Spitfire Audio delve deep into a legendary film composer’s favourite piano.
The word ‘prolific’ might have been coined for Spitfire Audio. Over the last year this industrious UK team have released over 20 titles, including a new full-orchestra library, a vintage keys collection, a quartet of solo strings, various tuned percussion volumes, a processed harp, evolving string textures, some ‘beautifully distorted filth’ courtesy of a well-known guitarist, a pipe organ, an ensemble of nine harps, a ‘marimba swarm’ and two major revamps of existing orchestral brass and chamber strings libraries. Oh, and they also released a grand piano.
Though a sampled piano may seem unremarkable compared to the more exotic offerings listed above, the item in question is notable for two reasons: first, it’s the in-house instrument of the world-famous AIR Studios Lyndhurst Hall, and second, it’s the favourite piano and oft-time composing tool of film composer Hans Zimmer. Here’s what Mr Zimmer has to say about it: “Whenever we finish a session at Air, I’ve come into the room and just sat down at the piano and started playing. ‘Time’ was written here for Inception as a sort of afterthought at the end of another movie. So I thought long and hard about it, that we should actually go and sample this piano in this hall because it’s always been inspiring, I mean, this is one of the most beautiful pianos I know, in one of the most beautiful halls. That’s why we did it — because it always inspired me.”
Hans Zimmer Piano, henceforth known as HZP, continues an association with Spitfire Audio which began with Hans Zimmer Percussion, reviewed in SOS in March 2014. Formatted exclusively for Kontakt, HZP runs on the free Kontakt 5 Player (supplied with the library) as well as the full version of Kontakt 5 on Windows 7, 8 or 10 (latest Service Pack, 32-/64-bit) and Mac OS 10.8, 10.9 or 10.10 (latest update). It requires a minimum 4GB of RAM, with 6GB recommended for the larger patches.
This is a biggie: due to the numerous miking options (more on which later), the library contains a whopping 88,352 samples requiring 422.4GB of disk space during installation, though that losslessly compresses down to around 200GB once installed. If you’re unable or unwilling to download that much data, you can pay extra to have the library shipped on hard drive.
As you’d expect from a premier London scoring facility renowned for its award-winning movie soundtracks, iconic classical albums and top-selling pop recordings, AIR Lyndhurst’s piano is no battered pub honky-tonk: it’s a flagship Steinway Model D concert grand, a top-of-the-range, nine-foot monster favoured by concert pianists, leading jazz players and even Presidents of the United States (there’s one in the White House). Like the unaffordable mansions advertised in upmarket property magazines, this impressive beast tends to list with a coy ‘price on application’ tag, but based on an eye-watering listing of $137,400 back in 2012 it’s fair to assume a new Model D would cost an arm and a leg.
Planning for HZP began in March 2014, after which a long gestation period ensued. According to the breathless publicity blurb, “a series of impassioned phone calls” took place between Hans Zimmer and Spitfire director Paul Thomson. Rather than an ongoing argument over an unpaid 10 quid loan, these discussions apparently centred around virtual pianos that Mr Z had enjoyed playing over the years, and more importantly, how to distil the essence of AIR’s inspirational instrument into a box that could be taken anywhere.
In a do-or-die recording saga overseen by Grammy-winning sound engineer and long-time Zimmer collaborator Geoff Foster, over 60 microphones were trained on the piano, resulting in a vast sample set which took nearly a year to whittle, polish and refine into playable patches. The close-up sound of the piano, as heard by the player and anyone who happens to be sharing the piano stool at the time, is represented by a choice of four stereo spot mikings: Spot A has the brightest, broadest tone, Spot B sounds more intimate and ‘under the lid’, Spot C is warmer and somewhat more withdrawn-sounding, and Spot D combines warmth with a slight edge.
A set of ‘Mid’ mics placed about three metres from the piano provide controlled room ambience so you can add some ‘air’ to the close miking. As with the spots, Mid A sounds the most full and rich, Mid B is more intimate, while Mid C and D both introduce a pleasant, floaty natural hall reverb. In particular, Mid C’s combination of tonal clarity and classy concert-hall acoustic positively screams ‘expensive piano’ — it might be considered too posh by punk revivalists, but I reckon your average movie director or record producer would be very happy with it.
