Best Piano VSTs 2018
Be sure to check out our updated list of the best piano VSTs of 2019.
Many of us dream of owning a Rhodes electric piano. There’s something about the simplicity of the sound, a playfulness that connects with us deep inside of ourselves. It conjures up images of smoky bars, rich, melodic music — both lead and accompaniment — thick underlying bass on one hand, and on the other, a cascade of sparkling notes. However, tracking down authentic hardware seems unlikely so are there possibilities in software that could offer a similar vibe within our computer? The simple answer is yes! There are many wonderfully designed virtual electric pianos attempting to capture the soul of these instruments. Both sample-based and acoustically modeled, covering Rhodes and many other styles of hardware, these are the best virtual electric pianos to release your inner Ray Manzarek.
Our picks for the year’s best piano VST include:
- Waves Electric 88
- Applied Acoustics Lounge Lizard EP-4
- Spitfire North 7 Vintage Keys
- E-instruments Session Keys Electric R and Electric S
- Arturia Stage-73 V
Our 2018 Picks
Waves Electric 88
Street Price: $69 (at time of writing)
We’ll start off with the unexpected arrival of a virtual electric piano from Waves. Waves are more renowned for their effects plug-ins and audio processing software but have recently ventured into sample-based instruments. One of their first offerings is the Electric 88 Piano. This is a single instrument, a specific instrument, sampled and captured into a simple and extremely playable virtual electric piano. They chose a “road-worn” vintage Fender Rhodes piano as the source of their samples. They didn’t attempt to tidy it up but instead reveled in the imperfections, the detuning, the tonal and non-linear differences from key to key, note to note. In other words, they found a really cool vintage piano and tried their best not to screw it up. The result is a virtual electric piano with warmth, humanity and emotional appeal.
Waves wanted to capture the sort of uniqueness and beauty of an instrument that could move you to tears. They took multiple samples of every key to preserve the character and it was all done by hand to retain the human feel. But what’s interesting is how small the sample library is when compared to some of the other pianos on this list. The standard library is only 122MB, with an HD option of 466.5MB. That’s a very light library but it also makes for an instrument that’s easy on your system, quick to load and fast to use.
But the raw samples are only the beginning. Waves then built in a lot of additional processing and mixing options to produce a wide palette of sounds. You can mix in background and mechanical noises, along with Tines level and Key-Up sound. A formant control lets you shift the samples in a detuning kind of way. Finishing up is an effects rack for some well-needed tremolo, autopan, phaser, chorus, and reverb, plus a side order of EQ.
There’s no doubting Wave’s ability to polish a sound. Starting with some characterful raw materials they’ve come up with a startling electric piano. They’ve wrapped it up in a gorgeous interface with simple controls that encourages you to play rather than tweak — and all for a stunning $69, which they usually have on sale for $39, which is a no-brainer purchase. Unfortunately, the video demonstration is strangely disappointing but they have a demo version you can download and play with for free and I heartily recommend you do so.
Link to Website: www.waves.com
British boutique sample library producers Spitfire go all-in when they sample something. They sought out four pristine examples of fabulous vintage keyboards and then sampled the heck out of them. Along with the Rhodes, Clavichord, and Wurlitzer they also dug out the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass made famous by Ray Manzerek of The Doors.
Applied Acoustics Lounge Lizard EP-4
Street Price: $199 (at time of writing)
This is the veteran of the group. Lounge Lizard has been around for far too long, being originally released in 2002. However, in its current version 4, it is still able to produce enviable Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds. Applied Acoustics make instruments using physical (or acoustic) modeling. Instead of sampling a real-world piano, they create a computer model of how all the materials and physical attributes of the instrument work. So, the computer knows exactly what happens when a mallet hits a tine. It calculates the frequencies generated, the effects of the materials, the impact of the case and generates a scientifically authentic sound.
As there are no samples involved, the scope of the sounds is pretty much limitless. You can control aspects of the materials and how the resonators and vibrations interact, which gives Lounge Lizard a unique feel. It’s extremely versatile and the large pool of presets aptly demonstrates the range of sounds at your fingertips. So, although it does give that authentic sound, you can tweak it into some very unique places.
The latest version has a reworked effects section bringing in the essential chorus, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, notch filter, wah-wah, and reverb. Compression, limiting and EQ give a lot of scope for beefing up the sound and cutting it into your mix.
It has the greatest name of any virtual electric piano and because it doesn’t use any samples you can download a 33MB demo version and try it out for yourself. It’s a great opportunity to compare to the demo version of the Waves Electric 88. It’s more expensive at $199 but gives you an infinitely wider palette.
