Review: Spectrasonics Keyscape

A treasure-trove of well crafted keyboard sounds
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Keyscape is a virtual instrument collection of carefully curated keyboard instruments—from obvious and essential choices to historical rarities and unique offerings. It runs on Mac OS X and Windows as a 64-bit VST, AU or AAX plug-in. As this review went to press, we learned that a stand-alone version is also in the works.

Figure 1. The main screen of Keyscape with the browser (which can be hidden if desired) When you open Keyscape, you’re presented with a browser on the left side of the screen, with intelligent choices to help you navigate through the included ware (see Figure 1). Keyscape offers 36 instruments, each with plenty of Patches, for a total of nearly 500 sounds. The main screen presents a large graphic of the chosen instrument, with parameter fields below that are logically grouped in categories such as Main, Tone, Amp, Effects, Settings and Info: Beyond Main, Settings and Info, the tabs differ depending on the instruments.

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It is critically important to select a velocity-curve response (under Settings) that matches your touch and controller to get these highly nuanced and dynamic sounds to play at their best. During the time I was reviewing Keyscape, Spectrasonics released an update the provided additional curves for popular keyboards.

The sounds are sampled and crafted with the depth and expertise that users have come to expect from Spectrasonics. Patches include up to 32 levels of velocity switching, individual key sampling with multiple modes of round-robin articulation, appropriate mechanical noise options for both the attack and release of notes, release samples, and a host of vintage and modern effects and amp models to further shape the sounds. Obvious skill and attention went into the sourcing, including careful rebuilding, maintenance, and customization of the source instrument. All this translates into some large sounds, which is why the company offers a thinning option, which uses fewer velocity layers and round-robin choices. In general, I found that it cut the load time in half, and in contexts where the sound will be somewhat masked, you won’t suffer too much.

The Heart Of The Matter

Keyscape offers a highly modified Yamaha C7, with custom hammers, specialized felts, and a lot of shaping: It does not sound like the cliché, bright pop-piano so many think of. It is clear, warmer than you would expect, and speaks well at all velocity levels. I found it very satisfying to play.

I especially enjoyed how well notes sustained before the natural decay, and I was able to play very legato, “singing” melodies, something I can’t do on a lot of sampled pianos. No, it is not really “woody” and is not the piano for everyone, but over all it’s a nice instrument.

Figure 2. The Rhodes Classic Suitcase Studio with the three main tabs presented in a composite image, to show all the tone-shaping options. Three world-class instruments represent the Rhodes/tine-based electric piano. The early-‘70s Mark I suitcase model is simply stunning and speaks well across its whole range and touch (see Figure 2). Adjusting the velocity curve brings out the right amount of bark (when you hit it hard) or tames it. You can blend in mechanical noise captured by a mic placed close to the action, which helps give the feeling that you are playing the real thing. The release samples are excellent, delivering the low-end funk that had me thinking of the late George Duke and smiling.

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The Tone Tab has eight settings for the preamp, which combined with EQ produces a wide range of options. For many of its instruments Keyscape offers a control called Color Shift. It transposes the sample map and then retunes the notes so the pitch remains the same, but each note uses progressively adjacent samples (either from below and stretched up, or from above and stretched down). This produces a range of new colors and on the Rhodes it modifies the tine/ bell-tone in pleasing ways. Emulations of Studio and Spring reverb, along with Tape Echo help put the sound in the right space, and a selection of eight modulation effects includes all the classics.

The second Rhodes is the stuff of legend. Based on the model used on recordings throughout the ‘80s, the “LA Custom E” is a 1974 suitcase voiced to have a wonderfully pronounced tine tone. Its Tone Tab differs from the Classic, offering the choice of direct or a miked speaker source with 3-band EQ. It also plays differently, with less bark when pushed. It is absolutely gorgeous sounding, and Rhodes aficionados will rejoice to be able to use this Holy Grail instrument.

Lastly, Keyscape offers the Vintage Vibe Tine Piano, an instrument currently in production. It has a slightly tighter, more focused sound, with a crisp attack. But dialing back the Treble can produce a darker, warm tone as well. And it can bark nicely when you want it to. All three instruments offer Patches that are straight, warmly modulated, run through a variety of amps, and much more. A Vintage Rhodes Piano Bass and a Vintage Vibe Tine Bass are also included. This is a stunning collection of Rhodes instruments: What more could I possibly want? I’d like to see an early-model, felt-tip hammer Rhodes to capture that much sought-after sound.

The Wurlitzer, or reed electric-piano, is represented by the rare 140B and the more common 200A. The 140B is wonderfully gritty and works well for soulful and bluesy playing. The 200A is a bit thicker and barks perfectly when you dig into it. The range of Patches includes clean, amped, and quirky ambient sounds.

Hohner Time!

Figure 3. The Hohner Clavinet C, with the three main tabs presented in a composite image, to show all the tone-shaping options. Hohner keyboards are well represented. The classic Model C Clavinet that Mr. Wonder employed so well just oozes attitude (see Figure 3). A wide range of amp choices and wah-wahs are available, including two called Phaser and Throaty, which use all-pass and formant filters, respectively, to get cool talk-box jams going.

