Can an 8Mb plug-in really compete with the new generation of multi-Gigabyte sampled grand pianos?
I should say right off the bat that when it comes to pianos, I'm something of a purist. Acoustic piano was my first love, and though I don't own an expensive 88-note model (roll on that modest Lottery win), there's nothing I like better than cutting loose on a freshly tuned, well-maintained, fine-toned concert grand. Conversely, playing a sampled piano is not exactly my favourite pastime. Though the recent crop are a lot more playable than their predecessors, these sample-based instruments often feel a bit lifeless. Their sustained notes and overtones don't interact like those of a real piano, and the complex enriching effect of the sustain pedal is, I believe, impossible to replicate using a fixed menu of samples. I was, therefore, sceptical when an SOS colleague emailed me to sing the praises of Pianoteq.
According to its makers Modartt, Pianoteq is the world's first 'fourth generation' piano, the previous three being represented by acoustic piano (starting with Cristofori's pianoforte in 1698), electro-acoustic pianos like the Fender Rhodes, and present-day sampled instruments where each note has been separately pre-recorded at different dynamic levels. The company felt that the latter approach fails to take into account the complexity of the instrument, so decided the way forward was to build a digital modelled piano. This endeavour was made possible by Dr Philippe Guillaume, one of those rare Renaissance men whose brilliant ideas occasionally light up the shadowy reaches of the music industry.
Twenty-five years ago, Guillaume pursued a career in piano tuning and restoration. While tuning and voicing pianos for concert pianists, he began to dream about the possibility of digitally controlling every individual overtone within a note, but the limitations of '80s PCs made the idea impractical. Aged 30, Guillaume began to study mathematics, earned the title of doctor and became Director of Mathematics at INSA (Institut National des Sciences Appliquées) In Toulouse. Recently, thanks to the dramatic increase in computer CPU speed, he was able to combine his two areas of expertise and write a mathematical model for an acoustic piano. With the help of software developer Dr Julien Pommier and a team of musicians, Guillaume's equations were transformed into a digital piano which Modartt claim is the first of its kind.
Pianoteq runs as a plug-in instrument on PC and Mac (Windows XP/2000 and Mac OS 10.3.9 and up) using any VST or Audio Units host. There is no stand-alone version. The instrument currently offers two on-board piano types, which Modartt cryptically call Grand C1 and Grand M1; though neither is a reproduction of a specific brand of piano, recordings of a Fazioli F212 (a seven-foot Italian grand retailing at a sickening $90,000) were used as part of the analysis for the modelling of Grand C1. Other inspirational sonic references for the modelling include top classical piano recordings and the records of jazz luminaries Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. According to Modartt, "When Philippe notices a nice sound on a piano recording, he tries to understand and reproduce it with the model." Although that won't help Pianoteq users play like Bill Evans, it's nice to think that the designer at least had his beautiful piano sound in mind!
I tested Pianoteq on my PC using the VST host Forte, which worked perfectly. The two on-board pianos emulate a fairly close listening perspective, with no apparent room element in the sound. Grand C1 has a soft, somewhat intimate timbre which lends itself well to classical styles, while the model named after England's premier motorway has a slightly more brilliant tone and a bit more 'ping' in the attack. The two models sound broadly similar, but if you're used to playing piano in a band setting, the latter instrument is probably the best starting point. In addition to these two on-board pianos, you can download two historic pianofortes from Modartt's web site (see 'Past Perfect', below, for details). These free add-ons lack the breadth of tone of modern instruments (in fact, one of them sounds like a cross between a harpsichord and a piano in the lower register) but that might come in useful if you're working on one of those historical productions that the BBC seem to churn out every three weeks.
Once you've selected a piano preset, there are many ways to tweak its sound and response. A good place to start is the 'dynamics' slider, which controls the loudness level between pianissimo and fortissimo. Pianoteq 's presets utilise a natural-sounding dynamic range of around 60dB, but you can reduce this for loud rock piano parts and increase it for very expressive, sensitive solo performances. You can also create your own velocity response curve on a cute little control screen which doubles as a MIDI velocity display by showing incoming notes as red vertical lines. When considering such matters, it's also essential to think about the MIDI velocities produced by your keyboard. Some have a 'velocity scaling' setting which can be adjusted to suit your touch, and if your keyboard has this capability it's advisable to experiment with it, to find a setting which produces a reasonably natural-sounding response, before performing edits to the sound source itself.
Hammer Hardness is an equally vital parameter. This controls the tone of the piano's attack by affecting the perceived degree of hardness of the felt on the hammer's striking surface, ranging from ultra-soft (which sounds as though a layer of cotton wool has been inserted between the hammers and strings) to very hard, which gives a very bright 'tack piano' tone. Hammer hardness may be set individually for p, mf and f dynamics, so you could set up a soft-sounding piano that magically acquires an ultra-brilliant timbre at high velocities. A related parameter, hammer noise, controls the amount of 'knock' in the sound. Turn it up to maximum and you'll hear a loud, unmusical wooden thump on every note; remove it altogether and the note attack takes on the pure, non-percussive quality one hears on classical piano recordings made with a more distant miking.
