Synthogy continue to do what they do best, with another pair of stellar virtual pianos.
Synthogy have a serious track record when it comes to piano sampling. Their Ivory collection of three grands dates back to 2004, when its 30GB library would have been considered absolutely gargantuan. Ivory II came along in late 2010, upped the library size to over 80GB (which is still considered big, by some standards), and added all kinds of nuance and sophistication. We’ve since had another Steinway, a Fazioli and some uprights added to the product range, and the very latest offering is what’s on test here: Ivory II Studio Grands.
With so many competing virtual pianos on the market now, and competition for the top spots fiercer than ever, companies are going beyond just developing great but generic instruments. The trend now is towards individualistic pianos, that can be identified with specific model numbers, years, places or some other kind of provenance, and preferably with an original manufacturer endorsement. In this case, in Studio Grands, it’s a Steinway and a Bösendorfer, sampled in two identifiable American studio acoustics by experienced engineers.
The Steinway is a Model B, from the live room of Power Station studio New England, recorded by Mark Donahue (who has a formidable CV, of predominantly classical work). The acoustic is supposedly an exact copy of the now defunct Power Station/Avatar studio in New York, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, was pretty much a rock, pop and jazz fusion Shangri-La. The piano (presumably a new one) was selected from the Steinway factory in New York and set up by its technicians. Model Bs, in case you’re wondering, are 6’11” (211cm) instruments that go back well over 100 years, and will cost you upwards of £70,000 to buy new. They’re not full-on concert grands, but they’re often first choice for smaller venues, and as concert pianists’ home instruments.
As for the Bösendorfer, it’s a model 225. At 7’4” (225cm) it’s still not Last Night Of The Proms material, but it’s certainly big enough, especially with Bösendorfer’s trademark extended bass (down to a trouser- and woofer-flapping F), and would set you back over £100,000. I’ll take two, please! Synthogy’s copy was in Studio A of Firehouse Recording Studio, Pasadena: now itself closed down, pending relocation, but once the recipient of various gongs for jazz recording and TV work. The engineer was Tony Shepperd, whose credits include Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand. I think we can take it he knew what he was doing.
All this swagger and name-checking will mean more to some users than others, and it’s not going to be worth a bean unless the audible and playable results back it up. We’ll get to that in just a minute...
What’s not in question is the formidable size of this library (112GB), nor the fact that the playback engine (now at version 2.5) has been further refined, and gains some important new features. One is a Shimmer parameter, which alters the rate at which higher harmonics dissipate in a note’s decay phase. Naturalistic Ivory pianos have it set to zero percent, and if you turn it right up you get a strangely static, thick, unnatural decay. Right down, and it sounds like your piano has been partially muted, a little reminiscent of some historical fortepianos. It’s an interesting new creative option to have.
Next is a range of Pedal parameters. Previous versions of Ivory already supported Half Pedaling, a group of related techniques associated with rapid or shallow sustain pedal movements. But now (so long as your MIDI controller actually generates gradated CC values from its sustain pedal) the points in the pedal’s travel where Ivory starts and stops damping are adjustable. A new graph helps with the setting: a little data point zooms up and down it in real time as you pedal, to make setting this up very easy and intuitive. Pedal Track is another new parameter, which varies the level of mechanical noise the pedal generates (a nice, hefty thump/swish combo) according to how quickly you press it down and release it. It goes from no variation in level at all, to a very wide dynamic range, which is more realistic. There isn’t any noise, incidentally, associated with una corda or sostenuto pedals — they’ve got to leave something to add in Ivory III after all...
And that just leaves a new MIDI CC mapping feature (exclusive to the stand-alone version of Ivory) that can learn MIDI controllers for virtually all Ivory parameters. Oh, and Ivory also now responds to high-resolution MIDI velocity via controller 88 messages. Once again, you’ll need a MIDI controller that actually generates it. It’ll also probably help to have the nuance of touch of Vladimir Horowitz to appreciate the difference over and above normal 128-level MIDI velocity.
The first thing that struck me, playing Studio Grands, is the difference in audio capture quality compared to the now seven year-old Grand Pianos. They’re closer and more intimate to begin with. But the biggest change is the significantly warmer tonal balance and sense of weight, which is retained down to low dynamic levels. For example, the older product’s ‘German D’ Steinway sounds very lean and light in a direct comparison with Studio Grands, despite being the heftier piano in real life. The feeling of immediacy and presence is remarkable, and it reminded me of many a fine jazz or art-pop piano recording — absolutely in keeping with the Studio moniker.
My next observation, not unrelated: both Steinway B and Bösendorfer 225 seem a little reluctant to go really bright and strident, in that steely piano concerto (or, indeed, Korg M1) manner. Both have velocity layers that contain full, bright samples, but I found with default settings I had to risk getting tendonitis with hammer-action controller keyboards to really explore this top end of the response. It’s possible to load a sample set of only the ‘hard levels’, and you can always adjust velocity curves of course, in Ivory itself, on your controller, or in your DAW. But even then the effect is nearer a self-possessed forte than a clangorous, sweat-dripping-off-you fff. I suspect it’s a conscious design choice, to keeps these pianos on the hip side of grandiose, and the observation isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism.
