Posted by Matt Loose on 17 February 2014

A large amount of worship songs are based around a piano, it is a sound that is ubiquitous in praise and worship music, however not all of us have access to amazing sounding pianos and not all of us can play them as well as we would hope… EZkeys may be just what you are looking for. We asked keyboard player Matt Loose to check it out.

Introducing.....

Toontrack have produced a number of fantastic plugins particularly focussed on drums and have now produced a series of plug-ins called EZkeys. The EZkeys range features a number of different sampled pianos including grands, uprights, electric grands and retro electric instruments. When you buy one of these you pay £105 and can then choose to purchase additional individual instruments in the range for £50-60. So why is the first instrument the most expensive? The answer is that EZkeys is much more than just a plug-in. As well as providing sounds, it also allows you to generate performances even if you have never played a piano before (or if chopsticks is your limit!).


Excellent Piano Sound

Before talking about that, I’ll start with the sound. I’m reviewing the Grand Piano - in this case a Steinway Model D grand piano. There are a lot of sample based pianos available at a range of different prices and some consume a lot of hard disk drive space as well. EZkeys is definitely at the affordable end of the price range and only takes up around 550 Mb. The sound quality is excellent value for money and the basic piano sound is extremely usable. Furthermore there are multiple variations of the piano sound available ranging from ‘Swedish Jazz’ through Tremolo effects to ‘Dream Pads’ where the piano is processed to sound really quite etherial. Each of these has four variables which change depending on the selected preset (see the lower left hand corner of the user interface). So the standard piano has reverb, tone, compression and detail whereas the more esoteric Dream Pads has space, regeneration, filter and time. All in all the piano sounds are extremely useable and provide a lot of variability. If this were to become your go-to piano sound you would be happy.

EZKeys piano

For the Guitarist or Songwriter who can't play Piano...

The sound quality alone is worth the price and any keyboard player would be able to use them. Where EZkeys really comes in to its own is if you can’t play keys at all! You might wonder why a piano plug-in would be useful to a songwriter who plays guitar or perhaps even someone who plays no instrument at all. The answer lies in the way Toontracks have built up a library of midi parts which can be used in the EZkeys package. In the lower 1/3 of the interface is a very clever block called the song track. Into this area you can drag and drop midi parts from the included EZkeys midi library. In the version I reviewed the available styles covered basic chords, pop/rock, jazz, latin, funk, country (sadly no western), blues - well, the list goes on. Each of these styles is subdivided into styles such as swing, straight and various time signatures and these are further subdivided into intro, verse, chorus, pre-chorus and bridge parts. For each of these there are numerous variations available. The choices, whilst not unlimited, are extensive and if you find yourself limited you can purchase more from Toontrack on the Time+Space website! Not all the styles would perhaps be immediately useful for worship but as you will see they can be edited extensively.

 

EZKeys piano chord

Of course you might be wondering why prerecorded midi parts are of use to a songwriter. The reason is simple. Every chord within these parts can be changed to fit your song. The idea is brilliant and it is well presented. Click on the chord you wish to change and up pops a wheel of chords (arranged in a circle of fifths) and you can choose the chord you are after along with the type (major, minor, adding a 7th etc). A small tab at the top of this wheel marked ‘details’ allows you to change the inversion of the chord or add in a different root note. So you can shape the midi part you have created to the song you are writing. When you finish your part for the whole song you can export the midi out and into the DAW of your choice (such as Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools etc) or even generate an audio file (in WAV format) that you can listen to. I can play keys so wouldn’t normally use these features but I have to say I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours stitching styles together and playing with chord inversions and arrangements that I wouldn’t have immediately chosen had I been playing at the piano keyboard. Indeed one of these happy accidents has been saved carefully to perhaps make its way in to a future song! The clever part about the arrangement of chords is that it is based on musical theory - so the chord picker presents you with musically sensible options.

This brings me to the final useful feature hidden in EZkeys. Under the menu option is a link to PDF on music theory. If you really want to understand how to play keys then the 27 page document isn’t going to help but it does contain lots of tips and advice on chord progressions you may have heard in other songs and why they work along with some of the basics that could improve your songwriting.

 

In Summary

EZkeys is an excellent tool for generating keyboard parts. If you don’t play keys yourself then you can easily generate parts for a song demo which might lead people to believe you have been practising hard! The piano sounds are eminently useable and the variations are useful (although I am not expecting to hear the “Horror Score” preset on any worship recording any time soon!). If you do play keys to an advanced level already then EZkeys probably isn’t for you but I have to say I am hoping they bring out an equivalent product for guitar fairly soon! My only criticism is that when I downloaded the software and installed it, it was not the latest version even though the latest update was released several months ago. However it was a simple process to install the updates. If you want a quick and easy way to generate piano tracks for song demos in a range of styles then this is for you.

 

Reviewed by Matt Loose: Keyboard player for Trent, one of the bands that lead worship at Trent Vineyard in Nottingham. Check out their Facebook page here or their band page here.

 

Special thanks to Time+Space.

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