Formats: GIGA / EXS24 MKII / HALION
We Sample Shop hacks occasionally find ourselves struggling to describe esoteric instruments like a heckelphone or Slovakian contrabass whistle. But with this particular review, I'm pleased to say that lack of familiarity won't be an issue, as the item in question was an essential part of my keyboard rig for many years. This instrument has inspired countless synthesized, sampled and modelled imitations, and sounds as hip now as it did in its jazzy '70s heyday. I refer of course to the mighty Fender Rhodes 73 Stage Piano, brought to you in a new 3GB sampled version by the Danish company Scarbee.
The Fender Rhodes appeared in two main versions, the 88-keyed 'Suitcase' model and its little brother, the 73-note 'Stage' variety. In contrast to the warmer, funkier sound of the 88, the 73 Stage Piano's tone is more classical, pure, open and bell-like. No two Rhodes 73 Stage Pianos sound quite the same, which somewhat militates against the idea of a 'definitive' sampled version. Having said that, this library nails all the desirable aspects of the Rhodes 73 sound with unerring accuracy.
Scarbee spent nine months refurbishing, servicing and tuning a 1976 Mark I model. In order to keep the sound pristine, 1752 'direct' samples (totalling a massive 1.5GB) were recorded straight from the harp assembly, bypassing the piano's tone and volume controls. To satisfy Rhodes purists, these samples were then subtly EQ'd to replicate the effect of the Rhodes' tone control! The resulting set of 1752 processed samples is called Classic, and the 16-bit Giga version features both the Direct and Classic set. This seems like a hell of a lot of work merely to copy the sound of an old tone knob, but it gives you some idea of Scarbee's obsessive dedication.
More hot stats: the Rhodes 73's notes span six octaves from E1 to E7 (middle 'C' = C4). Scarbee's team sampled every note at 12 (yes, twelve) precisely calculated dynamic levels, allowing each sample to die away naturally (no loops) for up to 20 seconds. On releasing a Rhodes key, the outgoing note makes a tiny 'thwong' sound as the damper returns to meet its tine (the glorified tuning fork responsible for the unique Rhodes sound). This small but significant racket has been faithfully reproduced in the form of release triggers for each note, each sampled at the same 12 dynamic levels as the sustains! Such amazing attention to detail results in a grand total of 1752 (73 x 24) samples per program.
It would be a shame if all this hard work were undone by cloth-eared programming, but this library really sounds as though it has been programmed by musicians. As a result, I'm delighted to say that the RSP 73 sounds exactly like a real Rhodes, and is an absolute joy to play. The instrument's trademark celeste-like 'bell' attack sound is beautifully captured, and its little note-off noises sound at exactly the right level. Sensibly chosen, natural-sounding release times ensure that Scarbee's Rhodes notes end as convincingly as they begin. Throughout, the dynamic response is smooth and utterly natural across the entire keyboard, the quieter samples suitably hushed, the medium ones clear, bright and piping, and the accented notes producing the unmistakeable reedy, barking twang of a Rhodes played in anger.
RSP's basic samples were not artificially brightened, and some programs use filtering to make the sound warmer and more 'old school' — more like an 88 Suitcase model, in fact. As a result, I found myself adding a lot of top and high-middle desk EQ to get the bright, sparkling Rhodes sound I favour. The full 12-velocity, 1752-sample programs take a while to load, and having more than one in memory slows down Gigastudio's MIDI response. Mindful of this, Scarbee have provided eight and four-velocity programs, plus 'lite' versions using fewer samples. All programs come in standard and 'stretch tuning' flavours.
This is an unashamedly mono affair — there are no 88 Suitcase-style stereo tremolo effects, a breeze to program on an Akai sampler but apparently beyond the scope of Gigastudio. The four-CD Halion and EXS24 versions are 24-bit, and Giga users can download 16-bit versions of these formats for free.
I've tried the FM, sampled, modelled and virtual versions, and none of them sounds quite like a real Rhodes. This does. There are, admittedly, some omissions — Scarbee's instrument lacks the murderously stiff keyboard action, expensive tuning and maintenance bills of the original and doesn't require two people to lift it, but hey, you can't have everything! If you want a great Rhodes sound without the hassle, buy this.
Although the samples were recorded with the EQ bypassed, the Giga library includes the Classic and Classic Bright versions to compensate for Gigastudio's unsophisticated EQ capabilities, while software EQ settings are suggested for achieving the same sounds in other hosts. Rather than suffer the slight loss of quality caused by converting a sample library between formats, Scarbee have also programmed all three formats from scratch starting with the same 24-bit core samples, and have even created 876 special release samples for the Halion version to overcome its current limitations. Each version contains a total of 1752 samples; the EXS/Halion samples remain at 24-bit while the Giga library is 16-bit, although the differences were extremely subtle to my ears.
RSP 73 provides the closest experience to playing a real Rhodes that I've had since selling my own Stage 73. The basic timbre is mellow with a touch of tine, but as you dig in it has exactly the mid-range bark and low-end fart of the real thing, albeit in a supremely smooth and controlled manner that responds to every nuance.
Of course there's another way to recreate electric piano sounds — physical modelling — and to my ears the best Fender Rhodes in this category is AAS' Lounge Lizard, which I already had installed on my PC, so I spent a couple of hours creating a new Lounge Lizard preset as close as I could get to the Scarbee instrument, and then tried some side-by-side comparisons.
Lounge Lizard is capable of a far more versatile range of expressive electric piano-like sounds, and has built-in effects, and both were convincing playing back existing tracks. However, during real-time performances the best Lounge Lizard Rhodes impersonation had somewhat compressed soft dynamics and a far less convincing release, while the RSP 73 was a carbon copy Rhodes that sounded exactly like playing the real thing, taking a third of the CPU overhead for the same number of notes.
Giga or EXS24 MkII and Halion, £133 including VAT.
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