The quality of modern piano sample libraries is astounding, and in addition to disk streaming technology providing the ability to capture every possible nuance of an instrument, the advanced 24-bit digital recording gear now available, coupled with the care used to actually record pianos, means that a recording of a sampled piano could fool anyone these days. However, while you might think that the large number of high-quality sampled pianos already available would cater for most musicians' needs, there has always been a breed of piano largely absent: namely, upright pianos. And this is precisely the area that Vintaudio are covering with Upright Piano Collection.
"Upright pianos? Why would you want a sampled upright piano? Surely we all want majestic grand models, the sound of which is otherwise unaffordable?", I hear you cry. But no, while many of us many have bad memories of being forced to practice on upright pianos as children (I remember complaining to my Mum about the fact we needed to change our upright piano for an over-strung model before I could shave!), a good upright piano has a distinctive sound character that's far more intimate than a grand piano, making it desirable for certain situations where you don't want the polished and precise sound of a nine-foot grand in a concert hall, especially for songwriters.
Upright Piano Collection contains two CD-ROMs that unpack into nearly 4 Gigabytes of data, and although Giga instruments are included, these can be imported into Halion 1.1 or above, and Vintaudio supply finely-tuned Halion instrument files to replace the default instrument files created by Halion. The documentation consists of a brief HTML file on each CD-ROM, which is more or less adequate, but doesn't offer anywhere near the level of detail included in Post Musical Instruments' rather nice printed manuals for their sampled pianos. Vintaudio's web site, however, does include a little extra information about the pianos and recording techniques employed.
Two different upright pianos are included in this collection (one on each CD-ROM): a Steinway Boston Upright and a 1908 Clinton Upright. Both pianos have been well recorded at a 24-bit resolution, with the final samples dithered to 16-bit using Apogee's UV22. The pianos themselves seem to be in good condition, although a few mechanical noises can be heard on a few of the low notes in the higher velocity layers, much as you'd expect if you were playing a real upright. While the pianos aren't completely dry, the ambience is minimal and not likely to get in the way — in a solo context, both will benefit from a little reverb, and I used Creamware's Masterverb Pro to great effect. On the subject of ambience, both instruments include release triggers, and, although undocumented, these are supplied in a separate Giga instrument in the case of the Clinton, so you'll need to load both the main and release instruments and play two MIDI channels simultaneously.
Both pianos contain four pedal-up velocity layers and four pedal-down layers. In the case of the Steinway, the notes A0 to B4 have been recorded for 20 seconds, with all other notes having a natural decay, and with the Boston, each note has been sampled for approximately 22 seconds. These restrictions are apparently to keep both instruments within a 2GB file limit, which explains why the Clinton's release triggers are supplied in a separate file.
Playing both instruments was a real treat: the Steinway has a wonderfully rich, bright, open and vibrant tone, while the Clinton is slightly darker and has a raw sound with a softer edge that really glues the notes in an aug9 chord together, for example. The Steinway is perhaps the most versatile of the two instruments and probably ended up as my favourite, perfect for any style, from Satie to jazz. It's a truly beautiful instrument and a pleasure to play — so much so that after a little playing, I ended up writing a simple Nocturne instead of this review! However, the Clinton has a great deal of character — think Radiohead's 'Pyramid Song'. Vintaudio also recommend it as being perfect for blues, and I could certainly go along with that as well.
An interesting point about both pianos is that the stereo image is presented from the player's perspective, so it sounds as if you're actually sitting in front of the piano, with the lower notes to the left of the image and the upper notes to the right. This is great for playing, and it's certainly a step forward from opening the lid and pointing an SM57 inside, but I might be tempted to mix the piano in mono (shock horror!) if I was using it in a standard band mix.
Considering the quality of this collection, I think we can safely assume that Vintaudio's developer is actually mad — the retail price is a ridiculous $110. I mean, come on, the Steinway is worth this on its own, before you even load up the Clinton! So, in conclusion, if you're not primarily a pianist but are looking for a good quality piano without wanting the aforementioned polished nine-foot grand sound, and without breaking the bank, this library is almost certainly worth buying. If you are a pianist, however, you should buy this collection immediately.
Upright Piano Collection, $110 including shipping to Canada and the US. Add $4.95 for shipping on International orders.