The Piano Size control looked intriguing. Being of a grandiose disposition, I immediately turned it up to maximum, and was pleased when the display told me that my instrument was now 10 metres long (a truly grand grand piano, though a roadie's nightmare). However, what I was hearing didn't actually sound any bigger. It transpired that this control governs virtual string length. Increasing length reduces the amount of natural harmonic overtones in the notes, while decreasing it emphasises them, but the difference in sound is subtle. On an even more subliminal level, the Quadratic Effect slider apparently affects the non-linear harmonic response of hard strokes, whatever that is. Under normal playing conditions it's very hard to discern the effect of either of the above tonal variations, but I found I could hear them at work most clearly on loud, repeated, single bass notes.
Once you've fiddled with these parameters and arrived at a piano sound that suits your taste and touch, you can easily save and recall your patches as FXP (effect preset) files. But before you hit the 'save' button, you might want to take a look at Pianoteq 's excellent on-board reverb and EQ facilities: the reverb offers adjustable room sizes and decay lengths, while the cleverly designed EQ screen allows you to set up anything from a broad treble boost to a complex combination of multi-frequency cuts and boosts. Reverb and EQ settings are saved as part of a patch, and this versatile effects section reinforced my impression that a hell of a lot of thought has gone into making this piano as usable as possible.
One intriguing facet of Pianoteq is its theoretical ability to mimic any piano that its makers train their sights on. This has been put to good use in the KIViR (Keyboard Instruments Virtual Restoration) cultural project, which aims to create digital restorations of old pianos, harpsichords and virginals. Modartt used their Pianoteq technology to create adapted models of old instruments found in museums, and these can now be played by the museums' visitors from a digital keyboard, giving the public the chance to hear these musical rarities without putting strain on their elderly mechanisms. Two such historic pianos are available as free downloads to Pianoteq buyers: an Austrian Schöffstoss instrument from 1812, and an early Schmidt pianoforte dating from 1790. (For some reason, the latter's global tuning is set to an alarmingly flat A=416, but it's easy to reset the control to A=440!) Other pianoforte add-ons are planned, and the project may be extended to include non-stringed instruments.
When improvising on the piano, one relies instinctively on the sustain pedal for note layering and reverberant washes. As I mentioned earlier, no sampled piano can truly emulate this complex, ever-changing effect. Some companies have tried, by supplying a set of alternative 'pedal down' samples which kick in when the pedal is pressed, a laudable attempt which nevertheless doesn't quite do the trick. Pianoteq 's efforts in this department are an improvement. The difference between a pedalled and non-pedalled note is clearly discernible, the former bringing in a layer of sympathetic overtones which form a subtle 'bloom' around the note. This effect can be exaggerated by turning up the Global Resonance control, which governs the amount of resonance of the undamped strings, soundboard and cabinet. Set to maximum, it produces a beautiful floaty reverb which goes well beyond realism but is inspirational to play with. Another highly realistic touch is that when pressing the sustain pedal, you can hear the characteristic soft 'womph' of the dampers lifting off the strings. That sound can get rather obtrusive, so I was glad to see that there's an option to turn it off altogether.
Other pedal options include a soft 'una corda' pedal with variable softness, a 'staccato-sustain' pedal which adds undamped string resonance to staccato notes without causing the played notes to ring indefinitely, and a 'selective sustain' pedal. Sometimes found on posh grands, this last acts as a latching sustain pedal on any notes currently held down when it's depressed, allowing you to let (say) a chord go on ringing while leaving both hands free to play subsequent notes undamped. Each of the four pedals has its own designated MIDI control.
If you want to take Pianoteq in a more synthetic direction, try experimenting with the mysteriously named Impedance parameter, which controls sustain length; the maximum setting creates unnaturally elongated, reverberant-sounding sustains, while short settings produce a more staccato effect. At its most extreme, the latter sounds like the dead thunks and clonks of John Cage's prepared piano. The Cutoff and Q Factor settings don't perform their normal synth filter functions; instead both affect the decay rate of high frequencies, and at high settings can impart a plucked-string sound to the attack, or even transform the piano sound into an attractive, synth-like, muted Clavinet timbre.
Spectrum Profile looks like a graphic equaliser but actually functions more like a set of Hammond organ drawbars, with each of the eight controls representing an individual harmonic within the overall sound. By removing some harmonics and exaggerating others, I found it possible to produce a wide range of interesting timbres, and in combination with the Cutoff and Q Factor controls I was able to warp Pianoteq 's sound into an array of virtual plucked instruments resembling a harp, virginal, nylon guitar and lute. Not a bad set of impressions for a digital piano!
