So, you have an 80 square foot room but you feel Glenn's Gould spirit burning inside you? Don't worry! Long gone are the days when you had to depend on 800-lb Steinways to play a chord. Thanks to VSTi developers we now have many prestigious pianos that weigh nothing and fit comfortably on the hard drive of a laptop ... Join me and I'll present to you the best 88-note options out there!
Note: The list of best virtual pianos is presented in no particular order.
This French developer offers a superb modeling piano that recreates the sonic universe of a piano by means of algorithms that calculate different parameters in real time: sound diffusion in the soundboard, hammer hardness, position of the microphones... It's main advantage is that it can offer up to 105 keys without clogging your hard disk with samples (it only requires 20 MB)! It is available in three versions (from 99 to 399 euros), each with a grand piano, effects, a convolution reverb, and different editing complexity levels.
Adopted by many great pianists, like Chick Corea or Michael Garson, Synthogy virtual pianos are based around a painstakingly detailed sampling of legendary pianos. The latest addition is the American Concert D that recreates a 1951 vintage Steinway, including a 50GB library with multi-layering and up to 20 levels of velocity! Ideal for fans of attack and clarity. (199€)
With over 80GB of samples, the Grand Piano offers a Steinway D, a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial and a Yamaha C7 Grand. Highly versatile, the software has many editing parameters and offers advanced features like sympathetic resonance and half pedaling. Thanks to its very well accomplished sample interpolation technology, it offers a lively and particularly smooth dynamic response. (399€)
Based around the excellent UVi audio engine, the Piano collection provides a bundle with a particularly appealing quality/price ratio. For less than 200€ euros you get five carefully sampled pianos: a concert Kawai EX with amazing projection and dynamics, an old Pleyel recorded with tube mics (for fans of warm textures), a Steinway D, an old French Gaveau piano that offers a very original sound (pretty bright but without being aggressive), and an old, slightly out-of-tune upright piano. So, to sum it up, it's a pretty broad range of complementary timbres that you get.
Imperfect Samples (a weird name you will agree!) offers 54GB of samples of a 1908 Steinway in walnut finish with four microphone placement options: Player, Close, Room, Dry. You also get numerous modes and controls, like half-pedaling, sympathetic resonance and diverse noises (pedals, fingers, lid!). Moreover, there are different versions available, depending on your needs and budget: Basic (8GB) with only one microphone position and 6GB of samples for 39£; Pro (12GB, two positions) for 90£; Complete (30GB, 3 positions) for 130£; and the all-inclusive one, baptized Extreme, for 200£. Generally speaking, the sound is very broad, without too much attack, but with a touch of mesmerizing finesse. Ideal for muffled and nocturne romantic ambiances…
Within the featherweight category, TruePianos proposes a VSTi or standalone piano at an affordable price (142€), and not very demanding in terms of disk space. It has five modules (with code names of precious stones: sapphire, emerald, diamond…) that represent the main sound types, and with presets that allow you to fine tune the sound of each module. It's all very generic, but we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent attack, reverb and the nice size room option. Sweet!
The German developer offers several pianos revolving around their excellent Kontakt audio engine, which guarantees a very good and smooth expression, as well as some nice tweaks simplified by a very clear and practical GUI. The New York Grand (69€) includes a Big Apple model (without any references to a brand, but it shouldn't be to hard to guess...) for around 3GB. No room for confusion, plus you have the legendary Native stability and a nice bonus in the form of a convolution reverb to choose among different types of rooms (church, jazz club...).
From the inventor of Cubase, The Grand ─ one of the big VST piano pioneers ─ is already in its third version. 20 velocity levels, mechanical noises, convolution reverb, EQ, microphone placement options... It has everything to make you happy, if you have the 249 euros necessary to make yourself with the Steinway D, Bösendorfer 290, Yamaha C7 and CP80 included in the software. Ideal for dense mixes, The Grand offers a very accurate sound, which may lack a little romance when solo, but excels in terms of presence and dynamics. An excellent tool for composers.
If you listen to the demo of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody on the developers' website you might feel an urge to immediately spend 349 euros and get this piano library of more than 50,000 samples (64 GB) of three pianos (American, Italian and German) with a particularly breathtaking expressiveness. Making use of the UVI or MachFive engine, the software offers many settings (mic placement, resonance, una corda, half pedal, response curves ...) to fit in all contexts, both solo and with orchestrations. A must!
To wrap up this short VST piano tour we have two instruments designed by the tenors of drum libraries, who decided to move onto the piano world at the same time! Coincidence? We'll never know... but anyway, Toontrack proposes EZ Keys for 179€. With several piano models and the possibility of adding extensions, the plug-in's uniqueness lies in the fact that, apart from offering a high-quality virtual piano, it also includes a MIDI arranger. This allows you to create piano tracks without actually knowing how to play one, or to improve those styles that you don't really master, which adds an educational aspect to the whole: well done!
The swede developer also proposes a piano expander that includes a Steinway D, an upright piano and a Fender Rhodes. There are many presets available, with natural but also manipulated sounds (for example, you can boost the sympathetic resonances in a pretty extreme way to create very accomplished ghostly sounds), but the focus is on the different types of microphones used to get different attacks and tones. This allows for a great flexibility in different styles when mixing: simple and very effective (179 €).