Getting Authentic Piano Sound from Sampled Pianos and Piano Plugins

music sheet on black piano

I started out playing the piano, and I have come back to it often. I like the actual sound of a piano as the hammers hit the strings and it resonates through the wood and structure.

Here is my assessment of how to get a great piano sound in a vst or plugin instead of having the actual piano.

Last updated: 27-November-2020

Pianos

General

There are several different types of pianos by different manufacturers, and each has their own unique sounds. Even the sounds subtly vary amongst different models and even different pianos of the same model.

Pianos are essential in the film scoring industry, and Score is an excellent movie about that: https://www.score-movie.com/

There are two main kinds of pianos that I will talk about here:

  • Grand – These pianos are large, and a room must be large to accommodate them. The strings are horizontal to the floor. They have a large enclosure, and the sound can get very deep. Generally more expensive than an upright and afforded only by the wealthy, these pianos are played by the virtuosos of the craft.
  • Upright – These pianos are smaller in floor space, but taller than a grand. These were made for homes and establishments with space limitations. The beauty of the upright piano is that it is well-known by most people. It is the one that most will have run into in their everyday lives. The enclosure of these pianos is smaller, but the wood enclosures are right there in the face of the player – literally right in front of them. These give a more “in-your-face” type of tone.

In a DAW (digital audio workstation), you can get the sound of a piano through two main ways:

  1. Sampled – actual samples of a piano. A piano was played and recorded then ported to a controller or sampler for you to play in your DAW.
  2. Modeled – no actual piano was recorded. A model was constructed in software to sound like a real piano. A vst plugin was then made to allow you to play it in your DAW.

See also this post: https://larslentzaudio.wordpress.com/2018/10/23/guide-to-getting-beautiful-sound-from-a-piano-simulation/

black and white black and white close up ivory

Sampled

Sonivox Eighty-Eight Ensemble

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Sonivox Eighty-Eight Ensemble is a magnificent grand piano to work with.  It has several different versions within the vst. The warm versions seem best to my ear. This is the recordings of a Steinway D Concert Grand Piano (CD 327) played by Peter Serkin as his east coast touring piano. It was recorded in Boston in a Masonic hall that was transformed into a full-time recording studio. Masonic halls have rooms built inside of rooms, so they have inherent good acoustics. Microphones were placed inside and out of the piano.

This piano has lots of character to it and is so reasonably priced that it is hard to beat. I don’t concentrate much on the grand pianos myself because I grew up using uprights and they just sound a bit better to me and maybe a bit less pretentious. I think that uprights give more of a connection to the common man.

That being said, the Sonivox Eighty-Eight Ensemble can be made to sound like an old upright. This piano has a great low end and “bite” so it lends itself well to sound like an upright. It is remarkably similar to an upright piano that I used to know in my grandparent’s home. It is the one that I grew up with and played first, so the sound stuck in my ear. I was able to replicate it almost exactly with the warped piano version of the Sonivox Eighty-Eight Ensemble mixed with the proper reverb using a ValhallaDSP Room reverb plugin.

Synthogy Ivory Uprights

Rating: 5 out of 5.

By nature, in an upright or parlor piano, the strings are right there at a perpendicular to the piano keys and kind of “in the face” of the user. This brings the piano close to the listener. All of the clunks and noises in those pianos are great too. The Synthogy Ivory II Uprights are an excellent choice for this. They sound so realistic. Their libraries are gigantic, but their sound is utterly incredibly realistic. These are probably the most-realistic sounding pianos of all reviewed here.

The Synthogy Ivory Uprights manual: Ivory Manual

The Synthogy Uprights comes with the following types of pianos:

Modern Upright 
A brand new Yamaha U5 upright 
Yamaha uprights are widely regarded as the best uprights built today. The model U5 is at the top of their upright line. Expertly tuned and regulated, it is an excellent piano for a modern pop, rock or jazz recording. Many musicians and producers love the way this upright sits in a mix and adds personality to the music.

yamaha u5

Vintage Upright
1914 A.M. Hume upright
A big, American-made upright from the “golden age” of piano building, Hume pianos are highly regarded by knowledgeable piano technicians for their excellent build quality and resonant sound. This particular instrument was chosen for its great tone and all- original parts, which were carefully maintained over the years. This classic vintage American upright is perfect for blues, rock, old jazz or roots music, and yet versatile enough for virtually any style of music. Outstanding as a solo instrument or in the mix.

1914 a m hume upright

Below is a picture of the variant I made that sounds very intimate:

ivory-intimate-vintage-gf-upright

Here is music made with the Synthogy Ivory Upright Vintage version:

Honky Tonk, Barroom Upright
1915 Packard upright 
Another big, old American upright with all original parts, though this instrument has enjoyed a more “colorful” life than the Hume. This particular piano comes by its barroom sound authentically, having been the house piano at the famous Cheers bar in Boston for many years. Custom detuned in the genuine “honky tonk” style, this beauty has loads of smoky, scotch-and-soda character.

packard upright

Tack Piano
A genuine, early 1900’s, upright with real tacks in the hammers Like the Barroom Upright, this piano is the real deal, not a synthetic emulation. Custom prepared for our recording session with metal tacks inserted into the hammer felts, and “not perfectly” tuned, this instrument is a turn of the century classic. The Tack Piano is an authentic sound that continues to be used in everything from a traditional period and roots music, to classic pop and modern experimental rock. The tack piano makes a good substitute for a harpsichord.

tack piano Steinway_Vertegrand,_Abbey_Road_Studios


Cinematique Instruments Charakter Piano Collection

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a Kontakt version, the Cinematique Instruments intimate plus piano is just beautiful. I like it a lot, and it has a nice reverse reverb effect that can be optionally used as well. Like all Kontakt instruments, I try not to rely on them due to the buggy nature I experience all of the time with Kontakt instruments as compared to a regular vst plugin. But, make no mistake, Cinematique Instruments makes phenomenal Kontakt instruments. I believe the piano they base off of is a Zeitter and Winkelmann.

Here is the manual for this collection: Charakter Piano Manual

In the group are 6 pianos:

Curbed Piano
The Curbed Piano is a brand new approach to recording and playing pianos.
The idea behind it is to insert a thick piece of fabric or felt between the hammer and the strings. By playing the piano, you achieve a very warm and damped piano sound with a very dominant hammer sound. The sound is very intimate and organic. Additional features are reverse sounds and stuttering sustain.

Intimate+
In 2018 we have updated the intimate piano to the Intimate +“ version.
Instead of adding fx sounds to the piano you can now add the realistic sound of the hammer (while hitting the strings) to the piano. Beside the option to control the volume of this hammer sound you can control the decay and tone of it. Additionally, you can also mix a set of reverse sounds into the mix using a reverse knob. This has an exciting and pleasing effect on some pieces.

