Matthew Mann is a musician and voiceover artist as well as a writer for harmonycentral.com and the excellent Music Tech magazine here in the UK. Matt already uses Toontrack's EZdrummer and EZKeys in his studio and has been diving into their latest bass guitar virtual instrument to deliver this EZbass review exclusively for Time+Space! Over to Matt...
"I’ve been a Toontrack user for some time now. I have to say that I love EZdrummer. It has made the songwriting process so easy for me. Giving me access to such expressive and natural sounding drums is one thing, but Toontrack also thought to add a MIDI groove section. This allows me to build songs quickly and then modify them as I see fit to make the perfect drum track for every song.
Toontrack also gave us EZkeys with the same principles in mind – but dedicated to pianos and piano grooves in a multitude of genres. And now, I find out that they’ve given us the other virtual player I’d always wished for – EZbass – and I couldn’t be more excited.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve used “virtual bassists” in the past. There are some tasty instruments on offer from the likes of Reason Studios, Native Instruments, and IK Multimedia, BUT…they don’t offer that one thing that makes EZbass stand out. Those MIDI grooves! Not only does EZbass give me access to awesome MIDI performances by real bassists, it also gives me articulations that are not typically easy to recreate. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive in and look at the interface, the sound, the grooves and the modifiers that make EZbass such a cool instrument to use.
Open Up and Say Ah
On first launching EZbass, we’re presented with lovely graphics of a very sleek and sexy bass guitar. This is the Modern Bass. We have two choices here: The Modern Bass and the Vintage Bass. Both libraries offer very different tones. They can be selected from the drop-down menus at the top right side of the interface.
Once we’ve selected the bass we want, the Presets menu populates with a number of good starting points for our bass tone. I sort of wish there were more basses to choose from, but understanding that Toontrack went with sampled basses, rather than modelled basses, it’s easy to understand why the choice is limited. With that said, there are enough tone-shaping options onboard to keep most of us happy for some time to come.
To see the effects section, click the effects button floating above the neck of the bass on the right side of the interface. The effects controls are tied to presets.
One thing that is common between EZdrummer, EZkeys and EZbass is the Song Section at the bottom of the screen. This is where we can build complete performances. It’s open by default but can be closed if not needed. More on this later. Let’s move on the next tab in EZbass.
Get into the Groove
The next tab we’re presented with at the top of the screen is the Grooves tab. This is where the magic happens. The first thing I noticed is the number of MIDI grooves available. The Grooves tab offers a number of ways to search through and audition bass grooves to find just what you’re looking for. There’s a filter that allows us to search by genre, play style, type (straight, swing, half time, etc), time signature, and resolution (1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/4 Triplet, etc).
There’s also a “Tap2Find” button that allows you to tap in a rhythm and find bass lines that are similar to that particular rhythm. Pretty handy! Once you’ve selected some filters, the results appear in a window in the middle of the screen. Here, we can click to audition each one. We can also save our favourite selections for quick recall with the little star icon next to each groove.
I thought it was handy that each groove also shows wherein a song it is best used (Intro, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Fills, etc). Not that you have to stick to those, but it’s handy for sorting through when you’re looking for just the right part for your song. This panel also shows the genre and tempo of the groove.
Another way to search for grooves is by clicking on a library in the browser. This then shows different rhythms broken down by time signature, whether it’s a basic rhythm or a fill, by styles, and by whether it’s played straight or with swing. They are further broken down by original tempo (in BPM).
"...very easy and if I’m honest, quite fun. It took me about 15 minutes of faffing about to come up with a rousing funk bassline to go along with a drum track I built in EZDrummer."
Build a Bridge
Once you’ve found your groove, it’s simply a matter of dragging it down to the song track at the bottom of the screen. If you’ve ever used a Toontrack product before, then it will be very familiar. Pulling several grooves into the song track allows you to build an arrangement very quickly.
After dragging a groove into the song track, you’ll notice that it consists of 3 parts: the part type, the chords and the MIDI. The part type makes it easy to drag different parts around the song and can be changed by right-clicking on it. Right below the part type is the chords. Double-clicking on a chord box brings up a chord wheel. This allows you to select different chords to build your bass patterns around.
