Virtual World Part 2: The Piano
Home < Pro Audio < B&H Email Newsletter<

Virtual World Part 2: The Piano

by Kendall Scott

The modern piano remains one of the world's most recognizable and imitated instruments. Even though it has undergone refinements, piano design has changed very little over the last century and a half. It allows for an extremely varied repertoire, from classical and the avante garde to jazz, rock and roll, and everything in between. We all have an affinity for its complex tone, and its engulfing spread of keys begs us to play, even with a single finger, to hear its sound board come to life. For composers and instrumentalists alike, the piano represents a mother instrument from which almost any musical goal is attainable. It is a magnificent tool that allows for the reduction of a complete orchestral arrangement or the performance of a simple singing melody with a mere two hands. It allows us to play with the extreme delicacy of Chopin, and in an instant explode with the fire and fury of Jerry Lee Lewis. And, unlike the guitar which boasts repeated notes at various points along its neck, there is a sense of immediacy with piano, as each note has its own dedicated key.


Note by note, the piano has been disassembled and reassembled electronically to yield a host of software representations that signify many painstaking hours of recording, editing, and voicing. Purists are quick to declare that these recreations are "not real pianos," but that is in fact not the point. Software instruments that strive to imitate acoustic instruments are only pictures (though some very complex and detailed) of the real thing. The human ear can be fooled in any number of ways into thinking that it is being sent one bit of information while it is really being sent another. One of the most prominent ways in which we are able to identify a musical instrument is in its attack. That first instant tells us a lot about what instrument we are hearing, and what follows fills in the details of the picture. When we hear the attack portion of a piano sample our brains fill in the gaps as the sustain portion is reached, telling us that "that sounds like a piano."  The more sonic pictures (samples) we take of the piano, the more realistic it will sound, and some not only sound great— but are a whole lot of fun to play as well. Plastic and wire recreation does not a piano make, but it does allow us to suspend our belief enough to satisfy our appetite for that endearing piano tone.

Synthogy Ivory

Virtual instruments rely on several methods of producing their sound, and I should state here that all of the virtual instruments that I will be mentioning in this article are sample-based. Various notes on each instrument are recorded so that they can be reproduced at proper pitch and loudness by the performer when necessary. We will also talk about plug-ins that are instrument specific and not separate sample libraries, as we will revisit these in a later installment. To some of us a piano is that big wooden box that your grandmother had in her living room, or maybe you endured countless hours of Grade One lessons as a child. So, where did it come from?

Acoustic Piano

Opening the case of any acoustic piano will reveal a frame usually made of iron with different length strings suspended across its center. The frame resembles a harp and has its origins in the various harp-like instruments that have been with us since ancient times. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, instruments like the psaltery were plucked with the fingers or a feathered quill, and evolved into the harpsichord. The dulcimer, on the other hand, was struck with small wooden hammers, leading to the development of the clavichord.

These keyboards remained staples for quite some time (excluding the organ family) and Carl Philipp Emanual Bach was known to exclaim that a good keyboardist should own one of each to be truly proficient. The clavichord struck and held its strings with small metal wedges, called tangents, and then allowed the stretching of pitch after a key was depressed. Fourteenth century aftertouch! This instrument was extremely expressive, as the fingers were always in direct contact with the key/tangent/string assembly. It was not, however, capable of being very loud, so when it came to jamming with other instruments, the harpsichord with its plucked string was the instrument of choice. The quill-plucked harpsichord was louder, but offered no way of varying dynamics. Drowned out in larger ensembles, what was a gigging keyboardist to do?

By the Eighteenth Century, Bartolemeo Cristofori was already tackling this dilemma. His gravicembalo col piano e forte or "harpsichord with soft and loud" made three great advancements in the name of keyboard playing. One, his mechanism allowed for the string to be played dynamically. Two, an escapement allowed the hammer to fall away from the string while depressing the key. Three, dampers deactivated the string after the note was released. This was a great leap forward. Over the years, materials and building processes were improved, octaves were added, and size was increased as the piano evolved. After one hundred year coexistence, the harpsichord was finally eclipsed by the piano.

After all these years of evolution, the piano and harpsichord have both found their way into a surprising number of software equivalents, and I'll highlight a few of the notables. The people at the Vienna Symphonic Library are known for meticulous instrument recordings dcreated on their own Silent Stage, and the results of both the harpsichord featured on Special Keyboards and their Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano are mighty impressive. The Performance Tool, previously a separate application for managing articulations and repetitions, has been incorporated into the Vienna Instrument series, adding to their expressive potential. Synthogy's Ivory is also a wonderfully responsive instrument that is voiced quite differently from the Vienna Bosendorfer.
Vienna Instruments

"The process starts with a great instrument," says Aaron Niemann of Ilio. After an instrument has been selected there begins a lengthy process of tuning and mechanically conditioning it for optimal playability. When the piano has been prepped, the sampling of the instrument can begin. For Ivory, each note is sampled at 10 (12 for the Italian Grand) different velocity levels. This is done with the pedals up, and then with the pedals down, to take into account the sympathetic vibration of the harp. There are also release samples of different velocities for each layer as well as samples from both the performer and audience perspectives. All of these samples take months to edit and are then managed with an interpolation algorithm to ensure smooth transitions between them. Whew!

Ivory is made up of 40GB of sample data spread across three instruments, but the Vienna Bosendorfer is composed of a whopping 54GB for its sole selection. The low C on a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial gives it a full eight-octave range and also contributes to its rich sonic footprint. Beyond the velocity layers, multiple release and key noise samples, the repetition feature assures that repeated notes are given a different sample on each strike, adding yet another layer of realism. With its majestic sound, Bosendorfer has been voiced to sit wonderfully in an orchestral or exposed setting, while Ivory is a bit more of a jack of all trades— at home in almost any situation.

Akoustik Piano

More along the lines of the unique, Native Instruments has decided to break the mold and test new ground with Akoustik Piano. In keeping with the name, it would seem that Native would have been content to provide us with some nice straightforward piano samples to play with, but this has proven not to be the case. Alongside the easily recognizable Steinway and Bosendorfer sit a Bechstein and the unfamiliar Steingraeber. Bechstein is a name that you may have heard, but I was curious about the Steingraber.

Josh Fielstra of Native informed me that the goal was not to create the pianos that everyone else was making but to produce something with quirky charm and playability. Almost no one has included an upright in their sample library, and the vintage 1938 Steingraeber 130 upright is a great pop piano full of character, with its "wobbly" intonation left intact. This is not a one-size-fits-all sterile-sounding series of pianos, but an addictive collection of instruments.

There are many sample-based piano libraries out there and I will mention these in a future Sampler installment. For now, here is a list of some fantastic sounding piano-based virtual instruments that are currently on the market.

Vienna Synphonic Library Bosendorfer Inmperial

Synthogy Ivory

Steinberg The Grand 2

Best Service Galaxy 2

East/West Bosendorfer 290 Grand

East/West Quantum Leap Pianos

Native Instruments Akoustik Piano

If you have any questions about virtual instruments, we encourage you to contact us on the phone, online, or in person at our SuperStore in New York City. 1-800-947-9923.

Please email feedback on this article, or suggestions for future topics, to  

Top Pro Audio categories:

Recording | Desktop Audio | Keyboards & Synths | ENG, EFP & Broadcast | Live Sound & PA Accessories