But what of the individual pianos? The Steinway Model B is distinctly warm and woody in character. As with many real-life Steinway Bs you may not think it’s the most beautiful thing you ever heard, initially. But you can do a heck of a lot with it, and it has a kind of cool eloquence and authority that’s addictive, and fits well with more intimate solo playing and accompaniment. There is some slight unevenness in tone, especially on MIDI pitches C4 and D4, which to my ear don’t quite have the clarity of the notes either side of them, perhaps due to minutely divergent unison tuning. Also, action noise is more audible with some notes than others (although that’s only revealed by extremes of level boost, such as when lowering the Dynamic Range knob). This sort of thing is the essence of character, and is just how real-life pianos behave whether you pay £70 or £70,000. Some users might wish there was a really immaculate alternative on hand too, though.
The Bösendorfer 225 is immediately more attractive, and sounds more expensive: a real contrast. It just has the air of a bigger instrument for one thing. There’s also greater clarity generally, and the treble sings more readily. It makes for a fine jazz sound, with real playfulness in the upper octaves. There’s some unevenness here too, mind you: G4 is a bit brighter than its neighbours, and I find that the sound of C1 and below go a little off-axis (in miking/capture terms) and lose some of the plummy richness associated with the rest of the pitch range. At these moments you’re reminded there aren’t any alternative mic feeds to try out: just the one factory mix.
With a pronounced character difference between its two grands, and plenty of overall character, Studio Grands certainly makes for an intriguing package. The quality of sampling and sophistication of response here is extremely good, and would have been unthinkable until quite recently. Certainly there’s no way, in a mix, to tell that a Studio Grands MIDI part isn’t a real piano recorded in a great studio. There’s not one whiff of artificiality. The playing experience is great too: these instruments feel alive, and encourage lengthy explorations at the keyboard. I’ll also happily praise the Ivory playback engine, which is stable, flexible, loads full 24-velocity-layer presets in about five seconds from an SSD, and can run very efficiently in terms of CPU. Everything the discerning virtual pianist would want is there: sympathetic resonance, pedal resonance, una corda samples...
Is it the ultimate sampled piano? It’s right up among the best, certainly, and if you like the close, studio jazz/pop sound it could be the one. However, I suspect for many players it’ll be an ideal second piano package, complementing something more generic and less strongly individualistic. It’s a great add-on to Ivory II Grand Pianos, for example, supplementing its still-impressive and very well-behaved Steinway D with alternatives that are more soulful and intimate.
So it’s another great showing from Synthogy. The price is not give-away cheap, but as with real pianos you get what you pay for.
For the classic, big Steinway D (plus alternative Bösendorfer and a punchy Yamaha C7) Synthogy’s venerable Ivory II Grand Pianos still takes some beating, even if it somehow feels less warm and cuddly. Garritan CFX Concert Grand is another great choice for an ‘authoritative’ full-size grand, but has fewer sound design possibilities. There’s also Soniccouture’s The Hammersmith, whose bright-toned and big-hearted character makes these Synthogy pianos seem almost constrained. And I have to mention Pianoteq 6 too, which is still the only high-end option for laptop users with limited disk capacity, and whose acoustic modelling approach makes for the ultimate degree of flexibility in sound and setup.
With installation DVDs apparently gone the way of the dinosaur (thank goodness), there are two options for getting the 112GB Studio Grands on to your computer: download, via a download manager app (that worked like a charm for me), or a USB drive that comes with boxed versions.
Traditionally, Synthogy’s copy protection divided opinion (and alienated some users) because it required a physical iLok dongle. Now, as we’re seeing more and more, iLok is still the system of choice, but you decide whether to use a dongle or disk-based authorisation. You get two disk-based activations to play with (for desktop and laptop, for example) and it’s even possible to move them back and forward between dongle and computer. It seems a fair and flexible way of doing things.
While Studio Grands and its new Ivory 2.5 engine adds some useful new features it thankfully holds on to everything else that made previous Ivories such serious propositions. There are a lot of parameters to play with: sustain and sympathetic resonance levels, timbre (a kind of organic low-pass EQ), stereo width and perspective controls, lid position, a dedicated synth pad layer... Also a hugely useful Dynamic Range control that can boost playback levels of lower-velocity samples without changing their tone quality. And a surprising Timbre Shift which does something clever spectrally, perhaps shunting sample pitch-mapping behind the scenes, and generating everything from inharmonic, watery Eno-esque gongs to pinched toy-piano or cimbalom-like tones. There’s also fine control over memory and CPU usage, transposition, alternative tuning scales, plus built-in three-band EQ, chorus and reverb. Note-by-note adjustments are not available, but it’s possible to really mangle the ‘straight’ piano starting points out of all recognition, if you want to. The same can’t be said for many of Ivory’s competitors, so it’s an important point to bear in mind.
It’s also good news for existing Ivory owners: after installing Studio Grands there’ll still be just one Ivory plug-in (or stand-alone app), but which now shows the new pianos side by side with your existing ones. Those older pianos get to take advantage of the new 2.5 engine enhancements too. A win-win situation.