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Galaxy Instruments/Best Service
Galaxy II Grand Piano Collection

Review by: Jason Buchwald
   
             
  Features  Usability  Documentation & Product Support  Price  Other Comments
Contact Info  Overall Rating—Product Summary
 
             
             
   

   
   


After an inevitable hiatus from keyboard reviews to accommodate this reviewer’s marriage, honeymoon, and cross-country move, the editor handed out a reward in the form of… (drum roll please)… Another Piano Plug-In Review! With so many wonderful piano plug-ins available, could the days of the big box with keys and onboard piano sounds be numbered?

Galaxy II Grand Piano Collection represents three sampled pianos that have each been meticulously recorded.  The collection is an expanded, upgraded successor to Galaxy Steinway 5.1, which was already a high quality, well-received product in its own right.  Once again, here is a sampled piano plug-in worthy of your consideration when it’s time to leave that Steinway at home in your living room and hit the road with your band or performance group.

Galaxy II’s sample playback and editing is powered via Native Instrument’s new Kontact 2 engine, modified specifically for this sample library. This allows for some very flexible editing in a straightforward manner that will be immediately familiar to many users.  There’s even a Pad function to thicken/layer sounds, and a cool Warp function to enter the arena of non-traditional piano sounds. Not too shabby!

[Editor's Note, October, 2010: This review is for the old version of Galaxy II. The new Galaxy II K4 has a new sound engine, new interface,and other new features, similar to what you'll find in Vintage D, recently reviewed.]

Features

3.5 Stars

As previously mentioned, Galaxy II Grand Piano Collection, is the successor to Galaxy Steinway 5.1.  Besides including the previous Steinway, Galaxy II is now extended with the Vienna Grand Imperial and the 1929 German Baby Grand, and it is powered by Native Instruments’ Kontakt 2 engine sporting a specially designed user interface.

As the product is sample-based, the quality of the samples is important. Galaxy II was recorded at Galaxy Studios and Hansahaus Studios using high end and vintage microphones by Brauner, Neumann, and Bruel & Kjaer, and state-of-the-art equipment from Neve, SSL, Focusrite and Digidesign.

Some highlights:

  • Galaxy Steinway 5.1 (Steinway D in Real Surround and Stereo).
  • Vienna Grand Imperial (a nine-foot, ninety-six key Boesendorfer Imperial 290 with extended low end).
  • 1929 German Baby Grand (essentially, a vintage Bluethner).
  • More than 6,000 samples recorded at 24-bit resolution.
  • Up to thirteen velocity zones.
  • Adjustable hammer, pedal, damper, and string noises.
  • Convolution-reverb with various rooms, halls and ambiences.

Galaxy II supports several plug-in interfaces: VST, AU, RTAS, DXi, and a stand-alone version is included as well. There are modest system requirements stated as a minimum (Mac G4 1 GHz or greater, or Pentium 4 1.4 GHz or greater), but as always, more CPU power is recommended for best performance.  We certainly found that to be true on our system, but we will discuss that more in Usability.

A word about disk space: have lots of it!  There are five DVDs of samples in total.  If one was to install the entire collection (presumably you will), you will need twenty-nine GB (yes, gigabytes).  This has become less of an issue with the availability of large hard drives, but may still represent a larger space than some people have room for, especially if running this from an older computer.  A simple solution, of course, is not to install the whole collection at one time.

Reviewing the interface, to the right of the sample column, the upper part of the screen has several buttons:  Browser, Outputs, Keyboard (to display a graphical keyboard at the bottom of the window), Master control (allows a metronome to be used and edited), Load/Save, options (for CPU usage, audio engine, etc), View (changes type size) and Purge (which removes any unused samples from RAM, freeing up more space). 

Below these buttons is the instrument interface.  This is where one finds basic functions such as the instrument’s name (instruments become visible via a pull down menu), MIDI channel, number of voices, memory allocated, solo/mute, tuning, panning, fader volume, sends, and instrument options. 

There are some nice features in Galaxy II such as Voice Steal mode (controls how voices are sounded when reaching max polyphony), controller assignments, and MIDI Transpose.  The MIDI Transpose function was a particular favorite, as it allowed us to simply play in a new key with a few clicks while we laughed at our guitarist struggling with new fingerings, pleading for his capo.

One unique feature that adds to the realism of the piano sounds is Galaxy II’s Sympathetic String Resonance function. This generates overtones when the sustain pedal is in use by using actual overtone samples as opposed to filtering “standard” piano samples.