Intimate FR Piano
Intimate Piano is a unique recorded set of samples of our beloved Zeither & Winkelmann upright piano. We recorded the piano by a field recorder lying on the ground of it. We have restricted ourselves to record just shallow and gentle velocity levels of the piano. This kind of playing along with the unique recording setting results in it’s charming, warm and intimate sound.

Practice Piano
The Practice Piano is definitely more than a piano you use just for practice. Recorded in the academy for arts in music in Brisbane/ Australia we are coming out with a piano that sounds real and vibrating. It is very raw and comes along with a “granny” option that morphs its sound to an old Yamaha piano out of the cellar. The sound is dirty and vintage.

Soundboard Piano

The soundboard piano is based on the deconstructed piano. We picked specific carefully sampled layers and put them into a new instrument. You have a knob that lets you morph the sound, so it individually fits in your mix. With the soundboard, you get a whole new Piano that sounds somehow familiar but completely different.

Upright Piano (part of the Charakter collection – do not confuse it with the one below)
This is our lovely and beloved Zeitter & Winkelmann Piano. Our own studio piano is a bright and high quality upright piano for contemporary uses. With editing functions reduced to the primary need. You do not have to tweak a lot to get the sound you are aiming for. A sweet and warm Piano sound that works just fine for everything.

zeitter winkelmann

Cinematique Instruments Upright Piano

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Also, Cinematique Instruments has an instrument separate from their Charakter Piano Collection. It is Upright Piano with seven versions of an upright piano included.

piano-196280_1920

There are many effects in here that can come in handy for variously added touches when coupled with a regular piano in a piano score. These are denoted by “FX” on the suffix. I like the sounds of the destroyed piano and the different textures. Those along with the glissando are unique and things you cannot usually get from the others.

chords classic harmony instrument

The piano pad version sounds almost like a CS-80 synth while the struck one sounds like a tack piano only harsher.

Here is their user manual: Upright Piano Manual

They describe it as follows:

Upright Piano is a further development of the lovely and beloved Zeitter & Winkelmann piano we released in 2009. In contrast to this earlier version, this new Upright Piano is a bright and high quality upright piano for contemporary uses.

zeitter winkelmann

To achieve a rich, natural and warm piano sound we spent several days just checking out the right microphone positions, then after finding the right set up the piano was tuned finely and we started the extensive recordings. Finally, we added some very nice and intelligent scriptings to get a perfectly balanced and versatile piano sound which is best suited for numerous music genres. The results are most convincing. The “Upright Piano” patch provides a knob with 6 presets to quickly change the sound color. The presets are called “Natural”, “Ambiance A+B” (cinematic), “Pop” (sharp) “RnB” (groovy), “80ies”. You also get knobs to control the warmness, the bottom, the reverb and the length of the piano. Furthermore, there are switches to choose the reverb room size, to activate EQ, timbres and a honky-tonk simulation. Besides the normal patch of sustained notes, the Upright Piano provides further patches such as plucked and bowed notes and textures, fx and glissando notes.

The 7 Patches
• Upright Piano – 6 presets, intelligent scripting, several reverb sizes, mapping A-1 to C7 in mostly 5 velocity layer
• Upright Piano Bowed – looped, separate release notes, mapping A-1 to C7, scripting
• Upright Piano FX Destroy – 10 processed impact sounds
• Upright Piano FX Glissando – 46 glissando sounds in every possible length and dynamic
• Upright Piano FX Textures – 23 different textures from low ambiance abstract to scary, looped
• Upright Piano Pad – created by processed plucked notes, looped, separate release notes, mapping A-1 to C7, scripting
• Upright Piano Struck – piano notes plucked by a hammered dulcimer mallet, 2 velocity layer, mapping A-1 to C7, scripting

As a bonus:
We deliver the old and draft Zeitter & Winkelmann patches:
– Zeitter & Winkelmann
– Zeitter & Winkelmann Shrt Attk (with a very short attack and decay, suitable for sequencing)
– Zeitter & Winkelmann FX (played the strings with fingers)


Cinematique Instruments Deconstructed Piano

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This unique instrument from Cinematique is a piano that is played/struck with various items (hammers, etc.) and all layered into single presets.

I used the Deconstructed Piano to make this music in the videos below.

The video for my tune, “Breath,” from my Air album uses the Deconstructed Piano.
Informal video of me hitting some notes on the Deconstructed Piano.

Even if the word Piano is included in the Deconstructed Piano, this instrument isn’t quite like anything you would expect as a piano. Explore a familiar sound of a piano in a completely new way. Play textures, strikes, hits, and sustained sounds including screws. The variations of this piano are exhausted to the limit.

Deconstructed Piano: the name explains itself. We have disassembled a piano to its soundboard and have worked on this in many different ways: we have played, hit, stroke and destructed the piano with a wide range of materials. We have used a regular piano hammer, different kinds of mallets such as a felt or a wollen ones, screws, plecs, sticks, thumbs, and even straws to coax new inspirational harmonic sounds from the instrument. To achieve additional percussive material, we have captured 24 different percussion sounds (recorded in multi-round robin variations) which can be easily mixed to the entire piano sound or just be used separately for experimental purposes.
We have also recorded plenty of textures, soundscapes, and noises of the piano by scrubbing, hitting or playing the soundboard. While disassembling the piano, we have recorded all that noises of destruction done with a sledgehammer and put this into an extra patch as well as in a special category inside the textures patch.

Deconstructed piano is an excellent collection of sounds, noises, and textures exclusively created with a piano. It totally convinces with its diversity. No matter if you are using the powerful short hit from a metal bar, using the gentle screw piano sounds to give your music a subtle highlight or using the massive strike sounds to create significant impacts, the Deconstructed Piano adds a new color to your sound.

The instrument comes with three completely different patches:
The Piano – Strikes – Textures

The piano patch is the underlying instrument. It delivers three different sound categories with eleven piano sounds in total. By dragging, you can control the volume of each sound. It gives you the possibility to combine and create your own instrument setting. Besides an attack and decay slider, the instrument provides a button that randomizes the volume of each of the 11 sounds which results in new sound combinations. The patch also includes an FX section in which you are able to choose reverb, delay, distortion and an EQ.

Did you ever imagine to destroy a Piano? We actually did it.
Explore the sound of a sledgehammer bursting on the piano, a crowbar trying to rip off the strings and even more. All these sounds and noises were sampled to create huge impacts.

Finally, we have collected plenty of soundscapes. This patch is a handy tool to create evolving textures with tension. Besides the sound mentioned above, options of EQ, reverb, attack, decay, distortion, this patch provides an automatic volume variation with speed control as well as a “hold” button for an infinite sound.

gui_decon_piano

Sound Dust’s Ship’s Piano

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is the recordings of a piano from an actual ship.

