Review – Keyscape Keyboard Sample-based Virtual Instrument from Spectrasonics

 

OK, you know it’s probably going to be good, it’s from Spectrasonics! But you’ve already got gigabytes of piano libraries on your disk so do you really need another one?  Find out here.

 

by Dave Townsend, Nov. 2016

 

The teaser came in late August and caught most of us by surprise:

This was the initial Facebook clue that tipped us off that something was coming.

Although an over-used and rarely-effective advertising ruse, this particular non-announcement still made me sit up and take notice. Why? Because it came from Spectrasonics. A company that at the time only had three products on offer, all of them highly-regarded top-tier virtual instruments. A company that introduces a new instrument on average only once every four years. So despite the cheesy teaser, genuine buzz did indeed follow.

Online music software forums lit up with speculation as to what the new instrument might be. Fans of Stylus RMX hoped it was Stylus 2. Others imagined orchestral, vocal or percussion instruments. What nobody saw coming was a collection of keyboard instruments.

And frankly, once the new product was revealed, there was a lot of disappointment expressed on the forums. Pianos? We don’t need no stinking pianos, they said. We’ve already got terabytes of Kontakt-based pianos! We’ve got Ivory, long considered the last word in sampled acoustic grand pianos. We’ve got modeled pianos from Pianoteq. Cheap high-quality pianos from the likes of Sampletekk. Bundled pianos in Sampletank and in the Kontakt factory content. It seems as though every piano ever made has already been sampled. The virtual instrument world was and is awash with pianos.

I have to admit, I was skeptical too. Then the videos started popping up and we got to hear Keyscape for the first time. We learned that the library had been ten years in the making. We also got to see the list of instruments included in this bundle.

And what an eclectic list it is, made up of vintage classics, modern classics, rarities, and everyday workhorse keyboards. More than just pianos. Afraid that it might be too eclectic for my tastes, I wanted to make sure it included some bread ‘n butter instruments along with the more exotic offerings.

 

Acoustic Pianos

I was somewhat reassured to find that the featured instrument is a not-so-exotic Yamaha C7, second only to the Steinway D as the world’s most-sampled acoustic piano. But to be fair, this particular C7 has been highly customized  by its owner, a master piano technician. And there are so many variations on the C7 theme in Keyscape that you’d hardly know they were all based on the same instrument. Soft, hard, dry, airy, compressed, lo-fi, and spacey treatments that turn one instrument into 21 – not counting stacked variants such as the C7 layered with an electric harpsichord, upright piano or electronic pianos.

Keyscape seems to have something for every piano application. Some are saying Spectrasonics has done for keyboards what Trilian did for basses – an all-in-one solution. In truth, the breadth of instruments does not equal Trilian’s, but it’s not an entirely unfounded comparison. Like Trilian, Keyscape offers a surprisingly broad array of instruments. One could argue (as Spectrasonics vigorously does) that Keyscape shouldn’t even be called a “piano library”, because only three of its many instruments are actually acoustic pianos. In fact, the only commonality among them is that they all have keys.

 

First Listen

Whenever I try out a new piano library (sorry, Spectrasonics), I first listen to the lowest and highest octaves, as it’s in those extremes where many sampled pianos’ weaknesses are exposed. Some sound fine in the middle but lack complexity in the low notes or have high notes that turn into dull “plinks”.

The first thing that impressed me about Keyscape’s C7 was how mellifluous the highest octaves are. It’ll make you glad you opted for a full 88-key controller. In fact, the tone is uniformly rich all across the entire 88-note range, although I initially felt the low end could be a little brighter at higher velocities. But when I pulled up the “Rock” variant, the bottom end that had been somewhat muted in the “Grand” and “Cinematic” models popped out. Then I turned the “Color” knob clockwise, and out popped a brash, in-yer-face rock ‘n roll monster. Oh yes, that “Rock” C7 is going to be a favorite, I thought.

Have a listen to just four of the 28 C7 variants: “Grand Piano”, “Cinematic” and “Rock” and “Rich Ballad”:

   C7 Variants

Note that these aren’t just EQ tricks to make the same instrument sound softer or brighter. Although they are the same sample sets, each instrument has its own velocity mapping to give each one a distinctive dynamic personality.