There are a number of editing functions — some obvious, some less so.  One by one, they are:

  1. Tone: there is a Color knob, which makes the piano sound harder with more attack, or softer with less attack. Behind the scenes, it does this by dynamically mapping samples while balancing volume between harder and softer samples. It’s not simply providing different EQ settings.
  2. Reso:  also under the Tone heading, this refers to a piano’s resonance.  It adds the sympathetic affect that occurs from vibrating strings when the dampers are raised by the sustain pedal. This sympathetic effect was sampled separately from the fundamental tone to allow the amount of fullness to be controlled by the user.
  3. Anatomy: there is a Dynamics knob that controls the dynamic range of the sound, similar in function to a compressor but with more limited (and application specific) control.  For example, reducing the dynamic range keeps the loud notes loud and makes the softer notes louder.  This might be helpful, to use Galaxy’s example, in the setting of a pop piano that needs to cut through a heavy mix.  Increasing the dynamics will allow for a much greater range of volume and expression.  Attached to this section is the velocity editor, which as one can guess by the name, allows for more complex editing than just a single knob.
  4. Noises: besides generating a pitch, the act of a hammer on a piano striking a string creates other noises.  In this section, you can control hammer noises, damper noises, and string noises.  These are all independently edited, allowing for great customization.
  5. Space: essentially the Reverb section, this enables you to custom tailor specific room re-creations as well as more processed, pop-oriented types of reverb.
  6. Warp: a favorite of ours, this takes a sampled sound and dramatically alters it.  The Warp engine consists of four effect processors and creates sounds radically different than basic piano sounds.  The processors are:
  • Pad Machine: atmospheric pad generator
  • Degrader: distorts and destroys your audio signal, and even features a control labeled Hacker
  • Spiritualizer: creates haunting, swirling, flange-like effects (for adding depth and “spirit”) by way of Madness and Ghost knobs, the latter of which just plays the piano’s resonances
  • Alterizier: another audio signal degrader via the Mutator knob
  • Time Traveler: essentially a digital delay effect

Some of the included sounds that used this engine sound like spacey, percolating, ominous synth sounds… pretty cool for a sampled piano engine!  We thought it was particularly humorous that the Galaxy II manual actually warns you to keep your speaker volume down when using the Random function of the Warp Machine — it’s that unpredictable!

Of course, there are other controls, too: lid Open or Closed, tuning (equal temperament, etc), a compressor (useful for creating pop-piano sounds), and a dynamics control that lets you adjust the velocity response to your keyboard.

All in all, there are a lot of areas where one can really hone in on the sound that they want if it isn’t readily available as a preset.


Usability

3.5 Stars

We installed Galaxy II on a Power Macintosh G4 dual 1.42 GHz (sadly, the editor still has dibs on the better machines), and tested the stand-alone version.  Installation was straightforward, and no USB dongles are needed!  Quite frankly, this was very refreshing.  To authenticate, all we had to do was run the program “Service Center,” which essentially is an online registration webpage that was quick and painless. And what electronic musician doesn’t like quick and painless?

We tested Galaxy II as both a stand-alone application as well as using the RTAS plug-in within Digidesign ProTools LE, and had comparable performance experiences.

One question we wrestled with again (as we do whenever evaluating sample-based plug-ins) was, “What is really considered enough CPU power to adequately run Galaxy?”  We found that with most passages, Galaxy II worked well in on older G4 setup.  However, with faster/thicker passages that required more polyphony, the sound eventually became somewhat distorted.

To be fair, our test system was an older Mac – even a dual processor G4 is now considered two generations behind the current Intel processors (despite widespread use in many studios), so perhaps CPU hiccups were to be expected.  But given the information available, we were a little disappointed (at times) at the performance.   Overall, however, on a dual G4, Galaxy II was very usable, as long as it wasn’t pushed to its absolute limits.

So how do you use the darn thing? Well, at first glance it might seem that there’s a lot of information on the screen…and there is!  But once you’ve used it once and put Galaxy II through its paces, it actually is pretty easy to use overall.

We started by first launching NI’s Kontact Player, and from within Kontact, Galaxy II samples are played.  This player window serves as the main window.  The libraries of samples appear on the left side column, and it is from this column where sample sets are initially loaded.  There are three groups of samples used in Galaxy II:  basic samples (including dry tones, noises, and overtones), soft pedal samples, and pad samples.  You can load all at once or pick the subset you want, depending on your needs.  This is a nice feature, in that it is not all or none, especially when there are memory and CPU demands looming in all corners.

Loading sounds was quite easy.  The sample set is selected from the left, and a window shows all the samples being loaded into memory. Essentially, every note has its own sample, so it takes a few seconds for the whole set to load.  Once that is done, there is a pull down menu under “global presets” that shows your available choices.  Select one, and away you go!

