While there are literally hundreds of piano samples and plugins out there, I’m focusing on the three plugins that I’ve loved the most and used extensively over the last five years. Here’s my thoughts on them:
Scroll to the bottom of the page for audio comparisons of all the plugins reviewed
The Good: great sounding realistic grand piano tones. High quality reverb and effects.
The Bad: massive sample library (77 Gigabytes), somewhat dated sound. Can occasionally choke even the fastest hard drive.
Review: Ivories was the first “real” plugin that I bought out of high school, and I fell in love with the clean, polished sound of the plugin. It was the first piano plugin on the market to sound and play like an actual piano, and I spent many happy years gigging out with it and an M-Audio Keystation Pro 88.
But like so many first romances, Ivories didn’t weather the test of time. Ivories II now is only negligibly better than the original, while its competition have massively upped their game. Also, Ivories biggest strength (its sonic accuracy) comes at an expense to the live musician: I’ve frequently had it choke or even lock up my very fast, SSD equipped MacBook Pro.
Verdict: I felt like I had to include Ivories because of its tremendous (and well deserved) reputation in the keyboardist community, but I would not recommend it if you’re looking to add a piano plugin to your arsenal for live use. If your goals are recording in the studio, this isn’t a bad buy, but definitely more expensive and less realistic (arguably) than the competition.
Native Instruments Piano Collection (the Maverick, the Grandeur, and the Gentleman)
Price: $199, bundled free with Komplete 10 ($499)
The Good: stunningly realistic piano sounds. Lots of space in samples. Convincing upright and aged piano tones. Super customizable.
The Bad: huge sample library, can cause computers to choke when playing a lot of notes at the same time.
Review: I bought Native Instrument’s Piano Collection earlier this year as part of Komplete 10, and was blown away by the accuracy, detail, and customization of NI has included in this plugin. You can choose from three different models, The Gentleman (an old upright piano), The Maverick (a personality infused aged Steinway), and The Grandeur (a massive sounding Yamaha concert grand).
My favorite part about this instrument is the ability to add extra key click and ambient noise to the sound. This feature is incredibly convincing, and puts the Piano Collection at the top of my list for realism.
The one drawback of this instrument is a problem all sample based instruments face: choking the computer during live play. The Piano Collection has held up fairly well for me so far (not nearly as bad as Ivories) but I’ve occasionally had it create hiccups and clicks in the audio when playing live. That said, I know several platinum and Grammy winning musicians that have grand pianos sitting unused in the corner of their studios because of this plugin.
Verdict: this is easily the best piano plugin on the market, and while it can occasionally push your computer live, it’s worth the effort.
Pianoteq 5 Stage Piano (Grand D4, and Grand K2)
The Good: tiny sample size due to physical modeling, while maintaining amazingly realistic tone. Low CPU and hard disk requirements. Very even frequency and velocity response.
The Bad: not quite as accurate and full bodied as other piano plugins. Not as many tweaking options.
Review: I bought this plugin a little over a week ago, and I have become a raving fan. It was tiny to download (less than 40 megabytes), super easy to install, and sounds absolutely fabulous.
Everything about this plugin screams “play me live!”. It’s so CPU efficient that it barely pegs 10 percent on my CPU meter. It has the ability to set custom velocity curves per controller, which is a big plus when I switching from my hammer action Nord Stage to synth weighted Novation 61SL for fly dates. It even gives you easy front panel access to Mono, Stereo, and a whole host of other features that live musicians will love.
There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on with this plugin- it’s. . . playable. It responds to my touch quickly and accurately, and is probably the most responsive piano plugin I’ve ever used.
Verdict: if you play worship sets (or any other kind of live music, for that matter), go to the below link and buy this plugin immediately. It’s my clear winner for live piano use among the plugins reviewed.
An Argument for Mainstage’s Built In Piano
As I was writing this article and creating the audio examples, I was struck by just how good Mainstage’s built in piano samples are. Many of these sounds have been around for almost 10 years, but they’re still very playable, musical, and surprisingly hold their own against plugins costing 10x the price of the entire Mainstage program. Before you go drop $100-$300 on a piano plugin, I’d recommend checking them out for yourself. You might be able to save yourself some serious change.
(Note: I don’t have audio examples of Synthogy Ivories because I couldn’t justify a plugin that I never use taking up 77 gigabytes of space on my hard drive. To hear audio examples, visit http://synthogy.com/demos/grandpiano.html )
All pianos are recorded using the same midi file, and have had no third-party plugins effecting their tone.
Native Instrument's Piano Collection
More from Native Instruments that are not included in the piano collection bundle: