Synthogy's Ivory goes where no virtual piano has gone before, sampling three full-size grand pianos to form a detailed library more than 30 Gigabytes in size — and all in one £189 plug-in!
I don't think I have ever heard a Kurzweil synth that didn't have a decent acoustic piano sound. Even in 2004, the one instrument which I enjoyed gigging with the most was a Kurzweil PC88, which considering its vintage, has an amazing piano sound.
And now I know why. It would appear that Kurzweil had a secret weapon — a gentleman by the name of Joe Ierardi who was solely responsible for sampling and crafting the fine piano sounds that have been loaded into the various different generations of Kurzweil keyboards. This fact has come to light because Joe has now teamed up with a DSP software designer called George Taylor to produce Ivory — a plug-in which offers sampled pianos of the same extraordinary quality to Mac users for the princely sum of £189. It runs under both OS 9 and OS X, and host support is equally comprehensive — it can run in VST and AU hosts, as well as under Pro Tools and Digital Performer. Only Windows users are currently excluded, although a PC version is promised for 'early 2005' — so who knows, it might be out by the time you read this.
Ivory offers samples from three grand pianos: a nine-foot Steinway D concert grand, a seven-foot Yamaha C7 Studio grand, and the biggest of the lot, a Bösendorfer Imperial grand (in 88-note and nine-octave 97-note versions). Following installation (see the box below), I started with the Bösendorfer, as I have always had ideas above my station (and it is the first to load). Having managed until now with EXS24 loading Akai samples and other tired and outdated formats, my immediate response was that the wait to find a decent virtual grand piano has been well worth it. Ivory 's Bösendorfer also loaded and played back without serious problems, something no piano has done for me since Stereo Grand ECO on EXS24. It was a pleasure to just sit down and play after the installation without having to spend a couple of hours de-bugging, which has happened to me a lot with large sample libraries lately.
I was further encouraged when I tried to load some of the more ambitious eight-layer versions of the extended Bösendorfer. Let's face it, 97 notes of eight velocity layers with separate Release and Soft Pedal samples will stretch the most generous of resources, and sure enough, I found that there was not enough memory assigned to the host sequencer under OS 9 — Ivory brought up an error message to this effect. But somehow, I still had a playable piano at my fingertips. I wasn't sure how Ivory did this (I think it missed out some of the lower layers), but it was a refreshing change. So many other sample-based virtual instruments will simply not come out to play at the first sign of any shortcomings in your hardware or software. Ivory, in contrast, seems to load what it can and then let you play that.
In the studio, it's less of a problem if the your virtual piano drops out and you have to spend a couple of minutes assigning extra memory and reloading, but on stage, where mad fools like me are now attempting to use virtual instruments like Ivory, such unwanted intervals can feel like a lifetime! With Ivory, however, if something went wrong with your memory allocations, you would still have a playable piano to get you through the next song. Of course the best way to avoid this problem is to use OS X with its dynamic memory allocation, and most people I know are now using OS X on their laptops (even if their studio machines may be running OS 9 for a long time to come). Under OS X, at least you don't have to quit your sequencer to allocate it more memory and then relaunch.
It's great when the first sound you open is the one you have been looking for for years — I must have played the Bösendorfer for at least 20 minutes before I even thought about calling up another preset. I found that the six-layer 88-note version with the Soft Pedal samples switched out would load into 512MB of RAM when nothing else was running inside Logic, and I found this had more than enough subtlety for my playing style. When I did finally get around to a leisurely amble through some of the presets for the other two pianos, I found the aggressiveness of the Yamaha C7 ideally suited for rock (there was even a chorus'ed version for those who remember the CP70 fondly), while the Steinway was more suited to romantic compositions, although the many different presets available using each basic piano type drastically change the character of each until they overlap — all told, they cover a very wide range of applications.
As I continued to play and became more critical, I began to appreciate the nuances available because of the multiple layers of velocity-switched samples. Synthogy refer to complete multisampled, velocity-switched sample sets as Keysets, and there are eight-, six- and four-layer Keysets for the Bösendorfer and the Steinway, while the Yamaha comes in six- and five-layer Keysets (most other digital pianos out there, hardware or software, stop at four layers). So why, you may ask, wouldn't you simply take the best Keyset and only use that?
