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Review: MOTU Electric Keys 1.0 (Mac/Win)

December 1, 2008
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Early electronic-keyboard inventors employed everything from metal tines and spinning tonewheels to strips of magnetic tape. This helped define the distinctive character, quirks, and lo-fi charm so prized by vintage-keyboard enthusiasts, and it explains why repeated attempts to perfectly re-create the imperfect qualities of these electromechanical beasts in the digital age have failed. Like many, I have longed to reclaim the sounds of the electric pianos and other classic keys that I abandoned with the birth of MIDI. I have spent many years buying various ROMplers, expansion boards, sample libraries, and virtual instruments — each giving me successively better approximations of the real thing.

Today, incredibly convincing emulations exist that are essentially indistinguishable from the real thing. So what can MOTU's Electric Keys bring to a relatively mature and saturated market? Quite a lot, it turns out, including excellent versions of old favorites and rare lost classics that time forgot.

Plug On In

MOTU's Electric Keys is a sample-based virtual instrument (VI) that re-creates 50 vintage keyboards. All the classics you'd expect are here — the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, the Hammond B-3, the Mellotron and Clavinet — as well as a large variety of combo organs, string machines, keyboard basses, and other exotic electro oldies but goodies (see motu.com/products/software/electrickeys/keyboards.html for a complete listing). The library weighs in at a hefty 40 GB of 24-bit, 96 kHz multisampled data and comes on six DVDs. I wasn't thrilled that it requires an iLok for copy protection, but I was delighted that MOTU includes one in the box. (Many companies make you shell out an additional $40.) You also get a well-written, illustrated printed manual. Electric Keys is based on the UVI sound engine and can be used cross-platform, standalone, and in all major plug-in formats. It also works as a sound library for MOTU's MachFive 2 sampler. (Using it with MachFive provides additional editing options; more on editing in a moment.)

The user interface is opulent and easy to use and offers two slots to quickly create splits and layers. It is not multitimbral, however, so you need a separate instance for each MIDI track. This limitation is common enough, but Electric Keys has a further limitation: it can receive on only one MIDI channel — channel 1. This won't be an issue if you are working on a single computer, but it could be a problem if you use multiple computers. I sequence on a Mac and host Vis on a PC running the widely used VSTi host Steinberg V-Stack. V-Stack requires that each instrument be on a separate MIDI channel. For my setup, the only work-around was to use a separate physical MIDI port and cable for each instance of Electric Keys in V-Stack, with each set to receive on channel 1. That limited me to a maximum of two instances, because my PC's MIDI interface has only two MIDI ports. (This could also be an issue for other external hardware VSTi hosts, such as the Muse Receptor.) Hopefully, this basic issue can be easily addressed in a future Electric Keys update.

Electric Ecdysiast

FIG. 1: Electric Keys'' attractive skins re-create the look of various types of instruments.

FIG. 1: Electric Keys'' attractive skins re-create the look of various types of instruments.

Patches are organized into 12 banks, each of which features a colorful skin that changes with the type of instrument you load (see Fig. 1). The skins are eye-catching and help you keep your Vis straight when sequencing multiple instruments, but it would have been nice if changing skins added instrument-specific control features as well. Instead, the skins all retain the same Volume, Tune, Drive, Tremolo, and other knobs for every instrument. The controls offer quick sound customization, but a tremolo knob, for example, is better suited to a Rhodes than to a Clavinet front panel, where I'd rather see Clav-style controls. (Of course, having such specific controls would have involved more-complicated programming.)

FIG. 2: Electric Keys includes a full virtual effects rack.

FIG. 2: Electric Keys includes a full virtual effects rack.

Clicking on a front-panel FX jack brings up a full virtual effects rack, complete with Filter, Phaser, Flanger, Chorus, Delay, Reverb, Amp Simulator, and even an imitation vinyl-record effect (see Fig. 2). A tiny E button (which is too small for my eyes) takes you under the hood to Expert Settings, where you'll find synth edit parameters such as envelopes, filters, portamento, and other goodies (see Fig. 3, next page). Missing, however, is the ability to assign LFO to pitch modulation for standard mod-wheel vibrato, which somewhat inhibits the creation of fully expressive lead synth patches (another item for the update wish list).

