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Digital pianos, samples, and the real thing
Old 1st January 2011
  #1
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
Digital pianos, samples, and the real thing

I'm currently working on a project of modern classical (I prefer the term "legit" myself) art song pieces for piano and soprano voice (if you've ever heard any of the recordings of Susan Graham singing the art songs of Ned Rorem, you'll know what style I'm talking about). So I've been conducting research on where to do the actual recording. My singer of choice lives 2,500 miles away. During this process, it occurred to me that it might be possible to assemble the performances from different locations, so I could save the cost and hassle of flying all over and maybe even minimize studio time. I know there are issues that arise when two musicians attempt to perform from separate locales, issues of timing (much of the music is rubato in nature), empathy, and that certain undefinable quality that is evident when two are performing together. The project could easily fall apart over these issues. I recall the infamous Sinatra "Duets" recorded not long before he died; you can quite easily hear that Sinatra was never in the same room, at the same time with his duet partners.

So the question of piano comes around. First let me say, I have been playing piano for over 40 years, in a number of styles/genres: legit, pop/rock, and jazz. I also own a piano but it's not in my recording area; recording it isn't a viable option. I own several piano sample libraries, the best of which is SampleTekk's White Grand which came out some time ago. It's a Yamaha C7 and IIRC utilizes 16 strike layers. It's my "dirty little secret" because not very many people are familiar with this library. In a mix, it sounds fine. Solo, it sounds okay, but the limitations of being samples are evident, to me anyway. So I've decided not use it.

So I started looking into the latest digital pianos, particularly the Roland ones, like the V-Piano. as you probably know, these don't use samples (same deal with the latest Yamaha pianos) and incorporate a number of innovative concepts to enhance the realism of the sound. I played a $10,000 Roland digital piano over the holidays in Cali, and it sounded pretty good, but the natural ivory feel of the instrument was what impressed me the most. So my interest in this option was piqued.

An acquaintance of mine some of you may know, Smooth Jazz artist Brian Culbertson recently bought a V-Piano, and he thinks it's great in a ensemble setting. In a DVD I have of some recent tracks he plays it and it does sound pretty good. But lately I've been auditioning as many song examples using the V-Piano and, to my chagrin, it just ain't there. Close, but as a pianist of several decades its proximity to the real thing, or rather its distance from the real thing is readily apparent.

I knew there were services that will convert your MIDI file into a real piano recording using various MIDI-capable piano systems (Diskclavier, etc.). I have a friend in Sweden who owns a Yammy C5 or C7 who does this. I did a search on the Web for such services and I found two, one in Australia (of all places) and another in Portland. Both used Yamahas, one a C7 and the other a "lowly" C1 (C1's aren't really bad -- good for churches and the like -- but nowhere near a C7). Their rates were actually quite cheap -- about $10 per minute. But the upshot is that when I auditioned some of THEIR song examples, ah -- NIRVANA! Now THAT I immediately said is a REAL PIANO!

So that is the path I plan to take. The big advantage of course is the power to edit and perfect the piano part before it's actually recorded. This is useful to me because some of the parts I've written are fairly difficult; this way I won't be eating up studio time doing take after take to get a part down correctly. It will also allow me to dig a bit deeper regarding the soprano part, which is really the focus of the music, by using the sequencer to compose with, instead of using good old pencil and paper (and having to laboriously enter it all again into Finale).

I just thought I'd share my investigations. I'd be interested to hear any opinions, ideas, or experience mu GS brethren might have.
Old 1st January 2011
  #2
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Yawwn.....

Sorry but I invoke the "loopy inverse proportion theory"
The more "I played with xxxyyy, the better the head shot, the more I studied under yyyzzzz etc, the worse the performer.

I have an entire hard disk devoted to such people.

Sorry but I sincerely doubt you, me or any other pianist can tell the difference between a recorded real piano and one of the top sample libraries like Ivory in a real tune.

I have a Steinway B sitting in my studio, actually my living room, and I use Ivory, Galaxy amongst others in my recordings.

Just my 2 cents.
STRAWMAN ALERT!

I never said I could easily discern the difference between a real piano and samples. What I said is that I can easily tell the difference between the new Roland digital piano's, which are being touted as being superior to samples, and the real thing. And even there I said that in an ensemble setting, it's not a crucial matter; but in my case where the piano is naked and exposed, it is.

