So... I was kindly challenged to write a review of the VSL Synchron Piano Concert D-274, a VSTi of a Steinway and Sons piano, Hamburg model, that belongs to the trio of available concert pianos in the Synchron Stage, a top music and soundtrack recording facility in Vienna, Austria. It was, if I am not mistaken, the second of the six sampled pianos that currently comprise the Synchron Series, and the first one to be sampled using a "robotic finger" to press the keys in a controlled and reliable way to achieve a really high number (undisclosed???) of sample layers. Among the Synchron series, the D-274 seems to be an ugly duckling, with an almost universal preference for the two sampled Bosendorfers or, alternatively, the quite distinctive Bluethner.
A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the very generous VSL discount for students and academics, and bought the standard edition of the D-274. I chose the D-274 over the other synchron pianos after quickly demoing all of them during the pandemic. A second reason for choosing the D-274 was to have a second good VSTi with a clear sonic difference to the Garritan CFX Full that I also own.
I will not attempt to write a review of this sampled piano, because I am not knowledgeble enough to discern if the fine technical details of the VSTi are correctly implemented (ie, if the sympathetic resonances match reality, if the half-pedaling allows full nuanced playing, or if the staccato truly captures the stacattisimo of a real Steinway). Here, I will only convey my subjective beginner impressions.
And my impression is that I love the D-274... So much, that I now rarely launch the Garritan CFX. Why do I like it? Because for me it is as lively as I imagine a 9-foot piano to be: you press the key a bit stronger, and your ears will pay the price for your mistake. It is not simply louder: it changes character from sweet and mellow to aggressive and metallic as if the strings are colliding with each other, or when the guitar strings hit the neck frets. For me, it has a tone clarity better than any other sampled piano (apart from the VSL Bluethner, but I am not a fan of the period character of the Bluethner): the VSL Bosendorfers, the VSL CFX and the Garritan CFX have an almost perfect bell-like attack that sounds a bit artificial to me (together with an hint of the middle range, middle velocities, nasalness of Pianoteq...). I don't hear that at any of the velocities of the VSL D-274.
The D-274 plays like a race car, while the Garritan as a refined Bentley. Moreover, the Garritan CFX has much more "room" in the samples which I am not particularly fond (although neither is as "dry" as the also very good Bechstein Digital), and that brings the treble and bass notes closer than on the D-274, which does not help for voicing separation.
So, I think that by having both the Garritan CFX and the VSL D-274, I pretty much covered both ends of the pianistic sample world; at his moment, I prefer the challenge and the "in your face" attitude of the D-274, but one day I may change my mind and switch to the easiness and elegance of the Garritan CFX. They both have very different strong points, and are both excellent...
Because everybody will ask, here are my current settings (don't know why I show them, because I am no expert pianist). You will notice that my velocity curve is sigmoidal: in this way I favour the mellow tone of the D-274, while not loosing its power under an heavier touch. For a different keyboard I would probably only slightly raise or lower the middle velocities (from MIDI 40 to 90) and leave the long taper of the low values and the fast ramp of the higher velocities untouched.
Finally, since my playing is (still) embarrassingly below-par for this forum (well: it is bad by any way you measure it...), I prepared a comparison set of 4 pieces rendered in 4 different VSTi. You can listen to the files (and download if you will) in the following shared Google Drive folder:
The pieces are from MIDI files obtained from the Minnesota International Piano e-Competition repository (keep in mind that these pianists are not of Chopin Institute caliber, but nonetheless, their MIDI files are miles ahead of others freely available):
- Chopin, Barcarolle Op.60 - played live by Julia Kociuban, 2008
- Chopin, Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 - played live by Vsevolod Dvorkine, 2002
- Debussy, L'Isle Joyeuse - played live by Timur Mustakimov, 2014
- Mozart, Sonata DMaj K311 - played live by Andrew Staupe, 2009
And the VSTi are:
- VSL Synchron D-274 (settings as in the screenshots above)
- Garritan CFX Full (the ambient mic was at the minimum level)
- Pianoteq Petrof Mistral (used the Modartt demo, so some notes will not sound...)
- Bechstein Digital (asked a friend to render: for me the Bechstein is wonderful and crystalline as no other... But after 5 minutes that clarity becomes ear-piercing... Maybe others don't feel that; if not, appreciate this underdog VSTi because the sampling is really good, although I think it would benefit from careful and measured addition of external reverb).
I would like to note a few interesting points of comparison: the first one is how more lively the Mozart Sonata is on the D-274, and how the two hands sound more "independent" than on the Garritan (the Bechstein is equally efficient in keeping good separation between the treble and bass notes, but it is less expressive than the D-274). Another good comparison are the repeated notes in the beginning of L'Isle Joyeuse: the way the D-274 spreads the cascade of notes, while the Garritan blends the sounds together. A third example is on the alternation of sweet and power passages in the first 3 minutes of the Polonaise; and the last example is the beginning of the Barcarolle in which the D-274 is underwhelming compared to the Garritan (the left hand notes have no sustain and sound lifeless), which demonstrates how playing (probably half-pedal adjustment in the MIDI file) affects the best sampled instruments...
Finally, there are many good examples of VSL D-274 demonstrations on YouTube, but I particularly like this one: