As pianists, we dream of playing concert grand pianos in iconic halls, but most of us have to settle for MIDI keyboards and bedroom studios (everyone has to start somewhere).
While we can’t sit you in front of a Steinway Model B or Yamaha CFX concert grand, all is not lost. Thanks to the best piano VST plugins on the market, we can get closer to those beautiful tones than ever.
In this article, we will discuss our top picks and what makes them so good. We will also pick out our favorite budget-friendly options and even a few freebies!
How did we choose our best piano VSTs?
We have played every one of the pianos we picked, some more than others (we have our favorites). But, we also believe that every single piano that we have mentioned (from the most expensive to the cheapest and freebies) has something to offer.
When making your choice and thinking about your budget, consider what you need most, a dedicated grand piano or the versatility of multiple keyboard instruments. Whatever you choose, we are sure you’ll have a lot of fun with these pianos.
These are the best piano VST plugins:
- Spectrasonics Keyscape
- VSL Vienna Imperial
- Garritan CFX Concert Grand
- Modartt Pianoteq 7
- Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos
The best all-rounder
Keyscape by Spectrasonics is our top pick for many reasons. It’s arguably the best-sounding piano VST on the market, but it’s by far the most versatile.
Spectrasonics curated 36 of the world’s most sought-after keyboard instruments and expertly restored them to pristine condition before sampling them with incredible detail. This process took many years to complete, and the results are stunning.
The 36 featured keyboard instruments are split into the following categories:
- Acoustic Pianos
- Belltone Keyboards
- Electric Pianos
- Hybrid Pianos
- Plucked Keyboards
- Vintage Digital Keys
- Wind Keyboards
There are over 500 preset sounds suitable for just about every genre of music you can think of between all categories. For us, the Acoustic Pianos, Clavinets, Key Bass, and Electric Pianos are the standouts.
The grand piano sampled by Spectrasonics is the Yamaha C7 concert grand. Keyscape refers to it as the LA Custom C7 because they sampled a model fitted with Renner “Blue Point” hammers with Weickert felt.
This particular Yamaha C7 belongs to the renowned LA-based piano technician Jim Wilson. Jim Wilson personally set up the C7 specifically for Keyscape to ensure the widest tonal spectrum and greatest dynamic range.
Keyscape is a sampled instrument with up to 32 velocity layers, which is incredibly impressive.
There are many C7 presets available, and they sound fantastic, even without any editing. There’s plenty of depth in the bass, and everything above is crystal clear and rings out with a nice, natural decay.
The GUI is straightforward, and while Keyscape doesn’t offer editing as deep as some others, it has some handy controls. You can adjust the reverb, EQ, Compression, and perfectly modeled mechanical noise.
Keyscape is slightly CPU-heavy and has an 80 GB library size. If your only interest is the concert grand sound, there might be one or two better options, especially for classical players. But, the quality, attention to detail, and versatility make Keyscape our overall top pick.
VSL Vienna Imperial
The best piano VST for orchestral scores
The Vienna Imperial from Vienna Symphonic Library would be top of many people’s lists, and it’s hard to disagree.
One of the things that makes it special right off the bat is that VSL sampled the Bösendorfer Imperial 290-755. Bösendorfer pianos were the only way to go for some of the most influential pianists of all time, like the late, great Oscar Peterson.
Vienna Imperial offers up to 100 velocity layers, providing one of the most expressive, dynamic, and authentic piano experiences you’ll ever get from software.
When partnered with a high-quality, scaled hammer-action keyboard, Vienna Imperial gets remarkably close to the beautiful Bösendorfer sound. That makes it one of the most articulate and cutting piano tones money can buy.
That articulate quality makes it ideal for mammoth orchestral scores, which is why it has become the choice of many film composers.
The GUI isn’t as visually pleasing as some others, but it’s easy to navigate, and that’s the main thing. It features a nice graphic EQ, along with some lovely convolution reverb types.
It also allows you to adjust the dynamic range, mechanical noise, and stereo width.
It’s fair to say the magic in this piano VST comes from the stunning Bösendorfer. If you’re looking for something unique, it has an extra nine notes below the lowest A.
Vienna Imperial isn’t currently available (at the time of writing), but will be readily available once compatible with the iLok License Management System.
Garritan CFX Concert Grand
The best piano/studio combination
As the name suggests, this library features the sampled sound of the iconic Yamaha CFX concert grand piano. The Yamaha CFX is a nine-foot giant, and to make it that little more special, it was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
The importance of the recording location for this piano VST cannot be understated. You get the natural acoustics of Studio A at Abbey Road Studios, but you also get some of the magic that comes from that monster Neve console. It doesn’t hurt that Abbey Road boasts some of the finest recording engineers in the business.
