Virtual piano, virtual pianist or virtual songwriting partner? Toontrack’s EZkeys 2 attempts all three.
The arrival of Toontrack’s EZkeys 2 has been highly anticipated. Ten years after the original release (see the January 2013 issue of SOS), and with Toontrack significantly upgrading the ‘EZ’ concept with more recent EZbass and EZdrummer releases, EZkeys was undoubtedly due a refresh.
In its original form, EZkeys served a number of functions. First, it provided a sample‑based piano instrument that you could freely play like any other virtual piano. Second, EZkeys acted as a virtual pianist through its very flexible performance engine and the impressive (and expandable) collection of genre‑specific MIDI patterns that could automatically adapt themselves to the user’s chosen chord sequences. And, given the flexibility of the performance engine, and how you can experiment with chord and song structures within EZkey’s Song Track, you could also argue that EZkeys offered a third role as a songwriting tool.
So just what have Toontrack done in the new release to push each of these three core functions forward? Let’s lift the (piano) lid and find out...
EZkeys 2 ships with a brand‑new ‘core’ grand piano sample library clocking in at around 4GB. When I reviewed the original release in 2013, the engine and the sample content were sold separately, but this change brings EZkeys into line with the other EZ instrument products. The two original EZkeys 1 piano sample libraries — a grand piano and an upright piano — each contained just over 400MB of sample data. They were perfectly useable (and remain so), but sampling technology (and computer power) has moved on considerably in the last 10 years and the new EZkeys 2 core library reflects that.
Toontrack recorded a medium‑sized Fazioli grand piano at Riksmixningsverket Studio in Stockholm to form the basis of the new instrument. A combination of high‑quality Thuresson, Royer, AKG, Neumann and DeGeer microphones were used to capture both close and overhead/room sounds via a Neve console. Use of sustain, una corda and sostenuto pedals was included, as were noise elements from hammers and pedals. The EZkeys 2 engine lets you use and adjust all these elements as required.
From this underlying sample base, EZkeys 2 delivers a good stock of presets organized into three main groups: Standard, Effects and Pads. The Standard presets provide various versions of the conventional piano sounds, each tailored to provide a different character. This is achieved by blends of the various microphone positions and, behind the scenes, some gentle processing or EQ.
When auditioned side‑by‑side with the original EZkeys 1 grand piano, the differences in depth, detail and dynamics are very obvious; EZkeys 2 provides a very impressive and satisfying playing experience. Of course, there are solo piano libraries out there with much larger (+100GB) sample bases, but there is undoubtedly a point of diminishing returns in terms of the real‑world playing experience. I’d suggest the actual acoustic piano sounds here will jump well above the quality bar required in the vast majority of musical contexts, even when the demands are high and the piano is heard totally in isolation; the EZkeys 2 core library is very impressive.
The two further preset categories provide more stylised/processed options. So, for example, the Effects category includes the suitably ambient Film Noir and tastefully degraded Lo‑Fi Vinyl presets, while the Pads presets add a (mostly subtle) pad layer underneath the piano itself (for example, the Glory preset with a soft string layer beneath the piano). There is nothing too sonically groundbreaking here, but they sound great and are eminently usable.
It is worth noting that you also get a set of ‘Raw Sounds’ presets. These provide both stereo and multi‑channel output versions of the core piano instrument and allow you to create your own blend of the various microphones each offers. Using the multi‑output versions, you also have the option to apply your own processing choice to each of the microphone sets within your host DAW.
The redesigned Keys tab now follows the style of both EZbass and EZdrummer 3, with a smart graphical representation of the grand piano within its recording environment. When notes/chord are triggered, EZkeys applies its chord detection capabilities and the currently playing note(s) or chord are displayed in real time on the piano’s virtual music stand. Like both other EZ instruments, located top right of the Keys page is the pop‑open Effects panel. The options here are preset‑specific but, amongst others, can include EQ, compression, reverb and noise, so you can easily adjust the presets further should you wish. It’s slick, streamlined and very effective.
Toontrack will undoubtedly be offering further sound expansions for EZkeys 2 before too long but, if you already own expansions for EZkeys 1, these have now all had technical updates (available through the Toontrack Product Manager and now identified as EKX files) to make them fully compatible with EZkeys 2. This worked very smoothly on my review system.
EZkeys’ second core function is as a virtual pianist, letting you quickly build an authentic piano performance that follows the chord sequence of your song. A key element of the instrument’s ability to do that is the available MIDI library that is accessed via the Grooves page. This page has also been redesigned to provide a consistent look and workflow to the rest of the EZ instrument line and includes the Tap2Find option (familiar from both EZbass and EZdrummer), as well as the ability to find patterns by genre, play style, and other character tags, plus options to browse the folder and sub‑folder catalogue. Patterns can be easily auditioned.
