Is Synthogy’s Ivory 3 the best virtual piano you can buy?
Synthogy’s Ivory has been around a long time, in sample library terms. Its roots go all the way back to at least 2005, and I reviewed Ivory II Grand Pianos in 2011. Along the way there have been various side hustles: individual Steinways, upright pianos and studio grands, using the same playback engine. It has always been among the major players, combining fine sound quality and playability with a surprising scope for creative sound design. I’ve personally used it on dozens of jobs.
Now Ivory 3 German D brings the technology up to date for the present day. It’s still a self‑contained plug‑in (VST3, AU and AAX) and standalone application for macOS, with a Windows version in the pipeline. But this new flagship version of the software now places all its eggs in one piano (please don’t try that at home): a single German‑variety Steinway D‑274, recorded in a concert hall in Quebec, and presenting your computer with an installation size of 42GB.
Ivory 3’s headline new feature is Continuous Velocity, powered by a Real‑time Gradient Blending (RGB) engine. This promises smooth gradation of timbre in response to velocity, without any obvious sample switching. And not only for the traditional 128‑value resolution of MIDI velocity, but for the cutting‑edge spec of MIDI 2.0 too, with its 65,536 velocity increments, as well as the 16,384 of the MIDI Velocity Extension scheme, employed by a few controller manufacturers for many years now, which works by supplementing velocity with MIDI CC88 data.
The lack of obvious sample switching is by itself desirable of course, as it gets closer to the experience of playing a real piano, but it also brings Ivory 3 on par with pure modelling‑based piano plug‑ins like Pianoteq that have never been subject to the limitations of discrete samples. Synthogy are understandably protective of the details of the RGB tech, but it appears that it’s still solely based on sample replay, probably with some filtering or other manipulation in the moment, as opposed to formally combining an acoustic modelling element. What’s for sure is that Ivory 3’s Steinway sample set does not present itself in the software the Ivory II pianos used to, which was in different versions with specific numbers of velocity layers, and some dark/soft or bright/loud skewed alternatives. Now there’s just the one, and some new parameters (Dynamic Shift and Hammer Strength) in the user interface that can recreate those tilts, and more besides.
Another big enhancement is a multi‑mic capture and mixing scheme. Four mic perspectives are on hand, and supporting them an onboard mixer that has a stereo width module, dynamics processing, a three‑band EQ and an aux send on every channel. Two dedicated aux and master mix channels additionally get chorus and ambience/reverb processors. Two mic perspectives, called Side A and Side B, were apparently captured with small‑diaphragm cardioid capacitor mics close to the piano. An M‑S pair is, of course, a Middle and Sides array, placed at a medium distance. Finally, small‑diaphragm omnis were the basis for an Ambient array that’s positively loose and roomy.
What else? The user interface has been completely rebuilt, and its high‑DPI tabbed and scrolling design looks and feels much more up to date than any previous version of Ivory. Also listed as a v3 benefit are enhanced sympathetic resonance and sustain resonance processing, along with some new synth layers, including an ensemble strings sample and an FM piano. There’s a simplified preset structure too, replacing the previous potentially confusing scheme of Programs, Sessions and Effects.
At the same time, it’s perhaps reassuring to note how similar Ivory 3 is to previous versions. So much so, in fact, that it provides full backwards compatibility with their sample sets, and those old preset types.
Parameters like dynamic range are still there and remain hugely valuable: lowering the range boosts the playback level of lower velocity notes, making for tones that are both delicate and yet loud and present. Something like what a compressor would do, but without the sucking and pumping.
Similarly, Ivory’s sustain/damper pedal implementation is one of the best in the business. It supports, very well, half‑pedalling (quick or shallow pedal releases that don’t fully damp pedal‑held notes) and partial pedalling. You need a continuous‑type damper pedal to get the best from it, and then you can set the points in the pedal’s travel at which different behaviours occur. It can work well with simple switches too.
Velocity handling is another strong point. If your controller won’t readily spit out the highest velocity values, or does so too readily, Ivory can compensate. Input/output velocity mapping is shown on a graph‑like display which can be manipulated via accompanying controls. It works very effectively.
There are good options for controlling pitch and tuning too. Not only the base pitch of A4 (which defaults to 440Hz) but transposition in octaves, semitones and cents. A Stretch Tuning option recreates what good piano tuners do, widening octaves towards the extremes of pitch to compensate for string inharmonicity. A good handful of temperaments is provided too, and Ivory will also read tuning info from your DAW, if it’s capable of providing it.
So now to the really important bit: what is Ivory 3 like to actually live and work with? Simply, I think it sounds and feels absolutely superb. To my ear the new Hamburg Steinway is a great piano sound, oozing class, and very versatile: it seems equally well suited to pop, jazz and classical genres. The capture quality of the Side A mic array in particular is stunning, almost three‑dimensional, and phenomenally full and detailed. Note decays extend very naturally — not much short of 50 seconds for the lowest bass notes — and there’s equal focus and immediacy in the capture across the entire pitch range.