Garritan CFX comes with a bunch of presets in three selectable microphone perspectives; Classic, Contemporary, and Player.
For the most part, the presets sound outstanding without additional tweaking. However, there are plenty of parameters to tweak if you want to do some slight editing or even make custom patches.
This library offers 20 velocity layers, which isn’t the most on our list, but it is one of the most expressive piano VSTs around.
Many sampled grand piano libraries lack the feeling of weight that you get from a real piano, but Garrison has done a great job in capturing it with this CFX.
This library supports half-pedaling, quarter-pedaling, and re-pedaling, which you don’t always get.
The CFX and Studio A combination make this piano VST a perfect choice for epic productions. It more than holds its own, whether in a pop ballad, solo classical piano, or a massive orchestral arrangement.
You’ll need some drive space as it comes with a 120+ GB library size.
Modartt Pianoteq 7
The best modeled piano VST
Pianoteq 7 is slightly different because it’s a modeled piano library rather than a sampled one.
There are some negatives with modeling over sampling, but they are far outweighed by positives in this case.
Let’s get the most prominent negative out of the way first; it can be very CPU-heavy. Pianoteq 7 generates the modeled sound in real-time, so some users and some systems will suffer more from the CPU hit.
The most significant upsides of a modeled library like this one are that it delivers more subtle nuance and editing capabilities than most sampled ones. Much of this is thanks to the maxed-out MIDI limit of 127 layers.
This heightened articulation and expression make Pianoteq 7 the first choice for many performers, especially Jazz pianists.
It’s often said that modeled piano VST’s don’t have the same authentic attack and decay as samples, but Pianoteq 7 is an exception.
Pianoteq 7 provides all of the usual tweaking like microphone settings, pedal noises, resonance, etc. The extended editing options include things like microphone settings and advanced tuning.
This library offers multiple grand piano models, including the Steinway D/B, Bechstein, and more.
Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos
An all-time classic
Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos delivers the sound of three true heavyweights: The Steinway D, Bösendorfer 290 Imperial, and Yamaha C7.
The size of the entire library is 77 GB, but if you are short of disk space, each piano can be installed individually.
This library offers up to 18 velocity layers.
One of the areas that this library excels in is mechanical noise. Admittedly, that might not sound too exciting, but attention to detail can make all the difference.
Another standout feature is Synthogy’s Harmonic Resonance Modeling, which produces realistic overtones.
The GUI looks a little dated, but it’s packed with presets and easily-tweaked parameters, giving you more control over your sound than most others.
Despite still being an industry standard for some, we feel the sound of these three iconic pianos is better represented elsewhere. We think that Synthogy Ivory II sometimes gets a little muddy in the bass, too.
However, the right piece of music that highlights strengths more than weaknesses can make this library sound like a world-beater. So, please do your homework before buying; it could be perfect for the right pianist.
The best budget-friendly options
If your budget is tight, here are some excellent alternatives:
- XLN Audio Addictive Keys Studio Grand
- Native Instruments Alicia’s Keys
- Native Instruments The Maverick
- Spitfire Audio Cinematic Soft Piano
- Spitfire Audio Felt Piano
- Native Instruments The Gentleman
- XLN Audio Addictive Keys Modern Upright
Free piano VSTs
- Spitfire Audio LABS Soft Piano
- Spitfire Audio LABS Glass Piano
- Versilian Upright NO.1
- Heavyocity Foundations Piano (Kontakt Player)
- Impact Soundworks The 88E (Kontakt Player)
Getting the most out of a piano VST
A realistic piano experience has to feel like a real piano, not just sound like one. As impressive as these piano VST plugins are, they can’t help you in that department.
MIDI keyboard controller
If you’re buying a piano VST, it’s fair to assume you’ll be using some form of MIDI keyboard controller.
Real piano keys are weighted, and it’s not just to make it harder to play. The weight gives the pianist greater scope for dynamic and expressive playing because it makes so many velocity levels available.
A piano VST might never match the exact dynamic range of a real piano, but if you want to get as close as possible, you’ll need a suitable controller.
88 keys and a sustain pedal would be a good start, and weighted keys are a must. Hammer-action would be great; scaled hammer-action would be perfect.
Most good piano VST plugins allow you to adjust the velocity curve to suit your controller. Some even have presets tailored to the most popular keyboard controllers.
Make sure you find the setting that best matches the weight of your keys; it will make a huge difference.