“The best virtual piano for the buck”

I've wanted to do this experiment for a long time.

For many years I have been wondering how to create a piano on my computer. Which virtual piano can give the greatest satisfaction in daily piano practice, in stage performance or in production-level performance?

Just a few years ago, I found that free or inexpensive offerings were still inadequate. Although slowly improving in quality, free soundfonts were still too inflexible for concert hall-type sound reproduction. They sounded “too shallow” or “too robotic”. They did not adapt well to different modes of expression: slow, fast, sustained, soft, forte, etc. They did not capture the resonances of an acoustic piano. Given the technical limitations of computers and soundfonts at the time, such programs could not yet replace the acoustic piano. Although soundfonts could be used in piano learning, composition work or for reading music, they were incapable of the full breadth of piano expression.

The search

But might a commercial offering do the job?

Starting about 2010, products appeared on the market that seemed to be able to do the job. For a few hundred dollars or Euros, one could buy a programme, plug in an electric piano keyboard (another few hundred dollars), put on some expensive earphones, and off you were: your computer would become a fairly good-sounding piano.

Major side benefit: neither neighbours nor family members would be disturbed, or possibly pained, by your attempts to learn the piano.

I bought one such product after another, with clenched teeth. But overall, I remained unhappy. I am very picky about the acoustics of a piano and about what my virtual piano should do. With many products the sound still appeared shallow and ill-defined to my ears, although I used excellent ear phones, bought at the time for some 700 Euros.

Sound reproduction tended to be poor in the extremes of the dynamic range, and in real-time practice, time delays between hitting the keys and sound reproduction felt annoying – even after time optimization of the MIDI and audio links (e.g. by using ASIO). Whenever I returned from the conservatory with their wonderful acoustic grand pianos (Steinways, Yamahas, etc.), I was confronted by the major deficiencies in my struggling home setup. Soon I had spent well over 1000 Euros, and I was still far away from my dream of creating a truly satisfactory virtual piano.

Recent changes

About two years ago, things began to change. The offerings of much better solutions multiplied. The acoustic quality of virtual pianos is rapidly closing in on that of acoustic pianos. Keyboard response times have been much reduced. Extremes in tonal range are handled much better. Resonance from other strings in the piano is now part of sophisticated virtual piano sound and remains “in the air” after hitting the keys. And the cost of acquisition is dropping fast. Suddenly, high-quality virtual pianos seem to have become possible when before they were just a dream. In my estimation today, at the onset of 2018, a person breaking into music can fully expect to produce an enjoyable “concert hall” sound – all at a most reasonable cost.

So this is what this article is about: where can one get “the best bang for the buck”?

The following is envisaged:

  1. Excellent real-time execution in daily piano practice or stage performance. The sound becomes audible just barely after hitting the key.

  2. The sound feels full, well-defined and is rich in resonances.

  3. Recordings from MIDI files provide high-quality listening enjoyment and are simple to produce. Musicians without special technical skills should be able to obtain high-quality recordings of their own work without resorting to external technical aid.

Our overall goals are thus three-fold:

  1. High-quality stereo sound that very closely resembles the sound of an excellent upright or grand piano.

  2. Additional listening options and recording benefits that are only possible with virtual pianos.

  3. The entire setup should be easy to run and should cost as little as possible.

At the precision level, here is our ambition: we aim for very high sound quality at the 16-bit level, rendered at 48 kHz. This is our objective, but also our limit. We do not aim for the absolutely best sound quality possible today: surround sound or DVD-level 24-or-32 bit sound at 96 kHz or higher-frequency recordings. That top end would by far exceed our musical and financial ambitions, costing well into the several thousand of dollars or Euros.

What do we want in a virtual piano?

Let's be explicit of what we want to find in a virtual piano setup.

  1. MIDI connection. Electronic piano keyboards employ MIDI connections to the computer for sound transmission. Modern electronic keyboards usually connect to the USB2 or USB3 inputs of a computer. This connection should feed into the virtual piano programme.

