Steinways in a row. One example of how pianos can be tough to model: the distinctive Steinway treble “sparkle.” Photo (CC-BY-ND) mypouss.

For something with a row of keys, the piano can prove surprisingly hard to model perfectly. But computer software, blessed with lavish storage space for samples and now-ample processing power, has a decided edge. There are lots of good sampled pianos, but two products have really impressed me above the others: Synthogy’s Ivory and Pianoteq’s modeled instruments.

After years of waiting, Ivory II is now here, and my friend and colleague Steve Fortner, at the helm of Keyboard Magazine, reviews the new version. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the digital piano:
Synthogy Ivory II Grands

Sympathetic resonance is a feature that to me really separates the experience of a real piano from a simulated one, and that’s what gets attention here. Steve writes:

Ivory II adds sympathetic resonance to the sustain resonance and soundboard choices of Ivory 1.x. What’s more compelling is how Synthogy does it. Not satisfied with mixing in samples of strings ringing out, they precisely modeled the physics of which vibrations cause which. So, you don’t hear merely the correct notes singing in sympathy, but the correct harmonics of those notes. The result is the most realistic and musical emulation we’ve ever heard of the complex acoustical world beneath the piano lid. Of course, you can adjust it to taste.

It’s no substitute for the physical sensation of being at a piano – its hammer apparatus, the way it responds, the sound emanating from the soundboard – but the sound result is tremendous. Listen to the samples on SoundCloud:

03-2011 Synthogy Ivory II by KeyboardMag

I’ll also put in a quick plug for Pianoteq again. Because I still love the real piano, I absolutely adore the fact that Pianoteq feels different, responds in ways that make the computer seem it’s alive. For sound design aficionados, Pianoteq also earns extra marks for its many unique add-ons – most recently, the Clavinet joined historic add-ons back through the centuries. They even have a Cimbalom. And Pianoteq is very, very easy on systems because of its use of modeling over sampling.

But for sound results, it’s going to be tough to top Ivory II. I would, honestly, choose both if I were serious about playing. And I’d have a hard time saying any hardware could really match these software instruments.