The piano has enjoyed a position as one of the most in-demand instruments for hundreds of years. Despite that, they remain one of the bulkiest and most expensives instruments around. Thankfully, modern producers have access to truly exceptional Virtual Studio Technology instruments (VSTi) plugins capable of accurately recreating beautiful piano sounds completely digitally.
With a simple purchase and a little installation, you have complete access to one of the most ubiquitous instruments in modern music at a small fraction of the price of the real thing. All from the comfort of your computer. If you’re planning to put together your own studio, having the best piano VST you can get your hands on can be a massive boon in the process of composing and producing.
Just like a real instrument might, a quality piano VST can be a deep source of inspiration. Let’s take a look at how to find one that suits you best.
Table of Contents:
- I. How To Choose The Right Piano VST
- II. Making Use Of Your Piano VST
- III. Digital Pianos vs. Piano VSTs
- IV. Best Piano VSTs – Our Hot Picks
- V. Find the Piano VST that Inspires You to Play
How To Choose The Right Piano VST
Piano VST plugins can vary quite widely. These differences can be in the type of piano sounds offered, the way in which the plugin digitally recreates the piano, or in various advanced features such as mixing and effects. If you have a particular piano sound in mind to begin with, you can seek out a piano VST which specifically samples or models that particular sound.
For example, if you’re a huge fan of the sound of Yamaha grand pianos, you might seek out a plugin like Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand plugin, which uses sampling technology to capture the iconic sound of a Yamaha CFX Grand piano played in a world class studio.
If you’re less sure about what sort of piano sound you’re after, you might opt for something like Steinberg’s Halion Absolute, which incorporates five unique grand piano sounds, electric pianos, synthesizers, and dozens of other virtual instruments. The specifics of sound aren’t the only thing to think about. Even if you have no clue what sort of piano you’d like to hear, you should at least know how your VST is producing its sound.
There are two primary ways piano VSTs work:
- Sampling: Sampling refers to a process of recording and digitizing the sounds of real world pianos. These can produce incredibly realistic piano VSTs that sound impressively close to their real world counterparts. An incredibly powerful technology, sampling is behind some of the best virtual instruments on the market. However, large sample libraries can be demanding on computer memory and processing power.
- Modeling: In a modeling VST, a digital synthesizer is used to recreate the sounds of an acoustic piano. High end modeling plugins can be impressively realistic, however they are generally less realistic than sampling VSTs. Modeling VSTs can offer extreme levels of control over the sound, allowing you to dial in the most realistic tones you can manage or experiment with something entirely outside the realm of acoustic pianos.
Making Use Of Your Piano VST
No VST exists in a vacuum. As a “plugin,” a VST must be “plugged in” to your favorite Digital Audio Workstation software, such as Pro Tools or Cubase. Although you can control your VST through your DAW’s aptly-named Piano Roll by manually inserting MIDI data, this is a slow and tedious way of programming a piano line. This style of manually manipulating MIDI data is much more useful for editing.
Most producers prefer to use a MIDI keyboard to control their piano VST. If you want to truly emulate the experience of playing a real piano with your VST, the best way to do so is to get yourself a full-sized, 88-key MIDI keyboard. If you’re on a budget, you can easily get by with a smaller keyboard. There is always the option to go back and manipulate the MIDI data. You can could even change octaves and simulate what you might play with a full-sized keyboard.
Similar techniques can be employed to clean up even the sloppiest of performances. So if your keyboard chops leave a lot to be desired, don’t worry. You can quantize rhythms, correct pitches, and edit MIDI to your heart’s content once it’s in your DAW.
Digital Pianos vs. Piano VSTs
If you’re in the market for a piano VST plugin and a MIDI controller to go with it, you might find yourself stumbling on digital pianos and scratching your head. First, a bit of definition. A digital piano differs from a MIDI controller (although many digital pianos can double as MIDI controllers) because it incorporates its own hardware and software to produce sounds. This makes digital pianos a standalone instrument, unlike a MIDI controller and VST piano combo which requires a computer and DAW to operate. A digital piano can simply be plugged into the wall and played through normal amplification.
Though they can produce many of the same results, there is quite a difference between these two technologies. The standalone nature of digital pianos lends itself more towards practice and performance, whereas the DAW-dependant nature of VST pianos largely limits them to studio use.
Best Piano VSTs – Our Hot Picks
This is a sample-based piano VST with some serious pedigree. Recorded in the legendary Abbey Road Studios’ One using some of the world’s finest recording equipment, this is more than just your standard plugin. It’s practically a chance to own your own Yamaha CFX Concert Grand! Included are three distinctive mic perspectives, each capturing unique tones and room dynamics.
Every note was carefully sampled by top audio engineers to give a stunningly realistic recreation of this legendary grand piano. This is one of the best sounding piano VSTs on the market and routinely put to work by professionals and hobbyists alike.
