Review: C. Bechstein Digital Grand

A stellar all-purpose software piano that you won't want to stop playing
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Bechstein pianos are known for their singing sustain and a brightness that reports with enthusiasm when you want it but gives way to full-bodied warmth when you don’t. Pianorati view them as having one foot in rock and the other in classical, which could also be said of their biggest fan, Franz Liszt. The Beatles recorded “Hey Jude” on a Bechstein. Though sampled incarnations have popped up in a few libraries, there hasn’t been an “official” software Bechstein—until now. Our take? It was worth the wait and sounds simply blissful.

Digital Grand samples a C. Bechstein D282 (the marque’s best concert grand) and runs on Native Instruments Kontakt Player. Rather than touting multiple mic positions for mixing as many Kontakt-based pianos do, it offers three mixable, phase-aligned sample sets—player’s perspective, side (what a concert audience would hear), and top (traditional close-miking).

Five tabs in the main interface cover settings from big-picture to fine-grained. The Play tab houses the most immediately useful parameters: stereo Width, Dynamic Response, Lid position, Stage (room size), and how much overall String EQ is applied. That brings us to the next tab, also called String EQ; it lets you tweak each note individually or draw overall curves in four areas—Base (fundamental strength), Partials (overtones), Body (the sustained portion of the samples), and Mellow (softens the attack). The whole affair goes far beyond EQ; there’s some heavy-duty processing here to simulate how a technician might regulate an acoustic grand.

To adjust the sound from the recording engineer’s chair instead, click the Audio-Design tab. The “Charakter eye” provides a continuum from dark to bright, and again, there’s more afoot than EQ. With the player mic perspective, this area also includes excellent mid-side processing, developed in conjunction with Elysia Audio. Finally, the Details tab is where you adjust the velocity curve, mechanical noises, sympathetic resonance, and other piano essentials.

The manual states that most of Digital Grand’s settings have subtle effects on each other, and I found this to be true: You can alter the organic whole that is the D282 grand, but not to the point of it sounding like something it’s not.

How does it sound? Incredible. I initially lost myself in a couple hours of playing Vince Guaraldi (it’s early December as I write this) before it occurred to me to turn knob one. I heard some of the longest and least “sampled” sounding sustain ever in a virtual piano. My needs for a mellower or more aggressive sound to suit the music were almost always met by reaching for the Charakter control; it was as though the instrument knew what I wanted before I did. Undesirable artifacts such as looping or the odd rogue sample? Not a hair out of place.

I was also able to compare Digital Grand to a real Bechstein D282 and the smaller C234 model using a Kawai VPC-1 controller, and let’s just say it lacks nothing in terms of faithfulness to the Bechstein sound, dynamics, and response. It’s likely going to be my go-to for “in the box” music production for the foreseeable future, not to mention for pure playing enjoyment.

The last high-end software acoustic grand I reviewed was Spitfire’s Hans Zimmer Piano, also a remarkable achievement. (See our May 2016 issue, available online.) Where the HZ Piano is more of an 800-pound gorilla (211GB and $400-ish), the Bechstein is the fleet-footed cheetah. Though it’s a non-trivial purchase at $249 (but seriously, get it on the optional SSD; it’s for playing, not just installation), the sound quality you get for that price makes Bechstein Digital Grand a clear Key Buy.

Snap Judgment

PROS Seriously sweet and playable. Gets huge sound and detail from a relatively compact 25GB footprint. Supports knob mapping and light-guide on Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S keyboards. Optionally ships ready-to-play on a USB3 SSD drive.

CONS Highest-quality presets coupled with String EQ feature require a recent processor and high disk throughput.

Bottom Line

A stellar all-purpose software piano that you won’t want to stop playing.

optional plug-and-play SS D, $99