Applied Acoustic Systems, known best for their Tassman software synth, have now used their modelling technology to create an electric piano plug-in. But of course, theirs isn't the only one around...
At the height of the DX7's popularity in the '80s, you couldn't give away a Fender Rhodes or a Wurlitzer EP200. These days, the wheel has turned full circle, and even the tattiest examples fetch hundreds on the second-hand market. The factors that made them go out of fashion in the first place haven't gone away — they're still big and heavy, they still haven't got MIDI, and they still only have one patch — but it seems that players want the sound, and prefer not to make do with sampled substitutes.
Indeed, electromechanical pianos have always been difficult to reproduce using samples. As well as being fully polyphonic, a Rhodes or Wurli has a sound that varies considerably with keyboard velocity, from soft, rounded bell-like tones to clangorous 'thunks'. Some players of the real thing were also used to tweaking the sound of their instruments using laborious methods such as adjusting the position of the pickups, which nobody ever bothered to render in sampled renditions. When manufacturers did include a Rhodes patch in their electronic pianos, it often seemed like an afterthought.
The last year or so has seen a couple of more serious attempts to reproduce the electric piano sound in a form that's easier to integrate into a modern studio environment. Emagic's EVP88 virtual instrument has won a lot of praise from Logic users for its physically modelled Rhodes and Wurli emulations (see review in SOS July 2001, or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul01/articles/emagicevp88.asp ), but the company's policy of not porting the full versions of their instruments to open standards such as VST means that users of other sequencers have to make do with the severely cutdown VST-compatible EVP73 (reviewed SOS December 2001, or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/Dec01/articles/emagice.asp). Meanwhile, in the hardware field, Clavia have launched the ambitious Nord Electro, a digital keyboard devoted to reproducing electromechanical pianos and tonewheel organs. It didn't sound too bad to me (although it found less favour with Gordon Reid — see SOS December 2001 or www.soundonsound.com/sos/Dec01/articles/nordelectro.asp), but at its current UK price of around a thousand pounds, it's beyond the reach of many musicians.
Let's Get Physical
The latest attempt to bring the electric piano into the digital age comes from Canadian software house Applied Acoustic Systems. Their expertise in physical modelling has already given us the impressive Tassman synth, and it's now been used to create a dedicated virtual electromechanical piano called Lounge Lizard. It's available for PC and Mac, and can be run either as a stand-alone program or as a plug-in instrument in VST, MAS and DirectX formats. An RTAS version is in development, but Pro Tools can use the stand-alone version via the DirectConnect protocol. Lounge Lizard uses a proprietary challenge-and-response protection system, and if my experience is typical, it's best to email your challenge at least a day before you want to unlock the program!
Where Lounge Lizard scores compared to any instrument based on samples is in its remarkable versatility. It's often said that no two Rhodes pianos sounded quite the same, and while a sampled version may give you the option of shaping the sound using EQ and velocity switching, Lounge Lizard goes much, much further. Its controls are designed to correspond to the physical components of a real electric piano, allowing you to specify such factors as the stiffness of the modelled mallets and the force with which they strike the virtual tines, the tuning and decay time of the modelled fork and the tone bar, the virtual pickup position and the input and output levels to and from the modelled preamp. You can decide the relative levels of the fork, tone bar and mallet impact noise in the sound, and how the various parameters should vary with velocity or note position on the keyboard.
Unlike Emagic's EVP88, which uses different physical models for Wurlitzers, Stage and Suitcase Rhodes and the like, Lounge Lizard uses the same model for all of its sounds. However, it offers many more controls than EVP88, and the range of over 50 presets include not only various different Stages, Suitcases and Wurlis, but also RMIs and an organ. Should you wish to go beyond mere emulation, the folder of Experimental presets gives you some idea of the range of bizarre 'not piano' (and, in many cases, not very useful) sounds that can be created by pushing different controls to their extremes. All of Lounge Lizard's parameters can also be automated, either using MIDI Continuous Controllers or your sequencer's plug-in automation system. Oddly, polyphony defaults to a meagre four notes, but this is easily adjusted in the preferences.
