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You know you live in amazing times when you can produce great piano songs using quality piano VST plugins.
You don’t need to own a grand piano, or even spend the equivalent of one (thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars), to generate a comparable sound.
All you need is a MIDI controller and a quality VST plugin to get amazing piano sounds. And, technically, you don’t even need a MIDI controller (we’ll talk more about that later).
Certainly, nothing compares to the real thing. But for recording in the studio, it doesn’t get much more convenient than VSTs.
And, by the time you’ve got those tones settled into your mix, the average listener won’t be able to tell the difference.
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Best Piano VST Plugins
When it comes to plugins, you generally get what you pay for.
Even free plugins are sometimes great, and we will be looking at several later.
But premium is the way to go for professional productions because of how good they sound and how tweakable they are.
Now, if you’ve got yourself some great mics, a properly treated room and a grand piano, you should be able to capture a better sound than with a piano VST any day.
But piano VSTs are convenient. You don’t need to think about reflections, mic placement, preamps and all those other little details. You can simply pull up the plugin within your DAW and start experimenting.
And, many VSTs give you the option of choosing a preset, adding effects, altering the tone and more. That gives you access to a wider array of tones.
Here are several premium plugins we recommend.
Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand
Practically everything about the Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand VST is top notch.
They took a Yamaha CFC Concert Grand piano, placed it in the legendary Abbey Road Studios’ Studio One and hired award-winning engineers to capture the piano’s notes with top of the line microphones and studio equipment.
This VST’s sound quality is amazing. Garritan gives you plenty of settings to play with so you can get exactly what you’re looking for.
Garritan is known for quality VST plugins, so there’s little doubt in my mind you’ll love this one. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, either.
Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos
Ivory II Grand Pianos is anything but lightweight, as it takes up roughly 22 GB of space on your hard drive.
This is a Mac/PC AAX plugin, making it cross-platform compatible.
Multiple pianos were sampled for this plugin, which is a customizer’s dream, thanks to all the tweakable settings.
The piano sounds are nothing short of incredible, making this a great plugin for pianists with a discerning taste. As such, the Ivory II sounds are fantastic soloed.
Its cost is up there, but if realistic sounding pianos are what you’re looking for, you’ll want to research this Synthogy product.
EastWest Quantum Leap Pianos
Quantum Leap Pianos is compatible with both Macs and PCs.
Multiple pianos were sampled for this VST, including the Bechstein D-280, Yamaha C7, Bosendorfer 290 and Steinway D.
There are plenty of settings to fiddle with and you can even adjust microphone placement depending on how you want to shape the tone of the instrument.
If you don’t want to buy the software outright (it’s a costly proposition), you can also get a monthly ComposerCloud subscription for access to Quantum Leap Pianos and 40,000+ instruments.
The piano sounds are great, but to my ears not entirely authentic (you may not agree, so go have a listen). But there’s still a lot you can do with this collection and the pianos should sound great in any mix.
EastWest is worthy of your consideration.
Spectrasonics Keyscape Virtual Keyboard Collection
The Spectrasonics Keyscape collection features a large array of sampled pianos, including: LA Custom C7 Grand Piano, Wing Upright Piano, Wing Tack Piano, Classic Mark I Rhodes – LA Custom “E”, Vintage Vibe Electric Piano, Wurlitzer 140B, Wurlitzer 200A and more.
With so many classic sounds to choose from, this collection is a collector’s delight. Spectrasonics took 10 years to restore and multisample each of the keyboards to replicate their authentic tone.
And, the Duo mode allows you to combine two instruments, which can help you tap into some unique tones.
The pianos sound nothing short of spectacular to my ears and if you like Rhodes, Clavs, Wurlitzers and other sounds, you’re bound to have a lot of fun with this virtual instrument pack.
The Spectrasonics collection is anything but affordable, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. For those who want access to rare and classic keyboard sounds within their DAW, this is a go-to.
