Being a pianist in the year 2018 isn’t all that easy, with questions and options abound at every conceivable turn... Acoustic or digital? ROMpler or controller paired with a plugin? Samples or modelled instruments? It’s enough to make a grown man or woman throw their delicate piano-hands up and plead for help from a higher musical power! But I digress…
For the past 12 years, Modartt has staked its sonic claim on a modelled approach to creating virtual keyboards. Unlike sample-based products that record acoustic instruments at varying velocity levels for playback, Modartt’s Pianoteq creates tones by way of mathematically modelling the active relationship between hammers striking strings, that are coupled to a resonant soundboard. Modelling also requires a fraction of the disk space that sampling does: Compare the 67 MB download of Pianoteq 6 to the multi-gigabyte size of a high-end sample library.
While sampling allows for pristine recording and playback of acoustic sources, modelling allows a near-infinite array of parameter shaping and sonic experimentation. Piano modelling has been around for decades. (Who can forget Elton John playing the famed Roland RD-1000/MKS-20 piano sound?) But Pianoteq has taken it to an altogether new level with consistent upgrades and instrument additions.
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Version 6 in four flavours
Pianoteq 6 is the latest in Modartt’s continued quest for virtual pianistic realism. How close does this new release come to a thousand-pound concert instrument? We’ll give you a hint: Famed piano maker Steinway & Sons has offcially endorsed this new version by emblazoning their logo across the home screen.
Pianoteq 6 is available at four different price points. The basic Stage version ($129) has the fewest instruments and editable parameters, but you have a choice between an Acoustic, Electric and Chromatic Percussion focus. The Standard version ($319) has more instruments and includes customizable options such as tuning, microphone selection and positioning, and piano-model tweaking.
The Pro version ($519), which includes even more instruments, supports audio resolutions up to 192 kHz and provides a wide array of adjustable parameters such as overtones, reverb and note-by-note editing. At the very top is the Studio bundle ($899), which includes everything in the Pro package along with free instrument updates and upgrades for one year.
How much Pianoteq do you need? Only you can answer that question. Although my review copy was the Studio bundle and contained just about every conceivable option under the sun, I am quite sure, as a gigging pianist, that even the Stage version would have worked for me. But your answer will also depend on just how deep you want to get into sound shaping and editing.
Pianoteq 6 works under Mac OS X 10.7 or Windows 7 or later, as well as Linux (x86 and ARM). It can be used in standalone mode or as a plug-in (AAX, AU, VST2 and VST 3) and it supports the Native Instruments NKS format.
After installation and authorization, you select and calibrate your MIDI controller and audio output interface. Next, you are taken to Pianoteq’s main screen, which displays the current keyboard preset, as well as options for instrument tuning, voicing and design. This mission control-style GUI helps the user navigate the myriad of customizable parameters quite well, and I found myself diving into different sounds and tone-shaping options right away.
Acoustic and electric offerings
As someone who has gigged for the past decade with, generally, hardware-based digital pianos (typically offering only a handful of presets), Pianoteq 6 is a veritable cornucopia of pianistic possibilities — from Steinway B and D grands (approved by the instrument manufacturer, itself ) to more esoteric models by Grotrian, Steingraeber and others. Each instrument has variations, as well. For instance, some of the Steinway B varieties include those named Recording, Close Mic, and Cosmic, each with its own character and sonic imprint.
The Studio bundle arrived stocked with instruments beyond just standard grand and uprights. It featured historical models like those by Broadwood, Pleyel and Erard; keyed percussion such as vibraphone, celesta and toy piano; and predecessors to the piano such as concert harp and harpsichord — each with its own singular sound. For those of us who will never get a chance to hear many of these rare keyboard instruments in person, Pianoteq 6 affords the opportunity to experience their essence at home.
Being no stranger to the world of Wurlitzers, Rhodes pianos and Hohner Clavinets (my trusted Wurly 200A sits beside me as I type), I was interested to hear what Pianoteq 6’s electrics had to offer. I wasn’t disappointed.
