Best Piano VSTs: Pro Reviewed For Any Budget
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Best Piano VSTs: Pro Reviewed For Any Budget

Author: Robin Vincent

Date: May 23, 2019

Reads: 6,742


Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website Gearnews.com.
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The modeling and sampling of the humble acoustic piano has reached such heights that you can have whatever piano you want, from whatever era, lovingly crafted with all the nuance and subtlety of the original instrument playfully reimagined on your computer.

The sounds are stunning, the realism is exciting, the dynamics are perfectly tailored to performance or for sitting in your mix. You can find an instrument that’s ideal for your project or simply sit back and enjoy the pleasure of playing.

Virtual pianos appear in all sorts of workstation style VST instruments, but for this roundup, I’m looking for those pianos deliberately crafted to be exemplary. Where the modeling or sampling has gone far beyond the sound of an acoustic instrument and into the essence of what draws us to this sound in the first place.

Some instruments on this list are dedicated to the piano, others are part of larger collections of similar instruments. This list takes into account the latest instruments and some great instruments that are still current and yet to be surpassed. What you’ll find are lovely sounding pianos that when coupled with a good quality MIDI controller will give you immensely playable pleasure.

The best Piano VSTs:

  • Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand
  • Modartt Pianoteq
  • Synthogy Ivory II Studio Grands
  • Spectrasonics Keyscape
  • Native Instruments Noire
  • E-instruments Session Keys Grand S
  • Arturia Piano V
  • UVI Grand Piano

Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand

Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand

Garritan takes on a Yamaha CFX Concert Grand Piano but it’s not just any old piano sitting around somewhere, this is the Yamaha CFX that sits in the famous Abbey Road Studio A in London. Some of the world’s finest musicians have sat on that stool and tinkled on those ivories.

More importantly, for this instrument is that some of the “world’s best Engineers” helped set up some of the “world’s greatest microphones” and equipment to enable the capture of this stunning instrument.

Studio One is a huge space that can accommodate 110 piece orchestras. It has a warm and clear sound, taking full advantage of the room’s 2.3 seconds reverb time. It has hosted everything from the London Symphony Orchestra to The Beatles’ famous live performance of “All You Need Is Love.”

The Yamaha CFX was hand-built in 1991 by a small team of experienced and skilled craftsmen. It’s a refined and expressive instrument with enough tonal presence to be heard over an entire orchestra.

The microphone placements for the recordings formed three discrete perspectives. They call these Classic for the most natural tone, Contemporary to emphasize the brightness and attack, and then Player offers the experience of sitting on the stool. From those recordings, various presets have been created which reflect further audio processing to create a sound for many different occasions.

Pros & Cons

  • Top class Yamaha CFX piano
  • World class recording environment
  • High end equipment used throughout and it shows
  • Multiple perspectives and presets
  • Requires a multi-core processor and a fast drive with 133GB free for a full installation.
  • Very specifically this piano which may not be for everyone.

Street Prices:
• Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand $159
• Abbey Road CFX Light Virtual Piano $59

Garritan Abbey Road CFX Concert Grand

Modartt Pianoteq

Modartt Pianoteq

When people talk about virtual pianos, Pianoteq is invariably the first one that comes to mind. It’s the daddy of Piano emulations. It’s won more awards than any other virtual piano and is probably the deepest, widest and most beautiful.

The key to all this is that it doesn’t use samples – Pianoteq uses physical modeling. A physical model is a computer emulation of every part of a piano’s physical being. This enables to software to change and emulate every possible combination, every nuance, every resonant string or mechanical noise. It’s all in there and takes up next to no space on your hard drive.

The sound of Pianoteq is so good that it is the only software approved by Steinway & Sons. It has uniquely adjustable physical attributes like unison width, octave stretching, hammer hardness, soundboard, string length, sympathetic resonance and duplex scale resonance.

It does have layers of velocity samples it can use the full range of 127 MIDI velocities. You can adjust the lid position, emulated mic positions, instrument condition and there are 10 types of pedal you can swap in. There’s polyphonic aftertouch, convolution reverbs, effects, EQ and keyboard calibration.

Whatever you set, however you configure it, Pianoteq will construct the sound in real-time as you play in response to how you play. Piantoeq now covers a wide variety of pianos that you can select and buy and comes in three versions.

