The inside story on one of the most profound music technology breakthroughs for a generation. Welcome to the sublime and beautiful world of SuperNATURAL.
Things which seem simple are often complex, and this is especially true when applied to musical instruments. To recreate the sound of an acoustic instrument, you can’t just sample it – you have to understand how the sound is made, how it’s played and even how it behaves. Our SuperNATURAL technology is found in our digital pianos as well as the recent Jupiter-80 synth and it’s an essential part of our goal of creating instruments which are startlingly realistic. Before we go forward though, let’s take a trip back in time and see how things used to be. For decades before SuperNATURAL, the industry standard for reproducing the sound of traditional instruments was PCM sampling. The challenge with sampling though, is that most acoustic instruments respond differently depending upon how hard they are struck, blown, or bowed by the player – most acoustic instruments grow brighter as they get louder, for example.
Recording a sample of an instrument captures a one-dimensional rendition of the sound. To work around this, manufacturers often used velocity-driven filters with ‘bright’ samples and some use multiple samples of a given note at multiple ‘energy’ levels,before mapping those samples to different velocity ranges where they are “velocity switched” during performance, according to the amount of force exerted by the player. It sounds complicated, but all it means is that you hear a different ‘previously recorded’ sound depending on how hard you hit the keys. A step in the right direction, but still far from perfect. During these experiments, it became clear that, for musical instrument manufacturers, the piano was the ultimate challenge to recreate, due to a broad dynamic range, extreme pitch range, exceptionally long decay times and the sympathetic resonance of all the components of the entire instrument to name just a few. Previous attempts to digitally reproduce the piano with gigabytes of multiple samples still managed to fall short in realism, expressiveness and flexibility. There are many performance articulations inherent in instruments, which further complicates the realistic use of sampling technology. Consider orchestral string players using a variety of bowing styles. With traditional sample-based instruments, an array of samples for each of these styles must be captured distinctly from the other styles and typically assembled into entirely separate sets. Then to alternate between legato and staccato violins, the player of a sample-based keyboard would have to switch patches, play different keyboard zones or develop a unique playing style to accommodate different sets on different velocity layers. A tall order when you’re in the zone.
The SuperNATURAL technology in many Roland instruments adds powerful sound modelling to the equation. Each SuperNATURAL instrument— piano, violin, trumpet, etc.—has its own specialised sound engine because, just as the sounds of a piano, flute and timpani are very different, so are their related modelling needs. Each SuperNATURAL engine is based on pristine studio samples of the original instrument, however that’s where the similarities to PCM-based gear end. First, SuperNATURAL doesn’t use sample looping,resulting in smooth, organic decays. We’ve also developed technology that actually creates models of the formative characteristics and responsive aspects of each instrument. The SuperNATURAL engine transparently handles how those parameters react to performance dynamics and nuances from a controller such as a keyboard,just as they would in the original instrument. As a simple example, volume and brightness in SuperNATURAL instruments respond to nuances in playing force smoothly as pure, natural sounding/feeling articulation, without any velocity switching and inherent stepping sounds between sample layers. SuperNATURAL goes much deeper, however. Looking at the orchestral strings scenario mentioned earlier, SuperNATURAL modelling translates the player’s natural use of playing styles such as legato and staccato into appropriate variations in bowing technique and associated sound. Further, use of a pedal or switch will seamlessly invoke tremolo or pizzicato styles.
TRANSPARENT TECHNOLOGY All this power is useless if it gets in the way though, which is why SuperNATURAL technology is transparent, for a natural playing experience that requires no thinking, programming or changes to playing style. For those who wish to delve deeper, most SuperNATURAL instrument engines provide access to key parameters such as how much growl and noise brass instruments have. Another example is the SuperNATURAL piano engine in the JUPITER-80, which allows players to easily adjust the desired amount of string resonance, key-off noise, hammer noise, stereo width, tonal character and more. The modelled (and continuously variable) characteristics in SuperNATURAL engines are a sharp contrast to what are largely snapshots of timbres in electronic instruments relying solely on samples. The benefit is a distinct leap forward in realism in sound and responsiveness. Where SuperNATURAL technology models the natural sound qualities and expressiveness of traditional instruments, Roland’s new Behaviour Modelling technology goes a step further by intelligently recreating – on demand – the articulations that happen when those instruments are in the hands of seasoned players. Behaviour Modelling acts as an interpreter between a keyboard player’s phrasing and the performance technique of the original instrument. As a simple example, when a trumpet player performs a half-valve trill, the initial transient attacks inherent in playing isolated single notes are absent. Behaviour Modelling not only reproduces that sound authentically, it integrates it into the SuperNATURAL trumpet engine, so that a keyboard player can invoke those trills faithfully using a natural, intuitive playing style. No playing adjustments or compromises needed.