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!)
ARTURIA Wurlitzer V
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.
CINESAMPLES 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 vibey-yet-classic sound.
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 character.
CONS Full version of Native Instruments Kontakt required, adding considerably to cost.
Audio examples: Cinesamples Piano in Blue
$129 | cinesamples.com
GOSPEL MUSICIANS Neo-Soul Keys
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.
Audio examples: Neo-Soul Keys
Kontakt Player: $99.99 | Reason 6 ReFill: $99.99 | GarageBand: $39.99 | Yamaha Motif XS/XF: $79.99 | neosoulkeys.com
UVI Emulation 2
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 library included.
CONS Sample start point not adjustable. Price might be a trifle steep for this niche.
UVI String Machines
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 paid-for product.
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.
Audio examples: UVI String Machines and Emulation 2