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The 5 best piano VST plugins in 2024: Free, budget, and premium

Piano VSTs are so good these days that the idea of carrying a concert grand piano in your backpack is no longer absurd. OK, not an actual grand piano, but you can take that unmistakable sound anywhere you can fit a laptop.

I’ve been testing the best piano VST plugins available in 2024 to give you my top picks. My list will feature some of the most popular VSTs, lesser-known gems, and something for every budget (even free).

Quick recommendations

Keyscape is my go-to piano VST because it’s so well-rounded; it’s great for pop, jazz, and cinematic music.

However, an upright VST might work better for a more intimate pop setting, and I recommend The Gentleman or the budget-friendly Mrs Mills Piano.

The Vienna Imperial or Garritan CFX is more suitable if you’re more of a classical specialist or working on a larger orchestral project.

Contents

Use these jump links to navigate to the desired section of the review.

Why you should trust me

James Nugent, writer at Higher Hz

I started studying piano and composition over 20 years ago, and I remember a shared disdain amongst students and tutors for virtual pianos because they sounded like toys at best.

Thankfully, things have changed, and piano VSTs are so realistic now that they hide in plain sight in chart-topping songs and captivating film scores.

In recent years, piano VSTs have been an invaluable part of my daily work life, and I trust them in music production, media composition, and performance without hesitation.

Over the past decade or more, I’ve relied on piano VSTs heavily, and my enthusiasm for the most realistic sound means I’ve been consistently testing every new release I can get my hands on (virtually) for many years, and that won’t change.

How I chose my top picks

This list is relatively easy for me to assemble because I either use most of the VSTs below regularly or have done so at some point.

Since I already had my favorites before writing this article, my first task was to look for any new releases I had yet to try.

My priority is the most realistic grand piano VSTs, but I’ll include a few upright options.

Finding the most realistic piano VSTs is about more than the sound; it’s also about the instrument’s behavior during a performance, such as how it responds to varied articulations and playing styles.

I’ll also consider things like how the notes decay (whether it sounds natural or not) and the additional noise, such as the hammers, string resonance, and pedals.

While testing each VST, I’ll consider the following:

  • Sound quality. How well the real instrument has been sampled.
  • Instrument behavior. Does it respond like a real piano?
  • Mechanical noise. Pedals, hammers, etc.
  • Interface and effects. Easy-to-use, microphone position, etc.
  • Value for money. With some great cheap and free VSTs, the expensive ones have to deliver.

After testing a selection of high-end, budget-friendly, and free VSTs, I’ll choose my top five and a handful of honorable mentions.

Here are my top picks for the best piano VST plugins:

Best overall: Spectrasonics Keyscape

Keyscape is my go-to piano VST for almost everything. I know that some professionals are more impressed by the upright and electric pianos in the collection than the grands, but I think the LA Custom C7 and Double Felt Grand are stunning.

Despite the high price, having 36 world-class keyboard instruments makes it the most versatile option and excellent value for money.

Spectrasonics Keyscape piano VST
Keyscape piano VST | Image: Spectrasonics

Keyscape Collector Keyboards is a collection of 36 vintage keyboard instruments that was over a decade in the making. The source instruments are some of the most pristine versions of the rarest and most sought-after models.

The main piano is the LA Custom C7 Grand, but not just any C7. The sampled C7 belongs to renowned LA-based piano technician Jim Wilson.

With Jim Wilson as the owner, this C7 has some rare characteristics, like Renner “Blue Point” hammers and Weickert felt.

There are multiple presets for every keyboard in Keyscape, and the C7 includes presets like Cinematic, Bright, Pop, Classical, and Studio.

Presets are great shortcuts to a desired sound, but I tend to start with Studio, and it sounds fantastic.

One of the things I love most about this piano is the natural decay, especially in the low range; you can hear all that depth and richness you get from an acoustic piano.

Thanks to 32 velocity layers, Keyscape is incredibly expressive and responds well to any playing style.

