If your computer can handle it, SampleTekk''s Black Grand will give you a 16- or 24-bit sampled Steinway D that plays quite well and sounds exceptionally good.
SampleTekk Black Grand ($199.95) is a sample library that features a Steinway Model D grand piano recorded from three perspectives: Close, Ambient, and Medium Ambient. Packaged on six DVDs, the whole library is dedicated to providing detailed multisamples of a single Steinway piano in a concert hall setting. Each perspective has ten instrument variations.
Black Grand is available in four versions. You can buy a 16-bit edition for GigaStudio 2; a 24-bit edition for GigaStudio 3; or 16- or 24-bit editions for Apple EXS24, Steinberg HALion 2 or 3, and Native Instruments Kontakt. The 16-bit versions are 12 GB in size, and the 24-bit versions are more than 18 GB. For this review, I used EXS24mkII on a dual-processor Mac G5/1.8 GHz system and GigaStudio 2 on a Pentium 4/1.6 GHz machine, both with MOTU audio interfaces.
Whereas most sampled pianos are created with 6 to 8 samples per note, Black Grand has 16 samples mapped across each note's entire Velocity range. And that's just with the pedal up — depressing the damper pedal engages 16 different samples. Sixteen release samples (four in the GigaStudio 2 version) add additional life to the sound by providing that bit of ring created by the piano soundboard resonating after a note has been released. That gives you a total of 48 samples per note (36 for GigaStudio 2).
For the programmers, the challenge in assigning so many samples to each note is maintaining consistency and playability. The creator of Black Grand has succeeded; it's a lot of fun to play! If you tweak your controller's Velocity curve, you will likely find a sweet spot where the expressive control of the samples will feel right to you. Once I found the right Velocity scaling, I fell into hours of just playing and playing, which doesn't happen often when I play sampled pianos.
I particularly liked the Ambient perspective, because it contains some space and air that makes it sit nicely in a mix and sound good through headphones and speakers. The Ambient version is great for accompanying a solo violin, which is how I used it on a couple of sessions. The miking technique is appropriate for a concert setting when you're listening from the audience perspective, and it sounds rich and detailed.
In the studio, my least favorite variant was the Medium Ambient perspective. Oddly, it sounds the most ambient and feels small and thin compared with the other perspectives. The Close perspective is great for live settings when you need a sound to cut through; it didn't, however, sit in a mix as well as the Ambient perspective did. Overall, though, Black Grand was much easier to fit in a mix than most of the sampled pianos that I own.
Because Black Grand contains many samples, it can be taxing on your computer. I had no problems using on the program with my PC running GigaStudio 2, but I did experience some trouble loading all the samples in EXS24 on my Mac, resulting in pops and clicks when I played certain notes. Although Black Grand's packaging states only the minimum requirements for a Windows-based PC, my Mac G5 with 2.25 MB of RAM should be more than comparable to the 1 GHz Pentium 4 with 1.5 GB of RAM specified for the 24-bit version. According to Big Fish Audio, lots of people run the EXS version with no problems. If you plan to use Black Grand solely in EXS24mkII, you may want to try it on your system before you make a commitment.
Once I successfully loaded Black Grand, I enjoyed playing it and using it in productions. I used it to record a couple of piano-and-vocal demos, and they sounded great. Black Grand didn't have any sour notes or bad samples, and the consistency up and down the keyboard was excellent. In fact, I prefer Black Grand to several high-end piano libraries costing twice the price. SampleTekk knows its stuff, and I can't wait to hear the sister library, White Grand II.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4
SampleTekk/Big Fish Audio (distributor)