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The Clavinet-Pianet Duo is an instrument that combined a Model E7 Clavinet with a Pianet T in the same case. This blended sound is unique, as the wonderful Patches ably represent.

The third Clavinet choice is a modern-day re-creation from Vintage Vibe called the Vibanet, a beefy instrument with a powerful low-end (when you want it) and a great addition to the family. All the Clavs benefit from experimenting with the Color Shift, and I’m so pleased that the dreaded key-off “thwack” is a parameter that you can dial in (or out) to taste.

Once again, good things come in threes, as Keyscape offers the Hohner Pianet N, T, and the rare M models. The N has a warm, earthy sound somewhat reminiscent of a Wurli, but is a bit thinner and cuts through a mix nicely. The Pianet T sounds gently bell-like, more akin to the Rhodes than the Wurli. The Pianet M is supposed to be the same as the T, just in a different wooden cabinet, with built-in speakers and a modulation effect. But to my ears the instrument in Keyscape is much more N-sounding, with none of the bell sound of a T. Strange, but I like it a lot. The Mechanical Noise and Release Noises, plus the addition of Tremolo, various amps, distortion and fuzz pedals, and a wonderful Tape Saturation effect (used throughout the collection) really shine here.

Back To The ‘80’s

As digital synthesizers started supplanting the electro-mechanical legends of the day, some models stood out. Given Eric Persing’s long history creating sounds and instruments for Roland, it comes as no surprise that the MKS-20 Digital Piano and the MK-80 Digital Rhodes are featured. The MKS-20 was the secret sauce in Elton John’s piano sound and was popular in gospel music. Its electric piano was a welcome alternative to the omnipresent DX-7 Rhodes emulations and is surprisingly fresh to my ears. A JD-800 Rhodes-like sound is included as well. Finally, the Yamaha CP-70 is offered: I’ve heard a lot of anemic sampled versions of this electro-acoustic grand piano, but this one surpasses them all.

Some Alternate Instruments

The Wing Upright Piano is a century-old instrument with a lot of character. A variant, called Wing Tack Piano, uses small metal rings placed between the hammers and the strings to produce a wonderful texture that is more musical to my ears than the thumbtacks-on-the-hammers saloon-piano approach.

Space doesn’t permit me to describe all the historical pianos, but the Mini Student Butterfly and a nice range of Toy Pianos cover the spectrum from small plucked strings to glassy, bell-like sounds. Bell tone keyboards include the Celeste, it’s predecessor the Dulcitone, and a wonderful bell/chime device from the 1930s called a Chimeatron. A clavichord, and electric harpsichord are provided, and I was drawn to the super-rare Dolceola, a strange cousin to the zither/hammered dulcimer. I can’t emphasize enough how cool and unique these sounds are.

It Takes Two…

Duos, which combine Patches, show off the sound-design skills of the Spectrasonics crew. Given the sound palette you can guess some of the blends they provide, like combos of acoustic piano and various forms of electric piano, and blends of electro-mechanical and digital electric pianos. Tip of the iceberg, my friends.

The entire category called Hybrid Pianos is great fun, and here is where having all those quirky toy pianos and rarities prove their worth. While you have decent sound-shaping controls, there are some parameters I wish we had more control over. Top choice would be send levels for each element into shared effects like reverb. This can only be controlled when loading the sounds into Omnisphere 2 (see the sidebar Omnisphere Integration). Next would be some way of choosing each sound element individually when working with parameters such as Release Noise and Color Shift.

Wrap It Up

Obviously, I am very impressed with Keyscape. Every sourced instrument and sound is done impeccably, and it responds to my playing like a fine instrument. The list of things I wish were added or improved is small and none of them got in the way of my enjoyment and inspiration.

We’ll be seeing Keyscape as a go-to element in most keyboard rigs over time; it’s just that good. Well-played.

Omnisphere Integration

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 owners can use Keyscape as a library within its expansive structure. This enables you to see and control aspects of the sounds in more detail. However, you cannot deconstruct a Keyscape sound source, which is the multi-sampled element that represents the instrument itself. So you can’t see the many layers, sample points, and other building blocks of the sounds.

But you can see the complete effects structure and access many more parameters for each of them. Here I could work with the effects send amounts when playing a Duo patch, and create my own dual-sound blends using the deep(er) selection of effects, the arpeggiator, and the Orb interface.

And why stop at only two: Omnisphere 2 lets you layer eight sounds in Stack Mode, and they can come from the immense palette that Keyscape offers. Keyscape’s sound sources can be significantly warped using Omnisphere’s vast array of filter types and modulation sources, and sound design tools such as Harmonia, Grain Shifting, Waveshaping, and… you get the picture.

Snap Judgment

PRO A wide variety of stunningly nuanced and playable instruments. Stellar sound design.

CON Nothing significant. But be sure your system is up to running it before purchase: Using an SSD drive will increase performance.

Bottom Line

A treasure-trove of well crafted keyboard sounds.