Interesting old keyboards are becoming ever-more expensive and difficult to find. MOTU's solution to this is Electric Keys — samples of all of the desirable retro instruments you could want, for less money than a second‑hand Vox Jaguar!
Every bit as desirable as all the great analogue synths of the past, and arguably even more downright cool, are those organs, string machines and electro‑mechanical keyboards that helped characterise countless tracks now regarded as pop, rock and jazz standards. Although various sample libraries and virtual instruments have catered for a few instruments of this type — the likes of Native Instruments' B4 or Applied Acoustics' Lounge Lizard spring instantly to mind — there have been very few that have tried to cover all bases. That's where MOTU's Electric Keys comes in. It's a 40GB sample‑based whopper which promises to recreate all your favourite Led Zeppelin, Doors, Stevie Wonder, Jean Michel Jarre, Keith Emerson and Pink Floyd keyboard sounds — or at least the ones that weren't coming out of a synth.
Electric Keys works in three ways: as a stand‑alone application, as an instrument plug‑in in your DAW, or as a sound library for MOTU's MachFive 2 (or another sampler that can load MachFive 2 libraries). On the Mac, Electric Keys can run in MAS, AU, VST and RTAS plug‑in formats, while in Windows it's DXi, VST or RTAS.
The 40GB or so that Electric Keys occupies is sufficiently large that you'll need to set aside an hour or two to copy the sound banks from each of the five dual‑layer DVDs to your hard drive. Where you copy them is correctly stated only in an addendum to the main Users' Guide, but if you follow the instructions you should have no difficulties.
The sound banks themselves are proprietary .UFS files, and each of the 12 cater for a specific instrument type. If you know you'll never use some, then you don't have to install them, and Electric Keys will only show you the ones that are actually present.
The main graphic interface occupies 850 by about 370 pixels and because Electric Keys has 12 'skins' that are loaded up automatically to suit the instrument you've chosen, the appearance of the interface varies somewhat. The skins are 'photo‑realistic' and are clearly intended to help evoke the character of the loaded instrument. Beyond that, they don't really do anything — they're literally graphic overlays, and the actual controls are identical no matter what the skin looks like.
Main controls consist of master volume and tune, a trio of tone controls, and a further three knobs and two switches for amp‑drive amount and tremolo. Four selectable velocity response curves lurk at the far right of the six-octave E-to‑E keyboard display and there's a tiny FX button that launches a separate window, the FX Rack, which I'll get on to in a moment.
Loading presets is done using the LED look‑alike part slots. Double‑click one and a translucent file‑browser overlay appears, which will be familiar if you've used other sample‑based instruments by MOTU. It's a hierarchical affair which makes it quick to dive into individual sound banks, choose keyboard models, and then individual presets. After you've loaded one, the browser vanishes, and then you can choose to use the 'next' and 'previous' buttons in part slots, or a hierarchical pop‑up menu, to load further presets.
As Electric Keys can accommodate two presets at once, with each part having its own volume and pan controls (plus a mute button), it's easy to set up layering, which broadens the sound palette enormously, and is very appropriate in mimicking the operation of some of the string ensembles and 'multi' keyboards on offer. Still greater sound-shaping potential hides behind each part's 'E' button — see the 'Experts Only' box for a discussion of what's on offer.
Snapshots of an entire Electric Keys setup (including Expert and FX Rack settings) can be saved as a Combi. MOTU provide 250 or so already configured, which really demonstrate the sonic potential of the instrument, but as these are accessed through your OS's standard File Open dialogue box, auditioning them is a little more effort than simply switching presets.
What's a synth or sampler these days without a bunch of effects bolted on? Electric Keys' are delivered via the 'FX Rack', which opens in a separate window. There's an Amp Simulator with 14 models and some virtual miking options, a multi‑mode resonant Filter, 12‑stage Phaser, Flanger, four‑stage stereo Chorus, Delay, Reverb and Vinyl Simulator. Presets for individual effects or an entire multi‑effect setup can be loaded (or indeed saved) using FX Rack's own built‑in browser overlay system.
I'm leaving my Electric Keys niggles for later in the review, but when it comes to one particular effect I just can't restrain myself: the Chorus is an absolutely turkey which, as far as I can see, does almost nothing. At best, there's a hint of something like auto‑pan or tremolo, but precious little of the thickening, widening or detuning you'd want. With some other UVI‑based instruments having a perfectly effective Chorus, I can only assume something went wrong with this one, and I hope it'll be fixed in an update.