Tip: Many of Keyscape’s instruments offer a “Color Shift” knob, which may appear under the heading of “Timbre” or “Character”. Try this variable first when tweaking a patch that is maybe a little too mellow (or too bright) for your application.

 

Color Shift performs a cool trick that until now has been relatively difficult for users to implement: pitch-shift samples up or down and then move them back into their original pitches via transposition. This can profoundly change the character of the instrument by altering its harmonic structure. More often than not, turning it clockwise adds something interesting to the upper harmonics.

 

Of course, when evaluating a keyboard library there is no substitute for just sitting down and playing the thing. Does the velocity response feel natural? Do you get tonal subtleties when you play it dynamically? Does it feel real? I am primarily a piano player. I have a baby grand in my living room and have paid my dues playing piano bars and weddings, on everything from abused uprights to concert grands that cost more than my first house. I’m definitely no piano snob, but I’ve played enough of them to know how a good one responds to the touch.

I am pleased to report that these are some of the most dynamically-responsive sampled instruments I’ve ever played. Of course, it’ll depend a lot on your keyboard controller, and not all non-piano instruments in Keyscape are dynamic by nature. The Electric Harpsichord, for example, pretty much sails along at one volume, as expected. But the famously dynamic C7 responds appropriately whether played lightly or demonically. That’s 32 velocity layers at work.

Most of Keyscape’s instruments have a velocity-sensitivity adjustment. The acoustic pianos have a customizable velocity curve (per-instrument or global) that allows you to adapt to your MIDI controller’s characteristics and your own playing style. As a somewhat heavy-handed player, I appreciate the ability to play with abandon and not worry that the dynamics will be overly-skewed toward the upper range, especially on a non-weighted controller. The custom velocity curves serve me nicely in that regard.

There are 53 velocity curve presets included for many popular keyboard controllers, to make playing Keyscape feel even more natural. I was delighted to find ones there for both my Korg Kronos workstation and my unweighted Axiom 49 controller.

 

Uprights

Being more of a rock ‘n roll guy than a classical guy, I often turn to upright pianos for a rawer, folksy sound. Think Lady Madonna, Layla or Bohemian Rhapsody. I knew I’d only become a fan of the bundle if there were some useful uprights in there, too.

And oh, there are! 23 varieties, in fact. Vintage, modern, dark, bright, honky-tonk and tack variants. I got so lost in the “Wing Tack Piano – Slow Tremolo” patch that I frittered away two hours jamming, temporarily forgetting my mission to preview all the patches.

There are also “DUO” patches that stack acoustic pianos with electric and electronic pianos, as well as with some of the more unconventional instruments. “Upright Innocence”, “Tiny Saloon” and “Yuletide”, for example, each stack an acoustic upright with a toy piano. Lovely.

All the pianos let you adjust (or suppress entirely) release and pedal noises as a compromise between clean and realistic. Click the “T” button to increase the transition time between sustain and release phases, which makes the hammers sound looser, like well-broken-in piano action. It’s a subtle effect unless the release noise is turned up, in which case it sounds like a distinct echo.

The one thing missing is microphone placement options. None of the acoustic pianos offer a choice, or a blend, of far and close microphones. However, this is largely compensated for in two ways. First, different pianos sound as though they were miked at different distances (e.g. “Classical” sounds further away than “Rock”). Spectrasonics tells me that’s actually an illusion that they credit the STEAM engine for. Second, there is a fine reverb effect included that is particularly well-suited to keyboards, meaning there is no metallic ringing, even on the brightest attack-heavy instruments and extreme settings. There is also compression and tape emulation to further affect tone and ambiance.


Electric Pianos

There are four crucial things that make up a piano player’s essential toolkit: an acoustic grand, an upright, a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer. Everything else is frosting on the cake.

Keyscape includes a rare and never-before-sampled custom Rhodes. It’s the so-called “E” type, so-nick-named for famed Rhodes-hacker Eddy Reynolds, whose modified versions have long been high-demand rentals in LA-area studios. There are in fact sixteen variations of that Rhodes here, plus 40 more “classic” Rhodes tones, both direct and amped. There are even stacked patches with Rhodes + acoustic upright or other instruments. I can’t imagine you’d need any other source for your Rhodes needs.

