Virtual Pianos Shootout For Live Performance
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Virtual Pianos Shootout For Live Performance
People began to dream using a virtual piano in a live concert/show since the first virtual piano went out. But nearly
10 years passed and if you look at a live concert, you will find it is still a dream. Yamaha, Roland or Korg are the
most common used brands. And of course, not their software, but their hardware. The reason behind it is not their
names are too BIG; it is the performance issue of software pianos. Compared with their hardware competitors,
software pianos are unstable, easy to produce pops, clicks or glitches, easy to max out, and much more to say. It is
not all related to the bias of live performers. It is true in some degree. Thus this shootout is not about whether a
virtual piano sounds beautiful in a live concert, it is about the performance and stability of using them in live and
this is exactly some live musicians concern most.
For the shootout, we gathered 8 Virtual Pianos. They are
1. Native Instruments Alicia’s Keys V1.2 (Sampled Piano)
2. Synthlogy Ivory Italian Grand V1.72 (Sampled Piano)
3. Galaxy II Pianos K4 (Sampled Piano)
4. PMI “Old Lady” Kontakt 2 (Sampled Piano)
5. 4Front TruePianos V1.5 (Modeling Piano)
6. Modartt Pianoteq V3.63 (Modeling Piano)
7. Sound Magic Imperial Grand3D V1.2 (Modeling Piano)
8. Acoustica Pianissimo (Modeling Piano)
4 pianos are modeling pianos while others 4 are sampled pianos. Thus this shootout also gives us a fair opportunity
to compare the performance of modeling pianos with sampled pianos.
It is hard to measure their performance if you do not prepare well. Our strict review standard used to review many
pianos is not fit for this special situation. So we developed a new one, special for this shootout. It will measure CPU
usage, latency, loading speed and pedal behaviors. Finally we will calculate an overall rank for each piano.
For a fair shootout, we installed all 8 pianos on the same computer running Windows XP SP2, and then we use
Cubase 5 to load them. For most live musician likely to use a laptop, we got an average laptop which had a Core 2
Duo CPU on 2.66GHz with 2GB RAM. It is a dual core machine and it only has a 5400RPM hard drive which may
have difficulty for large samples. Not every live musician has a latest fast laptop so we choose a common model.
We believe it can cover most situations and the data from it could have more referenced value. We also choose a
common USB audio interface for not all musicians have those superior USB audio interface such as RME which could
easily set to 32 samples.
Round 1: CPU Usage, who is the CPU lifesaver?
Now let’s begin with CPU usage. Lower CPU tends to have many advantages for live use. Firstly, higher CPU may
tend to produce pops or clicks, which we call it max out. This is unacceptable for live use and it is the very reason
that live musicians prefer hardware. Second, lower CPU will give you more flexibilities or spaces to add in other
virtual instruments or post effects, some live musicians extremely love adding “heavy” post effects and they must
concerns the CPU usage of the piano. Thus here lower is better. We use a MIDI file to test CPU usage and we
measure CPU usage in a 35 seconds period of time. We are using Windows Task Manager and monitoring the CPU
of the Cubase 5 thread. Finally we have three data, Minimum CPU usage, Maximum CPU usage and Average CPU
usage. To ensure that they are correct, we counted CPU usage for 3 times to get rid of errors. Below is what we
The numbers on the result table are stating the percentage of CPU usage. From the result, we could see Kontakt 4
has a great leap in improving CPU usage than its previous versions. It has a very low CPU usage when loading a
3GB library and its CPU usage could easily defeat most modeling pianos. But to our surprise, it still can not be the
winner. Imperial Grand3D acts more like hardware than software in CPU usage and its CPU usage is the lowest of
any virtual pianos we have ever seen! We can not believe that and measure it 2 more times but facts told us it is
true. Considering Imperial Grand3D also carries such a lot of good features, what a brilliant programming
technology it has! Modeling pianos obviously have no advantages in CPU usage and they actually lost this round.
Round 2: Latency, can the pianos have an instantaneous feeling when playing live?
Latency is another important issue. It has some relationship with CPU usage, but not totally depends on it. Lower
latency will make the piano response quickly, closer to real time. Most people feel that 256 samples are fast
enough. But some of our readers claimed that they could feel the difference between 32 samples and 64 samples.
We also believe lower is always better, lower latency will let the piano to give musicians an instantaneous feeling,
which is so important for live playing. Thus CPU usage and latency are the dead issues of software pianos. If
software pianos hope they can replace hardware, they must solve this issue. To measure the latency, we use the
same MIDI file to see whether the piano can run under specific latency without any pops and clicks. For the MIDI
has many chords and pedals, it is very hard to achieve the same latency as in common situations.
Imperial Grand3D takes the lead with 96 samples, an instantaneous feeling when playing. Old Lady, TruePianos and
Pianoteq are coming very close to it with 128 samples. Modeling pianos won this round with no doubt and they
have more advantages in latency than sampled pianos.
Round 3: Loading Speed, want to test musicians’ patience?
Loading speed is another issue musicians concern most. Musicians seldom have the patience to wait several minutes
to load a piano. To measure loading speed, we calculate the time between we click the name of it and the GUI
appears with hard drive stop to moan. For those Kontakt libraries, we only calculated the time that loads the library.
For ivory, we only calculated the load time of the Italian grand. Here is the result in seconds.
This round is still the playground of modeling pianos, TruePianos and Imperial Grand3D have nearly no waiting time
to load. Galaxy II has a 25 seconds loading time and that is also acceptable if musicians has a little patience. From
the result, we could see that today’s virtual pianos are faster than before and most of their loading times are
acceptable. Due to small size, modeling pianos won this round with no difficulty.
Round 4: Pedals, get more pedal techniques in live?
Here we will test whether the pianos briefly support 3 pedals well (Sostenuto, Sustain and Soft). And as Half
Pedaling is getting more important nowadays, we also include it in the test.
From the result, we could definitely say that the TOP 3 of this shootout have the ability to replace live musicians’
hardware. We also have the confidence to predict that there will be more live musicians using a single laptop, an
USB audio interface and a MIDI keyboard as their live digital pianos in near future. Finally, here is our finally
ranking of the shootout.
1. Winner: Sound Magic Imperial Grand3D
2. Modartt Pianoteq
3. 4Front TruePianos
4. PMI “Old Lady”
5. Galaxy II K4
6. Acoustica Pianissimo
7. Synthlogy Ivory Italian Grand
8. Native Instruments Alicia’s Keys