Virtual Pianos – A Buyers’ Guide

Virtual Pianos a Buyer's GuideAnyone who has ever set out to purchase a virtual piano will know all too well that there are umpteen products to choose from covering everything from electric to acoustic instruments. So how do you know which is right for you?

Here at Time+Space, six of our major brands – Garritan, Synthogy, Toontrack, SpectrasonicsCinematic Strings & Cinesamples– all offer virtual pianos, each with their own individual user interfaces, and in some cases, types of pianos. However, when choosing a piano, it’s worth bearing in mind that two products used together may work better than a single plugin.

For example, Toontrack’s EZkeys product line offers numerous features that are specifically designed to make writing a piano track an extremely easy task – perfect if your piano skills leave a lot to be desired or you’re simply running short on inspiration. However, you might actually prefer the sound of Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D piano, in which case why not use EZkeys to create your song then bring in Ivory II to produce your final track?

Here’s a summary of each of the main pianos available from Time+Space which should help to define the differences of each plug-in, giving you an idea of which will suit your own style of music as well as your production workflow.

Synthogy Ivory American Concert D

Synthogy’s Ivory II Pianos

Synthogy, as a company, are entirely devoted to developing and releasing virtual pianos, and, as such, they feature among the world’s most popular virtual piano product lines.  With the release of Studio Grands just a few weeks ago, which shipped with their new 2.5 engine, the range now consists of 5 products, and many will be pleased to hear that an iLok key is no longer required for authorisation!

There range currently incorporates the following 5 products:

Each title features the same easy-to-use software/DSP engine, with all effects and customisable user controls easily accessible across four main user interface pages.

Ivory II interface

The biggest selling point, and most remarked upon, feature of Ivory pianos is their incredibly realistic sound and playability. This is due to advanced sampling techniques in combination with Synthogy’s powerful custom built engine.

The Sympathetic String Resonance of the Ivory II engine fulfils a long sought after characteristic of real pianos, allowing for a true replication of the harmonic resonant content. Meanwhile, the realism is also enhanced thanks to each Ivory II piano delivering multiple velocity levels for all keys – with the newest pianos in Studio Grands offering up to 24! The pianos also include real release samples, Soft Pedal samples, and Pedal Noise enhancements.

Ivory II Soundboards

Unique features to the Synthogy engine include:

Customisable soundboards for each piano – to allow for additional/reduced resonance for when the Sustain Pedal is pressed.

An optional synth pad layer – for creating quick and deep modern/pop combinations.

World class digital FX including Chorus, EQ and Real Ambiences of world-class studios and concert halls.

Dozens of user-adjustable presets; from programing presets, velocity mapping, Synth layering and effect presets.

The Ivory II engine also allows for a wide range of customisable user controls, including; Timbre, Stereo Width and Perspective and Mechanical Key Noise.

Features overview:

  • Several pianos to choose from
  • The pianos in each package can be installed individually, thus saving valuable disc space
  • Synthogy’s exclusive powerful playback engine
  • Unrivalled & highly realistic sound
  • Customisable user controls & tuning alterations
  • Use the Ivory II piano either as a standalone program or as a plug-in in your favourite music host

Click here for more information about the Ivory II product line


EZkeys Grand PianosToontrack EZkeys Pianos

The most defining feature of Toontrack’s EZkeys product line is its dedication towards simplifying the process of songwriting – no longer do you have to be a piano player to put together a professional sounding piano part. With it’s songwriting features that include chord change suggestions to the simple transposition of a song or section, creating a beautiful piano piece is now easier than ever.

EZkeys Wheel of Fifths

EZkeys features a huge MIDI library performed by professional pianists, covering a wide range of genres, all organised into simple song layouts; intro, verse, chorus, bridge, ending and more.

The great thing about working with a MIDI library as opposed to a sample based loop library, is the ability to keep the MIDI fresh and unique. Just a couple of clicks within EZkeys and you can change tempo, the root Key and even specific chord changes via a wheel of suggested chords that would harmonically fit the song.

If you are a piano player, you can hook up your MIDI keyboard and quickly record in your own MIDI parts, while the EZkeys engine instantly displays what chord is being played in real-time. Once you have created your piano track inside the EZkeys timeline, simply either enable ‘host synch’, drag and drop it to your DAW or export it as a MIDI or Audio file.