I tested Electric Keys as a stand‑alone application and as an Audio Unit instrument plug‑in running in Digital Performer 6. In general, it was a trouble‑free experience — there were no crashes, and the user interface is extremely easy to get to grips with. Preset load times varied considerably according to their complexity, ranging from two seconds for the simplest String Machines to 32 seconds for the full version Rhodes pianos. This was on my dual-processor G5 — I'm sure better spec'd machines would be faster. But sticking with sample loading, a subtle feature I did appreciate, especially when stepping through all the presets in turn, is that an already‑loaded preset stays playable until the very last moment while a new one loads. On a few occasions Electric Keys would report that a preset couldn't be found, only to load it perfectly on the second attempt, and every now and then I'd notice a glitch one or two seconds after a new preset went in if I immediately starting playing it — presumably that was the disk streaming settled down. Otherwise all was reliable.
But what about the sounds? As a specialised library, I just love Electric Keys, and I still can't get enough of it. With so many good things to choose from, it seems unfair to single out just a few — but here goes. The Rhodes, Wurlitzer and CP80 samples are right up there, especially in their full versions. Immensely playable, beautifully mapped to velocity, and sort of reassuringly chunky. Meanwhile, the String Machines sound bank is heavenly, and with a 'warts and all' character that totally eclipses every modern-day synth or general‑purpose ROMpler's efforts in the same area. The Hammond is well done, and can sound glorious. And the more unusual keyboards are much more than just filler material — there's something extremely refreshing about jamming or writing with sounds that are so 'anti' every glitzy, hyped‑up soft synth or trendy retro sample set.
I've got some reservations, however. The lavish user interfaces are all very well, but for those with smaller monitors they waste space. The main window could very easily be much smaller, or, better still, accommodate all the 'Expert' parameters up front, doing away with the need for the additional overlay (see 'Experts Only' box). And how about an option to hide the keyboard? The FX Rack is similar in this regard, and I'm sure could look as good and work just as well in about half the area.
Moving on from the interface, there's a problem with the way Electric Keys' amp envelope works. It offers the potential to make lavish slow‑attack/long‑release pads from organ and string presets that are otherwise just 'on/off'. But some presets have a key-release sample layer in addition to their main, looped sustain layer, and when you attempt to make a slow-attack pad out of these, their release samples behave in an unexpected manner, triggering loudly when you release keys that have only been held down briefly. It's a weird effect, not musically desirable, and apparently unavoidable.
My next gripe is with the B3 preset's Leslie speaker implementation. When you flick the Leslie's 'half moon' switch on a Hammond you distinctly hear a speeding up or slowing down of the Leslie rotors as their new rotation speed is reached. Electric Keys kludges this characteristic effect by doing a slow‑ish crossfade between a preset's 'slow' and 'fast' Leslie samples when you move your controller's mod wheel. It will fool many people, I'm sure, especially in a mix, and at least there's some sort of smooth transition, but for me it's a disappointing inaccuracy. The modelled B4 by Native Instruments has no problem recreating the effect, courtesy of a dedicated Leslie processor, and I wish MOTU had implemented a similar emulation in the FX Rack. It could then have been applied very effectively to all the rest of the organs, electric pianos and string machines.
Staying with the FX Rack, and leaving aside the puny Chorus I mentioned earlier, there's room for improvement in several areas. I won't be too harsh here, since it's so easy to use alternative effects when you're running Electric Keys in your DAW, but I found the Amp Simulator often added edge and grunge at the expense of body and weight, and the reverb's fixed plate‑like character and mono‑summed input/stereo output design is rather limiting. A mono output and 'crappy spring reverb' option would be appropriate for many presets.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether MOTU's strict observance of the all the instruments' original key ranges is a purist benefit or an annoying restriction. You can modify the keygroup ranges if you load up presets in MachFive 2, but in Electric Keys itself there's no means of doing this.
Keys Of Character
Organising, recording, looping and mapping a sample library of this size and nature can't be easy or quick, so it's to MOTU's credit that they got most of the really important things absolutely right. Essentially, Electric Keys is like being let loose in a studio full of some of the grooviest, most inspiring old keyboard instruments ever made, all of them oozing individuality and character, and finding that they're virtually all in tune and working perfectly. The quality of recording and presentation is, with only a smattering of exceptions, first class — these are instruments just begging to become serious writing tools, and to go straight into a mix. Unlike that of some other sample players, the user interface is welcoming and easy to use, and while the skins are a little gimmicky, they're sort of fun too. The sound layering possibilities, tone controls and Expert features increase the sonic potential of Electric Keys enormously, and a number of the FX Rack effects are very nice indeed.
