It’s amazing what we can do with sounds in today’s digital world.
I’ll paint the picture: imagine you want to add a Steinway & Sons sound to your piano recordings, but you only have the budget to spend on a cheaper, more affordable digital piano.
You might not even own a full-length, 88-key digital piano, but may only have a MIDI keyboard with 49 or even 25 keys. Yet you will still be able to score that grand piano sound with the power of MIDI editing.
I own an 88-key Roland digital piano, as well as a Miditech 32-key midi keyboard, (and a Korg nanoKEY2 controller) – all of which can achieve the same remarkable sound through VST plugins.
VST stands for “Virtual Studio Technology” and refers to instrumental or effects plug-ins within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) on your computer.
You may also hear VST instruments referred to as samples. Samples usually come in a library bundle called a “sample library.” Some well-known libraries include Native Instruments, Output, Vienna Symphonic Library, EastWest, and others.
In order to connect to a sample library, there is a program that hosts sound patches, otherwise known as a sampler.
Some well-known hosts include Kontakt 6 by Native Instruments, Play by EastWest, Vienna Ensemble Pro, and Spectrasonics. Think of these as “folders” containing different sampled sounds.
For instance, opening the Kontakt player in a DAW will open a window where you can select the sound your piano will produce on a certain track. Selecting a trumpet sound will output your piano to sound like a trumpet.
The sampled sounds are prepared by real people who devote hours recording a single note on an instrument in several different ways (such as staccato, legato, lower attacks, higher attacks, with a mute, etc.).
Most samplers can work as a standalone function on your computer (without the use of a DAW), so you’ll be able to play and hear the different samples. However, to record and edit compositions, you’ll need a DAW.
When you connect your digital keyboard to your computer and use sampled piano sounds through a sample library, you are transferring the note you play on your keyboard into a MIDI format.
MIDI is an incredibly powerful tool that gives enables you to edit note pitches, the articulations of notes, and the phrasing and lengths of notes, as well as the dynamics, volume, and use of a sustain pedal.
Note that using a VST instrument is using a sampled or modeled sound, not the sound of your digital piano.
If you wish to record the audio of your piano, then refer to the PianoDreamers guide on recording audio.
VST instruments offer a range of options for your recording needs. You may not like the preset sounds in your digital keyboard, or you may want to broaden your sound palette with different piano samples or to experiment with other instruments.
This may seem confusing, but you can use your digital piano as a MIDI controller, allowing you to play notes in a piano fashion, while your computer will output them as other instruments, such as a guitar or a violin, via VSTs.
Vocalists often ask me for a piano-backing track for a performance, but they need it in a different key. Instead of playing in another key and re-recording the original performance, I can move the MIDI notes in my DAW to transpose the sound.
Recording MIDI in a DAW is less daunting since you have the ability to edit incorrect notes or change one note that was pressed a little too loudly.
This saves you time by eliminating the need to re-record or ‘punch in’ later (re-recording a passage within the piece). You can change a sample once you’ve recorded in MIDI, so you may audition various sounds, then choose the one you prefer.
To use VSTs, you will need access to the following:
— A digital piano or MIDI keyboard with access to either a USB Type B port or a traditional MIDI connection common to older keyboards. Please refer to our Connectivity Guide for connecting your keyboard into a computer.
— A DAW, such as Logic Pro X or Pro Tools 12
— A computer or laptop (recommended with at least more than 10% storage space remaining and at least 16GB RAM). This space enables you to download samples that may require sizable storage space, and the RAM empowers you to work quickly and efficiently without lag time in your DAW
— A set of monitor speakers or headphones
— Optional: an internal SSD to replace your computer’s hard drive (resulting in more CPU power and less PC crashes) and an external SSD for storing your samples.
If you can only afford one (since SSDs can be pricey), look to purchase an external SSD for storing your samples on the drive and for saving CPU usage.
