MOTU Electric Keys
Sep 22, 2008
MOTU is a company that has an uncanny ability to jam pack every single audio-visual in/out you can think of into a neat little portable Swiss-army-type black box. They're also known for their excellent digital converters and flagship sequencer, Digital Performer. Electric Keys is a sample-based vintage keyboard player, adding to their growing line up of software instruments, such as the MX4 synthesizer, Ethno Instrument, Mach Five, and Symphonic Instrument. Adding a vintage keyboard emulator to the list seems like a practical next step to help round out things.
The library ships on 6 discs, with the installer on disc 1 and 5 DVDs full of 40gb of data. Just pop the installer disc in and click on the setup. You then drag the 5 DVDs worth of data into the "sounds" folder inside the install folder. You can also install the library on another drive, as long as you create shortcuts pointing to them. The software is cross-platform, but I did receive a Windows "installer error" pop-up on my Vista machine at the end of my install, but it seemed to have installed correctly. The standalone worked just fine, but I was getting freezes when trying to use it in Pro Tools LE 7.4 with my old version 1 mbox. I also couldn't uninstall it correctly in Vista. I contacted tech support and they're still figuring it out. I'm sure there will be a fix by the time you're reading this, since we're only at version 1.0.
Electric Keys is a 40gb, 20,000 sample vintage keyboard player. Nearly all samples are recorded at 24/96 at multiple velocities and include keyclick and release noise. As to how many velocity layers, I'm not sure, as it varies from preset to preset, but there's enough expressiveness here to please even the most disdaining of ear. The manual includes a run down of each of the fifty instruments that were sampled along with an appendix of each patch. It also tells you a bit about which famous artists have been known to use the real hardware version, such as Herbie Hancock, Led Zeppelin, Air, Toto, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. Everything from Rhodes Suitcase models to Cheesy String Machines are covered here.
The player itself takes a few seconds to boot, but once you get going its rock solid. The polyphony is a generous 256 voices, with intelligent voice allocation to prevent skipping. I didn't experience any skips while playing the standalone on my 2ghz Core2 Duo laptop with 2 gb ram. Each instrument has a miniscule loading time unlike other libraries of this size. The presets are neatly laid out in categories of type and model. You can load patches by themselves or stack/split two of them in a combi patch. MIDI response was quick with under 6ms of latency using ASIO drivers and my Novation Remote 61 SL keyboard.
The interface is quite simpleton, but the graphics have detailed shading and 3-d texturing that really makes this thing shine. As you load each different type of keyboard model, the skin changes to reflect the instrument you are playing, based on the look of the real thing.
The player comes with an effects bundle that can drastically alter things for the better. Clicking on the rather small fx button reveals the effects rack, which also looks like vintage rack hardware. There's an amp simulator, delay, reverb, analog filter, chorus, vinyl effect, phaser and flanger. All the effects are of the "vintage" flavor and gel nicely with the included sounds. You can save and load presets, and it ships with a few dozen factory starters.
I found that most direct-recorded patches fared well with the amp simulator turned on, which offers 14 guitar cabs, 3 different mic types (dynamic, ribbon, condenser) and controls for mic position and spread. The phaser was my second favorite with reverb coming in at third. None of the effects are tossers-each one holds its own. Each instrument also has dedicated front-panel controls for EQ, overdrive, volume, tremolo, and tuning. An advanced menu reveals controls for amp envelope, filter envelope, panning/filter modulation, along with utilitarian provisions such as glide, polyphony, fine tuning, and timing.
As mentioned earlier, 2 patches can be combined and either stacked or split. Stacking creates a whole new level of sound morphing, but for now I'll just go through what the instruments sound like individually.
The Electric organs sound spot on, with incredible realistic sounding "B- Leslie" patches at various popular drawbar settings. These are some of the phattest B-with-a-Leslie organ sounds I have ever heard, short of buying the real thing. Wonderful tight, punchy bass with excellent keyclick sound. Recorded at both fast and slow settings with a Seinnheiser MD421, Neumann U87, U47, and AKG C414 on separate patches, which are probably some of the best mics in the world to record a Leslie. Thick, authentic, screaming Leslie sounds, rich with harmonics though no sampler can get the rotary speaker thing right. My new favorite go-to "B-Leslie" patch has got to be a patch consisting of a U87 recording with bars 1,3,4, and 9 all the way out. There are also recordings done through a DI, and a few other popular guitar amps, such as Fender Bassman, Twin Reverb, Soldano, Marshall Plexi, Vox, etc. There are also sections dedicated to bass pedal samples, vibrato effect, and mono recordings with each of the 4 aforementioned mics.