But I do hope that a future update can patch a few specific sampling and mapping problems, give us a Chorus worth having, and maybe a Leslie too. Then this library really would be a force to be reckoned with.
Electric Dreams: The Sounds In Detail
There's a list of the actual instruments sampled for Electric Keys on the MOTU web site (www.motu.com), but some of MOTU's preset naming is a bit obscure, so I've listed the preset names below, alongside the instruments they're based on in brackets, and added my own observations. Not owning every original myself, I apologise in advance for any mistakes in the following list.
- 1960 Electric Organ (Philips Philicorda)
- Italian Combo (Farfisa Compact Duo)
- Italian ElkOrgan (Elka Organ)
- Japanese Electric Organ (Korg CX3)
These are all presented as preset‑based organs with about a dozen registrations each. Four of the original presets on the very basic but very groovy Philicorda also come in an alternative spring reverb version.
- Doors Electric Organ (Vox Continental English model)
- Italian Doors (Vox Continental Italian model)
- HaM100 (Hammond M100)
These organs' presets are named after their drawbar settings, such as the M100's catchy '88853200 Up'. There are vibrato and non‑vibrato versions of many, and presets of just percussion or click components can be layered with normal sustained presets for maximum flexibility.
- 1975 MkI (Fender Rhodes MkI)
- 1979 MkI (Fender Rhodes MkI)
- 1980 MkII (Fender Rhodes MkII)
- 1984 MkV (Fender Rhodes MkV)
These form the heart of the Electric Keys library, with some heavyweight extensively multi‑sampled versions alongside 'Light', 'Soft' and 'Loud' alternatives. There's a useful distinction between the models too, varying from thicker (1975) to more biting (1980).
- Clavibes (Weltmeister Claviset)
- Guitarkeys (Hohner Guitaret)
- Piano Electro (Hohner Electra Piano)
- Planet M (Hohner Planet M)
A bunch of oddball Rhodes and Wurlitzer wannabes, these are quite rough and basic in nature, but find an interesting balance between funky and naive.
- D Clav (Hohner Clavinet D6)
- E Clav (Custom Hohner Clavinet E7)
- Model C (Hohner Clavinet C)
A hugely varied trio of Clavinets of different vintages, with the D6 and E7 offering pickup rocker-switch variations. As funky as you could want them to be, and with a real mechanical 'presence' and weight.
- W200 Piano (Wurlitzer 200A piano)
- W270 Butterfly (Wurlitzer Butterfly 270 piano)
A well-balanced, colourful Wurli 200A and its somewhat silkier, split‑lid, 'baby grand' equivalent. Like the Rhodes presets, both come in Full, Light, Loud and Soft versions.
- CPiano 10 (Yamaha CP10)
- CPiano 30 (Yamaha CP30)
- CPiano 80 (Yamaha CP80)
This is an interesting group of Yamaha CP‑series pianos. The 10 and 30 are, by today's standards, very basic‑sounding, a world away from the classic CP80 electro‑acoustic grand.
- Cheap Digital Keyboard (Yamaha CE20)
- GS Sounds (Yamaha GS1 & GS2)
- Keyboard Computer (RMI Keyboard Computer 2)
- Lambda Keys (Korg Lambda)
- Log Piano & Strings (Hohner/Logan Piano String Synthesizer)
A fascinating and very mixed collection of keyboards that aren't quite synths, organs or string machines. The overtly clean and digital early version FM Yamahas contrast wildly with the much rougher but very usable Korg and Hohner/Logan.
- Analog Pedal Bass (Moog Taurus)
- E Piano Bass (Fender Rhodes Bass & Custom)
- K Bass (Hohner Basset)
The Moog Taurus pedals have appropriate trouser‑flapping ability, but the less ostentatious Hohner Basset is perhaps just as useful. The bass‑specific Rhodes instruments, used by the Doors and others, are effective too, and this is the first time I've ever encountered any samples of them.