Distant mikings provide a kind of virtual tour of the hall: Alt Room and Tree (the traditional Decca Tree miking used in all of Spitfire’s AIR recordings) have a set-back, ambient sound, while far mikings such as Outrigger, Surround and Gallery add an almost cathedral-like ambience, a great resource for moody film cues and tracks which require a ghostly, disembodied piano sound. For surround mixes, routing a spot miking to the front speakers and distant mics to the rear instantly creates a real-life quadraphonic listening experience. On a different note, should you tire of Lyndhurst Hall’s expansive reverb, you might just fancy the left-field ‘bottle mic’ option: devised for the HZ Percussion series, it creates a small, attenuated, somewhat muffled and metallic sound completely at odds with the opulence of the other mikings.
The idea here is that users can experiment with different mic combinations, blending together close, room and distant signals to create an agreeable composite. If you can’t be bothered with that, Spitfire do the work for you by supplying a set of mic-selection patches containing the most useful combinations, presented in ‘Full and Bright’, ‘Light and Bright’, ‘Warm and Rounded’ and ‘Low and Weighted’ categories, each with its own distinctive timbral flavour. The first type (my favourite) features a felicitous combination of Spot A, Mid C, Room and Surround mics on separate faders: use Mid C to add a dreamy ambience to the bright, up-front sound of the spot miking, or dial in the room or surround mics to introduce a more distant, highly reverberant effect.
For ease of access, individual mic positions are presented in a separate folder. There are also ‘Spots’ and ‘Mids’ microphone-set patches which allow you to quickly compare and/or combine the four different options for each. In my review copy the Spots patch contained some wrong samples, but the problem was fixed by downloading an update (thankfully, a mere 14MB in size) of the Kontakt instruments and two nkr resource files.
Unusually for Spitfire, there are no synthetic soundscapes or processed sound-design patches — this collection focuses squarely on realism, and if you want a chord, phrase or run, you’ll have to play it yourself. That said, HZP includes a large selection of musical and percussive pianistic effects, some of which composers are sure to find inspirational.
On first listening I was inclined to dismiss the percussive effects section as the usual set of pointless knocks and bonks that sample library manufacturers feel obliged to provide. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that adding the room mics to these noises transforms them into the kind of massive explosive impacts that makers of ‘cinematic’ products strive for. Rock musicians could program these loud hits to create a John-Bonham-at-the-Taj-Mahal-style heavy metal blitzkrieg, while media composers can use them to liven up epic battle scenes. For horror productions, the ambience-enhanced quieter thumps and bass-string rumblings instantly suggest something nasty in the attic.
The horror theme continues with neurosis-inducing string scrapes and that old ’60s suspense film standby, the ascending ‘zing’ on the open strings. Eerie moans and groans produced by stroking the strings with a rubber ball also sound pretty scary, if a touch over-familiar. Moving swiftly on, the ‘Various FX’ folder contains some excellent pitched material: highlights include mysterious, evocative ‘Alien FX’ reminiscent of whale calls, some delicate, zither-like finger plucks, staccato muted notes (good for rhythmic ostinatos), a great set of mallet harmonics which yield unpredictable, gamelan-like prepared-piano sonorities, and soft timpani-stick string hits played by percussionist Paul Clarvis, which sound fabulous when played in fifths in the low bass register.
Building on an approach instigated in Spitfire’s Hans Zimmer Percussion, much time was spent capturing very soft pianissimo samples. Performed by pianist Simon Chamberlain, these samples are presented in their own ‘Super Soft’ folders, spread over the whole velocity range to create playable patches.
The resulting soft-touch timbre is attractive and engaging: shorn of its usual bright, percussive edge, the piano sounds calm and gentle, exuding an air of vulnerability which would suit sensitive drama production scores and emo pop ballads. It sounds particularly effective on the distant mikings, where the placid reflections of AIR’s lofty hall resonate like an echo of the hymns which once swirled around this old Victorian church building.
