The Piano Compromise Part 2 - Pianoteq

In the previous article, I went into detail about how and why the piano is so important to me, yet also not compatible with my living situation (cost and size). In this article, I explore what, if any, solutions might exist to help bring a more authentic piano-playing experience into my home.

Digital Pianos Vs. Acoustic Pianos

It's all about the tonal bloom! - Acoustic pianos have hundreds of strings, the highest of which are not dampened, leaving them free to always sympathetically resonate. Add varying cabinet characteristics and duplex scaling, and there is a plethora of subtle overtones, partials and harmonics that colour and influence every note and chord in unique ways (in every instance). As notes are combined (in chords or sustained melodies), the characteristics of these overtones change and evolve in response to whatever is being played.

The overall effect of this advanced sympathetic resonance and tonal-harmonic interplay is that every note on a piano blooms; by which I mean the tone grows, evolves and enriches (opens up) over the span of its duration (most notably in the first second or so upon striking a note). No two instances of blooming are ever quite the same, as the characteristic (of the bloom) is entirely dependent on the pitches/harmonies, voicing and dynamics of whatever's being played at that given moment. The synchronisation (or lack there of) of tonal beats contained within the harmonies (harmonious or dissonant) will move in and out of sync until they coalesce into a sort of equilibrium or compromise, coming to rest on an all new, fainter harmonic resonance that sustains until the dampers are reinstated or the energy of the sustain dissipates.

This is a difficult quality to explain in layman terms, but I will attempt to summarise by saying that playing a piano with a well crafted bloom is akin to a conversation between player and instrument. Rather than commanding a piano via player-input, the player adapts and tempers their playing, sympathetically, working with the piano's unique tonal bloom to craft all manner of mood and tonal palette. Moreover, playing the same piece of music on two different pianos will likely be a notably different conversation in each instance; such is the nature of uniqueness across pianos, even of the same make and model.

I appreciate that we're getting into extremely esoteric discussion points about tonal characteristics, which, if you're not a pianist, might seem pedantic or hard to relate to. However, this sort of thing is extremely important to experienced pianists, and in my 25+ years of playing the piano, along with almost 20 years of working with music production software, sample-libraries and synthesis, I've never played a sampled piano that's capable of recreating sympathetic resonance and tonal-blooming in a satisfyingly authentic way.

The Search for a More Realistic Tone

In the autumn of 2021, I decided to explore high quality sample-libraries believing that purchasing one would perhaps give me some new, more satisfying piano tones to explore. I spent several weeks researching the best piano sample-libraries on the market, listening to demos, reading reviews, and so on.

However, I wasn't sold on any of the market leaders. I couldn't put my finger on what exactly was lacking, but as impressive as they sounded in their online demos, I wasn't confident they were what I was looking for. After exhausting the sample-library options, I turned my attention to a physical modelling software program called Pianoteq by french company Modartt, and things started to get very interesting!

Modartt's Pianoteq is not a sample-library, instead it creates tones using physical modelling synthesis. Put simply, there's a complex array of algorithms and mathematical formula that synthesise or construct sound-waves that mimic both the tone and behaviour of real pianos; not just in the initial sound generation, but how each individual tone influences all other tones throughout their collective sustains.

Piano-modelling technology was first spearheaded by Roland and their V-Piano in the mid 2000s. Modartt's Pianoteq however, appears to be taking the principles of virtual piano-modelling to significant new heights!

Pianoteq has different algorithms, each of which models different real-world pianos such as Steinway & Sons, C.Bechstein, Petrov, Yamaha, Steingraeber & Söhne, Grotrian, Blüthner and more. The reviews were glowing, but I was sceptical, as I didn't believe it could sound truer than a sample-library. I nevertheless tried the free-demo and suffice to say, I was blown away. I'd never heard a synthetic or digital instrument behave so acoustically; behave being the important point here.

I mentioned above about sympathetic resonance and tonal bloom, and how sample-libraries often don't generate it at all, or if they do generate it, it feels artificial, falling short of authenticity or realism. Pianoteq however gets this blooming and tonal-dynamic harmonic-overtone interplay staggeringly right. It's frankly breathtaking!

