IF A GENIE OFFERED YOU AN ALL-VINTAGE COLLECTION OF ELECTRIC PIANOS,
synths, and even a very special grand piano on the condition that you never boot
up a software instrument ever again, would you take the deal? Unless you also received
roadies, a studio to put it all in, and Ken Rich as your personal keyboard doctor,
we’re guessing a lot of you would decline—especially those who create music
under tight deadlines or remember dealing with all that heavy, temperamental gear
back when doing so was the only option. Here are six new virtual instruments that
are good enough to reach for even if you do own one or more of their real counterparts—
and that are absolute no-brainers if you don’t. (Make sure to scroll through each review for a link to audio examples!)
BY JON REGEN
Everybody loves a Wurly. Jam bands, jazzers, and
even indie-rock hipsters flock to this classic reed
piano, made famous by artists like Ray Charles
and Supertramp. With Wurlitzer V, Arturia
throws their technological hat into the vintage
virtual instrument race. How close do they get to
that legendary Wurly sound?
Unlike sample-based virtual instruments,
Wurlitzer V uses physical modeling to recreate
not only the classic Wurlitzer electric piano
sound, but a plethora of other things: key and
pedal noise, amp and mic choice, stompbox
effects, and more. Arturia does a great job of
letting you dial in just the desired amount of
grit and grunge.
When you launch Wurlitzer V, you’re immediately
greeted by the familiar black and silver livery
of a Wurly front panel. Click on the left front
speaker and the expanded view provides editable
options such as ten-band EQ, pickup axis and
distance, hammer hardness and noise, and many
others. A graphical velocity curve lets you suit
your controller and playing style.
Some of my favorite factory presets are
“Tramp1,” a faithful recreation of Supertramp’s
signature chorused Wurly; “Talking Wurly,” which
uses a vocal fi lter; and “JoeZawiy,” an homage to Zawinul’s
funky EP sound. But those are just three—
there are tons, and the sonic diversity is astounding.
Click on the keybed and a virtual pedalboard
appears. You can populate it with stompbox-style
effects from fl angers, phasers, choruses, and
delays to compressors, pitch shifters, and reverb.
Add the amp simulations (including different
guitar amp and Leslie options), plus virtual mic
choice and placement, and you have a virtual vintage
studio at your fingertips.
Wurlitzer V’s power and presentation is truly
infectious. I’ve owned three Wurlitzer 200A
models and played the Wurly sounds in most
digital keyboards, but Arturia’s recreation had me
hooked from its very fi rst launch. Now if I could
only tap on the front of my real 200A and have
Arturia’s effects pop out. . . .
PROS Gargantuan selection of classic
and modern Wurlitzer sounds. Huge
array of effects and tone-shaping controls.
CONS Good enough to steal attention
from your real Wurly if you have one!
$129 | arturia.com
BY JON REGEN
Of all the different models of Wurlitzer electric
pianos sold over the years, one of the best-kept
secrets has been the 206A, also known as the
student model. This console version features
built-in speakers and omits the 200 series’ much
loved “vibrato” circuit. (Technically it’s tremolo,
as it modulates the volume, not the pitch.) But
don’t sell this baby short—some of your favorite
keyboardists, like Norah Jones and Benmont
Tench, have been gigging with the 206A for
years. When chopped and modified correctly (e.g.,
adding a vibrato and pro-grade direct outs), the
206A sounds sublime. Now, Acousticsamples and
distributor Big Fish Audio have released Wurlie,
a multisampled software 206A that captures the
full grunge and glory of the original.
Wurlie makes use of the UVI Workstation host
(included with purchase) or MOTU’s MachFive
3 soft sampler to deliver its high-quality sonics.
About 1.2GB comprising 3,123 samples covers
everything from varying sustain and release velocities
to pedal noise. The sound engine also lets
you blend “electric” and “acoustic” sample sets:
the former recorded from a direct output, the latter
through mics pointed at the 206A’s speakers
just above the keys. Real Wurlitzers are imprecise
beasts, so having this ability imparts even more
realism to Wurlie’s sound.
