Pianoteq has been around since 2006, and has been steadily developed, refined and expanded over four major revisions. Keyboard last reviewed this all-modeling, no-samples software piano instrument in the December 2012 issue (at version 4), giving it a serious thumbs-up and a Key Buy award. Let’s see what Modartt has been up to since then.
Pianoteq uses physical modeling to create its sound. No samples are involved, giving it a very small footprint on disk or in RAM. Physical modeling allows the developer (and user) to get into the “virtual DNA” of the instrument, getting precise about aspects that would be difficult or impossible to isolate in a sampled piano. I will admit that before trying Pianoteq I always felt this was a good “story” but that the musical results didn’t live up to this promise. Not anymore—color me convinced.
Pianoteq 5 is available in three configurations: A Stage package ($129) that gives the user a choice of two instruments that are non-editable, a Standard version ($319) which allows for sound editing, virtual mic placement, and loading of external impulse reverb files, and a Pro version ($519) which allows note-by-note sound tweaking and support for audio resolution rates up to 192kHz. There is a large library of additional instruments available for purchase (at extra cost) from Modartt’s website to expand your collection.
New in Version 5
Modartt states that they spent two years refining their piano model, “refining the attack and soundboard model, adding more clarity and authenticity.” The Steinway and Yamaha grands have been rebuilt from the ground up, and the other models (Blüthner, Yamaha U4 upright) have been tweaked. A new model called the K2 has been developed, which is a composite of elements from their various other pianos. This approach is not new; many of the industry’s favorite sampled pianos of yore were actually combinations of sections from different brands of pianos. Also offered as an optional instrument pack is the Kremsegg Collection of eight period pianos and pianofortes perfect for 18th- and 19th-century repertoire as well as your own explorations.
The whole virtual microphone section of the package has been revised, with support for directional, cardioid and figure-8 response patterns, including 15 new mic models.
To judge the quality of what Modartt claims they did, I was able to load in the version 4 D4 piano to compare it directly to the one in version 5. I immediately heard the claimed improvements. The older piano has a stronger low-midrange aspect that makes it a bit muddy, and the new version has more clarity. I compared a variety of presets, from classic to jazz to blues, and found this sonic upgrade to be present in them all. It is hard to be sure what’s producing this change: with the new mic capabilities I considered that perhaps the virtual mics were positioned differently, as the older version does have a bit more of a “room boom” to my ears. But I certainly enjoyed and preferred the newer versions for their clarity, which may well be due to the soundboard revisions in the new model. Best of all, you can load any older or legacy instrument from the Pianoteq website, so you can have it all.
The K2 piano plays wonderfully, I would describe it as a very clear and clean sound, even across its whole range. It’s a 6'11" cabinet model, so it is a bit smaller than the 8' 11.75" D4. It provides a wonderful balance between the warm D4 and the much brighter YC5 (I’m not sure if this is modeled after the Yamaha C5 or C7). There are far too many pianos available in the library for me to comment on, but rest assured there’s likely a match for every taste, context, and application a player could have. The new mic options are a sonic joy—I found so many great sounds by varying their placement, and was able to rely much less on the reverb when I wanted to get some natural spaciousness in a sound.
Not Just Acoustic Piano
Since I never reviewed the other sounds I’ll weigh in quickly on the electro-mechanical pianos. The Rhodes is very nice (see Figure 1), but always sounds a bit “Mk. II” for my tastes. Many of the presets were a bit thick and “attacky” to my ears, but I was able to shape what I wanted by adjusting parameters like hammer noise, tine, and key-off noise. This is a detailed engine capable of good results, but would not be my go-to choice for vintage electric pianos. A phaser effect is included in Pianoteq as of version 5.2, a much-needed part of the Rhodes’ sonic vocabulary.
On the contrary, the Wurly was wonderful. I just needed to dial back some of the reverb and I was in reed heaven. The Clavinets were good (see Figure 2), but I was bothered by the always-present key-off noise—sometimes you want it, but too often it was too loud in the mix. I couldn’t find a way to reduce it: under Action there’s a key-off noise parameter, and within the Note Editor there’s hammer stickiness, but they didn’t alleviate it. It wouldn’t be noticeable in a track or live so it’s a small point. Setting up a wah effect, I wished for the ability to scale the range of the controller. Currently you can only assign a controller to the wah slider and it runs full-range. I’m not a fan of the original Yamaha CP electric grands, but Pianoteq reproduces them spot-on. The vibraphones are wonderful—I might suggest modeling different types and hardnesses of mallets in the future. Other faves included the steel drums, pan drums, and the stellar harpsichords.
As I wrote earlier, I approached Pianoteq as a skeptic and now stand as a true believer. These are wonderful pianos—rich and full of woody character—and are a joy to play. Every nuance of my playing came across, and you can shape the sound in ways never before possible. Version 5 improves on the clarity of all the pianos, and is well worth the upgrade if you own a previous version. If you don’t own Pianoteq yet, I strongly suggest you check it out if you use a computer for music-making and are searching for a versatile and great sounding software piano instrument.
Strikingly realistic and nuanced acoustic piano sounds. Wide range of instruments available. Able to sculpt sound with precision sampled pianos don’t allow. Light computer load.
User interface controls as are bit small. Rhodes model not as flexible as the acoustic pianos.
The industry standard in virtual pianos that don’t use samples—and for good reason.
Stage: $129 street | Standard: $319 street | Pro: $519 street