This will likely be because its algorithms allow for a great many in-the-moment permutations of tone generation, which can more closely mimic a real piano (as opposed to simply replicating individual notes in isolation like a sample-library does).

To put it another way, it sounds as though the algorithms can adjust a note's harmonics and overtones when additional notes are played (and the new notes' harmonics interact with the previous notes' harmonics). Expand this notion across 256-note polyphony, and to all 128 velocity parameters of MIDI, and the variables are far beyond anything a sample-library could hope to achieve.

Another significant characteristic that results from virtual modelling is that, as the sound is generated via synthesis (as opposed to recalling samples), the initial tone generation has a different behaviour characteristic (to that of a sample). It's hard to explain and better understood when playing and comparing to sampled pianos, but there's an immediacy to the response of Pianoteq, which makes it feel more engaging and realistic than a sampled piano.

Superb tonal and playing characteristics aside, it also recreates (and allows you adjust) a great many other aspects of the piano, such as hammer softness, piano age (condition), intonation, tuning, soundboard resonance, half pedalling, "practice felt" inserts, action noise, damper noise, duplex scaling, and so on. It also offers the potential to take things beyond realism, by adjusting the length of strings, where the hammer strikes the string, the time it takes for the bloom to transfer through the cabinet and more. Pianoteq's potential to manipulate and shape all manner of fascinating tones that still behave with piano-like characteristics makes it a most inspirational tool. It's an aspect of the software that led Brian Eno to give it the following (glowing) testimonial:

"I bought Pianoteq 6 a couple of weeks ago. I think it is the most well-realised and intelligently constructed piece of music software I've ever had the pleasure of using. It is an absolute milestone. Aside from its incredible power as an emulator of pianos, the possibilities that unfold when you start to edit the models are astonishing. I've been lost in it since I bought it, and keep dragging friends into the studio to show them this miracle. The randomisation possibilities are so intelligently constructed and are a great help in understanding the enormous variety of possibilities this instrument offer. I don't think I've ever been so impressed by a piece of software design and I just wanted to thank the team who put this together."

Trial & Purchase

I joyfully played the demo for many hours (if you're a pianist, I recommend you do the same). I couldn't stop myself! Between the realism of the raw piano tones, how they responded to input and touch, and the sheer depth of manipulation and tailoring that the software is capable of, I was sold! I purchased the "Standard" edition (€249) which came with three pianos (of my choosing) from their inventory (all models are available to trial in the demo).

As I tend to prefer softer, jazzier tones, I opted for the Steinway Model B (6'11" grand, commonly used in Jazz due to its slightly softer tone - compared to the Model D concert grand). This has become my go-to piano model for daily practice and leisurely play.

I also opted for the YC5. Modartt don't appear to have the licensing rights to use the Yamaha name, but it's widely considered that this is their take on the Yamaha C5. An industry staple, approx. 6'7" in length with a very uniform and versatile tone. C5's have been used in countless pop, rock and jazz recordings. With a little tinkering I was able to make it sound near identical to the Yamaha used on Ryuichi Sakamoto's solo-piano works (which I believe were recorded on a Yamaha C9 - a longer version of the C5).

Lastly, as the above largely covered my immediate grand piano tastes, I chose the U4 upright model. This model is steeped in all the charm and distinctive character of an upright piano, which is very appealing and I will undoubtedly find a use for this tone in future projects (as well as enjoy simply playing it).

Whilst it doesn't state in Modartt's literature if the U4 is based on a specific upright piano, given that Yamaha's flagship upright piano is called the "U3" and Modartt's upright offering is called the "U4", it doesn't require a stretch of the imagination to assume that this piano model is probably based on the Yamaha U3.

Only Three Pianos! What If I Want More/Different Piano Tones In The Future?

All piano models in Pianoteq are available within the software to demo, and have a purchase price of €49 per piano (a large selection of interesting antique and historical pianos are also included as standard when you purchase the software). Therefore, if I wish to add another piano model to my arsenal in the future, I can easily do so via my online account and with relatively low expense.

Pianoteq has an impressive list of pianos, that all distinctly capture the tonal colour and nuances of their respective brands and models. Whilst they cover a significant proportion of leading piano manufacturers, there are some apparent gaps in their roster. The most notable are Bösendorfer, Fazioli and Kawai. However, I suspect this is due in part to licensing complications (Yamaha own Bösendorfer) and/or simply not yet getting around to developing piano models for these brands.

