Toontrack EZKeys Review: A Virtual Piano for the Rest of Us
Want to add a great sounding piano track to your current batch of original music? Of course you do! Oh, wait, that's right...you can't play the piano! It could be a problem, and some may even argue that it should be a problem, but regardless of that, you're in luck because EZKeys is probably the virtual piano you've been needing this whole time.
What is EZKeys?
EZKeys is a MIDI-based virtual piano developed by Toontrack, the company behind home-studio favorites Superior Drummer and EZDrummer. It can be run as either a VST plug-in within a compatible DAW or as a standalone executable file, and is identically functional either way. The base version of EZKeys includes an expandable library of MIDI samples, most of which are broken down into ready-to-use song parts (intro, verse, bridge, chorus, etc). Unlike other key-centric virtual instruments, EZKeys features a relatively powerful MIDI sequencer built directly into the interface, allowing users to cut, splice, and rearrange patterns. Chords from these patterns can also be changed within the sequencer, allowing users create a theoretically infinite combination of harmonic patterns. There are a few variations of the program available, but this review will focus only on the "Grand Piano" engine that comes with base version of the software. EZKeys retails for $179 directly from Toontrack's website, but can be obtained for a little cheaper via other fine online retailers.
Using EZKeys in a Home Recording Environment
As a virtual piano, EZKeys is pretty cut-and-dry. Those with key-friendly chops have the ability to utilize their favorite MIDI controllers and use it strictly as an audio engine within their DAW. The WYSIWYG interface allows for various tweaks, including dynamics control, tuning, reverb, compression, tone and output volume. There are a number of presets available as well, many of them including various tonal effects such as tremolo, chorus and distortion. Direct recording functionality is also available, which may seem seem redundant if the program is used within a DAW, but as mentioned earlier, EZKeys can be opened as a standalone application, so those without VST-ready recording software are still able to reap the benefits of well sampled MIDI coloring thanks to an understated import-to-WAV function.
For everyone else, the library of MIDI samples that comes stock with EZKeys has more than enough variation to please most amateur recording artists. The MIDI browser is divided into several genres, which are then in turn broken down into a variable number of playing styles. After that, we get song parts, which are then divided between four differing variations. Once a MIDI pattern is chosen, they can be inserted into the sequencer via the magic of dragging-and-dropping, and they will appear as a movable sound block that details the names of the chords being played. Clicking the chords presented inside the sequencer opens a selectable circle-of-fifths which allows changes and embellishments. The sequencer doesn't allow any deep MIDI editing functionality, but those with DAWs can drag-and-drop the sound blocks into a MIDI track and change notes the old-fashioned way. Given the ability splice and rearrange patterns within the built-in sequencer, though, there is still plenty of variation available for those without MIDI know-how.
Taking a Closer Look at Presets
The intended demographic for the "EZ" branded Toontrack software are those who want quick access to great sounds, so presets play an important role in determining whether or not EZKeys is worth the triple-digits pricetag. Thankfully, the preset sounds available are all extremely useful, and users can achieve some pretty interesting and unique sounds from the grand piano base alone. The following table lists all of the available presets and provides a brief description of each one of them.
What it Does
A mostly untouched grand piano sound.