  2. MIDI loading and MIDI player. We want our virtual piano to be able to read and play MIDI files at the improved sound quality possible in this virtual piano, to listen to past performances, listen to the vast libraries of MIDI files, or to try out new pieces written in composition programmes.

  3. Listening presets and piano switching. Hearing a piano is different, depending on whether you sit at the piano or in the audience. Also one may wish to switch to an entirely different piano. We thus want different listening presets, at least one for close-by settings and one for concert-hall settings, and an option to permit easy piano switching.

  4. Performance recording. Piano learning and music composition involves listening to one's own performance. It should be possible to capture one's own piano performance. Consequently, it is important that the virtual piano permits the saving and reproduction of one's own performance, typically as a MIDI file -- that can be rendered as an audio file.

  5. Built-in metronome. Essential to a piano learner.

  6. Audio recording. One should be able to save as an audio file whatever the system produces.

Do the various virtual piano offerings satisfy these requirements? We shall see below.

Stand-alone and VST

Before we go on, just one more technical explanation.

Many producers have provided their offerings in form of two programmes:

  1. A visible stand-alone programme. This is the programme you see and use for real-time playing.

  2. A mostly invisible VST (Virtual Studio Technology) programme to satisfy the MIDI loading, MIDI playing and audio outputting requirements. To function, this VST programme must be loaded into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for sound input-outputting and sound manipulation. A typical DAW is Ableton Live.

DAWs cost a fair bit of money and are often complex to learn. For this reason many producers of virtual pianos have begun to include MIDI recording, MIDI playing and audio saving in their own stand-alones. Without a DAW, you can then use your virtual piano to play external MIDI files with the greatly improved sound quality of your virtual piano, and you can record yourself for your own learning and performance control. This is evidently a major sales argument in their offerings.

The present sample

The present sample of sound recordings is a comparison between the products I acquired over several years of experimentation. It has no pretence to completeness, but I thought it would provide a good feel for where the obtainable quality and features lie right now.

I have excluded historical pianos from this list, wishing to concentrate on the brighter piano sounds favoured today.

The samples were produced by the following groups, given in alphabetical order:

Producer

Name

Context

Technical

Cost

AddictiveKeys

by XLN Audio

Studio Grand

1.26 GB

Works in the

AddictiveKeys

environment.

stand-alone, VST

 

MIDI connection: yes

MIDI loading: no

MIDI player: no

Listening presets: yes

Piano switching: yes

Performance recording: no

Metronome: no

Outputting as sound: yes

Outputting as audio file: no

$80

Composercloud Subscription

by EastWest

Bechstein

24.2 GB

Part of a large musical DB collection, recorded in comparable conditions as hundreds of other instruments.

Run in the EastWest Play environment.

stand-alone, VST

 

MIDI connection: yes

MIDI loading: no

MIDI player: no

Listening presets: yes

Piano switching: yes

Performance recording: no

Metronome: no

Outputting as sound: yes

Outputting as audio file: no

25 $/EUR

per month

for a

composercloud

subscription

Bösendorfer

38.2 GB

Steinway D

25.6 GB

Yamaha

20.3 GB

FluidR3

FluidR3 GM2-2

145 MB

To be used in

soundfont environment

(free or low-cost)

General MIDI

soundfont

 

(soundfonts need an external programme)

free

Galaxy Instruments

Steinway D

6.05 GB

Standalone instruments in

the Native Instruments / Kontakt environment

stand-alone, VST

 

MIDI connection: yes

MIDI loading: no

MIDI player: no

Listening presets: yes

Piano switching: yes

Performance recording: no

Metronome: no

Outputting as sound: yes

Outputting as audio file: no

EUR 259

for Galaxy II bundle

Vienna Grand (Bösendorfer Imperial)

4.67 GB

NiceKeys

Ultimate

1.2 MB

 

To be used in

soundfont environment

(free or low-cost)

piano-specific

soundfont

 

(soundfonts need an external programme)

free

Personal Orchestra 5

by Garritan

Concert Piano

GrandPiano

Part of a large musical DB collection, recorded in comparable conditions as hundreds of other instruments. Run in the Aria Player environment.

stand-alone, VST

 

