Sampling guru Dan Dean of Dan Dean Productions and sound designer Ernest Cholakis of Numerical Sound have teamed up to form Pro Audio Vault (PAV), a company specializing in virtual instrument design and implementation. Their first release is Blüthner Digital Model One ($299), a meticulously sampled 9-foot Blüthner Model 1 grand piano recorded at Skywalker Sound.
Blüthner Digital Model One''s control panel is primarily devoted to choosing timbral, reverb, and sustain impulse-response presets.
The piano was close-miked to capture the driest possible image, and damper-pedal-up and -down stereo samples were captured at 12 loudness levels (more than 2,000 samples in all). The result is a 4.5 GB library that runs standalone and as a VSTi, AU, or RTAS plug-in using Native Instruments Kontakt Player 2 (included). Authorization is carried out online using the NI Service Center application.
The basic piano comes in six dynamic-scaling configurations ranging from the full dynamics of the piano, labeled 100, to the most compressed dynamic range, labeled 45. The chosen scaling makes a huge difference in the sound and feel of the instrument. A little time spent experimenting with different dynamic-scaling choices combined with the Velocity-curve choices on my MIDI keyboards allowed me to dial in the feel I wanted with greater precision than on other sampled pianos I've tried.
Follow Your Impulse
The thing that most sets this piano apart from the competition is its heavy reliance on Kontakt 2's convolution engine. In addition to room ambience and reverb, convolution is used to enhance sustain resonance and, most important, to change the timbre of the piano completely. That last is accomplished by convolving the piano samples with impulse-response curves taken from other pianos, from piano recordings, and, in one of the most interesting twists, from speech.
The purpose of sustain convolution is to better reproduce the complexity of the resonances that occur in a real piano when the dampers are raised. You get two sustain groups (A and B) with five variations each (Crisp, Clear, Dark, Even, and Full). The difference between using pedal-down samples alone and with sustain-impulse convolution is subtle but clearly audible (see Web Clip 1).
Seven Timbral Impulse groups — Classical, Custom, Jazz, Pianos, Pop, R&B, and Vocal — contain a total of 260 impulses. The Classical group is taken from other manufacturers' pianos. The Custom group comes from other Blüthner pianos. The Jazz group represents mostly recent recordings, though several come from older recordings. The Pianos group comes from other sampled and digital pianos. Like the Jazz group, the Pop and R&B groups come primarily from recordings representative of those genres.
The Vocal group is a tantalizing example of how you can use convolution to go way beyond a natural piano sound. The impulses were taken from spoken vocal phonemes, and the results of convolution range from muted to piano-in-a-box to harpsichord-like sounds. Unfortunately, you are limited to the few impulses provided in this category because even when loaded into the full Kontakt 2 sampler, the instruments are locked and cannot be modified. Otherwise, you could use your own impulse samples for convolution. My biggest complaint about this instrument is that you can't get under the hood — probably necessary for security reasons but a shame nonetheless.
All the timbral impulses have a profound effect on the sound of the piano, and as I played this piano more, I came to prefer the unprocessed version. The same was true for the reverb impulses; although they sounded fine, I actually preferred an outboard reverb or none at all. On the other hand, I definitely preferred the sustain with convolution active. The nice thing is, you have lots to choose from in each category, or you can turn them all off and still have a great-sounding piano.
Revolution or Evolution
Blüthner Digital Model One has two other forward-looking features. A clever, variable just-intonation tuning system was devised by Ernest Cholakis. With it you set the root key either by using a second keyboard or, less conveniently, by using MIDI CC 16 together with an octave of the main keyboard.
A complete second set of instruments is included for use with a variable sustain pedal. A variable sustain pedal sends different values with increased pressure rather than simply acting as an on/off switch. It's a much more realistic piano-damper-pedal implementation, and variable sustain pedals are affordable and increasingly available.
There's no question that Blüthner Digital Model One is an excellent sampled piano. It stacks up well with the collection of top-of-the-line sampled pianos EM profiled in the October 2006 feature “Software Eighty-Eights” (see Web Clip 2). It's reasonably priced, and if not revolutionary, it's at least high on the food chain.
Value (1 through 5): 4
Pro Audio Vault
Web Clips: Listen to audio examples of MIDI clips played through the Bluthner Digital Model One sampled-piano virtual instrument