Over the last couple of years, professional pianist and long-time friend of Time+Space, Tony Cliff, has been generous in spending some time sharing his thoughts and opinions on the virtual pianos that we sell, with Synthogy’s Ivory II pianos and Toontrack’s EZkeys both reviewed by him for the Time+Space blog.
Following the release of the Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand a few months ago, we approached Tony to ask for his verdict on this latest virtual piano and he has kindly obliged with the following review.
Over to Tony…
It is a great time at present for pianists as there are so many high quality sampled piano products competing for our attention and we can choose a Bösendorfer or Fazioli and of course there are numerous versions of Steinway pianos to entice us. So you might well ask why would Gary Garritan decide to produce yet another sampled piano and what might mark it out as distinctive from all the others currently available?
Well, firstly the choice of piano here is Yamaha’s newly developed CFX nine foot concert grand. Since its launch, the CFX has won widespread acclaim and is entirely hand-built by a small team of skilled craftsmen utilising the finest materials available and represents the culmination of nearly 20 years of development to build the finest of concert pianos.
Late in 2007 the Yamaha Corporation also acquired ownership of the world-famous Bösendorfer piano company and it is quite possible that some of this additional expertise has also influenced the development of the Yamaha CFX. This piano is designed to produce a wide palette of tonal colours and the greatest expressive nuance. In addition the powerful bass and tonal richness throughout the registers is able to project over the sound of a full symphony orchestra even in the largest halls. It is refreshing therefore that the new Garritan product is based on a different piano and not just yet another Steinway.
The second important distinguishing feature of this product is that the CFX Grand was recorded in Studio One of the world famous Abbey Road Studios. This is one of the finest orchestral studios in the world and built to accommodate a 110-piece orchestra and 100-strong choir simultaneously. Abbey Road Studios opened in 1931 and has been the location of numerous landmark recording in all fields of music.
Studio One is the largest of the Abbey Road recording spaces with a reverb time of 2.3 seconds offering both warmth and clarity – ideal for recordings whether full orchestras or solo piano. Abbey Road Studio One currently houses a 72-channel Neve 88 RS console, an array of the finest microphones available and of course the studio employs the very best recording engineers. The immense recording history and accumulated expertise of Abbey Road made it as inspirational place to create this new product.
Installation and Computer Requirements
The full installation requires around 122 GB of free hard drive space but there is also the option of a 24.5 GB ‘compact’ install; but surely a quality product of this nature cries out for the full edition. For such a large virtual piano, installing the Garritan CFX could not be simpler.
The program comes in a smart box with a booklet about the making of the piano and a neat USB memory stick for the installation. You simply insert the USB stick and state where you want the samples to reside on your system and just let it do its thing. This takes a while so time for a coffee but this installing system is so much better than having numerous DVDs to laboriously load as used to be the norm. Once the install is complete you simply type in your serial number and then register and activate the piano. I installed on an internal hard drive but an SSD drive would be even better. You need Windows 7 or later and Mac OS X 10.7 or later and the program works as a standalone or within any suitable DAW as an AAX, RTAS, VST or AU plug-in. You could also of course use it with a notation program such as Sibelius 7.5
Essentially a technology product of this nature is very straightforward since it is simply the highest quality sampling of a fine concert grand piano enabling you to play it as a virtual piano via your computer from a suitable MIDI keyboard. Naturally you are able to edit and modify the overall sound but the most vital question is how does it sound straight from the box?
I chose the default preset which took a minute or two to load but I imagine this loading time would be far quicker from an SSD drive. I turned the volume reasonably high (think how loud a concert grand is) and then played a few chords and was immediately struck by the sheer power and expression of this instrument. It feels beautifully balanced throughout the range with its rich and resonant bass notes, wonderfully clear mid-range and sparkling bright upper tones. It is also extremely responsive to touch variation making it a very musical instrument to play.
What I like particularly about this piano is the quality and clarity of the middle range. I have played numerous sampled pianos and they are often very good at reproducing a fine bass register and a bright top register but too often the middle register lacks detail or clarity. This, as any pianist knows, is a real problem as much of your time is spent playing in these middle registers so this is such a crucial area to get right. The Garritan Abbey Road CFX is balanced throughout and the middle register seems perfect to my ears. A good test is to play closely-voiced chords below middle C and move down chromatically to see when they start to sound muddy and I was so impressed at how clear the lower middle register sounded in this test.
