Digital Piano Basics, Part 2

An Introduction to Software Pianos
My Other Piano Is a Computer

Alden Skinner

Review: Vienna Symphonic Library's Vienna Imperial

In the last issue we explored an entry-level sample package, Garritan Authorized Steinway Basic Version, and a mid-priced physical modeling package, Pianoteq. In this review we'll look at the high-end sample package, Vienna Imperial, by Vienna Symphonic Library.

The story of Vienna Imperial is actually several stories: Bösendorfer, its CEUS electronic player-piano system, and Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL).

VSL's "library" consists of digital samples of instruments ranging from finger cymbals to this article's subject, the Bösendorfer model 290 Imperial Concert Grand. Their 80 software packages cover solo instruments—2,496 samples of a piccolo, for example—and ensembles of every description, all the way up to the imposing 792,953-sample Symphonic Cube, delivered on 29 DVDs for $12,460. With the exception of the Vienna Concert House Organ (pipe organs being notoriously difficult to move), all sample recording is done in VSL's purpose-built studio, the Silent Stage. The Silent Stage recording environment is designed and equipped specifically for recording samples. For most instrumental recordings, the studio will serve as home for an individual musician or ensemble for anywhere from six to twelve months of grueling precision and repetition. But the Vienna Imperial sampling sessions were different—in this case, the musician was Bösendorfer's CEUS electronic player-piano system. (The CEUS system is described in more detail in "Buying an Electronic Player-Piano System," elsewhere in this publication.)

The CEUS system, built into the Bösendorfer Imperial at the factory, facilitates sample recording because its finely calibrated, tireless mechanism precisely repeats all articulations, including dynamics and pedaling. Exceeding VSL's typical fanatical precision, the CEUS system allowed for the consistent sampling of 100 dynamic levels, as well as various sustain, soft-pedal, and release samples, all captured at three different microphone positions—Player, Close, and Distant (Audience). The Bösendorfer Imperial recording sessions ran up a grand total of 69,633 individual samples occupying 500GB of memory, which was then reduced to 60GB, including the control program, by VSL's proprietary lossless compression. While not all keys are treated equally, VSL claims up to 1,200 samples per key. Let all of that sink in for a minute: hardware-based sampled digital pianos currently top out at 5 dynamic levels.

The Bösendorfer Imperial itself is a massive beast at 9' 6", and sports 97 keys versus the normal 88. The additional keys are all at the bottom, which results in a low C that produces a fundamental pitch of 16.35Hz, the same pitch produced by the 32' low-C pipe of a large pipe organ. It's almost more felt than heard. Handcrafted in Vienna, as all Bösendorfers have been since 1828, an Imperial will cost you upwards of $150,000. Add about $50,000 if you want the CEUS system installed.

Before we start exploring the capabilities of the package, we have to make sure the computer can handle it. VSL recommends that the sample set be installed on a separate 7200rpm hard disk. Considering that I acquired a brand-name 1-terabyte drive for this purpose for $100, this isn't a major hurdle. On the computing side, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 3GB of RAM are required for both Mac and Windows machines—not entry-level, but not at all out of line with today's midrange computers.

The process of installation, while not trivial, is not particularly difficult; it just takes a while. The initial step of installing the base program is quick and straightforward. Installation of the sample set, however, requires that you have something else to occupy your time, as each of the six DVDs takes roughly thirty minutes to load. The one step in installation that you may not have encountered before is the registration of the ViennaKey licensing device. This is a USB dongle that contains the serial number of your copy of Vienna Imperial and the activation code you will receive, and locks the use of the program to the installed computer. You can transfer this registration if you switch to a different computer at a later time. If this seems a bit over-the-top relative to other software you've installed, understand that it's not uncommon for high-end music software, and in my view is a perfectly understandable precaution against illegal copying.

One consideration that VSL does not specify, but that seems somewhat obvious, is that of speaker selection. There's little point in trying to evaluate a high-end sound source with any old speakers. Once I'd discovered that Vienna Symphonic Library used Blue Sky monitors for their soundproof demonstration "Cube" at the NAMM Show (the annual trade show of the music industry), I contacted the company and we decided on their Media Desk 2.1 system. The Media Desk consists of two two-way satellite speakers and a sub-woofer, which tempts one to compare them with the many 2.1 computer speaker systems available. This would be unfair to both sides, as the Blue Sky monitors are in a completely different class. These powered near-field monitors are intended for recording and production applications, and are thus designed with accuracy as the primary objective, as opposed to sounding "pretty." In essence, their job is to tell you the truth, as opposed to telling you what you may want to hear. While this was exactly what was needed for this application, this class of speaker is sometimes accused of being a bit harsh. I received the monitors a few days before the Vienna Imperial software arrived, which gave me the opportunity to listen to them with a wide variety of source material. In short, they sounded incredibly detailed without ever making me wince. At $699 for the system, they are well within the price range of many powered monitors suitable for use with virtual-piano setups or as upgrades for existing digital pianos. (Hmm, I seem to have lost the return paperwork somewhere . . .)


SPRING 2010 -- page 145

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