Use the Space tab to dial in resonance, tone, and ambience settings.
Several grand-piano virtual instruments have come to market since EM's “Software Eighty Eights” round-up in the October 2006 issue (available at emusician.com). The Garritan Authorized Steinway Virtual Model D Concert Grand Piano was among the most anticipated, in no small part because it was developed in partnership with and authorized by Steinway. It comes in three editions: Professional ($399), Standard ($199), and Basic ($99). The primary difference between them is the number of miking variations (called Listener Perspectives) — five, two, and one, respectively. Garritan promises there will be an upgrade path between editions at a slight premium to the original purchase price. Here I'll cover the Basic edition, and it is no slouch.
The Basic edition is downloadable and comes in Audio Units, VST, and RTAS plug-ins, as well as stand-alone formats. It uses the new Aria sample-playback engine. The GUI, custom designed by Steinway's chosen graphic design firm, is compact and, with its four tabs, easy to navigate. On the Main tab you choose the polyphony, velocity curve (five choices ranging from concave to convex), level of pedal noise, and Listener Perspective (only one choice for Basic).
The Space tab is where you apply sustain and sympathetic resonance, 3-band EQ, and an ambient reverb with 12 room types and the full spectrum of controls. You can toggle each effect on or off. Not surprisingly, both resonance options gobble up some CPU, but the EQ and reverb consume almost no power. With all effects on, I was able to play sequences of block chords with the recommended 64-voice polyphony setting without choking my somewhat underpowered PPC Mac.
The reverb sounds quite good and is especially welcome in the Basic edition because that is close-miked and, therefore, provides no room ambience of its own. You might not choose to use the built-in reverb for tracking, but it is very handy for performance. Like the reverb, the EQ might be useful in performance, but you'd likely avoid messing with the tone of this beautifully sampled piano whenever not absolutely necessary.
PEDALS AND RESONANCE
The two resonances are turned on individually and are adjusted on a 99-point scale. Both are DSP modeled, and although neither is absolutely natural sounding, they're both good enough to be useful. Sustain resonance applies only when the Damper (aka, Sustain) pedal is held down, which, in the real world, raises all dampers and allows all the piano's strings to vibrate in response to played notes. Sympathetic resonance applies only when the Damper pedal is up (dampers down). In that case, only the strings of currently held notes can resonate with newly played notes.
I found sustain resonance to be very realistic with settings in the 15 to 30 range. It even supports half- (proportional) pedaling with sustain pedals that offer a continuous range. Most sustain pedals act like switches, but you can still make use of half-pedaling by assigning a continuous controller such as an expression pedal or mod wheel to MIDI CC 64.
The sympathetic-resonance algorithm is less convincing, but still very usable at settings below 50. The problem is that there is a slight, and to my ear unnatural, resonance even when no other keys are depressed. The Sostenuto (middle) pedal implementation accurately simulates the effect of suspending the dampers of only those notes being held when the pedal is pressed. Lightly pressing a key (Velocity = 1) simulates raising the damper without sounding the note, a technique often used for sympathetic-resonance effects.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the Basic edition is the lack of soft-pedal samples. As a result, the Una Corda (aka, Soft) pedal doesn't have any effect. You can upgrade to the Standard edition to solve that problem.
Naturally, the Steinway as sampled is perfectly tuned in standard 12-tone equal temperament. But because it is sample-based, you have the luxury of using other tunings, and the Aria player supports the standard Scala tuning format. (For more information on Scala, see the “Square One” column in the May 2009 issue of EM, available at emusician.com.) Fifteen tuning files come with the instrument, and the manual contains an outstanding description of tuning systems by Wendy Carlos. In addition to alternate tunings, you can transpose the keyboard in semitones and fine-tune it in cents.
At $99, the Basic edition of this sampled piano is an outstanding bargain and possibly all the acoustic piano you'll ever need. Except for its placebo Una Corda pedal, it compares favorably to each of the modern, 9-foot grand pianos in the aforementioned round-up. Web Clip 1 is made from the same MIDI file used in that round-up, and you'll also find those Web clips online.
Value (1 through 5): 4