By John Krogh
Tonehammer may be a relative newcomer to the soundware scene, but in just a couple of short years, they’ve established a reputation for extremely high-quality sample libraries at ridiculously low prices. Many of their titles are well under $100, but more important than the bargain prices is the way in which Tonehammer approaches their sound design. Each title focuses on a single instrument, which is exhaustively sampled in a variety of ways and then crafted into a collection of presets that range from musically appropriate to wildly inspiring.
Such is the case with each of their five acoustic piano libraries, which are available individually or collectively in what they call Composer Bundle 6. To simply call these “piano libraries,” however, doesn’t do justice to the creative potential of these collections. Even if you already have a few favorite sampled pianos, you owe it to yourself to hear what these are about. Especially for composers, there’s quite a bit of mood to be mined.
Composer Bundle 6 comprises five libraries: Emotional Piano, Plucked Grand Piano, Bowed Grand Piano, Montclarion Hall Piano, and Old Granny Piano. Emotional, Plucked, and Bowed all derive from the same grand piano, but with different performance techniques, as their names suggest. Montclarion and Granny are two different pianos, the former a grand recorded in a church, and the latter a well-used upright.
All of the titles are available only as downloads and only in Native Instruments Kontakt format (with the exception of Granny, which also supports SFZ and EXS24). I don’t mind the lack of physical product (although it’d be nice to have a boxed copy), but more significant is that the full retail version of Kontakt is required in order to use Granny, Emotional, and Montclarion—they neither include nor are stable with Kontakt Player. Keep this in mind as you consider the total cost of entry.
An instance of Emotional Piano. Note the impulse response menu in the bottom right corner. From here you can choose from a number of IRs that can warp the piano sound into interesting and evolving pads.
None of the pianos are identified by name. According to Tonehammer’s website, “The fancy naming and branding of the piano is irrelevant to us. We want the samples and music to speak for itself and we hope it speaks to you, too.” Fair enough.
There’s an obvious cinematic influence behind all of Tonehammer’s libraries, and as such, none of the pianos would be a good choice for a rock or pop gig. But that’s not really the point. These instruments ooze with emotion and personality. TH uses the term “deep sampling” to describe how they capture the raw sample material, which includes numerous conventional and experimental performance techniques, such as scrapes, muted plucks, knocks, glissandi, and so on. (Complete PDF documentation and articulation lists can be found at Tonehammer’s website.) Various audible “warts” and rough edges have been left in, giving the pianos an intimate and authentic quality that’s palpable. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to put some of these sounds in the foreground of a mix—most listeners would be hard pressed to tell that they’re hearing samples and not the real thing.
Piano by Piano
Emotional. Of all the libraries, Emotional provides the purest representation of an acoustic piano. There are no odd performance techniques or added noises for effect—just a moody, full-bodied piano recorded at close range. Emo’s in-your-face character is very present, with a nice woody attack and solid sustain. This is the piano to reach for when you need to pull every last heartstring. I’ve used this in several tracks, and it always adds a dramatic dimension to the mix.
Bowed. If you like to creep yourself out with eerie drones and effects (who doesn’t?), Bowed is for you. It offers three “primary” presets (regular, short, and staccato) that sound similar to a hybrid of bagpipes, synth pad, and string orchestra. It gets weirder from there with 24 drones and nine effects presets that run the gamut from slightly foreboding to downright disturbed. Bowed also features some clever Kontakt KSP scripting that lets you stretch the samples beyond normal boundaries. For example, there’s a legato mode that automatically bends and crossfades the previous and next notes in a sequence together, so that they sound much more fluid and seamless. In practice, this works quite well. Other presets make use of custom impulse responses to warp the unassuming samples into ethereal pads and evocative textures.
Plucked. For this collection, the piano was plucked and hammered, resulting in 14 presets that cover sonic territory not unlike that of a dulcimer. There’s less variety compared to Bowed, but Plucked still manages to serve up a combination of powerful and delicate flavors that evoke an ancient yet familiar tone. I especially liked the special effects patches, which also benefit from custom impulse responses for Kontakt’s convolution reverb.
Montclarion. Complementing the up-front quality of Emo, Montclarion is presented with three separate microphone distances: close, mid, and far. Even with the Close presets, this piano still has some distance to its sound. Montclarion also works well in cinematic settings, although it has more range, thanks to a number of plucked, scraped, and effects performance samples. One minor gripe: At high velocities the sound becomes muted and darker, not brighter as you’d expect when playing harder on a real piano. It sounds strange to my ears, but it’s apparently how the instrument sounded, according to Tonehammer. If it bugs you, limit the velocity range on your controller.
Granny. Not my personal favorite, but nonetheless useful, Granny nails what Tonehammer calls “the authentic beauty of a dusty-oldhaven’t- been-played-since-Granny-lost-her-hearing upright piano.” As you might guess, this one works well for old-time saloon numbers and honky-tonk—I could even imagine hearing it in some styles of indie rock.
Conclusions Sure, this is a big bang-for-buck bundle, but the combination of these individual libraries isn’t just a serious value, it’s a serious source of inspiration. One of the hallmarks of a great sample library is the ability to inspire new ideas and performances, and in this regard each individual piano in the collection excels. These are highly playable, creative, and musical instruments that will certainly find favor among composers of all walks. At less than $400 for the whole bunch, you can’t go wrong. Highly recommended.
PROS Well-recorded, expertly produced instruments. Loaded with character and musicality. Bargain price. Highly inspiring.
CONS Some libraries—but not all—require full version of Kontakt soft sampler.
CONCEPT Bundle of five separate sampled pianos; includes conventional multisampled instrument and processed sound design presets, plus impulse responses.
FORMAT Native Instruments Kontakt (Mac or PC).
PRICE List: $445
Approx. street: $389