Bechstein have exhaustively sampled one of their own instruments to bring us this lavishly produced virtual piano.
The sampled piano market, as most players and purchasers will know, is jam-packed. At the more expensive and specialist end there seems to be every kind of instrument on offer, from ultra-clean no-disk-space-spared modern-day Japanese beauties to deliberately aged, European character pianos complete with studio and artist provenance.
Bechsteins, though, are generally not well represented — you’re much more likely to come across sampled Steinways, Bosendorfers, Yamahas and even Faziolis. And that’s a fair mirror of real life too, on the concert hall stage. The perception in classical circles has often been, rightly or wrongly, that the Bechstein grand is a more delicate, lighter-sounding instrument, and less suitable for doing battle with a symphony orchestra in really big repertoire, despite its tremendous historical legacy (Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin et al). But maybe that unique character would make it an ideal candidate for sampling: something distinct that could be an attractive alternative for pop and jazz as well as concertos. As someone who spent much of their teenage years stationed in front of a Bechstein (albeit an upright, still in the family), I was quite keen to find out if that theory stood up to scrutiny.
Let’s get some factual stuff out of the way first. This sample library is an official Bechstein product — the piano factory and digital offices share the same Berlin address — and the piano recorded was a modern C Bechstein D 282 concert grand, in the renowned Teldex studio.
Digital Grand runs as a proper self-contained library in Kontakt (5.6.8 or later) or Kontakt Player, and the website blurb says you should have an i5 or i7 chip or better, 8GB RAM, and store the samples on a built-in or USB3-connected SSD. Authorisation is via Native Instruments’ Native Access application, and there’s no physical dongle.
Miking was done from three different perspectives. ‘Player’ uses an M/S mic setup, while ‘Side’ and ‘Top’ are both said to use ‘classical stereo miking’ techniques, with top recorded close to the strings. You choose which to use by loading a dedicated Kontakt instrument for it: there aren’t any onboard mic-mixing facilities. Well, that’s not strictly true actually, as each perspective can blend in another so-called ‘aura’ layer, made up of either a simulated convolution reverb return or a genuine additional set of roomy-sounding samples.
On top of this, the full-on Digital Grand instruments have almost every bell and whistle going, in terms of the state-of-the-art piano sampling: pedal resonance, sympathetic resonance, separate key, damper, pedal and string release noises, plus una corda and sostenuto pedal support. Meanwhile, all purchasers of the Digital Grand get a separate product, Digital Grand Essentials, thrown in for free. This piano is a mere 2.4GB in size compared to its bigger brother’s 25.5GB (compressed), and it also includes a Kontakt instrument that loads completely into RAM.
There’s rather a lot to say about Digital Grand’s four-page interface in Kontakt and potential for sound design, but we’ll come to that in a moment. First, I’ll leap straight to the fortissimo finale — how does this piano sound?
Well, the Bechstein bright/light stereotype is borne out in reality to some extent, but not in the way I expected, and all for the better. The tone is remarkably clear and agile, commanding too, with a nice balance between cleanliness and character. There are notably energetic high harmonics in the bass, low tenor and high treble registers — it’s not ‘plummy’ at all — and they could goad you into making that snap ‘bright’ judgment.
However, comparing it to other virtual pianos I had on hand was an interesting exercise. The ‘Side’ perspective isn’t in fact subjectively brighter than the nicely balanced Steinway D in Synthogy Ivory II, and the capture style is similar, being roomy and silky but not too distant. The ‘Top’ instrument gives a more focused and direct sound, quite different, with a ballsier bass end, and this was the one I found myself drawn to playing the most. It takes reverb well. The ‘Player’ perspective is the brightest and most insistent and can really cut through in a mix. Aspects of the stereo presentation differ between all of these, as you’d expect, though each is spacious and equally plausible in its own way.