MIDI connection: no

MIDI loading: yes

MIDI player: yes, but unusable

Listening presets: yes

Piano switching: yes

Performance recording: no

Metronome: no

Outputting as real-time sound: yes, but unusable

Outputting as audio file: yes (WAV)

EUR 130

for

Personal Orchestra

5

Concert Piano

Resonant B



(Just 36.7 MB for whole orchestra, compressed)

Pianoteq 6

by Modartt



 

Steinway D

Run in the

Pianoteq

environment.

stand-alone, VST

 

MIDI connection: yes

MIDI loading: yes

MIDI player: yes

Listening presets: yes

Piano switching: yes

Performance recording: yes

Metronome: yes

Outputting as sound: yes

Outputting as audio file: yes (WAV, MP3)

Starts at 99 EUR

for a single piano

Grand Grotian

K2



(Entire programme and all pianos included: 56 MB)

 

Note 1: Stand-alone programmes that contain no MIDI file loading, no MIDI player or no audio recording can be enabled for these functions with a reasonably simple arrangement of external programmes explained in this article.

Note 2: Soundfonts can be employed in various free or low-cost programmes such as VMPK, MuseScore2 or SynthFont2. However in comparison with the commercial offerings, it might be technically challenging to obtain a working and quick-responding installation. The principle seems to be: You pay: it works as expected. You don't pay: you may scratch your head for a long time. Example: After quite a bit of experimentation I got VMPK to work with the FluidR3 soundfont for real-time use, with excellent keyboard response time, but not with the Nice Keys Ultimate soundfont. On the other hand, both soundfonts work fine in audio file production under MuseScore2 and SynthFont2.

Note 3: The noted byte size concerns only the data base for the virtual piano in question. In addition, one needs to count on further byte size cost for the operating programmes (exception: Pianoteq).

Note 4: The remarkably small byte imprint of the Pianoteq pianos is obtained by a unique mathematical coding of all relevant piano parameters.

This experiment

The samples of this experiment were recorded as 16-bit WAV files at 48 kHz on a fast 2.93 GHz 64-bit Windows 10 computer. They were standardized to -5 dB, i.e., a 5 dB “headroom” was left in every file. For this article, the WAV files were converted to MP3 files at 320 kbps. In total, there were 14 files, recorded with two pieces of music:

  1. Variation VII of W.A. Mozart's K. 265 (about 1780-82). This segment contains rapid sequences of 16th notes with great jumps. This tests the capacity of the virtual piano to reproduce greatly varying notes in a rapid MIDI sequences without distortion.

  2. The final section with great amplitude variation found in Franz Schubert's Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 – D899 (1827).

I recorded all virtual pianos in “close-by concert hall” configuration. In most cases, this was the programme's default setting. This listening condition is produced by a clever placement of microphones and by an appropriate use of reverberation. The listener gets an impression of what one would hear on-stage, a short distance from the piano, in a typical concert hall that has some resonance. This might be different from what one might hear in daily practice at home. This choice of listener position lets us judge not only the sound of the piano, but also its resonances.

Parameters

Here are some parameters that one might wish to listen for:

  1. clarity: distinctive tone definition

  2. amplitude distribution: adequate distinction of high and low amplitudes

  3. tonal distribution: realistic bass, mid-tones and treble

  4. even tone: no “strange-sounding” or “exceptional” keys or amplitudes

  5. tone spacing: the programme keeps up with the MIDI flow, even in fast passages

  6. extremes: handling of extreme lows and extreme highs

  7. resonances: within the melody and particularly at the end of a passage

The experiment

Please listen to the following sound files. What do you think?

