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05 March 2013


The story arc for Toontrack's EZkeys line of keyboard-based instruments appeared to be following a predictable path. We began with acoustic pianos, both grand and upright, establishing sample-based sound libraries front-ended with an educative interface introducing learners to such concepts as the circle of fifths, the suspicious fourth and augmented, diminished and demented ninth. With stabilizers. In a word, theory.

Songwriters are also catered for by drag-and-drop MIDI files in core libraries of stock phrases, while the Transpose and Chord Wheel come in more than handy when seeking new directions for melody and harmony.

MuzoBlog offered opinion on the Grand Piano and Upright Piano last year, so skip back and mug up if new to this product. Since then, Toontrack has been gamely adding to its range of keyboardian MIDI libraries, issuing Blues, Gospel, Pop/Rock, Jazz and R&B phrases at £19.95 a throw via UK/Euro distributor Time+Space and direct from its online shop, but priced in something known as Euros.

An obvious next step included yet more MIDI libraries in more genres, but the developer has hit on timbre, not tuneage for its latest offering. EZkeys Classic Electrics presents the tones of a pair of venerable electric pianos, the Rhodes Mk I and Wurlitzer A200.

Rather than strings, the original instruments are equipped with tines, or reeds, one for each key, which sound when struck with a piano-like hammer. Plugged into an amplifier, they sound about as much like a real piano as an electric guitar sounds like an acoustic.

Purists used to hope that these electric upstarts would just go away, but plenty of household names took to their clangy, chiming flavours and, from the mid 20th century on (with a lull during the digital-synth dominated 1980s), both have featured far and wide in popular music.

For classic Wurli, dig out Heard It Through The Grape Vine by Marvin Gaye or You're My Best Friend by Queen. And for an earful of Rhodes, raid your collection of The Doors, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder albums.

So what has Toontrack done for us lately? The two instruments of Classic Electrics are multi-sampled renditions playable straight - in fact, along with Default, they both have DI (direct inject) tone shaping presets - or with such treatments as overdrive, ambience and modulation. The recording sessions were at Toontrack Studio, Umeå and Studio 9, Sveriges Radio, both Swedish installations, and the resulting takes can be subjected to the deeds of developer Overloud's coding elves, the outfit behind the on-board effects. Let's take a look...

Notice that different effect types bring up different front-panel controls, such as the means to alter the depth and speed of modulation, the amount of reverb and amount of distortion. That last option, however, is one best avoided. In their clean states, both instruments sound reasonably OK - not likely to leap out of the speakers and bowl you over with sonic lusciousness, but usable nevertheless.

Sadly, trying to give them a bit of bite with the distortion on offer is not terribly pleasing. As with so many software-based distortion models, EZkeys' is harsh and unkind to the core samples.

A better bet when doing the dirty is to select a favourite valve-warming or tape-saturation plug-in and use it as an insert. Quality compression and harmonic distortion transform the output into something akin to the analog phatness of the originals and you'll likely have far more tone-shaping control from a dedicated device.

The modulation effects score well, with phaser and chorus inducing gooey wobbles, the trem summoning something of Floyd's Sheep marching cheerfully out of obscurity and then we've the rotary warbling a lovely Leslie a-spin. Electric guitar is mentioned earlier, so it seemed only right to try both 'boards through Native Instruments Guitar Rig. Kerpow! Metal piano that melts the flesh.

Putting lunacy aside, Classic Electrics' tine-bound timbres are only part of the story. EZkeys' core engine gets an upgrade to v1.1.1, then we apply a hefty boost to the MIDI library. The 3.8MB library update download brings - yes! - more chops into play from genres across the board. If you've already got EZkeys Grand or Upright, expect a load more files to appear in your existing library.

The MIDI phrases are not ground-breaking, but that's not the point. As with this whole product range, the clips are standard within their genres so as to imbue a song with the right feel. Genre-hopping variations are very much your job, made all the easier by that nifty Chord Wheel, a songwriter's tool par excellence.

*EZkeys comes in at £111 for either the Grand, Upright or Classic Electrics versions plus their MIDI libraries - a reasonable price to pay for such a useful ditty-development suite. If you already own one of the acoustic piano products, add Classic Electrics for £54.95 via Time+Space. And there's an Essential Pianos bundle featuring all four instruments at €249 direct or £199 from Time+Space. That's just shy of £50 a go for each piano, plus a hefty core library of professionally played MIDI files in a variety of styles, plus the songwriting facilities available in the EZkeys interface. Not bad VFM at all.