There are currently eleven EZkeys pianos available:

Once you own an EZkeys piano, you can add additional pianos to your collection for almost half the price, thanks to the Sound Expansion option. Each piano includes a range of presets to help get your sound to fit your style of music, there are also a range of MIDI packs available to expand your library in genres to suit you – for example R&B, Gospel, Country, Rock etc.

EZkeys MIDI Library

Features overview:

  • Timeline song builder
  • Wheel of fifths chord suggestion
  • Dynamic & tuning adjustments
  • Tonal and reverb controls
  • Add more to your EZkeys MIDI library with additional EZkeys MIDI expansion packs
  • EZkeys can be loaded in standalone or as a plug-in in all major music hosts
  • Free demo version available

Click here for more information about Toontrack EZkeys pianos


Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert GrandGarritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand

Two of the most immediate unique selling points of this library is that 1), it is the first virtual emulation of Yamaha’s CFX Concert Grand piano, and 2), it was recorded in the famous Abbey Road Studio’s historic Studio One.

A further defining feature of this product is the choice of three different perspectives:

Classic: captures the natural tonal character, clarity, and nuance of the instrument

Contemporary: produces a bright and brilliant sound with definitive attack from the hammers

Player: delivers the unique experience of playing from the piano bench in Studio One.

CFX Control Panel

Like all virtual instruments released by Garritan, the CFX Concert Grand utilises the Garritan Aria engine.

Thanks to its inbuilt presets and user controls, you can easily tweak your piano sound to suite your individual needs. Either load in one of the 32 Ensemble presets to get an array of different manipulations from across the three perspectives, or use the included Control, Mixer or Effects panels to really adjust your sound; from adjusting the blend between close and ambient microphones, adjusting the velocity curve of the piano, to setting up how much pedal noise you want captured in your mix.

CFX Perspectives & Presets

Features overview:

  • 132 GB sample library (install from a USB key)
  • Install the Compact OR Full version according to your computer size
  • Adjust grand piano lid position
  • Close Mic and Ambient Mic control panel
  • 3 perspectives to choose from with 32 presets
  • Notation version also included for easy use in notation software
  • Option to either use the dedicated CFX plug-in/standalone or load into the Aria Player.

Click here for more information about the Garritan CFX Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand

Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand being used in Finale Print Music 2014

Spectrasonics Keyscape

Featuring the largest selection of collector keyboards in the world, Spectrasonics’ newest library: Keyscape, is a very strong addition to the range of virtual pianos available on the market today. 10 years in the making and lead by mastermind Eric Persing, the dedicated team at Spectrasonics set out to capture the sound of 36 different keyboards ranging from “holy grail” pianos to bizarre and rare keyboards.

One of the most notable instruments is a Rhodes LA Custom “E” Model, described by Spectrasonics as ‘one of the rarest and most sought-after electric piano sounds in the world’ and believe me, it sounds good! Each piano comes with a number of presets and it’s own custom set of performance controls and high quality effects, allowing you to shape the sound to your liking. Or why not delve into the Hybrid “Duo” sounds which combine 2 of the instruments to form an entirely new timbre.

On top of all this, if you’re an Omnisphere 2 owner you’ll find that Keyscape integrates fully into the Omnisphere engine meaning you can take full advantage of both products and tweak the sounds of Keyscape to your heart’s content! PLUS Spectrasonics also recently released ‘Keyscape Creative’, a library of 1268 patches specially designed for owners of both Keyscape + Omnisphere which showcased the power of both products. Best of all? It’s completely FREE for users of both Keyscape & Omnisphere!

Keyscape is a very versatile product which has a lot to offer in terms of variety so if you’re looking for a library that goes beyond just Grand Pianos and steps into the realm of digital, vintage, wacky and weird instruments then you are sure to find inspiration in Keyscape.