— For advanced users: you may also wish to utilize a ‘slave’ computer, which is usually a higher-end desktop PC or Mac Pro from which you can run sample libraries without using your primary PC’s CPU.
The more samples you have, the less efficient and longer it will take to work with your DAW, so many industry composers use a slave PC to save on CPU usage.
To connect the two computers, you’ll need Vienna Ensemble Pro, which acts as a sampler to host your samples from the ‘slave’ computer to your main computer.
In my case, for instance, my ‘slave’ computer is a PC and my main computer is a Macbook Pro. Both computers run an internal SSD and my PC hosts 64GB RAM for running samples more efficiently.
This equipment setup is entirely optional and depends on your workflow.
Alternatively, you may feature an audio interface within your setup.
With an audio interface, you will be able to connect other instruments and microphones to record them, so you are not limited to a piano as your controller within your DAW.
You’ll be able to record the audio of different instruments by converting an analog signal into an digital one, and you will not be limited to your MIDI.
1. Keyscape by Spectrasonics – Most Versatile
The Spectrasonics Keyscape library is one of the most versatile libraries available, featuring a collection of upright pianos, electric digital pianos, and grand pianos.
Keyscape is an incredibly large library with over 500 piano sounds and 36 instrument models and hybrid patches. The library can be hosted within Spectrasonics and integrated with the Omnisphere library.
Keyscapes requires 77GB of storage space with at least a 2.4GHz Intel dual core processor and at least 8GB of RAM.
The library is compatible with both Mac X 10.10 or higher and Windows 7 or higher.
It is quite heavy on CPU, so it is best to consider a higher processor (i7 is recommended), and preferably 16GB RAM or higher if possible. Because of its large storage space, an external SSD is recommended (but not essential) to make this library run easier on your system.
A unique feature of the Yamaha C7 grand piano (the main piano sound) is that it’s embedded with Renner® “Blue Point” hammers using Wicker felt.
This delivers sound with a wider tonal spectrum. Renowned LA piano technician, Jim Wilson, made it his mission to create this unique piano sound.
Within the VST editor window, you have the freedom to edit the microphone placement of close mics (great for solos) and room mics (great for ambience and atmospheric textures).
The Yamaha C7 allows you to experiment with mechanical noises and pedal noises for realism, and it features release overtones when a note is held (like a true acoustic piano).
Keyscapes offer the hybrid “duo” patches which partners a VST instrument with another to create a new patch.
These pairings can include the Yamaha C7 grand with a harpsichord, or a vintage electronic keyboard with a church organ to produce an ‘underwater’ tone.
The sounds include up to 32 layers of velocity, which is large for a sampled library and allows a great range for dynamics.
Without any editing on the user end, Keyscapes sounds good by default. More advanced subtleties like half- or quarter-pedaling and modeled sympathetic resonance are not supported.
The library shines more on upright and electric pianos, but still offers a terrific Yamaha C7 sound when a grand piano is required.
Keyscapes is purchased as their Collector Keyboards bundle, so you cannot purchase the Yamaha C7 alone.
2. Garritan CFX – The most accurate samples of the magnificent Yamaha CFX 9-foot concert grand
Although Garritan isn’t the first library you think of when considering samples, they feature an excellent Yamaha CFX Concert Grand recorded and sampled at Abbey Road Studios.
Powered by the ARIA player, there is no need to purchase a separate sampler.
Microphone perspectives include Classic, Contemporary, and Player positioning, using industry-standard microphones like the Neumann M49 and KM 184, AKG C12, and D19.
The library includes various presets that provide immediate inspiration. I am a user of this piano library and rarely build a custom patch. I use a preset with tweaked moderations instead (such as pedal noise and reverb).
The library offers up to 20 velocity layers per key, including sample sets for pedal up, sustain pedal down, and soft pedaling.
Partial pedaling is made possible as well as re-pedaling. The CFX comes with its own convolution reverb, so you won’t need a separate reverb plug-in.
