No sample loops. No unwanted tonal differences between key ranges and velocities. Highly programmable. Noteby- note editing. Adjustable mic placement. Historical tunings. Can produce both realistic and exotic tones.
Release velocity sensing could be improved.
Standard: $349 list/approx. $300 street; Pro: $559 list/approx. $480 street; Standard to Pro upgrade: $225, pianoteq.com
Pianists are obsessive about tone, and with good reason: We can do so little to control it! Other than bringing in a different piano (if you’re playing a concert) or having your technician do some regulation and voicing (if it’s your piano), you’re pretty much stuck with whatever piece of furniture happens to be available. Pianoteq (reviewed June ’07) aimed to change all that, using the magic of physical modeling and additive synthesis to give musicians a software piano so adjustable as to be a sort of piano physics construction kit. Now, the Pro version goes a giant step further: You can control the 22 voicing parameters separately for each key on the keyboard. The only other virtual piano that gives you this level of control is Roland’s $6,000 V-Piano (reviewed Sept. ’09). Does all this tweakability translate into a realistic sound and playing experience? Let’s find out.
Almost every aspect of the tone is under your control: string length, hammer hardness, unison detuning, the amount of time it takes the dampers to fall back onto the strings, and much more. In Pianoteq Pro, you can do it per key. In Standard, only volume and detuning are programmable per note, but even Standard has extensive options for placing virtual mics around the virtual piano (see Figure 1 on page 63). A pinpoint EQ gives you more control still. The velocity curve can be programmed, of course. Various historical tuning temperaments are tucked away in a menu. What’s more, this piano has four pedals, including one that permits staccato playing but with the lingering harp resonance you’d get with the sustain pedal down. The standalone version sports a MIDI file recorder/player, and audio recording, which are very handy.
Pianoteq comes with two modeled grand pianos, C3 and M3. I happen to own a Yamaha C3 grand, and though they sound similar, Modartt tells us their “C3” sound is in fact modeled on a Steinway. I’m not sure what the M3 is based on, but it has a deeper, richer tone. Optional add-ons include “Rhody” (tine) and “Wurly” (reed) electric pianos, and vibraphone. The basic Pianoteq install includes demos so you can check these out. Also on offer is an attempt to model a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand. Unlike the others, this one didn’t sound as realistic to my ears, though we do know Modartt worked with an actual CP-80.
The Tuning panel has sliders for unison width, octave stretching, and direct sound duration. If you know how pianos are tuned, the first two will make sense: Some tuners deliberately set the unisons so that a given note’s multiple strings beat slowly against one another for a richer sound, and a slight amount of octave stretching can compensate for inharmonic overtones, making the outer octaves sound more in tune. Direct sound duration is not something you can adjust on a real piano: It’s the amount of time the modeled strings take to transition from the full-bodied tone at the beginning of the string’s vibration to the somewhat thinner tone that sustains afterward.
This is where it gets really deep. In the Voicing panel, you can adjust hammer hardness separately for piano, mezzo, and forte keystrokes. Even in Pianoteq Standard, sliders for the first eight overtones let you, say, boost the fundamental for more body, or boost the 5th harmonic to add clang. Hammer noise, hammer strike point, and the amount of effect the una corda pedal has can all be adjusted here. Seven sliders in the Design panel control soundboard impedance (how fast the soundboard absorbs string vibrations), cutoff and Q factor (which work vaguely like a lowpass synth filter), string length (shorter bass strings produce more inharmonicity in the overtones), the loudness of the sympathetic resonance and duplex scale, and something called the quadratic effect, which causes louder hammer strokes to produce slightly different overtones. I found that boosting both string length and low EQ gave me more of the rich tone of a nine-foot grand.
The Action panel, hidden in the Effects section, has sliders for damper position, damping duration, the key number of the last damper (above which the strings will be undamped — another thing you can’t change on a real piano), key release noise, and sustain pedal noise.
Key release noise is one of the few areas where I feel Pianoteq could be improved. This noise doesn’t have the mechanical complexity of the key release on a real piano — it just kind of thumps. This noise responds to MIDI release velocity, and with an editable releasevelocity map. However, this map also controls the damper duration. When the release noise is responding realistically to release velocity by getting louder and softer, the dampers will fall back onto the strings much too slowly at all but the highest release velocities. For more musical results, automate these two parameters separately in your sequencer.
Like Pianoteq’s other parameters, key release noise can be MIDI-controlled or automated in your host. In order to produce a glitch-free sound, half a second or more may pass before you hear a parameter change reflected in new notes.
Pianoteq Pro’s interface for editing specific keys is simple and elegant (see Figure 2 above). Note Edit windows are detachable, so you can have several open at once. You can edit one note at a time, or grab a handle to adjust a whole range at once. Randomization and smoothing tools are included.
The spectrum (overtone) editing of individual keys is a bit different: The vertical bars in the display correspond not to the keys but to the overtone series, and you click on any key to adjust its overtones. This means that in Pro, you can adjust all overtones, not just the first eight as in Standard. If you only edit one key, your change will apply across the keyboard, but when you edit two or more keys, Pianoteq interpolates what the overtones in between should be, so you get smooth transitions across the keyboard.
I had no trouble installing and running Pianoteq Pro on my Windows XP machine. Automation of parameters in Steinberg Cubase 4.5 worked as expected, and the CPU hit of all the realtime number-crunching involved in physical modeling wasn’t too bad on the 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo processor. I was so inspired by Pianoteq’s tone that I couldn’t resist laying down the beginning of the piano part of a Brahms cello sonata, after which I overdubbed the cello. Click here for the audio example.
Does it really sound like a piano? Yes, absolutely. Things like the envelope decay and the delicate interplay of overtones in the bass strings are extremely realistic. Could a conservatory-trained pianist tell the difference between Pianoteq and a Steinway in a double-blind listening test? Yes — but in any kind of ensemble recording, be it a jazz group, a pop ballad, or even classical chamber music, Pianoteq will fool most listeners most of the time. I’m still not 100% convinced that you could get away with recording a close-miked Chopin Ballade with it, but I’m about 95% convinced. It’s just stupidly good. Key Buy? You’d better believe it.
NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A software piano that creates sound exclusively by modeling — no samples!
Runs on: Mac/Windows/Linux; AU, RTAS, VST, standalone.
What’s the difference between Pro and Standard? Standard lets you tweak 22 separate tone and behavior settings. Pro lets you tweak each one of those per key.
Built-in effects: Room/hall reverb, chorus, and limiter.
Weirdest parameter: You can adjust the speed of sound. Really.
Is there a downloadable demo? Yes.