ToonTrack EZkeys Essential Pianos Review
I was more than a little ‘jazzed’ when I first heard that Sampling giants, ToonTrack, were adding pianos/keyboards to their industry-leading product line-up. I had already been a more-than-satisfied ToonTrack customer for a couple of years. I rely on various “EZdrummer” modules as my drum sample/construction software of choice. As soon as I’d heard the early release news about the original, ground-breaking “EZkeys Grand” Piano sample library/sequencer, I anticipated that song writers and home producers would be elated with the news. I don’t mean to come across as pretentious, but my assumption was absolutely correct.
The initial release of “EZkeys Grand” created no small ripple in the sampling pool. Not only did “EZkeys Grand” hold up extremely well against its large, multi-gig competitors sound-wise, but it gave something to non-keyboardists that no other competing piano sample library could – built-in midi phrases and song construction tools. ToonTrack serves up first-rate piano sounds, assorted musical styles, transposition, drag n’ drop song construction and an attractive, photo-realistic GUI. The EZkeys line-up will empower novice song-writers and non-keyboardists with professional-grade piano compositional parts, while providing professionals a means of creatively fast-tracking song ideas; quickly and easily.
This review will be an exhaustive inspection of the cross-platform “EZkeys Essential Pianos” collection. This wonderful suite of pianos is comprised of: EZkeys Grand, an impeccably sampled Steinway “Model D”; EZkeys Classic Keyboards, a totally vibe’n set of Wurlitzer “A200” and Rhodes “Mark I” electric pianos; and EZkeys Upright, a harmonically-pleasant, old-time, upright piano. Any one of these packages retails for €139/$179 by itself, with any additional EZkeys library available for only €69/$89. As a bundle, the EZkeys Essential Pianos suite rings in at €249/$325. Just for grins n’ giggles we’ll also get introduced to a truckload of EZkeys midi libraries in the styles of: R&B, Gospel, Jazz, Country, Blues, and Pop.
When ToonTrack first came on the scene, they were toting one of the first, and still most highly regarded, drum kit sample libraries to have ever been unleashed. Not only did the drum samples sound GREAT and work REALLY well, but home producers and small budget studios were finally empowered with amazingly realistic drum sounds and extensive midi drum patterns. The innovative ‘drag n’ drop’ midi browser accords the user with the means of constructing professional drum tracks easily and quickly. There are now other competing drum software suites offered, but most serious enthusiasts agree that EZdrummer is still one of the very best.
EZkeys provides equally impressive features for piano/keyboard production situations. These fantastic-sounding samples are well-balanced and well-articulated. The dynamics levels are second-to-none, while the built-in effects are top-drawer. If you’re a song-writer or producer needing to put a demo together, that will sound great in a hurry, ToonTrack’s sequencing software delivers! The Producer, who wants to actually “produce” excellent piano tracks with the EZkeys sample libraries, can rest assured that he/she will not be settling for sub par sounds. These blisteringly fast samples match standard CD quality perfectly. The library sizes are surprisingly small due to ToonTrack’s proprietary compression algorithm; they load very quickly. In a word, I “love” the EZkeys libraries.
ToonTrack’s piano and classic keyboard packages are carefully-crafted, high quality sample libraries. It is this reviewer’s opinion that their sound quality alone makes these Virtual Instrument plug-ins valuable commodities. Furthermore, as their pioneer forefathers of percussion before them (EZdrummer/Superior Drummer), these keyboard sample libraries bring ease-of-use and robust midi sequencing features with them. These dillies are available for both MAC & PC in both 32 and 64 bit (VST, AU, Rtas).
The four instruments bundled in the “EZkeys Essential Pianos” collection all share common graphical qualities. This collection maintains an appreciable visual continuity from one instrument to the next. I admire this methodology of interface design since it promotes familiarity and quick results, freeing the user from having to hurdle over unnecessary learning curves. ToonTrack’s choice of colors allows all four of these instruments to visually blend with sundry musical tastes and production interests.
Very much in the tradition of EZdrummer, each keyboard is loaded into the one GUI shell by selecting it from the “Library” dropdown menu. Each piano/keyboard shares common, user-adjustable parameters located on both the left and right-hand sides of the instrument. These controls are discreetly kept from view underneath the “Dynamics” and “Tuning” panels, which are opened by simply clicking on them.
Installation and Authorization:
Upon receipt of purchase, the fortunate owner receives an email from ToonTrack containing a direct download link to the sample libraries and registration code(s). Each individual library is approximately 500 (-/+) MBin size and download quickly from ToonTrack’s speedy servers.