Here is a piece of mine using solely the Garritan CFX with the preset ‘Paul’s Perfect Piano’:
I recorded this without a physical sustain pedal and instead drew one in the editor window, while increasing the sound of pedal noise for realism in my performance. A completely MIDI performance now sounds as if it was recorded live!
System requirements include a recommended 8GB RAM, multi-core processor, 133GB free storage space, and a fast interface hard-drive (such as SATA, USB 3.0, Firewire 800, or Thunderbolt).
The library is compatible with Mac OS 10.10 – 10.14 and Windows 7 or later, as well as with a soundcard with ASIO (most computers have this built-in).
As a film composer, I have added the Garritan CFX Concert Grand to my sample library because it was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, where many iconic movie scores are recorded.
Naturally, the sound of the piano presets blend in well with an orchestral film environment, suiting my work perfectly.
3. VIENNA IMPERIAL by VSL – Best sampled piano VST money can buy
The Vienna Imperial virtual grand piano by Vienna Symphonic Library is recorded on the Bösendorfer 290-755 with a huge 1,200 of samples recorded per key applying a large magnitude of pianistic possibilities.
The VSL is an industry-standard library, well-regarded by composers. Many world-class film composers use this company for th realistic sounds and the engine it provides.
The Vienna Imperial library features 100 velocity layers and multiple release samples for differing note lengths.
The interface has the option to view in Basic or Advanced View, where you can adjust frequencies, microphone positions (distant/audience position, middle/player position, or close/microphones placed in the body of the piano), convulsion reverb, pedal noises, sympathetic resonances, octave shift, and stereo width.
The Imperial was sampled on the Bösendorfer 290-755, meaning it has nine extra notes below the lowest A on a standard piano. These notes turn on in the Advanced View using the octave shift.
The tone of the keys on the Imperial are clear and distinctive. There are presets for different mic placements, including a player position and audience perspective.
The built-in EQ and Reverb settings are better than most built-in settings of other libraries (it is usually recommended to use separate EQ and Reverb plug-ins and to turn down any Reverb on a VST).
However, if you do not own an EQ or Reverb plug-ins, the Imperial’s are fantastic options since the EQ uses a three-band parametric arrangement and the built-in Reverb is a convolution reverb, which is not normally the case with built-in reverbs.
As a result, it sounds like the reverb was captured in the originally sampled space rather than by adding reverb length to it.
The Imperial fits in nicely within an orchestra. In my experience, I’ve found that some piano VSTs stand out like a sore thumb when mixed with an orchestra, but the Imperial blends in nicely.
Thanks to meticulous detail, adjustable settings, and a file size of 46.8GB, this is arguably the best piano VST money can buy.
At least 4GB RAM is recommended for your computer.
It is compatible with Mac OS X 10.10 or later and with Windows 7, 8, or 10. To use the library, a Vienna Key or other USB eLicenser such as the Steinberg or Arturia eLicenser is required.
4. Ravenscroft 275 by VI Labs – Our Favorite Pick
The Ravenscroft 275 has been recreated using about 17,000 samples of notes recorded on the piano, as well as using four microphones (close, player, side, and room), allowing control in freedom of microphone placement, all of which can be altered within a user-friendly interface.
There are 19 total velocity layers, which include Silent Strike samples (as when a key is depressed but not actually hammering a string of the piano).
The piano is entirely sample-based, yet efficient with RAM and CPU resources.
The Ravenscroft is recorded from the Model 275 Titanium concert grand.
It is one of the more versatile piano VSTs and fits many playing styles, serving well as a concerto grand that may be heard over an orchestra.
It has a large dynamic range, allowing for delicate passages and soaring fortissimos.
This VST prides itself in versatility and is a ‘jack of all trades’ able to pull off solo passages or mix into an ensemble.
The attack is sharp and clear, features an option of muted hits and staccato release trails, and offers the option of using the sustain pedal as well as the una corda and sostenuto pedal – a feature many piano samples exclude.
You can even adjust a note’s tuning if you require atonal passages or want to experiment with different tonal centers and tunings.
