Spectrasonics Keyscape review by professional pianist Tony Cliff

Spectrasonics Keyscape review by professional pianist Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff is a man gifted with musical talents that most of us could only dream of; an established piano player who also takes interest in guitar and voice, as well as having a developed skill in composition, arranging and songwriting. He has reviewed many of our products in the past and it is always great to get a perspective from someone with such a wealth of knowledge, especially in pianos! So we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to see what he thought of Spectrasonics‘s new instrument Keyscape, the largest selection of collector keyboards in the world.

Here is what he had to say:

“Eric Persing and the team at Spectrasonics have an enviable reputation for releasing killer products – ones which materially change the way computer music is produced. Their ‘Omnisphere’ power synth won plaudits from all quarters and quickly became the music industry go-to software synth. ‘Trilian’ achieved a similar status as the best software bass instrument covering acoustic, electric and synth bass sounds with astonishing realism. Spectrasonics do not release new products very often so when they do there is always a huge degree of interest. I was naturally very excited to test out their new ‘Keyscape’ release which seems to contain all the keyboard instruments you ever desired and a quite a few you might not even know about! This new release has been ten years in the making and contains no less than 36 keyboard instruments which have been carefully set up, restored and then sampled with meticulous attention to detail so that they come to life as you play them. 

Keyscape can be installed on Mac OS X 10.9 or higher and Windows 7 or higher computers and with AU, VST or AAX-capable host software. The requirements also recommend 8GB of RAM as a minimum and ideally an SSD disk for rapid loading of the Keyscape samples. The product is available either as a download (77GB) or boxed USB drives edition and there is an optional ‘Lite’ installation alternative (30GB) which is primarily designed for stage use. I installed via the download route and it took around 3 hours for the large download to complete. I opted for the full install rather than the

Spectrasonics Keyscape pianos‘Lite’ and the whole process was straightforward as was the product authorization via the Spectrasonics website. I installed the Keyscape samples on an SSD disk and even though my computer system is now a few years old I had absolutely no problems loading and playing the instruments. At the time of writing, you must load Keyscape via a DAW host like Cubase, Logic or REAPER but there will be a Spectrasonics standalone program released very soon so you can play all the sounds independent of a host. If you own Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 the Keyscape library will appear in the Omnisphere browser which allows you to modify the Keyscape instruments using the full sonic capabilities of Omnisphere.

Wide Range of Instruments

Keyscape is built around an outstanding collection of 36 keyboard instruments many of which are very well known whilst others are more esoteric and rare. They are grouped in various categories namely Acoustic Pianos, Bell Tone Keyboards (like the Celeste), Clavinets, Electric Pianos, Hybrid Pianos (made by combining different keyboard instruments), Key Bass instruments, Mini Pianos, Plucked Keyboards, Vintage Digital Keys and Wind Keyboards. Apart from the ‘Harmochord’, which is an electrified harmonium, Keyscape does not include organ instruments which is a shame as I would love to see their version of a Hammond Tone-wheel Organ. Maybe this will be added later who knows? Some of the instruments are quite old and will have required careful restoration and setting up to produce their optimum sound. At the same time the quirkiness and mechanical or other noises produced by these instruments has been retained to capture their true essence and character. Vintage amplifiers and classic effects units have been carefully modelled as these were such an essential part of the sound of many of the instruments.

When you load up Keyscape you are presented with a categorised list of instruments and their many variations and I found that as you select different instruments they load very quickly. As they load into RAM a preview-ready message is displayed meaning that you can start playing even before everything is fully loaded. It is very important to ensure that the velocity settings are correct for your personal MIDI keyboard. There are velocity pre-sets already set up for many well-known keyboards by companies like Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Kurzweil and Nord which will get you close to your ideal velocity setting even if your exact keyboard model is not listed. You can, of course, modify any setting and save it as your default. It is particularly important to get these settings right as this will affect how the instruments responds to your touch so correct settings will make it much more expressive.Spectrasonics Keyscape Interface

Acoustic and Electric Pianos

Acoustic pianos are just one aspect of the collection and there are two pianos which are featured. The first is a C7 Yamaha Grand and the other is a Wing 100-year old well-maintained upright piano. Wing & Son pianos of New York made innovative upright pianos in the late 19th and early 20th century. These had extra pedals to enable orchestral effects such as mandolin, guitar, zither and using beads dangling against the strings or lowering a set of felt strips with metal rings. I think it was a good decision to concentrate on just a couple of acoustic pianos as there are already many excellent virtual pianos available such as Steinway, Bosendorfer and Fazioli. The Yamaha C7 is one of the most recorded pianos since it has such a rich tone and suits so many different styles of music. It is a large and powerful instrument (7 foot 6 inches) although smaller than a full nine-foot concert grand. Keyscape offers twenty different variations of the C7 from natural to bright pop, stage and classical to cinematic or dark score. You also of course can make you own adjustments to note release noise, pedal noise, reverb, EQ, compression including analogue tape modeling and any final adjustments can be saved to a personal pre-set to call up later.

