First they got you hooked on their drums, and now XLN Audio are pushing pianos...
XLN Audio's Addictive Drums VST instrument has been around for a few years now, and has gained many loyal fans. Now the Swedish company have embarked on a mission to expand upon their Addictive branding. Addictive Keys (aka AK) turns its attention from sticks and skins to ivories and strings — and indeed hammers and tines — with a product that aims to give keyboard players extensive creative control over its sounds.
AK has no built-in library of style-based phrases, licks, loops or other automated musical assistance — it's all down to you and your fingers. Like Addictive Drums, AK's sample library is not cast in stone; AK itself is merely the host player for whatever instruments XLN produce for it. For this initial release, three instruments are available: Studio Grand and Modern Upright acoustic pianos, and a Mark One Fender Rhodes electric piano, which are purchasable separately or as a bundle with a price break. A free demo of the Studio Grand can be downloaded from XLN's web site. Note that the AK player itself is freely downloadable, it's the instruments that you have to pay for. The demo is restricted to a 49-note range and three mic perspectives, otherwise it's fully functional and gives a full taste of the sound-creation abilities of the AK player. So is Addictive Keys just another piano sample library, adding to the terabytes of existing sampled pianos languishing on the world's hard drives, or does it have something unique to offer?
It's not unusual for sampled pianos to offer different mic perspectives, typically in close, mid and far positions. Addictive Keys, however, addresses the subject in meticulous detail, using a selection of high-end boutique and vintage mics to provide up to seven mic perspectives for each instrument. Since using all the mics simultaneously would be needless overkill, taxing your computer severely and causing the Dowager Lady Grantham to raise an eyebrow in withering disdain, AK allows for up to three perspectives to be loaded at one time. (See 'Microphone Perspectives' box for more details.)
The Studio Grand is a Steinway Model D, recorded in a large studio from six mic perspectives. Four stereo pairs cover close, mid and ambient positions, with two mono mics to capture side and body tones. The impression is of a real instrument in a real space, with plenty of mechanical detailing and resonance. The natural recorded tuning is just imperfect enough to impart life and movement, and, while it's perhaps not Deutsche Grammophon perfection, the overall effect is pleasing. There's plenty of body and sustain, so you don't feel compelled to add compression to bolster it, although that option is open to you! An impressively wide range of tones is possible simply by careful mixing and matching of the mics, even before adding any other processing. For a highly detailed, in-yer-face tone suited to rock and pop, the close X/Y pair mixed with a touch of the close wide pair delivers the goods; adding some top-end EQ to the X/Y pair really helps it cut through. By way of contrast, a careful blend of mono body, wide mid and wide ambience makes for a mellower, classical sound, particularly when boosting sympathetic resonance above its natural level.
The Modern Upright is a Yamaha U3, recorded in an auditorium room in seven mic perspectives, covering the front, the sides, below, behind and ambience. This piano came as something of a revelation, having been disappointed by other sampled uprights suffering from a lack of body and sustain, along with the myth that dissonant tuning is a prerequisite for uprights. Not so in this case: like the Studio Grand, it's positively brimming with detail, and with plenty of sustain. Low-end tuning and clarity can often be an issue with upright pianos, but here everything remains focused, right down to the low A. The upper registers are an utter delight, with just the right amount of impact and a delicious, chiming quality. I could tinkle away dreamily up there for hours...