Overall this is an instrument that is really inspiring and satisfying to play. It has a big and powerful sound but also very easy to play delicately so you can quickly shift from powerful fortissimos to the quietest passages just as you would be able to on the real instrument. The best point of all is that you very quickly forget you are playing a virtual piano as it feels so much like you are playing the genuine article. I played a loud octave low C and pressed the sustain pedal and I could still hear the notes sounding after 50 seconds and there was absolutely no looping, just a gradual and completely natural decrescendo of the sound.
Microphones and Tuning
You can see from my initial response that I was already very impressed with the default sound of the Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX but there are numerous ways of changing and adapting the overall sound to suit your own particular needs then save these changes as a preset for instant recall. The interface opens with the ‘Main’ page showing the CFX in Studio One of Abbey Road and various global controls, like the mixer, keyboard, pedals and tuning which always remain on view. Then there are three further pages ‘Piano’, ‘Studio’ and ‘Advanced’ each offering additional ways of altering the sound or settings. You can select various microphone perspectives which naturally change the overall sound of the recorded piano.
The microphone set ups were taken from the wealth of experience of recording, both traditional and more contemporary, within Abbey Road Studios. When you open the microphone perspective menu you can choose from ‘Classic’, ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Player’. In each case a different set of microphones was used for both the close microphone placement and the ambient or wider field microphones. When you choose a particular perspective you even see the names of the microphones used displayed in the mixer. For instance in the ‘Classic’ perspective two Neumann M49 and 2 Neumann KM184 microphones are employed for the closely miked perspective, DPA 406s for mid and wider field setting and then Neumann TLM50 microphones placed 2 metres away and 2.6 metres high capturing the complex frequency response. Once you load a particular microphone perspective you can then adjust the relative balance of each and also the stereo width or even mute some of the microphones.
A completely different selection of microphones are used for the ‘Contemporary’ perspective to produce a sound with more attack whilst still retaining the brightness and warmth of the instrument. Perhaps the contemporary settings might be more suited to pop and jazz recording.
Finally the ‘Player’ perspective had microphones set up to reproduce the overall sound you would hear as you sit playing the instrument. So, with all these choices of microphone settings, you can subtly modify the overall sound to suit your requirements. Also within the global settings there are various pitch controls including fine adjustments as well as semitone changes. The fine adjustments might allow you to tune the piano slightly in case you need to adjust to some audio in your project or on stage. The semitone controls allow you to shift the piano up or down in semitone intervals. This might be useful if you know a song in only one key and your singer decides it is too high. You might describe this as cheating and it is not something you could do on the actual Yamaha CFX! Finally if you require some exotic or baroque tunings then there are eleven different tuning presets in addition to the standard International A440 setting.
Adjustments and Editing
When you switch to the ‘Piano’ window more controls are available to adjust the sound. Firstly the lid position may be chosen from open, half open or closed with the sound changing accordingly. Personally I like the sound of the piano with the lid fully open but you might want a less full effect for certain music. Then there are various controls including ‘Sympathetic Resonance’ and ‘Sustain Resonance’. The first of these is a vital component of the richness of an acoustic piano and represents the phenomena of harmonically -related undamped strings vibrating in sympathy with a particular notes being sounded. This effect creates a richer and more complex sound and is particularly evident when the sustain pedal is operated and the degree of sympathetic resonance may be adjusted to your own taste. ‘Sustain Resonance’ relates to the slight excitement on all strings of having all the dampers released when the sustain pedal is depressed. In addition there are controls for ‘Release Volume’ and ‘Release Crossfade’ and even the amount of ‘Pedal Noise’.
When you switch to the ‘Studio’ view you can adjust EQ, reverb settings and stereo image. The ‘Stereo Image’ setting adjusts the image depending on whether you prefer to hear it as a player sat at the piano or how an audience member would perceive the stereo image. If you switch on the reverb button then you can select and adjust various types of convolution reverb settings from small and medium rooms to massive spaces. I personally found this piano to be so rich and engaging that I did not feel the need to add any reverb. There are also three-band EQ controls for both close and ambient microphones.
Finally in the ‘Advanced’ page you can set a velocity curve to suit your particular keyboard and there are nine settings ranging from very light touch to very heavy. I was perfectly happy with the default setting for my keyboard (Kawai MP10) when playing this piano. You can also allocate polyphony, RAM settings and the overall dynamic range.
Firstly, I think Garritan and Abbey Road Studios have done a fantastic job in reproducing the stunning sound of the Yamaha CFX concert grand piano and it really is an outstanding product. You can very easily tailor the sound to suit your particular needs but I personally loved the classic settings so much that I felt little need to do much adjusting. However there is great scope for adjusting many settings and then you can save these as personal presets for instant recall later. All that is left to say is that I think this is the best-sounding virtual piano I have so far tested which just cries out to be played and enjoyed.