Even state-of-the-art sampling sometimes leaves an impression of
something other than the real deal. Such has been my experience with
many sampled electric pianos—something about the response lacks the
finger-to-sound connection I’m after. Physical modeling, by contrast, is
better for realistic, continuous response when emulating acoustic
instruments, but when it comes to vintage keyboards, I’m often left with
a lack of the body that samples capture so easily. However, with
Applied Acoustics Systems’ (AAS) modeling-based electric piano, Lounge
Lizard EP-3, I could always achieve some remarkably faithful instruments
by tweaking the factory patches—in terms of both timbre and
responsiveness. Now comes EP-4, with 64-bit operation, a redesigned user
interface, new patches designed by some luminaries in the field, and
new effects. Does it hit the sweet spot for software electric pianos?
Let’s find out.
As with EP-3, EP-4 offers standalone, AU, VST and RTAS
versions. Installing EP-4 is quick and painless, relying on a
challenge-and-response routine for authorization. I was up and running
in about a minute.
If you’re a longtime user of Lounge Lizard, you may be
temporarily befuddled by the new graphics, but soon, you’ll appreciate
the more streamlined view, especially in the area of bank and patch
management. These show up in a smaller, expandable area at the upper
left, rather than the long sidebar and tree-like hierarchy of the older
version. Basic tweaks for effects and modeling parameters are front and
center and within easy reach on the main panel of the instrument, with
more detailed parameters on separate edit pages. Every knob I
right-clicked on was assignable to a knob or slider on my controller.
The “Character” button appears among these controls, and
this incorporates preset signal chains, including preamp, cabinet,
speaker, and mic setups. Rather than detail individual parameters, you
move a single knob to one of five preset positions. The results were
subtle—especially in some of the more effect-intensive patches.
I was eager to move my own EP-3 patches over to the new version,
as my upgrade to 64-bit host programs made my old copy of EP-3 unusable.
To my dismay, EP-4 wouldn’t load the patches. A quick check with AAS
confirmed that EP-4 is not backward compatible, so I set out to
replicate my old favorites parameter by parameter.
Editing in EP-4 didn’t seem to be much different from the
previous version, so I launched both versions in standalone mode and
tried to replicate the values of a lush, phased Rhodes patch I’d created
to mimic the one on Steely Dan’s Gaucho. It seemed simple
enough: move the dials to match the settings of the original, get the
effects in line, and set up the same amounts and levels. Although the
parameters seemed the same, the ratios were apparently different given
the same knob positions, so I resorted to my ears. Ultimately, I got
close, and with some more tweaking I’ll get closer.
EP-4’s engine dishes up plenty of programming latitude.
The parameters group into Hammer, Fork, Pickup, Damper, and Tremolo
sections, but these are not isolated parameters. For instance, the Force
knob affects the hammer’s impact on the fork, and when this knob is
zeroed, EP-4 produces no sound whatsoever. You can alter the stiffness
of the hammer, force, and noise with respect to velocity and keyboard
tracking, all of which helps create as realistic (or surrealistic) a
patch as you could want.
Presumably, the first place you might want to point your
editing mouse is the Pickup selector knob. You can select Rhodes or
Wurlitzer; whether you really sound like a Rhodes Suitcase or a Wurly
A200 is up to adjustments you make on the tines, forks, tone bar, pickup
symmetry, and the rest. Maxing out the hammer stiffness setting along
with the fork output produces some great ring-modulation effects.
Gone is the “Topology” button, which let you reconfigure the
signal flow of the effects in parallel or in series, feeding the reverb,
however, you can load the two middle effects slots in any order you
choose. Reverb is fixed as the last processor in the chain, and the new
EQ (high- and low-shelving) and compressor (configurable pre- or
post-EQ) are first. The EQ and compressor are a welcome addition to the
effects chain, and judicious compression adds appreciable heft and
punch. The two middle effects in the chain offer a choice of delay,
distortion, phaser, chorus, wah, auto-wah, and notch filter, which—in
conjunction with tremolo settings—is great at simulating old-school
phase-shifter effects a la
Josef Zawinul and Don Grolnick. The
tap delay that was in EP-3 appears to be missing in action, but although
ping-pong delay is no longer in the menu, moving the pan control to the
right brings in the ping-pong effect. Naturally, all time-based effects
can sync to MIDI clock.
The factory patch library is greatly improved over earlier
versions thanks to the efforts of keyboard and programming wizards such
as Jerry Kovarsky, Christian Haiten, Thiago Pinheiro, and others. Most
of the Classic Tracks bank survives intact from earlier versions, and
patches like “4AM,” “Logical Song,” and “Riders on the Storm” will
easily get you through an evening of covers. Kovarsky’s “Bfly Rhodes”
will make you reach for Herbie Hancock’s Thrust album. You'll
find a bunch of useful sounds in the Experimental bank; although their
electric piano origins shine through, they present some very useful bass
and bell-like timbres. “Meditation Bells,” for example, was close
enough to that lush, glassy, Lyle Mays-style sound (from his Street Dreams album) for me to dive into another programming session soon.
As much as I loved Lounge Lizard EP-3, version 4 is a
significant improvement. The added EQ and compressor sections are a big
bonus, and the factory library is a strong demo of the instrument’s
capabilities. The dynamic response is continuous and smooth, and with
the right controller, goes a long way towards a realistic playing
experience. Unless you understand the electromechanical processes of
vintage electric pianos, you may initially be at sea when programming a
specific sound. That said, the PDF documentation is very helpful and
there’s no harm in poking around the parameters as there’s a factory
reset procedure built in. I lament that there’s no direct way to bring
patches from earlier versions into EP-4, but with a little diligence
they can be reconstructed, as the Classic Tracks bank demonstrates. Be
sure to download the demo version at the AAS website to check things out
for yourself. It’s fully functional except for the sound being
interrupted every few seconds—but your old Wurly is probably doing that
by now, too!