Soniccouture Xtended Piano Quick Pick Review

If you''re a fan of inside-the-piano techniques, Soniccouture has a treat for you in Xtended Piano ($149 download, $159 DVD) for Native Instruments'' Kontakt 4 and Kontakt 4 Player.
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If you''re a fan of inside-the-piano techniques, Soniccouture has a treat for you in Xtended Piano ($149 download, $159 DVD) for Native Instruments'' Kontakt 4 and Kontakt 4 Player. The extended-playing techniques include muting the strings with your finger to emphasize a single harmonic; plucking the strings with a guitar pick; hitting the strings with a wood or marimba mallet; bowing the strings with custom-designed horsehair bows; and producing special effects by strumming and scraping multiple strings. Although these techniques originated with unorthodox composers like Henry Cowell, George Crumb, Curtis Curtis-Smith, and Stephen Scott in the early 20th century, a number of jazz, rock, and classical performers continue to venture under the lid. You''ve undoubtedly heard, if not seen, the results.

Soniccouture''s first foray into this territory was Bowed Piano, released in 2008. The company has now sampled the same 9-foot Baldwin SD-10 Grand Piano in the same room with the same recording setup using the other extended techniques. Xtended Piano includes five basic Kontakt instruments: Bowed Piano (the original), Mute Piano, Plucked Piano, Mallet Piano, and SFX Piano (strums and scrapes). Each of the instruments has been enhanced with Kontakt controls, effects processors, and custom performance-enhancing KSP scripts. The interface, which is similar for all of the instruments, has four pages: Instrument Natural (attack, decay, brightness, reverb, and articulation switching), Instrument Synth (filter settings, filter and amp envelope, LFO, and round-robin options), Performance (KSP script controls), and Effects (tape emulation, phaser, delay, and convolution reverb).

At one end of the spectrum you get quite playable instruments that produce the original, acoustic effects much more easily than reaching under the lid. At the other extreme, the original effects serve as fodder for sound design, as well as for performance techniques that could never be reproduced on the acoustic instrument. The Sound Design section of Xtended Piano holds 40 Kontakt instruments (derived from the originals), illustrating the more extreme possibilities.

The Bowed Piano offers three articulations: soft and loud long bowing looped to sustain indefinitely and very short bowing for staccato notes. By default, the mod wheel crossfades between the soft and loud long-bow articulations, and MIDI notes B6 and C7 switch between the short and long bows. The performance script for Bowed Piano produces glissandi, for which you can vary the speed and length in real time using MIDI controllers (see Web Clip 1).

The Mute Piano''s mute point is a third of the way down the string, which brings out the third harmonic (an octave plus a fifth above the played note). A Performance page control lets you choose whether the pitch you hear matches the key you play (by transposing the keyboard down 19 semitones) or its third harmonic (as would happen in the real world). The script provided for both Mute and Mallet Piano is a clever arpeggiator-like processor called Jammer. It starts by repeating the held notes in random order. To that you can add random velocity variations, pitch substitutions either completely random or within a chosen scale, octave shifts, timing variations (aka humanize), and velocity swells controlled by the mod wheel (see Web Clips 2 and 3).

The Plucked Piano uses a Jim Dunlop USA Nylon 0.73mm guitar pick to pluck the strings. This instrument features a performance script called Strummer. It uses the mod wheel to strum up and down through the held notes. The mod wheel has a fixed orientation so that the same position always corresponds to the same note. The Mute Input button suppresses the notes you play. That lets you play or automate consistent strums without hearing the chords on which they''re based (see Web Clip 4).

The last basic instrument, SFX Piano, maps a variety of mostly atonal procedures across the full 127-note MIDI key range. The effects include sustained and damped scrapes, clunks, and clusters, and they''re great fodder for effects processing and Xtended Piano''s synth processing and modulation.

You need only scan the 40 instruments in the Sound Design section to see how far synth-parameter editing, extreme script settings, and the four effects processors let you take inside the lid outside the box. For me, the real charm of Xtended Piano lies in the five basic instruments, which, combined in a Kontakt multi, provide a fascinating composition environment (see Web Clip 5). The only thing missing is a sixth instrument sampling the wonderful Baldwin SD-10 as played from the keyboard.

Overall Rating (1 through 5): 5
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