A few weeks ago we posted a great review of Toontrack’s EZkeys that had been written by guitar player Mark Cohen and gave us an excellent view of the virtual piano instrument from a non-pianist’s perspective.
This week, we asked professional pianist and educator Tony Cliff to give us his view on the revolutionary songwriting software.
Over to Tony…
I was pleased to be asked to write about Toontrack EZkeys as I am well-acquainted with their excellent EZDrummer and Superior Drummer products and know they have a deserved reputation for producing products that both sound great and are really simple to use. I am however writing this from a slightly unusual perspective since I am an experienced pianist and yet EZkeys is designed so that even non-pianists can produce great piano tracks. However I am also involved in music education and EZkeys offers intriguing educational aspects which are very interesting to explore.
The initial EZkeys release was a grand piano edition based on a Model D Steinway instrument but, more recently, they have added an upright piano edition. This is a useful addition as not all recording projects call for a Steinway piano sound. EZkeys operates either in standalone mode or, probably more commonly, as a 32 or 64-bit VST, AU or RTAS plugin instrument compatible with most DAWs such as Cubase or Logic. Loading up the EZkeys Grand in standalone mode you immediately see the attractive interface with the piano display keys moving as you play your MIDI keyboard. Ideally you should operate this product using a fully-weighted 88-note keyboard but you can adjust the velocity settings to suit your particular MIDI keyboard.
Playing the piano produces a very effective and bright Steinway sound and you can very easily add a touch of reverb and soften or harden the tone from the simple on-screen controls. Pressing the sustain pedal produces a slight thudding noise and you can hear the sound of the dampers being raised so you can see Toontrack have included plenty of detail in the instrument sampling.
Apart from the standard piano there are plenty of presets ranging from distorted piano sounds to boogie-woogie piano or piano/pad effects. Loading the upright piano version of EZkeys reveals a satisfying and characterful instrument just like an old but well-maintained upright piano should sound. It is very useful having upright piano sounds as often you might want a less ‘perfect’ tone for a blues-style song for example. Once again there are plenty of preset variations and with both instruments you can make various sound adjustments to suit your taste then save them as new presets if desired.
So summing up for both instruments the sounds are eminently usable and would sit well with recorded song tracks. The playability and response is also great and it is easy to create good dynamic contrast between the loud and soft tones so essential to a convincing piano performance.
Drag and Drop and Create Complete Piano Tracks
EZkeys has a generous drag-and-drop MIDI library covering a wide range of piano styles including rock, soul, gospel, jazz, boogie, funk and blues. The grooves are set out in convenient intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge sections in 8-bar or longer blocks. There are also separate files for single, rhythmic, or arpeggio-style chords as well as endings or even special effects such as Jerry Lee Lewis-style glissandos. You can quickly audition the styles and then can load them into your song time-line and this now leads to the ingenious part. EZkeys analyses all the chords you have loaded and when you click on any particular chord name a circular selection tool is shown. This intuitive ‘Circle of 5ths’ display enables you to change the chord, make it major or minor or modify it to an extended form such as ‘sus4’, ‘major 7th, diminished and so on.
This is a really excellent educational feature as you have immediate feedback as to how such modifications of the chords affect the overall mood of the track. You can also transpose whole song blocks or modify their velocity to create variety. When you play the keyboard EZkeys always displays the chord you are playing which is a nice touch. There is also a really useful and detailed music theory text included with the product where the musical examples are illustrated by EZkeys playing the chords or sequences being explained.
All this means that whilst you can produce an entire piano track without actually being able to play the piano the process of producing the track is educational in itself. In fact the more you use the product the more you come to understand chord and chord structures as played by the piano. I am sure this process will encourage you to explore actual playing and learning keyboard or piano.
Toontrack’s EZkeys is an outstanding product which has obviously been very carefully designed by the Toontrack team. If you are a beginner or a non-pianist then it will help you to produce great piano tracks and also learn about piano styles and chord structures in the process. The music theory aspect is also a great feature and I can see the product being very useful in schools or colleges. Both the grand and upright editions also sound very good and will make ideal instruments for a wide range of recordings.
Find out more about EZkeys with Toontrack’s video walkthrough…