The first time I played an electric piano was at my Uncle Milt’s house way back in 1979. His step son, Tony, played in a band and had a beautiful Rhodes Suitcase Piano with matching Janus amps in the basement! I remember Tony powering the Electric Piano up and playing some chords with the Vibrato effect on, swirling the sound around the room. It was magical! But can software capture that kind of sonic voodoo today? Propellerhead attempts this with their Radical Keys Rack Extension, released one year ago this month. Let’s find out if it recaptures the magic, shall we?
Radical Keys combines sampling with physical modeling to emulate the sounds of three classic electric pianos – the Rhodes Mark I, Wurlitzer and Pianet-T. I have to admit not being overly familiar with the Pianet-T, but my love of both Rhodes and Wurlys runs deep. A little history – Harold Rhodes first built his electric pianos for wounded soldiers returning from WWII, earning him the Commemoration of Exceptional Civilian Service award! Mr. Rhodes believed learning an instrument could be therapeutic for soldiers, and using parts from grounded B-17 bombers the first suitcase electric pianos were built. These instruments used key and hammer mechanisms similar to an acoustic piano, but instead of strings, pieces of wound metal called tines were used in combination with electromagnetic pickups to produce sound. While the WWII rehabilitation program was deemed a success, it wouldn’t be for another 2 decades that the Rhodes Mark I would be released to the general public. In the interim, Wurlitzer ran with the electric piano idea and built the 200a, used by Ray Charles on his 1959 hit “What’d I Say”. Wurlitzer replaced the tines used in Rhodes electrics with steel reeds giving the Wurly a more bell-like tone.
With our history lesson now thru, let’s look at the make-up of the Radical Keys Rack Extension. Radical Keys comes with over 100 patches divided into 3 folders – Natural, Production and Radical. Natural patches are where you’ll find traditional electric piano sounds, like the lovely “Still Crazy”. The Production folder houses the classic key sounds used on famous recordings like the awesome “Steely Stack” patch. Finally Radical are the more out-there patches that show off just what can be done with Radical Keys controls, my favorite being “Soft Wanderer”. Most of these patches are Radical Key instrument patches, but there are a number of Combinator patches that use multiple Radical Keys for some absolutely stunning instruments!
What really sets Radical Keys apart from other electric piano plug-ins is the intuitive interface which makes designing your own patches a breeze. The top half of the instrument is made up of three large dials: the Character control, Instrument Blend and Volume. The Character knob changes the sound drastically from Subdued at the far left, Natural in the middle, and Agitated on the far right, a gnarly setting for that classic electric piano bite! I really loved the Rhodes amp sound with the Character knob set half way between Natural and Agitated. Speaking of instrument settings, this is where Radical Keys really shines. Users can pick two different settings with the top middle section by clicking on the red squares, which lite up when chosen. These include a room mic sound, direct line feed and of course the classic electric piano amp sound. Once chosen the center dial blends the two instruments together, making it possible to create patches that mix an amped Wurlitzer sound with a Pianet room mic, Rhodes line with a Wurly room, Pianet amp with a Pianet room, etc… Lots possibilities here!
The instrument section just below the black tolex is where one will find the controls for customizing the playability of a patch. Velocity Response (both low and high), Tune (with a drift control) and the Mechanics section are great for approximating the sound and feel of playing a real electric piano. In the Mechanics section, the Key Down and Key Up knobs adjusts the level and character of noise when a key is pressed and released, respectively. I’ll admit that on paper these controls seem trivial, but if you play around with them a bit you’ll quickly understand their value.
The middle section makes up the nuance controls of Radical Keys, but Propellerhead didn’t stop there. Included are a slew of effects tailor made for Radical Keys that are historically associated with the electric piano sound – Tremolo, Comp (compression), Overdrive, Equalizer, Phaser, Chorus, and Ambience! Some of my favorite patches make great use of these FX, including “Endtroducing DJ” (tremolo and phaser), “At Sound Check” (ambience), and “I Love you Joe!” (OD, EQ, phaser, ambience). You won’t have much need for external FX, save possibly The Echo for some delay treatment.
All these extensive controls and FX would mean nothing if Radical Keys didn’t sound so incredibly real. And while I have quite a few electric piano plug-ins and software instruments, Radical Keys by far is the most useful of them. One complaint I heard on the Propellerheads User Forum (R.I.P?) was the bare bones modulation CV input on the back, limited to Master Volume, Pitch and Tremolo Depth. However once inside a Combinator every single knob and switch is assignable with the Combi’s Modulation Routing! In conclusion, Radical Keys in my estimation is a great buy for gigging musicians, composers and home hobbyists. Not using Reason? Now thru the end of the year the Radical Bundle (featuring Radical Keys and Radical Piano) comes free with Reason 7!
– The gigging musician that doesn’t want to carry their classic keys to a gig. Just a laptop, keyboard controller and audio interface and you’re golden!
– Composers that want to quickly get ideas down without having to set-up recording equipment.
– Sound Designers that want to create new instruments with the unique Instrument Blend and mechanical controls.
– Home hobbyists that have always wanted a classic electric piano but couldn’t justify the cost.
Not So Good For:
– Traditionalists that want classic instruments. Let’s face it, black tolex on the screen just isn’t as cool as the real thing.
– Sound designers desiring audio input for using the Radical Keys FX section and fantastic Character knob to control other synthesizers.