Designed by JB Cramer and Sons of London in the late 1800’s, the ships piano (or yacht piano) was built especially for the cramped confines of Victorian pleasure boats. The perfect thing for a little sea bound entertainment in the good old pre-iPod days of the empire.

International adventurer Captain Robert Scott (of the Antarctic ) was apparently a fan and always had one onboard for those times when a hearty, spirit-lifting sing-along was just the ticket. James Joyce also briefly mentions a ship’s piano in his book The Dubliners.

These things are scarce and pretty much ignored these days. A ships piano is basically a tiny rudimentary upright piano with a five-octave keyboard that folds upwards to save space. It has no bottom half and sits either on a low table or a stand with a small leather and chain contraption dangling from its base that loops around the foot for the sustain pedal. Because of its small frame size, it struggles with low notes, so the bass strings are very wide gauge and particularly flabby, resulting in a strange almost atonal metallic sound in the lower reaches.

Included are these variants – the ships piano is of interest here to me as it is very different in sound from others:

  1. School Grand – a binaurally recorded grand piano in an ancient stone walled Hogwarts-type of school hall/chapel. This is a typical grand piano, well-recorded.
  2. Ships Piano – 4 or 5 notes of velocity, recorded binaurally and re-tuned.
  3. Room Upright – binaurally recorded with 3 layers of velocity, the tricky bit is that she was reversed, fed through high-end reverb and then reversed again. Interesting about the reversal feeding of reverb, but not entirely sure why this is necessary.
ships piano jb cramer

Spitfire Audio’s Soft Piano (LABS)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Spitfire Audio recorded a “felted” piano that sounds excellent. It has a great soft and intimate sound. Recorded at Air Edel Studios, this sound has become a favorite of music-makers across the globe. The soft tone is achieved by placing a thin strip of felt between the hammers and the strings.

This is a great overview of some of Spitfire Audio’s pianos including the LABS Soft (Felt) Piano and the Gwilym Simcock Felt Piano.

Spitfire Audio’s Gwilym Simcock Felt Piano

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a greatly-expanded version of the soft piano in their Labs collection and it is a great-sounding beauty of a piano – excellently played and recorded.

The piano is a Shimmel upright.

Description by Spitfire Audio:

If you like the LABS Soft Piano, you’re going to love this hand-crafted German piano played with the ‘Celeste’ pedal engaged by a living jazz legend and Mercury Music Prize nominee.

There’s just something about that practice pedal. It draws you up to the very inner workings of the piano itself, quiet and difficult to play, but for drama and soft, intimate ballads, you’d be hard pressed to find something more beautiful.

Why be a jack of all trades when you can be a master of one? It is this sentiment that led us to search high and low for the most sensitive, beautiful, sonorous, and honest piano sound. Perfect for those delicate ballads (think “Mad World” by Gary Jules), that intimate heart-rending cue (think Newman’s “American Beauty”). When carrying out sampling experiments some years ago we discovered the very beautiful world of an upright piano with a middle “practice felt” or “Celeste” pedal engaged. Whilst being hard to get a decent sound from (strange to play piano loudly and have a muted soft sound come out), when it rang, boy did it produce the most beautifully unsophisticated but gentle and touching sound. This became our widely loved “soft piano” available in return for a small donation to Unicef as part of our Labs range. Our renewed quest to find the perfect “celeste” pedal piano ended at Peregrines pianos on the Grays Inn Road in London. We then set about sampling in much more detail.

This piano has been performed by Mercury Award nominee Gwilym Simcock and has been recorded with a number of microphones in different perspectives via neve pre-amps and Cranesong AD converters at 96k. From the almost vintage sound of a mono soundboard mic to a beautiful natural surround perspective of the room itself. Most celeste pedals allow for only one dynamic layer but this piano is more responsive than others, so not only did we record several round robins, we recorded 2 dynamic layers, release triggers, and round-robin pedal damping and releasing. We also recorded the pedal noise separately so you can adjust this from the front panel.

Another felted, soft and very intimate piano. I was in the market for a piano to write on and was introduced to the fantastic Schimmel range, which are handmade in Germany. I was in the showroom and they were trying to sell me all sorts of massively expensive models but the one that touched me was the very cheapest upright, and this was because of how it sounded with the felt. I’d been obsessed with ‘felting’ pianos for a couple of years and had always struggled with the intimacy of sound versus the fact that you had to play them so hard. Here I was confronted by a beautiful tone but also a responsive touch. We got it back to the studio, rigged up a bunch of mics and hired a jazz great and Mercury Prize winner to produce a definitive set of massively detailed felt piano samples. For me this instrument sounds more like a piano – utterly beautiful and more controllable with the different mics, but still very mellow in sound.


Fracture Sounds Woodchester Piano

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is an upright piano with the practice pedal applied to it to make a softer sound. Also, very interesting and innovative, are the atmosphere layers. Here below is the description by the manufacturer.

A beautiful upright felt piano, developed in close collaboration with film and TV composer James Everingham.

Woodchester Piano is the first in our new series of collaborations with talented composers and artists, bringing you a range of finely crafted virtual instruments full of personality. This library was produced in close collaboration with film and TV composer James Everingham and features his Wilh. Steinberg German Series S130 upright piano, intimately recorded with the felt pedal engaged.

We visited James’s studio and spent several days carefully sampling every nuance of the instrument. We then spent many months mixing, polishing and fine-tuning the instrument, resulting in a stunning virtual piano with a beautifully versatile sound, which is truly inspiring to play.

Woodchester Piano also includes key release and pedal samples, a unique pianist noise feature to add subtle rustling and wood creaks for heightened realism, and adjustable color control to dial in the perfect tone for your composition.

After the success of our Dream Zither and Tiny Music Box libraries, we decided to take our tried and tested ‘playable pad’ concept to the next level, offering three atmospheric sound design layers which blend together with the raw piano beautifully.

  • The ‘Ache‘ layer adds a smooth, hazy sustain – a marriage between reverb and a pad.
  • The ‘Dream‘ layer offers a more textural, shimmering sound.
  • The ‘Clouds‘ layer adds a reversed granular delay effect which evolves over time.

These layers can be dialed in to taste using the Layer Mixer. Additionally, the global ‘intensity’ of these layers can be controlled using the ‘Atmosphere Intensity’ dial or automated in real-time using the mod wheel.

woodchester-piano-interface

Fracture Sounds Midnight Grand Piano

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a grand piano that differs from their Woodchester piano that is a Wilh. Steinberg upright. This grand is a Steinway D that was recorded with room ambiance (if wanted – there’s a dial for that) and several exceptionally cool layers of other sounds.

