Bechstein Digital Grand sounds grand but plug-in falls short

The Bechstein Digital Grand is an exceptionally versatile instrument. The developers state that its tonal character corresponds to the acoustic model. For example, while playing with high polyphony throughout all registers, each note remains clearly defined within the arrangement. The plug-in, however, didn’t work that well on my system and even crashed occasionally.

The C. Bechstein Digital Grand was developed to perform everyday recordings of digital music productions at the highest quality. That is certainly true for the sound-related aspects of this digital instrument. If this could only be said of the stability of the plug-in, then the Bechstein experience would be top-notch.

The digital Bechstein instrument lives inside the KONTAKT Player or full KONTAKT software from Native Instruments. The KONTAKT Player, which comes free with the Bechstein Digital Grand, is a system that allows you to load several instruments and play them either in stand-alone mode or as a plug-in to most DAWs, including ProTools and Logic Pro X. I tested with Logic Pro X.

The software proved a pain to work with. The interface is fine, but the app has its quirks. It all starts with loading the instrument library. You are supposed to load the Bechstein instrument into the Player’s library once and then have it on call with each launch. On my system, with every launch of the KONTAK Player, I was forced to load the Bechstein instrument again — complete with admin password enforcement. Oddly enough, it worked fine with Native Instruments’ own free example instruments.

But it wasn’t my only bad moment with the KONTAKT Player. When used as a plug-in, the Player would also crash — taking Logic Pro X with it — when trying to record the Bechstein instrument with the plug-in’s own metronome set to work. In short, the Bechstein experience was seriously hampered by a stubborn and buggy player.

25GB of piano

The Bechstein instrument is big, both in the real world and in its digital format. It weighs in at a hefty 25GB of data. To make sure you can play the instrument without it breaking up, you will need to install the Bechstein folder on a very fast disk, preferably an SSD. When the instrument library has been loaded, you’ll end up with three different Bechstein Grand piano setups: the Digital Grand Player M/S (Mid/Side), Digital Grand Side and Digital Grand Top. Each of these has different sound tunings that relate to the position of the microphones at the time of sampling.

Except for an SSD to install the instrument, you’ll also need a top-of-the-bill MIDI keyboard. I tested it with the Nektar Impact LX88+ and found the experience just good enough.

You can fine-tune your keyboard’s velocity curve. Doing so did match up the LX88+ better with the instrument. In contrast to Pianoteq’s system, however, there’s no feedback when setting the curve. Instead, you’re on your own. The interface is gorgeous, though.

Pedals are greyed out until you connect them to the keyboard. The LX88+ accepts only one and that one is really an ON/OFF switch, so I left it at that.

To give you best sound quality, your Mac must be up to the job. For example, in the Player M/S instrument, Bechstein has taken 120 to 150 voices as a guidance value for their tests and some 200 voices with the SIDE and TOP instruments. You can set these values to a lower value if disturbing noises occur when playing several notes. Luckily, my mid-2011 iMac i5/3.2Ghz never ran into trouble.

Unique to the Bechstein Digital Grand is that you can also set sound engineering settings. This refers to the angle of the piano lid, the stereo width, dynamic response, spatial effect and string equalisation. String EQ offers the ability to set basic tonal sound quality and transform the sound of each individual string for different genres. There are curves for individual note fundamentals, overtones, sustain, and for the transient area.

Don’t expect any of your adjustments to sound wildly different. With the Bechstein instrument you’re in a different world. This also applies to the sound engineering. In this panel you can work with the dedicated “elysia” Alpha Compressor and with a sound character “eye” interface. Positive values for the eye give a brighter, more brilliant sound, while negatives turn down the sound to a warmer, more dimmed sound. But neither of these fine-tunings will allow you to make the piano sound like a different instrument, which I think is a good thing and very much how it should be.

Also, keep in mind that some parameters will never come close to the real thing. Take the piano lid, for example. The digital representation of the lid’s position will never sound the way it does in the concert hall — for obvious reasons.

Having said that, I found the Bechstein Digital Grand to come very close to an actual concert piano. If only the software were more stable… The Bechstein Digital Grand costs €249 or around £208.