Acoustica Pianissimo Virtual Grand Piano
The Acoustica Pianissimo Virtual Grand Piano is relatively inexpensive.
It features 250MB of high-quality quadruple strike samples from a Steinway Model D enhanced with acoustic modeling technology.
It boasts a stellar integrated studio reverb, sample programming with no identifiable velocity switching or digital artifacts, advanced sympathetic resonance modeling and adjustable incidental piano sounds (mechanical noises from damper pedal and key release).
The plugin includes some nifty features, including various presets depending on the style/genre you want to play, the ability to open or close the lid and more.
The plugin sounds decent enough, but I don’t think it’s 100% pure and authentic. The reverb is ultra-nice, though.
For the price, the Acoustica is worth a look.
Well, you certainly won’t break the bank with Soundpool 12.
And, it’s great bang for buck besides, as it comes with over 6 GB of exclusive stereo sounds on one DVD.
It also comes with over 6,000 loops and samples, Hi-Fi sound (16-bit / 44.1 kHz / stereo Wave), as well as effects like reverb, echo, vocoder, filter runs and more.
As you can imagine, this pack includes more than just piano samples. But there are plenty of them. And, they are easy to install too.
So, this MAGIX collection might be just what you’re looking for.
Steinberg HALion Absolute 3
The Steinberg HALion Absolute 3 is an extensive catalog of VST instruments to say the least.
Without getting carried away with all the details, what you need to know is that this bundle includes some great piano sounds and they are far from being an afterthought.
The bundle comes with five unique pianos, each with a different tonal color. And, the sounds are all highly tweakable.
Although not cheap, we think the Steinberg collection is worth its asking price.
Native Instruments Komplete 12 Software Suite
The Native Instruments Komplete 12 software suite comes with 50+ premium instruments and effects (over 170 GB worth), including KONTAKT 6, TRK-01, DISCOVERY SERIES: MIDDLE EAST in addition to 10 expansions and more than 25,000 sounds.
Although it’s been designed to work with any DAW, it was optimized for use with KOMPLETE KONTROL S-Series keyboard and it also integrates with MASCHINE software and hardware.
At this price, this suite is only for the most dedicated and serious. If you’re looking for a solid all-in-one pack, however, this is a good place to look.
The pianos are no slouch, either. They sound deep and rich and are perfect for a variety of uses.
If you need more than just piano, this Native Instruments suite is hard to pass up.
Top Free Piano VST Plugins
I’ve spent a lot of time messing around with free VSTs and they can be a lot of fun to play with.
You can honestly get some great tones out of free VSTs, even if they can’t always compete with their premium counterparts.
But plugins tend to be highly individual and what you use is going to come down to the nature of the project.
For piano-heavy productions, you’ll likely want to use a high-quality VST, for those lush, piano sounds that sound amazing even when soloed.
Meanwhile, if your music doesn’t prominently feature piano, or you only intend to use it for color and texture, you can often get away with less. Less is more, at least in the right context.
Here are some of our favorite free piano VSTs.
If you’ve ever scoured the web for free VST plugins, no doubt you’ve come across 4Front Piano before.
This is a hybrid sample player/synthesized plugin, which makes it incredibly lightweight. This plugin should never overload your machine.
And, while the plugin does not come with any settings or effects, it sounds good all its own, even as a solo instrument.
Of course, it sounds a little fake when soloed, so it sounds better in a mix. But that’s still amazing, considering you can get this plugin for free.
If you need a piano plugin that does a little more than just piano, you’ll dig the Keyzone Classic.
This plugin features three piano sounds – piano from Keyzone 1, Yamaha Grand Piano and Steinway Grand Piano.
As a bonus, you get a basic electric piano and a Rhodes piano too.
It comes with Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Reverb, Detune, Velocity Curve, Volume, LFO Type, Rate and Depth as well as Pan options, so you can tweak to your heart’s content.
The sounds are decent enough but nothing special. They sound synthetic to my ears, especially soloed, but they could work quite well within a mix.