The number of velocity layers shows the attention to detail in sampling, and that meticulous approach continues with perfectly recreated mechanical noise.

While there are too many pianos to discuss here, other notable acoustic pianos are the Double Felt Grand (emotive and cinematic) and the extremely rare Wing Upright, released in 1900.

The collection includes excellent electric pianos, harpsichords, clavinets, tine bass, harmochords, and more.

The intuitive interface is easy to use and displays custom controls for every preset (over 500). You can adjust the character of each sound through defined settings like Pure, Soft, Warm, etc., and a Color Shift knob.

I typically dial back the level of reverb and mechanical noise, but it’s easy to fine-tune your sound.

The GUI includes EQ, Compression, and Settings tabs to adjust things like the velocity curve. I highly recommend finding the ideal velocity curve for your controller; do so, and Keyscae is a dream to play.

What I like

  • Incredible acoustic pianos.
  • Rare instruments.
  • Extremely versatile.
  • Highly expressive.
  • Easy to fine-tune sound.

What I don’t like

  • Expensive.
  • CPU-heavy for older machines.
Check and buy at: SweetwaterSpectrasonics

Best concert grand: VSL Vienna Imperial

As much as I love Keyscape’s C7, the VSL Bösendorfer Imperial 290-755 is simply incredible. It’s the industry standard for orchestral composition, and you can hear it in countless film scores.

It’s expensive for a single instrument, but if you’re a classical pianist or composer, it’s money well spent.

VSL Vienna Imperial piano VST
Vienna Imperial piano VST | Image: Vienna Symphonic Library

The VSL Vienna Imperial delivers the iconic sound of a Bösendorfer Imperial 290-755 in all its glory. I stated above that I use Keyscape for almost everything, but nothing beats this library on orchestral scores.

It outperforms my favorite VST in this area because it features 1,200 samples per note and offers up to 100 velocity layers, which is mind-blowing.

The vast nature of this sampling project was made possible by Bösendorfer’s CEUS technology. The manufacturer’s technology uses microprocessors and optical sensors to capture the most subtle key movements.

As such, Vienna Imperial produces every nuance of your performance in incredible detail.

When I think of the Vienna Imperial, words like powerful and majestic come to mind. It isn’t overwhelming, but it has the commanding presence of a piano that would lead a symphony orchestra in performing concertos from Mozart or Rachmaninoff.

The low end of the Bösendorfer Imperial 290-755 (including the extra nine notes) is both thunderous and sublime, and VSL has captured it perfectly.

I use a few VSTs when working on cinematic tracks, but if I want to let strong bass notes/octaves ring out, stack fifths, or play percussive ostinatos in the low to mid-range, the Vienna Imperial does it best.

This VST performs ostinatos and percussive/staccato patterns well because of the impeccable release samples.

Of course, it’s not just the lower notes that sound great; this VST sounds ultra-realistic from low to high.

The interface is good; it has a slightly dated image, but it’s easy to use, and that’s what matters most.

The GUI has two views (Basic/Advanced), and you can adjust the mic position, sympathetic resonances, pedal noise, stereo width, EQ, reverb, and dynamic range.

I usually limit my use of built-in reverb, but the convolution reverb here sounds very natural.

VSL recommends a minimum of 8 GB RAM; I’d suggest 16 GB RAM is a more suitable starting point.

What I like

  • Ultra-realistic.
  • Perfect for orchestral scores.
  • CEUS technology (1,200 samples per key).
  • Natural-sounding reverb.
  • 100 velocity layers.

What I don’t like

  • Very expensive for a single instrument.
Check, buy, and download at: SweetwaterVSL

Best upright: Native Instruments The Gentleman

Keyscape’s Wing Upright or Spitfire Audio’s Mrs Mills Piano are better if you want an upright with a unique character. However, if you want an upright sound that’s both articulate and intimate, The Gentleman is perfect.