So the overwhelming impression is of exceptional clarity and oodles of class. Capture quality is excellent, with laser-like focus maintained across the pitch compass, and none of the off-axis looseness I heard with Synthogy’s Studio Grands, for example. A forensic examination of the 26 layer velocity switching also comes back clean (it’s impossible to hear any), each note gets its own set of samples, and the decay phases seem absolutely natural, with no looping. Just as crucially, the donor piano has no duff-sounding, noisy or out-of-tune notes. Mechanical noises — key thuds, damper lifts, pedal swishes and string releases/damping — are all there, add a great deal to the sense of realism, and have individual level controls. This is piano sampling done right.
Digging further into the detail, there’s support for sympathetic resonance, the phenomenon of a held note’s harmonics being excited by other played notes. It has its own level knob, and turned right up is mostly audible from the tenor region upwards when a harmonically congruous lower note is struck no more than two octaves below. Excitation of held lower notes by higher ones occurs at such a low level as to be almost inaudible, and the duration of the harmonics is bizarrely long. By way of comparison, a modelled system like Pianoteq 6 embarrasses the Digital Grand in the complexity and naturalness of the effect (just as a real acoustic grand in turn embarrasses Pianoteq). However, I’m aware I’ve written in other reviews that the presence or absence of sympathetic resonance may be of zero concern for the vast majority of players in the real world, and I’ll stand by that. If it does matter to you, at least you know Digital Grand is capable of it, to some extent. Also, a pre-beta version of the next Digital Grand update I tried just before putting this review to bed added quite a bit of sophistication to the resonance engine, so things are looking up.
Pedal resonance is also a part of the sound engine. Caused by playing with the damper pedal down (ie. dampers raised), we’re talking about sympathetic resonance on steroids. Interactions should occur between every sounding note and every other freely resonating string: the result, for even a single note, being a hike in brightness, a big increase in stereo width (as the whole string-band and soundboard comes into play) and a shimmeringly complex decay. Digital Grand puts pedal resonance under the control of three knobs, the interaction of which isn’t immediately obvious, and it’s possible to conjure up effects that are weirdly artificial: like producing a big swell in volume when the damper pedal is pressed for already-sounding notes. Less extreme settings are naturalistic though.
Which brings us to half-pedalling and partial damping. You know the deal: on a real acoustic piano you can repeatedly release and rapidly depress the damper pedal without pedal-held chords being completely damped. You can also explore partially sustaining, bell-like effects somewhere between sustaining and damped, when the pedal isn’t fully depressed or released. Digital Grand, surprisingly, isn’t capable of either. It’s not alone — neither Soniccouture’s The Hammersmith nor Native Instrument’s latest Komplete pianos do it. Others do though (like Synthogy Ivory), and even my Nord Piano 3 with its relatively compact onboard sample-sizes implements both nicely. So it’s surprising that Digital doesn’t attempt partial damping: especially as the PDF manual specifically mentions support for it. There is some kind of support for continuous MIDI pedal values — a value handle next to a continuous pedal display lets you choose at what point in the pedal’s range the pedal noises kick in. But that’s as far as it goes. Again, improvements are promised for a future Digital Grand update.
I’ve mentioned a few parameters that can be adjusted in the user interface already. In fact there are many more, arranged across four tabbed pages. You can get quite creative...
For broad sound character tweaks, there’s the Audio-Design page. A stereo width control goes from folded mono to exaggerated stereo (and specifically becomes a Mid/Side balance control for the Player mic perspective, which was captured that way). The Character section utilises algorithms from Elysia, and provides an overall spectral balance control (warm and slightly muted to ‘toppy’) as well as a compressor and EQ that operate on either the mid or side stereo component. It’s all preset based, and allows for subtle rather than drastic shaping, but is useful in honing the piano sound without resorting to lots of additional plug-ins.
