Digital piano sounds have evolved immeasurably in recent years, but which are the best available?
The dawn of sampling technology revolutionised the piano world. Until then, electronic piano sounds were generated by analogue means.
This resulted in some classic instruments (Rhodes, Wurlizer, Clavinet…), but they were not free of the drawbacks of an acoustic instrument. Plus, they didn’t really sound like acoustic pianos… Many still required tuning and were still pretty heavy.
Sampling changed all this. The computer technology made electronic pianos lighter, and far more realistic.
Since then, the amount of sample RAM used has expanded hugely, and the pianos themselves employ lots of clever trickery to make piano sounds more authentic than ever.
Here are five ways of getting of the best piano sounds available…
Roland – SuperNATURAL technology
Roland’s flagship SuperNATURAL technology is a great example of how the brand ‘trickles’ its innovations down to more affordable products. Initially, this was only seen on its top piano models and drum-kits. Now, it features on nearly all of its piano models and drum kits.
Essentially, SuperNATURAL starts with a great multi-sample of an acoustic piano. This means recording every key at multiple dynamic levels. Then, it employs some clever techniques to avoid the obvious ‘sample switching’ of other piano sounds (where its becomes obvious that one piano sample is being changed to another).
Notes transition smoothly across the keyboard and through the dynamic range, with a full, rich tone throughout.
Nord Piano Library
When the Nord Piano was launched, it took a very different approach to piano sounds than many of its contemporaries. The Swedish brand is renowned as having a slightly obsessive attention to detail, and in many ways, this new instrument was a great illustration of this.
It took a far more natural approach to the recordings of the original instruments, which resulted in sounds with extraordinary character. For example, if you play a unison at the bass end of the keyboard, you’ll hear the gentle phasing between notes that you’d expect on an acoustic instrument.
The upright sounds are particularly full of character in this regard. Add in some unnervingly authentic sympathetic resonance (the un-played strings resonating when played strings are struck), true pedal noise, and the ability to download all-new piano samples for free, and you have one of the best sounding digital pianos that money can buy.
This technology is available on the Nord Piano 2 and Stage 2 models.
Yamaha Real Grand Expression
Yamaha has been a key player in the digital piano world ever since the launch of the original Clavinova. It has a very big advantage, compared to many brands, having a catalogue of excellent acoustic pianos to draw on as a source for its piano sounds.
Its current leading technology is the Real Grand Expression system. This samples the flagship CFX acoustic grand is painstaking detail, with extensive multisampling over many velocity layers, half pedalling and damper resonance and 256 note polyphony, to ensure that even the most complex pieces won’t result in stolen notes.
Korg Kronos Premium Piano Engine
Korg’s Kronos workstation offers so much in the way of sonic firepower, it’s difficult to know where to start. One of its nine different sound engines was a premium piano engine, however, and it was immediately one of the very best piano sounds available.
Exploiting the Kronos’s internal solid-state drive, it could use far bigger samples than its contemporaries. This meant long, un-looped stereo samples, and eight different velocity levels for every key. Plus, sympathetic resonance and damper resonance also feature, along with pedal noise. You can even adjust the height of the virtual ‘lid’.
The Kronos has 2 different grand piano sounds: the German D model, and a Japanese C model. If you don’t need all of the features of the Kronos, the German D piano features in the more affordable Krome models.
Native Instruments Piano Libraries
Yes, I know that it’s not a digital piano. However, it would be wrong to talk of the best piano sounds available without considering the incredible software plug-ins now available. In many ways, software sample technology has driven the development of piano sounds.
Without the constraints of onboard RAM, sample libraries could be much bigger, which led to the development of many technologies that we now take for granted, such as velocity switching, and different articulations.
Native Instruments was at the forefront of these technologies, with its Acoustik Piano plug-in. This offered hugely detailed recreations of real pianos in software form, with easy to use visual interfaces.
Nowadays, these are available as individual libraries for use within its Kontakt sampler or free Kontakt player. An incredible range are available, from stunning uprights and grands, to the monster ‘The Giant’ – a recreation of the world’s biggest upright piano.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.