Pianoteq Stage removes all the configuration elements and offers you the phenomenal sound engine and 2 instrument packs. Pianoteq Standard enables a bunch of powerful tools including mic placement and lets you choose 3 instrument packs. Pianoteq Pro opens up everything to you and comes with 4 instrument packs.

Pros & Cons

  • Simply the most versatile piano available
  • Huge sound design potential
  • Very small install footprint
  • Wide variety of instruments
  • Gets pricey with additional instruments

Street Price:
• Pianoteq Stage $149
• Pianoteq Standard $299

Modartt Pianoteq

Synthogy Ivory II Studio Grands

Synthogy Ivory II Studio Grands

Synthogy has been sampling pianos for a very long time. This latest release features two very different pianos, the Steinway B Grand Piano and the Bosendorfer 225 Grand Piano. The Steinway sits in the Power Station New England in Waterford and the Bosendorfer resides in the Firehouse Recording Studios in Pasadena California. Both were recorded with all the expertise that Synthogy has built up over the past decades.

For these sorts of instruments, the location was key. The Power House NE was modeled on the famous Power Station/Avatar space in New York and this recording was engineered by Mark Donahue. The Firehouse is a historic studio space and engineered by Tony Sheppard. Both pianos were recorded in exacting detail with multiple microphone setups and perspectives.

These instruments are built in the new Ivory 2.5 sound engine using 112GB of core library. Each note is sampled to 24 layers of velocity with multiple levels of soft pedal and release samples triggered by velocity and duration. They even included the pedal noise.

For processing, they use a custom Soundboard Emulation DSP, digital effects and Harmonic Resonance Modeling for a truly sympathetic string resonance.

Pros & Cons

  • They’ve done this before
  • Two different pianos with different characters
  • A lot of user control over tone and perspective
  • Interface a little dated
  • Very specific pianos that won’t suit everyone
  • No alternative mic perspectives

Street Price: $279
Synthogy Ivory II Studio Grands

Spectrasonics Keyscape

Keyscape is an enormous collection of keyboards. Where other VST Pianos focus exclusively on a single instrument Keyscape takes in 36 models of keyboard instrument. Many of them are electric and eclectic but there’s a wonderful Grand Piano, a pair of uprights, a Butterfly Piano, and 3 Toy Pianos. But we’ll just focus on the Grand piano.

The LA Custom C& Grand Piano is a unique instrument owned by LA piano technician Jim Wilson. It has some special modifications taking “Blue Point” hammers and very rare felt that contributes to the very wide tonal spectrum. It has an amazing dynamic range and color palette.

Spectrasonics spent a year perfecting this instrument and modeled everything from the subtleties of pedal noise to the intricate interaction of the release overtones.

Keyscape features innovative harmonic controls including “Color Shift” adjustments and “Character” control that enables a wide range of piano sounds to emerge from the same instrument. You can also match the instrument to the velocity curve of your MIDI controller making the playing experience gar more realistic.

You probably wouldn’t buy Keyscape just for the Grand Piano but this is an inspiring piece of work that contains a wealth of keyboard sounds and possibilities.

Pros & Cons

  • Huge range of sounds from rate and beautiful instruments
  • Innovative character and color modeling
  • Duo mode where you can combine two instruments
  • Might be a lot more than you need

Street Price: $379
Spectrasonics Keyscape

Native Instruments Noire

Native Instruments Noire

Native Instruments has built a number of sampled pianos for their Kontakt format. Until recently the remarkable Alicia’s Keys instrument managed to capture a wonderfully placed piano that was ideal for the studio.

But their latest piano called Noire evokes something bigger, something uniquely captured by composer and pianist Nils Frahm. This Yamaha CFX 9ft grand piano was methodically sampled in the ambient environment of Saal 3 in Berlin’s Bauhaus-designed Funkhaus recording complex. And they did it with different customizations.

They started with a pure unadulterated recording of pure piano tone doing justice to the instrument. Then they put a felt moderator between the hammers and strings to create a gentler tone with reduced attack. You have full control over parameters such as attack, release, resonance, overtones, velocity cure, temperament and so on in order to sculpt both the pure and the felt sounds.

