“Why do you have so many virtual piano libraries?!”
This is a question I commonly get from like, the one friend I rant to about plugins. Unfortunately, it’s true. I own at least 8 commercial piano libraries off the top of my head.
You see, one of the less fun things about being a music write-y person is that you often need many tools to do the same thing, whether that’s to account for different styles or because virtual instruments are often a “no trial, no refunds” sort of affair. Artists buy one $300 tablet, and composers grab six $300 libraries just to make the sound of a violin.
That makes sense for something as unpredictable as a whole orchestra, you might be thinking, but surely a clean piano library and some creative EQ should be able to cover most genres and mixes, right?
Maybe WRONG. Many predators will try to trick you this way.
Today we will look at the six basic types of (non-electric, don’t even get me started on electric, yikes) pianos you’ll need to work across all genres.
1. Intimate piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: complex chords in the middle registers
- Effects: compressor, analog tape effects (gentle pitch modulation, tape saturation, gentle distortion)
- Friends: a crisp, crate-salvaged hip-hop drum kit
- Beverage: hot chocolate
The intimate piano offers a warm and up-close sound achieved by playing the keys very softly, often using the una corda pedal and/or with a layer of felt across the strings to dampen the top end.
Here’s an example of the sound using Spitfire LABS Soft Piano:
Many intimate piano libraries layer in samples of ambient noise, mechanical key presses, or piano bench creaks for hashtag-Enhanced Realism™. With one of these babies loaded up, you’ll soon feel like you’ve had both ears taped to a piano by the world’s laziest Bond villain.
The obvious visual analogy for the intimate piano sound is a grainy visual noise filter — you know, the kind that makes boring smartphone pictures look totes lo-fi analog? This is the exact same aesthetic. Click the links below and you’ll see most intimate piano marketing images are a Perlin punch to the face.
The laziest among you may be asking, why can’t you just overcompress and add some noise underneath a nice Steinway? Well, you can, but you’d also want to layer in some subtle key noises (maybe with Icebreaker Audio’s Key-Clicks NKI) and widen the stereo image, which is doable but almost always sounds more awkward than just getting a library that was properly miked in the first place. Conversely, an intimate piano sounds great on its own or with a few other vinyl instruments, but its player stereo image mixes awkwardly with bigger ensembles or anything that needs to evoke a wide-open space.
Because they don’t need round robins, velocity layers, or fancy mics to work properly, there are many good free intimate piano libraries on the world wide web. They are often also marketed as “emotive,” “lo-fi,” or “felt” pianos.
Commercial intimate pianos
(Seriously though you really don’t need to buy one)
- Felt Instruments Lekko 💵 £49 VSTAUAAX
- Sonuscore Lo•Ki 💵 $49 NKI
- Teletone Audio Postcard Piano 💵 $69 NICNT
- You can also get a limited “preview” version of Postcard Piano as part of Audio Ollie Taste 💵 $3 NKI
Free intimate pianos
- boscomac Air Piano ENS
- Marco Belloni’s Quarantine Piano NKI (account)
- Spitfire LABS Soft Piano VSTAUAAX (Spitfire)
- Westwood Instruments Upright Felt Piano NKI (newsletter)
2. Ice piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: single ghostly notes and chords in the higher registers
- Effects: convolution and shimmer reverbs
- Friends: shiny idiophones, morphing ambient pads, lush strings
- Beverage: VOSS water
When an intimate piano eats too much felt (or cotton), it becomes an ice piano. The ice piano is crunchy and has a notably more percussive attack. Muted and harmonic piano libraries, produced by lightly pressing the piano strings with your hand while striking a key, also fall under this category. In contrast to the intimate’s dull and calming sound, the ice piano cuts right through the mix to deliver a bright, mysterious sound like a drifting snowflake.
