The latest in the EastWest Play series offers deluxe representations of four classic instruments. Is this 'grand design' the answer to our virtual piano prayers?
Having covered virtually the entire history of amplified music instrumentation with their Beatles homage Fab Four and its heavy friend Ministry Of Rock, sample wizards EastWest/Quantum Leap turn their attention to a more subtle and elusive instrument: the grand piano. For years, companies have striven to provide a truly playable sampled acoustic grand. Early attempts foundered due to lack of RAM — sampling 88 notes in stereo was well beyond the capabilities of your average 1980s hardware sampler — but in the late '90s the advent of sample disk-streaming and Nemesys's Gigasampler gave sampling a new lease of life. Nowadays sampled pianos sound pretty realistic, but certain problems remain: how to reproduce the effect of the sustain pedal? What microphone positions to use? What brand of piano to sample?
Quantum Leap Pianos answers all these questions with a heavyweight collection comprising four leading makes of grand piano sampled at up to 18 dynamic levels from a variety of mic positions. The 24-bit, 44.1kHz samples run exclusively on EastWest's Play 64-bit audio engine, which works in plug-in and single stand-alone mode on Mac and PC. A 32-bit version of the player is included with the package, but the iLok hardware key required to run the library must be purchased separately. Though my experience with these dongles is generally good, I should warn you that, for reasons beyond anyone's control, downloading licenses to the iLok doesn't always work at the first attempt. And, as with many products nowadays, if you don't have an Internet connection — forget it.
This is the largest library devoted to one type of instrument I've seen, and installing its samples takes a very long time indeed. Do not make the mistake of showing up to a recording session or rehearsal and saying, 'Just hold on a minute while I install this new piano guys'. If your DVD drive is a bit on the slow side, by the time you've finished your colleagues will have gone to the pub, stayed till closing time, joined the landlord in an illegal after-hours drinking session, staggered home, slept for eight hours, got up, eaten a hearty breakfast and returned to the studio for the next day's session. In their absence you will have spent a sleepless night grimly installing over 68,000 samples from 35 double-layer DVDs. After that I guarantee you'll be in no mood to play a piano, even a superior sampled one recorded by a top sound company.
The Bechstein D280 grand featured in QL Pianos belongs to EastWest founder Doug Rogers, the brains behind Fab Four and many other sound libraries. Some of the Bechstein's samples have the distinction of being miked by legendary UK engineer Ken Scott, the man who famously recorded the Beatles but never received a gold disc for his efforts. (Well, they did only manage to sell a paltry 20 trillion records.) I haven't played many Bechstein pianos (and sadly, the ones I've encountered in studios were generally in poor condition) but I immediately liked this one for its warmth, strength and sensitivity; it has a nice distinct attack that doesn't disappear at quiet dynamics and the sustains sound pleasant, rich and enveloping.
Instrument Size Samples
- Bechstein D280 72.7GB 20,082
- Bösendorfer 290 86.0GB 21,315
- Steinway D 57.6GB 16,215
- Yamaha C7 45.5GB 10,761
- Whole library 261.8GB 68,373
- Player perspective.
- Sustain with pedal.
- Soft pedal (una corda) sustain.
- Soft pedal (una corda) sustain with pedal.
- Repetitions with pedal.
- Release trails (except Yamaha C7).
Sensitive is not the word I'd use to describe the Bechstein 'classic pop' patch engineered by Ken Scott; its samples sound heavily EQ'd and the hard, metallic tone reminded me of the piano (another Bechstein) at London's Trident Studios, where Mr Scott used to work. The crashing low-end and smack-in-the-face middle register of this patch work a treat for brash pop and rock but would give any classical pianist or singer-songwriter of a nervous disposition the screaming ab-dabs. Incidentally, at the time of writing the aforementioned Trident piano was up for auction with a guide price of £300-400k. I'd suggest that this astronomical figure is less a reflection of its unique tone than the fact that it was played on 'Hey Jude'!
For less aggressive music, the Bechstein's 'master' patch (which combines sustains, note repetitions, staccatos and soft pedal performances, all played with and without the sustain pedal) shines. I particularly enjoyed the sweet, clear high-end and the lovely muted effect of the una corda samples. This is a very versatile piano that works well in exposed settings but also sounds good and strong in an instrumental ensemble, bearing out one Bechstein dealer's description of the piano as 'a match for any orchestra'. When EastWest opens its LA studios to the public later this year, the Bechstein will be the house concert grand, and I predict it will put a smile on the face of clients. If you fancy having a tinkle but are held back by a fear of flying, don't despair — buy QL Pianos and you can play this fine instrument without leaving the house.