Even in these days of cheap and plentiful RAM, there will come a point (especially under OS 9) where you will be stretching the memory allocation of your machine. This may be worth doing if you are playing a Debussy solo piano piece, say, with a huge dynamic range and high polyphony requirements, but if you are adding a Jerry Lee Lewis part to a full rock track, you are wasting a huge amount of memory with samples which wouldn't be heard even if you did trigger them. Some of the eight-layer Keysets are extremely memory-hungry, so selecting a Keyset with fewer layers in it (or indeed an 88-note version of the Bösendorfer if you don't intend to play the bottom octave) means that you are leaving more memory available for other virtual instruments to sit in.
Of course, under OS X, the dynamic memory allocation should allow you to get away with much more. However, even OS X has finite resources, and there is no point using them up on Ivory if you don't need the full subtlety of the eight-layer Keysets. And remember that in a fully arranged track, you would probably compress a real piano to make sure that it always speaks over the top of whatever else is playing. The virtual equivalent of this is probably playing at MIDI velocities which only trigger the uppermost dynamic samples.
I used three Mac systems during the course of this review, but the first computer I decided to install it on was a dual-processor G4-based Pro Tools/Logic rig, which is still running OS 9. Immediately, I hit a snag — I didn't have enough free space on any of the numerous Mac internal hard drives to load even one of the pianos! Ivory comes on eight DVDs and the documentation recommends a weighty 33GB for a full install. I had to wait for the arrival of a 250GB hard drive from Lacie before I could even get going.
In my experience, many software instruments now have such a complicated install procedure that if you hit a snag in the middle, you often have to scrap the process and start again — no mean feat when there are 33 Gigabytes of samples to install. Fortunately, though, Ivory is not one of these products, because after completing installation from the first DVD, the test Mac refused to eject the disk and I had to reboot to get it out. However, it turned out that once the first Install DVD has been run, the remainder of the files on the other seven disks can simply be copied to the 'Ivory Items' folder which the first DVD Install creates. The samples on each DVD took between 10 and 15 minutes to copy. On the dual-processor G4, the installation took some 90 minutes, while on the third machine I used, an 800MHz iMac, it lasted well over two hours. In fairness, though, I spent longer recently installing Fxpansion's BFD, which doesn't even play notes!
Authorisation is a relatively simple procedure which authenticates your use of Ivory on a particular machine, and it had some pleasant surprises in store for me. Firstly, Synthogy allow you a five-day grace period before you have to authorise Ivory at all. This is great, as it does at least allow you to check that a machine is up to the task of running it before you use up an install putting it on that machine. I assumed I only had one install until I contacted Synthogy to ask if I could have a second to put it on a laptop as well, and discovered to my delight that they give you three different installs per licence (this fact doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere in the documentation). The authentication can be carried out via the Internet, although I am not wild about this kind of thing, because it encourages you to have your main studio computer hooked to the Internet. Fortunately, there is also a manual procedure for registering which is not too painful or time-consuming.
The quoted minimum specs give you some hope of running Ivory on a 450MHz G4 with 512MB of RAM, but the more realistic 'Recommended' figures increase this to a 1GHz processor with 1GB of RAM. The dual 1.25GHz G4 processor I was using at first seemed more than up to the task, with enough power for 24 or even 36 notes of polyphony, which is often necessary — although you only have 10 fingers, using the sustain pedal soon gets far more than 10 voices sounding simultaneously. Fortunately, as you can read elsewhere in this review, there is a lot you can do to cut down Ivory 's requirements if you don't have as much memory or CPU power as you would like.
Once you come to editing the sounds, you find you have a huge range of options available. Firstly, there is something else I mentioned earlier which you can do to lower the memory requirements of Ivory if the context you are using it in covers up the effect of doing it. Separate samples have been made for the Release portion of the sound and for Soft Pedal samples. So if you are not using the soft pedal, or the other elements of your music mask the release portion of the sound, then you can switch these sets of samples out and save more RAM. However, the unaccompanied piano does suffer slightly in terms of realism when you do this.
The previous two are the main parameters which impact on the realism (in critical listening situations) and the performance requirements of Ivory. All the following editing parameters, in contrast, are mainly for taste. I found that whatever I did with these, Ivory still sounded every bit like an expensive grand piano — but a grand piano in a number of different situations.