All in all, a plugin worth checking out.
VS Upright 1
The VS Upright 1 was designed specifically for sketching. Not surprising, then, that it’s also lightweight.
It features three velocity layers with 2 RR sampled in tritones with a pair of wide and close mics. The Reverb, Pan, Volume, Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release knobs give you some flexibility in terms of tone.
It has a good dynamic range compared to some of the other options out there, which is always a plus for classically trained players.
Versilian Studios’ plugin sounds quite good, but again, a little synthetic to my ears. Should work well in a mix though.
When it’s free, you can’t complain too much.
The Iowa Piano is a sampled Steinway grand piano with three velocity layers and is based on free samples from the University of Iowa.
This plugin allows you to tweak Volume, Pan, Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release, which is relatively basic.
The piano sounds good but I don’t think it stands out in any way. Just a good all around free piano VST for messing around.
RDGAudio created Free Piano, a VST that comes with Staccato and Auto Sustain Instrument presets, three layers of piano sounds (piano, strings, pad) with gain controllers, velocity sensitive and Round Robing Sampling.
The piano was recorded with four mic positions and allows you to tweak with ADSR, Low Pass Filter, Tuning, Reverb, Amp and Level Meter.
The piano sounds pretty good, and combined with additional layers, you can get some great atmospheric tones.
It’s generous of RDGAudio to offer this for free.
DSK The Grand
A nice-sounding grand piano plugin, DSK The Grand offers a basic set of knobs to dial in your tone – Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Reverb and Level.
And, unlike some VSTs, the knobs do affect your tone significantly.
The tone on this piano is good, if a little plucky, but with higher levels of reverb, it shines.
For free, this DSK Music plugin is certainly worth a look.
A lightweight piano plugin for those who are looking for a bit of a Lo-Fi sound, Room Piano was based on a Kawai upright, and is versatile besides.
I have no issue with Lo-Fi in the right context. But by default, this plugin sounds a little harsh to me.
You might want to dial some of that out to achieve the ideal tone, but it’s up to you. There is a time and place for harsh and piercing.
The Sample Science plugin is another free VST that’s a lot of fun to play around with.
Skerratt London Piano
A sampled upright piano, the Skerratt London Piano comes with Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Volume and Pan knobs for some basic customization.
And, to my ears, it sounds a lot like an upright piano, so on that level, the developers have succeeded.
I can’t deny that it also sounds great. A tiny bit synthetic, to be sure, but disguised cleverly within a mix, it would sound just fine.
Not everyone is into using upright pianos on their tracks, but if that’s what you’re looking for, have a look at this one.
LABS Soft Piano
Spitfire Audio offers several fantastic VSTs for free, and the LABS Soft Piano is one of them.
The plugin sounds amazing, soloed or within the context of a mix.
Of course, it’s of little use to you if you’re not going for a softer piano sound, which in this case was achieved by putting a thin strip of felt between the piano’s hammers and strings.
But this might be a nice one to keep around for those times when you need a bit of a different tone.
You’ve got to love Spitfire Audio for offering this VST for free.
What Should I Look For In A Piano VST Plugin?
When it comes to piano VST plugins, you’ve got everything from the most basic, static, featureless piano soundalikes all the way to highly customizable, versatile, feature rich VSTs with realistic piano tones.
As I’ve already hinted at, one is not wrong and the other right.
I often find free VSTs to be surprisingly good, even if they don’t have all the bells and whistles more expensive plugins do. They can be wonderful in the right context.
But premium plugins can sometimes satisfy even the most critical ears, and that can be useful for skilled session players or intricate piano parts.
It’s going to come down to the type of project you’re working on, what works best for you, as well as what works best for your clients (if you’re producing music for others).
With that in mind, here are some things worth thinking about as you search for the ideal piano VST.
Recording in the studio is kind of an odd thing.
