The House Piano Sound Explained

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 17 October 2014 |

It’s not rocket science, but the Italian house piano sound, which drove so many iconic dance music tracks from the late ’80s and the ’90s, does often raise questions among younger musicians. The overall sonic package was really a product of minor technical failure on the part of keyboard manufacturers, who were trying to replicate real pianos in the digital domain, but due to technological limitations, ended up with a synthetic-sounding approximation. In this post I’ll document the main charactistics of “house piano”, the keyboard types that were used, and some info about the playing style…


Above: Okay, so she didn’t play the keyboards, and she wasn’t even the real singer, but I figured most of you would rather see some 1989 pics of glamorous pin-up and face of Black Box, Katrin Quinol, than a boring old Korg M1. Black Box sent the “house piano” concept stratospheric with their controversial but undeniably brilliant track Ride On Time.

HOUSE PIANO CHARACTERISTICS

The main characteristics of a house piano sound are as follows…

  • Strong, well-defined, but slightly clanky and overbright top-end bite.
  • Fairly ‘hollow’ midrange with a typical reticence or moderation in the 800Hz to 2KHz region of the frequency spectrum.
  • Substantial, but not overblown bass.
  • Reduced dynamic response (velocity sensitivity) so the volume is more even, the clanking treble doesn’t diminish, and the general personality is more relentlessly in-ya-face than with a real piano.
  • Other characteristics may include a mix of more than one piano sample, added mild chorus to help fill in for the hollow-ish midrange, and sometimes, if the user didn’t fancy editing (or couldn’t edit) the velocity sensitivity, some compression to even out the dynamics. The envelope can also be edited to speed up the decay and release time a little, for a sharper, more percussive feel.

To clarify, the main personality of the house piano sound comes from insensitive sample playback and the slightly overbright reproduction which became trendy in the ’80s as keyboardists sought to cut through the mix. As soon as you make the sample playback respond to touch more sensitively and realistically, and tone down the cutting top end to something more natural, you lose your house piano.

WHAT TO USE

Debates will persist as to which exact keyboards offer the best house piano sounds, and of course what makes the search harder is that none of the real period presets were actually called “House Piano”. When the original keyboards adopted by house artists were being made and factory programmed, there was no such application as “house piano”, and even if there had been, that’s not what the manufacturers were trying to create. They were trying to produce the sounds of real acoustic pianos, but due to the limitations in the technology of the day, not quite managing it.

1980s synths like the Roland D50 and Korg M1 have recognisable house piano sounds among their factory presets. On a D50 the Piano Fifty preset is a good starting point, and on the Korg M1 you’d start with Piano 16’. The M1 is easily the most widely recognised house piano generator, but if you don’t reduce the velocity sensitivity in the preset (both VDA and VDF, but VDF especially), you need to hit your chords with considerable 'wellington' to keep the top end bite constant.

Later S&S (Sample and Synthesis) synths got better at simulating real pianos, and so their default piano presets shifted away from house territory. 1990s Korg synths like the 01/W, X3, 03R/W, 05/R/W, X5 and family dropped the original M1 piano sample (or Multisound, as Korg called it), and replaced it with a more realistic alternative. The M1 Piano Multisound was, however, revived in the X5D, the X5DR, and subsequent N-Series instruments.

But in all honesty, it’s not hard to get a house piano sound out of any 1990s Korg “AI Square” synth. On the ‘zeros’ and X-series synths up to and including the original X5, try switching the Multisound in the Piano 16’ preset from Piano 1 to Piano 2, then reducing the VDF EG intensity and the VDA release rate a little. It won’t be the same as an M1, but it will give you a very convincing house piano sound. Other S&S synths will give you usable house pianos too, if you take into account the main characteristics when editing their presets and EQ/processing them.


Above: You can edit the Piano 16' sound on a Korg 05R/W and many other synths from the same family to produce a classic house piano preset. I've explained in the main text and included the result on the demo track.

