EZ Keys is something of a revolution in piano arrangement, notable specifically for the fact that it’s been designed for those who don’t/can’t actually play the piano. If you’re already familiar with EZ Drummer – and indeed, a great deal of amateur and professional producers alike have been for a long time now – then you’ll perhaps have been expecting something along these lines, but I’ll wager you weren’t assuming it would be quite this good. And it really, really is.
Exactly like EZ Drummer, though, it would be wrong to discount this plug-in as something that’s only for beginner users. In fact, it’s a good start to say that EZ Keys is a piano plug-in (32/64-bit, VST, AU, RTAS) that barely touches your processor, as Toontrack has managed to achieve a decent, useable tonality from a Steinway D without resulting to massive samples. Obviously if you’re in the market for a host of perfect piano emulations, then there are other packs available, but for pop, rock, country jazz and urban production I’d happily work this into the mix. While there’s actually only one piano sound, it’s fully editable, and I found that working away at the EQ allowed me to find a context for these keys in multiple genres.
While that’s good to know, it’s not the main point of EZ Keys. It might be that you’ve never played a piano, or it might be that while you have a controller, you don’t think like a pianist. That can be incredibly obstructive when you’re trying to put together arrangements using more than one note melodies , and to be honest if you’re not confident in working with a piano then you’re better off leaving it out of the track lest you sound clumsy.
Or, in fact, you could just use EZ Keys! Essentially there are a huge number of carefully-categorised MIDI performances ready to be loaded, edited and played back within your arrangements. So, you can simply scroll down and audition verse, bridge, chorus etc (also categorised by genre), and pick a pattern from the arrangements of triads, arpeggios and grooves. Every conceivable style is catered for, and because they’re MIDI patterns you can of course use the incredibly user-friendly interface to change the key and tempo and edit these patterns as you like. You can create entire songs in minutes – not too shabby.
What you immediately realise is that not only does this allow you to import accomplished piano work into your songs, it also bridges a gap between your production head and your fledgling piano head – as you tweak notes and timings to work with other instruments, you’ll start to understand the light and shade of effective piano use.
All of this is done within the EZ Keys editor itself, which makes the whole affair a quick, efficient and actually fun way to arrange keys. Changing patterns is as simple as cycling through all available options via a neat wheel-based selection tool (based on the circle of 5ths). You can also select either random or recommended chords set within the progression, so if you’re literally a complete novice to working with keys all the work can in fact be done for you.
You’ll also find that your theory knowledge will grow as you use EZ Keys – it’ll come naturally because all of the grooves and patterns have the chord names above them, so as you work you pick up what it is that you’re actually doing, as well as just sounding good. There are also tutorial files that pair up text and MIDI, so you can play along with the theory.
I mentioned that if you’re looking for serious authenticity sound-wise that you’d be better off hunting out another plug-in/sample library. However, it’s worth noting that you can of course route these MIDI patterns through whatever you like, so chuck something like Ivory into the mix and you’re absolutely flying, without ever having to know a single thing about playing the piano. As the MIDI tracks are all notated within the DAW of your choice when you bring them over, of course, you can hook your creations up with any virtual instrument you like. It lends itself best to piano, but therefore organs etc sound the part too.
So, Toontrack have effectively created a theory trainer and arrangement tool, all packed in to a processor-friendly, easy-use plug-in. I think it’s fantastic, and that absolutely anyone who’s not 100 per cent confident in piano arrangement will jump at the chance to give their tracks an accomplished and interesting keyboard kick. As I say, in further conjunction with a sample pack you’ll have a formidable keyboard setup without even trying!