Modartt Pianoteq Pro 3.5.3 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Pianoteq Pro gives you access to tuning, voicing, and design aspects of the physical model along with output and effects settings.

Modartt Pianoteq has come a long way since I reviewed version 1.0.3 in the March 2007 EM. In the interim, version 2 won EM''s 2008 Editors'' Choice award for Most Innovative Product. In version 3.5.3, the underlying physical model has been significantly improved, and although many of the controls are the same, you''ll find a host of user-friendly enhancements.

Pianoteq now comes in Standard and Pro versions, and the difference is in the new feature called Note Edit. The Pro version gives you note-by-note access to most Pianoteq parameters, whereas the Standard version gives you note-by-note access to only tuning and volume. (For full details on Note Edit, see the sidebar “Note for Note.”) The other difference is support for sampling rates up to 192kHz in the Pro version vs. 48kHz in the Standard version. Both versions are now provided in standalone, as well as AU, VST, and RTAS plug-in formats.

Here I''ll revisit a few of Pianoteq''s more unusual features, but I''ll mainly concentrate on what''s new and improved. Because it is so different from sampled-piano virtual instruments, I strongly recommend checking out the previous review if you''re not familiar with Pianoteq.

Model Behavior
Compared with sampled instruments, Pianoteq offers three advantages that bear repeating (see Fig. 1). Dynamics gradation over the full MIDI velocity range is transparently smooth because there is no transition between layered samples. Half pedaling—the effect of partially pressing the sustain pedal—is realistically reproduced, again because it''s not contingent on layer transitions. The third advantage is Pianoteq''s odd but charming fourth pedal (called the Harmonic pedal), which simulates the effect of the sustain pedal, raising the dampers on all notes except those played, which allows you to play staccato notes with sympathetic resonance from other notes'' open strings.

As a natural consequence of miking, sampled acoustic instruments always have some amount of room ambience, whereas for a physical-modeled instrument, dry really means dry. Pianoteq''s reverb, although not yet on a par with the best convolution reverbs, is a significant improvement on the original.

Tremolo and a basic limiter have been added to the output-effects section. Tremolo might seem like an odd addition, but Pianoteq offers electric-piano and vibraphone add-ons for which tremolo is essential, and it''s also a neat effect for acoustic piano.

The configuration dropdowns have been replaced by more extensive audio, MIDI, and preferences dialogs, along with separate Action sliders for damper position and duration, highest note with a damper, and key-release and sustain-pedal noise levels. Together, these give you much more control over the piano''s mechanical noises. As in previous versions, some of the hotspots for the GUI''s smaller controls are hard to hit with the mouse.

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FIG. 2: The output-configuration panel lets you set the placement and delay of as many as five mics. That''s also where you set the lid position.

Most importantly, instead of simply choosing mono, stereo, or headphones, you now have control over the placement and output routing of up to five virtual mics (see Fig. 2). That allows for surround-sound miking and lets you mike from the player''s perspective, which was previously not possible.

Modern Grands
Pianoteq has redesigned and renamed its two grand-piano instruments. The warm, rich-sounding C3—aimed at classical, romantic, and lyrical material—contrasts nicely with the bright, present M3, which is suitable for jazz, rock, and pop. Although it''s billed as a pop/rock piano, the Chamber and Studio presets of the YC5 add-on instrument (about $40) deliver an even less-edgy sound. Whereas the C3 and M3 are not models of specific pianos, YC5 is fashioned after a popular Japanese stage piano.

For each instrument, you''ll find a variety of presets designed for specific situations. (Preset refers to a configuration of Pianoteq''s user-assignable settings. Instruments have many under-the-hood settings not accessible to the user, so in Pianoteq parlance, the same instrument can have many presets.) Pianoteq''s Voicing and Design sections give you wide latitude to modify an instrument''s sound, and the manual contains some helpful tutorials on modifying the presets. You can also use the Random button, and that often produces quite pianistic results (see Web Clip 1).

Looking Back
Modartt is an ardent supporter of the Keyboard Instruments Virtual Restoration (KIViR) project, which, in collaboration with several German museums, endeavors to create digital reproductions of historic instruments. These are usually in such delicate condition that restoring them to full playability is not possible (or too risky). The strategy, then, is to restore some of the notes as much as possible (without risking the full load of tuning all of the strings), and to then create a physical model from an analysis of the tuned strings. The resulting computer models are coupled with digital keyboards to provide playable instruments in the museum. Modartt provides these models as free add-ons to Pianoteq, and the collection is continually growing.

The KIViR historical instruments are downloadable individually or as a bundle, and they are a must—you''ll never find anything like these in a sample library. Whatever style of music you play or sequence, you''ll have great fun trying it out on these vintage instruments, and they''ll often inspire some new insight into your music.

