The arrival of Alesis in the mid 1980s, seemingly out of nowhere, had a major impact on the market. Products aimed at studio owners and project recordists tended to stay obscure from musicians, but the groundbreaking Alesis MIDIverb found its way into the vocabulary of keyboardists, guitarists and the like in the latter half of the ‘eighties. And from that point forward, new offerings from the company would be widely scrutinised, often coming up in rehearsal room chat. A decade or so later, one Alesis product I found myself scrutinising very carefully was the NanoPiano. This, in primary terms, was a Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano, extensively multisampled in phase-accurate stereo, and packed into a module around the size of a cheese sandwich.
With an original RRP of £339, the Alesis NanoPiano really was a step into new ground for those in the market for a digital piano. By spring 1997 when the NanoPiano was launched, a vast army of keyboardists and recordists either had MIDI master ‘boards or existing digital pianos, and therefore did not need a new keyboard. What they did need, was a superb acoustic piano sound, and the sum of £339 represented an uncharted low for a new and highly professional sounding rendition.
If the NanoPiano really was a Bosendorfer Imperial in a MIDI box, it was already a no-brainer for anyone who had a suitable keyboard and only required the tone production engine. But that wasn’t all the Nano offered. This was in fact a full, 256-preset synth boasting bass sounds, organ sounds, string sounds, analogue lead sounds… And on top of that, a built-in adjustable reverb based on the famous MIDIverb circuitry was also thrown in to ice the cake. 64-note polyphony, so no serious worries about ‘drop-outs’ - everything looked too good to be true...
THE PIANO SOUNDS
There are 16 separate acoustic piano presets. Of these, two are fantastic. The rest are either near duplicates of the ‘big two’, or rather more average sounds. Of course, you only need one fantastic acoustic piano preset to make a fantastic digital piano, so two is a bonus, and the rest needn’t enter the discussion. It’s said we’re all as good as the best thing we’ve ever done, and there’s no reason why that can’t apply to piano modules too.
The two acoustic piano presets that really shine are No.1 – TrueStereo, and No. 11 – BriteGrnd1. TrueStereo is very warm but not at the expense of definition, and its nuances sound and feel very convincing. Incidentally, I normally use a Fatar Studio 900 88-key weighted-action master ‘board to play the NanoPiano, and they go together very well indeed. BriteGrnd1 is much more toppy, and has a different character from the TrueStereo grand. This certainly doesn’t look like a case of sampling one piano and then messing with the EQ to produce all the rest. BriteGrnd1 is very good for blues playing, and rock & roll (Little Richard style) works exceptionally well. Reverb on these tones can be controlled using the Effect knob on the Nano’s front panel, and the reverb is excellent. Below there’s a quick stream of the TrueStereo preset, which I used to play a short gospel type intro.
You can also hear the ‘big two’ NanoPiano presets used in full arrangements on Magic Words (BriteGrnd1) and If You’re Up There (TrueStereo).
THE OTHER SOUNDS
It’s very difficult, after using such obviously classy acoustic piano presets, not to damn the hundreds of other patches by comparison. The fact is that quality is high across the board. The sampling is good and the fidelity of all the sounds is impressive. Do I use the NanoPiano as anything other than an acoustic piano? In all honesty, no. I’m very fussy about my synth patches, and invariably have to tweak them to my taste. This is not a realistic proposition with the NanoPiano, because it’s a ROM-only module. The presets in fact are editable from a computer via MIDI, but you’re unable to store any edits you make, and that’s impractical for me.
A lot of the layer and pad sounds strike me as strongly ballad-focused, but since I’m probably the world’s least likely NanoPiano owner to play a ballad, a large proportion of the memory is completely wasted on me. Piano and strings combined in one preset? Fetch me a bucket! Piano and organ together is bad enough, and I love pianos and organs. I think there’s just something about layered patches which remind me of everything that was wrong with the pop charts in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Velocity sensitive organ presets? That’s another one. Why do people do that? The ‘60s organ preset would be great if it didn’t have velo. The Nano does have a heavily overdriven electric piano sound I really like, and setting aside personal taste, there will be plenty of sounds among the presets to appeal to a wide array of players. But I wouldn’t get one of these if I was looking for a bank of synth presets.
To get caught up in the minutiae of the ‘extras’, however, is unfair. This is a digital piano module which broke new ground on price and still remains my main choice when recording a track involving acoustic piano tones. I have a very nice real acoustic piano - a Welmar upright – which is frankly not going to be beaten by a tiny rectangular box when it comes to the experience of playing for pleasure at home. But miking up the Welmar for recordings is unpredictable and a hassle. The NanoPiano was the first digital product I owned which made that hassle unnecessary.
Given what I paid for previous imitators (like the Rhodes MK-60), and how far short of the mark they fell, the NanoPiano can regard itself as a very sound investment indeed. I’ve never had the slightest problem with it in fourteen and a half years of pretty constant use, and the number of recordings I’ve made with it has long since entered the category of countless. These days it’s not the most accurate acoustic piano simulation in the world, but it suits my playing, and whilst it continues to work without hitch, it’s going absolutely nowhere.
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