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There’s a reason digital pianos are so popular: most people either can’t afford the real thing, or they can’t fit them into their homes. Unfortunately, most digital pianos pale in comparison to even the most basic acoustic ones, with wimpy speakers and lackluster built-in sounds. This is unfortunate; even for beginners, having a quality piano tone can inspire you to keep practicing and get better.

But what if I told you there’s a way to make your ‘fake’ piano sound eerily close to a real grand or upright pianowithout having to spend thousands of dollars?

Enter virtual pianos, commonly called piano VSTs (virtual studio technology) or piano plugins. Instead of settling for your cheap digital piano’s built-in tones (or taking on credit card debt for a more expensive model), you can access higher quality sounds by connecting your piano to a computer — or even a smartphone.

Complement the setup with a good set of speakers or headphones, and you can have the most realistic piano experience short of buying an acoustic.

What does a virtual piano do differently?

Piano VSTs are essentially software that replicates the sound of an acoustic piano using one of two methods (or occasionally, both): modeling and sampling. This is also what your digital piano does, but again, your PC is a lot more powerful.

Physically modeled pianos basically replicate a piano using fancy math and physics; an algorithm tells the computer what type of sound waves to produce depending on how you hit each key. Sampled pianos take a more brute-force approach by meticulously recording every note on a real acoustic at various speeds, durations, and pedal combinations.

Both methods have their pros and cons, with modeled pianos often being more a bit more responsive and customizable, and sampled pianos often sounding more authentic but requiring more system resources (multiple GBs of storage, for instance).

I’m a beginner. Do I really need fancier piano sounds?

I’m just barely past a beginner myself! That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy better sound quality. In fact, part of the beauty of having a good piano sound is that you’ll likely be more motivated to practice and make music. My initial motivation in researching VSTs was to more closely replicate the sound of my teacher’s grand piano.

With a good VST, like on a real piano, you can just hold down a few notes and your piano’s sustain pedal (if your piano doesn’t have one… you should get one) and hear how the resonances interact with each other. Notes feel more authentic, and your playing feels more expressive. Besides, I’ve been listening to music all my life and know what a real piano is supposed to sound like. I’m no pro, but I still love to mess around with the keys and see what comes out.