By Tom Brislin
Ivory has become the go-to virtual piano for composers everywhere, not to mention those who use software in their live gig rigs. Most recently, Ivory II Grands—with its emulations of Steinway D, Bösendorfer Imperial 290, and Yamaha C7 concert pianos—won a Key Buy Award in our March 2011 issue. With Italian Grand and Upright Pianos now available with Ivory II specs and full 64-bit support on Mac and Windows (including Mac OS X Lion), I was eager to discover what mojo the latest features bring to two already formidable instruments.
Though Synthogy doesn’t refer to it as such, Italian Grand is the mighty Fazioli F308, the only ten-foot concert grand in production. Upright Pianos consists of a Yamaha U5, a 1914 A.M. Hume, a “Honky Tonk Barroom” sampled from the 1915 Packard that used to be at the Cheers bar in Boston, and a “Real Tack Piano.” You can install each piano separately or all at once, and if you’ve already got another Ivory library installed, it will put these pianos in the same location. Both Italian Grand and Uprights are self-contained instruments; you don’t need the Ivory II Grands package to play them.
To start, Italian Grand now has up to 18 velocity layers, and the Uprights have up to 16. While playing, transitions between dynamic levels felt seamless and natural. More realism is provided by the addition of release samples, creating realistic “air” when you release a key. You can tighten or lengthen this effect or turn the release samples off. I got spoiled, and wouldn’t want to play without them unless I really needed to conserve computer resources. With any current machine—even an entry-level iMac or sub-$1,000 PC laptop—and a sample-dense instrument like Ivory II, that’s all about RAM and disk throughput rather than CPU specs. We recommend a separate 7,200 rpm hard drive for Ivory’s libraries. Better yet, invest in a solid-state drive (SSD) and bump up your RAM past Synthogy’s requirement of 2GB, and you’ll be able to play with virtually full polyphony and happy abandon.
Two types of resonance are in Ivory II: Sympathetic and Sustain. Sympathetic Resonance excites common harmonics in undamped strings, e.g., while holding down middle C, play a loud staccato C an octave lower. You’ll hear harmonics that middle C shares with the lower C, like you would on an acoustic piano. Ivory II captures this effect very convincingly across both Italian and Upright pianos.
When I play an acoustic piano and hold down the sustain pedal, the whole sound feels larger, with the sounds practically swimming around the player’s perspective. With Italian Grand, Sustain Resonance creates similar harmonic excitement. However, when I turned its knob up, I started to perceive more distance from the source, not unlike a reverb effect. It seemed to be most realistic when I used a conservative amount and experimented with the various types of virtual soundboards (from clean to extra-resonant). With Upright Pianos, I had an easy time getting a pleasing setting.
To enhance realism, Ivory II has enhanced the soft pedal samples for both Italian Grand and Upright Pianos. Since the soft pedal operates differently on a grand piano than it does on an upright, it bears mentioning that these differences are addressed in Ivory as well. On a grand, the soft pedal, or una corda, shifts the hammers sideways so they strike only one string per note. That creates a noticeable difference in tone and power. Italian Grand indeed has a noticeable tonal variation, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected. The soft pedal samples are indeed mellower, but there was a surprising increase in warmth and a perception of a longer decay rate from middle C and up. Perhaps this is a result of a more limited dynamic range for the soft pedal samples, but that’s just a guess. Whether or not Ivory II perfectly emulates the Fazioli F308’s behavior in this area, the soft pedal sound is enjoyable nonetheless. With the uprights, it’s more of a straight “soft” effect, emulating a real upright’s mechanism that brings the hammers closer to the strings.
You can now add pedal noise to any Ivory II piano, and it sounds as good (or as bad) as in real life. Plus, you can activate “random creaks and clunks” in the synth layer section, to get that old-timey effect on upright sounds. All Ivory II pianos do half-pedaling (if you’ve got a MIDI controller and pedal that supports it), and you can also assign a “Silent Key Velocity” level, beneath which your keyboard will trigger no sound. I liked that resonances were still audible for the silent notes, as they would be on an acoustic piano.
The parametric EQ is a useful addition; it let me add some gravitas to the Italian Grand and Modern Upright sounds (a slight bump at 200Hz) without it sounding “EQ’ed.” Also, lid position is nicely implemented, with “real world” settings analogous to either a grand or upright piano. Timbre Shift transforms the piano sounds into new and strange tones, though it did use a bit more of the CPU. And finally, you can load custom tuning tables in addition to the expected stretch-tuned and equal-temperament options.
If you want the Fazioli in a sampled format, Ivory II Italian grand is the best option going. I can see this being a top choice for many recording applications, and the rock-solid sample playback engine inspires confidence for live use. It’s a fun instrument to play and a convincing one to hear. Upright Pianos captures the character and charm that’d make you reach for an upright in the first place. You do need a powerful host computer to get the most convincing emulations of both the Italian and Upright pianos, but if your machine can keep up, the results are among the most authentic re-creations available today.
PROS Stunningly realistic and playable sounds. Lots of user control over sonic details such as sympathetic resonances and release samples. Tons of dynamic range. Mac and Windows compatible. Up to 1,000-voice polyphony with solid-state drives.
CONS Long install time.
The Ivory brand continues to be the platinum standard of software pianos, and both Italian Grand and Uprights offer unique and highly desirable flavors.
Italian Grand: $179 list | $169
street | $69 upgrade from Ivory 1.x
Upright Pianos: $299 list | $269
street | $109 upgrade from Ivory 1.x