Two of my favorites fall at opposite ends of the history range. The Kovács Cimbalom is a variant of the ancient psaltery; it became a common component in gypsy orchestras and was used as a concert instrument in the late 19th century. It has a 5-octave range, and the dampers are not raised unless the pedal is depressed—otherwise, notes die quickly. (Pianoteq includes a preset in which the keys do raise the dampers.) The Yamaha CP80 electroacoustic piano, popular in the late ''70s and early ''80s, featured a grand-piano action and electronic pickups. It has a distinctively hybrid sound—not quite an acoustic piano but not an electric piano, either. Best of all, the Pianoteq version doesn''t weigh 150 pounds.

I like to layer the Cimbalon and CP80 (using two instances of Pianoteq). I map the sustain pedal to Pianoteq''s Harmonic pedal on the Cimbalon and map aftertouch to sustain. I leave the Cimbalon dry but use a little reverb and stereo tremolo on the CP-80, and I map a mod wheel to crossfade between the two (see Web Clip 2).

The remaining KIViR instruments are spread across three categories: harpsichord, pianoforte, and grand piano. Of the two harpsichords, the Grimaldi, which dates from 1697, has the brighter tone; the Pianoteq model lets you play the two registers separately or combined. The 1733 Blanchet has a soft, intimate sound with a stronger low end.

You get five modeled piano-forte instruments: Schmidt (1790), Schantz (1790), Walter (undated), Schöffstoss (1812), and Graf (1826). Each has its own Baroque-period sound. The presets replicate the authentic tuning reference, and temperament (which you can change).

The classic grand pianos are an 1896 Bechstein and a 1922 Erard. They provide a nice contrast to the C3, M3, and YC5, and are offered with a similar selection of presets. Finally, don''t miss the new Bells and Carillons add-on—free but not in the KIViR bundle.

Looking Forward
In addition to YC5, the three other commercial add-ons (about $68 each) are also well-worth having, especially because Pianoteq''s programmability lets you easily craft new sounds that retain the essence of the original instruments. The Electric Pianos add-on offers models called Rhody and Wurly—''nuff said. The Vibes add-on includes models V-M and V-B, and their range has been extended to five octaves. The Clavinet CL1 add-on is fashioned after the Hohner D6, but updated with an extended keyboard range, a sustain pedal, and continuous pick-up mixing. In these instruments, the new tremolo, wah-wah, and limiter effects come into their own.

Pianoteq is an outstanding virtual piano. It differs in sound, feel, and features from sampled pianos and will not necessarily replace your favorite. What it will do is give you a huge new arsenal of virtual pianos and keyboards.

Note for Note
Pianoteq Pro''s Note Edit window lets you set 22 physical parameters on a note-by-note basis (see Fig. A). You open it with the Note Edit button or by double-clicking the slider for any note-by-note-editable parameter. That reveals an 88-note bar chart, but fortunately, using it is a good bit simpler than setting the 88 bars independently. Click-dragging the window''s title bar will detach the window, and you can then resize it for easier editing.

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FIG. A: The Note Edit window provides note-based settings for most physical-model parameters. Handy drawing modes and a Help button simplify the job.

In most cases the default bar graph has three or four handles, indicated by blue markers along the yellow parameter curve and on corresponding keys of the mini keyboard at the bottom of the Note Edit window (not the main Pianoteq keyboard). The simplest adjustment is to grab one of the blue handles and drag in any direction. Dragging up or down creates a smooth curve of bars between the dragged handle and the closest handle on either side. Dragging left or right moves the handle to a different key and reshapes the transition between handles. You can create additional handles by double-clicking in the mini keyboard.

Here''s where it gets both slick and tricky: If you click in the editing area but not on a handle, an individual yellow bar is created, affecting the setting for the corresponding note only. (In Octave Draw mode, bars for all notes related by an octave are affected.) If you click and drag a handle with that bar in its range (meaning between it and the next handle), the individual bar''s height retains its relative position to the handle and all other affected bars. That lets you mix note-by-note and handle-scaled edits. Four handy buttons along the top affect the curve globally: Random, Smooth, Scale, and Reset. For the first three, click and drag in any direction to increase the effect.

Editing a note''s Spectrum Profile, which sets the levels of all the note''s partials, works a little differently. Clicking on a note in the mini keyboard creates (or deletes) a yellow marker. With that marker selected, you set the level of each partial in the main bar graph. A variety of draw modes (harmonic, comb, major, hair cut, and so on) are provided. Once you''ve created spectra for at least two notes, the spectrum for any note is interpolated from the spectra for the closest marked note on either side.

If the foregoing sounds daunting, a few moments mousing around will make it transparent. Of course, the devil is in the details, but a little randomizing, smoothing, and scaling will produce interesting if not always melodious results (see Web Clip A).

Visit Len Sasso's website at

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