ToonTrack’s method of copy protection is of the “challenge/response” variety, but since ToonTrack have a solid, well-established reputation, I won’t hammer them too harshly about it. I’m an anti-dongle and anti-CR audio software user. Fussing with dongles is no fun; especially for laptop users. C/R protection often limits the number of valid activations or can leave you DOA if the company goes out-of-operation. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate that a few companies, such as ToonTrack, Moddart, FXpansion, and etcetera, make their implementation of C/R protection as customer-friendly as possible.
ToonTrack products may be activated on two computers at a time, with a total of four activations before a license expires. Although it isn’t publicized, so as to not encourage “mild piracy” or license abuse, ToonTrack will asses a valid customer’s need for an extended number of licenses on a per need basis.
On the left, the “Dynamics” panel features a pair of scrollable buttons to adjust both minimum and also maximum velocity levels. This feature can be very handy if the player is using a ‘finicky’ keyboard that doesn’t offer enough velocity control. Another scenario that allows this feature to shine is if one would rather use these onboard dynamics controls instead of manually editing velocities within a piano roll editor. The “Soft Note” slider helps to adjust the ‘bite’ of the keyboard’s attack. Clicking on the small rectangular icon, located beside the “Hi” and “Low” velocity buttons, will open an advanced velocity control window. The window features a familiar X/Y dynamic graph where the user can shape his/her desired velocity curve.
To the right, the tuning panel provides complete control over transposition – adjustable by octave, semitone, and cents. The hidden panel covers are closed by clicking on them again. By the way, these panels open and close with some cool, ‘bling-bling’ animation, enriching the whole user experience nicely. Attractive, red appointments on the various buttons and knobs add a crowning touch.
Beginning with “EZkeys Grand”, we are presented a lovely, photo-realistic, 3D image of a polished, ebony-black grand piano. The perspective is that of a standing position, directly in front of the piano keyboard. Light, barn-grey flooring exudes a warm, restful ambience; beckoning the player to gently quicken his/her foot-steps and reach excitedly to rest pensive fingers upon the elegant, inviting keys.
“EZkeys Grand” presents itself with poise and grace. Pleasant lighting, subtle shadowing, tasteful textures and deftly rounded edges all contribute a mood of elegance and charm. However, as classy as the interface design is, it thankfully does not have a pretentious air about it.
The pair of “EZkeys Classics” (Wurlitzer A200 & Rhodes MKI) show off a decidedly old-skool charisma that fairly captures the user’s attention in classic style. No longer lookin’ all polished n’ poised, the user now has a visual impression of being smack-dab center stage in a large club. The flooring gives off an impression of a well-worn stage, complete with a bit of gritty (not dirty) texturing.
The lighting effects are not quite as subdued and the brighter elements are highlighted as if there were half a dozen par64 lamps hotly shinin’ down on ya, waiting for you to ‘nail’ some “Ray Charles” or “SuperTramp” licks. There is even a kool little combo amp and a nice smattering of cables to be seen while the Rhodes MKI is loaded up. The Rhodes must have been used on the road longer too; it has a few ‘marks n’ knicks of character’ on it.
“EZkeys Upright” radiates the charming allure of a well-cared-for, quality upright piano such as would be found in Grand Mama’s parlour or an elite recording studio. This charming instrument is depicted in beautifully-buffed, rich, mahogany wood and rests gracefully upon an expensive, grey, patterned rug. As with its elegant big brother, “EZkeys Grand”, the flooring textures seen here mimic the appearance of an immaculately-kept, aged, barn-wood floor. Again, delicately rounded edges and subtle shadowing produce an elaborate interface that invites the user to sit and play.
Operations & Control:
The bottom section of the EZkeys interface accommodates the midi browser and sequencer/timeline. Here, the user is free to create and manipulate chord progressions and musical patterns - of substantial complexity if so desired. By default, the “Add Chord” button will place a “middle C” chord on the timeline, covering a full measure. The user can easily change the chord voicing and pitch by clicking on the chord name, directly above the measure. This will bring up a nifty “Circle-of-fifths” chart, which will always be positioned directly above the chord block that has been clicked. The chart is especially easy to understand if the player is even slightly familiar with classic, musical-theory principles. Otherwise, it makes for a great learning aid. *Smile.
On the “Circle-of-fifth” wheel, root chords and their relative minors are always positioned together. The “Details” tab, situated along the top of the wheel, will expand the chart even further so that a composer can alter chord inversions and voicings by a dizzying degree – diminished, Major 7ths, add 6, add 9, add 11, add 13, and etcetera, are all readily available.
