Native Instruments Alicia39s Keys

June 1, 2010
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PACKSCREENThe sound of Alicia Keys’ piano, which is by turns lush and assertive, is all over her hit records. Working closely with renowned keyboard soundware developer Thomas Skarbye (better known as Scarbee), not to mention Alicia Keys herself, Native Instruments has captured the magic of that sound in Alicia’s Keys. Being that it’s one piano loved by one artist, this new sampled grand isn’t perfect for every style of music, but it has some strong features and a great tone, not to mention a modest price. It uses NI’s Kontakt Player 4 plug-in software, which is included.

Audio Example: CLICK HERE

(Author's note: the piano is Alicia's Keys, the bass is Spectrasonics Trilian, the drums are a loop from Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, and the pad is U-he Zebra 2.5.)

The piano in Keys’ studio is a Yamaha C3 in the limited edition Neo cabinetry. A C3 is a six-foot grand, so the low register is less full and deep than on a nine-foot concert grand. Also, Yamaha pianos are known for their bright, in-your-face sound, a characteristic that’s preserved here, although the hammers are somewhat subdued compared to those on my own C3 (not a Neo) in my living room. My piano also has slightly stronger bass frequencies, but that may be because it’s sitting on a carpet rather than on a recording studio’s hardwood floor, so more highs are getting absorbed.

The realistic features of the Alicia’s Keys piano are stunning. The velocity response (reported to be 12 layers deep) makes it extremely playable. I never felt that isolated notes were jumping out at me or getting buried. Also, every range of the keyboard responds just as it should. The samples seem to be full-length and streamed from disk—the instrument occupies almost 7GB on my hard drive, though only 365MB of RAM—so there are no looping artifacts in the bass register, and the decay envelopes taper perfectly.

Alicia-Fig-1The pop-up Settings box has five pages of control governing piano details such as pedal behavior and sympathetic resonance.

If you hold a few keys without the sustain pedal down, then strike higher or lower keys staccato, you’ll hear sympathetic resonance. Press the sustain pedal while holding a note or chord, and you’ll hear the dampers open up. (In fact, you’ll hear them open up very quietly if you press the sustain pedal while no notes are being held, just as you would on a real piano.) The duplex strings, which are one of a grand piano’s two systems of acoustic “reverb,” seem to have been sampled separately, and you can control how long they’ll ring before dying away. They’re less prominent than the duplex strings on my C3, however, and their loudness is not controllable.

A convolution reverb is built in, with impulse responses for an auditorium, a concert hall, and a studio. The editable parameters are limited to output level and room size—don’t look for niceties like pre-delay. There’s also a standard DSP reverb, which you may prefer if you’re running a slower computer. Onmy fast new Intel i5-equipped PC, the reverb didn’t eat up too much of the dual-core 2.67GHz CPU.

Even without any reverb, the piano’s natural ambience is gorgeous. The meticulous tuning contributes to the effect: Each of the unisons has exactly the right amount of microscopic detuning, so the the tone choruses almost imperceptibly, just like on a real piano.

As noted, Alicia’s Keys isn’t perfect. At first, on some keys at some velocities, I heard key-release samples that were too loud and too long—but see below. This initially made it all but impossible to employ staccato chords. Though there is a knob for key release decay time, there isn’t one that reduces the volumes of the release segments. If you have a full version of NI’s Kontakt 4 soft sampler, though, you’ll be able to edit the levels of the release samples to taste. I checked whether the release segments responded to MIDI note release velocity, as on a real piano, and found that they don’t. This is not surprising, since few MIDI controller keyboards transmit a variable release velocity—and even if yours does, Native Instruments recommends that you don’t use release velocity with Alicia’s Keys.

When I reported these issues to Native Instruments, they explained that Alicia Keys wanted the sound of her unique instrument captured accurately, imperfections and all. But when I followed up by sending them an MP3 audio clip that highlighted the inconsistent release times, sound designer Thomas Skarbye responded immediately by updating the preset, and sending me a beta version of a new NKI file (a Kontakt Player preset) to check out for myself. This version did indeed have more uniform release segments, and it should be available by the time you read this. The releases in the bass register are still longer than I’d prefer, but there’s no longer any problem playing staccato in the mid and upper registers— and at any rate, the uniqueness of Alicia’s piano is part of the point.

For uptempo jazz comping or a crisp Latin piano montuno, I might use a different virtual piano. But for a pop ballad, Alicia’s Keys would be my first choice. It sounds both richer and more up-front than the Yamaha C7 or the German Steinway in Synthogy Ivory version 1.64. Executive editor Stephen Fortner also got a copy, and added, “I’ve tried all the ‘character’ virtual pianos—where the selling point is the provenance of some particular piano that was sampled. Alicia’s Keys is by far the most inviting to play and the most flexible of these. I’m reaching for it a lot more than I thought I would.”

Ordinarily I’m skeptical of the idea that there’s magic in the sound of any particular instrument, but Alicia’s Keys really does invite an emotional response. If you’re that kind of composer or songwriter, the inspiration factor alone—especially for the price—is more than enough to earn it a home on your hard drive.

Specifications

Alicia-Fig-2PROS Gorgeous piano sound. Many realistic features, including sympathetic resonance and damper pedal response. True sostenuto support. Concert hall reverb included.
CONS Key release samples are too long on some notes.

CONCEPT Kontakt Player-based virtual grand piano sampled from Alicia Keys’ personal Yamaha C3 Neo.

FORMATS Mac or PC. AU, VST, RTAS, and standalone.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Mac: OS 10.5, Intel processor.
PC: Windows XP Service Pack 2, Vista, or 7 (32- or 64-bit).
Both: 1GB RAM, DVD drive for installation, 7GB hard disk space.

PRICE List: $119

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