After launching, Wurlie greets you with a hotrodded
206A front panel. You’ll fi nd the knobs
for direct and miked sample volumes, speaker
cabinet selection, (including various amp choices
and mic positions), bass and treble, reverb, chorus,
and more. Click the “Settings” lamp, and the
panel reveals even more tone-shaping options,
including pedal volume and resonance, reverb
spring length, chorus and fl anger speeds, velocity
curve and sensitivity, and more. The effects section
is more basic than the behemoth stompbox
selection in Arturia Wurlitzer V (see page 60),
but it’s effective nevertheless. There are also no
factory presets here, and truth be told, I didn’t
miss them. Wurlie’s simple, streamlined interface
mimics the ease with which one dials up sounds
on a real Wurly played through attached effects.
The benchmark of any virtual instrument is
how close it gets to the real McCoy, and Wurlie
succeeds with fl ying colors. From Benmont
Tench-ish pads, to growling Black Crowes comps
and even fl anged, almost synth-like leads, Wurlie
is as close as you can get to a real 206A without
chopping and modifying one yourself. This is one
sample library that will stay on my hard drive for
years to come.
PROS Great rendering of the underappreciated
Wurly 206A student model.
Generous simultaneous effects. Can mix
direct and miked samples. Compatible
with nearly every DAW via UVI
Workstation or MOTU MachFive 3.
CONS Pitch range doesn’t extend above
or below the 64 notes of the real thing,
which some users may find limiting.
Audio examples: Acousticsamples Wurlie and Arturia Wurlitzer V compared
$99.95 | acousticsamples.net |
Piano in Blue
BY JOHN KROGH
If you already have a go-to sampled grand and
you’re looking to expand your piano palette
with more personality, then Piano in Blue from
Cinesamples is worth a look. Shortly before
the closing of New York City’s Clinton Studios,
Cinesamples learned that a particular Steinway
D at the studio was the very same instrument
that was used on a number of famous Columbia
Records’ 30th Street Studios recordings dating
back to the ’50s. Discovering that it was the
piano Bill Evans played on the seminal Miles
Davis record Kind of Blue, Cinesamples booked
Clinton Studios for one last session to capture
this classic grand, now preserved in virtual form
as Piano in Blue (PIB).
PIB’s sound is intimate, definitely not
pristine or clinical. Rather, its age is evident.
There’s a nostalgic, almost romantic quality
that I haven’t heard from any other sampled
piano. (Okay, maybe it’s the Miles influence on
me.) Three stereo mic perspectives were recorded:
close, room, and another pair intended
for surround use. You can dial in a mix of each;
I preferred a combo of close and room for a
The midrange is mellow and very playable, with the
lower register capable of brightness and edge, as one
would expect from a Steinway. The upper register
has a woody character with plenty of sympathetic
resonance, which adds to the organic quality.
This is a piano that can definitely sit exposed
in a mix, although I found I had to use
a good convolution reverb to get PIB to sit
naturally in the same sonic space as the other
virtual players in my DAW, as PIB is a bit stark
and dry. Thanks to the parallel signal path
employed for the sampling, PIB lets you switch
from a “clean” sound to a sample set recorded
through a Neve 8078 console to analog tape.
This is a richer, thicker sound due to the harmonic
distortion of the Neve and multitrack
tape. I found it more useful for pop and rock,
while the clean samples were more appropriate
for jazz and classical.
PIB won’t likely be your only or primary virtual
piano, but it does off er another fl avor—and
the undeniable historical cachet of the particular
piano that was sampled—for those of us who
often need to create a sense of believability in our
MIDI-based tracks. Given the relatively low price,
I consider PIB almost an impulse buy, and the
music you make with it will certainly benefit.
PROS Nice complement to typical
squeaky-clean multisampled grands.
Multiple mic perspectives and
“clean versus tape” sample sets
add flexibility. Lots of charm and
CONS Full version of Native Instruments
Kontakt required, adding considerably
$129 | cinesamples.com
BY STEPHEN FORTNER
“Come on man, not another electric piano sound,”
says Neo-Soul Keys’ own website, accurately anticipating
the reaction of jaded keyboard players.
