Ever lug a Fender Rhodes or a Wurlitzer electric piano around on tour? If so, you've experienced calluses on your hands, a bad back and other aches and pains the mornings after gigs. Touring with an electric piano is about as much fun as chewing on broken glass. But it is a necessity if you want the real sound of an electric. Even if you're not touring, it's difficult to find an electric piano in good shape and even more difficult to keep it tuned up, properly aligned and sounding good. These things are true of any instrument with moving parts.
There have been some good, and even some great, attempts at synthesizing the electric-piano sound — and some even better samples. But no one has truly nailed it down until recently. The past several years have seen the development of true virtual instruments that use no samples or oscillators. They use the ever-increasing horsepower of your computer to model the physical attributes of real instruments. Rather than playing and modifying a sample, the computer literally calculates and portrays exactly what happens in the physical world when a note is played on such an instrument. This technology has enabled stunningly realistic emulations, and the benefits are now being realized by anybody who wants or needs a real electric-piano sound.
HOW MANY KNOBS?
Applied Acoustics' Lounge Lizard EP-2 is the latest version of what is arguably one of the finest virtual instruments ever developed. The electric piano was originally invented in the 1940s by Harold Rhodes, and it creates its sound with “forks” struck by mallets. These forks consist of two elements, the tine and the tone bar. Control of aspects of those physical components represents the real power of Lounge Lizard. The graphical user interface sports 39 knobs and more than a dozen switches that affect the sound. With the turn of a knob, you can effect changes that would otherwise require removing the top of the piano and physically moving or tweaking pieces of the machine. That's one of the beautiful things about virtual instruments: You can easily make changes to a virtual instrument that would be difficult if not impossible in the real world.
To get you acquainted with Lounge Lizard, here's a brief knob-by-knob tour through the instrument. First, the Force subset of the Mallet section features three knobs: Strength, Keyboard and Velocity. Strength simply determines how much force with which the mallet strikes the fork. Keyboard is similar to the keyboard-tracking knob on your synthesizer. When this knob is in its far-right position, the high notes on the right of the keyboard sound louder. When it's hard left, all notes are the same loudness. Velocity controls the amount of MIDI velocity used in determining the loudness. The Stiffness subset of the Mallet section also features three knobs: Soft/Hard, Keyboard and Velocity. Soft/Hard determines the physical hardness of the mallet. Keyboard once again changes the hardness across the range of the keyboard. Velocity enables the changing of the hardness based upon MIDI velocity.
The four knobs associated with the Noise subset of the Mallet parameters are Pitch, Keyboard Scaling, Decay and Amount. Pitch literally determines the center frequency of the “noise” added to the primary tone. Higher settings of the Keyboard Scaling knob result in quicker decay of the noise the higher you play and vice versa. Decay determines the actual decay time. As you would expect, Amount determines how much noise is present in the final signal.
In the Fork section, you'll find Tine and Tone Bar subsets. Tine sports four knobs: Keyboard Scaling, Decay, Volume and Tune. The Keyboard Scaling set to high values causes the tine to decay more quickly the higher you play. Decay simply determines the decay time of the tine. Volume determines how much tine is present in the final mix, and Tune presents a range of four semitones of tuning from hard left to hard right. There are only two knobs in the Tone Bar subset of the Fork section, Decay and Volume. As expected, Decay determines how quickly the tone bar will decay, and Volume determines the amount of tone bar in the mix.
PICK THAT UP
One of the more exciting and powerful features of Lounge Lizard is the Pick Up control section. It enables easy changes in the nature and the physical positioning of the pickups. In this section are Symmetry, Distance, In and Out knobs. There is also a two-position 1-2 switch. Symmetry moves the pickup in relation to the tine. Centered, the pickup is directly in front of the tine, producing more harmonics (and brightness), whereas left or right positions move the pickup in the corresponding direction, reducing the number of harmonics in the signal. Distance changes the physical space between pickup and tine, with higher values moving the pickup closer, yielding a harsher, more overdriven sound. The In knob determines how much fork signal goes to the pickup. The Out knob determines how much fork signal goes to the effect section. Finally, the 1-2 switch changes between the original Lounge Lizard pickup model versus the new one made available with version 2.
