Perfect Piano Series, vol. 3Capturing the acoustic piano in all its complexity is perhaps the toughest challenge facing today's sampling technology. Add subjectivity to the mix and you have one difficult beast. William Coakley's Perfect Piano Series, vol. 3 CD-ROM ($399; available for E-mu E4, Akai S5000, SampleCell II, and all Kurzweil formats) is currently one of the finest offerings in this difficult genre. I reviewed the E4 version.
Volume 1 (reviewed in the May 1997 issue of EM) sampled a 1986 Steinway D in a concert environment. The data from that product went into the popular Ensoniq ZR-76 synthesizer and subsequently the ZR expansion boards for the E-mu Proteus 2000. Coakley's vol. 2 focused instead on a 10-foot 2-inch Fazioli, an Italian-made piano. With vol. 3, Coakley revisits the 1986 Steinway D, but this time he used a new arsenal of 24-bit recording gear, including Apogee AD-8000 converters, a Focusrite Red 1 preamp (along with Amek and Earthworks preamps), and a gaggle of premium microphones. The results are Coakley's best work to date.
Selective, Secretive SamplingCoakley is secretive about some of his techniques, but essentially he tracks using an array of microphones in various combinations and positions, then selects the most satisfactory configuration. He culled the four banks on vol. 3 from 25 sample sets. Coakley feels that the real quality comes from the programming phase rather than from the sampling phase, however: whereas his sampling sessions lasted about two weeks, the programming to optimize the results for various sampler formats took a year and a half!
Most of Coakley's competitors provide various load sizes consisting of different sample intervals, lengths, loops, and velocity layers. Coakley's approach, by contrast, is simply to get the best-sounding pianos. He goes for a natural sample, with loops kicking in long after the player would have released the keys in the course of the average piano passage (about 5 seconds on the bass end). At that point, the loop and its low sustain are noticeable on single notes, but the loop will still add harmonic warmth when masked by the presence of multiple notes. Coakley also manages to get great dynamics out of just two velocity layers, with the break point typically occurring around Velocity values of 100 to 110.
Bank on ItIn keeping with Coakley's bare-bones philosophy, each bank has only a handful of presets. These consist largely of EQ tweaks designed to ensure that the sounds will work well both alone and in various mix situations. There's no fluff - such as fake honky-tonk pianos - and there's little guesswork.
The 81 MB Enhanced bank benefits from Coakley's improved sampling setup and sets a new standard in quality. Its warm, round sound definitely evokes a Steinway and makes for a nice solo piano. The Enhanced Plus bank, at 72 MB, is a welcome effort, with more control in the lower velocity ranges and an optimized response for the various controllers on the market. My favorite, the 60 MB Sennheiser bank, incorporates the same basic setup as the Enhanced bank, but Coakley recorded it using Sennheiser MKH 80 condenser mics. The results are a bit thinner and more percussive (a cross between a Steinway D and a Yamaha C7), allowing this bank to sit better in a mix.
The Enhanced, Enhanced Plus, and Sennheiser banks all employ two velocity layers. The 26 MB Bounce bank, on the other hand, consists of a single layer resulting from the mix of six different tracks. The effect is more like that of a rock 'n' roll piano that really stands out in a mix. The EQ applied on the Bounce bank rolls off some of the bass, which makes it ideal for situations in which left-hand piano and bass guitar might otherwise compete for the same frequency range.
Customer ServiceCoakley provides a personal touch that is rare in the digital age. With few exceptions, he sells the CDs direct and made to order. For the most part, there is no documentation. This is partly because little is needed, but mostly because Coakley welcomes the opportunity to walk each customer through the critical yet individual process of optimizing controller velocity curves and bank/preset choices.
Beyond the MP3 samples on his Web site, Coakley advises potential buyers that "if they like what they hear on the ZR, they'll love the Perfect Piano Series. Besides, I'm the only piano sample developer that sells his own work and dares to answer his own phone." From my experience with the E-mu E4 version, Coakley's phone is likely ringing with compliments rather than complaints.