Specs And Need-To-Know:
Content: 47 GB of content on six DVDs
Format: Windows XP/Vista/7 (32 or 64 bits) VST and standalone; Mac OS X 10.5+ VST/AU/RTAS and standalone.
Documentation: PDF provided on install CD-ROM plus printed Quick Start Guide
Licensing: multiple installs/single use via ViennaKey USB copy protection key.
Now, on to the review!:
Several years ago the folks at Vienna Symphonic Library sampled a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial grand piano. In all candor, that first Bösendorfer Imperial library didn't particularly impress me. Armed with some new tools, VSL took another crack at this piano last year. Was the effort worthwhile?
100 velocity levels
For starters, VSL used a technique developed by Bösendorfer called CEUS. Solenoids under each key strike each note in precise velocity gradations—or at least for the most part. When I asked VSL how they came up with 100 velocity levels per note rather than 82 or 127, I was told that the precision factor begins to break down somewhere north of 100. The move to 100 layers is nonetheless a radical advancement in the art of sampling, and the results are stunning.
I immediately pulled out the venerable Chopin Mazurkas. These pieces demand a wide dynamic range and a plastic sense of time. Being able to coax true pianissimos and double fortes out of a sampled piano was an amazing experience.
>However, while it may be true that this plug-in offers as many as 1200 samples per note—including release and pedal samples, not to mention the 290's famous extra bass notes—there are still great distinctions in the way that MIDI keyboard controllers interact with this audio data. VSL takes this fact into consideration and allows the user to shape the plug-in's character in several critical ways, which we'll get to in a moment.
The size of this library is about 47 Gigabytes. Not tiny, but actually quite economical when you consider the tremendous number of raw samples (nearly 70,000) laid out across three different perspectives (close, player, distant), and the convolution reverb that ships with three different halls.
VSL's original 24-bit/44.1 kHz sample material clocked in at approximately 500 GB—the end product has undergone VSL's "lossless" compression scheme and is uncompressed in real time as you play. I am obviously unable to compare the original material to that which reaches the end user's ears, but what counts is that the audio quality is extremely impressive.
Hard drives are cheap these days, and RAID arrays are easy to build, so you'll probably not worry too much about the size of this library. You can load each of the three mic positions separately, even on different drives, so if you find that one position perspective is your favorite you could delete or archive the other two. By the way, you can also save RAM by not loading release and soft-pedal samples when you actually go to use the library, although there's no option to eliminate installing them.
Basic and Advanced
A pair of tabs on the plug-in's main screen let you choose between Basic and Advanced Views. In Basic View you'll load one of the three piano perspectives. You can also call up one of the 11 pianos that VSL has designed using the convolution and three-band equalizer that ships with the program. You might find these useful, but I quickly moved on to Advanced View (see below).
Including an equalizer is a good idea. Even though every DAW has eq, it's convenient to be able to roll off some of the low end and tweak the mid and high ranges to suit your taste and the piece you're working on directly within the plug-in. Being able to tweak the eq and attack parameters, which you'll adjust when you move into the Advanced View, significantly broadens the appeal of this plug-in.
To get a feel for how Vienna Imperial works with your keyboard controller, start by playing in a 16-bar phrase. Be sure to whack a few notes and apply your most delicate "artiste" touch to others. While playing back the resultant masterpiece take a look at the Velocity Histogram in the lower right corner of the Advanced window. The nomenclature might seem a bit hokey but this set of bars will give you a realistic visual image of the range of MIDI values to which Vienna Imperial is responding. Adjusting the MIDI sensitivity slider makes a significant impact. The Dynamic Range slider—which seems to act as a MIDI compressor/expander—also will help you adjust Imperial Piano to your touch and that of your controller.
The three convolution reverbs—Grosser Saal, Mozart Saal, and Neuer Saal—and the slider that lets you control the amount of reverb applied are also available in the Advanced window. They are of very good quality; I don't use them as much as you might, simply because I love Audio Ease's Altiverb 6, a full-on convolution reverb plug-in. [As we went to press, Vienna Imperial released an updated version that includes a more CPU-friendly algorithmic reverb in addition to the convolution reverb; Gary did not have time to test this new effect.—Ed.]
The library gives lots of nuance, with sympathetic resonances and repetition samples for pedal-down playing, multiple release samples, etc.; the only feature I completely turn off is Pedal Noise. You might care enough about ultimate realism to miss it if it's not there, but personally I get rid of any and all pedal noise wherever possible!
So how close are we to replicating the sound of a grand piano that costs as much as the house you grew up in? As Austin Haynes—the savvy tech support guy at ILIO, the West Coast company that markets VSL products in the US—puts it, the fairer comparison is between a sampled piano and the sound of a beautifully recorded grand piano, both coming out of the same set of speakers. Against this metric Vienna Imperial is a major advancement.
Hands down: If you need to have the most realistic sampled grand piano available at this time at your fingertips, you'll need to check this product out.
Gary Eskow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a composer, journalist and recording engineer. His work can be heard and read at his website, www.garyeskow.com.