Heck, when I want to sound like a Rhodes, I still
have no problem reaching for EVP88 (introduced
in 2001!) in a Logic mix or my Motif ES (from
2003) for one-off live gigs—and this sound
category has only improved since. Know what,
though? Neo-Soul Keys is still special.
The Kontakt Player version gives you the full
2.6GB whammy of sample content, but versions
scaled down to fit GarageBand on the iPad or the
Yamaha Motif XS/XF keyboards retain a surprising
amount of the detail and character I enjoyed
from the full sample set.
In the Kontakt version, turning up the
Tine/Bell knob emphasizes more of the belllike
harmonic of the tines versus the darker
“body” sound of the tonebars. Separate knobs
control key-down and key-up noise, and a
Release Efx knob controls the noise of the
damper shushing the tines. You also get control
over sustain pedal noise and pedal-down
resonance, but detail freaks will especially
love the Bark knob. This lets you dial in more
or less of the brap you hear when digging into
the lower register or the pop when hitting a
treble key hard. Of course, you can turn all
this stuff up to levels you’d never hear on any
real instrument, but used judiciously, they add the “subliminal” element that can take
an authentic playing experience to 11.
Such nuances are expected these days, so why
did I say Neo-Soul Keys was special? It’s the overall
sound: like a well maintained but undeniably
vintage Mark I. Indeed, the developers sampled
just such a unit at a very respectable 12 velocity
layers. It fared well when I clinically played
notes and chords to compare it to other plug-ins,
but that wasn’t what sucked me in. It was when
I broke out my Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan
books and just started playing tunes that I found I
could really close my eyes and get lost in the music.
And I did—for a couple of hours.
Bottom line: Not only did I believe I was playing
the real thing, but I connected emotionally with the
music to a degree that I usually don’t when playing
a virtual EP, even one whose developers imposed
a more uniform velocity response across the keys
after the fact of sampling. The inspiration factor
alone (not to mention the low price) should earn
Neo-Soul Keys a home on your hard drive, no matter
what other EPs are living there already.
PROS Funky, fat, utterly realistic
vintage Mark I Suitcase sound, dirt and
all. Adjustable tine/tonebar balance,
mechanical noises, and “bark.” Tasty
onboard effects. Multiple versions
(see below) let you play it on a
variety of platforms.
CONS Pristine, “new out of the box”
sound is harder to dial in than on some other software EPs. No pitches below
lowest E on a 73-key Fender Rhodes.
Kontakt Player: $99.99 | Reason 6
ReFill: $99.99 | GarageBand: $39.99 |
Yamaha Motif XS/XF: $79.99 |
BY FRANCIS PRÈVE
When I reviewed the Fairlight app for iPad, I was
stunned to discover that many dazzling sounds
from my favorite ’80s bands were just factory presets.
It was like learning there’s no Santa Claus, until
I realized, “Hey, those are my sounds now, too!”
So when I found myself having exactly the same
response to Emulation 2—UVI’s tribute to the E-mu
Emulator II sampler—I rejoiced in evil glee.
Emulation 2 is overflowing with amazing
patches that you simply won’t fi nd in today’s doit-all wondersynths. Many of these samples were
processed and recorded through an analog signal
path before being fed into the Emulator II’s eight-bit
engine, so there’s a little something extra in these
samples that’s warm and crunchy—with that lowres
fizz that no modern bit-crusher ever quite nails.
Standouts from the Bell collection include
“Tubular Bells” and “Carillon,” which immediately
evokes the Pet Shop Boys and OMD. The Choir
section is absolutely stellar, and jam-packed
with those airy chorale sounds that permeated
tracks from Tears for Fears, Mr. Mister, and Art
of Noise. The FX collection is all well and good
for Foley effects, but also has some astonishingly innovative elements for sound collages.
The Orchestra Hit library is a mother lode of
brilliant sound design. Of course, there are those
classic stabs that we all know from the dawn
of sampling, but the real gems are the heavily
processed chords and pads that you’d be hardpressed
to fi nd in more modern collections.