Link to Website: www.applied-acoustics.com
Spitfire North 7 Vintage Keys
Street Price: $249 (at time of writing)
British boutique sample library producers Spitfire go all-in when they sample something. They sought out four pristine examples of fabulous vintage keyboards and then sampled the heck out of them. Along with the Rhodes, Clavichord, and Wurlitzer, they also dug out the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass made famous by Ray Manzarek of The Doors. The result is 24.9GB of electric piano bliss with the sonic ability to play with all our emotional buttons. Spitfire start with recruiting top musicians to play the instruments and then top engineers to produce the samples and design the signal chain. Raw sound is not enough for Spitfire, they want to craft something intentionally awesome. The “North 7” part of the name refers to N7 Studios with whom they collaborated on this collection of instruments.
Spitfire use what they call their eDNA engine within Native Instrument’s Kontakt environment. Kontakt provides both a certain level of restriction along with versatility, compatibility, and integration with other sound libraries. The interface is familiar for Kontakt users, nicely vintage looking, but bears no resemblance to the sampled instruments. What you do get is a very tweakable control surface with lots of movement, possibility, and creativity.
The eDNA engine can twist and stretch samples into completely unrecognizable textures. Two motorized effects processors let you control 32 different effects and push them at each other via auto-modulation. The results are unique and offer something completely different from what you signed up for.
But you will start with amazing sounding instruments, sampled with musical dedication which you can take into uncharted territory. At $249 you are paying a premium for the quality of work and experience they have poured into this project.
Link to Website: www.spitefireaudio.com
Arturia have built up quite a catalogue of vintage instruments and synthesizers captured using their award-winning modeling technology. Their aim is to model the total sonic and aesthetic fidelity of the originals, down to the smallest detail.
E-instruments Session Keys Electric R and Electric S
Street Price: $79, bundled $129 (at time of writing)
I couldn’t decide between these two but luckily, they do a bundle deal on getting both together. The Electric R refers to the Fender Rhodes Mark 1 stage piano while the Electric S is all about the 1973 Suitcase version. Both are prime examples of why we can’t get enough of the electric piano vibe.
The Electric R focuses on a 1976 Stage Piano. They modified the instrument to take 8 separate audio outputs so they could capture every nuance. They sampled it in two different environments, one in the studio and one with a more live feel. The combined size is over 10GB on the one instrument. They approach the editing slightly differently. While they still give you deep editing over the mix of background and mechanical sounds, virtual placement of pick-ups and microphones, and depth of resonance they also release you from this complexity with their innovative Pentamorph control. The Pentamorph takes five parameters and lets you move between them with a single control, instantly creating new variations so you can find your own sweet spot.
Rounding it off is an Animator section with more than 400 licks and phrases in all sorts of styles and a chord generator for when you want to drop in something classic. The usual effects of tremolo, chorus, delay, reverb and some chunky amp distortion are all present.
The Electric S finds itself emulating the sound of a 1973 Suitcase keyboard. It follows all the same features as the Electric R but this time they go to two with over 18GB of samples. The keyboard in question was restored back to peak condition before they embarked on their sampling adventure.
Both are powered by the Kontakt player engine and cost only $79 each or $129 for the pair. I get the impression the Electric S is the one they are most proud of.
Link to Website: www.e-instruments.com
Arturia Stage-73 V
Street Price: $149 (at time of writing)
Back into acoustic modeling, we go with Arturia’s take on both the stage and suitcase versions of the Fender Rhodes. Arturia has built up quite a catalog of vintage instruments and synthesizers captured using their award-winning modeling technology. Their aim is to model the total sonic and aesthetic fidelity of the originals, down to the smallest detail. In fact, you can take the virtual lid off the virtual interface and fiddle about with the virtual innards. You have control over all the parameters such as dynamics, hammer hardness, tone bar resonance and some simply not accessible in the physical world.
Coupled to the piano are the built-in amp and speaker of the Suitcase or the separate classic amp models of the Stage version. Alongside is a range of foot-pedals and stomp boxes to lend authentic effects to your sound. The layout of the Stage-73 V gives you the most comparable experience to the real thing. It’s very musical and friendly, no menu diving or editing pages, it’s all built into the beautifully rendered piano.
At $149 it sits somewhere in the middle of the other offerings but does offer a demo version, so you can always try it out for yourself.
Link to Website: www.arturia.com
Our fascination with the classic Fender Rhodes is born out in these virtual instruments. They will all delight and enthrall you. Choosing which one is best for you is a tricky task. With the huge sample libraries of the Spitfire and e-instruments offerings, you’re never going to get the chance to try before you buy. At least with Lounge Lizard, Stage-73 V, and the more humble Waves Electric 88 you can run them side by side and make an informed decision. For me, the strength of the North 7 Vintage Keys is in the unusual places you can take it, whereas the Electric 88 is awesome for its simplicity, price and unique sound. Lounge Lizard perhaps feels its age whereas the Stage-73 offers a more up-to-date approach, better integration, and control. However, you cannot go far wrong with any of these emotive emulations of a truly inspirational instrument.
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