The Grooves panel comes well populated. EZkeys 2 ships with a new collection of MIDI content containing over 1300 MIDI patterns that cover an expanded range of musical styles. These include ballads, pop/rock, hip‑hop, soul/R&B, country, gospel, jazz, reggae, blues, funk, cinematic and boogie, and many of these offer a variety of straight and swung performances, as well as different time signatures. However, perhaps most welcome are the folders labelled Riffs, Arpeggios, Ostinatos and Pads. These house collections of more generic playing styles that are easily adaptable to a wide range of musical contexts. The arpeggios and ostinatos include options that are more sparsely played and so would easily sit under a vocal (for example) with minimal editing. The pads category obviously features sustained chords but make great starting points when initially constructing your chord sequence for a song section. If you already own EZkeys 1, or any of the existing MIDI expansion packs, these will work fine within EZkeys 2.
It’s easy to underestimate the significance of the MIDI pattern library. It is, in essence, just a collection of MIDI clips, albeit carefully curated and expertly played. However, if EZkeys’ ‘performer’ function is what drives your personal interest in the product, the MIDI pattern library is essentially the performance vocabulary; the more MIDI pattern content you have available, the wider the musical lexicon of your virtual pianist.
In that light, Toontrack’s extensive collection of genre‑specific MIDI expansion packs are well worth exploring. And, not to miss a trick, the Grooves page now provides the option to do just that, even for MIDI expansion packs you don’t currently own. This is genuinely useful as it allows you to fully audition individual clips, giving a much better feel for the musical content of any pack. If you find something you like, one click will take you directly to Toontrack’s web shop where you can add the pack to your shopping cart; very shrewd marketing but also a very slick process.
The Song Track has always been central to EZkeys’ ‘performer’ and ‘songwriting assistant’ functions, so it’s worth emphasising just how clever the Song Track concept is. As before, the user can add sequences of chord events to the Song Track either manually or by dragging and dropping patterns from the Grooves library. You can also record directly into the Song Track from a MIDI keyboard, and this includes the ability to merge a new recording with existing MIDI already held on the Song Track. Given the flexibility EZkeys then offers to customise the contents of the Song Track, this recording capability can be a useful feature regardless of your actual piano skills.
As shown in the nearby screen, entries in the Song Track are represented in a three‑laned format comprising song parts (in the top lane; each song part is colour‑coded/labelled and spans a group of chords), the chord events themselves (in the middle lane), and a representation of the MIDI performance currently associated with the chord sequence (in the bottom lane).
The thing that’s always made the Song Track so powerful (and, yes, somewhat magical) is EZkeys’ ability to adapt an existing MIDI performance to changes you make to the actual chord sequence, or to apply a different performance to the same chord sequence... or, indeed, some combination of both of these things. These creative possibilities now come with both a better workflow (courtesy of the improved EZ UI) and some significant additional options.
If you wish to change a chord, you simply double‑click on the chord label within the Song Track’s middle lane (or click on the Edit Chord button), which opens the familiar chord wheel. If you then select a new chord within the wheel, the MIDI performance within the Song Track is adjusted to match the new chord while retaining the existing playing style.
While EZkeys 2 can automatically make pianist‑style choices about chord inversions to produce a smooth performance, small changes to the chord wheel’s control layout make it easier to adjust the chord inversion manually (you hear an audition of the chord as you make changes) or to define an alternative bass note. The chord wheel now also has a further ring that can be popped open on its right side to access additional chord variants. And, if you want even more control over the combination of notes that form your chord, clicking the small keyboard icon located top left of the chord wheel opens a keyboard view. Here you can simply select/deselect notes as required (the relevant scale degrees are highlighted on the graphic making it easy to add sixth, seventh or ninth notes, for example) and you can also select the bass note to play. Whether it’s simple triads or harmonically sophisticated chords for jazz, the chord wheel now gets you there with ease.
Alternatively, for any given set of chords, you can experiment with different performance styles; simply select the song section you wish to experiment with (via the Song Track’s topmost lane) and then activate the Replace MIDI button. This then opens a MIDI pattern browser panel in the upper part of the UI. When you select a MIDI pattern here, its performance style temporarily replaces the MIDI within your selected Song Track song section but adapts it to fit the existing chord sequence. This is super‑easy to use and makes it possible to experiment with any manner of stylistic options for your song’s chord sequence. And, if you find something you like, you simply click on the Save Changes button and the new MIDI performance permanently replaces the old one within the Song Track itself.