The Fender Rhodes is a classic, and versatile. But personally, I’ve always been drawn more to Wurlitzers. While the Rhodes’ mellow bell-like tones are wonderful for ballads and funk and jazz, the Wurly is its less-refined, raunchy rock ‘n roll cousin. If you like your Wurlys to have some bite and dirt, Keyscape’s collection of 21 Wurlitzer model 140B and 200A variants won’t disappoint. Like the Rhodes, the Wurlys come in both direct and amped variations. Crunchy!

One instrument I didn’t expect to find in there happens to be one of my all-time favorites, the legendary Hohner Pianet. If you can’t place this one in the pantheon of classic rock keyboards, think of the intro to Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. Or the Beatles’ I am the Walrus, or Rod Argent’s piano solo in She’s Not There by the Zombies. It’s the piano John Paul Jones played on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Keyscape is Pianet heaven, with no less than 36 variations (the “N” is my favorite), including some amped through a circuit-modeled AC-30. Lovely dirt!

In addition to the electromechanical EPs, there are also some electronic pianos, most notably the Roland MKS-20. This one’s not exactly a rarity, as it’s been sampled and emulated many times. (A bit of trivia: Spectrasonics founder Eric Persing worked on the development of the MKS-20 when he was working at Roland in the 80’s as principle sound designer.) This sample-based instrument was ground-breaking back in 1986, as one of the first all-electronic piano substitutes good enough to actually be used onstage in lieu of a real piano. It was most-famously adopted by Elton John for his live shows.

Another echo from Eric’s past is the Roland JD-800, an all-digital wavetable synthesizer from the early 90s whose waveforms and factory presets were created by Mr. Persing. This was a general-purpose synth with a wide range of sounds, so only a handful are represented in Keyscape. They’re all creamy, ambient Rhodes-like patches. Very, very nice. There’s even a duo patch layering the JD-800 with the MKS-20 that I especially like.

 

Slightly off the Beaten Path

I’d initially been afraid that Keyscape would turn out to be an esoteric collection of exotic instruments that would wow classical snobs and collectors, but actually have few practical applications. Boy, was I wrong about that.

The acoustic and electric pianos prove that this is a workhorse, bread ‘n butter tool, useful in a wide array of musical styles. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some out-of-the-mainstream offerings as well.

This category includes instruments that, while perhaps familiar, just aren’t as widely heard as, say, acoustic pianos or a Rhodes. Although perhaps not part of the essential toolkit, these should definitely not to be overlooked.

There’s the Yamaha CP-70, a “portable” piano with real strings that weighed 400 pounds (RE: The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star), and the unmistakable Hohner Clavinet (most famously used by Stevie Wonder on Superstition).

Also falling under this category would be the rarely-sampled Rhodes Piano Bass, first introduced in 1962 and made famous by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek (think the hypnotic bass line in “Light My Fire”). It’s basically the bottom 2 ½ octaves of a Fender Rhodes with softer hammer tips, in a compact package meant to let the keyboard player do double duty as a bass player. Of course, it doesn’t sound like a bass, but it has its own unique sound that also layers surprisingly well with conventional bass libraries. Try it on a drop-D or drop-C tuned song; although the original was only 2 ½ octaves starting on E, in Keyscape it’s been stretched across the entire keyboard and it goes LOW.

Toy pianos are another group of instruments that have limited applications but can be quite useful for colorful accents and other-worldly special effects. Keyscape’s got a bunch of them, and they’re worth exploring even if you only end up using them occasionally.

One of the more interesting items in the “Toy” category is a very rare predecessor to the Fender Rhodes identified in the Keyscape menu as a “Rhodes 1946 pre-Piano”. It was hand-built by Harold Rhodes in 1942, partly out of scavenged parts from a B-17 bomber. Interesting history aside, it has a cute toy-piano plink in the upper octave and a tone reminiscent of a tubular bell in the low octave. A surprising variety of tones can be had by using the pickup/mic mix, color shift, reverb and transient controls. Try the Retrospace variant with the color shift turned up and transients turned down – sounds like a carillon.

