Review – Attack EP88 Tacked Electric Piano by UVI
UVI’s Attack EP88 Tacked Electric Piano is just about the most versatile electric piano you’ll ever come across – a sound designers dream.
by Warren Burt, July 2016
UVI Attack EP88 Tacked Electric Piano is a sample based instrument with immense possibilities. Priced at $149 USD, it works with UVI Workstation or Falcon.
In the world of sampled-instrument design, there are several design philosophies. One is to make as faithful a recreation of an acoustic, or electronic, instrument as possible. Another is to design a completely unique instrument from the ground up, without regard for any idea of “acoustic reality.” (And thus, in the way of every adventurous musician, creating your own reality.) A third way might be to take an interesting angle on an existing acoustic sound source and then design a versatile and subtle instrument around that. This third way is what the Paris-based software musical instruments company UVI have done with their latest offering, the Attack EP88 Tacked Electric Piano. Starting from an historical model, they’ve actually created a new musical instrument, one based on samples, but combined in a very controllable manner.
The “tack piano” is a piano that has thumbtacks placed into the felts of the hammers of an acoustic piano, such that the tack contacts the string, instead of the felt of the hammer. A number of mid-20th century composers explored this instrument with its strident timbre, including Count Basie and most extensively, the California composer and instrument builder Lou Harrison. UVI have taken this idea one step further – instead of an acoustic piano, they inserted tacks in the hammers of a Rhodes MK1 88 key electric piano. They then proceeded to sample this instrument in many different ways. They recorded the electric output of the piano, both with a DI box and through a tube amp; they put a contact mic on each individual tine, and sampled each tine individually; they put mono and stereo mics over the body of the piano, and recorded the acoustic sounds of the keys striking the tines. Each note was sampled at 8 velocity levels and with 5 round-robins per sample. Separate samples were made of both sustain and release parts of each attack. So, obviously, we’re talking an immense sample set here. In fact, there are over 47,000 samples in the set, and it takes up 10 GB of hard disk space. I recommend having an external hard drive for the sample set, and loading from that. Note that as well, with this many samples, instant loading of timbres is just not possible. If you want to have an electric piano with rapid switching of radically different timbres, this instrument is not for you. But if you want an instrument for use with one timbre at a time, say, for studio work, or for live work where you would only change timbres between songs, then this instrument will suit you just fine.
Then, with the interface, there are separate panels to adjust sound aspects of the electric signal and the acoustic signals. Each of these (electric and acoustic signals) has its own path of effects and settings to tweak. The sample set comes with a lot of presets (I didn’t realize that electric pianos could come in so many colors!), and then, when you start adjusting the sound, you can construct an infinity of subtle (and not so subtle) variants on the basic electric piano sound. These variations can be saved as programs in the host software – either the UVI Workstation (free), or the UVI Falcon sampler/synthesizer. One of my first thoughts on playing the instrument was that with all this timbral subtlety available, to use this instrument in a typical jazz or rock context, where it’s just one voice in the texture, was an incredible waste of resources – one would want to write pieces for solo electric piano sounds, so that one could really appreciate all the sonic subtlety available here. (I then realized that in a “normal” musical context, one would precisely want this kind of subtlety to craft unique timbres that could provide a timbral signature, even if that signature was buried inside a conventional harmonic structure.)
As stated above, this sample set is designed to be loaded into either the free UVI Workstation or the UVI Falcon sampler/synthesizer. It requires an iLok with a separate license for the Attack EP88 as well as a license for the Falcon. I always have trouble with my iLok, and with authorising new licenses on it, etc. However, once I managed to get the license registered, operation of the iLok has been fairly painless.
It should be stated here that this is an instrument that can be programmed to be either a totally new acoustic conception, especially with the use of the acoustic and contact mic sound sets, or one that can be massaged into a huge variety of conventional electric piano sounds. A look at the faceplate of the instrument should give you an idea of how the instrument works.
Here we see the Attack EP88 installed inside the UVI Falcon, which (in this case) is hosted as a VST plugin inside Plogue Bidule. The interface is divided into two sections, top and bottom. The bottom half is where the electric signals of the electric piano are processed; the top half is where you can select and tweak the acoustic recording sample sets.
In the bottom half, there is an on/off switch; a signal switch, where you can select between a “tube amp” sound and a “DI” box sound (In some patches, I noticed a slight delay when switching from the “DI” to the “Tube” sounds – for a few seconds, the instrument seems to “gargle” while the samples are loaded in or processed); a volume control, a three-band equalizer; and a tremolo/panner set of controls. In the top half, there is access to the three kinds of acoustic recordings – the contact mic, the mono mic and the stereo mic. One selects these with the check boxes, and then adjusts the volume level with the volume knob. All three also have Mute buttons to hear what the resulting sound will be without them. The contact mic sound additionally has an “attack trim” control which cuts off more and more of the sharp attack of the contact-mic sound as it’s turned to the right. These acoustic sounds can be very noisy – most patches use them quite subtly, to give just the right amount of percussive attack to the sound. However, there’s no reason to limit yourself to that, and in fact, one can get downright noisy and clattery by having high levels of acoustic signals and low levels of electric samples.
On the next page, “FX,” there are separate sets of effects for both the electric and acoustic samples.