Usefully, EZkeys’ Edit menu does offer undo/redo if you suddenly wish to undo such a change. However, the option to have multiple versions of your Song Track, and to create a duplicate of an existing version, means that you can easily experiment with these sorts of changes without any fear of losing your original. The Song Track also allows you to create tempo, time signature and key signature changes within a project (via the menu button located within the Sig/Tempo/Key panel at the base of the UI). When used within a DAW host, EZkeys 2 follows your host’s tempo including any tempo changes. However, if your DAW project does contain time signature changes, you will still need to recreate those same changes within the Song Track. Unless you use lots of time signature changes (any math or prog rock fans out there?), this is a relatively modest inconvenience.
The Song Track also gets a further very significant new feature: Edit Play Style (shown in the screen at the start of this review). This functionality — seen in both EZbass and EZdrummer — provides the user with a range of options for adjusting the MIDI performance data within the Song Track. The available controls appear in a strip when you engage the Edit Play Style button. Adjustments made here will be applied to whatever is selected within the Song Track so they can be used on an individual chord, a song section, or multiple song sections, as required.
The purpose of the Octave, Velocity and Length controls are pretty obvious, but it’s the Amount control that’s particularly clever. This can be used to either subtract or add notes within the selected portion of the performance, making the playing style sparser or busier. Behind the scenes, EZkeys attempts to do this in an intelligent, pianist‑like fashion. The whole Edit Play Style concept is excellent so, if you initially start out with a sequence built from identical copies of the same MIDI library pattern, you can easily add touches of performance variety to each copy while retaining the overall style and dynamics of the playing.
While EZkeys makes an impressive virtual pianist, as Toontrack have now also added the Bandmate page, it can also join your virtual EZ band. As seen in EZbass (where it’s spread across the Drums & Bass and Audio Tracker pages) and EZdrummer 3 (where it first appeared as Bandmate), this feature allows you to drag and drop either audio or MIDI performances into EZkeys and the instrument then suggests MIDI patterns from its own library that might provide a good match. You can customise the genre used for the selection of matches shown if you are looking for something in a specific musical style. And, rather wonderfully, once you highlight a MIDI pattern and audition it, the Note Amount, Octave, Velocity and Swing controls let you customise it on the fly to suit your needs.
If it’s an EZbass sequence you drag in, then the associated chord sequence will also be imported and, as you then audition the possible matches, the EZkeys patterns are mapped to the EZbass chord changes. It’s a brilliant way to get started on a piano part if a bass line was your initial musical inspiration. Equally, note that you can also drag and drop EZkeys patterns into the equivalent Bandmate‑style functions within either EZbass or EZdrummer and the same sort of pattern matching process can quickly find you something to work with. Drag and drop audio — for example, a DI’ed guitar recording — into EZkeys’ Bandmate and it will make a decent first estimate at the chords and rhythmic content before generating its list of pattern matches. It’s not foolproof, but it’s almost always a decent starting point.
The Bandmate feature — and how it integrates across the EZ world — is a heck of a trick. The speed with which you can get your three‑piece EZ virtual band playing in sync is remarkable. It does, however, provide multiple workflow possibilities depending upon where you like to start writing (drums, bass, piano or an audio performance?). New users may need to devote a little time to find their personal preferences here. Bandmate also highlights the value of having well‑stocked MIDI groove libraries for each of your EZ instruments. This represents the catalogue of performance styles that Bandmate can call upon to find performance fits between the various ‘bandmates’.
I really do hope that Toontrack continue to develop how these three virtual musicians interact with each other. For example, I wonder whether we might eventually see the option to automatically update changes made to the chord sequence in EZkeys’ Song Track to the Song Track in EZbass (or vice versa)? That said, once you find a workflow that suits you, the current Bandmate experience is very impressive and it’s great to now see EZkeys more closely integrated into that.
The Highlight Keys feature of the new Grid Editor (see box) includes another boost to EZkeys’ songwriting assistant credentials, namely Songwriting Scales. This opens as a panel with a large circular graphic around which a combination of genres/moods are represented by smaller circle icons. If you select one of these, it triggers audio examples of the selected key/scale combination and its musical flavour. The right side of the window shows the associated notes and chords, and these can also be auditioned. The Highlight In Grid Editor button then does exactly what it suggests and, if you enable the Scale Snap button, any subsequent note pitch editing will snap to this new scale. Even if music theory is not your thing, the Songwriting Scales window could easily encourage you to create melodies and chord sequences outside your usual comfort zone.
However, perhaps the headline songwriting feature is the new Suggest Chords option, accessed by clicking a button at the top of the Song Track. The upper section of the UI then shows the sequence of chords in your currently selected song section (up to a maximum sequence of 16 chord changes) along the top row and, beneath each of these chords, a column of five chords that might work as alternatives for each step. EZkeys makes these chord suggestions on a genre basis, and you can specify the genre from a drop‑down list of options.
