Achieving realistic acoustic sounds is normally not a task that can be achieved with stock plugins or samplers.
In order to create a realistic piano VST, engineers rig microphones onto a piano and record each individual note separately. This gives them more realistic pitches instead of using a single sample.
TLDR; (Don't want to read this entire article?)
This article explains each piano VST in-depth, but incase you're in a hurry, below are each of the pianos mentioned in this article with a very short review as well as links to where you can purchase them.
- Addictive Keys - This plugin comes with 3 highly customizable quality pianos that were recorded in big-budget studios. A ton of different presets created by producers that have been in the industry for decades are included for each piano. You can get nearly any piano style out of this plugin, and for that reason, it is my #1 piano plugin recommendation.
- Emotional Piano Player - Don't let the fact that this is a kontakt plugin fool you. (You don't even need to buy the full version of Kontakt. The free Kontakt player has all of the same features to use this plugin.) Like the name suggests, this plugin lets you create beautiful sounding emotional piano pieces.
- UVI Grand Piano Collection - UVI is a well-known plugin company that always seems to release quality plugins. If Addictive Keys wasn't your style, UVI Grand Piano Collection is another one-stop-shop for virtual piano instruments that is sure to satisfy you.
- EZKeys - EZKeys is a great, easy-to-use plugin that specializes in rock/pop piano styles. It's a wonderful plugin overall.
- Synthogy Ivory II- Ivory II, available on Amazon, is a good but pricey piano you should consider checking out.
- Arturia Piano V - Arturia's known for creating amazing software and hardware. This piano is very classy and clean, delivering a beautiful sound.
- SONiVOX FM Piano - Looking for a deep Rhodes/electric piano kind of vibe? SONiVOX is your prayers answered!
- Cassette Piano - This plugin only costs $17 and provides an amazing, crisp tape-distorted piano sound. Need I say more?
- IRCAM Prepared Piano - For huge cinematic scores, IRCAM prepared piano is a great choice.
- Soundiron The Drinking Piano - At this point, you might be thinking, "Hey, all of these plugins are cool, but I'm trying to find a detuned old western piano plugin". Well look no further! The drinking piano is exactly that! But that's not all! This piano has a lot of fun configurability to play around with. Give it a try!
The next step to making a realistic-sounding piano plugin would be to record each key AGAIN at different velocities. The average software piano has more than 10 different variations per key! That means that at a minimum, on an 88-key piano, the recording engineer would have to record AT LEAST 880 samples. One piano on this list uses nearly 3000 samples!
While there are some free plugins that sound decent and “get the job done“, the real quality is in the software pianos that cost money. If you spent the time recording thousands of samples for a software-instrument, would you just give it away for free?
In this list, I have narrowed down your search for the best piano VST plugin down to 5 commonly talked-about plugins. Keep in mind that they are in no particular order. I don’t believe there is an end-all-be-all winner to this battle. All of these pianos offer unique tones, textures, and features. Choose whichever instrument best suits your needs!
Addictive Keys Trio Bundle
Short Review: I love Addictive Keys and always use it when I need a virtual piano. Each of the included pianos have a ton of unique presets.
The first piano we’ll be talking about is Addictive keys. I have personal experience in it and I love the way it sounds!
Addictive Keys is made by the same guys that created Addictive drums, arguably the greatest acoustic drum plugin to ever hit the market. XLN Audio knows what they’re doing when it comes to creating realistic acoustic software instruments.
It provides an ultra-realistic sound that is highly customizable. Addictive Keys lets you change the position of the virtual microphone. This allows you to easily change how upfront you want the piano to be.
A surprising element of this plugin is how fast it loads up. You would think that with its massive sound library, it would take forever to load. Even if you have each sound library installed, the loading is quite quick.
There are 3 different piano libraries available: The Studio Grand, Modern Upright, and the Mark One.
Note: You can also purchase each piano separately for only $79.95 each.
The Studio Grand is a great place to start. As you could imagine, it is modeled after a grand piano. It’s worth noting that each piano gives you MANY different sounds. There are a ton of presets per sound library that gives you a wide variety of variations to your sound.
The Modern Upright gives you a more bright, upfront sort of sound. This will act as an all-purpose piano that will fit into most productions. If you can’t get the grand piano to sound as tight and intimate as you need, the Modern Upright is your answer.
The Mark One is modeled after the classic, and slightly cheesy(but lovable), Rhodes Mark One. XLN did a superb job with this instrument! Playing a simple chord on the M1 sounds warm and deep.
Overall, Addictive Keys is my favorite piano VST plugin on the market.
Emotional Piano Player
Short Review: Emotional Piano Player is just as it sounds. If you're looking for a piano instrument to provide that deep, soulful, and emotional piano sound to your tracks, this is a great option.
Emotional Piano is an awesome Kontakt instrument with a reasonable price tag that simply sounds amazing. Just listen to the demo video above to get an idea of what it can do.