Whether you play an 88-note master keyboard, five-octave workstation or 49-note mini-keyboard controller, it’s worth considering the matter of velocity scaling when playing this highly dynamic piano (or indeed, any sampled instrument which incorporates multiple velocity layers). Pro keyboards often have a ‘Velocity Curve’ setting which can be tailored to your touch: on my Korg Kronos, playing at medium strength with the velocity curve set to its lowest setting (1) produces MIDI notes in the low velocity range (1-30), while a similar performance using the highest setting (8) automatically lifts the velocities up into the 70-100 zone. In HZP this makes a dramatic difference in sound, as higher velocity values automatically trigger much louder, brighter-sounding samples than low ones.
If your MIDI controller doesn’t have a velocity curve setting, don’t despair: HZP has a built-in ‘Linear Velocity’ feature which enables you to scale the response of the piano to your touch, rather than the other way round. Four preset curves are available, with an option to create your own by drawing it on screen — though it has to be said, you need the eyesight of a hawk and the patience of Job to create decent-looking curves inside the miniature grid!
The piano contains no una corda (soft pedal) samples, nor does it support re-pedalling and half-pedalling. This is not a big deal in my opinion: the latter pair of arcane performance techniques are irrelevant to all but a tiny percentage of potential buyers, and most would agree that their musical effect is not worth making a fuss about. (In fact, complaining about their absence in HZP seems like criticising a large forest for the lack of some rare fungus.) On the first point, Hans Zimmer has pointed out that recording a whole set of una corda samples would double the size of this already gigantic instrument, and with so many round robins and dynamic layers at play, it would be nigh-on impossible to exactly match each note with a soft-pedal equivalent. The compromise is a ‘soft pedal’ slider on the GUI which softens the piano’s tone by degrees. It sounds pleasantly natural and musical, and unlike a real soft pedal (which is either on or off), it has the advantage of being scalable.
HZP’s Steinway D contains pedal-up and pedal-down samples which respond according to your sustain pedal performances. The small mechanical noise of the pedal has been faithfully captured with an option for it to track the dynamic contours of your playing: more to the point, you can use a button on the GUI to turn this annoying racket off!
As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison (a concept to strike fear into the hearts of Food Standards Agency staff). There will always be debate over what constitutes the best piano sound, with iconic brands like Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Fazioli, Kawai, Steinway and Yamaha jostling to claim the distinction. Disagreement is rife, and even within fans of a certain make, there are those that argue that a New York Steinway sounds better than the equivalent Hamburg-made instrument, or that the piano in Studio A sounds better than the exact same model in Studio B. For that reason, and because piano timbre varies so dramatically depending on context and musical style, it’s advisable to thoroughly check out online demos to help you decide which sampled model best suits your needs.
For my part, I enjoyed the immediacy of touch, presence and subtlety of this fine, deeply multi-sampled instrument and am happy to recommend it to fellow keyboardists. It feels like it was programmed by musicians, with an agreeable evenness of dynamic response across its 88-note, A0-C8 range. Few things in musical life are as tedious as having to go through a MIDI performance editing the velocities of notes that sound too quiet or too loud due to sloppy sample programming, but that isn’t an issue here: the piano maintains a uniform, balanced tone in all registers and at all dynamics, reflecting the well-maintained, nicely-voiced condition of the real instrument.
Overall, I’d characterise this Steinway D piano as having a bright, clear, open sound which readily adapts to a warmer tone when you load the appropriate patches. It roars when played loud and speaks in a whisper when caressed lightly, and is versatile enough to have applications for many musical styles. When you factor in the superiority of the instrument, the great hall reverb, the mic perspective options, time-aligned samples and lovely soft-dynamic patches, the inescapable conclusion is that this an instrument for life, not just for Christmas. It may take up a lot of hard-drive space, but that’s a small price to pay for having such a classy item in your musical armoury. If nothing else, despite the current international tensions caused by the Brexit referendum pantomime, it shows that Anglo-German relations can continue to flourish and produce great creative results.
