VI Labs TrueKeys Virtual Piano

October 25, 2013
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No matter how good any samples are, nothing played through studio monitors beats the experience of sitting at a concert grand. The point of virtual pianos, though, is that a lot of us don’t have that option, and even if we do, we may not have the resources to tune and mike the piano for recording or performance. VI Labs enters the premium software piano market with True Keys, a suite of three sampled concert pianos aimed at duplicating those resources in a very straightforward manner. Nearly 50,000 samples were recorded for the Italian (Fazioli), American (New York Steinway), and German (Bechstein) pianos. Let’s find out more.
 

PROS: Giant 64GB library. Simple editing. Built-in reverb and compression. Unlooped samples for three listening perspectives, which are mixable. 

CONS: Large files mean longer loading time. 

Bottom Line: All of the high-quality sonic raw materials and parameters necessary to design a perfect piano sound for any musical application.

Suite of three: $349.95 direct | Individual pianos: $149.95 each | vilabsaudio.com | Dist. by bigfishaudio.com

No matter how good any samples are, nothing played through studio monitors beats the experience of sitting at a concert grand. The point of virtual pianos, though, is that a lot of us don’t have that option, and even if we do, we may not have the resources to tune and mike the piano for recording or performance. VI Labs enters the premium software piano market with True Keys, a suite of three sampled concert pianos aimed at duplicating those resources in a very straightforward manner. Nearly 50,000 samples were recorded for the Italian (Fazioli), American (New York Steinway), and German (Bechstein) pianos. Let’s find out more.

Features and Parameters

True Keys uses the UVI engine, which is also the audio engine behind MOTU’s MachFive soft sampler and numerous virtual instruments. True Keys will therefore load in MachFive as well as being its own plug-in or standalone instrument. True Keys provides a healthy selection of presets sampled from three listening perspectives—close, player, and side—and all can be loaded in either full or “lite” versions. Activation requires an Ilok 2.

Once a preset loads with its mic perspective, you can then activate and mix in others. You can also dial in sympathetic and sustain pedal resonance. Turning the resonance amount to about 6dB put a nice “harmonic glue” under the sound of all three pianos. 

 The volume of release sound samples is adjustable, and the una corda (soft) pedal even has sustain and release samples of its own. Likewise, if you play staccato at hard velocities, you’ll trigger dedicated releases. True Keys also supports half-pedaling with an appropriate pedal, and you can define the MIDI CC value for the center of the half-damper range, adapting it to the springiness of your pedal and the heaviness of your foot.

The samples themselves seem to favor having less sampled-in room ambience, not more, so I often added some of the built-in reverb. This instantly brings all the pianos to life. From the early reflections of the pre-delay to the tails, the reverb sounds excellent. 

Mixing in some player perspective to any preset added presence without sounding harsh or shrill. The adjustable velocity curve, presented as a click-and-drag graph, is straightforward and effective. Although the arpeggiator is fun and has a lot of presets, I didn’t find too much application for it in a piano context. There’s also a Tone knob that, to my ears, sounds more like a high-shelf EQ than anything else. 

Performance

I tested True Keys on two computers. The first was a 2009 MacBook Pro with a 5,400 rpm drive and 8GB of RAM, with the True Keys samples on the system drive and the 1/8" output connected directly to studio monitors. The second was a 2010 Mac Pro tower with a 7,200 rpm SATA drive dedicated to the samples, through a MOTU 828 Mk. 3 interface, played from the keys of a Roland FP-5. Surprisingly, True Keys performed with no audible latency or dropouts on the notebook with the buffer set as low as 256 samples. As expected, the Mac Pro system handled it perfectly down to 64 samples.

Sound Quality

With all three pianos, the relationship of harmonics to dynamics felt correct and musical from the low register to the treble. The American piano accurately captures everything you’d expect from a Steinway D, including a rich sustain with a pronounced bass. The German sounded more present and up front, and also seemed to have the most even frequency response from low to high. The Italian sounded more bright and bossy, if perhaps a little too bright relative to my experiences of real Fazioli pianos. Of the three, the German (Bechstein) had a character and presence that made it my initial favorite. 

After auditioning the pianos by themselves, I mixed them into pop and jazz tracks in my DAW. In a mix is where the True Keys pianos really shine: Adjusting the three mic positions’ volumes all while keeping phase-accurate sound, and being able to add player perspective while controlling the over pedal sounds is an amazing feature. The American stood out beautifully in a piano-driven pop song onto which I’d also recorded real drums, bass, and guitar—I got the exact sound I was looking for. The same went for the Italian piano in a jazz mix, with seemingly just the right harmonics always popping out in response to velocity. Even so, I kept coming back to the German (Bechstein) as the piano I most enjoyed just playing.

Conclusions

True Pianos simply sounds great. Each piano sounds authentic to expectations if you’re familiar with the source pianos. In particular, the German piano really captures the versatility that I love about the real Bechstein—and I’d want it on my hard drive no matter what other premium piano libraries I already owned. There are distinct sonic and layout differences between True Pianos and other such libraries, but overall, every piano is beautifully sampled—note for note, with no loops—and the underlying UVI engine implements a set of features that offers plenty of tone sculpting without having so many parameters as to be intimidating to beginners. This is important, because I found that a bit of tweaking the presets was usually the difference between good and great. 

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