Given that we’re a guitar-based magazine I figure that most of us can play guitar and bass parts on our recordings. Next-up in terms of most-used instruments are probably drums/percussion, but we’re going to take a look at the EZkeys Virtual Instrument (VI) from Toontrack, who also produce the highly respected Superior and EZ drum instruments.
First-up, the basics. EZkeys is a collection of sample based virtual keyboard instruments covering a range of acoustic and electric models. Each instrument contains the player-engine, a single instrument sound library, a set of MIDI performance files and some rather clever song-writing tools to adjust the parts played, and once you have one you can add additional instrument sounds at a discounted price, as well as additional MIDI performance expansion packs in various styles.
The main interface is about as simple as VIs get, it’s a picture of the instrument and it really doesn’t need to do very much. In keeping with the EZ part of the name, you don’t get a lot of options to tweak, just a couple of flip-up panels with basic tuning and dynamics options and a dropdown list of presets.
Those presets are created by adding effects to the basic sample sounds; the effects are provided by the very well respected Overloud, and some of the more extreme samples are deliberately rather “unreal” which an extend the use quite considerably beyond what you might expect from a simple piano. The lower section of the screen has a simple set of four virtual knobs which allow you to weak the presets, their functions change with the preset selected and allow a useful degree of fine tuning.
So it’s simple to use but what does it sound like? Obviously, what you like to hear and what I like to hear may differ, but a virtual instrument will always stand or fall on its basic sounds, and in the case of a sampled instrument like EZkeys this means that it needs a set of great sounding recordings of a great sounding (and well played) instrument. Well, Toontrack has a lot of experience in producing high-quality samples and it shows here! Forget the MIDI files, forget the built-in song-writing tools, the stand-alone sounds are great. I’ve used the Grand and Upright pianos extensively, and dabbled with the other instruments, and the basic sound, along with the simplicity of the interface, has made EZkeys my main go-to piano. To my ears there is simply a “rightness” – this is what I expect a piano to sound like (and I don’t have to tweak a page-full of parameters to get to it), just plug-in a keyboard (or a MIDI track) and play.
OK, we’re not really going to forget about the on-board MIDI. Below the keyboard graphic there’s a section of the interface dedicated to the performance aspects of the instrument, and this is where you get access to the MIDI performance files.
Just as with many drum VIs you can simply drag and drop variations onto the timeline in your DAW, and the playback will run along with the project tempo. Even better, select your song’s key before you drag your MIDI performance and it will land in the right key. Hit the playback and you’re good to go; so long as you can find a MIDI part that does what you want it to. Now, MIDI being what it is, you’re free to edit the MIDI track or score in your DAW, but that heads into quite different territory to the “EZ drag&drop” model we started with, and this is where the song-writers tools come in.
Instead of dropping your MIDI files onto a DAW timeline, you can drop them into a timeline within the EZkeys interface, and this timeline knows a thing or two about music theory. It follows tempo and key as you’d expect, and it also tells you about the chords that make up the progression you’ve selected. Because it knows about chords, and about music theory, it can offer variations that will fit into the progression.
It’s easier to use than to read about and while it’s never going to be quite as good as a few thousand hours of piano practice it’s still very powerful and can be very convincing. Just in case this upsets your purist-musician gland a little, there’s a useful “Music Theory Basics” PDF available from the menu dropdown, along with a set of Music Theory sample MIDI files to help you work through it!
You can probably tell that I like EZkeys a lot. I was initially a little concerned that it might be a novel performance editor with some samples thrown-in, but I frequently use it simply for the piano sounds alone. The MIDI integration is both clever and useful, and I’m actually really impressed that Toontrack took the trouble to add the Music Theory material. VIs HAVE to be auditioned - only you can decide if the sounds suit you, but that said - if you need a virtual piano, I absolutely recommend that you give EZkeys a listen, whether you play or not.
The editing makes EZkeys a powerful song-writing tool, the sounds make it a great virtual piano. Excellent!