During the review period I was fortunate enough to do several days’ playing work with a well‑maintained Steinway D, in a good acoustic, and it’s to Synthogy’s credit that they’ve captured so much that is appealing about the real thing, in all its six‑figure cost, 500Kg glory. For one thing, the way that these big beasts are so controllable, delicate one moment and then so singing, commanding or even thunderous the next, and with a vast range of character ready to be teased out with just small changes in touch. Synthogy have got this dynamic response aspect spot on.
Comparing a representative cross‑section of other good virtual pianos is interesting, and helps pinpoint individual qualities of Ivory 3. Garritan’s CFX Concert Grand, now almost a decade old, is similarly classy, and sounds more light, bright and glossy, without the inherent ‘woodiness’ of the Steinway D in a few places across the pitch range. However, Ivory 3 has a far more present and willing treble register, somehow more gravitas overall, and a much greater scope for tone tweaks.
Just because I was using a Nord Piano 3 as my controller, I couldn’t help comparing some of its pianos, from the hardware‑only Nord library. These have no right to sound as good as they do for their comparatively tiny file sizes, and several share Ivory 3’s sense of holographic presence. The sheer depth of Ivory’s sampling though, and those smooth velocity transitions, win out under close examination.
Finally, Pianoteq 8’s German Steinway D acquits itself remarkably well. This acoustic modelled alternative gives an extremely involving playing experience, and it shares with Ivory 3 a tremendous sense of immediacy and focus. I suspect some may judge it to be a little less subjectively attractive though.
Ivory 3’s mic perspectives other than Side A offer quite different characters. Side B is more focused, serious, borderline constrained in tone, still on the dry side, but with both a bit more room and ‘fibre’ in the sound. It’s useful. The M‑S pair is more distant, and perhaps lends itself best to a classical‑type sound, for blending with an orchestral sample library. It will also, of course, give a true mono feed, with no phase or blending issues, via the mixer’s M‑S processing. The ambient mic feed, meanwhile, has an even more spacious, open, omni‑like quality, less focused but pleasantly large.
The mic mixing feature is good to see. It has some unexpected features too, like being able to direct a single mic feed to more than one channel in the mixer, allowing for parallel compression techniques, for example. Also time‑alignment between arrays can be manually adjusted, and polarities inverted. But there are aspects that could be better.
For example, the mixer channels and the mic arrays that feed them are never simultaneously visible in the graphic interface. You can scroll backwards and forwards but I’d have much preferred to have sources, signal routing and mixing all in one single screen. Or at least a way for mixer channels to be named by what’s feeding them, or named manually.
Then, my only real gripe about Ivory 3 is the way the way the M‑S and Ambient mics incorporate the sound of the acoustic in which the piano was recorded. Or rather, don’t! These more spacious captures include a good amount of the contribution of the acoustic which is audible ‘around’ held notes at any dynamic level. But when any that were played with less than about 60 percent velocity are released, the expected acoustic decay doesn’t happen. It’s as if the piano had been recorded in a completely dry acoustic. Louder notes do, suddenly, incorporate a bit of reverberant tail, but it’s at a surprisingly low level.
To my mind this behaviour is odd, because it means you’re bound to still use one of the onboard Ambience processors (or a reverb in your DAW) to get something that sounds natural and plausible even when you’re using only the spacious mics. And then you end up with a double acoustic: one natural as captured in the sample, and one artificial.
Synthogy told me that this was intended, and pointed to the effectiveness of many of their ‘Cinematic‑Ambient’ presets, which use the Ambient mics and reverb together. I can’t argue with that: many sound excellent. At the same time, I wonder if they might consider adding a release sample level control alongside the existing release time multiplier. That’d let you work with captured ambience, artificial reverb, or both, without breaking any backwards compatibility.
I’ve few other criticisms. Ivory 3 can be quite CPU‑hungry, especially with several mic arrays enabled, but while Studio One’s CPU meter lit up with enthusiastic playing using a brisk 64‑sample buffer size, my M1 MacBook Pro shrugged it off in fanless silence, with lots more happening simultaneously, and barely a murmur in the OS’s Activity Monitor app. It should be a similar picture with other modern CPUs. The FM piano layer is also curious. Useful in some circumstances certainly, but with positively clunky transitions between just three velocity layers, which only stand out the more next to the Continuous Velocity Steinway.
