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The Best Piano VST Plugins of 2020 for All Budgets

reviews May 01, 2020

Are you frustrated with trying to get a realistic sounding piano on your computer? Or are you just looking for the best sounding pianos out there? In this article I've highlighted the best overall piano plugin package, the best grand piano VST, the best free piano VST, as well as some cool alternatives like felt pianos.

In my opinion, a great virtual piano can be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. Especially with the help of a few studio tricks and a good reverb to make your piano really sparkle and shine. In my opinion, Native Instrument's Komplete represents the best combination of quality, variety, and value. But there are a lot of great choices available that have deep focus on a single piano, like the Garritan Abbey Road Studio CFX Concert Grand Piano. 

Note: some of the links below may be affiliate links, meaning that I receive a commission if you purchase through them.

Introduction to Piano VST’s

Piano Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is a software technology that digitally reproduces the sound of a piano. The Piano VST is usually found as a plug-in hosted in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). The technology is most commonly used by connecting a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) keyboard to a computer, and altering its effects using the software.

So, for example, a musician can choose a piano VST plug-in from a sample library (also known as a sampler) that resembles a Steinway grand piano. Then, the musician would play the virtual instrument using their MIDI keyboard or internal MIDI editor and the note pitches of the track will recreate the sound of a Steinway.

Overall, piano VST is extremely useful because they offer musicians a wide array of sound effects to meet their recording needs. It’s much more cost-effective to have a piece of software recreate the sound of a top class piano instead of purchasing or renting the piano itself. And it takes up less space! Using a VST piano also offers the ability to edit notes within the software which saves musicians a lot of time. They are an affordable, convenient and flexible solution for any musician or studio.

Best Piano Plugin

At the very top of the virtual instrument space, Spectrasonics is hands down one of the greatest companies out there. Spectrasonics Keyscape is the best piano VST and serves as the industry’s benchmark for virtual pianos. Keyscape is a keyboardist’s dream because it gives the artist access to 36 keyboard types from flagship Yamahas, Wurlitzer’s and Rhodes to unique keyboards that were made over 100 years ago.

No matter which plug-in you choose, each one has impeccable quality. Spectrasonics has a well-known reputation of paying meticulous attention to detail. The team finds and restores vintage instruments; and instead of cleaning up all of their iconic quirks and sounds, they work to include the full spectrum of the instrument’s personality by preserving their beautiful ‘imperfections’ which makes them so unique and interesting.

In addition to the wide array of instruments available, each instrument contains within it a set of variations depending on the musician’s preference. For example, a Yamaha has a suite of genres it can suit by choosing a classical, jazz, rock or cinematic setting.

Each of these patches can be further tweaked through Keyscape’s user friendly equalization (EQ) design and effects (FX) units. Lastly, Keyscape has a hybrid ‘duo’ sounds feature where the artist can combine two instruments to make something completely unique and never before heard.

Overall, Spectrasonics Keyscape offers incredible value and is absolutely the best piano VST on the market today. Keyscape is compatible as a plug-in for all major Digital Audio Workstations.

Best Upright Piano VST & Best Value

The Gentleman, by Native Instruments is a fantastic upright piano plugin. It has a wonderful old-timey tone, because it was sampled from a piano built in 1908, but it features a huge dynamic range of sample choices.

The Gentleman also features a wide range of tonal controls. You can play it with the lid open or closed. You can dial in your perfect sound with by adjusting levels of pedals, damper, string, and hammer sounds. Plus it includes a huge host of builtin effects.

The Gentleman, which is part of Komplete 12 by Native Instruments, is probably the best value on this list, too. Komplete 12 includes a half-dozen totally unique pianos, some of which you won't find anywhere else. It also comes loaded with tons of other synthesizers, drum machines, samples and effects.

Best Grand Piano VST

When it comes specifically to grand piano VST, the Garritan Abbey Road Studio CFX Concert Grand Piano VST is the best of the best. For starters, Garritan used the Yamaha CFX Concert Grand piano for this VST.

The CFX Concert Grand is one of the most popular grand pianos ever made used by countless professional musicians; and for good reason! The CFX Concert Grand is hand-built by an experienced and perfectionist Yamaha team. The versatility this piano offers is second to none, as it is capable of handing the rumble of a full symphony orchestra to expressing a gentle pianissimo style.

The second reason this VST is so amazing is that it was recorded in one of the most well-known and best-sounding recording rooms in the entire world—Abbey Road Studios (Studio One). Studio One has been the first choice for music legends such as The Beatles, Elton John, Pink Floyd and many others for over 80 years. Furthermore, the piano was recorded from multiple microphone perspectives which captures the full spectrum of the instrument’s sound within the famous studio.

Lastly, artists have the unique option to choose where the listener can experience the sound from—the player setting, the contemporary setting and the classic setting. The player setting makes the listener feel as though they are right behind the piano or sitting on the bench listening to the track. The contemporary setting emphasizes the Yamaha’s hammers which adds an astute percussive element, while the classic option captures multiple microphone perspectives which blends with the ambiance of the room to deliver a jaw-dropping sound.