I found the Stereo Width parameter very useful. Engineers often mike up a piano to create a huge stereo picture, and this sounds great when you listen to the piano unaccompanied (it's perfect for classical music or a romantic film score), but when you put the piano in a full arrangement, it gives the effect of a disembodied bassline on the far left and some tinkly high notes on the far right (or vice versa). What is needed in these cases is to be able to reduce the spread of the instrument so that the high notes are a bit off to the right and the bass just a bit left of centre. That is exactly what the Stereo Width parameter does; at 0, the piano is mono, and as you increase the value, it slowly spreads from the centre to fill the stereo picture completely when set to 100. Of course, there are ways to achieve this during the mixdown of a track, but this control is always to hand, and can be tweaked by the piano player during the performance or at any time afterwards.
Synth Layer is not a feature for classical purists, but is the perfect option for the budding Vangelises out there who want to add strings or some other pad behind the piano. My favourite is 'Anastring', which gives you that perfect Chariots Of Fire effect, but there are half a dozen other ambient pads to provide the perfect backdrop to your piano stylings over the top. It does of course double the required polyphony, and the only parameter you can control is the relative volume of the pad (±24dB), but I loved it. Incidentally, the only time that Ivory crashed during the whole review period was when Synth Layer was switched on without any sound selected.
The Release parameter works independently of whether you have switched in the Release Samples or not, and it governs not which sample sets are used but how long the triggered sound takes to die away. The minimum value reduces the natural release set up in the Keyset to one fifth of its original time, while the maximum setting triples the release time, thereby creating a piano on which you only need to hit the occasional note to have a constant ambient presence.
Like the squeak of fingers on guitar strings, the mechanical noise of the piano's action — the non-pitched sounds of the key being struck and activating the hammer — are held by some recording musicians and engineers to be an ugly intrusion which ought to be minimised. Others, however, regard a piano sound from which all trace of the mechanical action noise has been removed as sterile and unnatural. Ivory 's Key Noise parameter should keep everybody happy. The central setting gives you the Key Noise as it was recorded in the original samples, but you can then boost or cut this by up to 24dB. Put like this, it sounds incredibly simple, but actually, to achieve this relatively simple-sounding effect, Synthogy have had to come up with a custom filter which is tuned to the mechanical component of the sound, and is therefore able to attenuate or exaggerate it according to the user's taste. Score another for Synthogy's programmers!
The Timbre parameter is another case of filtering, but with customised cutoff characteristics, so that it is tuned to the piano sound. At its heart is a low-pass filter, but this is adjusted separately for each dynamic level so that the most realistic effect is achieved. I have often tried to use a simple low-pass filter on a piano sample and even the smallest amount can result in the piano sounding as though it is in the next room or in a room with metal walls. Clearly the Synthogy guys have found the same thing over the years, and so have come up with a complex set of filter parameters to change the way the different dynamic levels are affected. At settings of +99, the filter is wide open, and you are hearing the originally recorded sound. If this is too bright for you or the context you are using it in, you can simply close it down until it sounds right.
The dynamic range of grand pianos is such that they can be extremely difficult to mix into a track. Rock engineers tend to compress them fairly seriously so that they don't have to worry about them at mixdown, but the trouble with that approach is that it can remove all the subtlety from a performance. The Dynamic Range parameter on Ivory again puts this parameter under the control of the performer. Set to 0, the dynamic range is like that of a real piano as it would be heard in the room where it was played. At 60dB you are removing most of the variation in the level (ideal for getting a piano to sit in a rock opera, say). The added bonus of this is that you will not need to switch in a separate compressor plug-in (with its consequent added drain on CPU power) to make the piano audible in the mix. You may also find that the piano is speaking perfectly well and you can return more to the natural dynamic range, so that more of the performance comes through, which you can't do to a recording made through a compressor.
Sustain Resonance is my favourite Ivory parameter. When you use the sustain pedal on a real piano, the strings which have not been struck are free to resonate in sympathy with the strings which have been played. This is the most complex thing about a natural grand piano, and for years has made the realistic recreation of a piano sound via individual note-sampling the most difficult thing to achieve. I had always hoped that some form of sound modelling might allow this to be achieved, but huge amounts of CPU power need to be expended to create the complexities of this effect from scratch.
Synthogy seem to have found the perfect compromise; they use samples to capture the original timbre of each piano string, but then add in the sympathetic resonance of the other strings via calculations which work out just how much the other strings should be sounding. Sustain Resonance uses some extraordinary DSP algorithms to recreate different resonant characteristics for harp and soundboard (the harp is the cast metal frame which the strings are strung across, and the soundboard is the wooden part of the piano which amplifies and contains the sound of the strings being struck). Depending on the different materials used in the construction of the piano, how it has been set up, and the environment the piano has been kept in over the years, these characteristics can differ quite widely even between two of the exact same models of a piano. The effect is most pronounced when the sustain pedal is depressed, lifting all the dampers off the strings so that they continue to sound for as long as possible.
