With many producers setups getting smaller and smaller and as we rely more on an all in the box type of workflow, what options do you have for getting a really great sounding Piano on your computer?
There are a couple of areas to cover before you simply go out and purchase some Piano software. The first thing you need to make sure of is that you have a nice well setup system. Often Piano libraries can take up huge amounts of RAM, so when specc’ing your computer bear in mind that the more the better – 8GB upwards generally does a good job for Piano duties.
Low Latency Audio Interfaces
If you try using your onboard audio interface you’ll end up with laggy, frustrating mess so best not go there.
There are lots of options available that are very easy to install, simply connect to your computer via USB and feature very easy to install drivers, fantastic sound quality along with super low latency, which means when you’re playing your Piano software there is no noticeable delay, or lag etc.
Presonus’s Audiobox VSL 22 and Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 will both do a great job of dealing with good quality signals, MIDI and software.
Next up is something to trigger the software from.
You can use an older piano for this part as long as you are happy with the feel of the keys and it is features a MIDI output.
It is common for even older digital Pianos such as Yamaha’s Clavinova series to feature a MIDI output which typically will look like this:
Simply take the MIDI output on your Piano and connect it to the MIDI input on your audio interface to complete this stage.
This will then send the MIDI to from your Piano to your software so it can be triggered (played).
USB Midi Controllers
Another option is look at getting a USB Controller keyboard, typically with 88 keys and a fully weighted action such as the AKAI MPK shown here, although many home studios use version with more limited keyboard lengths. The major benefit of such keyboards is that they do one job really well and fit neatly into a desk set-up.
These products don’t rely on the old 5 pin MIDI connection but simply directly to your computer via USB and all the data is sent over that cable.
We’ve covered studio monitor set-ups in a previous article. It’s important that, before moving on to the software, you need to make sure you have something to hear the playback from your software. Typically that is with some near field monitors of sufficient quality to do justice to the rest of your set-up (and hopefully your music). There are plenty to choose from, but a personal favourite are the Presonus Eris E5 Studio Monitors, which are getting some great reviews.
Once you have the controller keyboard, audio interface, and speakers out of the way it’s time to take a look at the software that will deliver your sounds.
Most VSTi’s (Virtual Instruments) can either run directly from your PC or laptop (and, increasingly, tablets) known as Standalone Mode, or from within your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). A DAW is music production and recording software like Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools etc.
If you do not intend to start sequencing and creating full projects and simply want to play the Piano sounds then Standalone mode is the way to go.
Whichever route you choose, the software will conform to one of two types, sampled or modelled, and these are fundamentally different approaches that can yield differences in what you can achieve with them.
Modelled Piano Software
Physically modelled piano software like Pianoteq or V-Piano (Roland) create sound from scratch using several megabytes of mathematical algorithms (Fourier construction) to generate electric piano and acoustic piano sounds that can be manipulated analogously to those produced by their material counterparts. Pianoteq’s modeled sounds are supplemented with sampled pedal thump, key release, and hammer thumps and their products are very well-regarded in the pro world.
The key to Pianoteq’s believability is in its physical-modeling technology and some presumably terrifyingly complex mathematics and algorithms which are hidden from the user. The appeal of an accurately modeled piano that uses barely any space on your computer is clear: you don’t have to worry about eating up valuable hard drive space on laptops or carrying round additional drives to host libraries.
A really handy slider that lets you ‘age’ a piano on-the-fly is a nice and useful tweak to have.
Pianoteq comes in three versions: Stage, with all the patches but no sound tweaking capabilities; Standard, with many of the patch editing parameters; and Pro, with the full complement plus support for up to 192kHz operation. Although the presets are excellent, it’s the near-infinite tweak ability of any patch that really makes Pianoteq stand out, so if you are serious about shaping your pianos, the Standard or Pro versions would seem like the ones to look at.
Sample-based Piano Software
Although there are a VAST array of Sample based VSTi’s available let’s use Ivory II Grand Pianos as the example here, and a VERY good example it is.
One of the most popular sample based virtual grand piano collection’s Ivory II Grand Pianos. The powerful, Ivory II piano DSP engine which features harmonic resonance modeling for true sympathetic string vibration, soars as a fantastic highly detailed Piano VSTi at a cost of coming in at a whopping 77GB plus!
This 77GB of wonderfully sampled Pianos from Bösendorfer 290, to the Imperial Grand Steinway D Concert Grand and Yamaha c7 Grand does sound incredibly real and the suitable detail you get with up to 18 discrete velocity layers is incredible, you would be hard pushed to tell this product from a real piano as they also use some very clever synthesis technology to pull everything together, that can fool even the most keen of ears.
The playing experience is simply extraordinary with an emotional range extending from the heartiest fortissimo to the most delicate and nuanced pianissimo.
Ivory II delivers some of Synthogy’s most frequent requests, with features such as Half Pedaling, Lid Position, Pedal Noise, and Tuning Tables to provide even greater detail and control. Additionally, features like Timbre Shifting, Parametric EQ, and new Synth Layer controls offer powerful new sound sculpting capabilities for custom piano programming and sound design.
At the heart of Ivory II are Ivory’s legendary pianos, where they have has been refined and developed over many years, including velocity levels (up to 18 per piano), additional soft pedal samples, and more release samples. Synthogy’s decades of expertise in piano development, along with their “timbre interpolation” technology combine to deliver fantastic fidelity and playability.
Due to the size of their products demos are not an option, but you can check out the Pianoteq software with a nearly fully functional trial version offered over on their site.
If you want to achieve fantastic results from a virtual piano set-up, the message is that, these days, it’s relatively easy to do exactly that, as long as you have the basic building-blocks in place. The more straightforward bits of kit are the audio interface, keyboard, speakers and computer – ironically it’s choosing your piano software that is more difficult. Ultimately, all you can do is find a retailer that can demonstrate the major modelled and sampled virtual pianos and make a decision based on your own preferences.
By Andy Atkins
Andy Atkins is a long-standing writer on music gear and musicians, having had work published for a number of major retailers and leading music equipment brands. As a sometimes ageing musician, he faces the same battle with new tech that others face. As a result, he’s currently mastering the modelling capabilities of a new guitar amp, while enjoying tidying-up a 1960 Framus archtop guitar.