It’s been around for a while, but I use it often, and it’s still a great buy in 2024!

Native Instruments The Gentleman upright piano VST
The Gentleman piano VST | Image: Native Instruments

The Gentleman is a gorgeous upright piano VST created using a rare 1908 upright piano with all-original parts.

While the uprights mentioned above are rarer, The Gentleman isn’t without character. But, what I love most about this piano VST is that, despite the age of the piano, it works well in any modern music, especially intimate piano/vocal duets.

There are a few ways to adjust the tone, such as changing the piano lid setup or tweaking the color from soft to hard. I much prefer to keep the color setting on the soft side and rarely stray beyond midway between soft and hard.

If you want a brighter sound, a harder setting might work for you, but I find it gets too harsh too soon, and I don’t like it.

The Gentleman is such a warm and welcoming piano that you don’t have to play much to get the most out of it. I use it on tracks requiring relatively sparse, lush chords with time to breathe and ring out naturally.

It’s also fantastic on pop tracks that have more going on when you want the piano to be heard but not the star.

This VST features 2,300 individual samples and 16 velocity layers, which isn’t as much as the most detailed concert grand libraries, but that’s to be expected.

The separate overtones and nine velocity layers of release samples make the sparse playing I mentioned sound absolutely beautiful.

The library works with the free Kontakt Player, and the interface is nice and simple. You can adjust the dynamic range, mechanical noise, overtone level, and velocity curve to suit your playing.

It also has built-in effects, including EQ, compression, and reverb.

What I like

  • Intimate warm sound.
  • Compatible with the free Kontakt Player.
  • A workhorse for many genres.
  • Gorgeous overtones.
  • Often on sale.

What I don’t like

  • Harder color settings don’t sound as good.
Check, buy, and download at: SweetwaterNative Instruments

Best Yamaha CFX: Garritan CFX Concert Grand

People often ask if this piano is still worth buying in 2024, and my answer is yes!

Yamaha grand pianos are typically brighter than some other manufacturers, but if you’re a fan of the Yamaha sound, no VST replicates the CFX concert grand better. It’s bold, powerful in the lows, and bright and airy in the highs.

Garritan Abbey Road Studios CFX Concert Grand virtual piano
CFX Concert Grand VST | Image: Garritan

Taking on such an iconic concert grand piano is a mammoth task, but Garritan has nailed it.

It all starts at the source, and that includes the location as well as the instrument. Garritan CFX began with a nine-foot Yamaha CFX in the legendary Abbey Road Studios.

While the location isn’t a dealbreaker, adding the natural acoustics of Abbey Road’s Studio One does no harm at all. It also benefits from the world-class equipment and engineers of the famed London studio.

Although the Yamaha CFX has an iconic sound, Garritan has assembled some excellent presets that make this VST highly versatile.

Presets are arranged in three groups: Classic, Contemporary, and Player. A few of my favorites are Dark Cinema, Goldberg1981 (Classic), and Newman Beauty (Contemporary).

I love the Goldberg1981 preset because it’s taken from a famous recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (I assume Glenn Gould), and nothing highlights the combination of richness, powerful dynamics, and bright precision like the Goldberg Variations.

I like the Newman Beauty preset because, while this piano is excellent for chamber music, there are better options. However, it still shines in other areas, including reflective cinematic scores.

The interface is more in-depth than many and perfect if you like to craft your own sound. It has four main pages: Main, Piano, Studio, and Advanced.

Since it was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of studio settings to adjust, and it can make a real difference.

There are more microphone positions available than most libraries offer, and as you’d imagine, the microphones are of the highest standard, including gear like the Neumann TLM 50, Neumann KM 84, and AKG C12.

I really enjoy the Player mic positions to get as close to the real thing as possible.

It’s luxurious and grand in every sense.

What I like

  • Iconic CFX sound.
  • Abbey Road location.
  • World-class engineers and equipment.
  • More versatile than expected.