Features overview:

  • Rare and incredibly special instruments mastered by top technicians
  • Huge 77 GB library with over 500 sounds, 36 Instrument Models and Hybrid “Duo” Patches
  • Deeply Multisampled sounds with up to 32-way velocity switching, Round Robins, etc
  • Mechanical Noise, Pedal Noise and Release Noise behavior modeling
  • Authentic tone and inspiring playability
  • Patches feature authentic circuit modeled amps and effects
  • Optional “Lite” installation (30 GB) for stage use
  • Omnisphere® 2 integration

Click here for more information about Spectrasonics Keyscape


Cinematic Studio Piano

As part of their new “Cinematic Studio Series”, Cinematic Strings (now not only strings!) released Cinematic Studio Piano, a warm and incredibly realistic sounding Yamaha C7 Grand, recorded in Australia’s premiere scoring stage. Compatible with the Free Kontakt 5 Player and coming in at an excellent price of just £65.95 this is a great piano for musicians and producers on a budget looking for a reliable, professional sound.

The user interface is simple but intuitive; it’s not overcrowded with unnecessary controls and just contains the essentials such as the mix and position of the four different microphone channels available, allowing you to easily achieve the sound you’re looking for. Take advantage of the additional FX patch which includes scrapes, glissandos and plucks for added realism and tension.

It really amazes me how much quality they’ve managed to pack into a product with such a small price tag on it and I’d definitely recommend looking into Cinematic Studio Piano if you’re a first time buyer.

Features overview

  • Warm and realistic Yamaha C7 Grand
  • Recorded in Australia’s premiere scoring stage
  • Full dynamic range with pedal up and down
  • Integrated high quality reverb
  • Intuitive, easy to use GUI
  • Four microphone channels
  • FX patch included with scrapes, glissandos and plucks for added tension

Click here for more information on Cinematic Studio Piano


Piano in Blue

Ever thought you’d be able to play a virtual piano sampled from the exact same 1945 Steinway D used to record Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” for under £90? Well, you can. This special opportunity arose to Cinesamples’ attention whilst they sat in on what was supposed to be the last ever recording session to take place in Clinton Recording Studios in Manhattan before it sadly shut down. Though when they spotted this unique Steinway, along with two Neumann M49s sat in the corner of the room, they managed to arrange for the closing date to be extended, and within 24 hours they had sampled the instrument at 8 velocity levels using 3 mic positions and were ready to turn it into a virtual instrument. I feel like this background story makes Piano in Blue that little bit more special.

The neat little interface that comes with Piano in Blue is simple but you’ll find you don’t need to tweak many dials as the piano’s unique tone is what gives it so much character. You’re able to adjust the microphone mix, velocity curve, pedal noise, apply reverb and in the V2 update, a ‘sample start’ knob was added to give more of an attack to each note if you were experiencing latency or prefer a modern, poppy sound.

Thanks to the special way the instrument plays and the way it was captured, the character of this piano sits in it’s own category and has an instantly recognisable tone. Instead of recording the velocities by touch  Cinesamples decided to do it by ear, making sure every note was captured sounding it’s best and this gives Piano in Blue an instant natural feel; chords sound warm and thick whilst solo lines have a balanced flow to them. Piano in Blue offers huge amounts of character at a very small price, don’t think twice before buying it!

PIANO SPECS:

  • 1949 Steinway D via Neve 8078 Console
  • 8 Velocity Layers Sampled Chromatically
  • 9300 Samples
  • 3 Microphone Positions
  • Close/Vintage – 2x Neumann M49 near the lid
  • Mid – 2x B&K 4007 at the tail of the piano
  • Far – 2x Sennheiser MKH20′s in the hall
  • 2 Processing Paths (Tape; Direct in)
  • Studer A800MKIII 24 Track Analog Tape Machine
  • Programmed by Sam Estes; scripted by Greg Schlaepfer; recorded by Tim Starnes

Click here for more information on Cinesamples Piano In Blue

Click here to view all virtual pianos at Time+Space

Posted by Jamie Farrington

After studying music for 12 years as a tuba and piano player, I was eventually introduced to the studio a few years ago and it opened my eyes to a whole new side of music. Since then I've been producing and recording all sorts of music, with my main interest being in ambient and experimental electronic music. Working at Time+Space has enabled me to work with some great musicians, composers, producers and above all, some amazing software!

Website: http://www.timespace.com/

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