Yes, the world really does need another sampled piano library – and this one is not at all what you’d expect, as Kays Alatrakchi reports. An exclusive review from Synth and Software
Does the world really need yet another sampled piano library? Piano Colors seeks to answer that question with a resounding “yes” by re-inventing the very concept of what a piano is supposed to sound like.
Piano Colors is the most recent collaboration between Native Instruments and sample developer Galaxy Instruments, whose past piano offerings include Una Corda, The Giant, and The Definitive Piano Collection.
The library comes in at a surprisingly hefty 28GB, downloadable through Native Instruments’ Native Access app. It runs in Kontakt 6.5.3 or higher, the free Kontakt Player, and Komplete Kontrol.
At its core Piano Colors is a collection of prepared piano samples.
These samples are then further processed, arpeggiated, and mangled in very unusual and inventive ways to create sounds that one typically associates more with synths than an acoustic instrument. So if you’re in the market for a traditionally sampled piano, this is probably not the library for you.
Upon launching Piano Colors for the first time I was treated to a visually striking interface featuring a grand piano in a large concrete room with colored bands of lights on the rear wall. The colored bands are not just eye candy, they are clever visual indicators of the four user-controllable Modules: Noises, Layer I, Layer II, and Particles. These modules make up the various instruments. The width of the colored bands changes in real time to match mod wheel input, which in turn affects the sonic characteristics of the various instruments.
Clicking on the instrument names opens up a preset menu with various tags such as Bowed, Plucked, Reversed, Percussive, etc. to help narrow down the search results. Favorite presets can be “Starred” to find one’s go-to sounds quickly. The presets are also accessible through the Snapshot Presets drop down menu, which I found a bit easier to use for my needs.
The first of four presets categories, Pianos, encompass a range of processed and treated instruments. These range from bell-like tones to soft felt pianos, brushed pianos, and other percussive tonalities.
The Pattern section features presets that utilize the arpeggiator and the Particles engine to create rhythmically active instruments. Then the Pad section offers a variety of textural instruments and drones suitable for long sustains.
Lastly, the Combined section includes, as you might have guessed, instruments that combine both rhythmic elements and sustained pads to create complex and intricate sonics.
In almost every preset the Mod Wheel varies the filters and rhythmic activity of the sounds, yielding brighter and more pronounced tones in the upper range and more subdued and mellow tonalities at its lowest settings. Pitch bend is enabled on all the presets for additional real-time control.
Where I found Piano Colors truly shines is in the percussive and bright tones derived from striking the soundboard strings directly with some sort of unusual object. Who knew that hitting a piano string with a toilet bowl cleaning brush would yield such a beautifully resonant and airy sound?
Another highlight of this library is its various sustained pads and textures. These offer a variety of sustained textures that range from airy and atmospheric to dark and distorted.
While the comprehensive selection of built-in presets will provide plenty of raw material for crafting anything from angelic and peaceful tracks to brooding horror film scores, I was very impressed by the sheer variety of user customization options of this library. Piano Colors lets you tweak and edit just about any element of its presets, as well as route modulation sources and assign real-time controllers to most of its parameters.
An edit menu for more options is available for each Module. For example, clicking on the Arpeggiator reveals a comprehensive set of editing options where you can change the note values, durations, velocity range, and humanization features for the powerful 32-step arpeggiator.
The Noises menu has fine control of the volume and sound characteristics of several types of noises such as Pedal (resonant thumps), Mechanical (squeaky mallets and hinges), Felt Attack (brush-like noises), Mic noise (hiss from the preamps), and even the Pianist (seat creaks, clothing rustle). I found this to be an ingenious addition that I hope other libraries will include in the future.
Layer I and Layer II offer the ability to select from the large pool of instrument sources and layer or crossfade between them. A plucked or hammered sound with a sharp attack but little sustain can be layered with a bowed instrument with a long sustain to obtain a hybrid preset instruments, for example.
Sounds can also be individually fine tuned through a comprehensive range of controls. These include pan, color, tonal shift, and resonance. Here again various parameters can be assigned to real-time controls such as the mod wheel or any other CC of your choice.
The Particles menu is perhaps the most fascinating of the group. You can think of Particles as a smart multi-layered Arpeggiator that works in addition to the regular one and on top of the Layer I and Layer II sounds. Unlike the regular Arpeggiator, Particles can alternate between a range of note values (say between 16ths and quarter notes).
Two instrument sources can be used for the Particles engine and you can vary between them. The Particles engine also has its own reverb, filtering, and other useful user-controllable variations. This engine is well suited for adding subtle rhythmic activity on top of the base instrument layers and Arpeggiator -a very cool tool indeed!
Finally, the Global edit has the master volume, EQ, compression, velocity response curve, pitch bend range, tuning, and Stretched or Equal Temperament modes.
In use, I found that using animated presets such as Aleatoric Sequence, Dynamic Flow 1, or the EDM-sounding Hacker and Arp provided an effective and stylized way to add rhythmic activity in my songs without overcrowding the mix. Presets such as Driven Pad provided a great way to build crescendos into my music that could start as peaceful drone-like sustain and in Industrial music-worthy distorted peaks. The Compressed Piano, with its almost organ-like percussive attack, allowed me to add melodic lines that cut right through a busy mix without having to resort to overly aggressive EQ.
Conversely, the Felt Piano preset was a great starting point for intimate and soft passages. The Native Instruments’ plug-ins Raum reverb and Replika delay complemented Piano Colors quite nicely, enhancing the sonic characteristics and elevating the complexity.
One thing to be aware of: some of the more complex presets are quite heavy on the CPU, in some cases requiring me to freeze the tracks in Logic Pro as to avoid processor spikes. Whether that can or will be addressed with more efficient scripting in the future is an unknown.
Still, whatever style I threw at it, Piano Colors came through with flying (forgive the pun) colors, adding just the right amount of harmonic or rhythmic complexity to my existing tracks without crowding the arrangement or feeling out of place. I was extremely pleased with the flexibility of this library to fit well within both electronic and acoustic/orchestral musical contexts.
I often approach reviewing new sample libraries with a healthy dose of skepticism as to whether or not they are necessary additions to an already-crowded sonic palette. A library has to convince me that it deserves to earn a spot in my collection and will add unique and useful tonalities that I can’t find anywhere else.
I feel that Piano Colors has earned that spot, and has quickly become one of my regular go-to tools for compositions.
With its powerful sonic capabilities, a wide range of presets, and comprehensive editing features, Piano Colors provides a veritable treasure chest of extremely useful presets with plenty of customization options.