On the technical front, Modartt claim that Pianoteq offers 256-voice polyphony (which is 252 more voices than most rock musicians ever need). To test their claim, I considered hiring 25 other keyboard players and a 22-octave MIDI keyboard — if each volunteer played 10 notes it would be theoretically possible to generate a combined 256-voice chord, but it would be hard to tell if all the notes were sounding over all the laughter. Instead, I set Pianoteq 's polyphony to 64, pressed the sustain pedal down and arpeggiated away to my heart's content: I heard no glitches, no note robbing and best of all, I was able to set my soundcard's latency to its lowest setting (64 samples, equating to one millisecond at 44.1kHz) with no ill effects whatever, something I have never been able to do before with any virtual instrument or sampler.
The only two technical criticisms I can muster are as follows: the instrument's MIDI receive channels are displayed as 0-15 rather than 1-16, a pretty insignificant mini-blooper which one hopes will be corrected in an upgrade. Less easy to ignore is the fact that having apparently successfully activated the instrument on-line by typing its serial number, I found that Pianoteq then refused to open unless my computer was connected to the Internet. It turned out that the on-line activation procedure requires drivers for a network interface to be installed, a requirement which my machine appeared to fail. Most of us would prefer to avoid such thoroughly non-musical issues, so to avoid giving some users an unnecessary headache, I'd advise Modartt to reconsider their activation procedure.
Piano tuners occasionally employ 'stretch tuning'. The idea behind this is to make the piano sound a little sweeter (and, some say, more apparently in tune) by incrementally sharpening the upper octaves and flattening the lower ones by a small degree, resulting in a 'stretched' range from the bottom note to the top. (The effect is most pronounced at the top end.) Pianoteq 's 'octave stretching' control allows you to set the amount of stretch: a zero setting produces equal temperament, while the maximum setting makes the top notes sound noticeably sharp. A medium setting imparts some apparent 'brightness' of intonation to the high end without making it sound badly out of tune, but if you layer a stretch-tuned Pianoteq with other instruments, you're likely to notice a nasty tuning discrepancy in the top two octaves.
A second tuning control governs the degree of unison tuning of the piano's virtual strings. Most piano notes have three strings which are hit simultaneously by one hammer, and when the three are out of tune they produce the characteristic 'honky tonk' pub piano sound. Pianoteq offers a 'unison width' setting which ranges from zero to 20, with an extremely lifelike honky tonk effect kicking in at around six. Interestingly, most of the main presets use a setting of just over one, and reducing that figure to zero makes the individual notes sound somewhat less lively. This seems to indicate that when it comes to piano tuning, a 100 percent perfect unison between the three strings may not necessarily be desirable. Having said that, we are talking about extremely subtle differences that will tend to go unnoticed in most listening situations!
I compared Pianoteq to one of the best of the recent crop of sampled grands, and the difference was pretty dramatic. Both pianos sounded fine on simple pop/rock styles, handling big stately chords, slow melodies, octave bass lines and fast repeated chords with aplomb. But when it came to expressive improvised music, Pianoteq was much more playable — its notes sounded more connected than those of the sampled instrument, giving fast runs and phrases something of the silvery cohesion of a real piano. The lack of discernible latency was also a huge plus. The only minor disadvantage of Pianoteq was that its tone arguably lacks a little overall sparkle, but that's easy to remedy with the on-board EQ.
It could be argued that Pianoteq lacks features offered by certain sample-based piano titles, some of which contain more than one make of piano or alternative microphone positions. One even features a grand piano recorded in 5.1 surround! Modartt have not gone down this road, concentrating instead on producing a very accurate stereo modelled grand with a huge range of user-adjustable parameters. On the question of emulating different makes of piano, I see no reason why their ingenious modelling procedure could not be adapted to emulate the sound of (say) a Steinway, a Yamaha or a Bosendorfer grand. In fact, the company are already working on a couple of new pianos, though neither of them are based on the well-known makes I mentioned.
Most keyboardists need a decent piano sound, and few of us can achieve it by rolling into a piano showroom and thrusting a holdall full of £50 notes at the manager. For studio musicians, composers, arrangers, programmers and even gigging keyboardists prepared to take their chances with an on-stage laptop, Pianoteq offers an affordable and creditable solution to the age-old digital piano problem. Although it can't take the place of an acoustic grand (no electronic simulation ever will), it brings the sound and touch of the real thing within closer reach. As ever, writing about piano sound is a subjective business, but in this case you don't have to take my word for it. Download a demo version of Pianoteq from Modartt's site and try it for yourself!
- An impressive-sounding, highly playable piano for less than £200.
- You can subtly (or unsubtly) tweak many tonal and performance parameters to suit your touch and taste.
- Extremely low latency coupled with 256-voice polyphony.
- Consumes negligible disk space and RAM.
- The on-line activation procedure requires drivers for a network interface card to be installed.
- There's no stand-alone version.
- Er — that's it.
A digital piano with built-in reverb which uses no samples, takes next to no time to download, sounds very convincing and costs less than a ticket for a Chelsea home match. (OK, I may have exaggerated slightly on the last point.) What are you waiting for?