Fracture Sounds have made a handy comparison guide as well if undecided about their two magnificent pianos.

From Fracture Sounds:

Midnight Grand is a stunning concert grand piano, expertly recorded in a concert hall with a layer of cotton between the hammers and strings, to create a delicate, cinematic tone.

This is not ‘just another sampled Steinway’ – it is a carefully crafted virtual piano full of nuance and character, perfect for intimate drama and rich cinematic passages alike.

As with all our products, Midnight Grand was developed with ease of use in mind, so you can jump straight in and start writing music. We are confident it will become a staple in many composers’ sample collections.

The instrument was recorded in a modern concert hall environment using a selection of top-shelf microphones (from DPA, Coles, AKG) placed close to the piano and further back in the room. We carefully blended these microphone signals into a single stereo mix. The result is a well balanced and versatile sound – spacious enough so as not to sound boxy or claustrophobic, yet dry enough to offer the flexibility of adding as much or little reverb as you like.

We recorded true pedal up and down samples, for authentic sympathetic resonance when the sustain pedal is held down. Some of our beta testers loved the sound of the pedal down samples so much that we decided to include an additional patch, ‘Midnight Piano (Alt).nki’which uses only these samples. This patch has a rich, full sound even when the sustain pedal isn’t engaged.

The recording setup for the Midnight Grand.

Mechanical Sounds and Room Tone

With Midnight Grand, we went far beyond sampling the notes themselves. Our sonic vision for this library was for it to sound like you are sat at the piano, capturing the feeling of being alone in an empty room with nothing but the piano in front of you. A huge part of achieving this (aside from the microphone placement) was capturing the mechanical sounds of the piano – the sound of the hammers returning to their resting position when a key is released, and the sound of the dampers lifting when the pedal is pressed. Both of these sounds can be dialled in to your taste, for enhanced realism.

The Room Tone control adds the natural sound of the air moving around the hall, as well as subtle creaks and clicks. When used sparingly, the room tone can really bring the samples to life, giving the impression the performance is taking place in a real acoustic space.


The recording setup for the Midnight Grand.

Atmosphere Layers

Once again, we have brought back our popular ‘Atmosphere Layers’ – playable pads and textures which blend together with the raw piano beautifully.

  • The ‘Haze‘ layer adds a smooth, dreamy sustain.
  • The ‘Shivers‘ layer is a textural pad, created from processed live string recordings.
  • The ‘Eclipse‘ layer is a rich reversed granular delay effect, which lingers behind the raw piano.

These layers can be dialled in to taste using the Layer Mixer. Additionally, the global ‘intensity’ of these layers can be controlled using the ‘Atmosphere Intensity‘ dial, or automated in real-time using the mod wheel.


The recording setup for the Midnight Grand.

Fracture Sounds ARCO Bowed and Plucked Piano Ensemble

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All of the Fracture Sounds products are incredible, and I highly recommend them all. This Arco is a set of four pianos in a hall recorded with multiple unique playings. They are bowed and plucked as the name says.

Arco is a beautiful ensemble of four pianos, meticulously sampled in a concert hall with a range of bowed and plucked articulations. Arco is perfect for dramatic swells, shimmering textures, and lush melodic lines. Over a year in the making and the first of its kind, Arco’s unique sonic flavors will be a welcome addition to any composer’s toolbox.

The sound of Arco could be described as a hybrid between a piano and a string ensemble. We took four pianos (two grands and two uprights), put them in a concert hall and performed each note with a range of techniques. After weeks of planning and experimenting, we settled on using nylon fishing line, coated in two types of rosin – bass rosin for the lower range and cello rosin for the upper range.

In addition to bowed articulations, the library also contains ensemble plucks, a specially scripted plucked tremolo, and a range of atonal and aleatoric FX and glissandi.

Developed with the modern film, TV and game composer in mind, Arco is exceptionally playable out-of-the-box and features a clean, accessible user interface for controlling the performance.


Fracture Sounds Granulate

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a granular synth/sampler that can give you several layers of gorgeous sounds.

Granulate is a powerful granular manipulation engine for transforming any audio file into a range of pads, drones, textures and rhythmic sounds. Choose from over 80 inspiring presets, or import your own audio for limitless possibilities.

The tool-set provided by Granulate extends far beyond traditional granular synthesis. Using the wealth of tempo sync and grain sculpting options available, audio can be transformed into percussive and rhythmic instruments and loops. Granulate’s range of manipulation options will be a welcome addition to any composer or sound designer’s arsenal.


Production Voices Estate Grand Piano

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This is a clear-sounding Kawai grand piano with exceptional clarity and presence. I am partial to Kawai pianos and am so happy to have found this one in Kontakt form to use in my compositions. It is truly a stunning piano. Here is the manufacturer’s description:

The Production Voices’ Estate Grand Piano is a beautifully hand-sampled Kawai GS 60 6’9″ grand piano with three different microphone perspectives including a mono-compatible M/S (mid-side) microphone perspective. It was recorded with care and with only the finest equipment at a country estate in the heart of corn country in Southern Ontario Canada.

Estate Grand Piano Features:

11+ GB Uncompressed. Delivered in lossless Kontakt compressed format around 6GB.
Up to 10 velocity layers per key (Up to 25 samples per note: Pedal up, down and release samples).
3 microphone positions controllable by the user.
Full pedal down and pedal up samples.
4215 samples!
Authentic sustain pedal up and down noises!
Controllable keyboard action/mechanism noises.
Independent control over stereo microphone pairs!
Adjustable Velocity Curves for the perfect feel on your keyboard.
Advanced Velocity Smoothing to make a seamless transition from softest to loudest note.
Advanced Authentic Pedalling that gives real resonance to notes already triggered when the sustain pedal is depressed.
Recorded at 24 bit 44.1 kHz with incredible detail and fidelity through Apogee Symphony I/O, Neumann and Rode microphones.

How does it sound?
The Estate Grand Piano is sampled from a grand piano that resides in the library of a country manor. The room is warm sounding and the piano overpowers the room just slightly filling the room strong overtones. Hence, the piano has a lot of attack! While sampling the grand piano, the owner of the manor mentioned that he auditioned several pianos before picking the Kawai. He had tried Steinways and other famous pianos, but fell in love with the character of the Kawai. It is not a “me too” piano, but a unique instrument that will add life to your live or recorded piano sound!

Sampling in the country presents its challenges! There are the birds and wildlife outside as well as the sounds of the manor creaking as it heats up with sun’s heat and cools as the sun sets. The piano took several days to sample and countless hours to edit. If you listen closely, you may hear the rustling of leaves and a bird or two on the quietest of notes, but that’s only if you listen intently enough to hear if we actual sampled the piano in an estate!