Ivory offers six different settings for this parameter, from 'Clean Soundboard 1', which is ideal for those who like an almost sterile response to pedalling, to 'Extra Resonant 2' for those who like the density of lots of sustaining resonance. Once again, some people love this effect, and others hate the way it muddies up the sound. For most purposes, 'Medium Resonant 1' is probably going to walk that middle line between antiseptic sterility and a cloudy fog of endlessly sustaining notes. One thing is clear: if you are going to use 'Extra Resonant 2', you will need to be fairly careful about the number of notes you play (no Wakemanesque runs and trills for you!).
The cluster of controls on the right-hand side of the screen are referred to as the Session parameters. A Session as saved by Ivory is the selected Program, plus the settings of the following parameters. The first of these is the output Gain, which simply allows you to control your final output so that it is at a decent level to introduce into the mix.
Another of the great debates about piano recording techniques concerns perspective. Should you place the stereo image from the performer's point of view, or that of the audience? Stereo Perspective can't help you decide which of these two is the most appropriate, but it does allow you to change your mind most easily than before. A flick of this switch allows you to swap instantly from the Performer setting (lower notes to the right) to Audience (where the lower notes are on the left).
A4 Pitch does what it says on the tin, allowing you to set the pitch of the 'A' above middle 'C' to an absolute value in Hertz. This is normally 440, but you can move it between 420 and 460, well outside the range used in typical concert or recording situations. Fine Pitch does something similar, but this time the calibration is in cents (one hundredth of a semitone). The two parameters work in tandem with each other, so to be sure that your piano is tuned to A440, you must make sure that the ±99 cent range of Fine Pitch is set to zero.
The Octave and Transpose settings allow you to make more drastic shifts in pitch, in octaves and semitones respectively. Bumping a piano part up or down an octave or two is a common trick, especially when you are trying to work around some other competing sonic component, whereas Transpose is more a facility for the performer, allowing you to compensate for your inability to play in certain keys (I find F sharp a complete pain, for example) by shifting the key you play in up or down to something which sits more comfortably under the fingers.
The Voices setting adjusts the polyphony you have to play with. This can range from four voices all the way up to 160 (for the budding Rachmaninov in you). In reality, use of this parameter is almost always going to be decided by the CPU power you have available. Unless you are using Ivory for live performance (when the following is not an option), I would always suggest that you set this parameter to the maximum and then use your host software's Freeze function (if it has one) to capture the performance once you are happy with it, and free up the CPU power the plug-in has been consuming.
The Buffer Size setting also affects the amount of CPU required. As with other plug-in instruments, the more RAM you have available to use to increase your buffer, the less draw there will be on the processor to play back your performance, but the slight delay between hitting the key and the note sounding will also be greater. This is ideal for computers with slower processors but lots of RAM. On a dual-processor G5, on the other hand, you should be able to get away with less RAM for your buffer and select the Small or Medium Buffer Size setting. The actual buffer sizes are not given in milliseconds or numbers of samples, but Small sounds to me like 128 samples (three milliseconds at a 44.1kHz sampling rate), whereas Large is probably 512 samples (12 milliseconds at the same rate). The problem is that latency can have a sub-conscious effect on your playing. Wherever possible, I reduce the latency (ie. the Buffer Size) to the minimum the CPU will tolerate during recording, and then increase it during playback and mixing (or Freeze the result, which makes the whole problem go away).
The final parameter in the Session parameters section is probably the most radical of all, in that it would require a couple of hours of a professional's time to achieve on a real piano. Tuning allows you to decide whether the piano is set to Equal Temperament or Stretch Tuning. The former is the compromise arrived at by piano tuners when the piano needs to work equally well in all keys, and is what most pianos are tuned to these days. The problem with it is that technically speaking all the intervals you are playing are slightly out of tune. Stretch Tuning slightly increases the tuning scale of the entire instrument so that the higher notes are more in tune with the higher harmonics of the lower notes. This creates a purer, more consonant sound for solo piano performance, but can make it very difficult to use the instrument in an ensemble setting where other electronic or acoustic instruments need to be in tune with it. Once again, Ivory gives you the choice.
