Modartt Pianoteq 1.0.3 marks a milestone in physical-modeling technology. From the first note, there's no doubt that this is a very playable piano with all the special controls that only physical modeling can bring. You can create a 30-foot grand with your own unison tuning, octave stretching, and string-harmonics spectrum; you can shape the physical characteristics of the soundboard and control individual as well as global resonances; and you can create hybrid instruments that sound organic if not quite acoustic.
FIG. 1: Pianoteq''s control panel is laid out in three horizontal sections: preset management and help (top), physical-modeling panels (middle), and pedals and playback controls (bottom).
Modartt, short for Models and Data for Arts and Technology, is a collaboration between piano technician turned mathematician Philippe Guillaume and software designer Julien Pommier. Guillaume created the model, and Pommier put it on your desktop as a VST and AU plug-in for the Mac and a VST plug-in for Windows. A standalone version is planned for the future.
Physical modeling is not new; physical-modeled virtual string and wind instruments get better with every generation. But the mechanical complexity of a grand piano presents a different level of challenge. Pianoteq is more than a first shot at this challenge, and it's likely to be around for a long time.
For Ex Sample
The biggest question regarding Pianoteq is, how does it compare with state-of-the-art sampled-piano virtual instruments? “Software Eighty-Eights” in the October 2006 issue of EM (available online at www.emusician.com) compares six of the best, with the conclusion that there are some very playable sampled pianos. I used the same MIDI files used for the Web Clips from that article to play several Pianoteq presets. You'll find them in Web Clip 1 for this review, and they make an interesting comparison with the sampled-piano clips.
A couple of things stand out right away when comparing Pianoteq with a sampled piano. No matter how closely miked, there is always some room ambience in piano samples, and when it doesn't get in the way, it adds to the realism of the virtual instrument. With Pianoteq, no recorded samples means no room ambience. Pianoteq includes a reverb to fill the void, but the result is a little less alive — a problem that might be mitigated with a high-end convolution reverb.
The second issue is that Pianoteq doesn't reproduce the sound of a particular name-brand piano. You may get close to the sound of a Steinway Concert D or a Bösendorfer 290, but it's not going to be a dead ringer. Modartt has modeled four historical pianos as part of the Keyboard Instrument Virtual Restoration project (KIViR) and provided those as Pianoteq presets. You can expect more in the future, and some current models may be released as well.
Make Mine Pineapple Mint
What you do get with a physical-modeled instrument is the ability to customize every aspect of its sound. You also get finer resolution of some performance parameters. For instance, you're not limited to a small number of Velocity zones, as you are with even multigigabyte sample libraries. With Pianoteq, each of the 127 MIDI Velocity gradations has its own effect.
Half pedaling is another example. If your sustain pedal sends out more than two values (127 for on and 0 for off), Pianoteq will reproduce the effect of partially pressing the damper pedal on a real piano. Because progressive sustain pedals are hard to come by, and standard foot controllers don't feel right for sustain, it would be nice if a second controller could be used to set the damper amount when pressing the sustain pedal.
FIG. 2: Pianoteq''s three physical-modeling panels open to reveal tuning, voicing, and piano design settings. Handy rollover help boxes describe the controls and enable MIDI remote assignments.
Pianoteq's Harmonic pedal is yet another example of the advantage of physical modeling. This fourth pedal, which couldn't be implemented in the real world, lets you play staccato notes with damper-pedal-down resonance. It's like having the dampers raised for all notes except the ones played, an unnatural but altogether pleasing effect.
Most of Pianoteq's controls are devoted to tweaking the physical model. Those are separated into Tuning, Voicing, and Design controls and are located behind panels in the center of the graphical user interface (see Fig. 1). Clicking on a category name uncovers the sliders and pop-up menus for its settings (see Fig. 2). The Presets and Help menus, along with Random, Undo, and Redo buttons, inhabit the top of the panel. The EQ, reverb, pedals, and output controls are located at the bottom. Hovering the mouse over any control reveals a help pop-up that you can also use to make MIDI remote assignments. MIDI remote is easy to set up and almost essential for tweaking this instrument.
The Tuning, Voicing, and Design settings have the greatest impact on Pianoteq's sound, and they give you a lot of latitude to create off-the-wall as well as realistic piano presets. The Random button, which affects only the settings in these sections, provides a great way to survey the kinds of sounds Pianoteq can deliver. Because there are no filters, envelopes, LFOs, and other synthy components, you always get a percussive, keyboardlike sound, but its timbre and note duration can vary widely (see Web Clip 2).
