6 Piano VSTs You Need and Where to Find Them

“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, everything you’ve heard is 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 writey person is that you need so many tools to do one simple thing. Artists buy one $500 tablet, and composers have six $300 libraries just to play a bamboo flute. Having multiple libraries for all scenarios certainly makes sense for whole string ensembles, where there are so many variables to account for — but surely not for something as simple as a piano… With one solid piano library and a little EQ, you should be able to cover all possible use cases, right? Maybe WRONG. Many predators will try to trick you this way.

In order to remedy your wrongness, today we will look at the six basic types of non-electric pianos you’ll need to work across all genres. Plus links to some paid and free piano libraries for each category as well. These lists are definitely not exhaustive, but meant to give you a general idea of the sound. All linked libraries require the full version of Kontakt unless otherwise noted. (Patreon members, be sure to read my thoughts on using the free Kontakt Player ;0)

1. The Intimate Piano

Intimate Piano. Genres: Lo-fi hip-hop, smooth jazz, mysterious spa music. Power Level: 4

Pairs well with:

  • Notes: complex chords in the middle registers
  • Effects: compressor, analogue tape effects (gentle pitch modulation, tape saturation, gentle distortion)
  • Friends: cratedigger-salvaged hip-hop drum kit
  • Beverage: hot tea with honey

The intimate piano is a warm and up-close library. The recorded sound is achieved by playing very softly and often with a layer of felt across the strings to dampen the top end. Usually some room noise is left in, so when you add a compressor, the sound is intimate and analogue out of the box, especially compared to more cleaned-up pianos.

Because these intimate libraries are meant to evoke the experience of having your ear glued down to a very shy piano, the resulting stereo image is kind of greedy and therefore awkward to mix with, say, a whole symphonic orchestra. That’s why the intimate piano works best with out-of-a-boombox genres like chillhop, because they aren’t trying to emulate a deep acoustic space.

Unlike fancier piano libraries, which focus on realism, the intimate piano doesn’t need round robins, multiple velocity layers, or multiple mic perspectives to do its job properly, so there are many good free intimate piano libraries on the world wide web. They are often marketed as “cinematic,” “emotional,” “lo-fi,” or “felt” pianos.

Commercial intimate pianos:

(Seriously though you really don’t need to buy one)

Free intimate pianos:

2. The Ice Piano

Ice Piano. Genres: Emotional cinematic, ambient, avant-garde. Power level: 3

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

The “ice” piano is almost identical to the intimate piano but with an notably percussive attack. The attack comes from extended playing techniques, such as harmonics (produced by muting the piano strings while striking the key) or layered fabric on the keys (usually felt or cotton, which tends to be more audible). Though the intimate piano is also often felted, the ice piano library is recorded and mixed so that you can hear the material crunch with every key press. The result can cuts through the mix to deliver a bright, mysterious sound like a drifting snowflake.

Sometimes these libraries include sounds from the pianist (such as wooden creaks from shifting on the bench) and other noise artifacts to add a layer of realism.

The sound of the ice piano is a little excessive and hi-fi for chillhop pieces, while the intimate piano lacks that shimmering quality for cinematic ambient stuff. Thus I would separate the two, though piano libraries on the market don’t usually make such a distinction. If and when they do, though, they’re sometimes marketed as “muted” pianos.

Commercial “ice” pianos:

Free “ice” pianos:

3. The Prepared Piano

Prepared Piano. Genres: Horror, trailer sound design. ???. Power Level: 11.

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, maybe an angry violin
  • Beverage: jar of nails, blended

The prepared piano is just the ice piano brought to its logical extreme. These libraries are what happens when a sampling company wants a piano to die, or when an indie developer finds an instrument that can’t be salvaged for traditional musical purposes. These libraries can range anywhere from “creatively sampled” to “last gasps of an upright after sending it through a car crusher” (I guess it wasn’t prepared for that! hee hEe hoo).

The prepared piano technique was 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.

Prepared pianos, especially if they’re bowed or hit with a mallet, can often sound more like a guitar or percussion instrument. Like other extended-playing technique-based libraries, the prepared piano is probably best used as an aleatoric decoration.

I’d also lump toy pianos in this category, inasmuch as they are also mostly unusable. Prepared piano libraries are usually marketed as “creepy,” “violent,” “haunted,” “untamed,” or “broken” pianos.

Commercial prepared/toy pianos:

Free prepared/toy pianos:

4. The Classic Piano

Classic Piano. Genres: soundtrack, pop, everything else. Power level: 7

Pairs well with:

  • Notes: any, take your pick of the 88
  • Effects: room/plate reverb
  • Friends: none. This piano rides alone 😎
  • Beverage: merlot

This piano is a snob. The classic piano is your bread-and-butter piano library, often sampled from a grand piano of the finest caliber (Steinway Model Ds are pretty popular). Sampling an upright for this purpose is pretty rare, because an upright often has more of a “character” sound that makes it better suited for one of the other 5 types.

The classic piano is meant to cover most use cases, and are thus deep-sampled with a variety of mic perspectives, velocity layers, and other realism features, such as pedal sampling and sympathetic resonances. Classic piano libraries usually include built-in controls for room reverb, EQ, and stereo width.

These libraries, of course, lack any peculiar percussive quality (though they might come with extra patches for that), and also have a less “up close” sound than intimate pianos, so that they can be mixed into a large composition without sounding out of place (it doesn’t make much sense to have an in-your-face compressed piano underscoring a symphonic orchestra).

You don’t need to look very hard to find one of these, as just about every major sampling label has one. Classic piano libraries are commonly billed as a “flagship” piano.

Commercial classic pianos:

(Seriously, there’s a bunch)

Free classic pianos:

5. The Honky-Tonk Piano

Honky-Tonk Piano. Genres: Ragtime, blues, saloon music, sea shanties

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 pianos for my most precious sea shanties!” And indeed I don’t. For those and other niche purposes, we of course have the honky-tonk piano, a characterful upright with some endearing yet awful wobbly pitch quality.

The honky-tonk piano is best when you want to draw attention to the fact there’s a piano in the room and it’s not afraid to make its presence known. In contexts requiring more subtlty, you should avoid using this piano library, lest your listeners wonder what all that honking and tonking is about.

If you lump most characterful uprights under this category, the sound quality can range from kitschy practice piano — which you can layer with a classic piano for added texture — to sitting-in-a-tavern-for-110-years warble-ass goodness.

Commercial honky-tonk pianos:

Free honky-tonk pianos:

6. The Dance Piano

Dance Piano. Genres: dance, funk, 90s house, techno, rave. Power level: 5

Pairs well with:

  • Notes: fast, rhythmic broken chords
  • Effects: transient shaper, delay
  • Friends: synths, clavs
  • Beverage: Crystal Pepsi

Last but not least, it’s the dance piano library! This piano has a bright, almost cheesy sound, meant for dry, rhythmic chords. The parts handled by the dance piano could just as easily be handled by a clavinet or funky e piano.

Sometimes you can achieve this sound by playing a bright classic piano at max velocity. However, sticklers for the classic 90s sound may prefer the traditional sampled-piano-processed-to-fuck sound made popular by the Korg M1, Nexus 2, and various Roland synths. Other than bright and dry, this piano doesn’t have many requirements, and the crappy piano that comes with your DAW may work just fine for it.

Commercial dance pianos:

Free dance pianos: