The first time I played a really good sampled piano plug-in, I knew right away that everything was about to change. It was like having a concert grand you could carry under your arm. With today’s mega-gigabyte sample libraries and advances in modeling instrument behavior, music technology has advanced almost immeasurably since then.
Keyscape, from the company that makes Omnisphere 2, is a virtual instrument plug-in featuring 36 sampled keyboard instruments and more than 500 patches. Alongside an outstanding concert grand piano, you’ll find a unique upright piano, numerous electric pianos, plucked keyboards, keyboards that play bells, keyboard basses, and even a miniature electric organ. Most are acoustic or electromechanical, with three synthesized pianos. Extensive multisampling encompasses all the velocities, mechanical noises, squeaks, resonances, and release overtones that capture the imperfections and idiosyncrasies needed to breathe life into virtual instruments.
When you install Keyscape, you can’t install only the instruments you want. You must choose either the Full or the Lite installation, selecting content for all 36 or for only 8 sampled instruments. If you choose Full, 77GB of data will be installed. If you choose the 30GB Lite installation, you’ll get six electric pianos, a Yamaha grand, and a Clavinet C–essential instruments for live performance. If the sample data were uncompressed, installations would require three times as much drive space, according to Spectrasonics.
KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
Keyscape’s user interface resembles Omnisphere 2’s, with a patch browser on the left and controls on the right. Instruments are divided into families—acoustic pianos, Clavinets, and so on—with patches furnishing variations of each instrument. Keyscape is not multitimbral, meaning it loads only one instrument at a time. Its parameters are tailored to individual instruments, and they duplicate the original instrument’s controls when possible.
Dominating the non-resizable GUI is a graphic image of the active instrument, with tabs that determine the knobs, buttons, and menus displayed below. Tabs vary from one instrument to another, but Main, Settings, and Info are always available. Depending on the instrument, one or two additional tabs may be labeled EQ, Tone, Amp, Effects, Wah, or Comp. Even the Main parameters depend on the selected instrument and may include sections for Mix, Timbre, Character, Performance, and so on.
You can begin playing an instrument almost as soon as you select it, even before it’s finished loading. However, sustained notes from the previous instrument will be cut off when you select a new patch.
One of Keyscape’s most touted capabilities is that Omnisphere 2 can open its patches, courtesy of sharing the Spectrasonics STEAM folder. Sure enough, after I installed the latest Omnisphere update, all of Keyscape’s content appeared in its browser. Apply Omnisphere’s effects and so on to Keyscape’s patches. You can create multitimbral setups with splits and layers combining Keyscape and Omnisphere content, and that’s a significant plus for many users.
When appropriate, Spectrasonics recorded acoustic instruments in stereo using close mics and room mics and electric instruments through their outputs. Both direct and miked samples were recorded when possible.
For instruments with preamps, their controls are modeled in software. Electric instruments are paired with modeled amplifiers or stompboxes with which they’re commonly used. An electric piano, for example, may include models of a Vox AC-30 or Fender Twin Reverb, and some instruments emulate name-brand chorus, distortion, or wah-wah pedals.
Keyscape’s documentation, like other Spectrasonics reference guides, is available online, and it is downloadable as a PDF document if you prefer. We have a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s take a brief look at Keyscape’s content.
For LA Custom Grand Piano, Spectrasonics sampled a 7-foot, 6-inch Yamaha C7 with modifications to increase its dynamic and tonal range. Its sound is exceptional, with a sweet tone that cuts through a mix without ever sounding brittle. The velocity layering is perfectly smooth and natural, with no discernable steps between samples, and it’s a pleasure to play. If you already play a high-end sampled piano and you’re happy with it, this instrument won’t necessarily displace it, but you’ll have an excellent alternative when you need one.
Fig. 1. The Wing Upright from 1900 can be played using its natural sound or prepared, offering Marxophone and tack-piano timbres. Keyscape’s other acoustic piano is a rare and extraordinary Wing Upright manufactured in 1900 (see Figure 1). It’s fitted with a mechanism that has flexible blades terminating in metal balls that bounce on the strings, very much like a Marxophone. Another mechanism positions metal rings between the hammers and strings to produce tack piano sounds without modifying the hammers.
