No matter what kind of music you listen to and play, you probably appreciate the sound of a fine acoustic piano. As an electronic musician, you may also appreciate the tedium endured by anyone who attempts to capture that sound by means of sampling. Over the years, I've used quite a few sampled piano libraries and practically every piano plug-in available, and I'm pleased to note their increasing realism. The most recent of these that I've had the pleasure of using is Synthogy Ivory 1.5, a custom virtual instrument plug-in paired with a 40 GB sample library.
Ivory is Synthogy's first and only product to date. Version 1.0 for the Mac shipped in October 2004, and version 1.5 for Windows and the Mac appeared about a year later. Synthogy's founders, Joe Ierardi and George Taylor, are former Kurzweil employees; Ierardi was the sound designer responsible for the piano content of Kurzweil instruments such as the PC88 and K2600. His experience is evident in Ivory, which provides deep and detailed 32-bit samples of three first-rate pianos: a Bösendorfer 290, a German-built Steinway Model D, and a Yamaha C7.
The Grand Scheme
Ivory's minimum system requirements are 1 GB of RAM, 11 GB of space on a 7,200 rpm or faster hard disk, and either a 450 MHz Macintosh G4 running Mac OS X 10.2 or OS 9.2 or a 1.3 GHz Pentium 4 running Windows XP. The plug-in supports VST, RTAS, and AU formats.
FIG. 1: Synthogy Ivory harnesses a 40 GB sample library to realistically reproduce the sound and the playability of three concert grand pianos.
Ivory comes on ten DVD-ROMs, and it took a full hour to install all the content on my dual-processor 2.3 GHz Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM and Mac OS X 10.4.6. As each disc finished, the computer ejected it and asked for the next, conveniently counting off the remaining time as it progressed. You must authorize the software within five days of installation — a simple matter of entering your information on Synthogy's registration page, waiting a moment for an email response, and pasting the unlock code into a dialog box. You're allowed three authorizations, and you can request more if you need them.
I tested Ivory 1.5 using Steinberg Cubase SX3, MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, and Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered 7.1. The only difference I noticed was that in Pro Tools, the knobs had a linear response, and in the others, it was circular. I prefer dragging up and down to change parameter values, and I wish that Ivory's knob response were user definable.
Build Your Own Piano
Most of Ivory's essential parameters are on its Main screen (see Fig. 1). When you open the plug-in, by default no samples will be loaded. You can select from 68 Programs: 20 Bösendorfers, 22 Steinways, and 26 Yamahas. Each Program includes a group of samples called a Keyset, along with settings for dynamic range, key noise, effects, and other parameters. The Programs cover a range of musical applications that encompass classical, rock, jazz, gospel, and ambient styles. They all sound excellent, and many sound spectacular (see Web Clip 1). You can create and save your own Programs, as well as rename or delete the included Programs.
You can change the Keyset contained in a Program by selecting a new one from a drop-down menu. Each of the 16 Keysets supplies two versions, for a total of 32. The second of each pair ends with II, which indicates that it has an alternate set of Velocity switch points that offer better dynamics for certain types of playing.
Because a Bösendorfer 290 has 97 keys — 9 more than a standard piano — half of the 16 Bösendorfer Keysets contain 97 notes. All the other Keysets contain 88 notes, each sampled at various Velocities. The Bösendorfer and Steinway Keysets have four to ten Velocity layers, and the Yamaha Keysets have four to eight. How many layers you'll want to use will depend on your computer's resources and your musical style; rock 'n' roll, for example, typically requires fewer Velocity levels than classical music.
Ivory furnishes more controls for customizing your piano sound than I've ever seen. The breadth of control serves two purposes: to create a sound that best serves your particular application, and to maximize your computer's resources by minimizing the demands on those resources. Because some Programs are resource intensive, Ivory offers many ways to lessen its RAM and CPU requirements. Happily, I didn't experience any resource-related issues using it on my Power Mac G5.
