In the world of piano, the term "una corda" (Italian for "one string") refers to the leftmost pedal, which is used to soften the tone of the instrument by altering the action of the hammers. In most grand pianos, this shifts the hammers so as to hit only one or two strings instead of striking the three normally used to play a single note. In standard pianos this results in a quiet note, but Klavins wanted his instrument to achieve the same change in timbre without a loss of volume. To achieve this, he designed a custom soundboard for his new instrument. Frahm took the concept of natural sound manipulation further by suggesting the ability to mount strips of fabric in between the hammers and the strings. And so the Una Corda came to life as a 64-key, portable instrument that Frahm used on tour. In 2015 Native Instruments commissioned their own 88-key version and worked with the sampling experts Galaxy Instruments to bring it to life as a trio of Kontakt instruments.
These three instruments are the Una Corda Cotton, Felt and Pure. As the names imply, the Cotton and Felt instruments were sampled with the fabric preparation mentioned earlier. The former used cotton with a hard surface to dampen the strings slightly and to yield a more prominent attack noise. The latter used felt with a soft surface, which results in a more muted tone that Native Instruments describes as sounding like an unplugged electric piano. Unlike many other sampled pianos, the Una Corda was played softly during the recording sessions and so has a more intimate feel than your standard piano library. You can also add a sense of life by mixing in atmospheric noises like the creak of the stool, the breathing of the piano player or the sounds of the keys being released.
Each of the three Kontakt instruments opens up to the same simplified main page, which, along with a picture of the actual piano, includes three icons and three knobs. The leftmost Color knob allows you to change the tone from soft to hard. This isn't achieved by filtering. Rather, it switches between sample maps that contain notes recorded at different real-world velocities. Next is the Dynamic Range knob, which levels out the volume difference between the harder and softer notes. Finally, the Space knob is essentially an effect send to the Space convolution module that can be configured as a reverb, delay or reverse effect. The smaller icons at the top of the interface allow you to navigate to the three edit pages, named Work Bench, Response and Finish.
Nearly every possible sonic element of a piano performance is represented on the Work Bench page. It includes the main note and its harmonics, the sound of the fabric preparations, the room ambience (including artificial options like vinyl noises and tape hiss), the sound of the pianist breathing and moving and the piano's internal mechanics. Each of these sources are independent in that they have their own on/off buttons and volume sliders. This means you could use Una Corda to only generate the sound of a pianist moving in a chair with some vinyl pops in the background.
The Response page contains controls that link the sound to your playing. The first slider is Releases, which controls the playback of samples recorded from the time that the damper hits the string. The fact that there are individual samples dedicated to this relatively minute bit of sound shows how granular this library is, both in terms of what was recorded and the amount of control you have over the playback. Other sliders found within the Response page let you adjust the attack length, the volume of the lower keys and the overtones and resonance of the strings that are not being played.
The final page, with a name that undersells its potential, is Finish. This is where you'll find Una Corda's effect modules, including a three-band EQ, a transient shaper, a compressor, a stereo width processor and two convolution effects called Style and Space. As mentioned before, Space gives you extensive options for reverb and delay (including signal reversing). Style, on the other hand, recreates the sound of reel-to-reel tape, distortion, lo-fi and modulation effects. The different modules available here give you a considerable amount of sound design power—more than any other piano instrument that I've ever seen—and can create sounds totally unlike an acoustic instrument. The only thing missing is some way to have the Una Corda's signal fully wet through the Space effect, something I found myself looking for more than once during my testing.
Compared to other multi-sampled piano instruments, the Una Corda's selling point is its unique timbral possibilities. Even without any effects, the instrument sounds like no other piano out there, and the detailed and comprehensive way that it was recorded spotlights that difference. The amount of control it provides over the different aspects of the physical instrument and its environment is impressive, and the effect capabilities make it a tool highly suitable for sound design applications. If you want an expensive-sounding piano you might want to look elsewhere, but this is a great choice for exploring non-traditional piano tones.
Ease of use: 4.4