Prepared Pianos and IRCAM Prepared Piano 2

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Musicians will often customize their instruments in order to create a new sound palette with which to work. However, the piano is possibly the best instrument for such experimentation as these modifications are relatively easy to make, and the results can be spectacular. When such adaptations are made, the instrument is known as a prepared piano — but only if the mods are temporary!

Photo of prepared piano with washers on the strings

The simplest way to prepare a piano is to place objects on or between the strings. Bolts, coins, erasers (rubbers), bits of plastic, pegs, cutlery… these are all items commonly used to change the character of the instrument. And a prepared piano can be set up to produce completely different sounds for each note.

A second approach is to place thin strips between the hammer and one or more of the strings to give a different harmonic response. Felt, paper, or plastic are often used.

A tack piano has thumbtacks (drawing pins), inserted into the heads of the hammers. This gives the piano a harder more percussive sound. But, a tack piano isn’t strictly a prepared piano because the instrument has been permanently changed by the modification. A prepared piano should always be “un-preparable” such that no one would know that it had ever been doctored.

Allied to preparing a piano is the way in which the strings are played. Often musicians will abandon the keyboard and pluck, hit or bow the strings.

John Cage popularised the prepared piano back in the 1930s. But the history of the subject dates back to the early 19th century when some instruments were fitted with janissary stops. These control mechanisms helped pianos to simulate the sound of a marching band.

IRCAM Prepared Piano 2

With the advent of virtual pianos, the way is open to explore yet further the tonal possibilities of the piano . Various packages are available, and UVI has just released IRCAM Prepared Piano 2 which takes the genre to a whole new level.

Image showing computer screen set above the keys of a master keyboard controller
IRCAM Prepared Piano 2: showing the main page used to set-up the preparations

This virtual instrument is built on samples from a Yamaha C7 grand piano recorded at the famous IRCAM sound labs in Paris. IRCAM Prepared Piano 2 comprises over 12,000 samples.

Each key can be individually equipped with any 2 of 45 preparations, and then further processed with various effects. Arpeggiators can further transform the output by sequencing the programmed sounds.

The objects available to be placed on the string include: Paper, Aluminium, an iPhone, and Mutes (various dampening materials).

Objects for insertion between the strings include: Erasers, Clothespins, Screws/Bolts, and Bolts with Loose Nuts (these create a buzzing effect).

General photo of someone playing a prepared piano with a mallet

There are also special effects such as Glass Slide (a glass is slid along the strings), Plectrum Slide, and Bar Hits (the piano’s cast iron plate is struck).

In addition to setting up these “prepared” elements, the software offers a selection of ways to activate the strings. These include…

  • [Striking the Strings] Mallets, Wooden Sticks, Rebounding Sticks, Muted Rebounding Sticks
  • [Plucking the Strings] Pizzicato (plucked with a plectrum), Scratch (scraping the string with a nail)
  • [Sustaining Effects] Bow (rosin horsehair), Ebow (electromagnetic stimulation)
  • [Harmonics] Damping the middle of the string to promote the octave harmonic.
the four main user interface screens
IRCAM Prepared Piano 2: the three main user interface pages (click to zoom)

The user interface comprises four sections: Main, Edit, FX and Arp. In essence, the Main page is used to set up the preparations (two per key); the Edit page controls global parameters, mic positions, and various amplitude settings; the FX page contains the seven effects elements (Frequency Shifter, Diode Clipper, Convolver, EQ, Sparkeverb, Delay and Maximizer; and the Arp page houses the Arpeggiator.

IRCAM Prepared Piano 2 comes with 150 factory presets, but it will also work as a straight acoustic grand piano with no preparations.

Prepared pianos are often seen as the domain of the experimental musician. However, the piano is such an awesome instrument when it comes to creating harmonically complex timbres, that this package will find a place in many composers’ arsenals of inspirational tools. It may not be of much relevance to the traditional pianist, but it does open up a whole new world of creative “acoustic” sounds to the composer and/or sound designer.

And if you are thinking of “preparing” your own piano it’s probably best not to. It’s really not worth the risk of possibly damaging your instrument. A virtual prepared piano may, therefore, be a far better way to go.

IRCAM Prepared Piano 2 is available from UVI (here) for $299.00 (€299.00).

Size: 5.91 GB (FLAC lossless encoding, was 18.98 GB in WAV)
Content: 151 Presets, 13,189 Samples
Sample Resolution: 44.1 kHz. Recording at 88.2 kHz
License: 3 activations per license
Runs in UVI Workstation version 3.1.8+, and Falcon version 2.8.2+
iLok account (free, dongle not required)
Mac OS X 10.14 to macOS 12 (64-bit); Windows 10 to Windows 11 (64-bit)
6GB of disk space
4GB RAM (8GB+ highly recommended for large UVI Soundbanks)
Supported Formats: Audio Unit, AAX, VST, VST3, Standalone
Tested and Certified in: Digital Performer 8+, Pro Tools 11+, Logic Pro X+, Cubase 7+, Nuendo 6+, Ableton Live 8+, Studio One 2+, Garage Band 6+, Maschine 1+, Tracktion 4+, Vienna Ensemble Pro 5+, Reaper 4+, Sonar X3+, MainStage 3, MuLab 5.5+, FL Studio, Bitwig 1+, Reason 9.5+


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