Drift, drift, little snowflake…
Could you turn a generic piano library into an ice piano with a little sound design magic? Probably not, or at least not very well. Generic workhorse pianos usually don’t have mutes or harmonics sampled, nor do they often include crunchy felt and cotton sounds. However, a little brightening with the EQ and a metric ton of reverb could get you halfway there in a pinch.
Similarly, though they are very close siblings, ice and intimate pianos are not interchangeable. The ice piano is too percussive and bright for relaxing vinyl beats, and the intimate piano is too dull to stand out against ambient pads in cinematic pieces.
Ice pianos also tellingly lack the “vintage Polaroid” aesthetic marketing of their intimate siblings. They may also be marketed as “harmonic,” “muted,” “felt,” “character,” or sometimes “cinematic” pianos. Like prepared pianos, these libraries require a little more preparation, so there aren’t as many free ones available.
Commercial “ice” pianos
Free “ice” pianos
- Christian Henson’s Triple Felt Experiment EXS (account)
- Joshua Meltzer’s Piano Gtr Harmonics Lovechild NKI (account)
3. Prepared piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: chaotic glissandos
- Effects: whatever sound-mangling ones you’ve got; it has nothing left to live for anyway
- Friends: weird percussion jugs, perchance an angry violin
- Beverage: one jar of nails, blended
Prepared pianos are what happens when a piano goes to die or an indie developer gets artsy with an unsalvageable instrument. They might also be called the love child of ice and honky-tonk pianos (see 2 entries down).
Contrary to the name, pianos are never prepared for what happens to them in these libraries, which range anywhere from “wow! a pencil on the piano strings!” to “tasteful sampling of an upright piano entering a trash compactor.”
You probably have an idea what this sounds like, but if not, here’s the Pain Piano from Silence+Other Sounds.
Prepared piano techniques were first popularized by John Cage, an experimental composer perhaps best known for not playing the piano at all. It involves putting household objects on the piano strings to produce creepy dollhouse sounds from hell.
The reason a generic piano cannot take the place of a prepared piano library is obvious — the techniques just aren’t sampled in regular piano libraries. The best you can do is go crazy with pitch modulation. Conversely, the prepared piano cannot take the place of your main piano without drawing lots of attention and is best left to aleatoric flourishes.
Prepared piano libraries are also marketed as “creepy,” “violent,” “haunted,” “untamed,” or “broken” pianos. There aren’t too many free ones, as the pleasant European crowd sampling their grandma’s uprights rarely venture into bashing those same uprights into an unrecognizable pile of woodchips.
Commercial prepared pianos
- Big Fish Audio John Cage Prepared Piano 💵 $99.95 NKIEXSvstpresetM5P
- Soniccouture Xtended Piano 💵 $149 NICNT
- Versilian Studios Broken Piano 💵 $19 NKI
Free prepared pianos
- Andreas Busk-Jepsen’s Are You Prepared (also as a Blofeld soundset) NKIEXSALPBlofeld
- Xperimenta Project Preparato Piano – Free Edition NKI (FastSpring)
- Daniel Grayvold’s Out o’ Tune Piano NKI
4. Classic piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: any — over 87 keys to choose from!
- Effects: room/plate reverb
- Friends: none, elitist
- Beverage: merlot
Yes, it’s “piano!” The brown Labrador of piano sounds! I will think less of you if either is your favorite of its respective category!!
The classic piano is your bread-and-butter piano library, often sampled from a grand piano of the finest caliber, like a Steinway Model D. Only the tamest uprights can make it in the classic piano field.
If for some reason you’ve never heard a piano, here’s acousticsamples OldBlackGrand in action:
A jack of all trades, the classic piano is sampled for versatility, usually with a variety of mic perspectives, velocity layers, and round-robins. Built-in controls for room reverb, EQ, and stereo width are common, and make it simple to mix this piano into even the busiest piece.
