Disk-streaming samplers are well suited to the playback of long grand piano samples -- so it's odd that it's taken this long to create a disk-based VST plug-in piano. The Grand looks to remedy this oversight...
The biggest breakthrough in sampled piano technology in recent years has been the arrival of the Nemesys (now Tascam) Gigasampler, which can stream unlooped piano samples for each note direct from a hard drive, creating the Gigapiano.
As similar disk-streaming technology has now been incorporated into Steinberg's HALion, it seemed inevitable that a streamed piano would be forthcoming at some stage. However, Steinberg and Wizoo Sound Design have produced not a HALion piano library, but The Grand -- a stand-alone VST 2.0 Instrument with pian
Steinberg The Grand £170
Excellent sound quality and timbre options.
Offers realistic enhancements that wouldn't have been available in a HALion library.
Easily optimised for controller keyboards.
Responds to sustain, sostenuto, and soft pedal.
Really needs a fast CPU and 512Mb of RAM.
Ideally needs a dedicated hard drive.
The Grand is an impressive performer capable of a wide range of truly realistic and expressive piano sounds, but needs a fairly powerful computer to achieve its maximum 64-note polyphony.
The samples used by The Grand were recorded at 24-bit, 48kHz resolution from a Kawai concert grand in an anechoic chamber, and together make up a hefty 1.3Gb of data. Because of this, there are three CD-ROMs in the gatefold pack. The first contains the Mac and PC instrument files, along with an 18Mb audio demo, while disks two and three house the sample data.
The VST Instrument file needs to be placed in your 'vstplugins' folder as usual, but thankfully you can choose where the samples reside. Since hard drive performance is critical to polyphony when streaming from disk, the ideal place is a dedicated drive, or at least one not shared with your audio tracks, although you could use a single drive if you have plenty of RAM for buffering.
Keyboard Settings & Sounds
The comprehensive Edit window comprises six sections. The first, Keyboard Settings, allows you to extract the most expressive performances from your controller keyboard. There are three global Sensitivity presets to suit lightweight synth keys, light weighted, or heavier wooden keys with hammer mechanism, and there's a complete section devoted to Velocity curves, with a graphic window featuring a 'draggable' curve, seven presets beneath, and the ability to store up to three of your own curves. I created a custom one to compensate for the two MIDI keyboards I tried, neither of which managed to generate MIDI velocities higher than about 116, missing out on the loudest sample layer. There's also a Volume Sensitivity knob that compresses the dynamic range slightly at values under 100 percent to maintain punch. Apart from the usual sustain pedal, both Sostenuto (selective key sustain) and Soft pedals are also supported, using MIDI controllers 66 and 67 respectively.
The next section is simply labelled Sound, and has four buttons that provide a surprising amount of variation. The Natural setting is as close as possible to the original instrument, and provides a rich, full-range sound, but it was the range of expression from piano to forte which particularly impressed me, especially once I'd tweaked the various sensitivity controls to suit my playing style.
Soft provides the same volume range but with less tonal variation from piano to forte, while Bright is similar but with a sharper tone, even when played quietly, and would probably fit into electronic music more easily. Fi My experiments suggest that you should up the processor speeds by at least half to obtain reasonable polyphony. If you intend to run other VST instruments and audio as well, you'll need even more power. The most taxing combination is if you want to run HALion as well; here 512Mb would seem to be the minimum. In general, PC users seem to have achieved more satisfactory results with The Grand than Mac owners, and laptop owners may need to use a faster external hard drive.
Minimum System Requirements... And The Reality
Mac users will require a minimum of a Power Mac with 500MHz G3 processor, running a 100MHz buss with Mac OS 9, while PC owners need a Pentium II 400MHz processor and Windows 95, 98, ME, or 2000. Both platforms must have a minimum of 256Mb of free RAM, and preferably 512Mb. You'll also need 1.3Gb of free space on your hard drive, and a VST host application!
My experiments suggest that you should up the processor speeds by at least half to obtain reasonable polyphony. If you intend to run other VST instruments and audio as well, you'll need even more power. The most taxing combination is if you want to run HALion as well; here 512Mb would seem to be the minimum. In general, PC users seem to have achieved more satisfactory results with The Grand than Mac owners, and laptop owners may need to use a faster external hard drive.
Ambience adds room reflections with a simple rotary Amount control, and I found it added realistic acoustic environments ranging from room to hall without swamping the sound. However, if you want to play The Grand live or add your choice of reverb externally, you can disable it using the Anechoic Chamber button.
Master Volume and Tuning controls are present, and the Tuning section also offers the choice of Well-tempered or 'Concert Grand' scale tuning -- the 'stretched' tuning used by professional piano tuners.
The most intriguing panel section is Global Performance, where you can tune The Grand's engine. True Sustain Resonance adds the support of sympathetic string and body resonances, exactly like playing a real piano with the sustain pedal down. The Amount rotary lets you change the natural 50 percent setting by +/-12dB, and the effect also works with re-pedalling, where depressing the sustain pedal after playing some notes still results in a build-up of other resonances. It sounded extremely realistic to my ears, while whacking it up to maximum is good for ethereal effects. However, this feature doubles the number of voices used to two per note.
True String Release models the slight delay and then damping effect of the felt when you release each note, which sounds more realistic than a simple decay or abrupt stop, although the difference is subtle. True Hammer Release mimics the sound of the hammers themselves when notes are released, which is normally heard by the pianist, but depending on mic position, may not be audible in many piano recordings, and is very subtle except when playing high notes pianissimo.
Although the maximum number of Voices can be raised to 64, it's more sensible to restrict this to a value that suits the material you're working with, to maximise your computer's resources. When you first load up The Grand, it defaults to conservative settings to ensure that most people will be able to play it, but as you move through the presets the system requirements increase.
The final two controls are the key to getting optimum performance from The Grand. 'Quality' seems to alter the internal sampling rate, and should be left at its Best setting unless your computer is struggling, when moving it over towards Efficient may be necessary.
The best setting for Disk Streaming is a compromise between available RAM and the sustained transfer rate of your hard drive, and the easiest way to find it is to drag this control fully left towards 'RAM'
-- this extreme setting will report that you don't have enough RAM, but will then provide an automatic setting based on your computer spec. You may have to adjust various settings on a song-by-song basis, but you could resort to exporting audio from The Grand into your sequencer, so your computer doesn't have to run the plug-in in real time alongside the rest of your audio.
I was certainly impressed by the quality of The Grand, and with the breadth of sounds on offer -- and apparently the plan is for Wizoo to release new sample packs for The Grand in due course, to further expand its repertoire. Whether or not it will be the perfect piano for you will depend on personal taste, but I found it capable of more dynamic and expressive performances than both Tascam's rather brash Gigapiano and the much mellower Art Vista Malmsjö Grand.
However, this sound quality comes at a price. Although throttling back my Gigastudio 160 to 64 voices took about 20 percent of my Pentium III 1GHz PC, it only took about 24 voices to do this with The Grand with all its True features active, although I did manage the maximum 64 voices with about 55 percent CPU overhead, running with 7mS latency via my Echo Mia soundcard. In fairness, restricting polyphony to between 20 and 30 notes probably won't be audible on most material, since the voice-stealing algorithms do seem to be fairly transparent, and of course you can disable True Sustain Resonance for even better polyphony on low-powered computers. As always with a product like this, the results you obtain on your system may vary, but with a powerful enough computer, The Grand is an instrument to be reckoned with.