There’s been quite an arms race in virtual pianos over the past fifteen years, with some sampled pianos now featuring tens of thousands of samples and exceeding 100 GB of data. Modartt have been developing a completely different approach in parallel – using sophisticated mathematical models to synthesize every note, and relying on samples only for hammer and pedal noises.
Pianoteq 5.3 is the current version of their piano application, and it comes in three flavors – Stage (99 EUR), Standard (249 EUR) and Pro (399 EUR). 679 EUR gets you Pianoteq Studio which contains the Pro version plus all currently available instruments. It can work as a standalone application, VST, AU, AAX or RTAS plugin. More than just pianos, it can also model harps, bells, mallet instruments, harpsichords and even hammered dulcimers.
Playing A Few Notes
Playing with Pianoteq, the most impressive thing is how real it feels. It feels like it responds more naturally and accurately to velocity than any other piano I have. Others have described Pianoteq as feeling responsive, expressive or alive, but being a more technical person I’d say that it’s a feeling of confidence about the volume and tone color of every note as you’re playing it. That makes sense as there are no sampled velocity layers here – the instrument responds differently to each of the possible 127 velocity values, and the response of neighboring notes is consistent. I also tried playing with it with a low-end 49-key MIDI controller with unweighted keys and audio interface latency set to maximum, and the difference is obvious even then. So, if you are in the market for a modern virtual piano, I’d definitely recommend trying the demo version and playing it yourself instead of only listening to audio demos. If a great piano is the main thing you’re after and the ability to sculpt the sound is secondary, the sampling or modeling decision is a matter of personal preference and requires testing.
Adjusting Some Parameters
The ability to tweak the sound is where Pianoteq really differs from the sampled competition, and also where the difference between the three versions lies. The Stage version offers dynamics and effects adjustments, and can load presets. The Standard version adds the ability to configure a lot of sound sculpting parameters, but rather than parameters familiar from synthesizers or effects, you can adjust things that a piano tuner could, such as the hardness of the felt on the hammers, the octave stretch or the width of the unison tuning. After all, Modartt was founded by a piano tuner turned mathematician. You can also change some things in the realm of piano design, such as the length of the strings, the impedance of the soundboard and even the relative volume of the first eight overtones. So, if you want to tweak a piano’s setup to get it just right, you can do that, as well as some crazy things like making the strings ten meters long.
It’s important to note, though, that the string length parameter controls string length specifically, not the size of the entire piano – so making the strings ten meters long will reduce inharmonicity to near zero, but it will not change the whole piano model to an enormous monster with a cabinet and soundboard that would contain strings of that size.
If you are a serious pianist or a producer, being able to tweak the piano setup and microphone positions right for a specific piece of music is great, and much more powerful than the tweaking you could do with an EQ (though EQ, compression, reverb etc. are also included in the built-in effects). For the microphones, you can choose between a nice array of high-end microphones and even two perfectly flat mics. Having modeled U87s is great, but it’d also be good to have some lower-end mics sometimes – for example a Shure SM58 or a lower-end consdenser so that you could put Pianoteq in a track with some home-recorded acoustic guitar and vocals and have it sound like it was recorded with similar equipment.
Pushing The Envelope
The most appealing part for me, though, is being able to automate these parameters and have the piano morph during a track. For a section which is just piano and voice, you can have a big, full sound with long sustain. Then, as more layers of synthesizers come in, you can gradually change the soundboard impedance to reduce the sustain, harden the hammers to make it brighter, and reduce the hammer and pedal noises to zero. Sure, it’s not realistic, but for progressive house or complex pop mixes it can be perfect, and sound much more musical than suddenly switching piano sounds or gradually changing the sound via external effects. One parameter that’s just plain fun to automate is the condition – play an intro on a neglected piano in need of tuning and service, and have it magically fix itself over 15 seconds.
