No matter how good an audio sample may sound, there are always notes that sound synthetic and with instruments like a grand piano subtleties and musicality are inevitably lost. It’s a problem that can be solved by not sampling an instrument but using true physical modelling. That’s what Pianoteq from French company Modartt seeks out to do — and from what I’ve experienced: with success.
Pianoteq is based on true physical modelling and I got the chance of trying out the Standard version. Pianoteq comes in three versions: Stage, Standard and Pro. The Standard version outputs at 48kHz max, but has all the features of the Pro except for the lack of full note-based editing. The Pro version also outputs at a higher 192kHz. The app supports classical, rock as well as electric pianos, harp, harpsichord, clavinet (Hohner included) and more. My test version came with two instrument packs and I chose the bundle with two classical pianos. In addition, Pianoteq makes a whole range of old instruments available as a free downloadable pack — I downloaded those as well.
The Pianoteq 5 interface is user-friendly. It has an unusual interface that doesn’t resemble the common OS X design, but it’s easy to use with its large settings areas. When you install Pianoteq 5, it is also made available for VST, Audio Unit and RTAS/AAX hosts. The interface has drop-down menus for selecting your instrument, its settings — Tuning, Voicing, Design and Output — and the presets that come with each instrument.
The first three options allow you to change the instrument’s own characteristics. Tuning, for example, offers the digital equivalent of a real-world piano tuner who comes in and adjusts the piano strings for best and most accurate sound. The Output settings allow you to change the recording characteristics, i.e. how many microphones are used, where to position them in 3D space, microphone level, etc.
The Tuning settings have a diapason option. Diapason in this context refers to a tuning fork. The two-pronged metal fork resonates at a specific constant pitch when set vibrating by striking it against a surface, emitting a pure musical tone. The most common tuning fork sounds the note of A (440 Hz). This is the standard concert pitch. However, in the 18th and 19th Century many tuning forks had a frequency of 423.5 Hz. Pianoteq lets you set the diapason to your own liking. Voicing enables you to set the hardness of the hammers, the hammer noise, strike point, etc, etc.
You can play an instrument using the virtual keyboard, but you’ll definitely want to use a MIDI keyboard. Any keyboard will do — I tried the IK Multimedia iRig Keys Pro and Nektar Panorama P6. Any keyboard can be used as is, but you can also calibrate your keyboard, which is especially useful for creating a customised velocity curve.
In short, the app lets you adapt the instrument sound and playing experience to your own taste. All of the parameters model the behaviour of real pianos and result in a realistic sound, although you can change an instrument’s configuration in extreme ways. That will result in unnatural sound, but might be exactly what you’re after. I was curious to see how natural the pianos and harpsichords actually sound, even when you change parameters. To test, I started by using Logic Pro X as the host and first playing some notes with Pianoteq 5’s D4 Steinway Grand Piano set to Classical AB loaded on one track. I loaded another track with Apple’s “Grand Piano” set to its defaults.
I listened on my pair of studio monitors. Now, I lack a sound proof room, so a lot of the subtle character of audio goes lost unless I crank up the volume. On the monitors, the two pianos almost sounded identical, but the Pianoteq D4 definitely sounded more like a real piano. For example, Apple’s Grand Piano lacked in detailed velocity feedback. Even if I hit a key really hard, all I got was a louder note, but on the monitors and with some considerable background noise, it was not easy to tell what exactly was better about the Pianoteq track. So, to rule out the noise from outside, I decided to repeat the test with a pair of Sennheiser HD800 headphones.
The difference was astounding. Apple’s Grand Piano sample sounded OK but it lacked clarity, dynamic range, detail and above all the subtly muffled sound of a felt hammer hitting a piano string. However, the Pianoteq 5 D4 Steinway delivered. In fact, the Pianoteq D4 had all the extra sounds I remember a real piano makes from the time when I played one as a boy. Now I never played a Steinway — I wish I had! — but when I was a bit older, I started going to concertos in my birth town regularly and on the Pianoteq track I heard the Steinways I listened to back then.
Who can benefit from Pianoteq
So, from experience and memory, I can safely say Pianoteq’s mathematical modelling comes very close to the real thing. That it does has obvious benefits when you’re an aspiring or professional musician. It enables you to play the keyboard of a good-quality MIDI controller and hear the feedback in terms of velocity and overall sound quality exactly as you would playing a real piano (or other supported instrument). The main difference would be that you can listen to yourself playing on a pair of headphones or speakers.
In addition, and because Pianoteq 5 supports virtually every MIDI keyboard, you can also enjoy all of the tactile feedback you’d get from a real piano — if your keyboard is up to it. Even on the modest IK Multimedia iRig Keys Pro I just recently reviewed, I was able to play really pianissimo and really pianoforte, thanks to the app’s dynamic range that covers 127 levels instead of the usual 16 a sampled instrument supports.
However, I would say Pianoteq 5 has a far larger potential user base. If you’re an Indie movie maker, a Youtuber or a small team of documentary makers, you almost never will have the budget to hire a professional pianist with or without orchestra. In that case, Pianoteq 5 could replace a real Steinway in a concert hall as it’s every bit as good as the real thing — and at a fraction of the cost of setting up the real thing in a concert hall.
Pianoteq 5 Standard comes with two instrument packs, preset (fxp) loading. You can save your own custom settings as presets, audio effects including EQ, Chorus, Delay, etc. You can also tweak your piano model, although you will need to have some decent knowledge of acoustics and sound in order to create something that sounds natural. Microphone settings can be changed and external reverb impulses loaded. Note-per-note editing is available for tune and volume in the Standard version. The Pro version supports full note-by-note editing and internal computation up to 192 kHz.
Pianoteq 5 Standard costs €249. The Pro version costs €399. Instrument “packs” — these are instruments and presets rolled into one — cost €49. When you install Pianoteq, all instrument packs are unlocked as demos. You can buy a licence for the ones you want.