On the left, there is a group of three tool buttons. These facilitate cutting the chord blocks, dragging, general “item selection” operations, and editing chord notation. As regards timeline dragging, a block can be shortened, but it can not be extended beyond its natural musical measure. To make a single chord span more than one measure, the user would simply add a second chord block, shorten it (if necessary) and “merge” the two blocks. To do this, the user would select the two chord blocks, right-click, and choose “merge”. All editing actions can undone/redone by using the undo/redo buttons seen directly beneath the timeline, on the left.
The timeline can be zoomed in/out by clicking on the magnification buttons located on the right-most side of the timeline itself. This task is accomplished more easily by scrolling with a mouse wheel. Any midi pattern can be highlighted, while the midi-browser is open, and easily applied to the selected chord block or selected timeline range. This action is accomplished by clicking on the “Use Brower Midi” button, seen on top left, directly above the sequencer/timeline. Now then, let’s quickly inspect this midi browser. . .
The midi browser is brought to focus by clicking on the “BROWSER” button, positioned near the center of the transport area, below the timeline. Once visible, we can see that ToonTrack have borrowed the comfortable, easy-to-navigate workflow of their EZdrummer products. There are four, evenly-spaced columns within the midi browser that separate Libraries, Genre/Styles, Pattern and lastly, Variation. Any of the resultant variations may be dragged down to the timeline.
By default, EZkeys is tempo-synced to its host, but while it is being used in stand-alone operation, the tempo is fully user-adjustable. Settings can be directly input by typing the numeric value using a computer keyboard or by dragging the adjustable tempo slider. The timing signature is malleable all over the place and allows the timeline to be configured for a wide range of typical popular time signatures. ToonTrack have gone the extra mile for jazz, world-music and non-pop composers in that they included some less common signatures such as 5/4, 6/8, 7/4 and etcetera.
Once a chord progression or composition has been laid out in the sequencer’s timeline, the entire piece can be easily transposed or reassigned to the relative minor - Eg. “C” to “A min”. The track overview area, which is directly beneath the transport controls, houses key-transposition, time-signature and tempo-value boxes. The user needs only click on any one of these value boxes to make adjustments. I’d also like to mention that I have found that all three of these functions work extremely well and the automated major -> minor mode is entirely accurate. It is this reviewer’s opinion that ToonTrack have created a fantastic suite of sample libraries powered by some very fine, ubiquitous and inconspicuous artificial intelligence.
As a general statement, I enjoy the sound quality of each of these sample libraries very much. I am more than a little impressed with the caliber of the samples; especially considering the extremely conservative file sizes. Each library doesn’t consume much more than 500 MB apiece. In this era of huge, multi-gig piano sample libraries, it is wonderfully refreshing to experience such excellent sound quality while the software operates with such undemanding system requirements.
I own quite a few piano sample libraries; most of them are in Kontakt sample format. Although a few of the libraries in my collection are samples of Yamaha and other makes of pianos, I am particularly fond of the indelible sound of Steinway “Model D” Grands. EZkeys “Grand” is also a sampled “Model D”. I am willing to compare it to most nearly any other sample library I own or have ever heard. It is true that once a certain level of quality is achieved, preference will take over so I will not purport that these ToonTrack sample libraries are better than some others. I will, however, go on record to report that EZkeys “Grand” is fast becoming my personal favourite “Steinway”.
The tone is very nicely balanced across all eight octaves and it does not suffer from any abrupt, ‘in-your-face’ velocity foopahs. The perceived resonance, ‘shimmer’ and sympathetic response are set to a lovely, middle-of-the-road level. This grand piano sample library sits very well in a typical mix. The stereo width and panning are superbly implemented. These feature a smooth, even transition from stereo-left to stereo-right across the instrument’s octave span. Not only does this VI (Virtual Instrument) sound GREAT, it is also easy-breezy to work with. Personally, I find this piano very amiable to place within a typical, pop/country/blues/gospel stereo mix.
The instrument’s dynamic range is deceptively broad and even-tempered. The tonal lustre and rich, warm ‘throaty’ sound of a Steinway “Model D” is immediately recognizable. The lower register of this sample library maintains that trademark “bounce” and resilient liveliness that Steinways are famous for. The middle range between B2 and C5 is rich and full, without sounding boomy or boxy. The upper region exhibits well-balanced, articulate highs that fairly sing, free of unmelodious, glass-breaking shrillness.
[EZkeys Classic Electrics – MK I Electric]
I openly admit it, I have trouble controlling my urge to play blues licks and classic jazz riffs whenever I hear the sweet, chillin’ tones of Wurlis and Rhodes.
