Review: E-Instruments Session Keys Electric S

Solid Rhodes raw materials with a trippy sound design twist
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Session Keys S shows a standout combination of classic and Rococo mentalities in an authentic virtual Rhodes electric piano. The Kontakt Player-based software instrument combines exhaustive and excellent sampling of a single vintage piano—a 1973 MkI Suitcase—with an approach to tone-shaping and features for phrase-based song construction that you might not expect in a more straightforward “vintage keys” plug-in.

The 9.9 GB of data (18.8 GB uncompressed) comprises two main sample sets: Live and Studio. The Live set is made up of miked recordings through the well-known Fender Stereo Vibrato (actually, panning tremolo) cabinet that was the bottom half of the Suitcase setup. The Studio samples were recorded direct-in. Both sets are thorough, detailed, and ballsy, though the difference between the two is subtler than I expected. Dials such as Crunch and Response control the bark factor and high-harmonic response to velocity. Settings under the Tonality tab go deeper still, governing nuances such as sustain resonance, tine volume and position, mechanical noises, and more.

The Pentamorph is the big macro control that changes the mix of further sample layers as well as other salient sound parameters. If this sounds like a scene blender, that’s exactly what it is. The five “anchor” scenes are Reversed (reverse samples only), Unique (reverse plus mechanical noise samples), Tonality (a mix of everything including settings under the corresponding Tonality tab), Original (Tonality plus forward samples only), and Unplugged (tines and mechanicals only). This is, indeed, facile for subtle-to-dramatic timbre changes using just one knob twist, but occasionally I had to reverse-engineer its thinking.

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For example, when trying for a tines-forward, borderline Dyno sound I initially could only get the tines loud enough by going so close to Tonality as to bring in reverse samples I didn’t want. Clicking the Tonality tab to tweak individual settings manually, I found that the trick was to set Pentamorph to the all-inclusive Tonality waypoint, then turn down elements I didn’t want in the pane above. Trying to add what I did want to the “Original” Pentamorph setting, by contrast, wouldn’t work because moving the Pentamorph puck in that direction invariably reduced the tine volume.

The built-in Animator is a phrase generator that follows your chord changes in the fashion of arranger keyboards. The Animator phrases really bring it! They’re tasteful and true to the styles their names suggest, and they track your chordal intentions accurately. You can mix and match six phrases in a “song” and key-switch them starting on C-2. Also in this section is a Smart Chord function that lets you map chords, including inversions and extensions, to individual keys or drum pads on your MIDI controller.

Last but not least, seven effects—stereo-panning tremolo, chorus, phaser, amp sim, compressor, delay, and reverb—are tempo-syncable (where appropriate), and you can sweep select parameters via the Pentamorph. For a plug-in of this type, these effects are deep, with the tremolo going well beyond the capabilities of a Fender Suitcase amp, the compressor offering a make-up gain segment, and much more. Of course, nearly everything described so far is MIDI-learnable and automation-ready.

What’s more, thorough templates let you work deeply and quickly with the tonal parameters, Animator phrases, and Smart Chords with full Native Instruments NKS integration.

While I described Waves Electric 88 as a keyboard player’s EP, I’d say Session Keys Electric S is more of a producer’s tool—let’s say 70/30 in that direction. This is the virtual Rhodes that’s accurate enough for funk and fusion classics, but deep and tweaky enough to get even the modular kiddies thinking of the venerable EP as a new type of synthesis machine. For 80 bucks, that’s no small feat.

Snap Judgment

PROS Expertly recorded samples. Pentamorph is oneknob macro control over sample mix and multiple parameters. Animator plays arranger-like phrases that follow your chords. Native Instruments NKS integration.

CONS Could use more user-programmability of precisely how the Pentamorph interacts with each underlying parameter.

Bottom Line

Solid Rhodes raw materials with a trippy sound design twist.