There’s then a whole sound design angle to this instrument. You can add in mechanical sounds, room noise, crowd sounds and ambient artifacts for additional realism. You can use Tonal Shift to exaggerate the darkness, or pump in some tremolo and dial in some sub bass to change the feel completely. There’s an innovative Particles Engine which generates clouds of pulsating, swirling harmonic elements.

Noire is a stylish, creative instrument that can take you to very different places.

Pros & Cons

  • Different and interesting tones
  • Classic starting instrument
  • Sound design elements
  • Unusual and inspiring
  • Fewer traditional tones

Street Price: $149
Native Instruments Noire

E-instruments Session Keys Grand S

E-instruments Session Keys Grand S

Another Steinway D captured into a simpler 11GB of sampled instrument. What E-Instruments do well is the straightforward, uncluttered approach to making excellent sounding instruments that are easy to use and work well in any environment. As with the Noire it works within the Native Instruments Kontakt engine and takes advantage of the modulation and animation possibilities.

You start with a fabulous Grand Piano sound with multiple microphone positions and with the lid off as well as up. That resulted in two quite distinctive characters which they’ve called the Concert and the Studio versions.

The Concert version is bright and lively whereas the Studio is softer and better able to melt into a mix. Then they built in the ability to transform the sound with “Pentamorph” which is like a macro that shifts various characteristics to push it into different tonal areas.

The Animator section is designed to add harmony and phrasing around your playing which has the ability to inspire the less able players. There are over 400 flexible piano phrases that you can tweak and control the intensity of. Alongside is a Smart Chord tool which can add chord changes and arpeggiations to your notes.

Session Keys Grand S is ideal for the less advanced player and brings in tools that’ll improve the way you use a piano in your music.

Pros & Cons

  • Two great sounding piano tones
  • Easy tonal changes on a single control
  • Built in chords and phrases
  • Advanced players wouldn’t need the Animator side
  • Not enough control for serious sound design

Street Price: $99
E-instruments Session Keys Grand S

Arturia Piano V

Arturia Piano V

Like with the Pianoteq Arturia uses their own physical modeling technology to capture the components and characteristics of the 9 pianos in this collection. There are no samples here just the same technology they used to capture their range of vintage synthesizers and other instruments at a granular level. Arturia brings a modern flourish to the acoustic piano with an enormous amount of flexibility and playability.

The pianos on offer include 3 versions of a Grand Piano (Concert, Intimate and Pop) a Jazz Upright, Piano-bar Upright, Pop Upright, Classical Upright, Glass Grand, Metal Grand, Japanese Grand, Plucked Grand and Tack Upright. Some of these are very musical instruments and some are more of an exercise in creative possibilities using the tonal qualities of different materials and scenarios.

As this is modeling and not sampling, you have control over all sorts of physical aspects such strings, tuning, hammer hardness, position, noises, dynamics and mechanics. You can move microphones about and run different convolution room simulations.

Piano V is a fruity collection of enjoyable pianos that offer more customization than many of us will ever need. It takes up no disk space but does require a bit of processing power to fully enjoy all the sonic and environmental possibilities.

Pros & Cons

  • Physically modeled not sampled
  • Great variation in piano models
  • Lots of customisation
  • A little hard on the CPU
  • Expensive

Street Price: $149
Arturia Piano V

UVI-Grand-Piano

UVI Grand Piano

Our old friend the Steinway Model D gets sampled again for this great value instrument from UVI. Using similar deep level multi-sampling techniques and the best equipment on a fabulous European sound stage, they believe they have captured the essence of this majestic instrument.

UVI don’t go into much detail about the process unlike many of the other instruments on this list and instead focus on the stripped-down simplicity of what is a great sounding piano.

Every care was taken to sample this piano at multiple velocity levels and with and without sustain. Rather than aiming for versatility and the ability to drastically change the tonal nature of the instrument, UVI has gone for a natural, realistic sound of this piano in this space.

So this instrument plays exactly as you imagine it would. You have a bit of tonal control with some EQ and reverb. And then over the top they’ve added some nice synthesizer style elements such as envelopes, filters and modulation.

It’s the cheapest piano on the list while being completely competent.

Pros & Cons

  • Realistic Grand Piano
  • Synthesizer elements for tweaking
  • Only 1GB and easy on CPU power
  • Great value
  • No deep sound design within the instrument
  • Less versatile

Street Price: $49
UVI-Grand-Piano

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