I did write that samples have certain limitations, and they do. Just one limitation involves strike velocity. If you strike a real piano very hard, and then strike the same note again even harder, you can hear the tonal difference between the two strikes. With samples, not so; both strikes sound exactly the same. Samples have a built in limit regarding strike velocity and timbre; a real piano doesn't (more or less). This just one example of the limitations of samples. In a Rock/Pop mix, it's irrelevant; but in a classical setting, it matters... to me anyway.
Old 1st January 2011
  #3
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
I know of a number of artists who actually PREFER samples to real pianos. One that comes to mind is Michael Scherer (also a smooth jazz guy... I myself am NOT a smooth jazz fan but I just happen to know a few pianists in that genre). He recorded is latest album with a real piano... but the results were disappointing -- it just didn't fit his type of music. They substituted the real tracks with a Roland Fantom piano sound, which fit much better. It sounds just fine in his mix.

Another one I know of is the band The Script, which uses a Roland Rd-700 both live and in the studio. It actually sounds quite good, but then it's being used for Pop/Rock -- which doesn't exactly expose the subtleties of the instrument. The Fray I've read also used samples in their recordings, although live they use a real piano! Go figure. It's all good.

I may not be able to reliably discern when a piece of music employs piano samples or even a digital piano, but do think that I can discern when a piece of music uses a real piano, that it's not a sample. I hope that makes sense
Old 1st January 2011
  #4
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avebr's Avatar
 

In my country is really hard and expensive to get a nice piano. Sometimes you will find other mixed pianos, of lower qualities, but really bad for anything else than an "effect"...

It's a long time since I had daily access to an old and wonderful german Steinway D 1953, an amaxing Steinway B 1985 and a honkytonky Bechstein 1921. I did wonderfull work with them...

Now, if the client can pay us$600-800 daily + taxes +all other production cost, we may get an american or german Steinway in very good condition (but not perfect) or an Yamaha Grand (surprised me for contemporary music!). But it happens one time each year if so...

So we have to deal with the "best" piano we can. The studios and theathers we usually use have their instruments and we try to choose the place+instrument depending on the project and money.

I think it's tottaly unnaceptable to use digital/sample/eletronic piano on a "classical"/modern/art/whatever serious music! At least as a composer and producer I would not accept it. It could be ok for a demo, rehersal, or anything temporary like that.

In your position, would look for the best possibile studio, with a nice Steinway C or B (betters) or Yamaha C7, or any other non-grand but non small or upright piano, the best you can find.

Most studios don't charge for the use of the instrument, only asks you to pay tunning - and now goes the most important part: if they only accept their own piano tech, ok, you will have to deal with the guy (usually it's not a problem, the same guys we usually know); if you can bring your 'personal' piano tech, tell him to give a general view of the instrument, to see everything that should be done (intonation is really import, damp mechanical noises, action, a small revision of everything) and then the tuning - this will cost more to you but will make the piano much better - try to arrange for the piano tech work after you set positions, and while you are selectiing mics, puting on the stands, passing cables, setting hardware... it will pay good to use studio time to solve the piano while you solve the rest!

I try to arrange my studio sessions in a row, like the studio is mine for 4-5 days, so I can keep everything in the place and nothing will change - expensive? No so much, because it makes work flow and results much better. And I would re-tune the piano each day before recording starts, no other way - this is really important (and piano techs will love you for that, at least 'case here it's not so usual)

Many great CDs are done with smaller-than-grand pianos! Surely, some part of the repertoire will ask for a thunder-verocifous-full-grand... but that's not the case with all! All it takes is to get the best possible sound of that piano, taking care with it's weak points (nasal lows? too much metal [yahama]? and so on)...

Preparing the MIDI and sending to get it recorded seems to be a nice option, althought I'm not sure if the music you want to record *really* allows such. If I would do that, I would do many versions of each piece, to have options on the performance of the piano to try later when recording the singer. These variantions would include dynamics, tempo, more free/more strict... It could happen to record the base MIDI with the singer together, to get a more human feel... it could work.


But for me, there's nothing like having musicians together playing on the same room, looking to each other, hearing each other acoustically... I just love the pitfalls and the magic that comes (sometimes, with the great musicians) from recording that way!

Best of luck!

ave.
Old 1st January 2011
  #5
Gear Addict
Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Sorry but I sincerely doubt you, me or any other pianist can tell the difference between a recorded real piano and one of the top sample libraries like Ivory in a real tune.
In a multitracked song it can be very hard to pick out a very nice sampled piano IF you haven't experienced that sample before. In very stripped performances, like piano solo or piano vocal you can usually find the "programming" in the samples. But more importantly, I know when *I* am playing a sampled piano and it makes a huge difference for the worse of a recording. I think with most players it is the same.
Old 1st January 2011
  #6
Quote:
Originally Posted by sroreilly View Post
In a multitracked song it can be very hard to pick out a very nice sampled piano IF you haven't experienced that sample before. In very stripped performances, like piano solo or piano vocal you can usually find the "programming" in the samples. But more importantly, I know when *I* am playing a sampled piano and it makes a huge difference for the worse of a recording. I think with most players it is the same.
That pretty much matches my experience. It's more noticeable on a particularly dynamic or expressive piece, or on a traditonal recording that includes a nice room sound.