From a Queen-era reed piano entitled “You’re My Best Friend” that nailed the bark and bite of the original, to a convincingly processed Rhodes MK1 model named “Sweet Flanger” that sounded straight out of a Styx song, Pianoteq 6’s electrics are bound to impress everyone from a jazzer to a Prog fan. And kudos to Modartt for including unique instruments like the Hohner Pianet N and T, and a model of the RMI Electra-Piano.
E is for editing
The sheer number of editable parameters in Pianoteq 6 is astounding. Much like the way a seasoned piano technician adjusts the many tone-producing components of an instrument, Pianoteq 6 allows the user to experiment with an equally wide palette. From voicing possibilities like hammer noise/hardness, strike point and soft pedal adjustments to deeper design options such as changing string lengths, sympathetic resonance and the depth of the piano’s duplex scale imprint. The Electric instruments have an equally impressive array of editable parameters, from hammer hardness to noise and pickup position.
The instruments have polyphonic aftertouch capabilities and include ten pedal types to choose from, when selecting the four your patch will have: sustain, soft, harmonic, sostenuto, super sostenuto, rattle, buff stop, celeste, pinch harmonic and glissando. The progressive sustain pedal capabilities let you create partial-pedal effects too.
There are options for setting up microtunings and temperaments, and the Standard, Pro and Studio versions add Scala file import and octave stretching as well as variable lid position, multichannel output (up to five channels), and five adjustable microphones.
The onboard effects include a compressor, flanger, tremolo, wah, phaser, fuzz, delay, convolution reverb, amp simulator and EQ options. And for the brave, the Note Edit page allows you to adjust an unparalleled number of settings on a note-by-note basis. Try that with your average home digital piano!
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New and improved
While Pianoteq 6 doesn’t seem to be an earth-shattering departure from the previous version, it does boast some serious sonic improvements. Modartt claims it delivers “increasing realism and acoustic presence,” and the proof is in the playing. I definitely heard a greater degree of acoustic depth and detail, as compared to Pianoteq 5. Solo passages stood out for their clarity and the "air" that seemed to move around the music. Whatever changes were made to the processing engine are evinced in the sound of Pianoteq 6.
The standalone version offers FLAC and MP3 file export, improved MIDI mapping, and a MIDI playlist and archive that automatically records everything played on a MIDI keyboard for archiving. I got a lot of use out of this last feature while putting Pianoteq 6 through its paces.
With all its options, Pianoteq 6 is surprisingly easy and nimble to navigate. I was up and running within minutes after authorizing my copy and calibrating my audio and MIDI devices. Simply put, Pianoteq’s acoustic pianos are a joy to play and have a near cinematic, 3D quality to them. While many sample-based digital pianos shine in live performance, their limitations can become more evident in exposed home and/or recording situations. But Modartt’s modeled instruments have an organic, acoustic shimmer to them that kept me playing and playing.
The Steinway models are detailed and rich, just like their acoustic inspirations, and the other models shine as well. I particularly liked the Upright U4 “Recording” as well as historic models like the J. Donhal “Close Mic” which was ready for my next scoring adventure. Pianoteq’s acoustic pianos have personality for days.
I was equally impressed with the selection of electric pianos. I recently sold (and still miss) my vintage Fender Rhodes, and there were a number of models in Pianoteq 6 that captured my much-loved instrument’s signature personality. And did I mention they don’t weigh 300 pounds like the one I sold?
After years of playing acoustic, digital and virtual pianos. I thought I had seen and heard it all. But Pianoteq 6, with its lean CPU requirements, stunning sound, and near-infinite editing capabilities is a breath of fresh air.
Even if you have a go-to hardware or software piano instrument or library, Pianoteq 6 is worth a look and listen; it sounds that good. Bottom Line: It’s, possibly, all the piano tech you’ll ever need!
Pros: Stunning, realistic acoustic and electric pianos. Light on CPU load. Tons of tone-shaping parameters.
Cons: Pro and Studio versions are pricey.
Studio Bundle: $899