Still in Audio-Design, an Aura knob adds roominess using either a convolution reverb or a whole extra set of room mic samples. This makes a considerable difference to the sound of Digital Grand — the natural samples in particular are decidedly cuddly in character, and add both weight and stereo width. I liked the natural Aura sound a lot, but there’s one tiny proviso: this sample layer is not silent in response to a MIDI note with a velocity of 1, whereas the ‘main’ piano samples are. A lid position control seems to adjust some kind of notch filter, to entirely plausible effect, and there’s an in-situ reverb under a ‘Stage’ banner. This sounds fine, but you’ll of course have miles more flexibility using a separate reverb in your sequencer software.
Far more ambitious is the String-EQ page. This allows the intensity of fundamental and upper harmonics, as well as decay and attack shape to be adjusted for individual notes. And I doubtless gloss over the complexity of what’s really going on: according to the manual the colourful interface here (which can be reflected in Native Instruments S-series controller light-guides) is a series of macros for more than 1200 internal parameters. Wow!
Operating String-EQ is dead easy: you simply drag a slider up or down for an individual note, or mouse over entire pitch ranges to draw freehand curves, which can be optionally smoothed. There’s a sort of master knob to adjust the intensity of all four adjustment types too.
Now, to any users with dreams of ‘preparing’ their Bechstein D 282 using this system, John Cage-style, think again. As with most Digital Grand parameters the extremes of adjustability are kept within modest, respectful boundaries. There is no option at all to tune individual notes, nor change their unison width, strike point, etc. So regard this more as a way to gently sculpt the character of different pitch regions, adding a little sustain here, a touch of warmth and bloom there, and you won’t be disappointed.
And that leaves the Details page. Here we get those mechanical noise volume controls, resonance parameters, a knob and draggable graph for tailoring velocity response, and some NKS light-guide stuff. The Velocity section has no automated routines for setting up different MIDI controllers but is in every other way a very flexible and powerful feature. The preset shapes are all really useful, and the Dynamic Response knob controls overall dynamic range in relation to velocity: it can increase the sense of presence like a compressor might, but without any dynamic pumping. Mightily handy.
Now, I wish I could wrap up this review right now, and just say that Digital Grand is a wonderfully classy-sounding and playable piano — one of the very best currently available — which also benefits from a sensible range of onboard sound-tweaking options. All of that is true, but I can’t avoid tackling the issue of CPU use, which is unfortunately rather serious.
Long story short: Digital Grand is a CPU hog like no other virtual piano I’ve ever known. To be fair, the PDF manual acknowledges early on that it might be a problem, and advocates using a modern, decent computer. It also describes procedures for reducing the maximum number of Kontakt voices and adjusting buffer size, for efficient operation. Also, as CPU hit is very much dependent on how many parts of the sound engine are enabled (ie. String-EQ, the Aura layer, and audio processing sections) presets named ‘Eco’ and ‘Ultra Eco’ are provided that run Digital Grand in a spartan guise.
Still, it’s an ever-present issue. Using the fully featured ‘Enjoy Digital Grand’ preset, a straightforward Coldplay-style repeated octave left-hand and chord right-hand accompaniment with the damper pedal down caused continuous splats, dropouts and flashing red CPU numbers in Kontakt after just a few seconds. This on a 3.3GHz i5 Retina 5K iMac, which I know is not the fastest computer available, but is no less capable than some brand-new Macs, and more importantly sails through every other music production task I ask of it. The Digital Grand samples were on its internal SSD, and I saw no performance difference between the plug-in version hosted in either Studio One or Digital Performer, and Kontakt running as a stand-alone app. My usually set-and-forget 128 buffer size was carnage, and the problem was still there when I cranked that up to a soggy 1024.
Playing the exact same MIDI clip on a range of other virtual pianos, back at the 128 buffer, did nothing for Digital Grand’s case. According to Studio One’s detailed per-plug-in Performance Monitor, where a fully featured Digital Grand preset caused continual 50 percent or more CPU use, with frequent higher spikes, neither Garritan CFX nor Synthogy Ivory (using their most elaborate presets, with reverbs, etc) broke into double figures. Pianoteq 6 used about 20 percent but didn’t spike.
Switching to one of Digital Grand’s Eco presets, the situation improved markedly, but the piano sound was less good. And they’re still quite CPU-intensive: in my same test ‘Eco’ gave a solid 20 percent or more, and only the rather dry-sounding ’Ultra Eco’ got close to the other sample-based pianos.
Of course, owners of computers with the very fastest and most recent processors may never be aware of a problem. But even they may need to be realistic about using the most responsive buffer sizes, and about how much else can be asked of the computer while running Digital Grand parts, before needing to freeze them.
So let me try and wrap up this review once more. Digital Grand really is a beautiful-sounding virtual piano: clean, crisp, majestic, communicative, flexible. Musically it can hold its own with the stiffest competition. However, a few downsides — principally that prodigal CPU use — may prevent it from becoming your go-to piano just yet, unless you have a beast of a computer. If you’re unsure, why not take advantage of Bechstein Digital’s 30-day money-back guarantee. That’s a generous gesture that’s reflective of the spirit of the instrument as a whole. If you can make it work you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
I’ve mentioned some of the front-runners in the virtual piano game in the main text of this review: Synthogy Ivory II, Garritan CFX Concert Grand, Pianoteq 6... You might also try some of Synthogy’s other specialist libraries, or Spitfire Audio’s Hans Zimmer Piano. EastWest’s decade-old Quantum Leap Pianos is still well worth considering too, and includes a Bechstein (a D 280).
I mentioned Digital Grand’s little brother, Digital Grand Essentials. It’s actually a completely separate product, available to buy by itself, and is really pretty good. Based on the same Bechstein original piano, it utilises only a single blend of mic perspectives, fewer velocity layers, and a Kontakt interface that’s reduced to a single page. The sound quality is good though, and really just as attractive. It asks for more CPU than Digital Grand’s ‘Eco’ presets, but not as much as a the full-fat main product patches. A useful thing to have around, especially for laptop-based users with much less fast disk space available.
One of the presets provided for all the Digital Grand mic perspectives, ‘Too Old To Move’, skews the piano tone such that it sounds like you’re playing back a recording half speed. It’s a genuine departure from the naturalistic sound of the instrument, and very interesting. I pored over the Digital Grand interface to see what parameter I’d missed that could be responsible for such a sound... and concluded there isn’t one. In fact, this preset utilises some behind-the-scenes Kontakt sample group remapping, and unless you’re also a Kontakt guru it’s a take it or leave it deal. But the crucial thing is that Digital Grand’s instruments are unlocked in Kontakt, and can be adjusted and deconstructed on a fundamental level, if that’s your thing.
- Clean, confident, classy sound and not just another Steinway.
- Onboard facilities for tackling piano sound design in several different ways.
- Extensive support for resonances and mechanical noises.
- Bundled lite-version Essentials is genuinely useful.
- Extremely demanding of CPU: only the very latest, fastest chips are likely to give a trouble-free playing experience.
- No support for half-pedalling and partial damping (in the tested version).
- Per-note voicing facilities may feel a little too polite for some users.
There is much to admire here, from the very fine basic piano sound to the charming PDF manual, but it’s all moot if your computer can’t handle the demands Digital Grand makes on your CPU. A power-user’s instrument, in every way...
Digital Grand €251.09, Digital Grand Essentials €130.08. Prices include VAT.
Digital Grand €209.24,Digital Grand Essentials €108.40.
- Digital Grand 1.1.0 (and brief testing with a pre-beta 1.2.0).
- Kontakt 5.8.1.
- Apple iMac Retina 5K with 3.3GHz i5, 16GB RAM, 1TB internal SSD, running Mac OS 10.12.6.
- Nord Piano 3 controller with Nord Triple Pedal.