Going back any further in time than the Roland D50 (1987) for a synth to produce house piano sounds isn’t a good idea. Some people mention the much earlier Yamaha DX7 in relation to house piano sounds, but a DX won’t produce the right tonal personality because it wasn’t sample-based. Although the EQ and sample playback parameters on a house piano patch need to sound quite artificial, the actual sonic character needs to be authentic, and a DX7 can’t authentically mimic an acoustic piano. The sound is just too complex for six interactive sine wave operators to manufacture. A DX7 will, however, give you a definitive house organ sound. Any housey sounding pianos appearing before 1988 and not coming from a Roland D50 will almost certainly be from samplers.

Some ’80s digital pianos will produce something close to the toppy clank of house piano sounds, but they’re generally too expressive and piano-like in feel, and you can’t edit the presets. All you can really do to alter the response of 1980s digital piano presets is MIDI loop them through a computer sequencer with the keyboard’s Local set to off, and the sequencer’s track velocity pushed right up. Or you could just use the piano as a module and play it remotely from a synth with a much shallower velocity curve. Either method is roughly equivalent to decreasing the VDA and VDF velocity sensitivity on a Korg M1. You’ll also typically need a lot of outboard EQ reshaping – you’re much better off with an S&S synthesizer.

PLAYING STYLE

The playing style is characterised by a triplet chord feel in the right hand, over a rigid 4/4 disco-derivative beat. Left hand parts may punctuate the right hand chords with single or octaved root notes, or may incorporate alternating octave basses, or may be omitted altogether. The aura is usually one of syncopation – especially in relation to the rest of the track.

The basic formula mirrors much older piano styles. It has noticeable parallels with some triplet-based, syncopated blues concepts. However, the arrival in the 1980s of better defined studio production, and in particular digital pianos, brought forward a number of rhythmic piano styles and gave pianos a greater, cutting presence in the mix. Just generally in pop and rock – not specifically house.

A couple of good examples are Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is, and the Hothouse Flowers track Don’t Go. The Hornsby track (1986) only had a loose feel of soft triplet syncopation at times, but the beat was technically similar to that used in commercial house tracks and the tone of the piano was bright. Hothouse Flowers used a more obvious and elaborate triplet syncopation on Don’t Go (1988). Tracks like that were doing the rounds when the Italian piano house genre was getting started, and Black Box were coming up with the piano riff for their game-changer Ride On Time. These piano pop records may have had some bearing on the more commercial face of house.

However, by 1988 some house music had, seemingly independently, already incorporated the triplet feel in a more basic manner – either using a rather brittle piano sound, or perhaps with a kind of ‘club organ’ preset. What ended up being immortalised in Ride On Time was probably the result of numerous influences. It uses multiple chord inversions, modulates within the chord progression so as to suggest a melodic theme, and is certainly not a beginner’s task to play live.


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I’ve concluded, above, with a demo stream featuring a generic example of the style. It’s not rigid house in its style – it’s really a pop dance instrumental with various ingredients, but there’s a classic house piano driving the backing, which does sum up what I’ve talked about in the post. The house piano rhythm comes from a Korg 05R/W, with a Multisample switch on the Piano 16’ patch as I described above. As well as decreasing the VDF EG Intensity I also heavily pulled up the VDF Color value (which is routinely set at zero), to make the top end a bit more synthetic and zingy.

Later in the track there’s a piano solo, but rather than using the Korg I used a proper digital piano from an Alesis module. It’s not massively different from the house sound in timbre, but it’s much more expressive and natural in feel, so in the solo you get the sense of a grand piano rather than a fake patch from a synth.
The bass is the typical DX100 house bass preset, the organ is a DX7’s Organ 1, and the drums are an impromptu 909 kit, mainly from a Boss DR-660. The acidy synth is a Korg Prophecy mimicking a Roland TB-303.

I haven’t used any fancy processing. Apart from some subtle delays here and there, everything’s pretty much straight off the instruments. The overall mix has a compressor/limiter on it, but that’s about it.

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