Also new in version 2 is a virtual model for Release (which simulates the effect of the dampers of an electric piano) with Time, Tone and Amount parameters. Time determines the decay time as caused by the dampers. Tone adjusts the stiffness of the dampers, with lower values creating mellower tones. Amount adjusts how much damper noise is present in the final signal. The Release section contributes immensely to a realistic electric-piano sound.
A PAUSE FOR EFFECT
I won't burden you with detailed descriptions of the effects sections, save a brief overview. Each features sync capabilities, allowing for synchronization with the host tempo, which is a new feature in version 2. The Wah section has Frequency and Resonance controls for its filter, as well as an LFO, with Speed and Depth controls, to modulate it. The Phaser (which sounds really nice) has Frequency, Feedback and Mix controls; it also features an LFO for modulation.
No electric piano would be complete without tremolo, and Lounge Lizard has quite a detailed emulation. Of course, Speed and Depth parameters are present, and the effect can be mono or stereo. You also have a choice between triangle and “soft square” waves for the Tremolo. The graphic representation of the soft square looks more like a sine wave, so I was surprised at how drastic the Tremolo was, particularly in Stereo mode, with the signal panning back and forth. Then, it dawned on me that this is the sound of the Rhodes suitcase tremolo, smack on the money. I'll bet many artists would have loved to be able to sync tremolo to tempo throughout the years. Now, it's a piece of cake. Finally, in the effects section, there are separate delays for left and right, with Time and Feedback parameters.
The Lounge Lizard also has Volume, Bass and Treble controls. What's more, a new Browser feature enables quick access to stored patches. (Who ever thought electric pianos would have patches?) Among the presets are programs to emulate classic Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer models, not to mention some wild experimental tones and all of the original version 1 presets. Another fantastic feature is MIDI implementation, which literally enables any parameter to be affected by continuous controllers. This allows nice stuff like wah-wah control with your mod wheel. Lounge Lizard can be used as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in with VST, DXi, MAS and RTAS versions available.
So, now, you know of all the details, but how does this thing actually sound? In a word, it sounds incredible. There are other virtual electric pianos, but none with this high level of sophistication. Every conceivable detail has been considered, and the sound reflects it. As I sat down to play this instrument, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. You see, a Fender or a Wurly has lumpy, heavy keyboard action. But I was using a synth as my MIDI keyboard controller, and when you get a pure, perfect, spot-on electric piano while playing a plasticky synth keyboard, it messes with your brain! With a weighted-action controller, this phenomenon is abated somewhat, but even the “grand piano” action of a good-quality controller isn't the same as that slow, thickish response of an electric.
Just what is my point here? To the human brain, the sound is virtually indistinguishable to all but the most strident electric-piano experts. And I don't mean that it's close enough — the tone of this instrument will serve all purposes that you may have. When I first started playing with this thing, blues and jazz simply poured out of my fingers. I don't claim to be good player by any stretch, but Lounge Lizard somehow extracted certain elements of my playing unlike any other virtual instrument I have ever touched. My wife, knowing that I sold off my old Rhodes Stage 73 many years ago, asked me what record I was listening to in my studio. I told her it was me playing a virtual electric, and she simply wouldn't believe me until she saw it with her own eyes. This thing sounds perfectly real — period.
If you want an electric piano, this is the only product you need. You not only save the weight and bulk of the genuine article but also gain controls and abilities that supersede real electric pianos. In addition to brilliant electric-piano emulation, you also get some nice effects right in the same package, not to mention the ability to snapshot that perfect tone you tweaked until 3 in the morning. The parametric controls yield a panoply of tones, from clean and bright for ballads to filthy and raunchy for blues to phasey and filtered for funk. If you're touring, you'll thank Applied Acoustics for this gift from heaven. But even if you're not, this instrument will inspire you to do things you didn't know you could.
(DIST. BY ILIO)
LOUNGE LIZARD EP-2 > $249; $199 (DOWNLOAD)
Pros: Fantastic electric-piano emulation. Wide support of various platforms.
MAC: G3; 128 MB RAM; OS 10.2 or later; Core Audio-supported interface
PC: PIII/500; 32 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; ASIO-, WDM- or MME-compatible audio interface