The Wurlitzer electric piano has proved a tough nut to crack in software. Can Arturia rise to the challenge?
I love my Wurlitzer EP200. With Dark Side Of The Moon, Crime Of The Century, and Houses Of The Holy providing the soundtrack to my discovery of synthesizers, the open road, and young ladies whom I still remember with great affection, it was inevitable that a certain fondness for the music and the sounds within would result. So, many years ago, I bought a lovely Wurli from a ballet studio that was upgrading to one of the earliest digital pianos, and it proved to be everything that I hoped. Of course, I was never going to subject it to the indignities of gigging, not least because, despite its diminutive size, it's a weighty beast, and awkward to move with its legs screwed in. What's more, there are numerous other ways of obtaining the same sound on stage, from wavetable synthesis to sample-based synthesis and, most recently, physical modelling. Except that the universe doesn't want to play fair. Even today, the sound and feel of the EP200 has proved difficult to recreate and, in two recent reviews, I wrote that "the EP200's barking sound is notoriously difficult to synthesize, model or sample. Consequently, I wasn't surprised when I caught a whiff of splits and velocity zones” and "it's not bad, but it lacks a little punch and its velocity zones are too noticeable”.
Clearly, the EP200 has proved to be the Achilles Heel of many an otherwise excellent vintage keyboard emulator. But now it's Arturia's turn to throw their hat into the ring. The company have built their reputation on developing accurate recreations of synthesizers, often extending their capabilities by a significant degree while attempting to retain the essential character of the original, so the EP200 seems to be perfect fodder for its developers. Could they succeed where others have failed?
Let's get the techie stuff out of the way first. Wurlitzer V is an RTAS, VST and AU plug-in that also runs as a stand-alone application. Because there are no samples, installation takes much less space than you might imagine (31.3MB for the stand-alone version), so I installed and authorised all four. Configuration was a doddle. I specified the MIDI input and the audio output (I didn't need to adjust the buffer size or sample rate) and I was ready to go.
When you launch Wurlitzer V (which is also nice and quick, because it doesn't need to load gigabytes of sample data) it presents you with a simple but attractive representation of the original piano, with just the volume and vibrato knobs visible. But if you then click on either speaker grill, two further panels reveal themselves, and a whole bunch more knobs appear in the centre of the instrument. To the left, there's a 10-band graphic equaliser, and to the right you can change the velocity curve using five anchor points to create non-linear or even inverted responses if desired. If you don't have a MIDI controller keyboard to hand when you set this up, the position at which you click on a key on the on-screen representation determines the MIDI velocity generated — low values toward the back of the key, and high ones toward the front. This is what would happen if you pressed a key with equal force on a real keyboard, so that's a nice touch.
However, the main action takes place in the enhanced central panel, which now boasts controls for adjusting the physical model. These include obvious ones such as dynamic response, hammer hardness, pickup distance and pickup angle. Less obvious ones include hammer noise, note-off noise (which is superb), mechanical sustain pedal noise, octave stretch, vibrato rate and 'impedance' (which is a measure of the dissipation of energy in the tines, allowing you to control the durations and brightnesses of the notes). The final control is a menu called Harmonic Variation, within which you'll find eight variations of the underlying physical model. These 11 controls allow you to tailor a much wider range of sounds than your (or my) original preconceptions of the instrument might have imagined.
Just as significant are the effects and mic/amp options offered when you click on the FX button and Output field in the menu bar. As you can see in figure 3, the effects include three pedal controllers — volume, wah and auto-wah — plus four slots into which you can insert any of the eight available stompboxes. The graphics make it pretty clear which products provided the inspirations for these, but I don't think that the images are intended to imply that they are exact imitations, more as guidelines as to what to expect from them. At the end of the signal chain lies the amplifier selected in the Output field. In this figure, the guitar amp has been selected, and there are options for four mic setups facing four different cabinets, for a total of 16 mic/cab combinations. Even the six knobs on the combo amp are 'real', allowing you to sculpt the sound still further using the three-band EQ, overdrive, spring reverb and volume controls. Given that many players would walk into a session with a Wurli and a couple of guitar pedals, screw in the piano's legs, attach its sustain pedal, and plug it into a guitar amp, this is excellent stuff.
The Wurlitzer V has two further tricks up its physically modelled sleeves because, in addition to the guitar amp, there are options for a direct signal path and a Leslie speaker. As shown in figure 4, the direct mode offers a digital reverb sitting alongside its DI box, but the real bonus is the Leslie in figure 6. This inserts a rotary speaker emulation with eight controls that, in addition to controlling the high/low speed, allow you to specify the depth, width and amplitude modulation for the horn and the rotor. Strangely, it allows no control over the rotor/horn accelerations, nor does it allow you to set their speeds independently, but it's nonetheless pleasing to see that Arturia have recognised the importance of the Leslie effect when playing an electric piano.
The first thing that I did when testing Wurlitzer V was assign a whole bunch of MIDI controllers to its controls. This was easy. Clicking on the MIDI button enabled Learn mode, and I was then able to assign a controller to any desired parameter, with minimum and maximum values (which can be inverted to make controls act in the 'opposite' direction) for each. Every parameter is assignable and, in figure 5, the red controls are those that have been assigned, the purple ones are those that have not. Once you have created an edit map for any given controller (keyboard, computer, or whatever), you can then save this for recall at a later date.