Other deep-sampled Steinway D’s released during this decade and currently on sale as single instruments include Soniccouture’s The Hammersmith, VI Labs’ True Keys American Grand (formerly part of a piano bundle), Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D, Galaxy Vintage D and Native Instruments’ The Grandeur (originally included in NI’s Definitive Piano Collection). These libraries are much smaller than HZP, with correspondingly lower price tags; the Galaxy Vintage D, Grandeur and Ivory pianos were recorded from a single mic position, the latter in a concert hall, while the studio-recorded True Keys and Hammersmith instruments have the advantage of multiple mikings, of which the Hammersmith library has many options.
As any old-school studio engineer will tell you, using multiple microphones on the same sound source can create phase problems when the mic signals are combined. Using a mixture of close and distant mics compounds the problem. Paul Thomson explains: “When you turn up the ambient mics, as the sound hits the different microphones, you’re feeling and hearing the distance: they’re slightly laggier, and if you turn off the spot mic and just use the mids or just the rooms, then you’ll find that there is a delay, a slight lagginess to the playing.”
To counteract this natural phenomenon, Spitfire have provided a set of ‘Distance Compensated’ patches containing distant and ambient samples trimmed so their note fronts occur at precisely the same time. This creates a punchier, more immediate sound which retains the reverberant room acoustic. In Thomson’s words, “You can get exactly the amount of spaciousness, the kind of perspective that you want, but without sacrificing clarity.”
Apparently Deutsche Grammaphon now employ a similar technique on their classical recordings, and I’ve heard producers use the same trick on drum kit room mics to great effect. In the case of HZP, I can confirm that the distance compensation has an audible benefit: the time-aligned patch combinations do sound somewhat more focused and subtly brighter of attack than their uncorrected counterparts. However, rather than making a hard-and-fast policy decision on which is ‘best’, the producers advise users to compare the distance-compensated patches with the non-corrected versions to see which provides the best fit with the music you’re writing.
No, it’s not the name of a popular Irish folk duo — these somewhat sinister terms refer to procedures designed to help you manage this exceedingly large library. HZP’s patches use five round robins for each note, creating a severe impact on RAM usage: the average patch size on my system is around 450MB, and that’s with only one mic position loaded. Happily, a GUI control allows you to scale down the number of round robins, thereby shrinking RAM usage by as much as 80 percent. A more drastic option is the ‘Purge’ feature, which analyses the samples which occur in an arrangement and removes any which are unused, however, this can sometimes cause problems with missing round robins, which may require judicious use of the ‘Reset from F0’ button to remedy.
The massive data size is another potential headache. While there’s no option to download the library in chunks, it is possible to remove certain elements after installation. Spitfire have issued a tutorial video showing how to cull selected samples from your hard drive, but caution users to make a back-up copy first!
By utilising the above techniques it’s possible to run a scaled-down version of HZP on a laptop, a boon to itinerant composers who regularly take Spitfire’s oft-cited ‘red-eye from LA to New York’ fantasy flight or, failing that, the 8:31 from East Croydon to Watford Junction.
- A top-of-the-range Steinway D grand piano deeply multi-sampled at AIR Studios’ Lyndhurst Hall.
- Offers a large array of close, mid and distant miking options.
- Optional distance-compensated patches increase punch and definition.
- Special ‘super-soft’ performances are great for sensitive scores and ballads.
- Not cheap, but a lot more affordable than the real thing.
- No user manual.
If you’re in the market for a posh piano, don’t overlook this library. Created in partnership with a multiple-Oscar-winning film composer, Hans Zimmer Piano sees Spitfire Audio bring their considerable sampling expertise to bear on a flagship Steinway D grand, deeply sampled from numerous mic positions in the reverberant Air Lyndhurst Hall. Though no processed material is included, a large selection of musical effects provide plenty of creative options, and the superior tone and sheer playability of the piano, coupled with the lush hall acoustic, is strikingly evident throughout.