Production Voices Death Piano

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is an unusual piano that goes from reverse samples, loops, even into the synth-type sounds. But this thing is lovely in addition to being strange.

Death Piano is an alternative take on Piano Sample Libraries that celebrates the obscure. Full of reverse samples, lo-fi gritty goodness, synthesis shaped tones, morphed massacred sounds and more. Death Piano is an inspiring collection of piano oddities that are sure to inspire film composers, pianists, songwriters, producers and more.

Features:
  • Steinway D Concert Grand Piano samples recorded in a concert hall
  • Plucked Upright Piano sample set.
  • Parlour Piano sample set
  • Over 128 presets and growing – Presets are easily updatable
  • Reverse piano samples with timing variations for different tempos.
  • Custom Reverb Impulse Responses
  • Synthesis engine includes a complete complement of Filter, Envelope and LFO modulations.

Modeled

Modartt Pianoteq

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Pianoteq makes a plugin instrument that sounds nearly exactly like a real piano. It is so close to real that it is a bit scary. This makes it a must-have tool for me. Included in the basic piano software are several variants of pianos and in each piano are several options of “tuning.” This is probably the second best sounding piano of the group only second to the Ivory. But with size here of only around 300 Mb at the most, this is the most-portable and low memory impact of the bunch – putting it a notch ahead of all of the ones reviewed here.

The Pianoteq product also has several built-in effects that include a convolution reverb that you can feed impulse files into. So you can play this piano in many different places just by loading a different impulse into the convolution reverb.

I have made my preset FXP files available here: Pianoteq Piano Presets (FXP files)

Here are a few that I have tried:

Steinway Model D
Authorized by Steinway & Sons, the Steinway Model D grand piano is a virtual copy of a Steinway D from Hamburg, famous for its exquisite musical expression and being featured in numerous prominent recording studios and concert halls worldwide. Each note has been carefully adjusted in its most exquisite detail, just like in a real factory. The result is a stunningly vivid instrument created with the most demanding musician in mind.

You have surely heard and seen the Steinway Model D in many recordings and concert performances. A great number of prominent pianists have performed on the instrument and love it for the famous Steinway sound and its superb musical expression.

This instrument pack, authorized by Steinway & Sons, offers two variants: Hamburg and New York. The New York Steinway D is the very first produced of Steinway’s groundbreaking new flagship instrument Model D, which has been used by some of the most famous pianists in the world today. The physical model is based on recordings made at the famous New York Steinway Hall.

New York and Hamburg Steinway pianos are very much like twin siblings that share strong family traits but exhibit subtle differences in their personalities. These differences can be attributed in part to the variations in hammer construction and voicing techniques utilized in both production facilities. Proprietary procedures in soundboard fabrication and installation unique to each factory also flavor the nuanced tonal distinctions between Hamburg and New York Steinway pianos. Both use soundboards that are constructed from carefully selected premium Sitka spruce wood.

During the development of the two virtual instruments for Pianoteq, each note was carefully adjusted in its finest detail, just like in a real factory, resulting in stunningly vivid instruments created with the most demanding musician in mind.


Steinway-Model-D-Grand-Piano-Interior

K2 Grand
The K2 Grand Piano is developed primarily for Pianoteq 6. It is not based on any specific model but created from scratch by the Modartt virtual piano factory, combining the best elements of several source pianos. Thanks to its 2.11m (6′ 11″) cabinet, it is a very classical colorful sounding piano, bringing a perfect balance of warmth, brilliance, and clarity. Enjoy its dark, woody character for use in a musical all around environment.

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Bluthner Model 1
Authorized by Blüthner, this is the world’s first physical model of Blüthner’s most beautiful grand piano, widely celebrated for use on the concert stage.« There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America… My wife and my precious Blüthner » Rachmaninoff once said. The Blüthner pianos were also favored by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rubinstein just to name a few. We have surely all enjoyed the Blüthner piano in « Let It Be » by The Beatles. The round warm tonal character of the Blüthner Model 1 is accurately rendered by Pianoteq’s physical model, bringing sparkling treble notes and powerful bass. The instrument is capable of producing everything from tender pianissimos to thunderous persuasiveness, quickly matching the orchestra’s power as well as intimate moments in a performance. Thanks to the physical modeling, the Blüthner Model 1 offers unmatched playability and versatility, developed to meet the requirements of the most demanding musicians. The newly improved physical model in Pianoteq 6 benefits this instrument even further by bringing more body and soul. A unique feature in Blüthner’s grand pianos is the fourth string for each key in the treble, called the Aliquot system. Its purpose is to create a sympathetic vibrating string that enhances the tone. This feature is included in the Pianoteq model. In the Standard and Pro version, it is possible to modify this specific parameter to decrease or increase the effect.

model-1-corner-600x600

U4 Upright Piano
The U4 Upright Piano emphasizes all the specific characteristics of upright pianos with 21 exciting presets demonstrating the versatility of the instrument. Along with the beautiful timbre of well-built acoustic pianos, higher inharmonicity and increased imperfections can be heard in the presets such as Honky Tonk, Vintage, Detuned, Ruined, Bierkeller, Tacky, Wavy, Weathered, Club…In contrast to the grand piano, the upright piano is vertically strung and has a vertical soundboard and bridges, as well. The first variant resembling an upright piano appeared in 1739 and a more modern option in 1800. Mass production followed as the instrument improved by the addition of an iron frame and a larger octave range. The compact size and affordable price made it increasingly popular for use in many smaller music halls, pubs, and private homes. Legendary composers such as Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard all started their music careers on upright pianos. In the microphones section (Standard and Pro version) you can set the distance to the nearest wall and position microphones and the lid. This new, movable wall was designed exclusively for the U4. While the U4 may not have been explicitly modeled on any one product, it does sound suspiciously like a U3 or U5 from Yamaha.
Here’s some music made with the U4:


yamaha u5

Grotrian Concert Royal
The Concert Royal grand piano by Grotrian is rightly considered to be one of the best grand pianos in the world. Its tone, playing mechanism and construction meet the very highest standards regarding quality, refinement, and perfection – strengths which can be heard and felt all the way back to the last row in large halls and concert houses. Modartt is proud to present this magnificent grand piano in the form of a virtual instrument for Pianoteq, authorized by Grotrian.

grotrian-steinweg

Steingraber E-272

E-272 grand piano, authorized by Steingraeber & SöhneSince 1852, Steingraeber & Söhne have been making innovative hand-crafted pianos of the most excellent quality, played worldwide by an array of distinguished artists and in the most renowned concert halls. This is the first physical model of the E-272 Concert Grand Piano, praised by many pianists as being one of the most distinctive and outstanding instruments on the market today. Steingraeber is the only manufacturer to have reduced the surface of the treble soundboard and to have restored its ‘classical relationship’ with short treble strings. Thus, Steingraeber strings have 27% less wood weight to set in motion. Even when softer intonation is called for, the player is rewarded with an immediate, singing resonance. It offers innovative features, such as the Sordino pedal and Mozart rail, bringing a singing resonance and softer intonation when called for. Steingraeber as a manufacturer is working on how to create a more delicate sound rather than louder.