Sometimes I use a sampled piano on a demo and think, "Hey, that's pretty darn good," but when I re-record the grand for the album I think, "Ah, now that's the real thing!" As a player, for me the real thing responds so much better. I've played the new V piano, and sure, it's good, but it does not replace a real piano, and as an investment it's not great. Still, sampled pianos have their place. It's nice to have the tools available.

As for sending midi performances to a disklavier, nuances of the performance might sometimes be dulled as compared to recording a real performance, but it's not a bad option to consider.

On a related note, I played a Shigeru Kawai last week for the first time. Nice. Playing a top-notch piano gives me a feeling I never get from the zeros and ones. The Shigeru Kawai was comfortable among other top brands. It was a pleasant surprise as I was unaware that they had made such strides. Apparently they are becoming popular as competition pianos.
Old 1st January 2011
  #7
Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Personally, I don't care one way or the other.

I'm just saying that the people who complain the most are the ones with the least amount of talent. I've been hearing the same crap for 40 years.

Mostly from the no talent classical crowd.


You guys micro analyze every nuance of playing yet most of you play like ****.
Sorry but it;s true.

If you want to put your chops up against mine, good luck.....

Where is the contest and where do I sign up?
Internet bluster aside, I don't doubt that you've had that experience (I admit I've seen it myself at times), but it's certainly reasonable that some might legitimately prefer the real thing for reasons other than delusion. I don't know anything about the chops of the people on this thread, but chops and ears aren't always represented in equal proportion. A conductor may not have chops but may have a great ear and an opinion worth hearing. Others such as you and I apparently may be blessed with both.
Old 1st January 2011
  #8
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Personally, I don't care one way or the other.

I'm just saying that the people who complain the most are the ones with the least amount of talent. I've been hearing the same crap for 40 years.

Mostly from the no talent classical crowd.


You guys micro analyze every nuance of playing yet most of you play like ****.
Sorry but it;s true.

If you want to put your chops up against mine, good luck.....

Where is the contest and where do I sign up?
TROLL ALERT!

So, tell me, how does it feel to go through life being a total d*ck?

These are some of the most idiotic opinions -- which is ALL they are -- I've ever read here at GS. "Most classical players play like ****?" Do you even have a brain?

And you badmouth my chops without ever even having heard me play! TOTAL DUMBASS! Not to mention childish.

You're obviously a very unhappy, disturbed person. I hope you get help.
Old 2nd January 2011
  #9
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RKrizman's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post

You guys micro analyze every nuance of playing yet most of you play like ****.
Sorry but it;s true.

If you want to put your chops up against mine, good luck.....

Where is the contest and where do I sign up?
Nice. And happy new year to you too.

-R
Old 2nd January 2011
  #10
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loopy's Avatar
 

Apologies to all.....
Too much champagne, a client in India on the phone at the time made for a bad combination.

Sorry to have behaved like an idiot...
Posts deleted.

Happy New Year to all!
Old 2nd January 2011
  #11
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
It ain't no thing... I did actually think I was too hard on you, for which I also apologize. After all this IS gearslutz!
Old 2nd January 2011
  #12
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narcoman's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Apologies to all.....
Too much champagne, a client in India on the phone at the time made for a bad combination.

Sorry to have behaved like an idiot...
Posts deleted.

Happy New Year to all!
hahah! Awesome. heh ..... deleted my "quote" too.....
Old 2nd January 2011
  #13
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taturana's Avatar
I guess you can believe a sampled piano to be real... but i just had the experience of making a cd where 4 songs were recorded on an Yamaha C3, played by an excellent piano player and one song was done with ivory ...


the difference between the real piano and ivory was pretty obvious, the real piano sound is much richer and harmonically as well as a wider soundstage altogether ... when i realized it was that obvious, i sent the midi file i had from the ivory piano to pianobello.com and they re-recorded with a real piano.... now it sounds completely fantastic and much richer... and now my record has only real pianos recorded (and real strings, and real brass, real drums,guitars, et cetera.. you get the picture...)