I owned what I considered to be the 'perfect' Fender Rhodes Stage 73 for many years, and have always been amazed at how radically different any two examples of these pianos could sound. The Fender Rhodes MkI sampled for AK was recorded in a large studio from seven mic perspectives, although, strictly speaking, it's two direct inputs and five microphones. It has a predominantly dark and plummy tone, a sound I associate with the late '70s, and as being especially popular with American keyboard players. Not wishing to put a damper on matters (no pun intended), it's also the complete antithesis of my personal 'ideal' Rhodes! Personal taste notwithstanding, there are some consistency issues here. Velocity switching between layers is often not only painfully obvious, but the tone across the keyboard — particularly in the medium velocity range — varies dramatically. The all-important mid-range from C#3 (C3 being middle C) to C4 and the F#2 to A#2 cluster are distinctly muted, with very little timbral variation, lending an excessively spongy feel, while certain notes (C3, B2, F2, E2, D#2, D2, B1) stick out like sore thumbs, even at moderately low velocities. These problems could be attributed to the way this piano was set up; the spongy notes suggest that the tines are too far from the pickups; the tines may also need to be vertically re-aligned to match the harmonic content of the stronger notes. The 'sore thumb' notes sound like the tines are rather too close to their pickups, so even gently played notes sound like a dog with laryngitis. There also appear to be no release samples for this instrument, which is a shame — it's that milk-bottle pitched 'zhupp' of dampers bringing tines to rest that characterises the Rhodes sound so much — and it's missing here. I can't help but compare this MkI with the Native Instruments Scarbee version (also a MkI), which ticks all the boxes for mechanical detail, tone, consistency and dynamic range.
The designers of AK's GUI clearly didn't want anyone to get lost: two of its screens are devoted to navigating around the instruments and their presets. The first of these is the Gallery, from where instruments are selected. The Gallery has two alternative views; one displays one instrument at a time, the other shows all installed instruments together. Selecting an instrument loads it immediately — and I really mean that: it takes less than a second to become playable! In either Gallery view, each instrument has three thumbnail icons that take you to one of three Explore pages. The Explore pages are basically a way of presenting a selection of ready-to-go presets in three different categories: Producer, As Recorded and Selections. The Producer category contains a handful of presets illustrating a range of different treatments. Names such as 'Imagine Grand', 'Lounge' and 'Honky Lady' indicate their stylistic intentions. Four macro controls offer further tonal variations: Tone, Soft/Hard, Timbre and FX macros are provided for the two acoustic pianos, while the Mark One Rhodes has Tone, Drive, Reverb and Tremolo. The presets in the As Recorded category, as its title suggests, are the natural, unadulterated recordings without any processing or effects — the presets are based solely on different mic balances and configurations. The Selections category provides a larger selection of presets, showing off some of the more extreme and occasionally experimental effects and treatments possible with AK.
Before we move on to AK's editing functions, it's worth stopping by at the Session Settings page, accessed via the cog icon at the top right of the screen. These program preferences can be tweaked and saved as your startup settings; additionally, any temporary, unsaved changes will also be saved along with your DAW project, and restored on relaunch. The eye-catching tuning and keyboard display occupying half the screen suggests the ability to tune individual notes, as implemented in Pianoteq Pro and Roland's V-Piano. Unfortunately, you can't do this — the display is merely a visual reference for the current tuning. However, a substantial list of 30 tuning temperaments is available; selecting any of these updates the tuning graph accordingly. A nice touch is the option to change the root scale of these temperaments, so Baroque and other period music can be performed in any key. Stretch tuning can also be applied to all temperaments except 'As Recorded'. Pitch-bend up and down ranges can be separately adjusted, while master tune is adjustable from A=426.24 to A=454.20. Both the upper and lower velocity response range and the velocity curve are adjustable, the latter all the way from mega-light through to mega-hard, so just about any master keyboard or playing strength should be catered for. The X-Mod section relates to AK's MIDI controllable parameters, which we'll touch on later; its three possible modulation sources are mod wheel, aftertouch and one assignable controller of choice.
As interesting as it is to explore the presets, nothing beats getting your hands dirty with a screwdriver, some pliers and a stout wrench. The Edit page is your virtual toolbox, and is divided into three sections. The upper section governs everything to do with sample playback, beginning at the top left with an instrument selection box. The parameters on offer depend on the currently loaded instrument. Both acoustic pianos share the same parameter set, starting with a knob for adjusting the degree to which the Una Corda pedal softens the tone. Sustain-pedal noise is fully adjustable from none to +10dB above recorded level. The Sustain box has two controls: Body adjusts the amount of sympathetic resonance when the sustain pedal is pressed, Noise alters the amount of string resonance under the same conditions. The effect of the Body resonance is very marked, but I was hard pressed to hear any difference when adjusting the Noise level, to the point that I question whether it was actually working! Next up is the velocity scaling fader, a very useful tool for restricting the highest and lowest playable velocity layers, while still retaining the full velocity to volume range.