You would think that having the best quality sounds at the ready would help you create the best tracks possible, but that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, you want “fake” sounding instruments. Sometimes you need Lo-Fi sounds. And, at other times, you need to eliminate certain frequencies of certain instruments for them to sound right in a mix.
The best quality instruments tend to have rich, detailed, full, resonant sounds. Within the context of a complete mix, however, some of the tone sometimes needs to be sucked out to create space for voices and other instruments.
Naturally, it depends on the project. If you’re just recording two instruments, for instance, you can leave much of that richness intact. But it’s a different matter entirely if you intend to record 24 layers of voices and instruments and mix it down into a cohesive whole.
It might seem inconsequential when using VST instruments, but it isn’t. Sampling is amazing these days, and some virtual instruments are breathtaking to say the least.
All that to say quality sound is completely subjective. This is the reason many producers don’t just have one VST plugin per instrument. Many times, they will have multiple plugins for each.
Good to know that there are entire bundles and suites you can buy to flesh out your collection, no?
I’m repeating myself here, but the plugin you choose will be dictated by the song as well as the sound you’re going for.
It’s much easier to start with a sound that’s close to what you’re looking for versus trying to tweak a sound that’s not working well to begin with.
Some plugins let you tweak. But with others, you’ll need to use additional effects to mold their tone, and that can be tedious.
So, while quality sound is an important factor, it’s not everything. What’s important is finding virtual instruments that sound good to you and work well for your projects.
As I mentioned at the outset, plugins aren’t all created equal.
Some are highly tweakable. Others aren’t.
It’s not a good or bad situation. You can always add more effects to a VST that isn’t terribly tweakable. And, you could use the default settings on a more advanced plugin for a plainer sound. There’s always wiggle room.
But some customizability is generally good to have. The ability to adjust the tone of the virtual instrument within a mix allows you to get exactly what you need.
And, sometimes the ability to layer sounds is incredibly satisfying, though not all producers will find a feature like that necessary.
Essentially, it’s always best to know what you’re getting yourself into. If you understand the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of your VSTs, you’re more likely to make the best use of them.
Too many features can be overwhelming, so that’s one more thing to keep in mind. If the plugin sounds good without any alteration, however, that’s how you know it’s quality.
This is like my last point, but generally where it comes into play is when you’re working on a project that requires a variety of sounds.
This is all well and good if you’ve got several VSTs to choose from. But what if you don’t?
If you choose a feature rich plugin, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to do more with it and find a sound matched to your recording project without having to switch to another plugin.
And, as we’ve already seen, free plugins don’t always allow for much by way of customization, leaving you with no option but to use a different plugin for a different sound.
If you know you’re going to be taking on a variety of projects that will require different sounds, then versatility is certainly an important factor.
Ensure that the VST plugin you’re thinking about purchasing works with your specific OS and DAW.
The great thing about VSTs these days is they generally play well with most setups. But there can always be exceptions to the rule.
So, find VST plugins that are compatible with your system. This is especially important if you’re going to be spending money on the kit.
Your MIDI controller, OS, computer specs and so on could all be factors here, so be mindful of that.
Stability is a sometimes forgotten but important factor when it comes to software applications.
If your plugin constantly crashes your DAW, there could be reasons for it outside of the stability of the plugin. But it could be the root cause too.
Assuming it is the root cause, then it’s probably not the best developed or supported plugin in the world.
If the developer is still creating patches and updates for it, it’s all good. But when it comes to free plugins, there are plenty that aren’t supported long-term.
The key point is that you don’t want plugins that crash easily or exhibit unexpected behavior. Sometimes, this is a matter of understanding how the plugin behaves, but at other times it is broken, and you can’t do anything about it.
Stability typically isn’t a major issue, but at times in can be, so I thought I would talk about it, if only briefly.
Ease Of Use
All things being equal, it’s nicer to work with VSTs that are easier to use, versus those that aren’t.
If it has a 10-step installation process, 20-step configuration process and the like, it may not be worth the hassle.
