It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt either the need or desire to purchase an iOS App, and I can count on one hand those Apps that I was willing to pay more than a few pounds for. Then I spotted IK Multimedia had released iGrand Piano for iPad – in their words “The Concert-Quality Piano App for iPad” with the promise of a Gallery of World-Class Pianos, Literally at Your Fingertips. Sounds almost too good to be true…
There is a free version that’s restricted to one Grand Piano sound and a range of only a few octaves (49 keys), but having downloaded that – and registered the App to unlock a second instrument – I was so impressed with what I was hearing that I simply had to upgrade to the full version of the App (for just £13.99) to unlock all the different piano sounds and full 88-note keyboard range. Not only that, but I also paid the £6.99 in-app upgrade cost so I had access to the full collection of piano sounds.
iGrand Piano is the first concert-quality piano app, offering 18 gorgeous sounding, true-stereo, multisampled pianos, with fidelity that rivals the best professional piano instruments for Mac and PC, and a low-latency response that makes it feel like you’re playing a real piano.
All acoustic pianos sound and feel different, and finding a life-like piano sound in a digital instrument has often been referred to as like searching for the Holy Grail. Certainly, when I first experienced digital pianos in the mid-80’s, whilst they were exciting in their own way, sonically – and physically – they fell incredibly short of the mark, sounding synthetic and feeling either too spongy or too light.
Skip forward 25 years or so (which I have to say makes me feel old!) and things have changed dramatically, with digital pianos sounding and feeling much more realistic – you only have to look at Yamaha’s AvantGrand to see just how far things have moved on. Of course, that features a proper Yamaha wooden grand piano action, is housed in a beautiful black polished polyester cabinet with powerful sound reproduction system and costs just as much as a small family hatchback. Or a decent acoustic piano for that matter.
Technological developments have seen the growth of software instruments in recent years, with various piano sample libraries and stand-alone piano instruments available. These instruments sound very realistic, and are the result of meticulously sampling each key on the keyboard at several velocity levels. However this usually means that not only are they massive, multi-gigabyte libraries, they require powerful computers to run properly.
Back in the day there was a revered piano sound module – the Kurzweil Micropiano – which despite a relatively humble technical specification managed to produce a very believable and very playable piano sound, and was favoured amongst professional musicians and music producers alike. If memory serves me correctly, the original samples for the Micropiano sound chip were recorded at three different velocity levels and every three or four semitones – the resulting sample size was in the range of a few megabytes, and nothing like the multi-gigabyte core sample libraries available today.
I’ve always thought if Kurzweil could produce such a believable and playable instrument with the technology available at the time, looking at the power of the latest iOS devices, wouldn’t it be great if someone could develop a piano App that gave today’s musicians that same, life-like and playable piano sound? I think it’s fair to say that iGrand is that App.
The thing that struck me first about iGrand was the quality of the sound, and for lack of a better word, the honesty and playability of the sounds. Like I said above, all pianos are different – I’ve played everything from a beat-up, out-of-tune and un-regulated upright to a pristine Yamaha concert grand, and elsewhere in this blog I’ve mentioned my ‘old friend’, the Model B Steinway grand which I trained on and played regularly in my teens.
iGrand is the first digital instrument I’ve played in a long time that gave me the feeling of playing some of those instruments again. Of course I have no idea which pianos were actually recorded to create iGrand’s collection of sounds, but Jazz Piano certainly hints at the Steinway I used to know, Rich Upright reminds me of the old Bechstein in room E4, and the main Grand Piano sound may well be a Yamaha, but none of that matters – what’s important is that each sound has a distinctly different timbre and feel, and each one inspires you to play, immersing you in the unique, individual characteristics of its’ tone.
I applaud IK Multimedia’s efforts and wholeheartedly recommend you try out iGrand for yourself. However, for the sake of balance, I ought to mention that whilst impressive, the App does have limitations – the lack of sympathetic resonance and pedalling nuances do mean iGrand falls short of the ultimate realism. Also, the velocity response of one or two sounds is a bit odd too – Classical Piano doesn’t have quite enough dynamic range for my taste, although I do have to say that Chopin sounds lovely when played on the Jazz Piano. Occasionally, the jump from one stretched sample to the next across the key range isn’t as discreet as it could be, but having said that it would be fair to point out that these transitions are just as noticeable on the vast majority of stand-alone digital pianos if you listen out for them.
Whilst it merely dulls the high-gloss polished black finish slightly and certainly doesn’t tarnish it completely, iGrand’s polyphony seems to only be around 12-16 notes on my original iPad, so you need to be aware of note-stealing, especially if you’re fond of using the sustain pedal. I have no insider knowledge and write this merely as an inspired returning pianist, so it may be that performance on the ‘new iPad’ (and indeed the iPad 2) is better in this respect. It is pleasing however to note that latency is a complete non-issue – by default the App was set up in Ultra Low Latency mode which resulted in a few clicks and pops in the audio playback, but switching to Low Latency mode cleared that up completely, and there was still absolutely no discernible delay between playing a note and it sounding.
I was pleased to discover I was able to play iGrand by simply hooking up my Roland FP4 stage piano’s USB connection to my iPad via Apple’s dock connector to USB adapter (from the Camera Connection Kit). Whilst that will be entirely sufficient for my needs right now, IK Multimedia do also produce the iRig MIDI interface which not only provides regular MIDI connections so you can control iGrand from any MIDI-equipped keyboard controller (i.e. them all!), but also allows you to power the iPad at the same time.
I’ve not mentioned any of the other features in iGrand, so if you want to read more about the built in metronome and recorder, or find out that you can tweak the lid position, tone and reverb of each piano sound too, I suggest you head over to IK Multimedia for more information. Better yet, just download the free version on your iPad and give it a whirl – I guarantee you’ll be impressed enough to splash out for the full un-restricted app, and probably the piano pack upgrade too, if only so you can do your very own Winifred Atwell impression – the Black & White Rag never sounded so good!
*UPDATE* If you’ve seen my quirky iPhone cases, you’ll probably already know about my Bosendiphone iPhone case. Since redbubble have added iPad cases to their portfolio, I’ve also created a quirky iPad case design too, and my more elaborate Bosendipad Grand Piano iPad Case is now available for iPad 2 or ‘new’ Retina iPads – perfect if you’re running iGrand on your iPad!