The Synth sections are chock full of pads and
ethereal layered material that will satisfy all but
the most discriminating Roland D-50 fans. Reverbed
bells glisten over vocal-like swirls of mercury
vapor, often layered with a bit of analog warmth.
Other notable patches include Seinfeld-esque
slapped bass, grainy but useful world percussion,
low-res string orchestra pads, and a smattering of
cheesetastic brasses and winds.
UVI has also included a full Drumulator library
along with a fairly extensive collection of other
’80s-era drum machines. There’s even a TR-808-
style interface, which you may prefer to your DAW’s
drum sequencing, especially for making retro beats.
The only feature I wanted for is the ability to
change the sample start time. The dual ADSR envelopes,
lowpass filter, effects, and bit-crusher are
all welcome, but being able to move the start point
for entire multisampled instruments would’ve
been a godsend for patches with mushy attacks.
All in all, I’m really impressed with Emulation
2. It will make you feel instantly nostalgic, and very
likely, inspired. The question is whether this collection
of historically important sounds is worth two
bills. For me, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
PROS A large slice of ’80s musical
history. Spot-on sounds. Vintage
sampling techniques deliver some truly
complex layered patches. Drumulator
CONS Sample start point not
adjustable. Price might be a trifle
steep for this niche.
$199 | uvi.net | bigfishaudio.com
BY FRANCIS PRÈVE
I’m a string machine junkie. In the past three
years, I’ve owned two: a Siel Prelude and my beloved
Yamaha SK-50D. When Austin synth boutique
Switched On Music gets something exotic
in like a Roland RS-505 Paraphonic, I’ll go play it
just so I know what it’s like.
I’ve played many analog string machine
sample libraries, and UVI String Machines is a
solid contender. With 11 classic units including
the ARP Solina and Roland VP-330, along with a
couple of bass synths and a patch for enhancing
the attack of some of the mushier synths, it covers
quite a bit of ground.
All of the synths were recorded dry, so you can
apply UVI’s integrated filtering and effects to thicken
and customize the sound. There are two ADSR
envelopes (amp and fi lter), a lowpass filter with cutoff
and resonance, a nice little stereo ensemble, and
integrated phaser, delay and reverb are all available
on the main page of the interface. Dig a little deeper
and there’s a bunch of additional effects built
into the UVI Workstation (a free download) that’s
required to run String Machines. (It also loads into
MOTU MachFive version 3.1 or later.)
I compared String Machines to similar soft
synths as well as my Yamaha SK-50D, and frankly,
I’m impressed. The Solina is the gold standard of
vintage string synths, having appeared in countless
tracks including Gary Wright’s “Dream
Weaver.” UVI did a great job of capturing its raw
sound, including the distinctive ensemble effect.
The Crumar Performer samples are outstanding
as well. The Performer is the pad source for pretty much every Duran Duran hit. The secret to
nailing that sound comes from taking the original
sample and processing it with the right amounts
of EQ and phaser, like Nick Rhodes did back in
the day. String Machines does that.
The inclusion of the Roland VP-330 choir (as
well as strings) is another standout, since the
330 was a crucial component in early tracks by
the Cars, as well as Laurie Anderson’s “Oh Superman.”
If your DAW includes a vocoder, set it to
eight- or ten-band mode and use this 330 as the
carrier. You won’t be disappointed.
The one thing that annoyed me is UVI’s
putting product ads in the lower corner of
their Workstation host app. I could see this in
a demo or trial, but it seems a bit invasive in a
For less than a hundred bucks, UVI’s string
machine collection is a great addition to any software-
based rig. The analog shimmer of spectral
strings is a fantastic addition to pretty much any
genre, not just electronic dance music.
PROS Great collection of classic analog
string machines. Essential synth tools
like dual ADSR envelopes and lowpass
filters for customizing patches. Good
selection of integrated effects.
CONS Some low-level aliasing rumble
when playing high notes.
$99 | uvi.net | bigfishaudio.com