Variation VII of W.A.Mozart's K. 265Addictive Keys – Studio Grand – audience setting



EastWest – Bechstein – master DYN setting



EastWest – Bösendorfer – master DYN 88 setting



EastWest – Steinway D – master DYN setting



EastWest – Yamaha – Master setting



FluidR3 soundfont



Galaxy Pianos – Steinway D – Basic setting



Galaxy Pianos – ViennaGrand – Basic setting



Garritan Personal Orchestra – Concert D – Grand Piano setting



Garritan Personal Orchestra – Concert D – Intimate setting



Nice Keys soundfont – Ultimate (Salamander piano)



Pianoteq – Grand Grotian – Prelude setting



Pianoteq – K2 Grand – Prelude setting



Pianoteq – Steinway D – Prelude setting

 

Franz Schubert's Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90

Addictive Keys – Studio Grand – audience setting



EastWest – Bechstein – master DYN setting



EastWest – Bösendorfer – master DYN 88 setting



EastWest – Steinway D – master DYN setting



EastWest – Yamaha – Master setting



FluidR3 soundfont



Galaxy Pianos – Steinway D – Basic setting



Galaxy Pianos – ViennaGrand – Basic setting



Garritan Personal Orchestra – Concert D – Grand Piano setting



Garritan Personal Orchestra – Concert D – Intimate setting



Nice Keys soundfont – Ultimate (Salamander piano)



Pianoteq – Grand Grotian – Prelude setting



Pianoteq – K2 Grand – Prelude setting



Pianoteq – Steinway D – Prelude setting

 

My own estimation: Three stars

In my opinion, the race for quality has become very tight. Many excellent products await us, both commercially and on the free soundfont market. Many items are very similar and sound truly excellent.

At the same time, three products have merited my special enthusiasm.

First, Pianoteq 6 with their Steinway D implementation. To my ears, the sound of this emulation is excellent, and the programme contains everything on my wish list: MIDI real-time input, MIDI file loading, MIDI player, a never-ending set of listening presets, easy piano switching, performance recording, built-in metronome, sound outputting in real time, as well as audio saving in the form of WAV or MP3 files. On top of that, the entire Pianoteq installation occupies merely 56 MB on my disk, the keyboard response is instantaneous, and the cost was reasonable. I use Pianoteq nearly every day. It merits a big star.

The second big star goes to EastWest. Their virtual music database is gigantic, and their recording standards are excellent. When composing, this environment lets me place pianos into wider orchestral and choral frameworks, like no other data base could. The cost to me is evidently disk space (currently over 500 GB), and occasionally I have found some unevenness in amplitudes (that could be compensated within the EastWest environment). Overall I have been very happy with the clean-and-crisp sounding EastWest pianos. I have used their Bechstein piano in several recordings. And finally, here is a point that is well worth underlining: the $25-monthly subscription is a great deal for regular users like myself.

The third star goes to the West Coast group that created the Nice Keys Ultimate soundfont from a Salamander piano. This soundfont is simply exceptional. I wish I could use it as a real-time virtual piano within the free VMPK. It is probably just too big. In the meanwhile, I have it set as my default piano synthesizer in MuseScore2 where it works fine. Three cheers. I didn't think that such a soundfont would ever be possible.

Further relevant parameters

While a fine auditory impression is crucial in our choice of a virtual piano, there are yet more aspects to consider when setting up a system. One important element is how the key responds to the touch of the fingers: is it too hard, too soft, too unlike an acoustic piano? Another issue is the key delay – the time between hitting the key and the acoustic return.

Yet another area of concern is the headphone and loudspeaker arrangement. Good earphones for piano practice can now be found for prices below 200 Euro. Look for "dynamic stereo headphones", e.g. from Sony. But the situation is trickier for loudspeakers, since normal consumer-grade loudspeakers are unsatisfactory in virtual piano arrangements. They perform badly on the strong sound onsets of a hooked-up piano. My experiences have shown that for smaller loudspeakers, only the best is good enough. I have had good experiences with a fairly expensive, small Bose speaker, well over 100 Euros.

All these parameters merit their own extended discussion, since they influence greatly the final pleasure and performance that is possible with a virtual piano.

Conclusion

We've come a long way.

In middle school, I argued with my music teacher that some day, technology would provide a virtual piano that will sound just as good as an acoustic piano. The teacher was so upset about my comment that he sent me out of class to run an errand for him. That was a few decades ago, but slowly, history is catching up with my vision.

Under my earphones, I smile in retrospect – while getting back to writing more piano music.