Those of you who are regulars readers of the Time+Space blog will be familiar with our guest blogger Tony Cliff – an accomplished pianist who reviewed several virtual pianos for us over the years including Garritan Personal Orchestra 5, Spectrasonics Keyscape, iZotope RX 6, Toontrack EZkeys, Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand as well as a number of Synthogy’s Ivory pianos.
This time, Tony has been putting Synthogy’s new Ivory II Studio Grands through its paces, read on to see what he things and take a listen to his wonderful audio examples…
“Nowadays we are spoilt for choice with exceptional software editions of fine acoustic pianos. Providing you have a decent 88-note hammer action MIDI keyboard and a reasonably powerful computer with sufficient hard drive space you can be playing the sounds of a £100,000 piano for a relatively modest outlay. I have various competing piano products installed on my system and my current favourites have been the Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand and of course all the wonderful Synthogy Ivory II pianos.
The Synthogy range is quite comprehensive and, apart from their Upright Pianos, they have mainly concentrated on full-size concert grands which are generally 9-foot length instruments designed for the concert hall and with the power to be able to match the sound of a full symphony orchestra. I did mention the Synthogy Upright Pianos and this was a good addition to their product range since there are occasions when you might want the very different tone of an upright piano or maybe even the warmth and imperfections of a vintage upright.
Synthogy’s Ivory II Grand Pianos included the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial Grand and Steinway D which are both full-size concert grands. This collection also included a Yamaha C7 Grand which is a very popular pianos in recording studios and smaller being a 7-foot grand. Ivory II also have their Italian Grand which is sampled from the acclaimed 10-foot concert grand (Fazioli) and then, my personal favourite, the American Concert D. The American Grand is sampled from a wonderful vintage 1951 Steinway Concert Grand with a depth and warmth I have really enjoyed.
Ivory II Studio Grands
The two new additions to the Ivory II range are both in the 7-foot category of grand pianos which is often described as Conservatory or Music Room Grand and is often the choice of top recording studios. Whilst this category of piano might be slightly less forceful than a full concert grand it is nevertheless still a powerful instrument with rich and sustained bass registers and bright, ringing treble notes. The new Ivory II pianos are the world famous Steinway Model B and renowned Bösendorfer 225 Grand piano with the latter instrument being 225 cm in length or 7 feet 4 inches. The Steinway Model B is one of the most recorded pianos of all time and Synthogy had the full cooperation of Steinway in developing this product. They carefully selected an instrument from the New York Steinway factory which was then perfectly set up and tuned by a top Steinway concert technician. It was recorded at Power Station New England with a wonderful acoustic ideal for the recording. The Bösendorfer 225 is a similarly exceptional instrument and here the recording was made at the Firehouse Recording Studios in Old Pasadena which also had a wonderful acoustic for the project.
New Ivory 2.5 Software Engine
This new edition is compatible with all Ivory II pianos and one of the changes is that it no longer requires a physical iLok key to authorise the pianos. Ivory 2.5 now supports PACE’s machine-based authorisation system as well as the iLok key so you now have a choice of methods. The 2.5 software offers a number of new features including a Shimmer control which provides specific control over the decay and sustain aspect of the piano note. Adjusting this setting can lengthen the decay of the higher harmonics or a longer natural sustain and, alternatively, a negative setting can shorten the delay of the harmonics. There are added new Half-Pedal controls which can be adjusted to suit some the newer MIDI keyboard controllers available today. The Ivory 2.5 plug-in now has support for the newer MIDI CC88 High Resolution and if your MIDI controller transmits this High Resolution Velocity Prefix then Ivory 2.5 will respond to more than 16,000 velocity steps. Since I am still using my trusty but ancient Yamaha P250 as my studio master keyboard this last feature is irrelevant for me for if you have the latest controller keyboards you may possibly derive a more nuanced aspect of touch as a result.
Setting Up the Pianos
Now to the more interesting aspect of actually trying out the two new pianos. These are Synthogy’s most detailed sampled pianos and take up around 112GB of hard drive space. The downloading was quite easy to do with Synthogy’s excellent download system and you are given the opportunity to choose where to install on your system. As mentioned before you no longer require an iLok key as you can choose to authorise directly onto your machine if you prefer. You can output the pianos via a standalone program or as a VST, AU or AAX plug-in within your chosen host software and Ivory II is compatible with Windows 7 or newer and Mac OS 10.8 or newer.
