Review: MOTU Electric Keys Virtual Instrument - EMusician

Review: MOTU Electric Keys Virtual Instrument

Take a closer look at MOTU's awesome new vintage keyboard instrument, Electric Keys. This VST, Audio Unit, RTAS or stand-alone instrument comes with a more than 40GB worth of spot-on re-creations of classic electric pianos, electric organs, Key Bass, Japanese Stage Pianos, String Machines, Tape Player Keyboards and all sorts of other vintage and rare keyboard instruments, all deeply multi-sampled and sounding really big and true-to-life.
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Take a closer look at MOTU's awesome new vintage keyboard instrument, Electric Keys ($295 MSRP). This VST, Audio Unit, RTAS or stand-alone instrument comes with a more than 40GB worth of spot-on re-creations of classic electric pianos, electric organs, Key Bass, Japanese Stage Pianos, String Machines, Tape Player Keyboards and all sorts of other vintage and rare keyboard instruments, all deeply multi-sampled and sounding really big and true-to-life. Now let's take a quick tour through Electric Keys.

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Each patch includes a “skin” to make it look more like the real thing. Each of the different types of keyboards in the Electric Keys library has it's own skin, but they all share the same panel layout as far as knobs and switches go.

A quick tour of the front panel starting from the left, we have the Master Volume and Master Tune knobs. Master Volume is self-explanatory, and the Tune knob lets you move up to 20 cents in either direction from 440 (either to 420 or 460) for slight on-the-fly adjustments.

Next is the patch selection window. This is where you go to load sounds; each Electric Keys Patch (or Combi) can support two layered tones, and here you can set them up by simply double-clicking one of the slots to enter the patch browser. Clicking on the small arrows next to the patch name will move that slot to the next or previous patch, and each slot has it's own Volume and Panning knobs, as well as a Mute button and Envelopes window (which we'll get into later). From here you can also load and save Combi patches to and from anywhere on your system. The Combi button displays the current Combi title, and the small X helps you quickly clear out both slots for making a new one.

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This is the Patch Browser, divided into categories for easy surfing; individual sets can be installed or not depending on your preference, and by using an alias file (or Shortcut in Windows) you can actually place the .ufs file anywhere you like. Using an external hard drive separate from the one your DAW session is on will improve playability and performance.

Continuing along the front panel, we have three EQ knobs (Bass, Middle and Treble), as well as a Drive knob for dialing in just the right amount of vintage distortion. Finally, every instrument in the collection is also outfitted with a Tremolo/AutoPan section at the far right. The Tremolo switch either enables the effect or turns it off, and the Depth and Speed knobs let you dial in how it should respond. The awesome Sync button connects the Speed knob to the session bpm for timed sweeps; when enabled, the knob values will be given in beat divisions instead of Hz.

The last front-panel option to check out is the Velocity Curve control, which offers four response curves for incoming MIDI, letting you adjust how the sounds respond to the velocity of incoming MIDI. You can make your notes sound all the same (flat), exactly as played (linear), or with slightly enhanced or compressed dynamics.

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On the front panel just below the Patch selection area, a small button labeled FX looks like an output jack. Clicking this will open up the killer FX-Rack in a separate pane, and from there you can augment the tone of your patch with an array of classic effects, each designed to emulate a tried-and-true sound. As you can see, MOTU even made the window look like a beat-up old rack.

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In the Effect Preset section at the top, you can save and load your effect settings. It includes a Global Bypass for immediately removing the FX-Rack from the signal path. MOTU also included a global bpm setting for Electric Keys here; enabling this button will allow each of the sync-able effects to lock to tempo, which may itself be slaved to the session bpm (or not).

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Like the Patch Browser, the FX Patch Browser also appears in a floating black popup.

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Next is the Amp Simulator, an easy-to-use device that can really help dial in the sound you're after. Just turn the Model knob to surf through 15 amplifier models, ranging from guitar and bass amps to strange effects versions such as Metal Bowl, Tin Can or Chipped Glass. The Mic simulator re-creates the effect of stereo amplifier miking; the type knob lets you choose between dynamic, condenser and ribbon mics. Split controls the left/right mix of the two microphones, and Spread controls the distance between them.

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Next is the multi-effects unit, which features a filter, phaser, flanger, chorus and innovative UVInyl section. The filter section offers Frequency and Resonance controls with three filter types. The 12-stage phaser has the requisite Feedback and Depth knobs plus adjustable frequency end points and a bpm-syncable Speed knob. The flanger's speed may also be synced, and it has Feedback, Delay, Depth and Mix knobs to help you dial it in. The straightforward four-stage stereo chorus has Speed, Width and Intensity knobs. All these effects sound classic, warm and really help find those vintage tones that came from the real things being paired with these original effects.

The last piece on the multi-fx unit is the innovative UVInyl device. This makes your audio sound as though it's being played from a vinyl record on a turntable, but also goes a step further. The very cool Year knob sweeps from 1930 to 2000, with each decade providing a unique type of vinyl distortion. Noise, Scratch and Wear knobs adjust the reaction of UVInyl's analog elements, and it's really successful at making things sound old and scratchy but still under control.

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The last section at the bottom contains the vintage Delay and Reverberation units. The Delay is bpm-syncable, with time values in Hz or beat divisions. The Cutoff knob switches halfway between a highpass and lowpass filter type, and you can adjust Feedback and Stereo Spread as well. The reverb offers decay time and high-end dampening, as well as the same dual-type Cutoff knob for filtering out whatever frequencies you don't want reverberated.

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MOTU has covered all the most common keyboardist effects, and you should be able to find everything you need to use these vintage re-creations in your mixes. However, you may still need to adjust some performance elements of your tone, and that's where the Envelopes window comes in. To bring up the Envelopes window, click the small letter E on either of the two parts in the Patch window. From here, you gain control over polyphony count, octave transposition for filtering incoming MIDI, Semi-and Fine-Tuning knobs, pitch bend amount, portamento (with Time/Speed control) and more. Pan Mod lets you animate a patch's panning via several modulators such as Key Follow, Velocity, Random and more. The Filter offers a more detailed filter section than in the FX-Rack, with more than a dozen filter types and Cutoff/Resonance/Envelope controls. From this pane you can also adjust your amp and filter envelopes (each with AHDSR stages and velocity sensitivity), and you can restrict the instrument to a particular range of notes via the Key Range.