You’re probably familiar with Rhodes Pianos, developed by Harold Rhodes in the mid-’60s. Hammers strike tuned metal rods called tines, and electromagnetic pickups convert their vibrations to electrical signals. Rhodes–Classic is a restored 88-key Mark I Suitcase model from the early ’70s. Rhodes–LA Custom is a handpicked 73-key Suitcase built in 1974 and modified to produce the rounder, more bell-like “E” Rhodes sound heard on hundreds of records. Keyscape’s patches offer different combinations of amp settings, reverb, and modulation effects for both instruments.
The Vintage Vibe Tine Piano is a modern instrument that looks like a Wurlitzer and sounds like a Rhodes. It incorporates recent technology to improve the playing experience while remaining faithful to the Rhodes sound. Its tone lies somewhere between the two genuine Rhodes Pianos.
Wurlitzer electric pianos are essential to many musical styles (think “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles). The hammers strike metal blades called reeds, and pickups are connected to a built-in amp and speaker. The 140B sampled here was the first solid-state model and has a 1/4" output as well as a speaker.
The best-known Wurlitzer is the 200A, introduced in 1974 with an updated amp and speaker design and a tone that’s not as bright as the 140B’s. In addition to patches recorded from both direct and speaker outputs, you can dial in the keys’ mechanical sound on both Wurlitzers.
The Yamaha CP-70 has a real piano action and strings, along with piezoelectric pickups and an internal preamp. Although it weighs 287 pounds (I used to help move one frequently), it splits into two sections and still stays in tune. Keyscape captures the CP-70’s shimmery personality better than any other sample library I’ve heard.
The rarest electric piano in the collection is the Weltmeister Claviset, made in East Germany in the ’60s. It has metal reeds plucked by rubber discs, electromagnetic pickups wired to a batterypowered preamp, and filter tabs for selecting tones.
Additional electromechanical pianos include the vaguely Wurli-like Hohner Pianet M, N, and T. The Pianet N sounds rather Wurli-like, the M sounds thinner, and the T sounds darker. You also get some sparkly Rhodes-like tones from two digital pianos and a synth made by Roland.
PLUCKED, STRUCK, AND BLOWN
Invented in the early 1300s, the clavichord was primarily for home use and composition because it was too quiet for public performance. Small metal blades called tangents strike brass or iron strings, whose vibrations travel through the bridge to the soundboard. The patches here present some fine variations. My favorite, Clavichord– Epic Cinema, relies on octave layering and generous reverb to make it unique and gargantuan.
Originally designed as an electric clavichord for classical performance, the Hohner Clavinet took off in an entirely funkier musical direction after the release of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” in 1972. The Clavinet C, included here, offers more punch with fewer electronics than the better-known D6. Vintage Vibe delivers a modern take on the Clavinet sound with the Vibanet. It has an onboard auto-wah filter and a mechanical mute switch, both modeled in Keyscape. Its sound is fuller and brassier than the Clavinet C’s, and natural pitch bend during every decay gives it a bit more quack.
Fig. 2. Using Keyscape has certainly broadened my perspective on keyboard history. For example, how many readers have played a dolceola, the fretless zither with a keyboard. The dolceola is a seldom-seen fretless zither with a keyboard made in the 1900s (see Figure 2). Its sound resembles a hammer dulcimer with a dollop of guzheng, depending on the patch. Some patches are evocative of the Old World, and others are more harpsichord-like.
For Electric Harpsichord, Spectrasonics sampled a Baldwin Solid Body Harpsichord, the kind The Beatles used on the song “Because.” This collectable instrument was sold from the mid-’60s to early ’70s. Most patches also model the solid-state Baldwin Model C1 Custom guitar amp that’s usually paired with it.
Fig. 3. Some patches provide effects that are unavailable on the original instruments. I’ve become enamored of the patch Harmochord – Dronescape Deep, which features a sub-octave unison and 25 seconds of reverb hang time. Made in the ’60s, the Koestler Harmochord is an electric harmonium with a motorized blower instead of bellows (see Figure 3). Playing the unprocessed Harmochord patch feels and sounds like playing a real pump organ, with harmonicalike tones and mechanical noises specific to individual keys.