A Different Tune
The controls in the left panel set the tuning reference pitch (Diapason), temperament, unison detuning for multistring notes, octave stretching to compensate for string inharmonicity, and duration of the direct versus the decay portion of the sound. The unison and hammer settings influence the duration of the direct sound, but you can use the Direct Sound Duration control to compensate for that manually.
You get 15 choices of reference pitch, ranging from a semitone below to a semitone above the standard 440 Hz tuning for the A above middle C. Five temperaments are supported: Equal (standard), Zarlino (based on harmonic thirds and fifths), Pythagore (based on harmonic fifths), and two common Baroque tunings — Mesotonic and Well-tempered.
The Unison Width control sets the amount of detuning between the lowest and highest string for each note. The lowest bass notes have only one string, so the control has no effect. It has the greatest effect on the notes above the break, which have three strings. Some unison detuning is desirable, and settings to the left of center tend to make the piano a little lifeless. Settings far to the right produce honky-tonk out-of-tune pianos.
Tuners use octave stretching to compensate for string inharmonicity — short strings, especially, have harmonics that are slightly sharp. You can set octave stretching independently of piano size, but for realistic pianos, less stretching is needed for longer pianos. (Piano size is set in the Design section.)
You use the Voicing section to specify the hardness of the hammers and the amount of hammer noise, the harmonic spectrum of the strings and how much it varies from note to note, and the effect of the una corda (soft) pedal. Each of these adjustments has a profound effect on the piano's sound, but the Spectrum Profile controls are the most unusual.
You can specify three different levels of hammer hardness: Piano, Mezzo, and Forte. Pianoteq then scales the hardness settings across the MIDI Velocity range. A natural piano sound would have harder hammers for louder playing, but inverting the relationship can prove interesting.
The shape and hardness of the hammers has some effect on the harmonic spectrum produced when the hammers strike the strings, but it has nowhere near the effect that Pianoteq's Spectrum Profile does. You can use the Spectrum Profile sliders to boost or cut each of the first eight harmonics by as much as 10 dB. Boosting the first harmonic (fundamental) and cutting the seventh makes for a much less dissonant sound. Cutting the even and boosting the odd harmonics gets you closer to a hollow, square-wave sound.
The controls in the Design section affect the physical design of the piano. The Soundboard settings affect the length of a note's natural decay (Impedance), the intensity of the higher harmonics (Cutoff), and the decay of the higher harmonics (Q Factor).
The main impact of Pianoteq's Piano Size control is on the inharmonicity of the strings. As mentioned earlier, shorter strings have slightly sharp harmonics. That manifests itself when playing notes an octave apart, especially in the higher ranges, because the higher note will be out of tune with the second harmonic of the lower note. Octave stretching is used to compensate, but you can minimize the need for octave stretching by lengthening the piano.
The Global Resonance slider controls the resonance of the piano harp, soundboard, and cabinet. The Sympathetic Resonance slider affects the resonant vibrations of open (undamped) strings when other notes are played. The Quadratic Effect slider affects the level of frequencies at twice the normal harmonic frequencies that are produced for loudly played notes.
Out and About
In addition to the EQ, reverb, and pedal controls, the output section at the bottom has sliders for output volume and the dynamic range, measured in dB from the lowest to highest Velocity notes. You use the Output switch at the bottom to narrow the stereo field for headphones or switch to mono output. Surprisingly, you can't change the perspective from player to listener as you can with many virtual pianos.
Pianoteq's memory usage, almost nil, is a big advantage and makes it usable on a fast laptop. On the downside, computing every note in Pianoteq is more CPU intensive than playing back samples. In my very unofficial test, using Pianoteq, Native Instruments Akoustik Piano, and Synthogy Ivory to play the same passage in Ableton Live 6 peaked the CPU meter at 30, 23, and 15 percent, respectively. Modartt recommends a number of settings options to minimize CPU usage.
Pianoteq is a very pleasant instrument to play. It's certainly well ahead of lesser-quality sampled pianos. This virtual instrument can hold its own against top-of-the-line sampled pianos, although having both types is worthwhile. In terms of bending the piano to your own specifications, Pianoteq is definitely the new thing.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful and free refreshments, visit his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
FEATURES5EASE OF USE3QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: The only physical-modeled virtual piano. Excellent sound. Clearly organized, minute control of all aspects of piano design. Well documented, including helpful tutorials.
CONS: EQ and reverb could be higher quality. Controls are small and sometimes difficult to hit with the mouse.