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Superficial Review: Toontrack EZ Keys 2


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Yesterday was a much anticipated day for me, with the release of Toontrack’s EZkeys 2 (EZK2), the sequel to (surprise) EZkeys, which was released back in 2012.  That's several lifetimes of normal product cycles, and it was for a long time thought that EZkeys had been abandoned by Toontrack. But the rumours of an update started towards the end of last year, and now the product is finally here. It is unquestionably a massive update, coming into line UI-wise and to an extent, functionality-wise with Toontracks other EZ products (EZdrummer and EZbass).  That in itself is worth the price of admission of this update, but as we'll find out, in spite of some amazing additions, its not all rosy. This is a really superficial review - I’ve only had the product for a day.

 

In case you're not familiar with Toontrack, or the EZ line of products, these are virtual performers, where you buy the shell product, and add-ons, which are typically genre specific MIDI performances and sample based sound libraries which work within the shell. No prizes for guessing that EZkeys is a piano based virtual instrument, though there are also some synth based add-ons which expand its usefulness. There are currently 77 add-on MIDI performance packs, and 17 sound libraries that work with both EZ keys and EZ keys 2.

 

The UI of the original EZkeys was its most annoying feature, and the fact that it was never updated to allow for resizing meant that it always looked dated in your DAW, and was inflexible in its use. It was also hard to use on today's laptops because the UI size was so small. In contrast, EZK2 has a resizable UI, and multiple screens to help keep things manageable. Honestly, it looks a bit disorganized even with these multiple screens, but things are laid out in their logical screen areas based on activity, so it is at least easy to find things within your normal workflow. You can use EZK2 standalone, or as a plugin in most DAW’s. It has MIDI in and MIDI out, the latter of which is useful if you want to use your own piano or synth sounds with the performance from EZK2 while writing. Once you have complete MIDI parts exactly to your taste, you can simply drag them to your DAW’s timeline for further manipulation. 

 

EZK2 has four main screens - 

- Keys - where you set up your instrument preferences

- Grooves - where you choose your MIDI performance parts

- Grid Editor - a piano roll where you can edit your performances

- Bandmate - where you can import music (audio or MIDI) to help you find the right companion piano part, with chord and rhythm recognition.

 

The bottom of the UI always shows the timeline, where you add chords, grooves and where you can make adjustments within these. I’m not a huge fan of the colour scheme, and this particularly noticeable in the Grid Editor where the background is dark, the pitch and timing dividers are very light, and your data is light also. That’s a personal preference thing, but it would be nice to have been able to reverse the colours at least, so that its easier to read. I would also add that the color scheme is exactly the same as EZbass, creating some confusion when having both open at the same time. A different hue would have helped enormously to differentiate on a quick glance (as is the case with EZDrummer).

 

In terms of performance content that comes with EZK2, its a bit on the light side. I was hoping for something more extensive with some nice, general purpose comping rhythms that are somewhat genre agnostic, but I should have learned from my lessons with the add-in packs, which themselves typically have just eight almost complete songs for you to work from in their specific genres and split between sections as appropriate for the genre (some are verse, chorus, etc, others Section A, Section B etc). I say almost complete songs because there is a distinct lack of endings in almost all of their products, and the library that comes with EZK2 contains a big fat zero endings which is twelve less than came with the original version. I’m not sure whether Toontrack thinks we should be fading out our endings, or whether we should be coming up with our own content here, but honestly, its a bit bizarre. 

 

One of the new additions to EZK2, which is also found in the other EZ products, is the ability to create variations to the MIDI performances, by moving a slider to add or remove complexity from those performances. In general it works quite well, though thinning out (ie, removing) complexity tends to make the performances sound incomplete, rather than just simplified.  Hopefully Toontrack will work on improving this. I use it a lot in EZ bass and EZ drummer, and find it works great in those products. Its a complex thing to do, and they obviously need to use algorithms that understand performances to make these changes in an idiomatic way.  I think it currently falls a bit short. 

 

I mentioned earlier that you can pick from a library of grooves, and these contain both rhythmic and chordal information. If you are applying them to an already existing chord progression on your timeline, they will adopt those chords. If you have no chords currently written, and drag a performance from the groove library to the timeline, it will also drag a set of complimentary chords. You can set your base key inside EZK2 and the chords that the grooves use, will adapt to that key. You can change your chords in a number of ways once they are on the timeline, so nothing is set in stone, and the intelligence of EZK2 in voicing chords according to the groove performance is basically the same as in the original EZ Keys and is executed extremely well. At any time you can replace the groove or the chords you’re using and using the piano roll you can change individual notes.

 

EZK2 is intended to be your songwriting companion, and is geared to song creation a little more than the other EZ products which are virtual bandmates. You can start with your own chord progression, or theirs, and there is a full suite of chord options/extensions available.  Their chord selection wheel (based on the circle of fifths) is a carry over with just a minor tweak, and works very well both for selecting chords/extensions and for recognizing chordal relationships. There’s a new section that allows you to pick new chords if you want to make your progression more exciting. I haven’t figured out how these are calculated, but I assume they are based on standard substitutions, and they differ based on genre, with fifteen broad genres to choose from. When you pick one of the suggestions in any of the chord boxes, the subsequent selections update based on that, so it does seem intelligent. I will go through and see if I can figure out what its basing its suggestions on. My theory is rusty to the point of not seeing a specific link at this point. You can also roll a dice on a single chord or a full progression and get new chords generated by EZK2.

 

Another songwriting tool that EZK2 has is a songwriting scales section that gives you scales and chords to use based on different musical ideals. This is in the Grid Editor and suggested chords can be dragged to the timeline to be incorporated with any rhythmic/midi performance data that was in that space. I think it might have been more helpful to find this in the Suggest Chords section, but I can see why they put it where they did since you can also use it to highlight usable notes in the Grid Editor, based on scale/modal choices. I think its a little clunky to use it this way, and the “highlighted” notes in the grid editor aren’t easy to differentiate from notes highlighted for other reasons. It all seems a little unclear, if not outright confusing.

 

Toontrack suggested that they had a new awesome sampled piano with EZK2, but I have to say, I’m not overly impressed. It’s not bad, but there are much better sounding pianos in much older products. 

 

The only other bad part to EZK2 that I’ve found, is that you can’t import project files that were created using the original EZ Keys. Your projects have to be re-built.  Even dragging in chord/performance data from EZ Keys into EZK2 doesn’t hold completely accurate data swap. This is another bizarre omission.

 

I’ve highlighted some disappointments in this very quick review of EZ Keys 2, but I have to say that overall the experience is excellent, and they’ve done a great job in giving it a similar look and feel to their other EZ products. It’s very snappy to use and feature packed. If you use the original EZ Keys, the upgrade is an absolute no-brainer, both for aesthetics and functionality. If it’s never been on your radar, you might consider it if you’re not a keyboard player but have a need for keys on your projects. As a songwriting tool, I think it’s excellent, again, especially for folks who aren't great performers, and those without expert theory chops. I hope Toontrack doesn't ignore what they've now created like they did with the first version (MIDI pack content aside). 

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