CLEAR AS BELLS
Invented in 1886, the bell-like celeste has a tone similar to a glockenspiel, but not as bright. You probably know it from Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The Simone Brothers built the one sampled here in the 1940s.
The Schulmerich ChimeAtron is a miniature electronic carillon. Housed in a 2-foot-tall wood enclosure, it has dual keyboards, a tube amp, and hammers that strike bell rods. I especially like the Vibraharp patches. It’s a shame that so few ChimeAtrons survive, because the tone is quite lovely.
Another rare keyboard, the dulcitone has felt-covered wooden hammers that strike tuning forks resonating in a small wooden sound chamber. Because of this instrument’s portability and tuning stability, it was once popular aboard trains. It is quieter and has a slightly brighter sound than the celeste, which proved more suitable for orchestral use.
Fig. 4. Omnisphere users can open Keyscape instruments and toggle between either plug-in’s user interface.MINI PIANOS AND KEYBOARD BASS
Toy pianos can be ideal for creating whimsical or otherworldly atmospheres. The 1930s-era upright sampled for Toy Piano–Classic has tuned glass bars instead of strings. Fitted with metal tines, the Muse Toy Piano Grand produces a more satisfying tone. Tones above A4 sound more like a real piano (as if they were sampled from a different instrument), and tones in the lower register sound like church bells.
Schoenhut (in business since 1872) made the Glockenspiel Toy Piano, which has metal bars and really sounds like a glockenspiel. A Jaymar Upright Toy Piano from the 1930s had its tines replaced with saucer bells, giving its tones a tinnier ring you might associate with an ice cream truck or a door opening in a cheese shop.
Also in the 1930s (apparently a golden age for tiny pianos), Wurlitzer manufactured a series of compact pianos. One of them is the rare 44-note Student Miniature Grand. It has a split lid that opens like wings, a cast-iron harp, and two strings per note. It sounds more like a real piano than toy pianos do, especially in the upper ranges.
Music historians consider the Rhodes Pre-Piano the first electric piano. In 1946, Harold Rhodes designed and built a few of them by hand. Beset by manufacturing challenges, he abandoned it two years later. The Pre-Piano’s sound more closely resembles the Muse Toy Piano Grand than the piano that would make him famous.
No bass player was ever a member of The Doors. Instead, Ray Manzarek played a Vox Continental or Gibson G-101 organ with his right hand and a Rhodes Piano Bass with his left. Introduced five years before the Rhodes Piano, the Piano Bass has metal tines, rubber-tipped hammers, and a passive output. Its unique personality shines through in these patches, with some of them modeling a Fender Bassman amp. Another selection, Vintage Vibe’s Tine Piano, has a switchable tube preamp, a greater dynamic range, and more percussive punch.
Also included are the Basset 1 and Basset 2 from East German manufacturer Weltmeister. Both are battery-powered instruments with tines plucked by rubber discs. They sound darker than the other keyboard basses and suffer from inharmonic coloration and poor dynamic response.
IN THE KEY OF LIFE
Some of Keyscape’s best patches are duos, virtual instruments created by layering two sampled instruments. Electric Acoustic Grand, for example, combines LA Custom C7 with the Yamaha CP70, and Christmas Blend combines Celeste with Toy Piano – Glock. Some duos give you Mix controls to alter the balance between them.
Keyscape is a keyboard enthusiast’s dream collection. Spectrasonics assembled the most soughtafter instruments they could find, painstakingly captured every tonal subtlety and noise, mapped the results, and delivered a sample library like no other. Where else could you find so many cool and interesting keyboards in one collection to add to your stage or studio rig?
As always, nothing is perfect. You need a fast computer (an SSD is recommended) to handle so much real-time data (though thinning it is possible), and Keyscape is available only as a plug-in (a standalone version is planned). Without exception, though, playing every instrument is as close to playing the real thing as technology can muster. If you enjoy playing keyboards, you’ll love Keyscape.
Tons of sample data. Tremendous tonal variety. Painstaking multisampling and processing. Undo/redo functionality. Excellent effects modeling. A consistently realistic playing experience.
Tons of sample data. Can’t select individual instruments to install. Needs a fast computer or SSD for optimum results. Can’t resize GUI. No standalone version.
Contributing editor Geary Yelton has reviewed software for Electronic Musician for 30 years. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and Venice, Florida