Tony Cliff has been a friend of Time+Space for many years having reviewed many of our virtual instruments for magazines such as Keyboard Player and Classroom Music. After graduating from the Royal Holloway College, his early career combined teaching, lecturing and performing and he has had numerous musical works published from solo instrument and piano works to wind band and jazz orchestras.
As an accomplished classical and jazz pianist with such an impressive professional background, who better to give his view on Synthogy’s range of Ivory II virtual pianos – Grand Pianos, Uprights and Italian Grand.
Over to Tony…
It is a particularly rewarding time currently for musicians needing fine acoustic pianos from computer software programs as there are just so many excellent competing products available. When Synthogy’s Ivory was originally released in 2004 it quickly received widespread acclaim and I was therefore very keen to check out the new Ivory II piano range and see just how will Ivory II compare against the stiff opposition now available? In addition to Ivory II Grand Pianos, Synthogy also offer Ivory II Italian Grand and Ivory II Upright Pianos with the entire product range making a pretty comprehensive collection.
Since I work as a professional pianist and composer and also teach piano, I am fully aware of how acoustic pianos should sound and also how they should respond to dynamics and articulation. I have played many wonderful acoustic grand pianos and uprights and also encountered some woefully bad examples in my line of work. Since acoustic pianos are not portable, pianists are required to play whatever acoustic pianos is available in the venue and just about any professional player you care to speak to will reveal sad stories about the state of some of the instruments they have had to play.
Whilst an acoustic piano may be poor you might think that the obvious answer then is to play a digital piano as they have grown increasingly popular over recent times. These instruments offer 88-notes and hammer action keyboards which feel something like an acoustic piano but too often they lack character and are somehow unrewarding to play and many examples are not able to convey any proper sense of acoustic resonance which is such a vital aspect of the richness of an acoustic piano sound. When I am examining a computer-based piano product like Ivory II I am looking at three main areas to evaluate:
- Sound – how effectively does the product replicate the real sound of an acoustic piano.
- Playability and response: how faithfully are dynamic contrast produced for true expressive playing.
- Adjusting the Sound – how easy is it to tailor the instrument to your particular requirements.
So armed with my list of evaluation pointers I set out to test Synthogy’s Ivory II piano range. Naturally with faithfully sampled instruments such as these you will need plenty of hard disk space and a reasonable fast computer to cope with the demands. The Ivory Grand pianos take up around 77 GB, 28 GB for the Italian Grand and 94 GB for the Upright Pianos. You also need an iLok USB key for authorising your Ivory II installation. Once installed Ivory II is a very simple program to operate and works for both Windows and Mac either via a standalone program or within your favourite DAW program via RTAS, AU or VST. You really need a good quality 88-note hammer-action keyboard to really appreciate Ivory II and I tested it using the Kawai MP10 which arguably has the finest quality keyboard action of any portable piano currently available.
Sound of the Pianos
I firstly tried the Ivory II Grand Pianos which comprise Steinway Model D concert grand, Bosendorfer Imperial Grand and Yamaha C7 Studio Grand. The Steinway was immediately gratifying to play with the richness of the bass and the beautiful ringing treble tones. I was really impressed with the quality of sympathetic string resonance which sounded completely authentic to my ears. When you press the sustain pedal all the way down you immediately hear the sound of the dampers being released just as you would on an acoustic piano. There are numerous preset variations of the Steinway Model D in Ivory II such as concert hall, dry acoustic, brighter EQ, studio setting and so on but in this section about the overall sound of the pianos I will just briefly describe each piano. I then moved on to play the Yamaha C7 which is a 7 foot 6 inch piano slightly shorter than a standard 9 foot grand. This Yamaha instrument is a very useful addition as it is popular with many recording studios with its bright cutting character and expressiveness. Once again the Ivory II samples for the Yamaha piano sounded completely authentic and satisfying with the brightness and character of the string resonance sounding through loud and clear. This is clearly an excellent piano for both rock and jazz recording purposes.
Next, I loaded the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand and this revealed a really powerful bass and a darker, more imposing sound definitely suitable for heavyweight classical music. Next in my initial sound tasting I loaded the Italian Grand from the Ivory II Italian Grand collection which is based on the 10-foot concert grand made by the famous Italian company Fazioli. This Ivory II piano sounds gorgeous to my ears and rich in both bass and mid-register and also beautifully ringing in the treble. I would say that this piano would suit any musical genre from classical through to pop and jazz.
Next, I turned to Ivory II Upright Pianos which is a collection including quality modern upright pianos, vintage uprights, Honky Tonk bar room pianos and Tack pianos where tacks were actually installed into the hammer felts to achieve a really bright sound. I dread to think the damage caused to both hammers and strings with the genuine tack pianos but you do not have to worry about that with a sampled instrument! There are many occasions in recording when the sound of a Steinway or Fazioli is not appropriate and you might need something with a less ‘perfect’ sound or just want the different character of an upright instrument. Many great records have featured upright pianos and all the top recording studios are equipped with both grand and upright instruments. The great thing about the Ivory II upright collection is they feature all the natural string resonance and hammer noise and so exude character as soon as you play them. If you have the full range of Ivory II pianos then you are pretty much set for all your acoustic piano requirements or even spoilt for choice.
Responsiveness and Playability
This is a vital aspect for any successful software piano instrument and the touch must respond quickly to the player so that you can very quickly move from loud notes to the softest sounds in an instant. I am pleased to say that Ivory II behaved flawlessly in this respect and felt as responsive as a genuine acoustic instrument. Moreover the quality of the tone produced changes accurately with the velocity of the key pressure. A quietly played note compared to a louder note is not merely a matter of difference in volume but also change in timbre which is essential for expressive performance. The designers must be congratulated here on the way the product behaves and responds to touch variation.
Adjusting Your Piano
The interface is the same for all the Ivory II collections and is both powerful and also very easy to use. Whilst there are many presets available such as replicating a small club acoustic environment or concert hall or brighter versus mellower settings you can also adjust numerous aspects to suit your own requirements and save them as user presets. You can adjust the velocity to match your keyboard, adjust the tuning, set the piano lid as fully open or not, adjust the level of sympathetic resonance. Basically you can adjust practically every facet of the piano sound including pedal noise and key noise. I do not have sufficient space in this article to delve into this aspect and in any case was blissfully content with the basic sounds I was hearing from each Ivory II piano I tested. However if you feel the need to edit and tweak then there is huge scope within the product
The competition for quality acoustic pianos in the sector may be fierce but I am convinced that Synthogy’s Ivory II range has set new standards of excellence. The pianos sound so alive and satisfying that they are inspirational to play. I think that it would be very difficult to detect whether you were hearing a genuine Steinway/Fazioli when you record using Ivory II since the sounds are so convincing. If you connect it with a quality hammer action keyboard and a pretty powerful computer then I am sure you will be as blown away by this range of products as I have been.
For more information about Tony Cliff and to hear some of his work, visit his website tonycliffmusic.com