Posted by Phil Loose on 21 July 2014


My worst nightmare was playing at a friend's wedding. The anticipation from the congregation as the bride was traditionally late, then the wave from the back that “we’re all ready” - then the nod from the Vicar that it is time for the wedding march to be played. Then the sheer terror as the first chord is struck, on what was a Yamaha DX1 as every individual note of a 7 note chord sounded out and each begin to slide from random notes towards the one I had intended. It took the entire walk down the aisle by the Bride for the chord to reach the right notes. I was floored, dumbstruck, embarrassed. And if I ever find the little ‘darling’ who switched on the ‘Portamento’ button without me realizing it, then we will be having ‘words’. This was 20 years ago. I still feel the pain. So from that day on, the issue has been NOT to be floored, dumbstruck and embarrassed - and outside of certain personality issues my friends tell me I have, it has in the main gone well.

In church life, the last thing you want at a christening, marriage, funeral or regular worship service is for your piano or keyboard to let you down. For me, this has meant always having a dedicated piano as a backup, running alongside soft synths and computers. But as time has progressed, the sound of electric pianos has gone from awful to impressive - and right now, the softsynths on offer win the 'Battle of the Sounds' easily. In wanting the ‘best’ piano sound, you have not only had to have a sizable wallet (thanks Dad…) but also a car with a decent boot (thanks Dad….!) as well as the physical lifting power of a small crane. But now the entire landscape has changed.

Time+Space sent me a copy of Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D grand piano soft synth to try out and review. Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D is modeled on a 1951 New York Steinway D piano and comes packed with 49 gigabytes of samples. You read this right! This is a focussed example of excellence in the area of piano modeling and does one job excellently rather than trying to be all things to everyone. I’ve been through my fair share of synthesizers, from the Juno 106, Yamaha CX5, DX7, Roland D50 and so on - you get the picture when I say that I really have had enough of detailed programming of sounds, of tweaking LFO’s, setting ADSR’s and understanding PCM synthesis versus photosynthesis……. What I want to know now, is does this sound incredible, does it have emotion in the sounds and can it help me to connect better from piano to pew.

I loaded American Concert D at home on my Macbook Air running through the CD-ROMs and setting it up with an iLock usb key. These iLoks are clever in some ways, but a little frustrating in that you have to remember to carry it with you when you want to use the synth. I would prefer a ‘two site’ license in the same way that Toontrack handle piracy. But once the piano was all setup, I had high hopes for the sounds, and I wasn’t disappointed. The rest of the night and into the small hours, the richness of the sounds, the versatility in each of the notes and the way you feel as if you’re sat back at the grand piano from my ‘Royal Schools’ days was fantastic. But this is what I expected really and it felt comfortable at home trying it all out and seeing how it dropped into a mix as well as sounded as the lead instrument. A ‘real’ grand piano of this caliber can obviously find a home in any genre of music and similarly this ‘soft’ version was at home with rock, some jazz, then the classics from my memory of Beethoven and Bach, and even some gospel tritones (Google them….!) were sounding fat.

Voila Capture 2014 07 21 03 56 21 PM

(If you want to tweak with anything, then you can edit everything. But the thing is, you don't have to.)

However, for the customisation Kings among you, Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D does give you full control over every parameter should you want to get stuck into some tweaking. I talked about ‘emotion’ in the sound and this is shown in the ‘Harmonic Resonance’ that is achieved: when you play a note, it knows which other strings would resonate in sympathy with it in the instrument, and these overtones and subtleties give you the feedback you need for emotional playing. If you want to really go for the editing, you can specify the amount of mechanical noise, the amount the lid is raised, the timbre and the stereo width and even sit there and change the tuning of the notes.  The detail you can go to is all there, but the interface you see is far from complex and works straight out of the box to give you the finest piano sound. it was a surprise to find that Synthogy have added some strings and pads in to this software,  but for the worship keyboard player, it is ideal and they sound very good. 

Voila Capture 2014 07 21 03 51 12 PM2

(The built in Effects engine gives you so much control over the 'room' you put the piano in - and adds to the flexibilty for recording as well as playing live.)

Well, if I was going to test this out, I was going to go for it with no safety net, and I was going to do it on the most important Sunday to get ‘right’. Easter Sunday - a brave choice….. Keyboard players will understand this next statement: I unplugged my life support system; the Roland RD700SX went. In its place there came a Macbook Air, a copy of Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D and a semi weighted M-Audio controller keyboard. I was flying solo, I was doing this without hardware backup and in front of a church of 1,000 people for Easter.

Ivory1

(Pic taken at KingsChurch Eastbourne.)

I didn’t mess about with AD converters other than those in the Macbook Air; taking the audio output directly from the headphone output into a stereo DI. Ivory II American Concert D worked beautifully and with no recognizable latency at all. We have a very high quality PA in our church running from a digital desk, so on the one hand you would expect a great sound, but on the other, a system of this quality can also pick up digital distortion or poor sample quality. The comments we received back on the piano told us that people had appreciated it - sure, they may not be able to tell you ‘why’ they appreciated it more, but that is the intricacy and beauty of music.

With the sound this good and the gear needed to use it not being out of reach for most dedicated musicians, it more than proved itself. Keyboard players have been used to spending a lot of money for a decent weighted keyboard and piano sound. Of course, if you use Ivory II with a fully weighted keyboard, then you enter another level of response, feel and emotion. It’s remarkable and now more than ever that you can fool the purists in the room. In the studio, I've given up on the 'is that a real piano?' game a long time ago.  But when you also consider that Ivory II American Concert D retails somewhere around the £119 mark you begin to realize that soft synths really are the way to go. 

In conclusion: wow. For me, a great instrument is all about emotion, tone and feedback and on all these the Ivory II piano is the best soft piano I have played. I would rather it didn’t need an iLok key as this is something I will no doubt lose at some point. But as I look back on piano sounds over the years, this is the one that will leave people guessing and wondering where we’ve hidden the Steinway. Even talking about software as an ‘instrument’ shows how far we’ve come on this journey - and I’m looking forward to what comes next.

But the aim of this review was not 'technical' - it was asking the question "can you trust a softsynth?' Well I did - and it didn't let me down. On latency, on sound quaity, and on emotion - it hit the mark. 

But would I leave my Roland RD700SX at home? Well, the answer is that I could if I wanted to, or needed to.  The ideal scenario is to use your preferred piano weighted keyboard, with the sound excellence of  Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D. Then you  have everything covered in the event of experiencing your very own ‘Portamento’ moment…….

 

Reviewed by Phil Loose who is 'on the rota' at KingsChurch Eastbourne in the worship team.

 

Special thanks to Time+Space. For the technical details on this software, or to get your copy of Ivory II American Concert D - click here.

More like this

5 Things Every Guitar-Playing Worship Leader Should Have With Them At All Times

It was once said that to lead worship you need to stay out of the way, let people see God and make sure there are no distractions. These five tips will help you cut back on the simple mistakes and help to keep the focus right where it needs to be.

Bono Thinks That Worship Music Has An Honesty Problem. Is He Right?

Is Bono right? In our quest to be passionately devoted to God, have we somehow narrowed the focus of our emotions? Or are we simply leaning more towards Praise these days?
Are we too drawn to the songs which make us feel good rather than the songs which help us be real? Is that even a bad thing?

Back To Basics: Arrangements

Paul, a guitarist, had a few questions about the practical aspects of leading worship. Having set Phil Loose onto it, we also tracked down Chris Sayburn, Worship Pastor at St George’s, Leeds to see what he had to say...