pay attention to how many notes I’m playing.” With an SSD, Kavorsky says he “was able to set the polyphony up to 700 voices! The technology was far outperforming what I was asking it to do. I could play a lot of notes. I could sit on the sustain pedal and leave chords ringing. It was incredibly liberating.”

Mobile computing platforms with solid-state drives, such as Ultrabooks, are perfect for running tools such as Ivory. But they also offer other advantages to both casual and professional musicians. Since they’re so portable, they’re easy to take on a gig or set up in the family room, hook a MIDI keyboard controller to the USB connector, and start playing. The platform also offers extended battery life and built-in security technology that can be used to disable the system remotely should it be lost or stolen.