Spinets, Hammonds, massed choirs? Nope. Derek Johnson takes a trip with a module that does just what it says on the tin.
If you were hunting for one really great piano sound, you'd probably start by looking at a dedicated piano sound module. A luxury, perhaps, but what better way of ensuring that you get exactly the sound you want? In fact, you'd probably make the choice based solely on the piano sounds, viewing the extra sounds provided by virtually all manufacturers as a nice bonus, but not one that necessarily influenced your buying decision. Such must have been the reasoning behind the MiniGrand, the latest entry from the Oberheim/Viscount alliance that produced the highly regarded OB3<sup>2</sup> organ module (/www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_ar...). For this new stereo‑sampled, 64‑voice polyphonic module simply offers piano sounds: three acoustic and three electric (a total of 8Mb of 44.1kHz, 18‑bit samples). Mild customisation is available, in the shape of reverb and chorus effects, EQ and velocity response (savable to six user memories), but there are no distractions from this module's central purpose: pianos.
The manual doesn't explicitly inform the user which instruments have been sampled, so you'll have to make do with knowing that the acoustic piano sounds have been "derived from meticulous sampling of some of the world's best concert grands". A number of interesting features have been implemented: for example, the module manages to simulate sympathetic string vibration — the way that unplayed strings can ring when you depress the sustain (or, more correctly in piano parlance, 'damper') pedal and play. I haven't heard this on a sample‑based module before. Also, the 'clunk' produced by depressing a pedal and the sound produced by the return of the string damper after a key stroke are also faithfully reproduced; the magic words "physical modelling" are mentioned in MiniGrand promotional literature. Hmmm... I wonder?
The MiniGrand's half‑width 1U rack package is rather deep, and features a slightly camp faux rosewood front panel; it has perhaps been designed to appeal more in the lounge than the studio. Operationally, the module's relative simplicity is reflected in its front panel. Every button is labelled, with integral LEDs to aid visibility. For the most part, each button has but one function. The patch buttons (labelled Piano 1‑3 and El Piano 1‑3) select the main presets; the Reverb and Chorus buttons enable or disable those effects, and pressing the Memory button lets you choose from six customised sounds (as well as saving your edits), which are accessed by pressing the main patch buttons. Effects are edited with the Effect Type and Parameter buttons, with values changed using the data‑entry wheel. The main velocity response curve is selected with its own button (labelled Dyna Curves), as is the three‑band EQ, with high, centre and low frequencies selected in sequence by EQ button presses. Should you wish to globally transpose the whole module — up or down 12 semitones — press the Transpose button. Holding this button for two seconds or more also lets you fine‑tune the MiniGrand by up to a semitone up or down, in cents.
The last button is labelled MIDI; press this and the first four voice buttons flash and let you alter four MIDI parameters: MIDI receive channel, program change reception and transmission, control change activation, and bulk dump. Interestingly, a General MIDI program change option maps the six available presets to equivalent GM‑standard program changes. A three‑LED display may seem stingy, but in practice this is perfectly effective, providing logical text abbreviations where necessary. A MIDI activity LED is located just under the display.
When it comes to connections, the MiniGrand is slightly better endowed than most modules. Along with the expected stereo pair of jack sockets and trio of MIDI connectors, the module has a pair of footswitch sockets. One is for a normal sustain pedal, while the other operates as either a sostenuto or a 'soft' pedal, depending on the position of the nearby switch. (Sostenuto is a sort of selective sustain, where only the notes being pressed when the pedal is activated are sustained.) All three pedal types can be transmitted over MIDI, which is useful.
Power comes from a 10.5V wall‑wart of uncommon dimensions; it's so bulky that some mains blocks I tried couldn't accommodate it as well as other, more modestly proportioned, plugs. I did like the cable lock next to the power socket, though, which keeps the supply from getting yanked out.