Here’s a tiny example of some of the variations possible within the “toy piano” group, demonstrating the same short MIDI sequence played by just four of the 54 (!) patches in this category. These aren’t really toys at all.

   Toys

 

Further Off the Beaten Path

You just know the company that once set fire to a piano in order to sample its strings popping wouldn’t stop at garden-variety keyboards. Keyscape’s got a Dolceola!

What’s a Dolceola, you ask? Don’t feel bad; I didn’t know what the heck it was, either. I looked it up on Wikipedia. It’s a zither with a keyboard, from the early 20th century. It sounds like a cross between a mandolin and a lute. Stick one of these into your next project and nobody will be able to figure out what it is. Except other Keyscape users, anyway.

   Dolceola

Here’s another one you didn’t know you were missing: a Harmochord. It’s an electrified harmonium (reed organ) from the 60’s, a cousin of the accordion. Cue the accordion jokes. But no, seriously, it sounds pretty cool. Reminds me of the accordion in Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”. Here’s a taste, dry versus wet…

   Harmochord

Not all of the oddballs are antiques. There’s also an electric harpsichord made by Baldwin in the 60’s. Although a rarity, you’ve heard it before: George Martin played one on the Beatles’ song Because off the Abbey Road album.

Scrolling through the EPs, I ran across one so rare that I’d never heard of it before: the Weltmeister Claviset. It was made by a harmonica/accordion manufacturer in East Germany in the early 60s, and almost unknown in the West prior to reunification. Nowadays you’ll have to visit a museum to actually see one. Sound-wise it’s reminiscent of the Hohner Pianet, although its mechanism is quite different.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of Keyscape’s instruments, just a few that I found particularly useful and/or interesting. Truth is, there isn’t a single patch in there that I couldn’t find a use for in a recording project or on stage. You’ll want to explore them all!

 

Some Very Minor Complaints

There is no provision for typing in values. Want to add exactly 1 dB to the master volume? It’s trial-and-error, and you’ll likely settle for 1.1 dB even if you’re OCD about such things like I am.

Holding the Shift key down while turning a knob does not seem to yield the fine adjustment it’s supposed to. Spectrasonics assures me that it really does do something, but if it does it’s much too subtle. This, coupled with the inability to manually enter values, makes it very difficult to set any parameter precisely.

There is no context-sensitive help. Yes, I know, it’s the first option you turn off on a new instrument, but it would be nice if, when you hovered over the initially-mysterious “T” button, the program would give a hint as to what it does without having to look it up.

I’d also like to see an A/B function. As it is, if I want to compare my alterations to the original I have to save the modified version and jump between them via the browser. There is a capable undo feature, but it’s a one-at-a-time stack pop. If you made ten changes, it’ll take ten CTL-Zs plus ten clicks to undo them all. There is, however, a convenient “Revert to Saved Patch” option under the Utility menu that will quickly get you back to where you started.

In terms of instrument selection, the only glaring omission is a harpsichord. Yes, there is an electric harpsichord and that’s way cooler, but it’s also a very different instrument. I wouldn’t be surprised if further expansions for Keyscape aren’t already in the works, because that’s just how Spectrasonics does things (remember Omnisphere 1.5?). Heck, they’ve already added two new instruments in the very first dot-rev update! I have a feeling that even after ten years they may not be finished with Keyscape yet. (Might I suggest the RMI electra-piano as a future addition?)

These are nit-picky complaints, I know. Hardly showstoppers. Overall, the UI is well thought out and most features are discoverable without reading the documentation (but read it anyway; Spectrasonics’ documentation is among the best in the business).


Keyscape in Omnisphere 2

One thing Keyscape doesn’t have are routable general-purpose effects. What effects it does have (EQ, compression, reverb, and instrument-specific effects such as phaser and chorus where applicable) are superb. But there is no provision, for example, to add an amp sim or chorus to an acoustic piano. So what do you do if you want to explore more exotic territory? You load up Keyscape into Omnisphere!

