The electric piano remains the same magical instrument as always. I’ve recorded countless of these lovely monsters over the years, but electric pianos in pristine condition are getting more expensive and rare; besides, they take up a lot of space. And given the tuning and maintenance issues that are part of a complex electro-mechanical instrument, I often turn to virtual instruments and sample playback synths instead — even though the sounds often leave me feeling I’m settling for “second best.” So I couldn’t help but wonder whether Velvet — Digidesign’s RTAS plug-in for Pro Tools — hits or misses the realism mark. Let’s find out.
The brainchild of Digidesign’s Advanced Instrument Research group, Velvet is available on CD or via an online Digistore download purchase (323MB Windows XP, 351MB OS X Universal Binary) and once installed, takes about 700MB of hard drive space. The installation is painless, but requires an iLok to handle copy protection.
Velvet includes four vintage electric piano sounds: Rhodes Mark I, II, and Suitcase 73, and a Wurlitzer A200, with user-editable parameters that allow for considerable variations. While I wish that other electric pianos (e.g., Hohner Pianet, RMI, and Yamaha CP70) were also available, in fairness no other virtual instrument I’ve met offers all these sounds. Besides, the chosen models will likely satisfy the majority of users — especially due to the wide-ranging editability.
Inserting a Velvet plug-in into a Pro Tools session loads the basic samples into your computer’s RAM, so changing from one piano type to another requires a few seconds of load time. Of the many presets, Mk I is a classic Rhodes tone with a fat bottom, clear top and great “splat” when played hard; the Mk II generally leans towards a Dyna-Rhodes type tone — thinner and brighter, with not as much bottom and a more defined attack. The Suitcase is similar to the Mk I, but with a touch more midrange and a somewhat jazzy tone. The A200 Wurlitzer is the electric piano that powered so many Supertramp and Ray Charles songs.
The on-screen virtual keyboard simulates velocity by where you click on the keys with your mouse — useful for auditioning sounds over a range of velocities. However, this won’t generate MIDI data; you have to play Velvet via a MIDI keyboard. But playability is one of Velvet’s strong suits . . . with a good keyboard controller, it feels like a vintage electric piano.
As to editing, the preamp section offers a three-band EQ with a fully parametric midrange band, as well as compression and tube drive controls. Key Off controls the note release response and works well for simulating an electric piano’s reaction to quick staccato notes, while the Pedal Noise and Condition (subtle tuning and velocity response changes that simulate “age”) parameters add to the realism and tonal flexibility. Four sliders adjust Velvet’s velocity curve, while two separate velocity response controls — volume and timbre — adjust the volume and timbral variations that are introduced with different playing dynamics.
The MEM switch chooses among three sample size settings: ECO, MID, and XXL. While running Velvet with a Digi 002 on an Athlon 64 4200 dual core with 2GB RAM, CPU usage differs by only a few percentage points when running the XXL instead of ECO version, and RAM consumption changes by only about 69MB. Unless you’re really on the edge with RAM, use the XXL version. It’s not that the ECO or MID versions sound bad, but it’s impossible to hear any velocity switching with the XXL version. I asked Digidesign to explain how they coaxed a sample-based instrument to respond so impressively . . . but citing “trade secrets,” they weren’t telling! Digidesign calls the process “dynamic modeling,” so I surmise modeling technology fills in any gaps in the sample set. Regardless of how it’s done, the results are excellent, and well worth the modestly increased system resource demands.
Several of the preset sounds take advantage of a fairly extensive set of effects. In addition to mono and stereo tremolo (which can go either before or after the rest of the effects), you’ll find fuzz, wah (insertable pre or post fuzz), ring modulator, bit crusher, chorus, flanger, two different phase shifters, amp/speaker cab simulations, and delays (mono, stereo, and tape). Most sound at least decent, while the delays and tremolo are very tasty. They’re a useful bonus, but not really the main attraction as you can process Velvet’s output with other plug-ins anyway.
Velvet is the first electric piano plug-in I’ve heard that can simulate an unplugged sound. The Mechanics controls simulate the “clunk, ring and thump” you hear when playing an un-amplified electric piano; lid on and off options are available. While not normally captured by an electric piano’s pickups, adding a bit of this noise can increase the illusion that you’re sitting at a “real” instrument. Mechanical noise and pickup volume are adjustable separately; you can even bypass the mechanics from the effects section and send it directly to the output.
In addition to no audible velocity switching, there is also no obvious sample pitch shifting or split points — very, very impressive. While plenty of synths do a good job at the thinner, David Foster “Dyna-Rhodes” type sound, Velvet is the first plug-in that knocked me out with its heftier electric piano tones. The thickness and weight of the splat and growl when you dig in is remarkably realistic in terms of both dynamics and tone. I’ve been impressed with some previous A.I.R. virtual instruments, and they’ve worked well in my mixes, but Velvet is the first software instrument from any company that has brought me back time and again just for the sheer joy of playing it.
I was going to try to talk our band’s apartment-dwelling keyboard player (who was also impressed by Velvet) into “storing” his vintage Suitcase at my studio, but I no longer feel the need. Velvet gives me “that sound,” and many more, with none of the hassles of the real thing. For realism, sound quality, modest system resource use and exceptional playability, Velvet has no equal. It’s the new king of virtual electric pianos.
Product type: RTAS electric piano virtual instrument.
Target market: Pro Tools users hungering for realistic, yet highly user-configurable, electric piano sounds.
Strengths: Very realistic sound. Undetectable velocity crossfade and sample split points. Highly playable and touch responsive. Excellent editing options. Reasonable RAM and CPU use.
Limitations: As with all sample-based instruments, it takes a few seconds for samples to load. Only Rhodes and Wurli sounds on hand — it sounds so good, I want more!
List Price: $249.00
SO HOW DID THEY DO IT?
As mentioned in the article, we asked Digidesign to comment on how they got Velvet to sound so good. Though Peter Gorges (Director of the Advanced Instrument Research Group) wouldn’t “tell all,” he was kind enough to offer some insights into Velvet’s technology.
“The exact sound generation method is protected know-how, but I can say the ‘sound’ is based on samples — so the actual notes you hear are sampled and not modeled, as we wanted to make sure Velvet sounded absolutely authentic, and modeling techniques didn’t come close enough for our needs.
“As you’ve noticed, there is no audible velocity switching in Velvet — you can play any note with velocity increasing in increments of one, and won’t hear any switching in the XXL version. I can’t say what we are using, but we’re not using velocity switching. This is why we can offer a Timbre parameter that changes the entire velocity-to-softness/hardness response, which would be impossible with switching.
“The dynamic modeling is a set of multiple algorithms that take the static input from the sample and alter it by modeling the behavior of the piano depending on your playing, other notes still sounding, the analyzed behavior of the original piano, and of course the current parameter settings. They pretty much create everything you can’t capture with samples. To hear what I’m talking about, load the Wurlitzer and set the Key Off parameter to staccato. Now play long and short notes with varying velocity and notice the changes. You’ll hear changes in length, pitch variation, and the ‘bouncing’ of the virtual tines. Those factors make a decisive difference to the user’s perception of authenticity and playability, and we spent a lot of time to get them right. In fact the parameter set for just the staccato behavior comprises 60 parameters, all interacting with each other and requiring different settings for each piano.”