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Piano Recording: Software or Hardware?

Steinway grand piano

Recording a song has never been easier, with computers becoming ever more powerful and software synthesizers and samplers that take advantage of that power are improving all the time. But once you have recorded that first demo using just a basic keyboard and a laptop, when you want to record the final cut of that song do you still take the software route or do you find a Steinway rental piano?

Computers have long offered “piano” sounds through basic MIDI, but today’s software samplers can often contain gigabytes of sampled sounds to try and get that true feel of a Steinway.

Native Instruments Kontakt has reigned supreme as one of the best software samplers on the market, and their piano collection offers New York, Vienna, and Berlin concert grands alongside a traditional upright with the keys sampled at ten different velocities to make the sound as realistic as possible. Galaxy Instrument’s Vintage D is also very popular which samples the vintage Steinway D-274 piano, which is widely regarded as offering some of the best piano tones created.

Synthology’s Ivory II Grand Pianos offer more than 77 gigabytes of sampled acoustic piano sounds including the Steinway D, the Yamaha C7 Grand, and the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial Grand. And EastWest’s Quantum Leap Pianos go even further by offering three different microphone positions for each of their recorded pianos.

But just how good can a recorded piano be? The sounds may be nearing a quality that most people cannot hear the difference, but there is more to it than that. There is also the weighting and feel of the keys that can make the pianist play slightly differently. There is the microphones and their placement when recording a piano that can substantially change the dynamics of a mix. And there is the room where the piano is recorded, and how different that room may be from where your other instruments have been recorded. It can often even be the imperfections of a real piano that make it stand out against all these perfect digital versions.

So for us, whilst we would highly recommend any of the above software samplers to record the early edits of tracks, there is nothing quite like using the real thing for the final recordings to mix into your record.

[Photograph courtesy of Alexander Ward]

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