steigengraber

Steinway Model B
Authorized by Steinway & Sons, the Steinway Model B grand piano is modeled after a Steinway B Grand Piano from Hamburg, known for its splendid and versatile character. Subtle refinements of the physical model contribute to a faithful rendering of the original instrument. The piano that is modeled belongs to the Martha Argerich edition, a set of twenty-five Steinway & Sons Model B-211 pianos that the prestigious pianist carefully selected in 2014 for their musicality. She signed each. The virtual grand piano Model B for Pianoteq was carefully designed to reproduce the most exceptional sound characteristics of the Steinway B instrument that was selected by Modartt for this project. Subtle refinements of the physical modeling were made, resulting in a noticeably clear tone and astounding dynamics. Some useful hints to getting a great sound from it include putting in a Mozart rail and reducing the 7th overtone. Coupled with playing it with a moderately-fast keyboard, this can give a gentle tone to this already gentle giant.

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Ant. Petrof Grand
ANT. PETROF 275 Concert Grand Piano is the PETROF company flagship, bringing the authority required for concert halls. It maintains the colorful, romantic and rounded tone which the PETROF instruments are praised for, thanks to first-class materials. The instrument reflects the skills, care, and innovatory spirit inherited ever since Antonín Petrof built his first grand piano in 1864. The new pianos of premium brand ANT. PETROF were designed by the PETROF R&D Department, using an anechoic chamber for its acoustic measurements. The ANT. PETROF 275 concert grand piano includes several patented innovations, such as the newly designed solid maple bridges. The result is an exceptional bass and treble response, greater soundboard resonance, and a pure, singing tone. Moreover, its European solid spruce soundboard delivers PETROF’s unique romantic tone with a wide dynamic range. This physically modeled virtual instrument for Pianoteq 6 is authorized by PETROF and captures the characteristic PETROF sound with a variety of presets offering a beautiful palette of timbres suitable for all kinds of music.

C. Bechstein Digital Grand
This physical model of C. Bechstein Digital Grand is originally derived from a C. Bechstein D 282 concert grand piano, captured by the acclaimed Teldex Recording studio in Berlin. Authorized by Bechstein, the Pianoteq model reproduces the outstandingly brilliant and powerful sound of the C. Bechstein D 282 with its singing, richly colored voice, suitable for many different music genres.

Claude Debussy once said: “Piano music should only be written for the Bechstein”. Franz Liszt, Edvard Grieg, Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók also composed on Bechstein pianos. Bechstein pianos are also featured in legendary recordings by The Beatles, Queen, Bob Dylan, and Elton John.

“I personally find the C. Bechstein pianos to be among the best-sounding pianos around. Pianoteq does a great job of representing this piano and I particularly like the preset “sweet” in the Pianoteq presets for this piano.”

Lars Lentz
The C. Bechstein Digital Grand

Kremsegg Collection Pianos

Kremsegg Collection 1

The historical piano collection 1, from the Kremsegg Schloss Museum (Austria), includes 4 exceptional instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries:

J. Dohnal pianoforte (1795)

I. Besendorfer grand piano (1829)
Note: Ignaz Besendorfer was the original name used on the early piano models (the one modeled here has serial number 5), later models used the name “Bösendorfer”.

S. Erard grand piano (1849)

J.B. Streicher grand piano (1852)

Kremsegg Collection 2

The historical piano collection 2, from the Kremsegg Schloss Museum (Austria), includes 4 exceptional instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries:

J. Broadwood pianoforte (1796)

I. Pleyel grand piano (1835)

J. Frenzel grand piano (1841)

C. Bechstein grand piano (1899)

“The C. Bechstein grand piano is among the best-sounding I have ever heard. I had the opportunity to play a real C. Bechstein in the Continental Hotel in Budapest in 2018 and the Pianoteq representation of this piano is perfect.”

Lars Lentz

Incomparable for rendering the music of the Classical period, these instruments can also be used for more recent compositions. The Bechstein particularly, with a design approaching that of a modern piano, illuminates jazz and other modern music.

Among these, the C. Bechstein stands out to me as a great-sounding instrument of days gone by. I was fortunate enough to see and hear one played in the lobby of The Continental Hotel in Budapest. It was indeed a magnificent sound from such a smallish piano. 

Free Pianos and Other Instruments
Additionally, Pianoteq offers free pianos and percussion. The free pianos include some rare and vintage types that really do sound very good. Worth checking out if you buy the Pianoteq vst.

Electric Pianos
Pianoteq can reproduce great electro-acoustic pianos from the seventies. This instrument pack includes three unusual instruments with a gorgeous sound. Each instrument has its own sound character and personality and can be customized to your personal taste. By using the embedded effects in Pianoteq, such as Amp, Chorus, Tremolo, Tine noise, and even the Blooming parameters, these instruments can be transformed into amazingly expressive variants.

Artists

Ben Lukas Boysen

Uses Spitfire Audio, 8DIO, and Izotope products. Also uses a Kawai upright (K800(?)) with the front cover off (see PDF file of article).

Neil Cowley

Nils Frahm

He is associated with the Una Corda piano that is a unique one, and it was recorded by Native Instruments as a sampled piano.

Olafur Arnalds

Has his name branded on some Spitfire Audio products including one that used a 1904 Bechstein grand piano that was “felted.” The C. Bechstein piano sounds great, to me, and is one of my favorite pianos.

James Joshua Otto

Collaborated with James Everingham and may use similar equipment.

James Everingham

Uses a Wilh. Steinberg German Series upright piano.

Hans Zimmer

Has Spitfire Audio product with his name on it that used a world-class stretch concert grand piano of some type.

Thomas Newman

Gwilym Simcock

Has a Spitfire Audio product named for him that used a felted piano. The LABS product called soft piano is also from the same piano.

Tim Hecker

Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)

Blade Runner Movies

Blade Runner 2049

A Bechstein piano was in the background of a scene in Blade Runner 2049. It is in the background of Deckard’s place and mimics almost exactly an old poster made by C. Bechstein (poster is shown below).

1024px-C._Bechstein_Poster,_about_1920_edit

From the movie:

vintage-inspiration-1507291177

In the first Blade Runner movie there was a piano in Deckard’s apartment, but what type and manufacturer, I do not know.

Effects

Whether modeled or sampled, I’ve found that effects in the instrument chain of your DAW can add significant character to the piano sound. Here is a sampling of what I’ve used.