This instrument is actually based off of the rich and soulful Kawai grand piano. Soundiron did admit that it took them years to find a piano that provided the warmth and emotion that the Kawai provides. Compared hundreds of other grand pianos, there's nothing that comes close to the characteristics of the Kawai.
This plugin requires Kontakt to run, BUT of course you don't need the paid version of Kontakt to use it. The free Kontakt player works just as well with this instrument and doesn't have any limitations.
Here are the main features of this plugin:
- This plugin is sampled across a full 88-key Concert Grand piano
- The samples are untouched and clean, allowing you to have full control over how your piano sounds
- The samples are velocity layered extensively (15 layers)
- This plugin is made up of over 1700 samples
- Takes up 2.75GB (or 5GB if uncompressed)
- 24 bit 44.1kHz sound
- Comes in Kontakt 4 .nki file and a lossless .ncw file format
- Works 100% with the free Kontakt player.
- Runs on both PC and Mac
As you can probably tell by now, this plugin is no joke.
Plenty of presets are also included to give you an endless amount of inspiration. You even have some quite impressive effects to completely transform the sonic characteristics of your piano.
This piano is the result of years of hard work by Soundiron team.
No matter your budget, no matter your skill level, no matter what kind of music you produce, it's hard for me not to recommend this plugin.
Emotional Piano Player is a very powerful tool to add to your plugin library.
UVI Grand Piano Collection
Short Review: If you're looking for a great grand piano suite, UVI can provide that. Each piano was made with care and sounds amazing in both live and studio applications.
Another great virtual piano option is Grand Piano Collection, a great plugin designed by the equally great plugin company UVI.
- 3.4 GB (FLAC lossless encoding, was 21 GB in WAV)
- Collection : Acoustic Pianos
- Content : 5 instruments, 26 presets, 4,657 samples
- Miscellaneous : Five grand piano models : Steinway D Concert Grand, Fazioli F278 Concert Grand, Erard Baby Grand Piano, Seiler Upright Grand and Yamaha C7 Concert Grand
The 5 pianos included are Steinway D Concert Grand, Fazioli F278 Concert Grand, Erard Baby Grand Piano, Yamaha C7 Concert Grand, and Ceiler Upright Grand.
You'll like how these pianos sound if you're looking for huge sounding concert pianos. Each piano is highly customizable and features clean sounding quality samples.
Overall, this plugin is definitely worth trying. Piano compositions just phenomenal with this plugin! You can learn more about this piano collection on the UVI website.
Short Review: EZKeys is simple to use, has quality sounds, and will run smoothly on nearly any computer.
EZKeys is another great-sounding piano.
EZKeys focuses more on providing you with excellent presets rather than a ton of customization. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how technical your workflow is.
The effects included with EZKeys sound great and get the job done, but I’d appreciate a little more tweakability. The effects come as pre-engineered presets.
With the effect presets, you also get excellent piano presets. There are even built-in midi sequences included. They are helpful both for gaining inspiration and auditioning presets.
There is a chord wheel feature that makes it easy for non-piano-players to come up with chord progressions. You start by selecting a note to assign what scale you want to play in. After that you’ll be able to trigger chords with single notes while staying in the correct scale.
This kick-ass plugin supports three different kinds of pedals: Sustain, sostenuto, and damping.
Arturia Piano V
For the electronic musician seeking authentic piano sounds, but in a variety of flavors, Arturia’s Piano V VST synth offers granular modeling of nine pianos, both grand and upright models, providing a wide range of piano voices and nuances.
Rather than a traditional collection of samples across the piano keyboard, Piano V uses a modelling engine to build each piano sound. These basic presets provide quite realistic results, even when using a simple keyboard controller with minimal velocity sensitivity.
The nine models include:
Piano Bar Upright
Of these, the Jazz upright immediately catches attention with a voice apart from the average. The Classical upright, on the other hand, is weakly conceived.
However, that really doesn’t matter, since the user can customize any of the pianos included, through a variety of tuning and detuning options, changes to hammer hardness and position and even various natural piano noises, such as pedal, key and hammer noise.
Tweak heads are in their element with the myriad options available in the Piano V package, but those who simply want good piano presets won’t be disappointed either. Arturia’s Piano V is a solid, versatile and well-performing plug-in for all major platforms, including a standalone option.
SONiVOX FM Piano
The Yamaha DX7 ushered in the 1980s and FM synthesis. The music industry then used every FM patch, soaked in digital delays, flangers and phasers, creating a sound that was, well, the 1980s.
FM-generated piano sounds were one of the lesser offenses of the era, providing tight, crisp sounds that shoehorned well through dense mixes. SONiVOX brings a VST synth that specializes in these tones at a very affordable price.
If you’re looking for ultra-realistic acoustic pianos, keep looking. These are not the pianos you’re looking for. But that’s not the point. For musicians who create 80s period music, good FM pianos are mandatory.
