Does a Real Piano Recorded in a Recording Studio Sound Better than a MIDI Piano?

The Ongoing Piano Debate in Music

The piano is one of the most universally recognisable musical instruments and has been used in almost every genre of music. Whether you're working on pop music, rap, rock, house, jazz, country or anything in between, there's likely a piano in some part of your project. Is it necessary though, to visit a piano recording studio and record professionally, or will a VST do the job? This article delves into the ongoing debate between the authentic sounds of a real piano, and the convenience of programmed pianos. The information in this article could also be applied to any instrument where MIDI is replacing the need for a real musician with a real instrument and years of training. We aim to dissect the nuances of both options in terms of sound quality, authenticity, and practicality.

Real Recording vs. MIDI

The Charm of the Real Piano

The acoustic piano holds a significant place in music history. Its sound is unique, shaped by factors like room acoustics and piano maintenance. There's an emotional depth in playing a real piano that resonates with both players and listeners. Since its invention around 1700, the piano has captivated audiences of any and all genres through the eras. In the electronic era, grand and upright pianos are often swapped for electronic pianos and synthesisers, however some sort of real-life piano is still a common and sought-after feature of a good recording studio. You’d struggle to find a more enjoyable and productive way to flesh out musical ideas, chords and melodies, whether you have any intention of a piano on the final recording or not.

The World of Programmed Pianos

Programmed piano technology has evolved dramatically in recent years, offering a range of sound samples and synthesis options. These pianos offer unparalleled convenience and versatility, challenging the supremacy of real piano sound quality. Though VSTs get ever-closer to perfectly portraying the result of well recorded piano played by a well trained pianist, the way a piano’s strings resonate together when played simultaneously can still not be emulated in a sampler. When a note is played on a piano, it’s sound is comprised of its fundamental frequency (F0), for example 440Hz for A4, and overtones at multiples of its fundamental, so 880Hz would be the first overtone (F1), 1320Hz (F2), 1760Hz (F3) etc. (with slight deviation resulting from the logarithmic nature of sound). These overtones would also correspond to other notes on the piano, e.g. 880Hz=A5, 1320Hz=E6, 1760Hz=A6, and so because the air around these higher strings is vibrating at the same frequency these strings vibrate at, the higher strings begin to resonate and produce sound too. In this sense, when a note is struck, you aren’t just hearing the vibrations of that string, but of all notes on the whole instrument sympathetically resonating together to variantly subtle degrees. This is the same effect you experience when the snares of the snare drum start vibrating when you play a certain note on the bass guitar, the wavelength of that note is perfectly alligned with the the length of (or a factor of) the snare.

When a single note is played, there would be no difference to a sampler, as a sampled piano is doing the exact same as a recorded piano, just playing back a recording of one note being hit. The differences begin when multiple strings are being hit at once, as chords will share overtones, strengthening the resonance of the overtones and creating a slightly different sonic characteristic of the overall sound. The difference is subtle, but there definitely is one. This is part of the reason MIDI pianos tend to sound more rigid or computerised than a real piano. Another factor is the over-quantisation of MIDI pianos, as if you can make it “perfect” then why wouldn’t you? Because you then starve it of all the human character and expression a pianist would put into the playing.

Practical Considerations


When it comes to practicality, both real and MIDI pianos have their pros and cons. Real pianos, whether grand or upright, require a significant initial investment. They also need regular tuning and maintenance, which can add to the cost over time. Plus, they take up a lot of space, which is a crucial consideration, especially in smaller home studios. Recording studios will cover most or all of these costs, and so they could be considered part of the price you pay for a session.

On the other hand, MIDI pianos are far more affordable and require virtually no maintenance. They're also compact and portable, making them ideal for smaller spaces or for musicians on the go. However, the quality of sound can vary greatly depending on the software and hardware used. High-end MIDI keyboards and software can get pricey, but they're still generally more cost-effective than their acoustic counterparts. In terms of sound customization, MIDI pianos offer a vast array of options. You can easily switch between different piano sounds or even non-piano sounds, allowing for greater creative flexibility. This is something that simply isn't possible with a real piano.

The Artist’s Perspective

From an artist's point of view, the choice between a real piano and a MIDI piano often boils down to personal preference and the nature of the project. Many pianists prefer the tactile feel and expressive potential of a real piano. There's a connection that forms when your fingers strike the keys, feeling the hammer hit the string, that many artists find irreplaceable. However, composers and producers working in genres like pop, electronic, or hip-hop might lean towards MIDI pianos. They appreciate the ability to manipulate sound and the ease of integrating the piano track into digital compositions. Plus, MIDI pianos eliminate the need for perfect takes; you can edit and fine-tune performances post-recording. In some songs, the rigid, digital feel of a midi piano is what the song needs, to avoid distracting from other elements in the song like vocals and overfilling the arrangement.

Conclusion: Making the Right Choice

Ultimately, the choice of piano can significantly influence the creative process and the final performance. Some artists find the limitations of a real piano inspiring, while others thrive with the limitless possibilities of MIDI. There's no clear winner in the real piano vs. MIDI piano debate. It really comes down to your specific needs, preferences, and circumstances. If you're looking for authenticity, emotional depth, and a traditional feel, a real piano might be your best bet. But if you value versatility, convenience, and cost-effectiveness, a MIDI piano could be more suitable.

We encourage musicians, producers, and enthusiasts to experiment with both types. Each has its unique charm and can contribute differently to your musical journey. Whether you're recording in a professional studio or just playing around at home, the right piano can make all the difference in your music.

Written by Ryan Shickell