Reverb

Built-In Reverb

What comes in each piano vst implementation can possibly be the best reverb to use. That is to say, use the built-in reverb that comes with each instrument. This is because they have been made to exactly suit the instrument in question. The reverb is for that instrument, so it is possibly better than the external ones.

I’ll describe the external ones below, but first, try the built-in ones and see if they do not suit what you are looking for as they can reduce the CPU load.

Algorithmic Reverb

Algorithmic reverbs work by calculating a reverberation and then applies it to the incoming signal. I find that it excels at simulating indoor spaces really well, and I use it for that.

112dB Reverbs and Effects

Rating: 5 out of 5.

112dB makes a great set of effects and one of the best is their Mikron Reverb. I also use their Mikron Cascade (delay). Their Mikron Reverb gives a great tail to the sound that is clean and natural while also being much easier to apply than the Valhalla reverbs, because it has one big knob (and a few smaller ones) and not a lot of knowledge about reverb is needed to get a great sound.

I have successfully replicated actual rooms with the Mikron Reverb in an exceptionally short period of time.

“The idea behind this algorithm is that when you dial in a certain kind of reverb you usually are not interested in the reverberations of all possible rooms and positions in those rooms, but only those that will give you a superb or interesting sound. There are a lot of concert halls, but only a few are praised for their acoustics. And there is only one spot in a concert hall were the band sounds at it’s best. It’s those great sounding reverberations that we tried to capture.”

This is from the 112dB web page for Mikron Reverb.
Mikron Reverb

The Mikron Cascade is a delay and when placed after the Mikron Reverb, can accentuate the tails of the sound in an extremely pleasing way. Below you can see the interface and the settings I use for “piano tails.”

Mikron Cascade

Eventide Reverbs and Effects

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Eventide makes an exceptional reverb called the Blackhole. I use the Eventide Blackhole reverb when I want a very clear and long-sustaining reverberation. I can often forego the use of Mikron Cascade or Shimmer when using Blackhole. This is due to the way Blackhole handles the tails of the reverberation – they seem to almost shimmer and sing. It is hard to describe well without an audio sample (I’ll work on that).

When I put this effect into my chain before the Mikron Cascade, I can get a beautiful ringing tone that accentuates some pianos very nicely.

Eventide’s 2016 Room reverb is also reportedly good, but I have not tried it.


ValhallaDSP Reverbs and Effects

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Valhalla makes excellent reverbs, but I only use their Shimmer to get an effect I cannot get from other reverbs.

I will sometimes use ValhallaDSP Shimmer in place of a normal reverb or in addition as in how I use Mikron Cascade, because it can be used to get a doubling effect of high and low tones that can make an almost string-like sound.

ValhallaDSP Room is another fantastic reverb that I. It excels at clarity in the close-up piano. On an upright piano that is, by nature, a closer type of sound, I made a preset that works well (shown below).


PSP Reverbs and Effects

Rating: 2 out of 5.

PSP makes a reverb dedicated to replicating a piano reverberation and I find it adds an unbelievable amount of realism to an otherwise dry-sounding piano. I would use this reverb to revive inadequate recordings of sampled pianos or to further accentuate the realism of any piano.

It works particularly well when I want to get the sound of the inside of the piano. It puts you right inside the piano or up close like you are there. So I like it for capturing the reverberant effect of the piano itself if that makes sense.

I would recommend using this reverb for up-close piano sound. It emulates the sounds of piano strings resonating, so it gives a dash of realism to a piano track that is just like having your head up against the piano or being inside of one so you can hear the strings resonating.

If, however, the piano already sounds nice, then I would opt for the 112 dB reverb and cascade instead.

Convolution Reverb

These types of reverb instruments take an impulse response (a sound recorded like an impulse such as a balloon pop or a hammer strike) and use this to construct the reverberation heard.

There are expensive versions of convolution reverbs out there, but I use an inexpensive one called Fog Convolver. It works well and does not cost a lot. I do not find that I get the most-pleasing reverb from convolution, but I can get the most-realistic. I would prefer to have the best-sounding so I do not use the convolution reverb as much as I do algorithmic ones.

If you use Pianoteq, it has a convolution reverb built into it with presets and also where you can load your own impulse responses.

I find that convolution reverb works best for simulating outdoor spaces. Pianoteq has a “Brocéliande” reverb preset. Brocéliande is the forest from King Arthur days, and this reverb setting gives the feel of being outdoors in the woods.


Panning

pan-pianos

I often have two instances of pianos playing. One is the background or chords and the other the lead. I like to get a broad natural expansion on the stereo image of the background as a base while putting the lead in a narrower stereo image.

I pan these two pianos apart from each other using my DAW.

Environmental Noises

Noises in the background such as piano bench movement, crowd cheering, creaks, pedal noise, etc. I apply through sound files applied to the piano roll. Sometimes crowd noises do not need reverb or need varying amounts of Room Ambience or other reverb.

To add to the realism of a piano track, I will often add creaks, clunks, key noise, and bench noise. These I get from outside sources as wave files added as tracks in the mix.

These sounds can be found on the internet in various places.

Also, check out the Cinematique Kontakt instrument named Upright Piano described in this post. It has several piano effects such as creaks and noises that can add realism to other pianos when applied properly.

To get a realistic sound, I make sure these noises have a reverb appropriate for where they would be located in real life. A thunderstorm is outside so it reverberates the room a bit but not as if it were in the room itself. A creaky bench, however, is inside the room and gets all of the room reverb effects. See my section on reverb for more.

Additional Reverberation Effects

Turning the tails of the reverb from a piano back onto themselves give a nice reverse reverberation effect.

It has been used by Ben Lukas Boysen (see video below):

ValhallaDSP talks in their blog of the bloom that is a kind of reverse reverb and it is obtainable with their Shimmerhttps://valhalladsp.com/2010/12/02/valhallashimmer-tips-and-tricks-bloom/

Shimmer makes a beautiful effect that can quickly get overpowering, but kept in it is an unparalleled way to get a silky smoothness to the reverb. With pitch shifting up and down it is easy to create a string-like chorus along with the piano sound.

Blackhole is also an effect in the same range as Shimmer. Blackhole can go a bit further into the drone-making realm and does not have the dual shifting effect.

In the same vein of effects is Frostbite. It is a different kind of distorting reverb that can give a different type of after effect in the reverb tail.

One of the best at reverse reverbs seems to be the Soundtoys Crystallize. Many factory presets are almost exactly the effect found in the reversed piano tails.

You can also do it with samples. A way to do it with samples is shown in the YouTube video below.

Crossfeed

Crossfeed is something I put on all of my tracks because my primary audience is listening to my music through headphones. Crossfeed will give the listener a feeling of being in a room with excellent speakers (if done right). I want my listener to feel that when they listen in headphones so I leave it on when I master my tracks and output them.