The Pitch, Filter and Volume tabs take us into synthesis territory. On the Pitch tab are octave-shift buttons, vibrato rate and depth knobs, and an optional pitch envelope. The envelope can be used to great effect on the Mark One, setting a high initial pitch with a near-instant drop to normal (around 7ms) adds an aggressive attack not unlike the Rhodes Dyno-My-Piano modification popular in the late '70s. For those who do like their pianos poorly tuned, the Dissonance control adds random tuning chaos, ranging from subtle to 'binge drinking session' levels. The most interesting parameter is Sample Shift. This shifts the sample mapping by up to 12 semitones up or down, while simultaneously transposing in the opposite direction. The result is a timbral shift, altering the character of the instrument to such a degree that it's almost like having 25 different pianos in one. Powerful stuff indeed.
The Filter tab offers tools familiar to any synthesist: 24dB and 12dB per octave low-pass and high-pass filters, cutoff and resonance, keyboard tracking and a switchable ADDSR (two decay stages) filter envelope. All AK's envelope slopes benefit from adjustable curves, so you can really tailor them into shape.
The Volume tab provides a switchable ADDSR envelope. Its release stage is only active if the release samples (if present) are deactivated. Velocity to volume response can be compressed so that all velocity layers play at the maximum volume, or expanded to give the widest velocity to volume range, while keyboard level scaling balances the relative levels of the upper and lower keyboard range.
The lower area of the Edit page is the mixing section, where the mic signals, effects returns and Master output channel are balanced, panned, solo'ed and muted. Curiously, it's not possible to control the channel levels or Master output level with the usual MIDI CC messages. However, all six channel levels can be automated, but by using automation control in your DAW. The panning controls also allow for the stereo width to be narrowed, and even inverted if you want. Each mic channel has effect sends to FX1 and FX2. There is one snag, though: the effect sends are pre-fader only, so when a mic's level is changed, the effect level doesn't change with it. There are, of course, uses for this behaviour, but not all of the time! A pre-/post-fader option would not go amiss here. Also, when you solo a mic, it doesn't mute the effect sends from the other two channels — you still hear the total effects return of all three channels — and that's just messy! In addition to selecting mics from each mic channel's tab, there is a graphic representation of the piano and its mic placements — just click on a mic to select it for the current channel.
The middle area of the Edit page is all about processing on a per-channel basis; each mic channel has its own processor chain, with a similar chain for the Master channel to apply global effects to the composite sound. Signal flow runs from left to right, starting with yet another place where you can select a channel's microphone! Following on are four switchable modules. First up is the Noise module, offering seven types of noise if you're of a mind to go back in time to less pristine audio days. Its level is adjustable between -78dB and -30dB, with decay (more correctly, the release time) ranging from zero to 20 seconds. Next is the pre-EQ multi-effects module, offering a choice of either Tremolo, Compression & Distortion, Chorus or Phaser. The next module is a three-band parametric EQ, with each band giving up to 24dB boost or cut with variable Q, and is identical to the EQ type found in Addictive Drums. A post-EQ effects module rounds off the channel strip, with identical specs to the pre-EQ module. Finally, the Master channel strip differs in having the Noise module placed after the post-EQ effects, with a switchable low-pass/high-pass master filter as the final element of the signal chain.
We've already covered DAW automation of channel levels and effects sends, but there is also a degree of real-time MIDI control in the form of X-Mod. Certain modules, such as filter cutoff, and selected effects parameters, have small knobs adjacent to the main controls. These govern the amount of modulation applied by the controllers (for example, the mod wheel) specified on the Setup page. The modulation range of each X-Mod parameter is set by click-dragging up or down on the knob. A percentage readout shows how much positive or negative modulation will be applied, and an orange arc around the knob indicates the parameter is X-Mod enabled. Unfortunately, you can't assign individual MIDI CCs to individual parameters; it's a 'one modulator controls all' scenario. Hopefully, a future update will allow all Addictive Keys' parameters to be assigned individual real-time MIDI controllers.