I’m exaggerating to make a point, as I don’t think there are too many VSTs like that out there. But I think you know what I’m getting at.
Some plugins have settings buried layers deep. While that can be fun, it can also be annoying and frustrating.
If you’ve got to jump through hoops to use it, it better be good. Otherwise, you’re better off finding something that offers a little more instant gratification.
If money isn’t an issue, then you can choose your favorite VST or VST pack and be on your merry way.
But if you’re not looking to spend a lot on a piano VST, then narrowing down your options based on budget is a good way to go.
At Music Industry How To, we don’t recommend going into debt to buy gear, and when it comes to something like virtual instruments, there’s no need to.
In this guide, in addition to premium plugins, also looked at numerous free options, and those are relatively risk free and offer a better sound than you might be inclined to think.
But if you need something more, you’re probably going to be spending something on a solution.
So, don’t overextend yourself unnecessarily. Find a plugin that matches your current budget.
Can I Use Multiple VST Plugins Simultaneously?
This generally isn’t a problem provided that your computer has enough memory to handle it.
I’ve recorded several songs that featured more than one VST and it worked just fine. I have a decent computer, though it certainly isn’t top of the line.
It is generally better to have a faster computer for audio, however, and even better if you have dedicated machine.
This isn’t as essential as it once was, as the days of one OS update causing mass chaos with our setups are mostly over. Not to say you shouldn’t be careful, mind you.
So, yes, have fun with layered pianos or whatever it is you have in mind. Experiment to your heart’s content.
Can I Use The VST With A MIDI Controller?
If you’ve spent any time as an engineer or producer, you probably know the answer to this question already.
But there might be pianists and other musicians reading this guide, so it’s a question worth answering.
Yes, you should be able to use your VST plugins with your MIDI controller, and in fact, that’s what they’ve generally been designed for.
When recording with a MIDI controller and virtual instrument, you can edit your parts (e.g. change the duration of notes, change the exact notes being played, etc.) even after they’ve been recorded.
If your keyboard playing is less than stellar or if you’re trying to perfect parts you don’t feel comfortable with yet, this is always a welcome feature.
There are other ways of getting your VST to play the right notes at the right time, and we’ll be looking at those methods now.
Can I Program The Notes The VST Plays Within My DAW?
Yes. Most if not all DAWs have a piano roll or something similar that allows you to program one note at a time.
Because there are so many DAWs out there, we can’t give you an exact step by step process to follow but if you Google tutorials you should be able to find something.
The ability to program the notes being played allows non-piano players to come up with everything from simplistic melodies all the way to virtually impossible piano riffs without ever having to study the piano.
Whether that’s good thing or a bad thing is another discussion for another time but it’s not as though this method is perfect. Programming note by note can be a time-consuming process until you get the hang of it.
You must also have your ideas solidly mapped out, if nowhere else, in your mind. Experimenting with one note at time is tedious to say the least, so a basic working knowledge of theory is preferred.
Either way, you can program notes and experiment to your heart’s content.
Can I Use Other Software To Program The Notes The VST Plays Within My DAW?
Yes. Basically, any composition program that exports to MIDI can be used to program the notes you want your VST to play.
These days, I typically work with the piano roll within my DAW of choice, Tracktion.
But I used to spend hours composing within Power Tab and exporting to MIDI for some of my tracks.
It worked well, but even after choosing VSTs for all the sounds, the track was rarely complete in its raw form, and usually required additional instrumentation and tweaking within the mix to get it all sounding right.
Still, this can be a fun way to put the pieces of a song together.
So, if you’re more comfortable with a composition app than you are with a piano roll, you might want to give this a try.
Best Piano VST Plugins To Produce Music, Final Thoughts
When it comes to recording and producing music, ultimately, there is no right or wrong.
Innovative approaches tend to come from experimentation and trial and error.
So, don’t shy away from giving multiple piano VST plugins a try. You never know what might work for your tracks and mixes.
Take joy in the creative process, as that will always come across in the music you make. Have fun!