In conjunction with Sonarworks Reference, Goodhertz CanOpener Studio works wonders and creates a spacious amazing-sounding feel.

Harmonics Generators

Sub Harmonics

To give extra emphasis to the low-end of pianos, I use Lowender. Lowender creates low-frequency sub-harmonic content. It picks up on what is there and makes more.

With piano, I use the more traditional Classic range, blender at 50%, drive at only 1 to 3 Nigels and not more, lowpass all the way up clockwise, bass synthesis knobs I adjust to the material and how much I want of the bass.

One thing to note is the bass gate. I keep this at the lowest for piano (fully-left). Make sure the light is green, indicating it is open. I have had some glitches where it is not and never opens. Maybe some kind of software or memory issue.

Also noteworthy is that when I have had the range set to guitar, I get a warbling sound out of the bass when a piano is played. This is probably more to do with the piano than with Lowender. When in doubt, I send the blend slider left, crank the drive, and listen to the output. I adjust the drive until it is smooth and to my liking.

lowender

Harmonics in General

Harmonics exciters like the Audiority Harmonic Maximizer accentuate the existing signal by adding harmonics to it. Harmonic Maximizer is surprisingly good and transparent.

Saturation and Distortion

I used tape saturation sparingly, and now not at all as I have found it to be a source of harshness in the tones of the pianos. Pianos have such a huge dynamic range that tape saturation plugins like Satin will give a harsh tone to the louder key hits. I tried reducing the levels with compression and volume, but this did not work. Now I use a tape saturation plugin on my master that does not produce the harshness because I do not apply any at all – only the tape wow and flutter. It is Goodhertz Wow Control with a master setting.

I will sometimes (not often) put an instance of Decapitator (shown) on the particular piano of interest (my designated bass piano), with a bass expander type of setting (dark fat mix). I put it after the reverb.

decap-darkfatmix

It is good to play around with these effects while watching an EQ instance just after them to see what is actually happening in the frequencies. It is not always possible to hear these low frequencies or harmonics well so I would advise not relying solely on your ears.

Equalization

On pianos, the main sounds are generally higher so I watch my EQ and roll off the low parts so as to not muddy the mix.

On the high end, I have a high shelf at 18kHz to boost and give air. In that region, you get the harmonics or overtones that are absolutely essential for a good-sounding piano.

I am convinced to have a great, clean-sounding piano sound, you need to control the tone of the piano with proper equalization. I’ve found that the kind of equalizer makes a world of difference. I like Tone Control that uses the Baxandall tone control stack, that follows the Baxandall analog circuitry as detailed in a paper written by Peter J. Baxandall: NegativeFeedbackTone

Tone Control Piano1

It is usually important to cut the low end of a piano because it will muddy up the mix and have a booming effect if you don’t. I like to add air to it as well, lifting that high end.

But, if I want a good low-end from my piano, I will not cut that low side but instead, apply a lift to it and the high side like below.

On the piano mix bus, I will sometimes tilt-shift the tone upward for a brighter feel like shown below. This kind of tilt EQ does not change the overall level and that makes it a pleasure to work with even after you have all the levels correct in mastering.

TiltShift1

Or, most often, I will give a boost to the sub frequencies to get a good strong bass sound from the low piano strings using the settings shown below.

Further, as a kind of stereo equalization, I apply a stereo mid-side effect to widen the sides and give a more expansive feel.

MSPiano

Limiting, Compression, and Leveling

In my master, I limit to the maximum level of the medium of interest (streaming, CD, etc.). In all cases, I do not want notes of my pianos being limited. The limiting on musical notes such as pianos will produce harsh tones. I often am turning down the pianos in order to prevent them from hitting the limiter.

Watch out for in-piano limiting. I found that there is a limiter built-in to many piano vsts and Kontact as well. Turn these off unless you find a need otherwise.

I use a compressor to gently compress my pianos in a bus. A 2:1 ratio with 33% attack and 66% release works well with a 10 ms lookahead. I increase the output by 2dB and set my compressor to just be a traffic cop of sorts and get the peaks (not operating all the time). My threshold is usually -15dB but has to be adjusted to the material.

The gain-riding plugins out there are usually reserved for vocals, but you can think of the lead piano as a vocal of sorts and ride the gain on it to help it stand out in the mix.

Overall I try to adhere to the K-14 scale levels when I master piano works. If it is very delicate work then I use K-20, but this is not often.

See also: Proper Levels and Metering for Sound and Music

Sound Quality

To summarize the sound quality issues I’ve had, here are a few guidelines:

  1. Equalize only keeping the frequencies you need. Nothing over 5 kHz is generally useful. Nothing below 30 Hz is either. Keeping all frequencies will allow some to overlap and create dissonant or downright annoying tones.
  2. Do not let the piano hit limits in either the master limiter or in the channels or busses. The limiter inside of instruments should be used with caution and instead of an external limiter. Keeping below the limits prevents harshness and preserves the wide dynamic range of the instrument. If you must “turn it up,” then compress before limiting and do not allow the peaks of the pianos to limit. When they limit, they have an odd and ugly-sounding distortion effect even with soft clipping and melodic-type vintage limiters. I haven’t found one yet that limits a piano well. (Maybe that is why there is a limiter built into many piano instruments.)
  3. Levels are problematic for me. It is hard to gain stage a piano piece accurately because there are wild variations in the velocities of the notes and, consequently, their levels.
  4. Harsh notes or so-called “brittleness” of some notes has been an issue. I resolved these problems in one of two (or both) ways:
    1. Avoid the seventh (7th) harmonic as it can be problematic with standard equal temperament tuning. In Pianoteq, for example, I pull down the slider of the 7th harmonic in the voicing window.
    2. Do octave stretching or stretch tuning. I change it from 1 to higher in Pianoteq in the tuning window octave slider. In Synthogy I choose the octave stretching option instead of equal in the session page tuning drop-down menu as “stretch.” Stretch tuning improves the overall consonance of the piano.
    3. Avoid tape saturation plugins. These will invariably distort the sound of notes.

Velocity

More than any other instrument, in my opinion, the piano needs careful handling of the velocities of the notes. These velocities make or break a good piano sound. A delicate touch produces a much different sound than a hard-hitting of the keyboard. This can make all the difference in the tone of a tune.

Strumming

Believe it or not, the piano is a stringed instrument and can benefit from careful strumming of the notes. Particularly useful on chords, the strum function found in most DAWs can make it feel more realistic if carefully applied. I find when I record my actual finger presses, for a chord as an example, I do not hit all three notes simultaneously. This should be reflected in any good music to give it a human quality, and strumming can help with that if properly applied.

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