Because Omnisphere 2 and Keyscape use the same engine, you can load Keyscape instruments into Omnisphere 2. Sorry, this doesn’t work with Omnisphere 1. But in Omnisphere 2, Keyscape instruments (including your own custom variants) show up in the list and may be used like any other sound source in the Omnisphere library.

 

Upon loading a Keyscape instrument, its native UI and all of its controls will be present, just as if you’d loaded it in Keyscape. You don’t lose any functionality at all by running inside Omnisphere, you just gain new capabilities.

 

Once you start thinking about Keyscape instruments as Omnisphere sources, all kinds of possibilities open up. You can stack acoustic pianos with dreamy pads or strings for some über-rich combinations. If your computer can handle it, you can stack up to 8 Keyscape and Omnisphere instruments. You can modify Keyscape instruments’ envelopes, apply filters, and delay sample playback. Best of all, you’ll have Omnisphere’s amazing effects rack – compressors, limiters, reverbs, modulators, distortion – to play with. All 58 of them. Not to mention its versatile arpeggiator.

And don’t forget Omnisphere’s often-overlooked Live Mode. This is a special way of stacking up to 8 patches so that you can quickly switch between them in a live performance situation. It’s like running multiple instruments into a mixer and using its Solo buttons to select one or more instruments.

Here we see a Keyscape instrument alongside seven Omnisphere patches. As shown in the context menu, you can then assign each patch to a specific MIDI patch change message, note or CC#. Or just click on the desired patch(es).

 

Be aware that all instruments will be loaded into memory simultaneously, thus enabling them to be quickly switched in and out without load delays. Consequently, you’ll probably want a DAW with at least 16 GB of RAM in order to fully exploit Live Mode. That said, I have used as many as four instruments on an 8 GB machine with no problems. How many you can get away with will depend on the specific patches and their memory requirements. Using Keyscape’s thinned versions will greatly increase the number of patches you can comfortably load (see Sample Thinning below).

One last benefit to hosting Keyscape within Omnisphere: it’ll let you run the 64-bit-only Keyscape in a 32-bit DAW, by way of the 32-bit version of Omnisphere. Yes, ProTools 10 users can join in on the fun, too. This magic is made possible via RAM-efficient streaming, which allows even very large libraries such as the C7 to have a small-enough memory footprint to be handled by a 32-bit system.

 

Optimizing Keyscape

You’ve probably heard that Keyscape is a resource muncher, but I am pleased to report that it’s not nearly as demanding as I’d feared it would be. Spectrasonics states that 8 GB is the minimum RAM requirement, and strongly suggests using an SSD. However, I am running it from a conventional 7200 RPM hard drive and load times are no worse than a comparably-sized Kontakt library. Keyscape is actually pretty CPU-friendly, too. In addition to my DAW, I am also running it on a mid-spec laptop for live use (more on that later) and it works fine.

But should you need to optimize performance, Spectrasonics offers a few features and suggestions. First among those is sample-thinning.

 

Sample Thinning

Instrument RAM requirements vary quite a bit in Keyscape.  For example, the MKS-20 requires only one gigabyte, while the C7 needs three times that. That’s partly why Keyscape is 64-bit only, and why 8 GB is the minimum memory prerequisite: the C7 would simply not be fully-loadable onto a 32-bit machine. Note that we’re talking about RAM requirements, not disk space; the C7 instrument is actually quite enormous, occupying 44 GB on disk.

Every patch has an alternate sample set containing fewer samples. They’ve done a good job with this feature, because 99% of the time you won’t even notice that the reduced-samples version is any different. They use about one-third the memory, load faster and are easier on the CPU, which is great for live performance or large projects. For example, the thinned version of the MKS-20 is only 320 KB, and even the monster C7 grand is reduced to 1 gigabyte.

Go to the Settings tab of any instrument and click on the THINNING button, which will load the thinned version of that patch.

Click the little lock icon next to the THINNING button if you want every patch to load its thinned version by default. This is recommended for live use, or when you’re working up ideas and rough mixes. In a recording project, you can always un-thin before rendering.

