It feels like there are hundreds of high quality piano virtual instruments on the market. Almost every type and brand is covered from prepared pianos though to uprights, grands and electric grands. Some are very basic whilst others require the power of a Cray supercomputer and disc storage rivalling google in order to run fully. As important as the software for a good piano experience is the keyboard controller. We are spoilt today by the number of 88 key weighted and semi weighted keyboards out there covering almost every price point and capability.
So it all comes down to personal preference. Ignore the Gearslutz arguments about the technical details, sample size, layers and velocity switching. What makes you feel good and gives that creative spark. Which instrument can make you lose yourself for several hours in the pure joy of just playing. Sounds a bit gushy but pianos are emotional and very personal instruments. There is no right and wrong instrument although some are downright badly designed.
I’ve been playing Pianoteq by Moddart for a few years now and seen it come on leaps and bounds in terms of sound. What hasn’t changed a lot is the absolute playability of the instrument as they pretty much nailed it from the off. Pianoteq is a modelled instrument. There are no huge sample files to load, no direct from disc loading and more importantly no velocity layers or loop points. What are velocity layers? When sampling an instrument it’s a common technique to sample the same note at different velocities so that as you hit the key harder a different sample plays. There appears to be a bit of a competition as to how many velocity layers you can have in a sampled instrument – one company has up to 127! The more layers the larger the sample set. I’ve yet to find a keyboard controller that can accurately cover 127 velocity layers or a keyboard player that can articulate them. Pianoteq offers a full dynamic range with no key switching. The software footprint is incredibly small only requiring around 40Mb of disk space.
There are three versions of Pianoteq – Stage, Standard and Pro. Being the careful type I bought the Stage version but will shortly be upgrading to Standard for reasons that will become apparent. So what’s the difference besides price – it is a significant price difference between Stage and Pro. Pianoteq Stage offers basic player functionality with the ability to tweak a few settings and effects. User defined presets can be loaded but they may not play back with full functionality. Pianoteq Standard offers a significant upgrade – there is full compatibility between presets created in the Pro version and Standard. Piano models can be tweaked to a granular level, mic placement can be adjusted and there is the option to load external reverb pulses. Pianoteq Pro adds note by note editing capability – up to 28 parameters can be adjusted for each note on the keyboard. Pro also adds 192Khz audio.
So back to Pianoteq Stage 5. What comes with it? There are three instrument options on purchase – Pianos, Electric Instruments and Chromatic Percussions. I’m going to focus on the Pianos which comes as standard with their D4 – a Steinway D grand and a K2 – a Kawai based 6ft grand. Also included are a number of free instruments including a very good CP80 Electric Grand, some historical instruments and both Tubular and Church Bells.
Moddart also offer a number of additional instruments for purchase including a Yamaha and Bluthner grand the latter being authorised by Bluthner. I bought the Bluthner package and it has become one of my favourite pianos.
One thing to note with Pianoteq – it can be very CPU hungry. Being a modelled piano it is performing calculations on the fly. So whilst it doesn’t require a lot of memory or disc space it does require a fairly robust processor to get the most out of it. In the options menu the polyphony can be adjusted along with multi core rendering support. I have several CPU hungry applications and the Mini Mac Quad i7 handles them with ease. However I used to use Pianoteq on an older Windows machine with a dual core Pentium and it used to battle a bit. If you are struggling then reduce the polyphony setting.
The application loads very quickly and the controls are simple. A drop down menu lets you pick from any of the presets or load a FXP preset file. Moddart has a very active community many of whom spend hours if not weeks tweaking the Pianoteq instruments for extreme playability or to match existing acoustic instruments. Moddart host a download section where you can take advantage of these peoples work by download an FXP preset file. The tweaking can only be done in Pianoteq stage or Pro and there’s the downside. Most of the modified parameters are not available in the Stage version so you don’t get the benefits of these modifications.
Also on the simple interface are options to change the velocity response, volume, tuning, dynamics, effects and playability parameters such as action. A tiny slider above the keyboard graphic also gives the option to ‘age’ the piano from ‘Mint’ through to ‘Worn’.
Pianoteq is very flexible when it comes to handling both pedals and master keyboards. Sustain, Sostenuto, Harmonic Pedal and Una Corda (the soft pedal) are all catered for and these can be assigned to a midi CC message by right clicking. If your keyboard and sustain pedal support it then half pedalling is recognised.
Some newer keyboards, such as the Casio PX range, now support high resolution midi which sends 16384 velocity values rather than the standard 128. Is it snake oil? Is such resolution needed? Either way Pianoteq supports this higher resolution Midi. To set it just go into Midi options on the options menu.
One important setup change to make is the velocity setting. Different keyboards can have wildly different velocity attributes – some struggle to hit the lower ranges whilst others don’t get above 100. There are a number of downloads available on the Moddart site providing the velocity configurations for a number of popular keyboards. If not then it’s easy to creat you own using the inbuilt calibration utility. Getting the velocity calibration correct makes a huge difference to the playing experience of virtual instruments and Pianoteq is no exception. One thing I’d like to see is the ability to keep the chosen velocity setting when changing presets. You have to save the velocity setting along with the preset (there is the option to overwrite or save as a new preset) and changing presets changes the velocity setting. For some instruments I can understand why they want to change the velocity response but it would be nice to have a selectable option to apply the velocity setting to all presets.
Effects include delay, compressor and reverb. My personal preference is to use external plugins for these effects but they are by no means unusable. There is quite a decent equaliser included but again I tend to use external effects. The Action settings allow you to adjust key release noise, sustain pedal noise and mute. The latter is useful for Clavi type instruments.
The supplied pianos are excellent. The D4 is a beautiful instrument and the supplied presets show it’s capabilities to the full. This instrument can be quite happily used in both solo and ensemble pieces and whilst not the best for some pop/rock music can be adjusted to cut through. The presets cover a number of microphone setups, room sizes and character and also offer a players position which is very nice for practice. Whenever I play an acoustic piano I don’t hear masses of reverb or room ambience.
The surprise for me is the K2. It’s easy to dismiss this as just a bit of filler but it really comes into it’s own in a band situation. Being based on a smaller, 6ft, Kawai grand it can sit in a busy mix much better than the D4 and cuts through nicely. I also like the mono piano preset. For live work a stereo piano summed to mono seems to lose something. This mono K2 is a great instrument for the gigging pianist.
As I mentioned previously I also bought the Bluthner pack. I love this instrument. There is a warmth and expressiveness that appeals to me and the playability is superb. It’s not the ideal instrument for busy mixes but for solo piano, ballads, classical, jazz ensemble etc. it is superb.
As far as the freebies go I really like the CP80. Bang a bit of chorus on it and you’re back in the eighties. The tubular and church bells are great and the harpsichord is very playable.
The one common thing about all of the Pianoteq instruments is the playability. The responsiveness to the slightest dynamic change really lets you immerse yourself in the playing experience. I’ve seen a number of negative reviews about the sounds lacking a certain something but I have to disagree. As I mentioned at the start of the article pianos are a very personal instrument and Pianoteq works for me. Moddart are continually improving the sound engine and it has come on in leaps and bounds over the years. Currently there may be better samples out there but I don’t think there’s an overall package that comes close in terms of the sheer enjoyment of just sitting down and playing.
Moddart Pianoteq Stage – €99, Standard €249, Pro €399. https://www.pianoteq.com/home