The Pro version adds the ability to tweak all of these parameters per note, and also adjust overtones beyond the first eight. On paper, that just seems like overkill – who could possibly need different settings for every one of as many as 105 notes – but actually a lot of the factory presets have slight adjustments made here, for example a little more brilliance in the highest octaves. So, when you actually see per-note adjustments used, they make a lot of sense, even if you are a purist who wants realistic piano sounds. A few of the factory presets for the D4 piano show hints of what can be done when this editing power is taken to extremes. One is a prepared piano simulating pieces of felt stuck between the strings (the preset’s description humorously advises you to “use it to play your favorite John’s 4’33” piece”). Another turns the low octaves into a warm thump reminiscent of a plucked double bass, for solo jazz gigs where you’d play walking lines with the left hand.
The last and most interesting is the D4 Hybrid, which is a hybrid of piano and organ sounds – something basically impossible to construct as a real acoustic instrument, but possible here thanks to some heavy adjustments to the overtones. At this point we’ve left the shackles of physical reality behind and we’re essentially circuit-bending a piano model. Many wonderful sounds are possible, some of which don’t really sound like a piano at all but are very musical. Working within the parameters of the piano model is completely different than creating patches for a conventional synth, and it’s basically a whole new world to explore. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out what makes the D4 Hybrid work and to make a similar preset using one of the other piano models. The resulting preset also has the hybrid organ-piano sound, but in a very different flavor since I started with a smaller, brighter piano model.
When you order Pianoteq, you get a choice of acoustic grand pianos, electric pianos, or marimba and xylophones. There is a total of fourteen instrument packs available, some of which contain one instrument and some as many as four. I’ve got two acoustic grand piano models: the D4 and K2. The D4 is a model of a Steinway Model D. It has the power one would expect, though some of the brighter presets, such as D4 Pop, are nicely configured for situations where the archetypal Steinway sound would be too much. The K2 is not a model of any specific manufacturer’s piano, but rather Modartt’s own amalgamation of the best qualities of several real-world pianos. Given that practical limitations of space, weight or cost do not apply, it’s very interesting that they went with only a 6’11” cabinet when it would be just as easy to go for something gigantic. It’s hard to argue with the result, though. It’s a very balanced piano suitable for just about anything, somewhat brighter and less assertive than the Steinway.
In addition, there are two free packs, one containing historical instruments and the other containing bells. These include a collection of historical instruments from a clavichord to an electro-acoustic piano, tubular bells, and a carillon. The variety is nice to have, and I can see myself using the Yamaha CP-80 as an unapologetically brash and electric EDM piano, or the 1920s grand pianos for a colorful sound that’s not as huge as a modern concert grand but bigger than an upright. These have a smaller number of presets than the commercial instruments, though, so it will take the Standard or Pro version to get the most out of them.
The other instruments are accessible in demo mode, which works for 20 minutes and has some keys disabled. I have not spent a whole lot of time playing with them, but the Blüthner Model 1 is my definite favorite. It has a nice warm mid-range and a very different character than the D4 and K2, and somehow manages to sound more soulful. It’s probably not as easily suitable for a wide a range of music as the D4 and K2, but it sure is very nice, especially when the piano is the only or the main instrument.
I invited a couple of professional pianists who use both acoustic and digital instruments to help me out with the testing. One of them said that the highest octaves sounded a little too nice compared to an acoustic grand piano, but had no other complaints. As for the individual pianos, he liked the Blüthner the best, followed by the K2. Both of them really enjoyed playing with Pianoteq, and though they personally didn’t really see a need to make a lot of adjustments, they did like the wide variety of preset sounds for various uses. So, the pianist’s point of view is quite different from my own, though all three of us were impressed with the sound and especially the responsiveness of the instrument.
Pianoteq is not too easy to summarize in a few words, as it can be different things to different people. It’s a great application for pianists, most of whom would probably be content with the Stage version, though those who like to tweak might be more into Standard. For most producers who want to configure a piano and microphones just right for a particular track, or get weird and have a piano that morphs and reconfigures itself during a track, the Standard version should be just right. The Pro version is for extremely detailed tweakers, or those who want to create insane circuit-bent piano sounds. The farther you get from just wanting a piano sound, the more you can take advantage of the things that make Pianoteq completely unique.
More info: Pianoteq 5 (product page)
Pianoteq 5 Review
Pianoteq is not too easy to summarize in a few words, as it can be different things to different people. The farther you get from just wanting a piano sound, the more you can take advantage of the things that make Pianoteq completely unique.