Now six years old, this physical modelling instrument has reached a new level of refinement and sophistication — and not just for piano sounds.
The falling cost and ever-increasing capacity of hard drives have conspired, in recent years, to give us sample-based piano sound libraries that routinely run to 80GB or more. And hooray for that, because many are outstandingly good, both in terms of sound quality and playability. Set against this, the roughly 20MB (yes, megabyte!) installation size of Modartt's Pianoteq 4 seems almost implausible. Especially so because as well as its two main grand pianos it also includes a surprisingly large array of 'add-on' sounds, which start off in a time-limited demo mode but can be unlocked after purchase in the Modartt online store. These include Rhodes and Wurlitzer electro-mechanical pianos, a Clavinet and a Yamaha rock piano sound, plus two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, celesta, glockenspiel, steel drum, spacedrum, hand pan drums and a tank drum. There are free add-ons too: a cimbalom, two harpsichords, eight historical pianos, a Yamaha CP80 electro-acoustic, tubular bells and church bells. That little lot comes in the form of two downloads that run to a whopping (not) 12MB.
Clearly, Pianoteq is more than just a virtual piano, and Pianoteq 4 offers quite a bit more than its earlier versions too. The headline improvement is the new main acoustic piano model, based on a German Steinway D, called 'D4'. There's also a brand new detachable effect section that includes a delay, chorus, flanger, wah, tremolo/autopan, amp modelling and a compressor. The reverb is now a convolution design, though the old computational reverb is still there for the sake of backwards compatibility, hidden away a bit. A Mallet Bounce section causes repeated triggering of sounds and, while not much use for pianos, is perfect for recreating playing styles of the steel drum and cimbalom sounds, amongst others. Of more utilitarian appeal is a keyboard calibration assistant, which looks at the key velocity and pedal behaviour of your MIDI controller, with the aim of giving the most natural playing experience. And, finally, the graphic interfaces of both the stand-alone application and plug-in are now resizable from between 50 percent and 250 percent of the previous norm.
But I'm getting ahead of myself — so let's rewind through a few Pianoteq basics.
If it's not already obvious from the tiny download and installation size, Pianoteq isn't a sample-based instrument. Instead, sounds are generated from complex mathematical models of a piano's strings, soundboard and action. Samples were involved at some stage, but by the time you're playing the plug-in or stand-alone application, it's all about cold, hard computation.
The modelling approach allows Pianoteq to respond smoothly to all 127 velocity levels a controller keyboard can produce — even the best sample-based pianos typically only offer 16 velocity levels, albeit with some interpolation to smooth the changes between them. Sympathetic string resonance is implemented at a fundamental level, rather than as an additional 'layer' or effect. Similarly, complex pedal effects such as half or partial pedalling can be incorporated at the heart of the sound engine.
The benefits of acoustic modelling don't stop there, though. Pianoteq allows you to tweak aspects of the piano models to subtly or wildly vary the sound and response. You can, for example, detune the pairs or groups of strings that constitute one note, or vary the hardness and strike-point for the hammers, producing strange and interesting harmonic variations. You can increase or eradicate string inharmonicity by making your virtual piano anything between 80cm and 10m long. Soundboards can be paper-thin and massively resonant, or thick, heavy and virtually inert. Want a piano with no dampers, or not-very-effective ones? It's all possible. All this is in addition to more familiar stuff like pitch, temperament, very precise EQ and control of dynamic range.
These parameters are grouped together in several front-panel areas headed Tuning, Voicing and Design, and change slightly depending on the currently loaded piano model. Electro-mechanical pianos, for instance, quite rightly lose the String Length parameter, but gain Pickup Symmetry and Pickup Distance. Other parameters appear in user-selectable panels or as temporary graphical overlays; they include the Note Edit facilities, as well as EQ, effects and mic position editing.
The Note Edit feature won't be for everyone — literally, because you have to pay the €150 premium for the Pro version to get it. It's also pretty intense, letting you adjust 24 core parameters for each note via graph-like displays. It lets you design pianos with unusual characteristics, and can introduce gradual changes between different pitch areas or abrupt alterations of individual notes. You can get lost (in a good way) in the possibilities.
Microphone positioning options are there to produce different live recording-like perspectives, and reveal Pianoteq's five-channel, surround-ready audio architecture. There are no options to switch microphone type, but changing distance, vertical height and stereo configurations do make a clear difference to the sound. The output can also be set to emulate a binaural dummy-head type mic pickup, or to straight Stereophonic or Monophonic modes, both of which bypass the mic modelling.
As a whole, Pianoteq 4's interface is a nice place to work, with important parameters readily accessible, boring configuration stuff hidden away, and helpful 'tool-tip' pop-ups available when you want them. A good number of presets are on offer via a pop-up menu, and they load (instantly, I might add) the associated piano models and all other settings. The interface backdrop colour and texture also changes according to the piano type loaded — cute.
I'll cut to the chase: Pianoteq 4 is a good bit better-sounding than any previous version. The key to this is the new D4 Steinway-based grand. It's a much classier model than we've ever had in Pianoteq before, retaining the natural dynamic behaviour of its predecessors but combining it with a more commanding, complex and distinctly 'expensive' tone.
There's also a 'K1' grand, notably smaller and brighter in character and, although less immediately impressive, probably a great choice for more aggressive pop and rock duties. The flagship C3 and M3 pianos of Pianoteq 3, incidentally, are gone for ever. If you have unfinished work that relies on them, you'll need to keep your old Pianoteq version around for a while longer.