You can then simply experiment with changing the chords, either individually or for multiple steps within the sequence. You can also lock a chord to prevent it being changed. As you pick an alternative chord, it is substituted into the song section within the Song Track, and you can audition the individual chord and listen to it in the context of the chord sequence. As you change one chord, the chord suggestions for the subsequent steps are automatically updated to provide new choices suitable for the change just made. If you wish to return to the original chord within a step, simply click on the original chord within the top row. And, if you simply want Suggest Chords to cough up full or partial chord sequence suggestions for you, then the Change Chords button will use its built‑in musical knowledge and keep doing just that until you hear something that you like.
This whole process is both simple and intuitive. You can start with a MIDI pattern from the EZkeys library or from a simple eight‑bar sequence generated via the Add Standard Groove button (which places a song section on the Song Track filled with eight one‑bar instances of the root chord of the key). You then simply experiment while EZkeys guides you with suggestions based upon the key/genre you have chosen. Yes, it’s still up to you to make the final choices (good or bad) but, whatever your level of music theory knowledge, this is a great playground. And, once you are happy with your chord selections, simply closing the Suggest Chord window locks them in to your selected Song Track section. Suggest Chords is a truly inspiring tool for exploring and generating chord sequence ideas. And with it, Toontrack have taken EZkeys’ capabilities as a songwriting assistant to a completely new level.
In terms of sonic details, dynamics and playability, EZkeys 2 represents a big step forward compared to the original and, for the majority of users, it will more than pass the required quality bar, even used in isolation.
As indicated at the start of this review, EZkeys is a virtual instrument that can serve as a source of acoustic piano sounds, as a virtual pianist (and member of a virtual band) and as a songwriting assistant/collaborator. As a source for acoustic piano sounds, in terms of sonic details, dynamics and playability, EZkeys 2 represents a big step forward compared to the original and, for the majority of users, it will more than pass the required quality bar, even used in isolation.
As a virtual pianist, the basic EZkeys concept remains the same but the new UI, and its many new features for customising the performance, makes for a more powerful and more efficient workflow. The new core MIDI library is also excellent. As a brief aside, here in EZ world, we now have a very impressive virtual band of drums, bass and piano... so it does beg the question as to if/when we might get to see EZguitar? I can’t believe Toontrack have not considered this possibility in detail, but I also don’t believe they would do it unless they felt it would match the standard of the existing EZ instruments.
You could argue that within the original EZkeys, the ‘songwriting assistant’ was a more minor component. That’s no longer the case. Concepts such as the Songwriting Scales (surely something Toontrack will develop further) and the brilliant Suggest Chords feature bring this role into the spotlight.
And, while all three of these individual ‘parts’ of EZkeys have been significantly improved, it’s the sum of those parts — the ease with which they all work together to make a coherent whole — that is truly impressive. A great‑sounding acoustic piano, a powerful virtual session pianist, and a songwriting collaborator that will happily throw endless chord sequence possibilities at you to see what inspires. Given what’s on offer, the asking price represents exceptionally good value for money and the upgrade an absolute bargain, especially if you fully exploit the second and third of these roles. Toontrack have done it again — EZkeys 2 is simply brilliant.
As with EZkeys 1, you can drag and drop your EZkeys 2 Song Track performance to a track within your DAW for editing (or playback by a different VI). However, as with the other EZ instruments, EZkeys now includes a Grid Editor page. This provides all the usual tools you would expect in a fully featured MIDI editor, with options to move, copy, add and delete notes, plus a range of additional tools that enhance the editing workflow.
For example, at the top of the editor display, you can toggle on the Humanize options and apply small timing/velocity changes to selected notes within a performance. The Timing button pops open further options for adding timing changes including adding swing. At the bottom of the display, you can make rapid adjustments to the velocity and dynamics of selected note/note groups or apply a degree of randomisation to both parameters. There are also options to view/edit lanes for note velocity and the use of the sustain, soft and sostenuto pedals.
The Grid Editor also offers the Highlight Keys feature. When open, it provides options for highlighting the Grid Editor’s note lanes based upon the current scale/key, notes within the current chord, or notes within the scale of the current chord. And, as you can also toggle on a Scale Snap feature, unintentional ‘duff’ notes can be easily prevented. Overall, the piano‑centric design of the Grid Editor makes it a very attractive alternative to a more generic MIDI editing environment within your DAW.
- Core sample library sounds excellent.
- Revamped UI and feature set provides massive workflow improvements.
- Great value for money, either as a new purchase or an upgrade.
- Piano, pianist and songwriting assistant in one piece of software.
In a virtual format, Toontrack’s EZkeys 2 provides a great acoustic piano instrument, a session pianist and a songwriting assistant, all within a single piece of software. It’s brilliant and will sell by the bucketload.
€179. Upgrade from EZkeys 1 €99. Prices include VAT.
$179. Upgrade from EZkeys 1 $99.