There is a piano in Pianoteq named "K2" which is claimed by Modartt to be a custom-designed model and not based on any particular real-world piano. However, it is widely believed by many on piano forums that this model shares a number of characteristic traits with both Fazioli and Kawai (most notably the shimmer and bloom of overtones in the upper harmonic registers). Whether intentional or coincidental, the "K2" is worth exploring if you're looking for a Fazioli or Kawai tone.

It would also be nice to one day see other, lesser known, high quality instruments such as Estonia, Schimmel, W.Hoffman, Boston and so on, make their way into Pianoteq, as whilst not commonly used at international concert level, they each have distinct and unique tonal qualities that could bring a nice variety to one's production palette. With all that said, what's currently available is still seriously versatile and impressive!

It's Not Just Acoustic Pianos

Pianoteq also emulates electric pianos, clavinets, vibrophones, celestes, steel drums, harps, and more. They're seriously impressive and some of the most realistic emulations I've heard from any software, sampler or synthesiser.

There are just as many adjustable parameters on the other instruments as there are on the acoustic piano models, making them very customisable and capable of extreme warmth and realism. In direct comparison with my Nord Electro 2, Pianoteq's Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds both have more body, depth and realism. Admittedly however, the default settings for both the Rhodes and Wulitzer have overzealous (for my taste) mechanical noises (hammers and damper) and require a little tweaking to sound warmer.

Side-Note 1: Since drafting this article, I have invested in the Rhodes/Wurlitzer models and begun using them on some projects.

Seal of Approval...

In most cases, piano manufacturers have endorsed the software and licensed their names for use. The obvious exceptions being Yamaha, however, they sell a great many digital piano products and therefore have a vested interest in not licensing their name. Nevertheless, to have the seal of approval from Steinway, C.Bechstein, Petrov, Blüthner and more, is a pretty resounding review in its own right!

Living With Pianoteq

Since purchasing this software I've found my three pianos of choice to be more than enough to satisfy my playing needs (frankly, I'd be happy with just the Steinway Model B, but having the variety is a nice perk). I find myself making time on an almost daily basis to simply sit and play, for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. I'm often not working, composing, or producing; I'm just firing up the software, putting my headphones on, and losing myself in a world of piano, in a way that I've not truly done for almost two decades.

You can hear the Pianoteq Steinway Model B in use on my recent charity release raising money for the Ukrainian relief effort.

Side-note 2: I believe this software is designed for the pianist. If you're not a pianist but in the market for good piano sounds to program MIDI with, I'm not confident this is the software for you (although you definitely need to try it out, regardless). I think this software's strength lies in a realism derived from its response to player input. I'm doubtful programming MIDI will make the most of this software's capabilities and perhaps a sample-library such as Waves Grand Rhapsody or KeyScape (with all its range and variety) might be more suitable for your needs.

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

To my (pleasant) surprise, with a relatively small investment and easy installation of Pianoteq, I now had the most realistic sounding playing experience I could hope to achieve with software. This instantly felt like I'd gained a much more genuine piano playing experience in my home.

However, this quickly brought to light a number of serious drawbacks in my MIDI controller!

This is not a critique of StudioLogic controllers, simply a comment on the age and condition of the one I had. My StudioLogic dated from the mid 1990s and had been used extensively. Despite buying it second hand, it played well and had life left in it, however I played it a lot in the years since first getting it and time had taken its toll. It struggled to register low velocities and a couple of notes were overly sensitive; striking loudly regardless of how delicately I played them. Several keys in the middle-register knocked and rattled as their mechanisms were tired and worn, and all things considered, whilst it was an adequate key-bed for functional MIDI sequencing, it didn't provide an authentic piano playing experience. I.e: Having significantly upgraded my piano sound-source, I now needed to upgrade my MIDI controller to do it justice.

In the next Piano Compromise article, I will detail my research, trials and elimination process in my quest for a more genuine, piano-like keyboard action to use in conjunction with Pianoteq.

In the meantime, assuming you're a pianist, I strongly recommend you download the Pianoteq demo and give it a go. Use headphones and crank up the volume! I promise you, you won't be disappointed.