Countering these criticisms, and to set the balance straight, are many very strong positives. That fundamental sound quality and responsiveness I’ve already mentioned: really, really impressive, and addictive. Adding to this, the already significant and powerful sound‑design possibilities are enhanced further by the new Hammer Strength parameter. At one extreme this takes the Steinway D into dreamy felt‑piano territory: soft, fuzzy, diffuse. At the other, tight, snarling rock and dance piano timbres. Combine it with Timbre Shift and other pre‑existing parameters and the pristine D‑274 starting point piano can be twisted out of all recognition, and nearly always into something useful, interesting and engaging. Meanwhile the sustain and sympathetic resonance features continue to add a great deal to the sense of realism and complexity. Amongst other things they let you adjust the damper pedal’s sound from naturalistic, adding breadth and a sense of scale, to something much more liquid, luscious and immersive.
In the mixer, the Dynamics sections are surprisingly fully‑featured. Their different detector models allow a range of subtle to more overtly pumping and noisy compression effects to be dialled in. EQ is simple — three‑band, with low and high shelves and a parametric mid — but effective.
All previous Ivory strengths are left intact, but are now combined with the best single piano capture Synthogy has ever offered, and about the most sophisticated velocity response of any sampled piano out there.
Ivory 3 is a really worthwhile update. All previous Ivory strengths are left intact, but are now combined with the best single piano capture Synthogy have ever offered, and about the most sophisticated velocity response of any sampled piano out there.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Ivory — whether jamming with it, or relying on it to meet a production deadline — is the way it gets the fundamental sound and playability right from word go, and adapts unfussily to different controllers, DAWs and workflows. But it also supports beautiful‑sounding creative journeys when you want that. Which is to say it can do respectable and natural, sumptuous and cinematic, as well as beautifully weird. Ivory 3 takes all that up a gear.
You need quite a good‑spec computer to run Ivory 3: for the currently available macOS version Synthogy say an eight‑core Intel chip at minimum, and an Apple Silicon CPU recommended, and you’ll need to be running macOS 10.15 or newer. Similarly, it’s 16GB RAM minimum, 32GB recommended, and an SSD is de rigeur.
Copy protection and authorisation is via iLok, but that can be a virtual authorisation on your hard drive, or in the iLok Cloud, and a physical dongle is only optional. You’ll need an iLok account, but after that, authorisation is a painless process. This scheme must surely be amongst the most flexible out there in letting users tailor the boring reality of copy protection to their own workflows.
Aside from all the normal testing I undertook during my time with Ivory 3 — playing normally, listening to every note individually, assessing velocity response, exploring parameters — I wanted to dig into the new Continuous Velocity and Real‑time Gradient Blending feature.
To do that I set up a project in my DAW (Studio One) that played several different notes hundreds of times, with a smooth, linear velocity gradation generated across them with an editing tool. PreSonus do not claim high resolution or MIDI 2.0 compatibility for Studio One, but at the very least this test would generate note triggers at all 128 values of the ‘original’ MIDI spec. Certainly enough to hear what the new RGB engine is doing. (As an aside, Ivory 3 does flash up a MIDI 2.0 label when it receives data from Studio One, so maybe there’s something PreSonus are not telling us...)
In short, there was good, smooth gradation of tone and no big lurches in timbre as this MIDI test played back: exactly what the RGB engine promises. Brightness and dynamics increase gradually and naturally, just as you’d hope. There are still some audible timbre shifts — yes, almost certainly velocity layer switches — but they’re subtle.
By way of comparison, I played the same MIDI into Ivory II. That is much older software of course, which was always up front about its (at most) 18 discrete velocity layers; although interestingly Ivory II also claimed a ‘Sample Interpolation Technology’ for smooth transitions, in its day. Here, velocity transitions were clearly, glaringly audible. And in fact something similar can be recreated in Ivory 3 by disabling the RGB engine. I find it interesting this is even offered as a user option, but there we are.
Is this a good metric by which to judge Ivory 3? Yes and no. No, in that this sort of testing is horribly, forensically, pixel‑peepingly amusical, and has very little to do with most musicians’ playing experience. But yes in the sense that the Continuous Velocity feature does indeed stand up to scrutiny, and smoother transitions, being closer to acoustic piano behaviour, can only be a good thing.
- A particularly classy‑sounding Steinway D captured with glorious detail and focus.
- Continuous Velocity does away with obvious velocity‑driven sample switching, and equips Ivory for the MIDI 2.0 future.
- Onboard multi‑mic mixing gives new options for piano character, and more flexibility in effects processing than ever before.
- Useful improvements to many existing strong Ivory II features, but with full backwards compatibility for libraries and presets.
- Distant mic perspectives are implemented in a way that can make them sound curiously dry.
A brilliant‑sounding, jaw‑droppingly responsive Steinway D, supplemented with a broad range of sound‑design options via onboard mixing, EQ and effects, and sample manipulation. A rock‑solid option as your go‑to piano for all sorts of jobs.
$279, upgrade from $149. Prices include VAT.
$279, upgrade from $149.