This all is very easy and if I’m honest, quite fun. It took me about 15 minutes of faffing about to come up with a rousing funk bassline to go along with a drum track I built in EZDrummer.
"It’s easy to add slides and walk-ups or walk-downs to your parts to enhance the realism of the performance."
What fascinated me was the play style and transitions. A bit of play with these controls (located right above the song track when pressing the “Edit Play Style” button) opens up loads of options and makes it easy to get very realistic bass lines. With these controls, you can change the octave, adjust the overall velocity of the performance, adjust how many notes play in a riff, add more or less damping and edit the length of the notes.
Transitions are a whole other world of performance articulation that Toontrack was kind enough to include with EZbass. It’s easy to add slides and walk-ups or walk-downs to your parts to enhance the realism of the performance. I was quite pleased with the realism I could get from my performance.
Groove Is In The Heart
Once you have a basic performance track, open the Grid Editor tab either by clicking it at the top or by double-clicking in the MIDI notes in your track. There are loads of options here for modifying your part. You can determine what finger plays a note, add ghost notes, harmonics, percussive hand noise, and even slaps. There are quantize settings here as well that allow you to tighten up a manual performance.
To the right of the quantize functions is a Timing button. Clicking this adds swing, randomize, note length and nudge. These all adjust notes that you select in the timeline. There are even various options for selecting, modifying and moving notes. And all the notes on the timeline can be freely adjusted either with snap turned on or off.
We can create short grooves or complete songs to drop into our DAW. The Song Maker section is cool to me because it already gives you song sections to begin with (Intro, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, etc) and these can be changed at will with a simple right-click. For me, it helps to see the structure I’m working with.
Shake Your Groove Thang
Moving on to the next tab, called Drums & Keys, we find an area that allows us to drag and drop (or select) either drums MIDI or keyboard MIDI performances. EZbass will then attempt to create a performance based on that performance. The main point of this capability is to capture the groove and feel of the performance.
Selecting a MIDI part and then the corresponding keyboard option here will give you two options – to create a bass line based on the left hand notes of the MIDI performance or based on the rhythm and chords of the performance. To select an option, you just click on it and drag it into the timeline. The same principle applies when dropping a MIDI drum groove on this tab.
I used a few different grooves from my EZdrummer library and it was excellent at getting the rhythm of the track down tight. As with keyboard parts, selecting the drum option gives us four choices for creating bass lines: kick to alternating stroke, kick and snare to alternating stroke, kick to alternating strokes and snare to mute, and power hand to alternating strokes. Grab one of these “cards” and drag it onto your timeline. There’s so much flexibility here and you just insert your chord progression to flesh out your track.
The final tab is the Audio Tracker. This is for dropping audio files just like on the Keys & Drums MIDI tab. It then converts the audio into a bass line. The manual suggests that it works best with guitar or bass that has been recorded directly rather than through amps and effects. This will also work with drum audio. It’s also possible to play directly into EZbass or from your DAW (with a FREE plug-in from Toontrack called Toontrack Audio Sender). Record the audio, then use it to create your bass-terpiece!
We Built This City
There are so many options for developing killer bass lines in Toontrack’s EZbass, that I’m sure I’ve managed to miss some, but I think you get the idea. It's fast. It’s easy. It sounds fantastic and has many tonal options for getting just the sound you’re after.
It is pretty heavy on the processor, but I found freezing my other tracks made it easier to use. My hope is that Toontrack comes up with some additional bass MIDI packs and, possibly, some other bass guitar models in the future.
There are several other virtual bass instruments out there that sound amazing, but the groove creation options on offer in EZbass make this one my first choice for creating excellent sounding songs quickly and easily. So try it. Explore the options. Make your bass parts sing. Go on…it’s EZ!"
Matthew Mann has been involved with music since the tender age of 5 and bought his first synth (a brand new Roland Juno-106) at 15. He received a Master Certificate in Music Production from Berklee College of Music in 2010 and has been making and recording music and Voiceovers ever since. In 2015, he stood up the online blog Studio-One Expert as Editor and has been running StudioOne.London on Instagram and writing for HarmonyCentral.com and Music Tech Magazine since then.