While working with this instrument, I was appreciating it and loving its sonic qualities, but at times the nagging thought kept coming into my head that basically, the electric piano has a kind of sickly sweet sound, developed from its 19th century ancestor, the celesta. Then I discovered the FX page, and the “Crunch” effect. Any thoughts of “sickly sweet” quickly vanished. That Crunch effect turns the sound of the instrument in a very aggressive direction. It’s quite a thrilling sound. The “stomp-box” effects, which can be applied to the electric signal include a chorus, a phaser, a delay unit and a reverb. For the acoustic chain, you can have separate effects for the acoustic and contact mics, and each of these has a separate 3-band equalization, a delay, and a “Sparkverb” – UVI’s proprietary reverb. This means that you can have separate delays, for example, for the acoustic mics, the contact mics and the electric signal. Three separate delays, each with a different delay time, feedback setting, and wet/dry level. The polyrhythmic possibilities for this are quite stunning. I don’t know if anyone else will be interested in that, but this little musical mutant is quite taken with those possibilities.
Next comes the “Settings” page, where envelope, and various kinds of stereo effects can be applied to either or both of the signal chains.
Of note on this page are two unique controls. One is for pitch bend, which can be set from +/- 1 semitone up to +/- 12 semitones. A lot of fun can be had with extreme settings of this. And then there is “Wheel Strum,” which is quite delightful. Click the button on, and press and hold a chord on your keyboard. No sound occurs! How wonderful (smirk)! Now, however, move your Mod Wheel. And suddenly, you’ve got Mod Wheel controlled arpeggios of the notes you’re holding down! If, instead of the Mod Wheel, you take an external MIDI program (say, like Max/MSP, PD, or MusicWonk) and have a random selection of values for MIDI Continuous Controller 1 being sent to the Attack EP88, with a handful of notes held down, you can have random arpeggiation heaven. As well, envelope adjustments, and other effects, such as the volume of the pedal attack (yes, this was recorded as well) can be adjusted here.
Finally, there is the “Voicing” page, which has only two adjustments possible, but they’re both made on a per-key basis.
The first of these is called “Voicing.” It turns out that in addition to two layers of control – electric and acoustic sounds – the entire sample set was recorded three times – once with the thumbtacks right in the middle of the hammer, once slightly off-center, and once further off center. These result in sometimes slightly different timbres, sometimes radically different – most usually though, the differences are of the more subtle variety. Still, they’re enough to make audible differences over the range of the instrument. Then there is a “Tuning” control. This allows you to detune each individual key plus and minus 50 cents (one half semitone). At first, it seems, as there are no numbers displayed as you move the controls, that detuning a note by, say, 37 cents, is impossible. However, double clicking on a slider for a particular pitch brings up a window where you can type in a value. There are also presets for various kinds of stretch tunings available, but all over the miserly range of ±50 cents. This strikes me as the one regrettable mistake in the design of the entire instrument. I see no reason why this tuning control couldn’t be extended to any range whatever. Given the existing numeric readout, why couldn’t there be a range of, say, 2 octaves plus and minus for each key? That would create a much more useful instrument – or at least a much more fun one.
Given that this instrument fits inside Falcon, where any microtuning is possible, I wondered if one could indeed put different microtunings into the Attack EP88. I tried it, and with most timbres, got very unexpected results – notes would have two different pitches, and the response was not following the tunings loaded. I asked my contact at UVI about this, and they said that because of the requirements of the scripting and layering that occurs in the Attack EP88, it wasn’t possible to include using the Falcon’s microtuning possibilities in this instrument. Well, this is, of course, like waving a red rag in front of a bull for me, so I tried and tried, and spent hours trying to get the Attack EP88 to respond to Falcon microtuning. I’m happy to report that in some cases, for some timbres, yes, it IS possible to have the Falcon microtuning controlling the Attack EP88. Here’s how:
- Start with a new instance of Falcon in your host.
- Load AttackEP88.ufs
- Load a timbre that can take Falcon microtunings – you’ll have to hunt for these, but three that do take microtunings very well are Classic\Clean Disthorus; Mallet Bell\TaCkArousal; and Ethereal\Little Glass.
- Go to the “Events” tab in Falcon. At the top level, click the “+” sign at the far right, and then select “Microtuner” from the drop down list. In the Microtuner, at the three-horizontal-line control at the top right, click on that and then load your Scala file by clicking on “Import Scala Tuning,” and navigating to your desired tuning.
- And then, and this is critical, unless you’ve got a scale with only 12 notes in it, click on “Import Scala Mapping” and load a Scala keymap file (.kbm) into Falcon, for the number of notes in your chosen scale. You should see the contents of the Tuning Table change when you do this.
Now go to your keyboard, and Presto! The Attack EP88 has been retuned to any microtonal scale you desire. You can now save this as a Program with Falcon and you can recall that timbre with that tuning at any time. Note that this will only work with certain presets. But if you find one of those (like the three above), you can then customize it in very many ways, so that you should be able to construct timbres that suit your tastes.
CONCLUSIONS: Attack EP8 Electric Piano is a beast of a plugin – it’s got power to spare, and it’s just about the deepest sample set I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s got a near infinity of kinds of electric piano sounds available, and it plays very easily and sounds beautiful. I can’t praise the timbral beauty of this instrument highly enough. My only request of the designers would be that they improve the Tuning table on the Voicing page: to design an instrument with this much power and flexibility, and then limit it to tiny variations of the tunings that physical electric pianos have been limited to in the past, is, in 2016, just not on, in my opinion. We’re now at the threshold of a technologically liberated musical future, where ANY tuning, and ANY timbre should be available for musical exploration. The UVI Falcon has already shown us that this is possible. Some small tweaking of Attack EP88 should be possible so that it, too, can be a part of this unlimited future. Top marks to this instrument though, for quality of sampling, ease of use, and creative access to sound design. It is well worth the asking price, and will provide hours of sound exploration and beautiful (and some beautifully ugly!) timbres for your composing palette.
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