Although there are some excellent sample-based electric piano sounds around these days, it only takes a few minutes' experimentation with Lounge Lizard's presets to see what physical modelling brings to the party. They run the full gamut of recorded electric piano sounds from growling funk to drippy ballad, from mellow Wurlis to brittle Suitcases, and boast a depth and 'feel' that makes you want to play them. There are no sudden lurches into different sample layers when you hit the keys harder: instead, there's a smooth progression from soft to snarling. Similarly, there are no multisamples and hence no abrupt changes in timbre as you move up and down the keyboard, while sustained notes don't decay into a lifeless sample loop, but fade naturally to silence. The tremolo and output distortion sound like integral parts of the instrument, rather than effects tacked on at the end.
If you can't find exactly what you want in the preset list, it's relatively straightforward to create your own virtual piano. Lounge Lizard's controls are not the sort of parameters you get on a conventional synth, and it does take a bit of experimentation to get used to how they affect the sound. However, they are sensibly chosen and named, and there are enough to give you a fair degree of control without being so numerous as to make programming overwhelming or laborious. The range of presets is also broad enough that there's usually something close enough to what you have in mind, so that programming is more often a matter of tweaking than starting from scratch. For instance, there are numerous simple ways to dirty up a preset that's slightly too polite — you can increase the mallet force or add more impact noise, up the volume of the tone bar, adjust the preamp settings or increase the output level — all with different and very useable results. With most of the controls, the smallest movement makes a noticeable difference to the sound, and a large one alters it completely. I found that most of the presets benefited from a slight tweak to the velocity response when played from a non-weighted keyboard, and this is easily achieved. Editing is also aided by the E/C button, which allows you to compare your sound with the unedited version of the last preset you loaded.
When put up against Emagic's EVP73, Lounge Lizard tends towards a meatier and thicker sound, with a weightier bottom end. EVP73's own clean, bell-like Rhodes tone is still very impressive, but in terms of versatility and overall usefulness, there's no comparison. Given the similarity in pricing, I would choose Lounge Lizard every time.
On The Other Hand...
There are a few negative points to be made about Lounge Lizard, although only one of them presented a serious problem for me. While I found it very simple to set up and use Lounge Lizard as a VST Instrument within Cubase, the same could not be said of the stand-alone version. Although OMS drivers are in development, Lounge Lizard currently requires MOTU's FreeMIDI, which is not supplied, and those who have a working OMS system may not welcome the prospect of introducing FreeMIDI onto their machine, especially given the limited documentation available from AAS. When I did finally get it set up, moreover, all I got was deafening bursts of white noise in response to MIDI input. Eventually, AAS reported that this is a known 'issue' with one of the ASIO 2 drivers for M Audio's Delta 66 soundcard, so hopefully it won't affect users with other setups (or those using other versions of the drivers).
Other niggles are just that: niggly. The controls I can imagine wanting to automate or manipulate most often in the middle of a song are the switches that turn the various effects on and off; doing so while playing, however, produces a very audible glitch. Some of the rotary controls also suffer from zipper noise. Loading presets can also be a little bit fiddly, as clicking the Load button always takes you to the top level of the Presets folder, but the presets themselves are stored within subfolders within subfolders. However, Lounge Lizard does provide eight 'front-panel' switches (shown above) to which you can assign your favourite presets for quick selection. When run as a plug-in, Lounge Lizard uses its own patch storage system rather than the host sequencer's, which can be inconvenient if you want to select patches from within Cubase's Inspector, for instance.
I also encountered a strange bug when running Lounge Lizard as a VST plug-in in Cubase VST v5.0 on the Mac. Even if the plug-in itself was switched off, having its editing window open seemed to cause Cubase's tool palette to misbehave. Whenever I tried to select any tool other than the pointer, the mouse pointer would flicker uselessly between its pointer shape and whatever I'd selected, and I could only select other tools properly by closing Lounge Lizard's editing window. However, AAS say that no-one else has reported this bug, and that they can't reproduce it on a similar system.
Lounge Lizard is one of the most impressive virtual instruments I've seen to date. Every patch you create becomes an instrument in its own right rather than a minor variation on the same set of samples, and the response to keyboard velocity makes it a very organic instrument to play. The dirty and distorted timbres you can create using the mallet and tone-bar modelling are especially satisfying compared to the flat sound of a sampled piano fed through a distortion effect.
There are lots of instruments out there that give you one or two good electric pianos, but Lounge Lizard gives you hundreds. Logic/EVP88 users are already accustomed to this kind of luxury, but I can see a lot of musicians with other sequencers welcoming Lounge Lizard with open arms. Whether you're looking for something new to make your track stand out, or whether you want to copy your favourite recorded electric piano sound, it's a uniquely adaptable piece of virtual kit. It also represents excellent value for money.