There are excellent renditions of The Doors' transistor organ which has a distinct, smoother, more rounded texture, giving it a haunting quality. There are various patches with common settings of its six drawbars. Adding a little amp simulation, reverb, and some delay created that smoky Jim Morrison vibe.
A Ham100 (little sister of the Hammond B) is also sampled and has a distinct hollow sound and silkier texture, and is packaged with some extra quirky drawbar settings that fit right in the pocket of any track. The eclectic style doesn't end there- a 1960 Dutch tube organ, Japanese electric organ, and set of Italiano organs, including an Italian Doors model and an extra cheesy "Elk" organ.
An essential Rhodes set consisting of four models-2 Mark I models-1979 "suitcase" and 1975 "Fender," a 1980 Mark II, and an '84 Mark V. The pianos are sampled at both loud and soft settings and feature a full velocity-layered version and a less-intensive "light" version. Release samples and keyclick are well implemented, and I found that this batch of keyboards responded best to liberal use of the "drive" knob. Switching on the amp simulator seemed to bring them to life, as a real Rhodes needs to be played through a guitar amp to sound right.
A Wurly 200 and 270 "butterfly" is also in the mix with full, light, loud, and soft versions. As with the Rhodes, these benefit from dialing in a little drive and firing up the amp simulator. Hammering out sweet blues licks was no problem and the recordings capture every last bit of that warmth and subtle bite that a Wurlitzer has.
Funky clavs are offered in D, E, and model C styles. The D clav is recorded with each different pick up, then both pickups in and out of phase. The E clav is also recorded at all pickup settings. These clavs have serious bite and bark to them, the likes of which I've yet to hear from any other software emulation. I had fun playing out super-funky jams with the lower registers. The samples have nice, long gritty decays that seem to last forever.
The String Machine doesn't hold back with 10 different models to choose from. The infamous "Classic Strings Machine" is here with beautiful, lush, 60's-70's style string-pad tones-an amazing sound indeed. Even all the various settings like "horn" or "trumpet" still sound string-ish to me, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Another winner here on the menu is the creamy Cruma, alongside the wispy Italian Strings. The Polyphonic Strings have a natural phasing effect that produces a soothing texture. The synthy Japanese and Melody Strings have even more extreme examples of this Wurlitzer-type phasing sound, though with a mellow, rounded feel. The String Orchestra has a powerful, commanding tone to it, while the VP Choirs voices are eerie sounding. Don't forget the Cheezy and Cheap strings, which are a must have. There is a small section dedicated to Mellotron samples which sounded quite bland, until I switched on the amp simulator and added some reverb and brought them to life. Playing around with the attack slider helped to reduce the abrasive response of the string samples.
One category of instruments is called "rare and bonus keyboards" with some being cheesy, some enchanting. The instrument called "cheap digital keyboard" actually sounds pretty cool, with a soaring buzztone. A Yamaha GS synth is sampled and resonates beautiful glass-like sheen when played. The rare Lambda synth has some nice chorus and string pads. A trio of rare Japanese "Cpianos" are sampled nicely and have a distinct dry piano taste that somehow works. The "Electro-mechanical Keyboards" section has four unheard of keyboard machines, including a buzzy sounding electro-piano used by Led Zeppelin, and a soft-voiced "Planet M" keyboard that is of the Rhodes vein. One of my favorite categories is the tiny "Keyboard Bass" section. There is a synth here called "analog pedal bass" that has tons of analog oomph, as well as some Earth-shaking sub-bass machines.
A fantastic sounding plug in with much more to offer than the asking price. The GUI is rather simple but all the necessary controls are at your disposal keeping you focused on playing. Patches are well balanced, and are superb examples of the real hardware. You'll find a huge library with choice Doors organs, as well as B-Leslie, funky clavs and smooth Rhodes. Add in the extras and you have some real value, especially when you can stack and split two patches, doubling the fun. I would not hesitate to use any of these instruments in a track; they are ready to go. Vintage effects seals the deal.
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