Overall, the combination of award-winning engineers, top of the line microphones and the best recording space in the world makes the Garritan Abbey Road Studio CFX Concert Grand Piano VST among the best grand piano VST in the world.

Best Free Piano VST

If an artist is unable to pay the premium for the best two piano VST’s discussed, Spitfire LABS has a variety of unique, free piano options. Spitfire released free plug-ins in 2018 called LABS which stands for Let's All Be Something. LABS is compatible with all Digital Audio Workstations and features plenty of different samples including soft pianos, a Wurlitzer, strings, drums trumpets and even bells.

Spitfire describes the strings sample, “Fourteen of London's best string players, recorded at Spitfire HQ by engineer Harry Wilson. This ensemble was captured using a wide range of microphones including a vintage BBC AXB1.” Furthermore, the user interface for LABS is intuitive and simple. Controls, knobs and sliders are used for various modes of expression and are fully customizable. LABS is very simple to install. All that is required is a name and email to receive the how-to guide on for installing the Spitfire Audio App. In addition, there are tutorial videos throughout the website for how to activate the plug-ins in various DAWs. Each sample sound has a tutorial on how to use each plug-in effectively. Best of all, not only does Spitfire Labs permit artists to use their free software for studio recording purposes, they proactively encourage it!

Alternatives

Other than the piano VSTs listed above, there are a couple of other notable options to choose from: the Arturia Piano V2 and the Heavocity Ascend: Model Grand.

Arturia Piano V2

Arturia Piano V2 features 12 advanced physically modeled pianos instead of sampled pianos. This means the artist has access to various first-class instruments as well as complete control of components that are not possible with samples. Some of the piano models to choose from are concert grand, jazz upright, metal grand and plucked grand. There are also a wide array of custom settings such as hammer hardness, stretch tuning and dynamic range. The Artutia Piano V2 is an extremely versatile tool for musicians regardless of genre as it features 88 factory presets. It’s also incredibly easy to use for MIDI mapping. Overall, the Arturia Piano V2 is a staple in physically modeled piano software with a wide variety of uses and applications across any genre.

Heavyocity Ascend: Modern Grand

Another great option is Heavyocity Ascend: Modern Grand. This digital piano was used by recording a multi-sampled staple, a 9-foot Concert D grand piano. It was chosen by highly professional film score engineer, Satoshi Noguchi, due to its clarity and vibrant sound. The Concert D was recorded painstakingly in a top quality New York City studio.

Heavocity embellished the sound library with an array of hammers, brushes, twine and chains. The software also features a slew of built-in effects, ambience and special processors. Ascend’s trademark Three Point Mixer allows articulations to be controlled easily with a modulation wheel or preset automations. An artist can choose from a vast library of preset patches to choose from to jumpstart their creativity.

Ascend: Modern Grand is a fantastic alternative that features a highly sought after Concert D grand piano with a wide range of flexibility when it comes to articulation and modulations.

Conclusion

You'll be happy with any of these virtual pianos. I just depends on what you're looking for. Hopefully this review highlighted some of the differences between all of the great sounding pianos out there! Of course, even the best piano plugin won't do much if you don't know how to mix it. That's why I put together this free epic guide on getting pianos to sound life-like and realistic.

And if you're looking to expand beyond the beautiful sounds of the traditional piano, you should check out my recommendations for the best Rhodes VST plugins for the smooth sounds of the best electric piano.

FAQ

The Two Types of Piano VST – Modeled Vs. Sampled

A sample piano VST is recorded directly from an actual piano while a modeled piano VST is digitally produced through the use of algorithms that sound very similar to the piano.

The sample piano VST is more commonly used since the authentic sound of say, a Steinway or a Rhodes, is much more appealing to a musician than a digitally crafted version. However, the main advantage modeled piano VST has is it uses much less hard drive space while sounding almost as good in most cases. They are also much more customizable.

Do These Pianos Require Kontakt? What is Kontakt?

Kontakt has become the industry-standard software sampler. Digital instruments are created by using its audio engine and modular architecture. Many DAWs create instruments within Kontakt’s framework, therefore a musician will need a version of Kontakt in order to use them.

How to Use a Piano VST?

Virtual Studio Technology allows musicians to use a wide array of digital instruments and effects within their projects. VST is embedded within DAW software as plug-ins. 

First, the musician would add a VST plug-in to a track within their project. Once a track is selected, the next step would be to select a VST preset. It is up to the artist to further customize the preset with the VST editor or not. Finally, the artist would compose their work by creating a MIDI part by either using an external MIDI keyboard or the internal MIDI editor. This track will now feature the piano VST preset which was chosen!

Does these Pianos require additional Software?

Most Piano VSTs requires hosting within a DAW software.

How Do You play a piano VST with a keyboard?

Once the VST plug-in is chosen for a given track, the artist can choose to add an external device from the DAW option menu. This can be an instrument or even a computer keyboard and assign the piano note values within the DAW.

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