FIG. 2: Ambience, Chorus, and 2-band EQ are available on Ivory''s Effects screen, which also lets you load and save groups of effects presets.
The Sustain Resonance parameter reproduces timbral changes that occur when a piano's sustain pedal lifts its dampers, contributing to Ivory's realistic sound. A drop-down menu lets you select from six Sustain Resonance models, which affect the perceived mic position, and a knob can boost or cut their level by as much as 6 dB. You can also turn off Sustain Resonance completely.
Turning on the release and soft-pedal samples helps produce a realistic piano sound, but to conserve RAM, you can easily turn those samples off, too. If you do use them, the soft-pedal samples respond to MIDI Control Change 11. Ivory also recognizes MIDI CCs 7 (Volume), 64 (Sustain), and 66 (Sostenuto).
You can lengthen a note's final decay by as much as three times its normal length with the Release knob. The Timbre knob makes the sound brighter or duller using a custom lowpass filter. You can specify a piano's dynamic range, or the difference in level between the quietest and loudest notes. Controlling the amount of key noise, or a piano action's mechanical sounds, simulates different miking techniques. Adjusting the stereo width can help your piano sit better in a mix.
You can add a Synth Layer to any piano by selecting one of five pads. I wanted to assign a piano sound to one MIDI channel and a synth pad to another, but MIDI reception is limited to Omni mode. To record a part for the pad alone, I had to instantiate a second Ivory plug-in (see Web Clip 2).
Also on the Main screen are Session parameters, which are usually specific to a particular song file. You can change Ivory's tuning, buffer size, and overall loudness. You can switch from stretch tuning to equal temperament and change the perspective from the player to the audience. You can change the polyphony from as few as 4 to as many as 160 notes. Thanks to disk streaming, Ivory can play back as many notes as your system allows.
FIG. 3: Ivory''s Velocity screen gives you more control over the plug-in''s response to your keyboard touch than you may have imagined possible.
In addition to the Main screen, Ivory has Effects and Velocity screens you open by clicking on their respective buttons. The Effects screen provides 2-band shelving EQ, reverb with seven simulated spaces, and a surprisingly flexible chorus effect (see Fig. 2). A drop-down menu lets you select from more than 45 effects presets.
On the Velocity screen, you can select from ten Velocity maps or create and save your own (see Fig. 3). The Arc Type parameter offers six presets and, in combination with the Hardness knob, affects the Velocity's curvature. You can also specify the minimum and maximum Velocities that a piano will play.
So Pure, It Floats
Ivory is without a doubt the finest sampled piano that I have ever played. In fact, I have played only a handful of real pianos that sound better. Ivory provides an abundance of user parameters that are really useful for tailoring your sound. When I listened carefully to individual piano notes, I was especially impressed with their lack of noise — no small feat when your samples fade naturally, with no looping. The documentation is very good as well. My only disappointment is that Ivory is not multitimbral. On occasions when you need to have more than one distinct piano at the same time, however, you can instantiate additional copies if your computer is up to the challenge.
I'm very optimistic about Ivory's future. By the time you read this, Synthogy expects to ship a standalone version as a free upgrade. Also forthcoming are a Universal Binary version for Intel-based Macs, and Sample Expansion Pack 1 ($139), which will add a 10-foot Italian grand piano.
I recommend Ivory to anyone who uses a computer and plays or records piano. Paired with a good keyboard, it eliminates the hassles of maintaining and miking a real piano and ensures absolute consistency. Why spend $50,000 on one piano for your studio when you can save a bundle and buy three?
EM associate editor Geary Yelton couldn't possibly afford a real grand piano. He couldn't be happier that owning one has finally become unnecessary.
sampled piano plug-in
FEATURES 4 EASE OF USE 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 5 VALUE 5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Beautiful, realistic sound. Plenty of useful controls. Fully customizable presets. Cross-platform plug-ins.
CONS: No MIDI channel assignment (has Omni only).