Having set everything up, it was time to play. I connected two controllers to my Mac: a lightweight Arturia Analogue Factory keyboard via USB, and a weighty Korg T1 via a MIDI/USB converter. I then took the audio output from my Mac via a 24-bit D-A converter and plugged this into channels 1&2 of my mixer. For the other half of the comparison, I carried my EP200 up two flights of stairs, through two rooms and down a corridor, and plugged it into channel 3. I mention this because, by the time that the my Wurlitzer was sitting next to the Korg and Arturia keyboards, I was really hoping that the soft synth would come up to scratch, not least because I knew that I had to carry the EP200 downstairs again once the review was complete.
Ignoring the factory presets, I chose the Default variation, removed all the effects from the Wurlitzer V signal path, set the EQ flat and the other parameters to what seemed sensible values, and selected the DI output setting. I then tweaked the response curve so that the weighted keyboard on the T1 felt about right, and compared the soft synth with the EP200. It was close, but not identical, so I then started to experiment. At around 2am, something just clicked (figuratively, not audibly) and I had two almost identical Wurlies at my fingertips. Sure, they were distinguishable: the original still has a more complex tone (especially when you belt the low notes) and responds to dynamics in a slightly different way, but, if I had recorded 'Dreamer' on both instruments, I'm sure that few if any listeners could tell which was which. Actually, that's not true... the original EP200 is the one with the slight hum and buzz to which most if not all Wurlitzers are prone.
I then added some effects into the signal path. These worked well, and a trip through the factory sounds also showed how flexible eight effects freely assignable to four slots can be. But I've always had a soft spot for using nothing more than an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser with electric and electronic pianos, and the phaser in Wurlitzer V performed the same task admirably. If you prefer to use the original, there's nothing stopping you from taking the audio output from the soft synth and doing so. With that thought in mind, I plugged my EP200 into a Roland Bolt 100 guitar amp (which is perfect for a bit of snarling, leather-clad, pelvis-thrusting keyboard wizardry) and then played both the EP200 and Wurlitzer V through it. The results were stunning in both cases.
As you can imagine, I was by now becoming rather fond of Wurlitzer V. With no multisamples to create tonal discontinuities up and down the keyboard, and no velocity layers to create tonal discontinuities as I played harder and softer, it responded more naturally than recent sample-based instruments. What's more, a model can be extended over a wider keyboard range without munchkinisation or turning into the voice of doom. Then there's its huge maximum polyphony. I set this to 'just' 96 voices because I couldn't imagine a situation where I would want to play nearly every note on the keyboard twice simultaneously. (But if you're into playing Chopin Etudes at 1000bpm, you can raise the maximum to 256 notes.) Consequently, I'm struggling to be anything less than very enthusiastic about Wurlitzer V. I tried my best to find faults but nothing came to light. I even launched the AU and VST versions simultaneously within Plogue Bidule while the stand-alone was still running, and then tried to make them fall over. I failed. Launching it within DP7 was also problem-free and, while the response was finally beginning to suffer, I now had four versions running on a single, ageing Mac. You can't argue with that.
By this point I was wondering whether I could think of a sensible improvement to Wurlitzer V, and came up with just one: it would be nice if it had an audio input so that other sound sources could take advantage of its effects. But, if I'm honest, that's just being greedy. There was only one area in which I felt that it fell just a tad short, and that was its Leslie simulation, which didn't quite 'do it for me' in the way that everything else did. No matter, there's nothing stopping me (or you) from playing Wurlitzer V through a dedicated Leslie emulator, or even the real thing if we want to.
There's a place for super-duper whizz-bang synths and software packages that do a gazillion things, but I like — indeed, I often prefer — products that do one thing and do it very well, and Wurlitzer V falls slap-bang into the middle of this category. Sure, you can use its effects to twist and mould the basic sound to ridiculous extremes — try factory patches such as 'Beam Me Up Arturia2', 'Zero Tolerance for Silence' and 'Totally Detuned' — but that's the icing, not the cake itself, which is simply a first-class emulation of the Wurlitzer EP200. Given the rarity and escalating cost of the original, not to mention its weight and the sheer hell of trying to tune one when it becomes necessary, I think that this could be the first soft synth to tempt me to take a laptop on stage for audio (rather than video projection) duties. With its robust performance, clear and comprehensive manual, huge flexibility, and excellent sound, this is one soft synth that gets an almost unequivocal 'thumbs up'. Well done, Arturia.
Lennon or McCartney, Oasis or Blur, Stratocaster or Les Paul, Wurlitzer or Rhodes... there's no wrong answer (except Blur, of course). But in numerical terms, there's no doubt that the Rhodes 73- and 88-note pianos dominated pop and rock in the 1960s and 1970s and, as far as jazz was concerned, the Rhodes was the only game in town. This was a consequence of their wider keyboards (an EP200 has just 64 keys), the much simpler mechanism and easier maintenance of the Rhodes and, of course, the difference in the sound. Although the two could sometimes be made to sound similar, the Rhodes' tines had a plummier sound and a longer sustain than the Wurlitzer's reeds and, for many purposes, the Rhodes sat more comfortably in a mix, even when being used for solos. In contrast, the Wurlitzer tended to have more bite and, when played hard, the enharmonic partials and increasing distortion 'barked' at the listener. This gave it a more identifiable character, but probably limited the number of ways in which it could be used.