M-Audio Key Rig - EMusician

M-Audio Key Rig

($129.95)
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You just want some keyboard virtual instruments — not something with a 100GB sound library, or costs a grand, or creates mega brain strain. And you want it to work with XP/OS X, and VST/RTAS on either platform, or AU on the Mac. As it’s going to be a stocking stuffer, with all those holiday bills adding up it better not cost too much. . . .

Then let’s talk Key Rig.

For $129.95, you get a virtual keyboard rack with four modules: SP-1 stage piano with several preset pianos, MS-2 poly synth, MB-3 organ, and GM 4 General MIDI module. They’re overachievers that sound great, and provide most of what most people need.

So what corners were cut? Not many, actually. You don’t get multiple outs for the instruments; they mix together into a single out . . . which is probably how most people treat their soft synths anyway. The MS-2 doesn’t give the same level of programmability as some high-end virtual synths, but the basics are there — oscillator with modeled options, several filter types, envelopes for the filter and amp, multiple modulation options, and a surprisingly complete collection of effects.

The SP-1 could have stopped at just playing back a nice piano, but you can layer (or split) two pianos, chosen from a bunch of presets. And yes, there are a bunch of effects too.

There’s no sample playback module à la EXS24, but the GM module includes a good General MIDI set and should cover your, uh, general needs. The organ holds its own against the world of “Beethreewannabes,” with virtual drawbars and a decent rotary simulation. All the instruments let you assign controllers to the various parameters for realtime control, with a simple “learn” option so you don’t have to think about assignments too much, either.

The GM module and organ don’t have a bunch of effects, but there is a master effects section with one effect chosen from a relatively extensive menu, and each instrument has a send control for driving it. A few other welcome touches include the ease of setting up splits (you can set each instrument to its own keyrange, pan, gain trim, level, and MIDI channel).

I’d give Key Rig very high marks for striking a near-perfect balance of ease of use, cost, and editability. It takes a bit of a hit on your CPU, but hey, it’s four instruments and you might not need to load a bunch of other stuff anyway. Yes, it’s a scratch pad — but with fine vellum paper, along with a pen that doesn’t run and offers a choice of inks. Key Rig is an ideal stocking stuffer that offers exceptional value for money.

(PS: And if you still have some disposable income, there’s an equally cost-effective Drum and Bass Rig with a step sequencer bassline synth, drum module, loop creator, and electric bass guitar module.)