You can also adjust the volume of the Pedal Resonance effect, True Pedal Action, and Re-Pedal by lifting the sustain pedal off and on again. Then the strings of the piano continue to resonate, but at a lower volume.
These effects are incorporated for realistic sustain pedal control. The half-pedal is sampled and also fully adjustable.
What makes the Ravenscroft 275 stand out is that the VST is completely sample-based, but the control resembles a modeled library.
The sound is multi-dimensional, emphasizing every note so that multiple layers and harmonies are heard clearly, not buried beneath melodic lines.
I’ve found that many libraries will muddy up the bass notes of the piano, but the Ravenscroft 275 clarifies the bass line instead.
The Ravenscroft 275 comes with a free sample player, the UVI Workstation 3, which you can use as a sampler in a DAW or as a standalone.
The library includes 22 convolution reverbs, so you won’t need a separate plugin for reverb. No dongle is required and it can be used by up to three computers.
You will need at least 6GB free disk space to install the sample library (5.32GB) and it is compatible with Mac OS 10.7 or later and Windows 7 or later, with a minimum of 4GB RAM.
The more samples you have stored, the more your RAM should be. 4GB RAM is low, but it is sufficient to run the Ravenscroft 275 on your computer. I recommend at least 16GB if you want to expand your sample library collection.
Most professionals will use 64GB RAM (assuming they use multiple sample libraries).
Listen to demos of the Ravenscroft 275 grand piano below.
5. Pianoteq 6 – Best Modeled Piano VST
The Pianoteq 6 is arguably the best modeled piano library on the market. It can be used as standalone or as a plugin within your DAW.
The library requires Mac OS X 10.7 or later, Windows 7 or later, or Linux (x86, ARM). It does not require an iLok or USB dongle and can be used with any MIDI keyboard.
It may be easier to use a full-length keyboard with velocity sensitivity, but this is not essential since you can edit the expression and velocity manually in the MIDI editor of your DAW.
Pianoteq does not require a lot of RAM, as some sample libraries do, and only requires 256MB of storage. Pianoteq computes sound in real-time, so it can draw heavily on CPU.
Most computer and laptop processors should be able to handle this just fine, though it can get a little CPU heavy when using the bass notes on the piano along with the sustain pedal.
You will need a soundcard that supports ASIO drivers, as most soundcards do, meaning you should be able to use your built-in card.
Another huge advantages of Pianoteq is the amount of sound tweaking options available in the Standard and PRO versions of the program including advanced tuning, microphone settings, hammer hardness, string length, sympathetic resonance, duplex scale, pedal noises, hammer noises, and tons of other parameters.
Sampled libraries usually offer about 16 different velocity layers which vary the attack and tone of a note. The Pianoteq, however, uses all 127 layers (velocity range of MIDI), allowing a very broad dynamic range.
Pianoteq is also capable of turning the sustain pedal on or off, as well as half-pedaling and quarter-pedaling (holding the sustain pedal a fraction down, and not all the way).
The softer the pedal is dampening, the less pedal sound you will hear. You can turn pedal noise off altogether or keep it active for a realistic performance.
You do not need a physical pedal to use the sustain pedal (you can edit the sustain pedal in using the MIDI editor window) or you can use your keyboard’s built in pedal.
Pianoteq 6 is physically modeled off the Steinway & Sons Model D and Model B, one of the most popular, best-sounding pianos. You can hear demos of these sounds on the Pianoteq website.
There are also a lot of other famous pianos they modeled including the Steingraeber E-272, Ant. Petrof 275 Petrof, C. Bechstein, etc.
You can purchase the piano bundles from $149, which includes multiple piano instruments (at least two instrument packs of your choice) or an instrument pack for $59 each, which is an affordable solution if you know the specific piano you are looking for.
The instruments vary from Baroque harpsichords and Steinway & Sons classical grand pianos, to rock pianos and auxiliary instruments like the xylophone and celeste.