 

When I tested this, I found that the observed load time reduction depends greatly on the instrument. For some, it was negligible. But the largest instruments load about 75% faster. That’s a pretty good improvement, considering that there is no obvious reduction in audio quality between full and thinned versions. My guess is that thinning reduces the number of velocity layers and/or round-robins, neither of which is likely to significantly impact playability in a live setting.  In fact, fewer velocity layers is a good thing in a loud rock ‘n roll band.

You’ll also notice that Keyscape employs a clever progressive-loading method that allows you to preview a patch before all the samples have been loaded. The progress bar will turn from red to yellow when there are enough samples loaded to start hitting keys, then turns green when loading is complete. This is handy when you’re initially cycling through patches to familiarize yourself with the instrument.

 

Voice Throttling: Limiting Polyphony

Voice throttling means limiting the number of simultaneous voices. By default most Keyscape instruments are set to limit the number of voices to 32 (it varies by patch), but that number can be raised to a maximum of 64. Reducing the maximum number of notes may reduce CPU usage. You set this number (per patch) in the Voices parameter on the SETTINGS tab.

Just how much voice reduction you can get away with depends on the instrument and the song. If your song calls for long sustained arpeggios, then you could conceivably need all 64 notes. But if you’re playing a simple part, you may only need a few notes sounding at one time.

It’s been my experience (from watching the polyphony indicator in Kontakt) that you usually need to set polyphony significantly higher than you think you’ll need. So even if you’re only playing three-note chords, you may still need to set the maximum polyphony to 20 or so. As with thinning, you can always use a conservative setting while tracking or mixing, and increase it before rendering.

 

Voice Stealing

So what happens when you try to play more notes than the polyphony setting? Voice- or note-stealing is the technique used by synths and samplers for deciding which notes to kill when maximum polyphony has been reached.

If you’re an old hand at samplers, you might notice that Keyscape does not offer any voice-stealing options (e.g. “lowest note”, “last note”, “oldest note”) like Kontakt does. However, this is not a problem, as Keyscape employs a complex proprietary algorithm for note-stealing that takes into account the longest-held note, pitch relationships, and dynamics.

I experimented with this by playing sustained arpeggios on the C7 while gradually turning polyphony down until I started to detect dropped notes. At the default of 32 voices, it was impossible for me to manually play anything that resulted in noticeable dropped notes. At 16 voices, I could hear some notes dropping, but the effect was so subtle that I had to really listen closely to detect them. The C7 piano was still usable with only 8 notes’ polyphony!

 

Sample Rate

Spectrasonics recommends 44.1 KHz or 48 KHz as your DAW’s project sample rate. There’s nothing magic about these numbers; they’re just acknowledging that Keyscape (or any other sampled instrument) won’t sound any better at higher sample rates, so why waste the CPU cycles?

 

Streaming (Or Not)

By default, samples are streamed just like they are in Omnisphere or Kontakt. The way this works is when you load an instrument, only the start of each sample is actually loaded into memory, with the rest of the sample brought in from disk as needed. This minimizes memory usage and load times. Click on the SYSTEM button to see the streaming options.

The main adjustment is the pre-load memory size parameter. This tells Keyscape how much RAM to pre-allocate for samples. By default, it’s set to 60 KB, a conservative value that works for most systems. However, if you have plenty of memory (16+ GB), you can increase the pre-load buffer size to its maximum value of 100 KB. Conversely, if your memory is only 8 GB and you’re playing the larger libraries (e.g. the acoustic pianos), then you may want to go lower, between 30 and 40 KB. Note that if you change this setting you will have to re-load the current instrument before it will take effect.

Be warned that increasing the pre-load buffer will slow load times, but reduce disk overhead during playback. It’s a reasonable tradeoff in a recording situation, especially if you have to stream samples from the same physical disk that you’re recording audio to, as might be the case on a laptop. Also be warned that this is a global value that applies to all instruments and patches, so when experimenting with it you’ll want to test using the most demanding of them, the C7 piano.

If you have a LOT of memory, you can turn streaming off altogether. When streaming is disabled, the entire instrument’s sample set is loaded into RAM. Naturally, this hugely increases load times. When I tested this with the C7, the load time increased so much that I got bored timing it, but it felt like well over two minutes.