You don’t need to look very hard to find a classic piano — nearly every traditional sampling label has one. Classic piano libraries are also commonly billed as “flagship,” “classical,” “cinematic,” “emotional,” or grand pianos. Many generous free offerings are also available, but you’ll need to fork over some cash if you’re looking for niche realism features like pedal sampling and sympathetic resonances. If you don’t know what those are though, great! Grab a piano!
Commercial classic pianos
(Seriously, there’s a bunch)
- Cinesamples Piano in Blue 💵 $149 NICNT
- Embertone Walker 1955 Concert D 💵 $39-$99 NICNT
- Simple Sam Samples Signature Grand 💵 $79.95 NKI
Free classic pianos
- bigcat Instruments Iowa Piano (scroll down) NKISFZVSTAU
- Ivy Audio Piano in 162 (also as a Korg sound library) SFZNKIPCG (account, torrent, or none)
- Production Voices Estate Grand LE SFZ (Woocommerce)
5. Honky-tonk piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: ragtime-style broken chords
- Effects: vinyl noise, speaker simulation, bandpass EQ
- Friends: fiddle, a single man clapping enthusiastically
- Beverage: bourbon barrel ale 😎
By now you might be saying, “But Pabblebonk! Surely you don’t expect me to use these fancy pants art pianos for my most precious sea shanties!” Don’t worry — there is a separate piano for that. Enter the honky-tonk piano, a characterful upright with an endearing yet awful detuned quality!
Honky-tonk libraries are always sampled from uprights. Sometimes these are tack pianos, a kind of prepared piano with thumbtacks placed in the felt hammers to make the sound more “tinny.”
Take a listen to Soundiron’s Drinking Piano in action:
Obviously, this piano The honky-tonk piano is best when you want to draw attention to the fact there’s a piano in the room that is just– wow! it’s really trying its best, huh? Just a few bars of this piano will have listeners wonder what all that honking and tonking is about.
Adding pitch modulation to a classic piano might get you going towards a drunken honky-tonk sound. However, you’ll have a much harder time recreating the subtler kitschy practice pianos in this category. Conversely, even a subtle honky-tonk stands out when swapped in for a classic piano, but it sounds great when layered on top of your pristine piano to give it just a slight amount of character.
Honky-tonk libraries are also marketed as “old,” “practice,” “tack,” “detuned,” “broken,” “ragtime,” “bar/saloon/tavern/western,” or upright pianos. While subtly detuned uprights are common in the free instrument world, traditional honky-tonks aren’t a very popular sound to sample for reasons that should be obvious.
Commercial honky-tonk pianos
- Dimestore Samples Old upright piano 💵 £2.50 NKI
- Precisionsound Ostlind Compact Piano 💵 $69 NKISF2EXSFXP
- Soundiron Old Busted Granny Piano 💵 $29 NKIRFL
- Syntheway H-Tonk Tack Piano 💵 $44.90 VSTAUNKIEXS
Free honky-tonk pianos
6. Dance piano
Pairs well with:
- Notes: fast, rhythmic broken chords
- Effects: transient shaper, delay
- Friends: synths, clavs
- Beverage: Crystal Pepsi
The dance (or house) piano has a bright and cheesy sound and is used for dry, rhythmic chords.
This particular processed sound has appeared in countless dance and house tracks since the 1980s owing to the popularity of the Korg M1. In the past two decades, the ReFX NEXUS has also emerged as an iconic synth for dance piano presets thanks to well-known EDM artists like Avicii.
Here’s the Korg M1 Piano in action:
Not to be confused with e-pianos, which use electromagnetic vibrations to produce a more vibraphone-like sound, the original dance pianos come from sample-based synths and romplers. They are slightly more faithful to, though still easy to distinguish from, the traditional piano sound. While you can try to recreate the sound with a bright, EQ’d classic piano at max velocity, you may have better luck using a synth or even the crappy GM piano SoundFont.
You’re not likely to find dance pianos in the same places as the previous five categories. Instead, you’ll have to seek out plug-ins with piano presets labeled “dance,” “house,” “disco,” or “bright.”