I firstly tested out the LA Custom C7 Grand Piano which has been customised by a renowned Los Angeles piano technician. I started with the ‘Natural’ pre-set which is possibly the closest to the original sound of the piano. I notice straightaway what a wonderful instrument this is to play. It has a rich and warm tone without being too bright but with a lovely ringing treble end and rich sonorous bass notes. Importantly it was also beautifully balanced in the vital central range of the piano. You can hear the natural release noise of the keys and the mechanical sound of the sustain pedal as it is raised and lowered. It is certainly a beautiful instrument and one which I will love playing and using for recording. From this great piano source in Keyscape you have 21 different variations ranging from smooth to indie, from bright pop to dark and cinematic pianos and so on for practically all styles. Added to this of course you can choose your favourite, further modify to your own requirements and then save it as a patch for instant recall in the future. Overall Spectrasonics has done a great job sampling the great Yamaha C7 Grand and making it a really expressive piano for performing and recording.

The Wing upright piano is very different beast as it is an antique piano full of character and imperfections and immediately called out to me how great this would be for blues. There are many occasions where you actually might need the character of an old instrument rather than the flawlessness of a perfectly set up grand piano. Once again there are many variations based on this instrument including Tack pianos. The ‘Wing Upright – Tremolo’ setting features the ‘Tremolo’ pedal which operates the mechanism with metal balls on springy blades that contact the strings producing a zither-like repeat on the notes. I noticed this operates from G below middle C upwards rather than the bass end of the piano. The Tack Piano was usually a permanently altered version of a regular piano where tacks or nails are placed on the felt of the hammers giving the instrument a jangly, tinny and percussive sound reminiscent of a honky-tonk piano. In the Wing piano operating the second of four pedals lowered a bar with small metal rings suspended from felt strips. In this case the hammers hit the rings which then hit the strings without the necessity of destroying the hammers by inserting nails. Summarising if you need a characterful and expressive vintage upright piano then you certainly have one with this wonderful sampled Wing upright.

Spectrasonics Keyscape GUIMoving over to the electric pianos I think that Spectrasonics Keyscape has excelled here in producing by far the best virtual electric pianos I have ever encountered and totally bringing these great instruments to life. This category of instruments includes the Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer pianos, Hohner Pianet [M, N and T], Yamaha CP70 Electric Grand and the Weltmeister Claviset Electric Piano. Probably the best known are the Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos and once again they are presented in numerous varieties. The Rhodes instruments are built around either a 70’s classic Mk 1 ‘Suitcase’ edition or customised ‘E Rhodes’ which produced the fabled LA sound. Playing these Rhodes instruments is a total delight and when you dig into your keys you really get the bark and bite of the true Rhodes sound which is so inspiring to play. Naturally you can modify the sound with all the tone controls, reverb, plus effects like phaser, vibrato and chorus so it is easy to dial in what you require. There are also Rhodes pianos with a separate amp carefully modeled with settings like crunch and overdrive.

The Wurlitzer pianos are based on a lovingly restored 1962 140B model and the famous more portable 200A model. All these classic keyboards needed some careful attention and servicing to keep them in top condition. I remember owning a Wurlitzer 200A playing in a jazz-funk outfit and these pianos have metal reeds which are struck by a real hammer-action mechanism. Sometimes with no warning, invariably on the day of a gig, a reed would split become damaged causing the note to go horribly out of tune and therefore unplayable. The damaged note was usually always an essential one like middle C or E flat and, since at a gig it was impossible to avoid your fingers playing the faulty key, the only temporary solution was to tape down that particular note. When you obtained a replacement reed the solder on the end had to be filed down until perfectly in tune which was a job requiring some skill. Happily playing these Keyscape Wurlitzers just felt like owning them all over again and this time without all those technical hassles! The Hohner Pianet and Clavinet are well-represented in the Keyscape collection with the latter instrument made immortal by the intro to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’. There are also additional possibilities with amp modeling and effects such as wah-wah pedals to add to the groove.

Spoilt for Choice

Spectrasonics Keyscape box I have merely scratched the surface of Spectrasonics Keyscape and so far only discussed acoustic and electric pianos plus clavinets and pianets. The collection also includes Bell-tone instrumentssuch as the orchestral celeste, chimeatron and dulcitone producing their tones by bars or bells. There is a whole selection of Key-Bass instruments such as the Rhodes Bass or Vintage Vibes Tine Bass all of which can provide a full and powerful bass sound for your track. Then there is a selection of Mini Pianos and Toy Pianos, as well as Clavichords and Dolceola, which was a kind of keyboard, operated zither, plus electric harpsichord. Additionally, there is a selection of classic digital keyboard instruments and wind operated keyboards such as the Harmochord. Interesting also is the Hybrid Piano category where widely differing keyboards have been paired up to produce completely new soundscapes.Patches that combine two instruments are called “Duo” Patches. The “Hybrid Piano” category is dedicated to Patches that combine acoustic pianos with some other instrument, but there other “Duo” Patches under other categories as well that present very interesting combinations.

Some Conclusions

It is difficult to know where to start here but clearly Keyscape is an outstanding collection of wonderful keyboards and which surely falls into the ‘essential must-buy’ category. It is of huge interest to any keyboard player, whether performing or recording, and likely to prove aurally addictive. Similarly, any studio owner would surely be grateful for the quality and range of keyboard instruments available here whilst film and media composers would appreciate the more esoteric sounds or hybrid instruments included for special effects. Owners of Ominsiphere 2 have the added benefit of being able to load any Keyscape instruments and use the full power of Omnisphere to further manipulate the sounds. You always expect the very best from Spectrasonics and they have succeeded admirably with Keyscape. Available from Time and Space for £285 for the boxed edition I think it represents an absolute bargain. I guarantee you will not be disappointed but will instead be inspired to play and create with this fantastic collection.