Following the B9 and C9 Organ Machines, the Key 9 Electric Piano Machine is the latest in a series of DSP-based pedals from Electro-Harmonix. Designed to emulate various electro-mechanical instruments, it offers nine sounds: four of the Fender Rhodes (Suitcase, Dyno-My-Piano modified, 88-key, and with Dytronics CS-5 stereo chorus), a Wurlitzer, as well as organ, marimba, vibraphone, and steel drums.
Designed to provide convincing emulations of electro-mechanical keyboards, the Key 9 is most satisfying when thought of as an effects processor. Two knobs, Ctrl 1 and Ctrl 2, set effects parameters, such as tremolo depth and speed on the Wurli and bass and tine on the Dynamo. The Key 9 has a single input and two outputs—Dry (the unprocessed sound, always present through a buffered circuit) and Keys (a mix of processed and unprocessed). The Dry and Keys knobs determine how much of each signal is present at the Keys output.
If you have ever played a keyboard sound using a guitar, you know that not only what but how you play determines the realism of the end result. For example, you can’t bend notes on a real Rhodes or Wurly. Rather, cleanly articulated, idiomatic parts sound the most keyboard-like. Keeping this in mind, you can get fairly convincing organ timbres, especially in a mix, from the B9 and C9, though it’s much harder with the Key 9.
Well-articulated notes bring out the initial bell-like transients that make you think “Rhodes” in those patches, though the sustained portion of the note gives the emulation away (as does the low-octave doubling that’s apparent as you play lower notes). The Steel Drums and Vibes patches are immediately recognizable as such, with the Mallets and Organ right behind. And I sensed the telltale compressed bark of the Wurli patch only when using the guitar’s mid register and playing without a pick.
I got more realistic results from the Key 9 running a synth through it, where the keyboard’s sustain enhanced the Key 9’s electric piano emulations. But don’t expect the Key 9 to provide the kind of electric-piano sounds you would get from a MIDI-controlled ROMpler.
Nonetheless, the Key 9’s tones are distinct, each with a unique percussive transient. And the less I thought about mimicking keyboard parts, the more I enjoyed using the pedal. I got much more out of it by listening to how the Key 9 translated notes and then figuring out how to use the results musically.
For example, the bell-like attack of the Rhodes patches when the “tine” level is cranked up sounds great with the sub-octave sustain when playing melodically in certain registers. The Mallets patch has a solid wood-like thunk (with a lower octave tone) but very little sustain; another distinctive timbre for melodic parts. Tri-Glorious, on the other hand, has a fine organ-like sustain that sounds great when arpeggiating, especially with chorus dialed in.
The Key 9 works well on a variety of instruments— guitars, keyboards, modular synth. Within a dense mix, the Rhodes and Wurly patches definitely hint at their namesake, but are less successful in highly featured contexts, whereas Vibes, Mallets, and Steel Drums steal the show. Overall, the Key 9 provides an easy way to add percussive keyboard-like timbres to your pedalboard.
Low latency. Tracks well.
Rhodes and Wurly sounds are not always convincing. Occasional artifacts when playing multiple notes (e.g., major 7th intervals in the Vibes and Mallets patches).