Any song that requires an everday piano track
Sustain is added, adding a droning quality
Piano tracks that call for a dramatic touch
Heavier on the bass, mid frequencies cut a little
Jazz, or anything that needs a smooth, easy-going vibe
Retro Space Ballad
More echo than reverb
A space ballad, perhaps? Or any slow piano part that needs haunting quality
Punchy, with a little chorus
A clear-cut, overstated piano track
Old Time Boogie
Lo-fi, with little else added to the effects deparment
Blues and 1950s-style emulation
A little louder, with an emphasis on pedal stomping
A live-ish sound that blends notes together
A pre-recorded piano coming out of a closed-back speaker
Anything retro, really
Distorted piano with flanger, emulates an electric piano
Grand piano with tremolo effect added
Slow jams that need a little ear candy
Adds a vocal-chorus pad effect
Gospel music comes to mind, also: see psychedelia again
Detunes certain notes, adds flanger and chorus
Making your song sound awful
Adds a phaser-type effect, mimicking a pulsing synthesizer
Quirky pop music
Emulates a synth-pad
Anything that requires beautiful, atmospheric ambiance
Using EZKeys as a Songwriting Tool
Though it works great as a standard virtual instrument, EZKeys is heavily touted by Toontrack as an essential songwriting tool, so it would only make sense to examine it within that context. There's no denying that it is flexible and powerful in the harmonic department--allowing chord changes to the pre-made MIDI samples alone is enough to give any artist the ability to create a unique piano track. Purely as a songwriting device, though, some people may stumble across issues with originality, since much of the included MIDI library is based directly on existing (and popular) piano-driven tunes. For example, the included pop/rock "ballad" is reminiscent of Adele's Someone Like You, "rock ballad" sounds quite a bit like Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and "memphis" is almost a note-for-note take on Walking in Memphis. Variations can be made with tempo, song key, and chords used, but this is not a foolproof method of "cheating" an original song composition. Chords can be changed to whatever the user desires, but the patterns and transitions remain untouched, so there may not be enough here to truly differentiate your original songs from everyone else. While the notion of splicing and rearranging MIDI blocks in the sequencer comes into play to remedy this situation, it takes a little effort on the users part, and some may simply find it a whole lot easier to simply pick up their favorite instrument and take the tried-and-true path to original songwriting.
This is all philosophy, though, and every songwriter is different, so as with everything else in life, your mileage may vary. It should also be mentioned that the MIDI browser features stock chord patterns that do not mimic any existing popular music, so it's possible to create a basic no-frills piano line with ease. The nice thing about these chord patterns is the fact that they do offer a fine amount of variability, most of them directly related to how they fit within a beat (full notes, quarter notes, etc), and thus a songwriter may find this method of composition satisfactory.
Is it Worth the Money?
Adding piano sounds to an original recording can be a rewarding experience, even more so when the artist in question can't actually play the piano. Despite the fact that the included MIDI samples sound overly familiar, diversity options are still available, and we haven't even touched on the idea of importing external MIDI files (EZKeys can do that as well, by the way). So, for as far as MIDI sampling and sequencing goes, EZKeys is indeed a big winner. But does this justify a $179 price tag?
The answer to that question is absolutely dependent on the user in question and how they wish to approach a program like EZKeys. Those who can already play keyboard may not reap the benefits of simplified piano arrangement, and the price may be too steep for those who simply need virtual instrument MIDI coloration (the MIDI patches that come free with Garageband will likely suffice, for example). Another possible drawback is the overly-simplified control scheme, since it may turn off power users of the home recording ilk who are used to having access to every detail parameter.
But alas, there's the rest of us who don't know how to play piano. If you fit into that category and desire the inclusion of a piano track, then EZKeys is probably right up your alley. It costs about as much as a decent MIDI keyboard, and composing a piano score with EZKeys is much, much faster than writing a MIDI part from scratch. Getting a great sound is easy, and creating a unique piano track doesn't take much effort, so at the end of the day an EZKeys purchase may ultimately be a win-win scenario.
EZKeys is upgradable beyond the base Grand Piano package, but those enhancements don't come cheap--$89, to be exact. The good news is that the Grand Piano base version offers plenty of sonic diversity, so those who simply need basic piano lines will get a decent bang for their collective bucks. And, if for some reason starting off with the Grand Piano isn't what you're looking for, any of the expansion can be purchased a "base" package (thus making the Grand Piano an extension. As of this writing, Toontrack currently offers these variations: Upright Piano, Classic Electrics, Grand Electric, Retro Electric, Mellotron and (of course) the Grand Piano. Additional MIDI packs can be purchased for $29 as well.
Sound quality is excellent
Expensive, especially if you already have a MIDI-friendly DAW and a MIDI keyboard
Export to WAV function is incredibly useful
May be too basic for power-users
Built-in sequencer is super easy to use
Included song MIDI data resembles popular songs a little too well
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