The synth engine, effects, and layering add up to a powerful combination that takes Electric Keys beyond simple re-creation of old instruments, allowing you to sculpt entirely new sounds (see Web Clip 1). Moreover, hundreds of grab-and-go examples of this power can be found in the factory-programmed Combi patches, which are included along with the 12 banks of basic instrument sounds.

Electric Pianos

FIG. 3: The Expert Settings page provides access to utility and basic synth edit parameters. For more-extensive options, the library can be edited in MOTU''s MachFive 2 sampler (available separately).

FIG. 3: The Expert Settings page provides access to utility and basic synth edit parameters. For more-extensive options, the library can be edited in MOTU''s MachFive 2 sampler (available separately).

Electric Keys has four Fender Rhodes presets (Mark I models from 1975 and 1979, a Mark II from 1981, and a Mark V from 1984) and two Wurlitzers (a model 200A and a rare Butterfly 270 model).

A Rhodes can be highly expressive up and down the keyboard and even on a single note, depending on key-strike Velocity. To accurately capture such detail requires extensive multisampling. Electric Keys devotes more than 10 GB to its Rhodes samples: between 2 and 2.5 GB per instrument with up to ten Velocity layers, plus release samples. All this detail definitely translates into expressive playability. Low notes growl, mid notes bark, upper notes are clear and bell-like, and Velocity layering feels smooth and natural. I own quite a few virtual Rhodes instruments, and Electric Keys holds its own with the best of them. The four instruments each respond differently, with the 1975 MK I being the mellowest and the 1981 MK II (my favorite) the barkiest (see Web Clip 2).

Both Wurlitzers are excellent re-creations, and either could be used to create totally convincing tracks. The Butterfly model has growlier lower notes, perfect for classic tracks like Queen's “You're My Best Friend” (see Web Clip 3).

Handsome Hammonds

A sizable chunk of data is devoted to Hammond organ sounds, such as the B-3, C-3, and M-100. There's even a sample of a modern virtual B-3, the Korg CX-3. The B-3 patches are named after their drawbar settings: for instance, “000788080.” I found it difficult to remember patches with such names, which don't give you a clue about things like percussion or key click. The names of the subcategories in the preset browser do provide hints about vibrato and Leslie, which use Mod Wheel to switch between slow and fast in many patches.

Unlike Native Instruments' B4, which employs modeling to produce sounds and offers drawbars and switches as controls, Electric Keys' use of samples yields a less organic experience. However, with some 200 patches, you have a lot of sonic options. The sampled B-3s are rich and gutsy, easily on a par with B4, and I much prefer the sound of Electric Keys' sampled Leslie to that of B4. Combining preset components can take some time, but with a little effort I was able to do things like layer the key click from a CX-3 patch with an all-out B-3, apply some drive (which I also like better than B4's drive), and create an awesome dirty rock-organ patch (see Web Clip 4).

There's also a hearty helping of Hohners (Clavinets, Pianets, and rarities), a cornucopia of combo organs (Vox, Farfisa, and others), a sprinkling of Mellotrons (Violin, Cello, Flute, Choir), an extensive selection of vintage analog string machines, and much more than I can detail here (see the online bonus material “Electro Obscuro” at emusician.com). What really sets this collection apart is that it goes beyond just a great Rhodes or B-3; for example, this is the most extensive collection of combo organs I've seen. The String Machines bank far surpasses the obligatory Solina, covering ten different instruments, and there are some truly rare and exotic gems to be mined in these banks, many of which have never been sampled. Ever play a Weltmeister Claviset or an Elka Rhapsody? I haven't.

Electric Keys provides endless hours of vintage-keyboard joy and still leaves plenty more to explore. If you're looking for classic rock, funk, or jazz fusion sounds, they're here. And if you want to experiment with some spooky '60s detective moods or commit cheesy surfer-art crimes, you'll find a treasure trove of exotic electro weapons in this arsenal. In short, you get more classic keys than Rick Wakeman could stuff into a '70s tour van — all for less than a roadie's night's pay. When you consider the price of admission also includes the cost of the iLok, that's a winning ticket.

Babz is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music-technology writer in New York City.

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