- Cheap Strings (Excelsior String Synthesizer)
- Cheezy Strings (Eko Stradivarius)
- Classic Strings Machine (Eminent 310/ARP/Solina String Ensemble)
- Cruma Strings (Crumar Performer)
- Italian Strings (Elka Rhapsody)
- Japanese Strings (Yamaha SS30/SK20)
- Melody Strings (Logan String Melody)
- Polyphonic Strings (Korg PE2000)
- S Orchestra (Siel Orchestra)
- VP Strings & Choir (Roland VP330)
I can't be certain about the originals used for the 'Cheap' and 'Cheezy' Strings presets, but they're wonderfully grungy and full of character, as are the Crumar, Elka, Logan and Siel sounds. The Japanese instruments are cleaner, as they should be, with more of an 1980s feel. Actually, this whole sound bank brought back memories of being a spotty kid, listening to Oxygene and poring over the ads for some of these keyboards in Electronics & Music Maker magazine. Those were the days... maybe!
- Classic Tron (Mellotron M400)
Just six tape banks from an M400. There's a solo Cello, a classic split Choir, and then two not very contrasted Flutes and Violins — and yes, the flute is there. It would have been nice to have had a full strings preset here, perhaps some other choirs too, and a typically grungy Mellotron piano. One of the few sound banks that feels slightly under‑cooked.
- The B Electric Organ (Hammond B3 and possibly C3)
This extensive sound bank offers a range of Hammond options: various manual and pedal registrations, coming in Loud, Soft, Vibrato, Guitar Amped, DI'd and Mono variations, some categorised by the mic (either a C414, MD421, U67 or U87) used to record them. For many presets there are additional 'normal' and 'Fst' (fast) variations. The idea is that normal gives a slow/fast Leslie toggle using your controller's mod wheel, while Fst provides the fast variant only, though with a quicker load time. Overall sound quality is great, and the registration choices provide enough flexibility for typical rock, blues, R&B and gospel use.
Experts Only: The 'Expert' Parameters
There's more to an Electric Keys part than meets the eye. Click its 'E' button and you access hidden 'expert' parameters. Key Range and pitch (in octave, semitone and 1/100th semitone increments) help in setting up nice, thick octave stacks and keyboard splits, and for those hell-bent on soloing using Electric Keys, bend‑range and portamento are also set here. The multi‑mode filter, which has no fewer than 14 filter models, plus a dedicated AHDSR envelope, can work wonders in teasing out entirely new timbres from a variety of presets, and a corresponding Amp Envelope further extends the possibilities. The Pan Mod section sounds pretty tedious, but pulls off some impressive 'per note' panning that can hugely enliven the many strictly mono samples of various organs and keyboards.
For the more intrepid programmer, external MIDI control can be assigned to pretty much any parameter, so setting up MIDI expression pedal control of filter cutoff for those wah‑wah Clavinet parts is easily achievable. Front‑panel knobs and switches update in real time as they're sent MIDI data, so it's easy to keep track of what's going on.
You need a long time to really investigate every sound Electric Keys offers — but I did! Although most sounds were recorded and presented very well, I noticed a handful of sample editing and mapping mistakes along the way.
The B3 'Amp Vox AC30' preset has two Gs that play at the wrong octave, and a number of 'Doors Organ' note starts are abrupt to the point of being glitchy. Maybe the originals really sounded like this, but since the majority of notes don't, it makes the offenders stand out even more.
The Italian Combo preset has a couple of quirks. First, some Ds in a number of patches seem to trigger a lower 'phantom' D that sounds suspiciously like the result of an electrical error. I'm sure this is a faithful rendition of the original instrument but this is one occasion where I'd take a 'fix' over strict authenticity anytime. The tuning is also pretty wild in places.The otherwise lovely D Clav preset has some octaves that are distinctly out of tune at some key velocity combinations towards the bottom of the pitch range. Also, the upper octave of the E Clav seems damped and muted to an unnatural and undesirable degree.
Finally, whilst the Elka Organ's overall roughness is quite endearing, a number of low notes in the 'Down1' preset have some sort of repetitive clipping.
- Offers more vintage electric pianos, organs and string machines than you could shake a transistor at.
- Very fine recording quality.
- Extremely easy to use.
- Good flexibility for sound design and real‑time MIDI control when you need it.
- A few sampling, tuning and mapping errors.
- Leslie rotor speed change is a bodge.
- Weak chorus effect, and room for improvement elsewhere in the FX Rack.
- Expert mode amp envelope and key‑release sample‑layer interaction is problematic.
Full of character, this is a sound library that in nearly all respects more than holds its own with the sample‑based and modelling competition. If you've an interest in the funky keyboard parts of the '60s, '70s and '80s, and recognise the value that the instruments involved still have in modern production styles, then you simply must check out Electric Keys.
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