Moments of divine inspiration often come when you're doodling away. You can capture these immediately with AK, thanks to its Memo feature: just hit the Record button and play away. Your musical memo is then stored in a list that you can revisit at any time — not just the notes, but also the exact sound you had up when you were playing. You can even drag and drop Memos as MIDI data into your DAW to work on later. This idea is also extended to the preset browser: notice the little arrows next to the factory preset names? They play back short preview phrases, and you can do the same for your own presets. There is the option to save any Memo as a patch preset, along with the Memo itself, or to record a Memo to accompany any of your own presets, which is very useful as a stylistic aide mémoire.
Since AK demands an Internet connection, XLN have come up with a natty online preset management system called My Cloud. The idea is that all of your saved presets and Memos are instantly uploaded to your XLN account, so not only are they backed up, but you can sync them with any other computer that's running AK while logged into your account. You can even create unique hyperlinks to presets and share them with friends and colleagues.
The cynical might be quick to consign Addictive Keys to Room 101 as just another sampled piano. However, spending some time exploring its features reveals just how malleable it is. I can't think of another sampled piano player that can alter the basic character of the instrument so much and still sound natural, or that offers anything like a comparable set of miking options. Personally, I've really enjoyed playing both acoustic pianos, and would happily consider them as a first port of call for recording. I'm not quite so keen on the Mark One, but, as they say, one man's meat... I look forward to seeing how AK develops, and what products XLN come up with next: Addictive guitars, basses, washboard, spoons... who knows?
The supply of sampled pianos seems never‑ending, and every one brings something different to the table. More than almost anything else, opinions on pianos are entirely subjective, depending entirely on personal taste. A general round-up of sampled grands and uprights includes Sampletekk's The Big One, The Synthogy Ivory II series, The Soundiron Piano Collection, Quantum Leap Pianos, Art Vista Virtual Grand Piano, Galaxy II Grand Piano Collection, and NI products including Alicia's Keys and The Giant. Modartt's Pianoteq 4 probably comes closest in concept to Addictive Keys, but it's physically modelled, not sampled. The two best sampled Rhodes pianos that come immediately to mind are NI's Scarbee MkI and SonicCouture's EP73. Apart from Pianoteq, none offer anything similar to the extensive microphone options of AK.
After years of determination to keep it away from the Internet, my studio computer is now online. It's out of necessity rather than choice, as an increasing number of software companies are making their products downloadable only. Increasingly, download and authorisation can only be done on the computer on which it will be installed. XLN have recently elected to go down this road, so if you still can't or won't go online, acquiring their products is a bit of a problem. To enable the download and installation process, an Online Installer application must be downloaded from the XLN web site. When started, this connects to XLN, whereupon any products you've purchased and/or registered (including free ones) will be shown. Click on the Install link for each one, and the downloading and installation is all handled automatically by the Online Installer. Currently, the whole shooting match, samples and all, are installed to your system drive; annoying if you prefer to store your samples on a separate drive. However, XLN are working on an update to the Installer that allows users to install to specific locations, or move existing installations to another location.
Addictive Keys runs in both plug-in and stand-alone versions. Minimum system requirements are quoted as follows:
XLN recommend downloading and trying the free demo if you're using any DAW other than those listed. However, I can confirm that AK works perfectly in Sonar. For those with RAM concerns, AK itself requires around 115MB; each loaded microphone eats up around 200MB, so if RAM is an issue you might consider deactivating all but one mic to conserve resources while programming a song, then reactivate the others and render to audio when your piano part is complete.
|Studio Grand||Modern Upright||Mark One Rhodes|
|Close Ribbon (wide)|
Ambience Tube (wide)
Close Tube (X/Y)
Middle Tube (wide)
Body Tube (mono)
Side Ribbon (mono)
|Front Ribbon (wide) Ambience Tube (X/Y)|
Front Tube (X/Y)
Back Tube (wide)
Floor PZM (wide)
Bottom Tube (mono)
Back Ribbon (mono)
|Line DI (mono)|
Dimension D (stereo) Ambience Tube (X/Y)
Close Ribbon (mono)
Close Dynamic (mono)
Close Tube (mono)
Floor PZM (wide)