If you want a huge assortment of piano sounds from a single VST, EZkeys is a good way to get there. An entirely sample-based VSTi, EZkeys serves as a platform for Toontrack’s massive MIDI sample library. Select from piano sounds ranging from elegant grands to cheesy honky-tonk standups all the way to modern electric piano sounds.
There are over 40 sample packs available for EZkeys, though they are sold separately. Most producers can use just a few sample packs to capture a huge diversity of piano sounds. Although the samples in EZkeys aren’t as rich or as well prepared as some other sample packs, the sheer diversity the product offers is quite impressive. Most of the sounds are more than usable.
As its name implies, EZkeys also has a few features to simplify the user experience. This includes a highly useful library of pre-programmed piano tracks which can be rapidly inserted and manipulated to capture distinctive piano lines with minimal effort.
The Synthogy Ivory II VST piano offers a selection of stunningly well prepared samples from an assortment of world class instruments. Like with the EZkeys piano VST we looked at above, the Synthogy Ivory II is divided into a series of sample packs sold separately. Each sample pack is either filled with a variety of piano styles, or has a single focus on a particularly magnificent instrument. Select from options including the Synthogy Ivory Grand Piano suite for that classical grand sound. Or have a listen through the Upright Pianos Pack which includes a whopping 84GB of upright pianos samples ideal for jazz, blues, or vintage rock n’ roll styles.
For those looking to hone in on the sound of a specific piano, Synthogy offers several options such as the Italian Grand Virtual Instrument. With the Italian Grand, you get a 28GB sample library focusing on one specific 10-foot Italian Concert Grand Piano. Though accumulating the many sample packs available for Synthogy Ivory II might cost a pretty penny, the full collection would be a superb assortment of sounds. However, for most of us this is overkill. Most producers would do well with a single Synthogy Ivory II sample pack!
Addictive Keys from XLN Audio offers four distinct sample packs: Studio Grand, Modern Upright, Electric Grand, and Mark One. The Studio Grand pack is based on a Steinway Model D Grand Piano, hand selected by XLN Audio engineers from a lineup of ten potential grand pianos. It features a selection of six microphone perspectives which can be combined and mixed to taste.
This is a feature common to all of the Addictive Keys’ sample packs, making each of them extremely powerful. The other packs are based on similarly prestigious pianos. The Modern Upright pack features a Yamaha H3 with seven microphone perspectives. Dipping into the electric domain, the Electric Grand features samples from a vintage CP-80, and the Mark One takes its tones from a classic Rhodes Mk 1 Stage Piano.
Although the presets sound great right out of the box, some of the real value of Addictive Keys is its flexibility in blending and customizing sounds. In the right hands, this is an extremely powerful piano VST.
Keyscape is a collection of top notch samples which Spectrasonics’ engineers have collected from some of the most sought after pianos and electric keyboards in music history. It’s quite a package. Despite having a focus primarily on electric pianos and vintage keyboards, Keyscape also includes high quality samples of a LA Custom C7 Grand Piano, a rare Wing Upright dating to 1900, and a very unique Wing Tack Piano.
Also within the acoustic domain, Keyscape includes a few high quality sample packs of some unique instruments including the clavichord, dulcitone, and even a toy piano. The real meat of Keyscape comes in the series of Rhodes, Vintage Vibe, and other seemingly inimitable classics which Keyscape has managed to condense into a single, immensely powerful piano VST package.
Definitely one of the best piano VSTs to equip yourself with an arsenal of unique sounds sure to open up new avenues of exploration!
Halion Absolute is a lot more than just a virtual piano. It’s Steinberg’s complete suite for sampling, creating, and customizing virtual instruments. Seeing as Steinberg is the inventor of the VST plugin format, we think they might know a thing or two when it comes to virtual instruments.
Right out of the box, you get a selection of preset piano samples including five grand pianos and a variety of keyboard sounds. You also get access to any other Absolute compatible samples you can find (and there are quite a few.) This is to say nothing of the whole host of other virtual instruments you get along with Absolute. More importantly for the focus of this article, you also get all sorts of nifty abilities to mix samples, create custom sounds, or even record your own samples if you are so inclined.
Absolute’s advanced features allow you to create incredible presets which control multiple instruments simultaneously, seamlessly blend together a variety of samples and digital modeling technology, and play with a massive catalog of virtual effects. While perhaps a bit much for someone simply seeking a piano VST, Halion Absolute can serve as a complete solution for virtual instruments in your studio.
Find the Piano VST that Inspires You to Play
As with choosing a real instrument, the best piano VST is one which keeps you coming back for more. Take your time to figure out what features you need in your virtual piano, but also spend as much time as you can listening. You should be able to find plenty of clips of the piano VST you’re looking at in action. You might even be able to get a free trial to give it a whirl yourself.
A piano VST can offer quite a bit of control over the sound you produce. As such, it’s best to give a VST a try yourself before purchasing. Be sure to play with the controls for tone, mixing, and try out different microphone perspectives and sample packs on each VST. You might be quite surprised with how much variety you can get from a single plugin.