Payment is made via their website, which accepts most credit and debit cards. The bundle is then available immediately as a digital download to your laptop or desktop computer.
As a Pianoteq customer, you’ll receive bonus benefits, such as discounts to educational tools and a free one-year subscription to The International Piano.
Overall, Pianoteq 6 is a fantastic VST plugin for anyone wanting a classical piano sound, anyone who is new to VSTs, or anyone looking to expand their piano library without using too much storage on their computer.
As mentioned above, Pianoteq 6 prides itself in being compatible with a laptop with low system requirements while still producing a high-quality sound, so there is no need to make extra purchases in RAM, SSDs, iLok dongles, separate software, or extra hard-drives for storage space.
6. Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos – World’s three most famous grand pianos in one VST
Synthogy Ivory II Grand Piano libraries have become one of the industry standards for piano VST instruments.
The library samples its sound from three grand piano models: the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial Grand, Steinway D Concert Grand, and the Yamaha C7 Grand, all three of which are included in the bundle.
Minimum hardware requirements include 1.5GB RAM and 22GB free storage on your hard drive, with a speed of 7200 RPM. The bundle is compatible with both Mac X 10.8 or later, and Windows 7 or later.
The three grand pianos total 77GB of sample instruments, yet each piano can be installed separately.
The Bösendorfer allows an extended low octave below note A0.
The Ivory II features a Sustain Resonance DSP engine for realism in pedal performance and allowing half-pedaling.
You have the freedom to enable or disable pedal noise, per the aesthetics of your performance. You can also adjust the lid position to allow more freedom in tone.
The library bundle includes a vast array of presets, allowing you to preview the grand pianos in a different recording environment (microphone placements, hall/room types, reverberation, etc.) and to adjust these nuances accordingly.
The Ivory II has focused heavily on replicating grand piano samples and allowing users to recreate a piano performance as if they were playing on a Steinway, Bösendorfer, or Yamaha grand.
The library features Sympathetic String Resonance, which allows a true sound of resonance when a key is struck.
Another advanced feature incorporated into the sample library includes Harmonic Resonance Modeling, which projects overtones over the notes being held, just as an acoustic piano sounds when a key is pressed.
You can view demos of the samples at Synthogy’s SoundCloud playlist down below.
7. Addictive Keys by XLN Audio – Best Budget Pick
The Addictive Keys Studio Grand Piano is sampled from the Steinway Model D grand piano and is the best budget pick on the market.
This sample offers many basic features, such as pedal noise and sustain pedal resonances, warmth/brightness of tone, and close or ambient microphone placements, as well as built-in convolution and algorithmic reverb/delay and EQ to adjust frequencies.
The library comes installed with presets ranging from beautifully natural grand pianos and ballad-rock piano patches to cinematic, experimental tones and textures.
Listen to some demos using the Studio Grand here.
Overall, this library targets pianists who are transitioning from an acoustic environment to recording on their computers.
System requirements include Mac OS X 10.7 or later or Windows 7, 8, or 10 with at least 2GB RAM, not requiring a sampler or additional dongle. It can be used as a standalone.
The many options available for expanding your sound library which can be overwhelming at first, but experimenting with different sample libraries can enhance your performance and build your composition sound palette.
Remember, many pianists do not agree on the “best” acoustic piano, since we all have our subjective opinions, so mixing variety into your piano VSTs can prepare you for many composition situations.
You don’t need to know everything about sample libraries from the get-go. Learn as you go and begin with a sample you like and that you can afford.
In my experience, it’s better to save up for a better-sounding sample, otherwise you’ll end up paying twice (first for a cheap, poor-sounding sample library, then again for the more expensive one you originally wanted).
You may wish to purchase an orchestral bundle, so you won’t need to individually purchase all the instrument groups.
If you are looking for just a solo piano VST, hopefully this article has guided you closer to a great-sounding grand piano – even if you only have a MIDI keyboard with less than 88 keys!