By Alden Skinner
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.
AN INTRODUCTION TO SOFTWARE PIANOS
If the digital piano is thought of as a complete instrument that’s ready to play right out of the box, piano software can be thought of as part of a “piano kit.” The standard digital piano is completely self-contained in that it’s made up of the memory and processing electronics required to produce the sound, the firmware (software residing on a chip) that is the source of the sound, a keyboard to control the sound, and, more often than not, the audio system needed to hear the sound. If viewed as separate components of a piano kit, however, a personal computer can take on the role of memory and processing, piano software becomes the sound source, a keyboard (very possibly your digital piano) provides control, and powered monitor speakers and/or headphones let you hear your new invention. If you have a digital piano (or an acoustic piano with hybrid features) and a personal computer (Mac or Windows), you already have most of the ingredients of a software-based piano.
The obvious question: If you already have a digital piano, why would you want to add a software piano? Most digital pianos are capable of producing more than one piano sound, but typically, all of these sounds are based on a single piano as a sample source. Think of it this way: If you could add a Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Fazioli, or Steinway to your palette of piano samples for only the cost of the software, would you do it? (I hear the sounds of pianos and computers being pushed together even now.) How about being able to virtually design your own instrument with piano software based on physical modeling? (See “Digital Piano Basics, Part 1” for more information on physical modeling.)
Adding a software piano to your existing piano, or building your own piano from a “piano kit,” is a bit more involved than putting your computer and your piano in the same room — but not by much. Let’s take a look at the requirements on both the computer and piano sides. Since the requirements for the piano are pretty simple, we’ll start there.
Digital and Hybrid Piano considerations
If your existing piano is going to serve as the basis for your extended piano family, the minimum requirement is that it have MIDI-out capability — USB MIDI makes it slightly easier, but regular MIDI connections will do as well. The good news here is that all currently available digital pianos and most acoustic hybrid pianos already have, or can add, this capability. The next step is to be able to get your existing “host” piano to stop producing its own sound.
For digital pianos, this consists of a brief trip to the owner’s manual to learn how to set it up as a “controller” or “master” keyboard. Acoustic pianos must either be capable of “silent” mode or must be converted to enable it (see “Hybrid Pianos” in this issue).
Requirements for the computer vary considerably, depending on the piano software used and the choices you make in software settings. Just as with digital pianos, sample-based software is highly dependent on the size of the computer’s memory, while physical modeling software — which creates the sound in real time rather than retrieving an existing sound sample — primarily depends on the speed of the computer’s processor. At a minimum, hardware requirements will involve processor type and speed, and the amount of random-access memory (RAM) and hard-disk space. These requirements range from packages that can run on most recent-vintage midrange computers, to those requiring higher-speed, multi-speed processors, 8 Gigabytes (GB) of RAM, over 250 GB of free harddisk space (preferably on a fast SSD drive), and a dedicated sound card. Either way, you need to check the hardware requirements of the individual software package you’d like to run to make sure it will work properly on your computer — or use it as an excuse to get a new computer.
Aside from making sure that you have enough memory to store and run these packages, processor and sound-card choices will also keep latency in check. Latency is how long it takes the computer to produce a sound from the time you press a key. When latency becomes noticeable, your brain doesn’t know whether to slow your playing so that the sound can catch up, or to speed up to make the sound happen faster. Neither of these works. (Anyone who plays the pipe organ knows what latency is, and will adapt to it without a second thought.)
This is where the real fun starts. There are currently dozens of software-piano packages available, at prices ranging from under $50 to over $500. These include both sample-based packages and packages based on physical modeling. There are products on the market for Mac, PC, and even mobile-device platforms. Several host acoustic pianos (i.e., the sources of the samples) are available via software, including instruments made by Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Fazioli, Kawai, Steingraeber, Steinway, and Yamaha. If you’d like to add some period instruments to your palette, there are also packages with samples from historical fortepianos.
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 . . .)
When you first launch Vienna Imperial, it comes up in Basic mode, which simply allows you to select the microphone position: Close, Player, or Distant. But there are also a couple of menus worth exploring before you simply select a mic position and go on your way. In the upper right of the window is a menu labeled “Load Samples R S.” The R and S stand for “Release Samples” and “Soft Pedal Samples.” Selections in this menu allow you to omit either or both of these sample sets if you’re a bit shy of the recommended amount of RAM. On the left side of the window is the “Factory Presets” menu, which contains not only the three basic mic positions, but nine other presets involving even more mic positions, and equalization and reverberation settings.
If you’re just a bit more adventurous (you know you have to try it), you can select the Advanced view, which reveals individual settings for Equalization, Midi Sensitivity, Octave Shift (remember that you have nine extra notes below the normal 88-key range), Transpose, Reverb settings, Dynamic Range, Sympathetic level, Pedal Noise, Stereo Width, and Tuning. In this view you can experiment with different settings and save your favorites to the presets menu.
So how does Vienna Imperial sound? Smooth, seamless, unflappable. As you might imagine, with 69,633 samples at hand, there never seemed to be a playing condition that left it at a loss for the perfect response, regardless of dynamic levels, releases, or pedaling. There was also no mistaking it for anything but a Bösendorfer — the tone was clean, clear, and distinctive. One thing I found enjoyable was recording using Preset 02 Player Default for the at-the-keyboard experience, then playing back using Preset 04 Distant Concert Piano Big Hall for the in the-audience experience.
The two effects available in the native player software are Equalization and Reverberation. The equalization, or EQ, is a three-band parametric arrangement. A parametric EQ allows you to not only adjust the degree of boost or cut for a specific frequency range, but to move the center frequency of each range and to change its “Q,” or the bandwidth of the effect. This is vastly beyond the control provided by your home or car stereo’s Bass, Mid, and Treble controls.
The reverb control, too, goes well beyond the ordinary. Most reverberation schemes employed in digital pianos still rely on algorithms that provide the original sound with “reverb.” With Vienna Imperial, VSL has seen fit to include convolutional reverb, which uses an impulse signal within a real acoustic space to sample the reverberation characteristics of that space. It’s a lot like sampling the sound of a piano: an extremely brief “impulse” sound — an electric spark is common — causes an acoustic space to reverberate, and the result is captured as an acoustic signature. Convolutional reverb can impose this reverb signature on any given sound, resulting in the impression that the sound was captured in the originally sampled space. In this case your piano can be placed in any of the three different performance spaces of the Wiener Konzerthaus (Vienna Concert House).
Is Vienna Imperial worth the $875 investment? If you love the sound of the Bösendorfer Imperial but lack the $150,000, the considerable space required, or both, this may be your ultimate solution. If you’re happy with the action of your digital piano — this always comes first for me — but feel you’d like to have more piano sounds, adding softwarebased pianos is a great option. But be warned: once you start down this path, there is a tremendous temptation to collect them all.
by Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at/
System Requirements: PC Intel Core Duo (or AMD 3GHz) or higher Mac Core Duo, Intel Platform only 3GB RAM with 1.5GB memory available Fast separate hard drive with 60GB free space