If you don’t like, say, the tone of your preset, simply turn the Color knob next to the preset selector.  You can hear the sonic differences in real time while you play, and you can easily add or subtract warmth or attack with just a simple turn of a knob. While what is warm sounding to one person may not be to another, there were perceptible differences in tone with tweaking.  Though we are reluctant to say tweaking a knob will make a sampled piano have the sound of a richly sonorous 100-year-old Steinway (unless it was originally sampled that way), the controls do a fine job filling the roles they are assigned to.


Sound

3.5 Stars


We have said this before: pianos come literally in many shapes and sizes. It is this very quality – the subtle (and some not so subtle) colors of a piano that give a piano its character.  Interestingly, Galaxy II not only delivers very good piano sounds, but paradoxically, it generates soundsquite unlike apiano, too!  While the piano sounds alone merit a good rating and are worthy of your consideration, the ability to totally destroy that piano sound and do something totally unexpected (and great sounding) makes us enjoy the sound of Galaxy II even more.

Although sample-based pianos do offer quite a bit of control over your sound, you are still originating from the same sampled sound. Galaxy II allows fantastic control over all the sampled sounds, which were recorded from already-great sounding, renowned pianos.  The Warp feature allows for the creation of an almost limitless number of unique sounds, and as a musician looking for a “new” or “different” or “signature” sound, this is very cool.

But how does it sound?  That is, to a large degree, a matter of opinion [Editor’s Note: Um, that’s why we’re here, writing this review!]. Judging piano sounds is a very subjective matter, and as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye (or in this case, ear) of the beholder.  Having said that, Galaxy II sounds very good overall.

Most of the samples demonstrated very full, rich piano sets.  Occasionally there may have been a preset that, for example, sounded weak in the bass register, but this was easily remedied by altering the sample’s parameters, or by just choosing a different piano.  There really is something here for everyone, ranging from classical, pop, and jazz, and the Warp feature (and the presets that utilize the warp engine) certainly fill in everything in between!

There were a couple of whimsical touches, too.  A preset “Vintage Pop Piano” was reminiscent of a Yamaha CP-70, as used in U2’s “New Year’s Day” or Genesis’s “That’s All.”  The layered piano pad presets were nice, and could easily be used for film scoring and, if inclined, mushy love ballads.  The warped sounds were particularly fun, and our favorites were the foreboding “a Devil in Heaven” and “Voices from the Other Side.”  Galaxy/Best Service might want to consider posting some of these more unique sound samples on their website, in addition to the traditional samples, to demonstrate just how versatile the Warp function is.

In the crowded market for digital recreations of acoustic pianos, we can’t really call any one “best” because most products start out by sampling a unique, hand-crafted, acoustic piano. Ultimately, the cool thing about selecting any sample-based piano product on the market for your keyboard rig is that you’re going to end up with a personalized sound that is not duplicated identically by anyone else. Whether its performance characteristics match with your style of play will be up to you to decide when evaluating the products.


Documentation and Product Support

3.5 Stars

The manual does a very good job of explaining piano history, explaining how a piano makes sound, and how Galaxy II accomplishes delivering an accurate piano sound.  The manual clearly explains how the various controls can be altered, and it provides some tips on creating your own sounds.  The website, www.galaxypianos.com serves as a good site for product information, and has several promotional videos and audio samples.


Price

3.5 Stars


Galaxy II ($285 MSRP) can be purchased for slightly less than list, and as it becomes available from more retailers, it may be found at even greater discounts. If you just want to get aquainted with Galaxy II, you can purchase a single piano as a download for approximately $110, and Best Service has told us they plan to introduce upgrade pricing shortly so that people who buy the downloaded piano can upgrade to the full product at an appropriate discount.

While there are numerous sample-based piano software applications out there, few programs offer control over as many fine details within your sound as Galaxy II.   The inclusion of the Warp engine opens up totally new possibilities — to the point that it is almost like having another instrument!  Certainly, Galaxy II delivers a very good value for all that it offers.

Contact Information

Galaxy Instruments/Best Service
www.galaxypianos.com


Overall Rating - Product Summary

   
   
Category Value Rating
Features 20% 3.5 stars
Usability 25% 3.5 stars
Sound 25% 3.5 stars
Documentation & Support 10% 3.5 stars
Price 20% 3.5 Stars

OVERALL RATING = 3.5

3.6 stars or better: Outstanding, WIHO Award
3 stars or better: Worth considering
2 stars or better: Suited to specific needs
1 star or less: Not recommended
 
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