Why would you subject yourself to such long load times? You’d do it when you want to reduce disk activity to zero while playing. I can think of a few scenarios:

– You’re using a single patch on a laptop in live performance. Disks can then be allowed to spin down if you’re running on battery.

– You’re recording audio to the same physical disk that Keyscape’s samples reside on, and your disk drive isn’t fast enough to keep up.

– You’re rendering a project with a large number of streamed virtual instruments, which might exhaust your sample drive’s bandwidth.

 

Stream Brake

There is one last, mysterious-sounding parameter on the SYSTEM page labeled “Stream Brake”. Be careful with this one. It’s not something you’ll likely ever alter from the default value, and it’ll be a last resort if you ever do, after all the tweaks mentioned above have failed to eliminate glitching.

For the curious, it’s a load balancing feature that sets the relative priority of the streaming thread to other threads within the instrument. Lowering the number raises the streaming thread’s priority. Lower it to zero and the stream thread will gobble up as much CPU time as it can. Raising it gives more CPU cycles to other threads. Spectrasonics recommends not raising it above 0.3 seconds.

In any case, thinning should always be the first thing you try for optimizing resource usage, before any other tweaks.


My Experience with Keyscape in a Live Rig

I’ve been playing keyboards in bands for literally half a century. Lugging around organs, electric pianos and synthesizers was just the unavoidable sorry lot of a keyboard player’s life. So when computers became an option for live performance a decade or so ago, I should have embraced them, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to trust a laptop as a musical instrument. Plus anything that needed a mouse to operate was not stage-friendly.

But the more I played with Keyscape, the sadder I got that those great sounds were going to be locked up in the studio, unavailable to me at gigs. So I overcame my reluctance and decided to finally give it a go. Here’s my experience.

Note: Spectrasonics licenses products to you, not to your computer. That means it’s perfectly OK with them if you want to install Keyscape on a laptop in addition to your primary DAW. You’ll just have to authorize it again for the laptop.

 

Spectrasonics will soon be announcing a standalone executable for just this scenario. It may have been already announced by the time this article is published, but at the time of this writing it was not yet available, so I used an old standby, SAVIHost, to make Keyscape standalone on my laptop.

After some experimentation, I switched to VSTHost, SAVIHost’s more sophisticated sibling. Because VSTHost can load more than one plugin, I was able to add an EQ after Keyscape, so I could EQ-match Keyscape to my primary synthesizer and keyboard amplifiers.

SAVIHost and VSTHost are free downloads, available at http://www.hermannseib.com/english/savihost.htm . They will host almost any VST2 or VST3 plugin, and come in 32- and 64-bit flavors. Sorry, Mac users, they’re Windows-only. However, you can host the AU version of Keyscape in Apple’s own AU Lab. A big thanks to SAVIHost’s author, Hermann Seib, for creating these and for generously gifting them to the world.

 

One thing I didn’t want to do was carry around an external audio interface, so that meant I’d have to rely on the laptop’s USB ports for MIDI input, its headphone jack for audio output (my laptop doesn’t have a line out) and a five-dollar built-in RealTek audio interface. I wasn’t sure if a) I’d get latency low enough, or b) audio levels would be hot and/or clean enough. But fortunately, latency was not an issue and the audio levels were fine, with no discernable distortion.

Then an online acquaintance reminded me that my primary hardware synthesizer (Korg Kronos 2) can serve as an audio interface, which means it can accept audio over USB. That allowed me to eliminate the audio cable altogether, route the laptop’s audio through the synthesizer and control it from the synth’s front panel. Not all synths have this capability (Roland MOXF8 and Yamaha Montage are two others that I’m aware of), but if yours does accept audio input over USB then that’s the way to go.

I initially elected to install the “Lite” version of Keyscape on the laptop, because it takes less than half the disk space (30 GB vs. 80 GB) by eliminating the more esoteric instruments.  However, I later changed my mind because, even though the “Lite” version includes many of the most-useful stage instruments, it lacked the one I wanted most: the Hohner Pianet. Fortunately, it was a painless switch to the full install, requiring only to re-run the installer. (Suggestion for Spectrasonics: instead of hard-coding the “Lite” instrument list into the installer, place the list into an editable file to allow for customization.)

