The Advanced tab of the Vienna Symphonic Library Vienna Imperial user interface reveals the 3-band EQ, reverb and ancillary sound controls.
Quality sample libraries of top-of-the-line grand pianos are not in short supply, but as you might expect, Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) has put the icing on the cake. The Vienna Imperial ($875 MSRP) weighs in at a hefty 50 GB delivered on six DVDs, and that's with 10:1 lossless sample compression. The proprietary playback engine decompresses the 24-bit, 44.1kHz samples as needed.
The piano is a 97-key Bösendorfer Imperial 290-755 equipped with the manufacturer's CEUS player-piano technology, which guarantees consistent velocities across all mikings, pedal configurations and note articulations for direct, una-corda (soft-pedal) and resonance samples. That results in as many as 100 velocity layers (1,200 samples per note) with inaudible transitions between layers. The system's precision also allowed VSL to record separate release samples for different note lengths. In terms of performance nuance, this is probably as accurate as it gets for a MIDI-controlled, sampled piano.
The player comes in stand-alone as well as AU, VST and RTAS plug-in versions. Full installation on my 2.66GHz quad-core Mac Pro took approximately 90 minutes. Authorization uses a Syncrosoft USB key, which you will need to purchase if you don't already have one. Both stand-alone and plug-in performance were excellent, even with high polyphony and the lowest-latency buffer setting (64 samples). Dense playing did result in some breaking up with a 64-sample buffer, but a 128-sample setting was rock-solid, and I found it eminently playable with lower CPU load using a 256-sample buffer.
ROOM TO ROOM
The samples are divided into three sets based on the mic configuration: close, player and distant. The audible difference (which is fairly subtle) is in the amount of room ambience, and even the close-miked version has some (see Web Clip 1). The user interface has two tabs: Basic and Advanced. The player is empty when opened, and the easiest approach is to choose one of the sample sets on the Basic tab and start playing. Alternatively, you can choose one of the 12 factory presets, which add custom EQ and convolution-reverb settings. The other Basic-tab options are tuning reference (436 Hz to 444.99 Hz), polyphony (40 to 384 voices) and whether to exclude the resonance (a bad idea) or una-corda (a better idea) samples to save RAM.
The Advanced tab gives you access to a 3-band EQ, convolution reverb and a variety of performance settings. Those include MIDI-velocity sensitivity, transposition, dynamic range (like MIDI-velocity compression), stereo width, and levels of sympathetic resonance and pedal noise. The graphical velocity histogram at the bottom-right of the GUI is very handy when adjusting the sensitivity and dynamic-range.
The 3-band EQ is fully parametric, and you can create shelving filters by pulling the low and high bands to the ends of their ranges. The convolution reverb offers three IR files taken from halls of Vienna's Wiener Konzerthaus: the Neuer Saal, Grosser Saal and Mozartsaal. As with the three mikings, the differences are subtle (see Web Clip 2). The only control beyond choosing the room is reverb amount, which ranges from -∞ to 0 dB with a factory default of -15.4 dB.
Needless to say, a fully loaded instance of the Vienna Imperial is a bit of a memory hog (roughly 1 GB without una-corda samples and 1.4 GB with). You can recover all the RAM by bouncing and purging, but the Vienna Imperial gives you a less drastic option called Optimize. You start by having the instrument tally all the used samples as you play the track, and you then invoke Optimize to unload the unused samples. Typically, most samples are unused; for example, optimizing for Web Clip 1 reduced the 1.4GB full load to roughly 150 MB.
The Vienna Imperial is without a doubt the nicest sampled piano I've played. It feels the most natural, and the sound and playability are exceptional using the basic mic configurations with no EQ or reverb. I found the EQ handy for playing in my less-than-ideal studio setup — a bright, small room with near-field monitors — but the instrument certainly doesn't need EQing, and in my view, it would be undesirable in a mix. The Vienna Imperial is not cheap, but if you want a best-in-class sampled piano, you won't find anything better.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 5