High-end virtual piano libraries have been a pretty stable product category for several years now, with go-to players like Ivory and Pianoteq providing versatility, and various “personality pianos” (e.g., Native Instruments The Giant) capturing single instruments that have a unique story. With Hans Zimmer Piano, Spitfire Audio is looking do both, while at the same time elevating the technical art of sampling an order of magnitude. Our verdict: It’s a success on all counts.
The source piano for this Kontakt Player-based instrument is a Steinway D that resides in AIR Studios, London. It’s long been a favorite of composer Zimmer for scoring sessions and simply playing for enjoyment. Not only does the virtual version offer four mic positions—from very close to a position intended for use in rear surround channels—but you get multiple options for which mics occupy each of those positions. The resulting tonal variety is such that I could use HZ Piano for whatever musical mood a song required, whereas before I would have been asking myself which of my libraries was right for the job. That this single piano can behave like a dozen or more is a testament to what’s possible when the developers really know their recording techniques. Plus, since all that variety is “baked in,” I found myself reaching for EQ and effects barely at all, whether I wanted the piano to cut through a mix or snuggle down into it.
I’ll leave you to Spitfire’s website for backstory about how painstaking the sampling process was, but my ears confirm one of their claims in particular: Zimmer directed extra attention to soft and medium velocity ranges, and this pays huge dividends in terms of both straightforward realism and emotional nuance. Not to say this is a “dark” piano at all— brighter, harder strikes are crystal clear with no hint of stridence. Consistency is also unparalleled; across every mic combination I tried, and across the entire pitch range and every velocity level my fingers are capable of resolving, there were no weird notes where the response profile was a little different. There are even distance-compensated sample sets that maintain phase coherence between mic positions.
With a sampled instrument this ambitious, a developer is inevitably going to push the system-requirements envelope. HZ Piano requires 211GB of drive space but headroom of about 400GB during installation. Spitfire can ship it to you on a hard drive, but one that’s for installation and backup, not streaming. (You do get two licenses, say, for desktop and laptop use.) For playing more than one mic position at a time on a laptop, I recommend at minimum a highly-rated SSD connected via Thunderbolt or at least USB3—but you can still cause dropouts here with intentional “torture test” playing. For truly worry- free blending of all those mic positions with lots of pedal-down note density, put on your big-composer pants and install it on a striped RAID made of SSDs. If you’ve been waiting to upgrade your storage infrastructure, the sonic rewards of HZ Piano are the best reason you’ll get this year.
Hans Zimmer piano is as inspiring to play as it is technically and sonically flawless. The inevitable question: But is it an Ivory killer? I’d say no more than a Bugatti Veyron (to which Spitfire’s marketing likens it) is what you drive instead of a Tesla Model S. The latter does everything well and hyper-efficiently while still making you the envy of the block; the former is what happens when no expense is spared. Now imagine if the Bugatti only cost a little more than the Tesla, and you just might seriously need a larger garage.
PROS Absolutely gorgeous sound. Very consistent harmonic and dynamic response across full ranges of pitch and velocity. Breaks between velocity layers are imperceptible. Multiple mixable mic positions include sample sets for phase-aligned blending.
CONS Worry-free performance requires pro-grade storage and bandwidth.
The most ambitious software piano instrument yet conceived.
£299 direct (about $449 U.S.)