“Hello, my name is Brother Charles; I am an electric piano addict.”
Seriously, though. These samples are some of the most authentic-sounding, delicious, ol’ skool vibe machines you-a-gonna find, on this side of the digital tracks.
Of the two most famous electric piano types, Rhodes and Wurlitzer, the Rhodes is probably the more versatile. As naturally mellow and moody as it is, the Rhodes can been made to “spank” and “bark”. The Wurlitzer electric pianos have a unique bite in their sound, but they have a little harder time sounding as sweet as their friendly rivals – Rhodes. A Wurli can be played softly, but they tend to sound somewhat dark and muffled at lower velocities.
ToonTrack’s sampling prowess is readily evidenced while playing and listening to their “Electric MK I”. This sample library faithfully reproduces the definitive tines and mechanical tonebar sounds that we all know n’ love. You know what I mean – that distinctive, mellow, almost gritty, bell-like timbre that has been wooing and titillating performers and audiences alike for more than 50 years. “Once a Rhodes fan, always a Rhodes fan”, they say. ToonTrack have definitely captured Rhodes’s retro vibrations in abundance, and blessed us handsomely with “MK I Electric”.
It’s all here – silky, warm, ‘marshmallowy’ tone, sumptuous tremolo, naughty bark, and that bigger-than-life ‘vibe’. This 76 key baby was made for cool. Alfred E. Newman could start playing this honey and be transformed into another Ray Charles, right before your very ears. Well-balanced tone, extra bass response upon demand, and sexy “amp” modelling are sure to be appreciated by any serious Rhodes aficionado.
There is a decent collection of presets that provide instrument/effects patches specific to various musical genres. We are provided patches that feature classic wah, chorusing, phase, delay, and even a Rotary Speaker patch. Personally, I enjoy the “Default” preset. Out of the box, I find the default preset a tad too subdued so I add some “bite” and relax the bass knob to approximately two O’Clock. For late night mellow jazz or romantic R&B, the defaults will work nicely. Some of the patches, including the “Default” patch, include the “Line/Amp” mix knob. This feature grants the user a means of realistically mimicking a blend of DI and “amped” sound. I find it to be very effective.
[EZkeys Classic Electrics – Electric 200A]
“You got the right one, baby” “Tell me what’d I say now?” “Right. Right! You’re bloody well right”
Ok, ok – I’m sure these famous hooks give you the picture. We’re talking about the gritty, raspy, charm of a Wurlitzer A200 electric piano. From Ray Charles, 1959, to Supertramp, 1981, these raucous machines of kool have made their “mark” on the sound of popular music (but not Mark I, Mark II, and etcetera . . *wink). The driving pulse of raspy, hammered reeds through whooshing vibrato has filled many a dance floor and sold many a vinyl record. How prolific was this sound? Well, more than 40 years after the first 200A was manufactured in 1972, many contemporary keyboardists still clamour around Rolands, Nords, and exemplary sample libraries such as this one.
ToonTrack have spared no effort in “nailing” the raw, growling tones of a cranked-up Wurli. Not to be pigeon-holed as a one-trickster, these keys can also get us feelin’ mellow-yellow with big, thick, slightly-muffled, jazzy warmth. Right off the bat, be sure that the rate and speed-adjustable tremolo is ‘to live for’. Usually, we think that tremolo is tremolo, is tremolo; right? Well, the rocket surgeons at ToonTrack have absolutely recreated that vintage ‘Wurlie warble’ with deft accuracy.
The bottom end is round and full. The mids are well-balanced, but they can certainly whack and chirp as necessary. The highs hit our aural, ear-ogenous zones every time, and really come alive when some extra “bite” is added. Familiar, beloved Wurli growl and purr can be heard across all 64 notes of this R&B beast.
Ten well-designed presets cover famous Wurli territory with a selection of classic sounds and effects combinations. The range of effects available here are not as plentiful as those found in the “Electric Mark I”. This minimal collection of effects include the hallmarks though - phase, delay, and reverb. Of course, Line/Amp and tremolo are featured on most of the “Electric 200A” patches. Is this a big issue? It isn’t much of an issue for me because the authentic, bona fide, classic Wurli sounds are assuredly all here. I am surprised that there isn’t a “wah” patch included, though. It would be pretty kewl if the kind folks at T&T were to include a feature that allows the user to create custom-chained effects. This feature addition would cause me to smile even more broadly. Notwithstanding, just wait til ya hear the blessed thing – it’s Suweeet!
”Hey! You kids stop your horsing around in there! If you scratch Nanny’s piano, you’ll get in a pile of trouble.”
