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It seems that since I last reviewed a Tonehammer product, the company has been steadily growing in prowess and regard amongst the composing community, as shown by the rapid expansion of the credit list, which contains many recent top titles in Film, TV and Video Game, as well as a lengthening list of headline composers that endorse Tonehammer’s products. As a company, Tonehammer takes pride in producing sample packages that while still excellently engineered, are a little leftfield – for example the bowed and plucked grand piano samples, lightbulbs, and the Whale drum. These excellent samples provide great depth to the composer looking for new organic sounds in their work.
The Emotional Piano is no exception. Many sampled pianos on the market today aim to recreate a piano as if you were to sit down on the theatre stage and play it. The emotional piano, while still being a recorded piano, has a very definite intended application. The creators Troels Folmann and Mike Peaslee claimed that they couldn’t find a sampled piano that gave this particular ambience they were looking for – a soft, dark, resonant sound that is so often needed for scoring, and were determined to create such an instrument.
Emotional Piano is a download only 5GB sample collection from the Tonehammer website. Installation is easy and very clearly guided by the manual. It works with Native Instruments Kontakt 4 – if you don’t have the full version, there’s a free ‘player’ available, that doesn’t limit you from using Emotional Piano to its full capacity.
Emotional Piano arrives in the Kontakt player as a library, with a cool thunderstorm image for a GUI. There are 5 main piano presets, (Master, Soft, Gentle blur, Jazz and Pseudo Granny) and 24 FX presets in a separate folder. They each have their own custom backdrop image; all moody dark images that reflect the sonic character of the piano.
The main presets, are from first play, very impressive. They live up to the claims of the creators with the dark, rich, soft sound. They sound like they are fairly close mic’ed, and maybe very very slightly compressed. This just brings out the resonant harmonics of the bass notes, and the wooden air around the top notes. I assumed that they’d just done some magic with the EQ to muffle the sound, but then you hear the high harmonics singing out of the bass notes to confirm that this is not the case.
The ‘Master’, ‘Gentle blur’, and ‘Soft’ pianos are just beautiful. I couldn’t see how many layers of sampling were on each note, but they responded beautifully to dynamic playing. Their strength is in the softer playing – the depth and richness of the sounds are really enjoyable. I did a quick comparison to a couple of other notable piano sample libraries, and in the softer dynamic range, they’re incomparable. The ‘Master’ piano is darker, and wide. The ‘soft’ piano is stupidly soft (imagine playing Thomas Newman-esque piano motifs in a room draped in cotton wool, with cotton wool in your ears), and the ‘Gentle blur’ is sort of in between, a nice blend of softness and resonance. Between the three presets, you can find the piano sound to fit every dark, brooding, menacing, romantic, or solemn scene you could ever need. Absolutely fantastic.
The other two presets, while still excellent, didn’t fit the bill as well as the others. the Jazz piano was too bright to my taste, although it sounded great after a couple of EQ tweaks. The creators themselves write “Increasing the amplitude of the higher frequencies will absolutely produce audible hiss and a more shrill overall tonality.” I found this on a couple of the presets where the high EQ had been tweaked up. The Pseudo-granny piano sounded like a honky Tonk being played on a warped record, which was again good, but I’d probably look elsewhere for that kind of sound.
Then there are the 24 FX presets. All really great sounding, and once again there is good attention to detail. They are subdivided further into FX, Ambience and Reverberant presets. Some of these instruments are extremely useful in their own right, and it’s definitely not a case of just adding presets to make it seem like value for money. Some standouts to me were:
‘Reverse piano’. The modulation wheel can be used to alter the length of the reverb tail ( the sound that you hear first) So an note can take an age to arrive, or slip in relatively quickly.
‘Downsampled piano’. Again, the modulation wheel can be used to slowly downsample the piano – from full 24bit to crushed and wrecked small bit samples, with all the cool-sounding glitch in between.
‘Spectral Bliss’ – Making good use of a reverb preset, this is a shimmering organic pad with a beautiful piano on top.
There are also distorted pianos, pianos shoved through a Leslie, through a ‘vinylizer’ and placed in garages, cathedrals and bunkers. All great sounding.
The devil is in the details
Tonehammer’s attention to detail is very impressive. There are elements to this sample player that I absolutely loved. The performance control parameters contain the usual ADSR envelope control, and basic EQ. On top of this there are Dynamic Velocity, Pedal Volume, High Damping and custom Convolution Reverb controls. All are self-explanatory, but excellent at adding that extra bit of detail. If you want the recorded sound of the sustain pedal being used louder or softer in the track, it’s as simple as twisting the appropriate knob. Very important if you’re playing a soft piano part! There are 21 Convolution reverb patches that you can choose for any preset. All of them are of good quality. I particularly liked the 4 Mystery patches, which sounded like… well I’m not sure what they sounded like. Kind of like a feedback loop on resonances and string sounds, which lead to the creation of these cool organic pad sounds that underlay the piano.
I really enjoyed the pedal sound. When lifting the sustain pedal, the notes had the high frequency ring of the strings being damped by the hammers. There’s great attention to detail, which all adds to the human element that makes the sound so realistic.
Here’s a track of the Master piano, written and played by the Tonehammer’s own Troels Folmann.
It would be advised to have a fairly powerful computer to run this piano – each preset loads up almost 1 GB of RAM. With most computers nowadays, that won’t be a problem. If you have an older computer, with not much memory at your fingertips, there are ‘lite’ versions of each main patch, running at about 340MBs
For those songs where you’re looking for the sad, soft, loving, resonant sound; the sound that feels like you can reach out and touch the strings – this is the piano for you. I think there are better piano sounds out there for brighter, perhaps more classical sound. But that’s not the intended application for the Emotional Piano.
There’s great attention to detail, which all adds to the human element that makes the sound so realistic.
Unbelievable resonance, warmth and depth from the samples
Great attention to detail (adjustable Pedal noise)
Great versatility, many options to change the sound, space, reverb etc
LOVE IT OR HATE IT
If you’re looking for an excellently engineered, warm, soft, rich, resonant piano for a good cost, then this is the place to get it. If you’re looking for a bright, attacking piano for classical, or just looking for that all around piano sound, this might not be the one for you.
Not much in the way of bright attacking piano sounds (As they intended)
Works only with Kontakt 4 (you can get the free player, but will probably end up wanting the full sampler)
Composer/Producer, and keyboard player. He has written and recorded soundtracks for a wide variety of media and co-owns DOsounds.com with Jake Owen, a music production company that gives him an excuse to buy more analog gear.