What I don’t like

  • There are better options for big orchestral scores.
Check, buy, and download at: SweetwaterGarritan

Best free: Spitfire Audio LABS Glass Piano

This one may not be an obvious choice for many, but I love the work of Philip Glass and couldn’t pass up the chance to get a little Glass magic for free.

It’s not the most detailed VST, but it’s incredibly charming and chilling in equal measure. This freebie is a must-have if you’re an aspiring film and media composer.

Spitfire Audio LABS Glass Piano free VST plugin
LABS Glass Piano free VST plugin | Image: Spitfire Audio

Philip Glass is a legendary musician and Academy Award-nominated film composer.

Spitfire Audio is renowned for releasing some of the best cinematic libraries money can buy, and it’s fair to say they get pretty expensive. But the free LABS collection has some real gems, and Glass Piano is one of my favorites.

The sampled instrument here isn’t remarkable initially; it’s a baby grand that might grace any household with the space and budget.

If you believe in such a thing, what makes it magic is that Philip Glass wrote his entire works, including Piano Etudes and movie scores, on this piano.

Of course, none of that makes me play or think like Philip Glass, but it does get me thinking of movie scores I love, from Hamburger Hill to Candyman and even Fantastic Four.

So, it does inspire, and it has such a dreamy (but not muddy) sound that can be romantic, thought-provoking, and chilling, depending on how you use it.

The LABS plugin has been overhauled, and now works better than ever, so it’s a good time to try it out.

It’s not a deep-sampled library like some more expensive options, so it doesn’t have the same ultra-realism.

However, it features a lovely collection of presets inspired by some of the legendary composer’s most famous cinematic works.

One of my favorite presets is Metamorphosis, a sort of reverse piano sound. I often use it with another piano VST to add another layer of emotion.

Emotion is the keyword here; it’s such an emotive VST.

What I like

  • It’s free!
  • Emotive.
  • Excellent for cinematic scoring.
  • Low CPU-usage.
  • Versatile.

What I don’t like

  • It doesn’t have great depth in the bass.
Check and download at: LABS

Honorable mentions

There are so many great piano VSTs, but the list has to end somewhere. Here are some that just missed out on a top spot.

  • IK Multimedia Pianoverse. Pianoverse is a collection of seven stunning acoustic pianos (available as single instruments) that offer realistic sound and many sound design options for composers.
  • Universal Audio Ravel. I’ve had this piano for a while, and it’s not my favorite, but I like it. It has the best reverse piano setting I’ve heard and is an excellent tool for producers and composers.
  • Modartt Pianoteq 8. It seems that Pianoteq has been around forever, and many people assume that the industry has passed it by. However, it’s still relevant, and if you want something highly tweakable, it’s fantastic.
  • Spitfire Audio Mrs Mills Piano. I love this piano. It’s old and quirky, but it still has a place in Abbey Road Studios and features on hit songs from The Beatles, amongst others. It’s relatively cheap, too.
  • The Crow Hill Company Attic Grand. This piano is another quirky offering, this time from The Crow Hill Company. It reminds me of my first upright piano. It was old and dusty and didn’t stay in tune for long, but I loved it. This nostalgia trip is free to download.

Recent updates

  • July 10, 2024: I’ve published an updated selection and added honorable mentions to give you more options. I’ve also added quick recommendations and explained the picking criteria and testing methodology in more detail.
  • September 29, 2023: I’ve verified the accuracy of the picks; no changes in recommendations.
  • May 2, 2022: After testing a huge selection of various piano VSTs, I compiled a list of what I believe are the best options for most needs and budgets.

Final thoughts

The piano VSTs above are fantastic; each one is best suited to a different task. But the controller you use plays a huge part in the overall performance, so check out the best weighted keyboard controllers, too.

Piano VSTs can be very expensive, and although I consider the VSTs above to be worth the money, don’t be afraid to rely on cheaper or even free software; if it sounds good, it’s good! That’s all that matters.

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