Clicking on the Velocity button on either of the other two screens brings up the window which allows you to set the velocity response of Ivory. This is invaluable, as every MIDI controller keyboard is different and however good the action of your keyboard, and the ability to change the velocity curves via its programming parameters, there is no substitute for being able to tweak this on the receiving virtual instrument as well as on the master keyboard. Control is offered over Arc Type (the basic shape of the curve), Hardness (which Synthogy describe as the curvature of slope) and minimum and maximum velocities. Although this all looks very flexible, I have to say that while using my M Audio Keystation Pro 88, I wasn't tempted to touch a thing. I did also try it from a Korg Trinity weighted keyboard, however, and there were a few velocity-related quirks which I was able to mitigate using these controls.
Whilst it is of course possible to route the output of Ivory to other plug-in effects on your Mac, the effects in Ivory are clearly designed to be the most useful for processing the sound of an acoustic grand piano. They can also be saved in separate effects presets and are always stored when you save a Program.
The EQ section is a standard two-band shelf filter with separate gain (±24dB) and frequency controls (20Hz to 10kHz). The Chorus section (with Wet/Dry, Depth, Rate, Delay, Feedback and Damping parameters) covers the whole modulation range from flanging through to chorus. If you use the negative values, then the processed signal is phase-inverted, which creates an interesting effect.
The Ambience section is pretty comprehensive, letting you select from various presets (including various self-explanatory options such as Room, Studio, Jazz Club — nice! — Live Venue, Recital Hall and Concert Hall) within which you can then tweak Room Size, Wet/Dry balance, Pre-delay and Damping options. Whilst this is not going to replace one of the more comprehensive convolution-based reverbs, it does work very nicely with the pianos, and means that you don't need to press other plug-ins into service for processing, so you can keep your setup as simple as possible, which is great if you intend to use it live.
So was there anything about Ivory that I could find to criticise? Well, if you sit and play each note one at a time, you can hear where samples change over occasionally, but this is never noticeable when playing in a realistic manner. I also did find a little bit of noise creeping in on sustained high notes, but only in really exposed situations. I contacted Synthogy about this and they replied very promptly as follows: "While Ivory 's pianos were recorded in the quietest possible environments, a certain small amount of broad-band noise is inherent in the recordings, which can be multiplied and become audible since all of the samples have been normalised. The voices in the higher octaves should be shut off when the sample has finished playing, but they do tend to hang around longer than most. Because of the normalisation, playing with a reduced dynamic range can contribute to this as well. It's important to select an appropriate velocity curve to make sure that your keyboard controller is taking advantage of the complete dynamic range of the samples. Another thing you can do to make the noise less obtrusive is to increase the Dynamic Range parameter." I followed this advice, and there was some improvement when using the Trinity, although again, I never noticed the problem in the first place when using the M Audio Keystation.
Apart from this, there was very little to criticise on Ivory. I did have that one crash mentioned earlier with the synth pad, and you do get the very occasional 'ping' in a track, the source of which is difficult to pin-point. But overall, it is such a major advance in the cause of the virtual grand piano, it is hard to do anything but praise it.
The grand piano is one of the most challenging instruments to recreate electronically, and nothing is ever quite going to replicate the feeling of sitting in front of a real one. In the past, there have been some hardware instruments which have come close, but as far as I'm concerned, nothing on my Mac has ever really captured the essence of the instrument. I have been playing piano in a live band for some time now using a virtual sample on a Mac, but never in an unaccompanied, exposed situation. With Ivory, I would feel comfortable going out and playing a solo gig for the first time. This is not just because of the quality of the samples and the refinement of the programs they are in, but because other issues relevant to live performance have been taken into account. Ivory never leaves you with a dead keyboard and 20 error messages to OK before you can start trying to reload a version that will work. It always gives you what it can, as soon as it can.
The Bösendorfer is my personal favourite, as it really captures the grand piano's breadth of expression, but the Steinway and Yamaha are also both excellent. If you play a lot of rock piano, I suspect you will end up using the Yamaha most, as it does cut through the busiest backing track extremely well, and I plan to recomment the Steinway to my friends in the classical world.
Although Ivory is only available to Apple users at the moment, there are very few contemporary Mac owners who can't get some decent usage out of this product right now, no matter whether they favour Mac OS 9 or X, or what their host sequencer is (you can even run it from Garage Band!). Even if your machine is not the latest and greatest, and you haven't spent as much on memory as you probably should have, by switching out the Soft Pedal and Release samples, and by using the cut-down four-or six-layer Keysets, you can get an extraordinary playing experience from a computer.