Out of dozens of software pianos, the one that has emerged
as the go-to recording tool—the one on the DAW templates of so many of
my composer colleagues—is a decade-old preset called “Warm Concert D”
from Synthogy’s first Ivory release. The source piano was a German-built
Steinway sampled in an acoustically near-perfect concert hall in
Quebec. In the years since, Ivory has added more pianos including the
ten-foot Italian Grand (reviewed Jan. ’12) to its stable. But in that
same Quebec hall lived another Steinway D, made in 1951 from old-growth
wood recycled from pre-World War II era buildings. It’s a very special
instrument, adored (and signed) by Glenn Gould and Rudolf Serkin. Two
years ago, the Ivory team set out to bring this amazing piano to life in
American Concert D. Not only have they captured the best of the
Steinway qualities that defined their first effort, they’ve created a
truly transcendent virtual piano that’s also flexible enough to become
the new go-to standard.
The obligatory disclaimer: Nothing captures the true
experience of actually playing a nine-foot Steinway concert grand.
Having said that, American Concert D is an awesome virtual piano that,
for under 200 dollars, is going to be nearly impossible to resist. If
you’ve played a superior concert grand, you’ve experienced the sense of
potential, power, and clarity that a thoroughbred offers. It can be
inspiring and daunting. You get that here, along with the shimmering
upper-mids and profound bass that characterize the best of this breed.
Whether you’re whipping off lyrical jazz lead lines with
subtle harmonies or slamming gospel octaves in the bass and upper
registers, you rarely feel that you’re hitting the sonic limits of
American Concert D. And the acoustic reproduction is dazzling; you can
sound like Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould, if only for a phrase or two.
When you’re ready to track, it really is like having a legendary
Steinway in the studio, and more and more working musicians are using
Ivory live via Receptor setups and laptops.
Parameters and Performance
There’s almost no learning curve. Like the original Ivory,
you select an instrument—Synthogy provides 27 presets with descriptive
names like “Carnegie Hall American” and “Live Jazz American”—and an
optional synth/pad layer and alternate soundboards with varying degrees
of resonance if you wish. The first preset, “American Concert D,” is
exquisite—you could use just this for the rest of your life and not want
for anything. But you can also dial in a dozen well parameters such as
key noise, stereo width, listening perspective (player or audience), lid
position (full stick does it for me), EQ, damper pedal noise, and
convincing reverb ambiences.
Piano libraries are enormously complex, with parameters
like release samples (what happens when you take your finger off the
key), soft pedal samples, half pedal samples, and both sympathetic and
damper resonance, in addition to the 20 velocity layers in each note if
you use the full-bore presets. Of course, you can turn any of these
features on or off as well as choose key sets with fewer velocity
layers, in order to limit the amount of work your computer has to do.
American Concert D lets you enlarge its memory cache and
set your polyphony ceiling from four to 1,000 voices. Plus you can
select from 22 different key sets that favor various styles of playing
and scale down the velocity layers. On my 12-core Mac Pro with the Ivory
samples on their own 7,200 rpm internal drive and a ceiling of 100
voices, it was actually hard to force a slow disk warning. With 200
voices, holding down the damper pedal and playing with my forearms could
cut off notes—but who plays like that?
Even a more modest computer can handle as much Ivory as
you’d need for actual musical use. “Mobile, I’ve run it on a late 2010
MacBook Air with just 4GB of RAM and an Intel Core 2 Duo chip,” offered
editor Stephen Fortner, “and have never had robbed notes or glitches
interrupt an actual gig or session.” Also, Synthogy recommends a
solid-state drives (SSD) for voice settings above 140.
The Session screen (shown at left) includes settings for velocity
response, polyphony ceiling, half-damper support, alternate tuning
tables, and more.
I played American Concert D through old Toa and newer
Tannoy studio monitors, Yamaha DXR10 active P.A. speakers, and AKG
K240DF headphones, and I never felt that I even got close to the sonic
limits. There was no sort of piano sound—whether standard or slightly
more affected—that I couldn’t conjure. Every listening system sounded
different, of course, but I never lost the uncanny precision of the
upper mids and the grand sweep and thunder of the bass register,
particularly when I was playing octaves.
Gripes? The Bb above middle C and the Db
above that have a harshness that almost certainly is a factor of the
source piano and not the Ivory sound engine, as we couldn’t reproduce it
using other Ivory pianos. Also, be prepared to spend some time dialing
in a velocity map. Although Synthogy provides ten presets, four
individual parameters, a graphical display of the curve, and a
calibration wizard, after 20 minutes of fiddling I went back to the
default velocity map and just adjusted my playing. Let’s face it,
though, Ivory has been spoiling us pianists rotten since the very first
version, and overall, American Concert D takes this to new heights.
Ivory II American Concert D is as close as it gets to the
real thing. It captures the dramatic dynamic range of its unique source
Steinway with its characteristically shimmering upper mids and
thunderous bass. Though it samples a piano with a specific provenance
and character, that character never gets in the way of versatility:
Synthogy’s virtual version is equally at home in jazz, rock, and
classical settings. It’s also its own instrument—you don’t need any
other Ivory product to run it. If you have to pick only one software
piano, American Concert D will inspire you to play better and is likely
the best money you’ll spend all year. For the price of a nice dinner for
two, it’s a no-brainer of a Key Buy winner.
Jaw-droppingly realistic, playable, and musical recreation
of a legendary grand piano. Surprisingly at home in any genre of music.
Huge sample set of 49GB. Highly customizable sonic details. Easy
installation. Standalone or plug-in operation on Mac and Windows.
An SSD drive is recommended for polyphony in the “just because you can” stratosphere.
American Concert D just may be the best all-around premium software piano instrument so far.
$199 list | $179 street
synthogy.com | dist. by ilio.com