Roland SuperNATURAL technology has crept into many of its latest products, but what does it do?

The Roland SuperNATURAL sound technology has gone from being a feature of its flagship digital pianos and synthesisers, to being a key feature of many of its most recent V-Drum kits, entry level pianos and much more besides. I was lucky enough to visit Roland’s UK headquarters in Swansea earlier this week, and it was very clear that the Roland team is, justifiably, proud of this technology.

Like many new technologies, its very simple name disguises cutting edge sophistication, so that whilst you play, the SuperNATURAL system provides the most authentic, dynamic and natural sounds possible. So how does it work?

Roland TD-15KV V-Drum Kit

The benefits (and curses) of sampling…

The vast majority of digital instruments operate by using samples to generate sounds. In simple terms, a sample is a digital recording. The recording device ‘listens’ to a sound source then converts it to binary code (a series of ones and noughts that forms the language that computers and digital equipment use to function), such that this can then be ‘re-read’ and thus played back.

The way in which instruments tend to employ this is by having a recording of an instrument that is triggered when a key is pressed or a drum is hit, for example. So, when you press a key on a digital piano, an appropriate recording of a piano sound will play from internal memory chips, or if a snare drum is hit, a snare sound will play. This can result in sounds that are very realistic. However, the way in which many musical instrument manufacturers implement this results in some unwanted side effects.

Firstly, let us consider a digital piano as an example. Every key on an acoustic piano moves a hammer that hits a different length of piano strings, but all resonate though a common soundboard, and cabinet. This combination of some aspects or parameters that are different, and some that are the same means that each key is not only a different pitch, but has a different tonal character. As memory chips are often an expensive component in the production of a digital instrument, many manufacturers try to keep the amount needed to a minimum.

As a result, rather than record every note of a an acoustic piano, they will record every third key, and adjust the pitch of the recording so that it plays the correct note. Aside from not possessing the correct tone for the note being played, this can result in jarring switches, where one sample switches to another as you move up or down the keyboard.

The other key aspect of a piano sound that characterises its tone is dynamics. When a piano is played softly, the tone is very different to when the keys are stuck with greater velocity. As a result, keys are sometimes sampled with different dynamics, so than when a key is played softly, or harder, an appropriate sound is played. However, this again can suffer from jarring moments, where if moving from softer to louder dynamics subtly, samples very obviously switch from one to another. SuperNATURAL neatly sidesteps these issues, however.

Smooth transitions

The SuperNATURAL technology addresses these issues by employing technology derived from the groundbreaking V-Piano. Firstly, the SuperNATURAL piano sound samples every single one of a piano’s 88 keys, at full length, with completely natural decay (unlike many other pianos, which loop the decay section to reduce sample lengths). It is what it does with these samples that truly sets it apart, however.

Employing modelling technology, SuperNATURAL creates a smooth transition between samples, between different notes, and different velocities, so that there isn’t any noticeable sample switching. This means that rather than having a quiet sample, medium sample and loud sample for notes like many digital pianos, it effectively has 128 layers.

SuperNATURAL Decay

On top of this, the SuperNATURAL piano replicates sympathetic resonance, the effect of piano strings other than those being played resonating when the damper pedal is depressed. Moving onto the damper pedal, this aspect is modelled such that it replicates the subtlest pedalling techniques, such that it can be used gradually, like a real acoustic piano.

The result of this is a truly lifelike recreation of a top quality piano, with unrivalled attention to detail.

With regard to V-Drums, the SuperNATURAL technology is employed to ensure ‘smoothness’ as dynamics change. Drums and percussion are among the most harmonically rich instruments, and their harmonic content changes radically as they transition from being played softly, to being played hard. SuperNATURAL replicates this, without (you guessed it…) any audible switching.

Roland TD-11K Drum Kit

This is now employed with behaviour modelling technology, which interprets how the player is playing, and instantly adjusts the sound such that it closely models the sound of the real instrument being played in that way. Cymbal rolls and swells now ‘open up’, getting brighter as they get louder, with none of the ‘machine gun’ re-triggering normal heard when playing in this way.

Like the best technology, SuperNATURAL simply happens invisibly, ‘behind the scenes’, without you ever having to do anything. Just play, and marvel at how organic everything sounds…