Judging the MiniGrand's sounds is a little tricky, since the manual neglects to inform you exactly what Oberheim/Viscount were trying to achieve. From some American promotional literature, however, I ascertained that Piano 1 aims to emulate a classic European grand, suitable for classical and modern music, Piano 2 a softer grand suitable for jazz, and Piano 3 a sharper sound for rock. The electrics consist of a Rhodes clone plus two FM piano variations. On a subjective level, I found the European grand and rock acoustics to be extremely similar (the rock piano betrays a very slight 'edge'), while the 'jazz' piano is noticeably more muted and mellow. It also struck me that there was a remarkable similarity between one of the MiniGrand's acoustic pianos and the main sound of Alesis' NanoPiano (reviewed back in April). The character was very close indeed, so perhaps a Bösendorfer was one of the instruments sampled by the Oberheim/Viscount team? The electric pianos have an authentic feel, especially when treated with the subtle chorus, flange or tremolo effects. Electric Piano 1 (the Rhodes clone) is quite bright, with bite and some nice velocity‑sensitive, percussive, non‑harmonic overtones. Electric Pianos 2 and 3 — the FM pianos — are more mellow, with only 3's slightly more aggressive attack (and 2's slight nasal quality) proving they're actually different sounds. In all cases, the module responds well to your playing, and the choice of velocity responses should allow you to set the response to suit your style and keyboard.
The effects are pretty stripped down, with the chorus section comprising two choruses and two flangers, chorus or flanger in tandem with stereo tremolo, stereo tremolo, and mono tremolo. There are essentially four reverb types — small room, medium room, medium hall and large hall — but each is available in two versions. Contrary to the manual's description, I found the two variants to have longer or shorter decays; also at odds with the manual is my experience of the effect parameter which lets you alter the level of 'effect send' to the current reverb. The manual seems to think instead that this button alters one parameter per effect. This may possibly be the case with the chorus family — it seems to be altering either depth or speed — but the effect is never dramatic. In practice, the chorus family of effects is subtly useful and the reverbs are just fine for adding a little space at source. Also on the plus side, reverb and chorus do respond to their equivalent MIDI controllers (91 and 93).
There are no distractions from this module's central purpose: pianos.
I found the EQ a little basic, with a tendency to add noise. But three bands is a nice touch. Use sparingly as a corrective tool, I think.
I mentioned at the outset that the MiniGrand features some novel touches — sympathetic string resonance and pedal clunk. The resonance works well, and helps complete the illusion of a full‑size piano in a manner seldom heard on a sampled approximation. I'm not so sure about the pedal 'clunks', since they can be very distracting, particularly in quiet passages. While I'm aware that real pianos, as essentially mechanical devices, do make a certain amount of noise, including them in a digital simulation is perhaps taking realism too far. Taking the other side of the argument for a moment, the clunks are fairly well hidden while you're playing, adding another texture to the illusion. In a full‑blown MIDI arrangement, you may never hear them at all except in isolated quiet piano passages, at which point your listener may think you're playing a sensitively miked‑up genuine piano.
Less forgivable is the slight halo of hiss, more pronounced on the acoustic piano sounds, produced when a note is played. Equally odd is the distinctly old‑fashioned faint digital garbage that appears on the fades of samples — we didn't like it in 1987, and I'd rather not be hearing it now. Samples are otherwise excellent, with loops uniformly smooth and crossover points all but undetectable (I think I spotted two when listening very closely...). This just makes the hiss and gunge problem all the more curious.
With basic piano sounds that are very good indeed and a virtually foolproof user interface, this module is a fine contender for providing the quality piano sounds that your keyboard rig might be missing. The genuine 64‑note polyphony means that you can hold down the sustain pedal and play all the notes on the average 61‑note synth keyboard and not hear any note stealing. Nice! I'm still very impressed by the sympathetic string effect: it really works well. But there are other issues to consider: the £400 price tag, the similarity of a couple of the patches, and the digital fuzz and hiss discussed earlier. I'm not totally convinced by the pedal clunk simulation, either; an 'off' switch would have been a nice option. But don't take my word for it: consider yourself encouraged to have an audition and ascertain for yourself whether I've overstated these shortcomings. It is, however, truly refreshing to see such a positive example of specialisation.
- Set of quality piano sounds.
- 64‑voice polyphony.
- String resonance effect is great.
- A doddle to use.
- Pedal sockets at rear.
- Power supply a bit bulky.
- Sustain/loud pedal 'clunk' may distract some, particularly in a pop context.
- Some hiss and digital artifacts.
The MiniGrand is blessed with an excellent, extremely playable sound; it's just a shame that a product bearing the Oberheim name isn't exemplary in all respects.