so if you want to use samples use only samples... the difference from the real thing is huge, and definitely not imagined, and it's plain obvious if you put both together... and that's not only in the case of the piano....
Old 2nd January 2011
  #14
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In an arrangment with egtr's, drums etc - whatever. But in a sparse arrangement, you can hardly compare samples to a real piano. Even a lousy piano would be a preference to me. Something the way a piano resonates sympathetically - the sound of the case, everything...
Old 2nd January 2011
  #15
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I'm just an amateur hack so I would appreciate some opinions here: A couple years ago I got a great deal on a Kurzweil 152. It's built into a real Young Chang case, the built-in sound system is quite impressive and the playability of the keyboard is pretty respectable, at least for me. However, the on-board sounds are dated. I would like to trigger a decent library installed on a laptop, in stand alone mode, and route the audio back through the on-board sound system to get a more realistic experience. I've read many of the threads here on GS regarding piano samples/VSTs/etc, and there seems to be as many different opinions as there are options. In my situation, would Ivory be the best choice?
Old 2nd January 2011
  #16
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Outlaw Hans's Avatar
 

Sure you hear the difference. Amazes me that people talk about samples vs real pianos as if it's some kind of hi-fi cable discussion. Come on now.
Old 2nd January 2011
  #17
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loopy's Avatar
 

Thanks guys!

Group hug thumbsupthumbsup
Old 3rd January 2011
  #18
If this is a serious recording, there really is no substitute for a real pianist playing a real piano. And a real piano for a serious classical recording is a Steinway D or equiv... no, a Yamaha C7 is not in that league of elite instruments. Even samples that are 'turned' into a real piano recording don't nearly capture what good performers are capable of.

For example, take Rachmaninoff's "A Window in Time" recording. It was made using a similar technique... using original piano rolls Rachmaninoff recorded, and playing them through a great piano, in a great space, with a great engineer recording not too many years ago. While the disc is interesting to listen to, it really doesn't say a whole lot about Rachmaninoff's actual playing... all it gives is a modern rendering of rhythm and dynamics. Color, tone, shaping, and that magical 'other' that exists when a real performer is recording live, are all missing from that disc.

That color, tone, shaping, and magic are all things that I don't envision samples ever being able to recreate. A good performer can play the same 'velocity' on a real instrument, but get many many different sounds out of the piano... how can software know what sound to trigger when those triggers are based on velocity? How can I use a sampled instrument to get bright pianissimo, or a dark pianissimo when I choose? And even if you send samples to be recorded on a real instrument, that instrument isn't going to respond as if a human with soft fingers was playing it...

Don't get me wrong, some sample libraries are really wonderful sounding for pretty much every situation EXCEPT a very serious classical recording.

Take the time, prepare the music extensively with the vocalist as you would for a large concert, and then book a few days of sessions. It isn't uncommon for collaboration to be between artists who live many many miles apart... in fact, those sessions are usually the smoothest running simply because of how well they were FORCED to work beforehand because of time or money constraints.

Worst case, do the recording the way you have planned, intimately get to know how the vocal lines were sung, and then overdub you, playing a real instrument, to it. It will sound better, and trust me the trained ears of a classical audience will be able to tell the difference
Old 3rd January 2011
  #19
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popmann's Avatar
Here's what I would worry...

Different instruments-digital or wire and wood respond differently to player's touch. A player worth his/her salt, plays TO that sound...and another sound, while objectively "better" (diskclavier or "better" sample) runs a rick of sounding "not as intended".

it's the sort of thing that has always bugged me about the promise of MIDI versus what it delivers. Subbing a new snare sample MIGHT sound better...might not. At least the original has the performance as intended.

If you're going to do that remote conversion thing...you should do one right now to see how well it works to your ear and fingers.

If it's classical vocal and piano...why wouldn't you just go to a studio with a nice piano...and at the least play the piano there--take the tracks home? I mean, I would think you'd want her to sing, too. If that's all there is, bleed shouldn't be an issue--not like in classical you're gonna crush her voice with an LA2A and EQ the crap out of the piano. Seems to me like you're overthinking this a bit.

...unless you can't play the parts...or she is going to have trouble singing hers. Then, it's understandable why you're looking for an alternative.
Old 3rd January 2011
  #20
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by loopy View Post
Thanks guys!

Group hug thumbsupthumbsup
You're welcome. You're a good guy. After your rant and my quite emotional reaction , I secretly read some of your other posts to gain insight to your "M.O." Everything I read was reasonable, rational, fair, and considerate... so I assumed I had just struck a nerve. Glad it's all blown over.

And you're right, I WAS being a bit anal about the whole issue
Old 3rd January 2011
  #21
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
Thanks for the good responses.