The FM Piano collection is a plug-in only. It doesn’t have a standalone player, but at about 20 bucks it’s difficult to complain about that. One of SONiVOX’s Singles packages, these provide a great way to get just the sounds you need, whether you’re starting to build a studio or filling gaps in your current collection.
If you need 80s pianos, you can dust off your DX7, or add FM Piano to your plug-in synths. Either way, you’ll catch that big hair, MTV vibe.
THEPHONOLOOP Cassette Piano
Though the FM Piano collection is not true to real piano sound, the Cassette Piano package takes real piano and runs it through the wringer. The idea is to create the sound of a piano recorded on a crappy, poorly maintained cassette recorder. Why? Well, why not?
Let’s face it, synthesis is doing a pretty fine job of re-creating great piano sounds for those who can’t afford the cost or space of an actual acoustic piano. Contemporary production styles turn sounds on their heads. The Cassette Piano set does some of this work for you.
Noisy, warbly, crappy and weird, these sounds are an addition to consider for Kontakt users after unusual, retro piano sounds. Another under-$20 plug-in, though it’s unfortunately only compatible with Kontakt version 5.5.1 or higher. While the plug-in will work in Kontakt Player, it expires after a brief period.
This is a downer for non-Kontakt users, as the 39 presets range from fun to Krunktastic. These can also be modified to scramble into your own weirdness. While not the plug-in you’ll use to record the Goldberg Variations, there’s enough oddball ear candy here to shake up many a production.
UVI IRCAM Prepared Piano
Prepared piano is the province of the avant garde classical music scene. Essentially, it’s a way of playing a traditional grand piano in decidedly non-standard ways. This is decidedly not for everyone, and as a pricey plug-in, it’s not a package to add for occasional sound design.
For those not familiar with prepared piano music, check out composer John Cage and his works “Amores” and “Daughters of Lonesome Island.” Cage’s prepared piano pieces all include at least one screw to alter the way the piano responds.
Also from UVI, the IRCAM Prepared Piano set includes alternative ways of striking the strings, plucking harmonics, muting and placing objects on or between the strings.
Over 12,000 samples fill this 18 GB collection, and versatility is as you’d expect from a pricey package. Dynamics and mic position are just a few parameters that are user-adjustable, and UVI’s SparkVerb comes included.
The same UVI compatibilities, activations and Workstation requirements as the Grand Piano Collection apply here. Anyone wanting to modify a piano, without risking damage to a real instrument, may want to investigate the IRCAM Prepared Piano plug-in.
To compare prices, find documentation, and more, you can check out the UVI website as well.
Soundiron The Drinking Piano
Need a sound that evokes pints of Guinness, steak and kidney pies and the soft thud of darts striking a board, then The Drinking Piano might be worth a listen. Another special effects piano plug-in built for the full version of Kontakt 4.2 or more recent, though the samples are accessible by other WAV compatible samplers and synths.
Described as a 100-year old beer soaked instrument, this plug-in provides a retro honky-tonk sound without the brash impact of typical tack piano patches. Tuning is flat, because that’s the facts, jack. You can almost feel the rust shake from the strings with every key strike.
The piano sampled is an Ivor and Ponds upright dating to the early 20th century, an instrument that could stand up to the hard living and still deliver a bawdy and compelling sound.
Twenty-five presets provide instant access, with further control over EQ, filtering, LFO and other sound altering options.
One of the most interesting control is the Sober/Drunk switch. With a click, you can erase all that rough pub life and hear a much more natural version of the instrument. This is handy if the beery sounds prove too much within your mix. Change over to Sober, and a much more reasonable and still sonically interesting piano emerges.
While priced around $70, steep for a special effects piano plug-in, there’s so much to play with in the Drunk Piano package that it remains a value at that price for anyone wanting the raunchy old feeling this piano evokes.
Synthogy Ivory II - Grand Pianos
Short Review: Ivory II is excellent for live performers who are in need of a quality, low-latency virtual piano. For my digital studio uses, $329 seems a bit high.
Synthogy Ivory II is a beloved grand piano that will take up over 60GB of space. Before you freak out about that large number: It is large because it’s the total size with all of the included instruments installed. A single instrument takes up around 20GB. Synthogy gives you the option to install pianos individually.
There are 3 pianos included:
- Bösendorfer 290 Imperial Grand
- Steinway D Concert Grand
- Yamaha c7 Grand
All 88-keys of each piano were recorded 18 times to provide extra dynamics for better-sounding velocity control. There are also great user presets included if you aren’t in the mood to mess about with the parameters.
To recap, here are the best piano VST plugins:
- Addictive Keys
- Emotional Piano Player
- UVI Grand Piano Collection
- Synthogy Ivory II
- Arturia Piano V
- SONiVOX FM Piano
- Cassette Piano
- IRCAM Prepared Piano
- Soundiron The Drinking Piano
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All of these plugins are amazing choices!
I hope in some way that I pointed you in the right direction and made it easier for you to find a great-sounding piano plugin.
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