While loading the Bösendorfer 290 master patch I was slightly alarmed to see that it contains nearly 7000 samples. (Blimey, is this a record?) Loading it up took a couple of minutes, after which I played back a sequence I'd recorded earlier on the Bechstein, to see what the Bösendorfer made of it. My first impression was that this was a darker-sounding piano, but after playing it live I realised that it just needed a slightly heavier touch to bring out its brighter timbre. From that point on, the piano started to sing. Previously I'd always considered the famously big, stately sound of Bösendorfer pianos to be overbearing for lyrical passages, but this instrument proved me wrong: although it packs the classic Böse double-whammy of strong attack across the entire range and a thunderous bass end, it can also sound surprisingly plaintive in the middle and high registers — actually more like a Steinway than a Bösendorfer, in the opinion of the producers.
One of the defining characteristics of this make of piano is the set of additional keys at the low end, extending the range from the conventional bottom note of 'A' down to a profoundly low 'C'. Though the extra bass notes' fundamental pitch is too low and rumbly to have much intrinsic musical value, they are said to influence the piano's sonic character by resonating when other strings are struck with the sustain pedal down, contributing additional body to the tone. Sounds logical, and since actual 'pedal on' samples are triggered whenever the sustain pedal is pressed, you can rest assured that you'll be getting the benefit of these extra overtones!
Quantum Leap Pianos offers a choice of three microphone positions for each of its four pianos: close, player perspective and room. The room recordings are not designed to be used on their own; their purpose is purely to add ambience and some 'air' to the overall sound, and if played in isolation they lack definition. Users are therefore advised to work with the two closer mikings and add the room mics to taste. According to co-producer Nick Phoenix, most systems can't handle three microphone positions playing at the same time due to the huge amount of samples involved, but in his view two mics sound better anyway!
EastWest/Quantum Leap now say on their web site that the minimum RAM required to run QL Pianos is 2GB and the recommended figure is 4GB. That might seem like a 'quantum leap' from the numbers printed on the product box (1GB and 2GB respectively), but there's no doubt that to get the best out of these powerful, multi-dynamic, wide-range instruments and convolution reverbs you do need generous amounts of memory. This is one area where a 64-bit operating system (which can access unprecedentedly large amounts of RAM) would be a huge advantage.
Try though I might, I couldn't find a single bad thing to say about QL Pianos' Steinway D. This piano just sounds good. It doesn't have any outstandingly idiosyncratic features, but the tone is very even, the dynamic response is super-smooth and the overall sound is open and attractive. Note attacks have a silvery quality that encourages fast and improvisational playing. Unevenly played notes sound less clunky on this piano than they do on most sampled grands, and yet the overall sound retains clarity. This Steinway is a classic-sounding grand that lends itself to virtually any musical style, and if the instruments were sold separately it's probably the one I'd go for.
Yamaha pianos have a reputation for bright sound, which is one reason why I like them — they cut through dense pop and rock arrangements without sounding brittle, and you don't have to play them too hard to bring out the bright timbre. The C7 model included here is definitely the brightest of the four pianos. The hard attacks of its loudest notes will please pop producers, and its ultra-clear tone is evident even at the quietest dynamics. Although nowhere near as bright as Ken Scott's EQ'd Bechstein patch, this Yamaha grand will hold its own if mixed with electric guitars and drum kit and is seen by the producers as the library's nominated "cutting pop/rock piano".
The Bechstein, Bösendorfer and Steinway pianos were recorded in EastWest's large Studio 1, whose acoustics are similar to an orchestral stage or Hollywood soundstage. The Yamaha was recorded in EastWest's Studio 2, which is mainly used for rock, due to its relatively dry sound. Because of the lack of room ambience it was deemed unnecessary to include release trails for this piano, and I can't say I missed them!
In the years before EastWest acquired the studio complex formerly known as Western Recorders, this Yamaha C7 appeared on countless US hit records. I can't promise that its Midas touch will rub off on your recordings, but I can recommend it to the pop community as a very decent sampled grand.
PC: Windows XP SP2 or Vista, Pentium 4 2.GHz CPU or equivalent, 2GB RAM.Mac: Mac OS 10.4 or higher, Power Mac G5, 2GB RAM.
Staccato samples are a feature not found in other piano libraries; played at 180bpm, these very short notes can be accessed simply by pushing the mod wheel up above the halfway point. Initially I wondered why they were included, but after playing them I realised that the 'real staccatos' sound completely different from sustained notes played in staccato style. This is partly due to the longer release time of the sustains (which can be reduced if you wish), and also because with the played staccatos you can clearly hear the muting effect of the damper returning to the string at the end of the note.
Sample companies have developed a communal phobia of the so-called 'machine-gun effect' of the same sample rapidly reiterated. To avoid this, QL Pianos provides 'repetition' samples. These are not isolated takes of the same note, but samples extracted from repetition performances where the string continued to vibrate throughout. The Play sound engine senses when a note is rapidly repeated and uses repetition samples for the repeats. It's not clear how many different repetition samples are used per note, but I heard no trace of the dreaded machine-gun effect — which is a shame, I particularly wanted it for my new composition 'Machine-gun Moods'.
Una corda is not the name of an Italian punk band, but the classical term used for the piano soft pedal. Most piano notes have three strings; when you press the soft pedal the piano's hammers shift to the right and hit only two of them, giving a smaller, softer sound. All four pianos have a full set of soft-pedal samples that can be accessed by sending the player a MIDI CC#67 command. The effect differs from piano to piano, but in all cases it transforms the sonic character and adds greatly to the timbral variety of the instruments.
'Sustain pedal on' versions are provided for all the above articulations and kick in whenever you play a note with the sustain pedal pressed. The difference in sound is quite obvious — the sustain pedal samples sound more resonant and richer in overtones. Keyswitches are not used in this library because most articulation changes are handled automatically by the player. All patches have alternative 'light' versions; sampled at minor thirds, these are one third the size of the full chromatic versions. The difference in sound between a light and full patch is pretty minimal, so to ease CPU strain you might want to use a light patch while composing and substitute the full version when it comes to mixing.
If your system can't cope with thousands of samples and multiple mikings, you can unload unwanted articulations from a patch and use just one mic position. My personal favourite was the player perspective, which is close enough to bring out the precise attack of notes and distant enough to introduce a bit of 'air' into the sound. Once you've played the pianos and decided on your favourite(s), you might want to delete one or more of the others to free up some disk space. QL Pianos simplifies the job of doing this by grouping each piano's samples in a clearly identified folder.
Piano sound being such a personal thing, it's hard to predict which way players might jump if asked to choose between QL Pianos' instruments. I've a feeling that classically-trained pianists will lean towards the Bechstein's intimate tone and high-end sparkle, though some of them might prefer the Bösendorfer's precision and low-end strength, particularly if playing a piece that demands size and power. Jazz players and improvisers will enjoy the Steinway's superbly even touch, open sound and fluid attack, though again the Bösendorfer also fares quite well if played quietly (the instrument belongs to Quantum Leap's Nick Phoenix, who describes his own playing style as 'improvisational and romantic'). The bright sound of the Yamaha is unbeatable for pop and rock, and if you need a more extreme noise you can dial up Ken Scott's EQ'd Bechstein 'classic pop' patch, which has top and high-middle frequencies in abundance. Whatever your preference, it's clear that all four are very good sampled pianos, and since they're sold as a bundle, buyers will be spoiled for choice!
The release of QL Pianos completes the first set of Play-formatted libraries originally announced in the spring of 2007. If that seems like an unreasonably long wait, bear in mind that recording projects of this size take a very long time. Editing the 68,000 samples in this library took four people eight months, and I bet pianist John Sawoski's figures are still aching! The ultimate test of whether all the effort was worth it comes when a musician sits down to play the instruments, and this musician spent many happy hours playing the 'fab four' (to coin a phrase) pianos included in this world-beating collection.
The QL Pianos Play engine contains some global controls that help you fashion the piano sound you need. The 'Lid Position' slider simulates the effect of closing the piano lid by rolling off top end when you turn it counterclockwise. Though I suspect most users will leave it fully open, it's a convenient way of subtly reducing high frequencies without having to reach for an EQ plug-in. The 'Stereo Spread' effect found in other Play libraries is also incorporated here. It makes the stereo image wider by adding a stereo delay effect. This sounds great when you apply it liberally to a mono guitar, but with the pianos I feel the effect is best used sparingly.
A 'Sensitivity' control lets you tailor the dynamic response of the patches to your touch, a nice facility that's more convenient than having to change the velocity curve on your master keyboard every time you play the library. The control defaults to a diagonal straight graph line; if you alter its shape to a concave curve, mid-range velocities are reduced, lower velocities are compressed and higher velocities are exaggerated, while a convex curve makes mid-range velocities louder, exaggerates lower velocities and compresses higher velocities. This system should cover most dynamic requirements, but it's a little complicated; I'd prefer a simple control where you can add or subtract a user-defined number to or from the MIDI velocity values, enabling a global dynamic up or down shift.
The convolution reverbs included in QL Pianos will bring cheer to its users: in addition to the impulses recorded in EastWest's Studio 1, there are impulse responses from the large orchestral hall used to record EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphony Orchestra. Applying this reverb to the pianos therefore ensures compatibility with that library's reverberant samples. These pianos already sound great dry, so the provision of this expensive-sounding, luxuriant concert hall effect is the icing on the cake.
- Four world-class pianos, superbly recorded and well programmed.
- Offers a piano sound to suit most tastes.
- The choice of mic positions adds to the versatility.
- Includes impulse responses from the EWQL Symphony Orchestra concert hall.
- Installation is very time-consuming.
- Convolution reverbs, multiple mikings and big instruments eat up a lot of computer CPU resources.
This collection of four superb instruments raises the bar for sampled grand piano playability without hiking the price too high. Sampled pianos aren't for everyone, but any pop, rock, jazz and classical player, producer or programmer who needs a digital piano should find something to their taste in this highly versatile library.
£267 including VAT.
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