I think I'm probably going to have to find another vocalist. The one I've secured is PERFECT for this -- well trained but with a very interesting unaffected approach. But it's the distance between us that's the problem. She's in LA and I do have the freedom to hole up there for a month or whatever to rehearse and then record, but in my illusory thinking I thought I could pull something like this off using the "remote" approach I described earlier (done it a few times in a Pop setting, but not Classical). I'm sure I can find someone to replace her. My alma mater (Indiana U) has a great opera dept and I'm sure there's any number of young singers who would do this for the experience and the money (and it's only a couple hours from where I live)
Old 3rd January 2011
  #22
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loopy's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by doug hazelrigg View Post
You're welcome. You're a good guy. After your rant and my quite emotional reaction , I secretly read some of your other posts to gain insight to your "M.O." Everything I read was reasonable, rational, fair, and considerate... so I assumed I had just struck a nerve. Glad it's all blown over.

And you're right, I WAS being a bit anal about the whole issue
Thanks Doug!!!
I was a complete idiot...Too much wine...too much song and a client a million miles away that couldn't understand me (my day job) made for a miserable nite!!!

I was one gnarly person when I posted that stupid rant!!!

hahahaha!!!!

I think we all can agree the sampled pianos are close, very close indeed, but to real musicians are still easily noticed.

From my experience, classical musicians feel the piano more than say jazz musicians do. They can feel a Steinway or a Bose etc more so. Tough to describe but it's kind of a coupling between instrument and player.

Jazz musicians feel the harmonics more than classical musicians do and less so the brand of piano.

They hit a chord and expect a certain resonance..
That's how they judge pianos.
Being a jazz musician, that's how I think!

Listening to some early jazz musicians like Bill Evans, Art Tatum and so forth, it's obvious the pianos have many sour notes.
It never however detracts from the tune. And in my book that is what matters.

Peace and Happy New Year to all!
Old 3rd January 2011
  #23
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doug hazelrigg's Avatar
I think in general you're exactly right; Jazz guys listen for those resonances that certain chords in certain keys have, while classical guys are more interested in action an maybe tuning.

Probably like you and a lot of other GS musicians, in my career I've had to deal with all kinds of genres and styles, but like you I'm primarily a Jazz player. It's only lately that I've ventured into modern classical (hate that word! It evokes Beethoven or Mozart) composing. I'm just like you -- those "sonorities" of the Jazz idiom as far as piano goes is where it's at.

I've been listening to some sample library demos today -- Garritan Steinway and of course Ivory. They sound quite good -- I didn't realize that both these products incorporate such advancements as sympathetic resonance, soft pedal, etc. With Ivory, the Yamaha C7 piano is not what I'm looking for, but the Steiny and Bosendorfer are a good match. My own piano is a C3 I bought about 18 years ago because it sounded unusually good... but I normally play it with the soft pedal down, and often with the lid closed
Old 3rd January 2011
  #24
Quote:
Originally Posted by doug hazelrigg View Post
I think in general you're exactly right; Jazz guys listen for those resonances that certain chords in certain keys have, while classical guys are more interested in action an maybe tuning.
Any good musician (jazz, classical, whatever) listens to resonance and understands that different keys and different harmonies evoke different feelings... and of course that the structure of those keys/harmonies and their relationships give all music a much deeper life.

It's a shame that classical pianists have a reputation for not listening well enough and just being really good at pushing buttons. And yes, many of them are just that: good button pushers. But anyone who is a real musician will understand all of the resonances you mention, as well as the action and tuning of a piano (or any other instrument they play). Those resonances are extremely important to classical composers when they choose a key or tonal center for a piece of music... classical performers don't freely transpose as necessary, so the exact choices of keys in a piece are extremely meaningful.

If you're really into jazz first, I'd challenge you to take a Bach prelude for keyboard and 'groove' it. You can really lay down some nice new tunes by only altering the harmonies slightly... to me a tribute to how much of a genius Bach was.

Or if you want a sonority study of classical stuff, find a piece by Liszt and play through some of the chord changes. Try them in slow motion, try them in different voicings, try them faster, see how each run through affects you differently... it will affect your listeners differently as well. When I'm preparing classical music, I actually spend a majority of my time understanding the composers intent behind harmony choices and then creating my own ideas around that. Melody is easy. Rhythm is easy.

As a player in both genres, I've gotta say that it's striking how similiar they actually are if you dive deep enough into both. Sure, transposing classical or improving on it don't happen publicly today... but just remember that both of those used to happen on a daily basis during the time when the music was written. And to make a very broad, general statement: it's only 20th century classical snobbery that has made the genre so unappealing to most.

Sorry to be OT here... but I just couldn't pass up saying these few things! I guess what I'm trying to say is: the more you understand about all music in the world, the better you will be in the area you 'like' the most or enjoy the most.
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