It might be, of course, that when it comes to keys you’re more about hardware – the keyboards, synths and workstations. If that’s the case, then I’d probably look at making an investment at the upcoming Keyboard Expo in East London that we’re in the process of putting together.
If, however, you’re one of the many people out there who’s more inclined to pick out the perfect piano plug-in to use within your arrangements instead, then it’s safe to say that you’ve come to the right place.
Ivory 2’s brilliance is hardly any big secret of course – in a previous review I waxed lyrical about quite how wonderfully the recreation of several classic grand pianos had been executed. Now, though, we’re going to take a look at the uprights. This will be a shorter review, purely because while looking at the grand pianos I covered a lot of the science behind the plug-in that’s also integrated here.
There are four pianos on offer with this pack – Yamaha’s U5, a 1914 A.M. Hume, a Packard Barroom Honky Tonk and a Real Tack piano. Unlike the grand selection, then, while these instruments share an upstanding kinship they’re very different creatures.
Before we look at the differences between each model, it’s definitely worth talking about the overall modelling that binds them together. So, thanks to the Ivory 2 engine, every piano now benefits from as many as 16 velocity layers per note, release samples, pedal noise (which is optional, don’t worry), half-pedalling and even nuances like lid position. The idea is to allow you to mess with your piano in either possible or usually impossible ways (for the latter, para EQ and synth-layering options can if necessary move your sound significantly far away from the original instrument, although I’m not sure many people will actually take too much advantage of extreme deviations seeing as the majority will be buying this pack for its accuracy. Still, it’s nice for those pop producers to be able to work in old and new sounds into their compositions all at once, or who want this purchase to be something of a one-stop shop for all of their piano options.
One of the most important and impressive features here – thanks to the aforementioned new engine, is harmonic resonance modelling, a new idea pioneered by the Synthogy that recreates the unique sound of sympathetic strings (that is, when strings other than the ones that you’re playing very gently resonate when the right pitch causes them to vibrate). If you’re someone who’s never used piano plug-ins before, it’s almost creepy to hear quite how good the effect is. If you’re used to dryer sounds from digital emulations of keys, it’s close to overwhelming. You can of course turn it off/down if necessary, but once your brain readjusts to that extra noise (and that’s not noise in a bad sense) you could close your eyes and for all the world feel you were near-as-damn-it playing a real piano (well, assuming you’ve got ‘proper’ keys under your fingers, that is. It’s something to absolutely covet, especially for piano-centered compositions.
You can further customise your key sounds thanks to a custom soundboard setup, because of course the engine itself can create a completely unique upright if you’re willing to put in a little time in getting it just-so. You can also add or remove extra ‘creaks and clunks’ for good measure (they’re really called that) if you want the whole hog of authenticity. For faux-live recordings that might actually be a serious boon. However, I’m almost sure you’ll start your affair with this plug-in by using one of the four preset pianos.
The Yamaha model kicks things off with a comfortably modern tone. Bright and sing-song, it’ll likely be the go-to for anyone working within pop or jazz paradigms, and although it’s a familiar feel, it’s got enough of a character to carry a song and stay firmly in the foreground. It’s actually the only piano I’d be tempted to use without the resonance modelling, as it’s so clear and cut’s through wonderfully.
The Hume is a vintage model, and was born for resonance. The whole thing wants to reverberate around, especially when you’re hitting it at higher velocities, and for a thicker, stronger tone this is absolutely the business, with a lovely warm mid/low-end that any vintage piano worth its salt should possess. For rocking out when you’re up against a full band setup, or for working it into more ‘live’ or raw sounding arrangements, this is your best bet.
The Packard that the third model emulates was apparently liberated from the original Cheers bar, so it’s safe to say it’s got some serious honky tonk heritage. I’m a big fan of a sound like this, one that sounds like the piano’s holding together out of sheer will power. It benefits from the detuning that best recalls the style too, and therefore while it might sound a touch out of place in polished production, it excels when you either need a quirky intro/outro, or when a solo calls from some Jerry Lee key bashing.
Finally, the Real Tack is, in my opinion, a one-shot for the majority of producers. With metal tacks inserted into the hammers, you get an almost-scratchy metal-on-metal bounce from each key stroke. Again, the piano is detuned, and this time it’s even more accented. Like I say, it won’t be for everyone, but then again it’s amazing how much you’ll find yourself figuring out ways of marrying this almost period sound up to your modern arrangements, insinuating little devil that it is.
Ivory II is powerful, wonderfully realistic and infinitely customisable. I use upright pianos in a lot of compositions, more so than grands in fact, and I suspect a lot of producers, arrangers and songwriters think similarly. With that in mind, the Upright pack will absolutely enthral so many piano enthusiasts, and actually I can’t think of a downside to purchasing this collection at all. It’s never felt so good to tinkle the ivories!