This beautiful, stately, upright piano library oozes old-world allure and elegance. Exhibiting the level of quality heard in EZkeys Grand, this piano calls attention to its rich, delightfully well-balanced tone and full, resonant character. Is it just my imagination, or can I actually ‘hear’ the intimate relationship of physics between brass, steel, and wood? I would be very keen to know exactly how the ToonTrack engineers recorded these samples, and what equipment they used. This is not some old “slapped together” sample library; this VI (virtual instrument) reproduces an exquisite piano tonal palette that is befitting the finest of studios.
Both EZkeys “Grand” and “Upright” pianos contain tremendously well-sampled sympathetic response and sustain. The notes decay smoothly and very gradually; as one would expect from a mint-condition, full-scale upright piano. That said, this VI does not suffer from the “choked off” or “small” resonance limitations of an inexpensive apartment piano. Rather, this magnificent, upright-piano sample library features a full-bodied sound replete with charm and distinction. The tonal quality of this instrument is as polished and poised as its interface. It sounds like it looks; “Know what I mean, Vern?”
** I’d like to make a special mention, and extend kudos for the spectacular release samples in the “Upright” library. The hammer strikes and pedal samples are some of the very finest I have ever heard. Period. Bar none. Folks, there are full trunks of realism contained in this one. It is most definitely a keeper. We won’t relegate this one to the garage or the basement. *Smile.
For pure, piano goodness, the “Standard” patch just can’t be beat. If possible, these samples may be even more carefully-tempered than the EZkeys Grand; they are that good. A great niche patch, aptly named “Saloon” is included, offering just the right amount of detuned honky-tonk effect. This one is just the ticket for anyone looking for authentic antique piano sound. In total, there are 14 presets included with this piano library; perhaps positioning it to be slightly more diverse that it’s “Grand” big brother. Contained in this selection of presets the user will find a lovely 80s chorused patch, some cool 70s phase, realistic ambience, pop compression, Swedish house, pleasant ballad effects, a very realistic “Living room” patch, and more.
I can’t recommend this sample library enough. Although I generally prefer the sound of Grand pianos, this particular Upright sample library is stunning.
As far as sample libraries go, these have very conservative system requirements. Even on my old, dual-core AMD X2 Turion, all four of the keyboard instruments played and functioned without a hitch. On a more up-to-date Intel i3 or i5 system, they can be considered very light and manageable. One thing that I did notice, however, is that even when the stand-alone or plug-in is “idle”, these VIs continue to use CPU cycles. This is a very minor niggle, however.
Exemplary sound properties. Even, well-tempered tonal qualities. Industry-leading, Best-in-Class song construction and chord progression sequencing tools. What’s not to love about this magnificent piano/keyboard suite? EZkeys is remarkably easy to use and allows a composer/musician to achieve tremendously impressive results quickly. For the non-keyboardist or beginner pianist, this software is a fantastic learning aid. If the song construction and automated features weren’t enough, the actual sound quality is superb and need not take a back seat to any.
I have purposefully investigated the attributes of these marvellous pianos, and I am indubitably convinced that ToonTrack’s engineers have put extraordinary effort into the EZkeys line. It’s obvious to me that ToonTrack earnestly desire their customers will enjoy these products to the max. They are accomplishing this by ensuring that each instrument in this collection maintains a very exacting level of quality and playability.
I have a couple of minor gripes regarding the EZkeys line. The first demerit is warranted for the lack of EQ controls. A simple three or four band parametric EQ would be greatly appreciated; especially while using these instruments in stand-alone mode. Obviously, while used within a DAW, external EQ plug-ins are available, but still . . .
The second strike I call against EZkeys is that there isn’t a completely user-adjustable mode of operation whereby the user can pick n’ choose his/her desired effects. This is a category of competition where XLN-Audio’s “Addictive Keys” and NI’s “Scarbee Vintage Keys” take home the gold. The modulation effects are very good. The reverb algorithms are certainly respectable. However, I would consider the EZkeys line to be ‘complete’ if there were onboard EQ and user-defined effects chaining capabilities. Notwithstanding, the actual sound quality of the samples themselves is superb.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been a very satisfied ToonTrack customer since some time; “EZdrummer” has been one of my best virtual-instrument friends. Now, EZkeys is very quickly becoming another strong personal favourite of mine.
Brother Charles is a freelance writer, Gospel music artist and minister. Charles had been a professional touring musician during the nineties; working primarily as a lead guitarist in the Canadian country music industry. Brother Charles is also involved with music production and quality home recording.
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