Here are the instruments included in the “Lite” version:

Hohner Clavinet C                            JD-800 Crystal Rhodes                    LA Custom C7

MK-80 Digital Rhodes                     MKS-20 Digital Piano                       Rhodes Classic Mk I

Rhodes LA Custom “E”                   Wurlitzer 140B

Note: Even though the “Lite” version is ultimately smaller, you’ll still need 77 GB free for the installation files if you’re installing from the download version. The data files can, however, be deleted after the installation is complete (assuming you have a backup!).

 

I would strongly suggest that you use thinned patches. Nobody will notice the difference, but load times will be substantially reduced. Click on the little lock icon next to the Thinning button to make sure every patch comes up thinned.

The real test was to take Keyscape out to a gig. I had only to find a barstool to place my laptop on, and I was in business (I’ve since obtained a sturdy folding laptop stand, much safer than a barstool).

The “E” Rhodes cut through my five-piece rock band brilliantly, and the Wing Tack piano lent authenticity to classic blues and boogie-woogie. But it was the nasty little Hohner Pianet that turned out to be my favorite weapon.

I did encounter some unexpected latency, which unfortunately began abruptly right in the middle of a solo and lasted for about 10 seconds. This is not a Keyscape problem, it’s a Windows problem – some kind of background housekeeping that I’ll have to track down. Other than that, Keyscape and my mid-spec (8 GB, i5) laptop performed flawlessly.

Be sure to disable disk spindown in your power settings, as well as the powering down of USB ports (via Device Manager in Windows).  Make sure your wireless network adapter is turned off. Basically, all the tips you’ve seen for optimizing for DAW use apply here, too.

This is going to work out great. I’ve already made Keyscape a permanent part of my stage rig.

 

Summary

I entered into my Keyscape adventure a skeptic and came away a fan. It has already become a go-to instrument for both recording and live performance.

Granted, at $399/ 349€ it’s not the cheapest piano library on the market. You probably have a bunch of pianos already and are wondering if you need to spend that kind of money on one more. To be honest, I can’t tell you if this is what you need.

But I can tell you this: no matter what’s in your collection now, I guarantee you don’t have anything quite like Keyscape.

First of all, it’s selling it short to even call it a “piano library”. Pianos are just part of the package, even if they are the strongest instruments in it. And even if you only care about the pianos, in terms of dynamic range and sampled detail, Keyscape’s pianos are on par with or better than any top-tier piano libraries out there – none of which include a Dolceola.

 

Requirements

Minimum hardware requirements aren’t bad. They pretty much reflect your typical contemporary midrange computer: 8 GB of RAM, a dual-core CPU and a 64-bit operating system (Mac users need OSX 10.9 Mavericks or higher).

Note that although Keyscape is 64-bit only, you can run it on a 32-bit system (e.g. ProTools 10) by hosting it within Omnisphere 2, which does have a 32-bit executable.

Spectrasonics recommends an SSD, and while there is no doubt that would speed things up immensely I am having no issues loading Keyscape from a conventional hard drive. The ideal system would have 16 GB of RAM or more, an i7-class CPU — and yes, an SSD.

I’ve talked to some people who went out and bought an SSD just for this. If you do that, and you own other Spectrasonics products, make sure the SSD is big enough for all of them, because all your Spectrasonics instruments have to reside in the same physical STEAM folder.

 

Where to Get Keyscape

Keyscape is available as a download (only direct from Spectrasonics ) or on two “credit card style” USB drives (from authorized dealers only, not direct from Spectrasonics). If you’re not in a huge rush to obtain Keyscape, or don’t have the bandwidth for a 77 GB download, I’d suggest going for the boxed version. The USB drives are convenient for installation, will save you having to make a backup, and retailers often offer a slightly lower price, typically twenty bucks below list.

Plugin formats are VST 2.4, AU and AAX.

 

Finally, I’d like to thank Rick Tucker and Paul J de Benedictis for their help in preparing this review.

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