The commercial add-on sounds are really excellent. The electro-mechanical pianos represent the state of the virtual instrument art — really wonderful, rewarding, and greatly preferable to typical velocity-switched sampled versions. They're further enhanced by version 4's improved effects. Chromatic percussion sounds are superb as well, with outstanding harmonic complexity. The new Steel Pans add-on is unexpectedly useful, and the new Mallet Bounce feature works great with the Steel Drum sound, to produce a believable, quasi-sustained effect with an astonishing sense of realism. And if you were ever inspired by Cliff Martinez's soundtrack for the movie Solaris, you won't be disappointed with the Hand Pan sound, which is open and clangorous but responds in a remarkably subtle way to repetition and tiny velocity variations.
The only thing wrong with the Pianoteq add-ons is that they're in danger of stealing the show. When I've summed up previous versions of Pianoteq, I've always maintained that whilst the playability and responsiveness of its core acoustic pianos has never been in doubt, there has been a certain lack of realism and believability in the sound when directly compared to big sample library counterparts. With Pianoteq 4, that criticism is less valid, but perhaps still not completely unreasonable. To my ears, a hint of an artificial 'twang' is still audible at times. It's difficult to describe — kind of like the audio equivalent of spotting CGI graphics on film — but it's there. And having spent some time with Pianoteq 4, I decided it's not just a characteristic of the acoustic models so much as the microphone placement modelling. All the acoustic piano presets have that enabled, and in general the roomier a sound was, the less I liked it. I often preferred to switch to Stereophonic output mode and go with the very fine-sounding convolution reverb to give a sense of space. Let's keep things in perspective, though: at their best, Pianoteq's virtual acoustics sound jolly good, and bear direct comparison with the sampled competition. Also, I have just as many reservations, though possibly of a slightly different nature, about the sample-based competition! Not to mention many real, physical pianos I come across too. Anyway, most of the time the expressivity and sound-design flexibility more than outweigh neurotic concerns about achieving virtual piano perfection.
I've mentioned the convolution reverb already — and it's really good, as are the other effects, which can be loaded into up to three 'slots', in a serial configuration, before feeding into the reverb. I have a few tiny niggles, though. What Modartt term 'Auto-wah' is an LFO-driven wah. A wah that tracks the input level (which is what I've always thought of as an auto-wah) is possible to achieve but feels a bit under-cooked. Also, there's no ping-pong option on the delay, although channel phase can be reversed to provide a wide-sounding effect. Still, these are not deal-breakers, because you can so easily set up alternatives in your DAW, and otherwise the effects section is powerful but quick and easy to use.
Version 4 keeps Pianoteq at the vanguard of virtual piano design, where it holds its own with any sample-based or hardware alternative. Two new acoustic piano models are generally very impressive, although there's a whiff of artificiality to the sound in certain situations. However, this can seem a trifling concern when you take into account the vast sound-design flexibility on offer, and the impressive roster of add-on instruments, which I admired almost unreservedly. And Pianoteq is just so bloomin' easy to live with — it has a tiny installation footprint, offers instantaneous loading of sounds as well as brilliant playability, and runs lean and light on modern processors. Get yourself the demo version and have a tinkle.
There are any number of sample-based piano libraries out there, with the likes of Synthogy's Ivory II amongst the biggest and best. But there's basically nothing that competes directly with Pianoteq's modelling approach, and the combination of very small installation size and huge sound design flexibility that goes with it.
You have to pay to unlock many of the add-on sounds for Pianoteq. Here's a run-down of the costs involved:
|Electric Pianos||Rhodes and Wurlitzer electro-mechanical pianos||€49|
|Clavinet||Hohner D6 clavinet||€49|
|Rock Piano||Bright Yamaha grand||€29|
|Rock Collection||The previous three add-ons in a bundle||€89|
|Vibes||Two distinct vibraphones||€49|
|Celeste||Celeste and Glockenspiel||€49|
|Xylo||Xylophone and Marimba||€49|
|Chromatic Percussions Collection||Another cost-saving bundle of Vibes, Celeste and Xylo||€99|
|Steelpans||Steel Drum, Spacedrum, Hand Pan and Tank Drum||€49|
So to buy and max-out Pianoteq 4 is going to cost €336 for the playback-oriented Stage version, €486 for Standard, and a quite stiff-sounding €636 for Pro. It might be nice to see some even more keenly-priced super-bundles at some point in the future.
There are actually three different versions of Pianoteq. All of them use the same piano models and essentially sound the same, but they differ in the degree of editing on offer:
- Pianoteq Pro (€399): This is the full, completely unrestricted version of Pianoteq.
- Pianoteq Standard (€249): This loses Pro's support for 192kHz audio playback and, probably more importantly, the capability to adjust parameters on a note-by-note basis. Detailed editing of the model using the main front-panel parameters is still very much possible, though.
- Pianoteq Stage (€99): This was previously called Pianoteq Play. You get all the core sounds, add-on support, effects, and some editing (of velocity curve, EQ, dynamics and action), but no actual sound tweaking or microphone placement options at all. Stage's convolution reverb also lacks the ability to load external impulses.
Upgrades to Standard and Pro from Stage and Standard are available through Modartt's online store, and there's no price penalty compared to buying a more expensive version in the first place. The upgrade to version 4 from any older version of Pianoteq costs €29.
To run Pianoteq in Windows, you need XP, Vista, 7 or 8; for Mac, OS 10.5 or higher. There's also a Linux (x86) version for Jack and ALSA back ends. It comes in both 32- and 64 bit stand-alone, VST, Audio Units and RTAS versions.