The Ivory II Studio Grands is a very straightforward product as the raison d’être is to reproduce the best quality sound from these great instruments. Naturally to use them to their maximum you are best advised to play them via an 88-note quality hammer action MIDI keyboard. It is important to make sure that the touch response is set up to suit your own particular keyboard as these do vary considerably. You need to set it up so that it most closely matches how the real acoustic equivalent piano would react to your personal touch levels. I have been brought up on acoustic pianos so I like to dig in with a firmer touch and don’t like an action which is too light. If it is set up incorrectly for instance you maybe find that when emphasising a particular note or chord you may achieve an exaggerated loudness which sounds wrong. You can experiment with the various touch settings in Ivory II until you reach the ideal one and then save this as your default. I found that my ancient Yamaha P250 seemed to respond ideally with Ivory II’s default settings so I did not have to make any changes to the settings.
Adjusting the Sound
Ivory II gives you great scope to adjust the actual sound of the piano to suit your needs. Each piano comes with 20 different presets with a classic sound then maybe brighter set-up for rock and pop and then piano settings with more shimmer, longer delay and so on. These pre-made set-ups may be all you need but you can further edit and make more if you need them. You can choose different soundboard settings such as clean soundboard or extra resonant and you can adjust the sustain resonance, shimmer, key noise, sympathetic resonance and pedal noise. If you make a number of changes to the sound and like what you have created, then you can save this as a preset for instant recall next time. You can also play the sound with the lid fully open, half-stick, short-stick and closed lid and also choose a stereo perspective as a player or how the audience might hear it.
You can also choose room spaces and reverb to suit your needs with set-ups for ‘Room’, ‘Studio’, ‘Jazz Club’, ‘Live Venue’, ‘Recital Hall’, ‘Concert Hall’ and ‘Curved Space’. Note sure what ‘Curved Space’ is but it seems to be a huge reverb. Additionally you can adjust the individual size of each space. Ivory II also has options for various pad sounds and synth effects to add to the piano if you want to create an ethereal floaty effect.
I made a couple of quick recordings with both pianos. I firstly improvised a piano solo version of the well-known standard ‘Autumn Leaves’. I tried to emphasise both bass and treble notes and played to show the sustain quality and also the clarity of the upper registers. I started off the tune playing quite slowly as I think it gives you a better idea of how the piano sounds. Pianos are often demonstrated with very fast playing which generally sounds impressive but does not tell you so much about how the piano reacts to long sustained notes which can be more revealing.
Once I had made my recording, I then used the same MIDI recording for both pianos and no editing was made. I did not make any changes to the sound within the Ivory II software and in each case chose the first preset in the list which was simply named as ‘Model B Grand Piano’ and ‘Bösendorfer 225 Grand Piano’ respectively. I really like the sound of each instrument and it is very hard for me to say which I prefer. I think the Steinway Model B is slightly more mellow and restrained but with a lovely rich bass and bright upper register. The Bösendorfer perhaps feels slightly more powerful and bold but with similarly rich bass and bright high registers.
The other piece I recorded was Cole Porter’s classic tune ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ this time played over a simple rhythm section backing. Again, I tried to emphasise the sustain qualities of the pianos and used the same MIDI recording for each piano. I rendered the recordings to a fairly high quality mp3 resolution but mp3 is a lossy format so the actual sound of the pianos will be much better than they sound on mp3. Anyway I hope you enjoy the recordings and that they give you some indications of the overall sound quality of these fine instruments.
Synthogy Ivory II now offers a pretty comprehensive range of fine acoustic pianos and it is clear to see why they have achieved such a reputation in both recording and live performance. Whether playing for pleasure or using them in your recording projects, you can be sure of having some of the best available acoustic pianos meticulously sampled and I really love both of the new Studio Grand pianos.
The Steinway Model B is a wonderfully warm and mellow piano but with rich bass end and fine upper registers. This piano is really adaptable whether for classical, jazz or pop and it is very simple to modify the overall sound to suit your needs. Similarly the Bösendorfer 225 is a beautiful-sounding instrument and perhaps slightly more up-front than the Steinway. The overall balance and playability of both instruments is excellent. My previous favourite Ivory II instrument was their American Concert D (taken from a 1951 Steinway Model D) but now I think I prefer the new Studio Grands but like both of the included pianos equally. You really cannot go wrong with these wonderful instruments and we are fortunate nowadays to have such superb software pianos available.