e-instruments Session Keys – Review

The Piano

In this review of e-instruments Session Keys, Logic Pro Expert team member and Groove3 video instructor Eli Krantzberg takes an extensive look at e-instruments’ latest piano sample library for Kontakt.

e-instruments Session Keys Review

Samplers, from their very earliest days, have attempted to recreate (among other things) the acoustic piano. From sample sets a couple of hundred kilobytes in size to modern sample sets of several gigabytes, pianos remain the elusive instrument developers struggle to recreate with increasing attention to playability and nuance with each new generation. With Session Keys, e-instruments has broken new ground by combining traditional sampling, software instrument control, and MIDI file playback into a grand piano environment that goes way beyond what a traditional grand piano is and does.

e-instruments Session Keys – Great Sounding Pianos

There are two models. Session Keys Grand S uses samples from a Steinway D4, and Session Keys Y is built on samples from a Yamaha CF lllS. Each piano contains two completely separate sample sets. In concert mode, the pianos were sampled with an open lid and micing that optimizes the way they interact with the room they were sampled in. There result is a wide open roomy piano sound with lots of natural resonances. The Studio Mode sample set was captured with no lid on the piano, and close micing that emphasizes a very dry and direct sound.

At this point you might be thinking “sounds like a gimmick”. Or “big deal, Im gonna’ use EQs and dynamic plug-ins anyway when it’s in a mix”. It is no gimmick. The studio samples are just that – a great choice for when you need to fit the piano into a dense mix with lots of instruments. The dry nature of the samples give you complete control over how much ambience you want or don’t want to add with external processing. The concert samples really have a beautiful but subtle rich room sound with natural harmonics and resonances. They give a sense of realism to piano parts that are either featured or stand on their own that is next to impossible to emulate with third party room reverbs and ambience plug-ins.  This aspect alone alone is worth the price of admission. But there’s more.

The Piano

e-instruments Session Keys – Ultimate Control

In addition to these two sample sets, each piano has separately sampled resonances that are shaped with the harmonic, inharmonic, and sympathetic resonance controls. Add to that the ability to control pedal, key, and release noises, and even diehard piano aficionados and software instrument naysayers will be satisfied. This ultimate level of realism and control is unparalleled in any other piano instrument currently available.

e-instruments takes things further by extending sample manipulation beyond the limits of the real world. The attack and decay knobs allow control of each samples envelope that exceeds their natural range. Add to that a set of reversed samples that can be either used alone, blended in to taste, or triggered on note release. Long slow reversed attack times combined with unnatural decays are a sound designer’s wet dream. And the samples are manipulated in a way that perfectly integrates with the rest of the performance parameters.

An onboard suite of bread and butter effects optimized for grand piano (3 band EQ, compressor, stereo width, reverb, and delay) rounds things off nicely. In addition to a very nice factory library of presets, customized tonality and processing parameters are fully saveable and recallable.

Tonality Pop up

e-instruments Session Keys – The Pentamorph

The bottom part of the interface toggles between a section to control the piano samples, and a MIDI phrase player (The Animator) that we’ll look at later in this review. The dynamic response knob allows control over the dynamics of the instrument while still utilizing all the samples. Dial it counter clockwise to reduce the dynamic range and have a pop piano part sit nicely and prominently in a dense mix. Or dial it clockwise to get the widest range available between soft and loud samples for as expressive a performance as possible.

Now, back to the Sound designer’s dream. The Pentamorph is a unique control used to either switch or morph between the various tonalities and sample sets available. Click on one of the positions to use either the reverse samples alone (Reversed), the reverse and mechanical nose combined (Aerial), the regular samples with the reverse envelope added to note releases (Tonality), the regular samples with no reverse samples added to the release envelope (Acoustic), or just the mechanical noises with an optional amplitude offset (Mechanics).

The real fun comes when you drag the puck around between the five switches to morph between the various sample sets and tonality settings. Morphing between straight acoustic and reverse samples while a piano part is playing creates a seductive otherworldly quality that I suspect we will be hearing in film scores for years to come.

Pentamorph

e-instruments Session Keys – Smart Chords

The beauty of Session Keys is that it has something for everyone. Trained pianists will easily achieve unparalleled expressive and nuanced performances thanks to all the above mentioned performance control. For those of us with, umm, less training, the Smart Chords function can help mediate the divide. It allows you to play musically correct chords by pressing just one or more keys or pads on your MIDI controller. Setting it up is dead simple. Choose a root note and a chord map, and you’re good to go.

The diatonic chords are mapped out across the white notes on the keyboard. The black notes are used to optionally trigger various inversions and chord extensions. A really nice addition to the mapping is the ability to trigger either the chord root or fifth in the bass from the lower octave of your controller. The MIDI learn function int the Pad pop up window makes customizing these to trigger from pad controllers a breeze.

Smart Chords

e-instruments Session Keys – Animator

The Animator is a MIDI piano phrase player containing pre-programmed piano phrases in various styles, grouped as songs. Unlike other piano phrase players available, these are not built on preset chord patterns. It has been designed to easily use your own chords to trigger the patterns.

Preset combinations of phrases are selected from the Song drop down menu. The browser is used to reassign the phrases from different songs together for unique combinations. Each customized song is fully saveable and can optionally call up an accompanying sound preset.

The chord detection algorithm is sophisticated. The phrases are applied to held chords (or to one note Smart Chords) while bass notes are excluded. This allows for creatively combining the sophisticated chord patterns that are generated with altered bass notes. It is simple (and fun!) to generate really interesting chord voicings and variations this way.

e-instruments hasn’t forgotten about the human element here. The complexity of the patterns can be “played” using the mod wheel on your controller. Dynamics are controlled not only by note velocity but optionally with the pitch bend wheel as well. So despite the fact that the Animator is about generating phrases, there is still a very gratifying “performance” aspect to using it. The phrases can also optionally be swung or quantized as well as played back at either double or half speed.

Animator

e-instruments Session Keys – Conclusion

Session Keys really does have something for everyone. At it’s core, each of the two pianos ship with a stunning set of samples that are among the absolute best out there. Add to this the ability to control harmonic resonances and sample envelopes, and the ability to morph in real time between acoustic, reverse, and natural noise samples; and you’ve got something really unique and special. The Smart Chords and Animator functions make sophisticated and inspiring, yet customizable, piano performances available for “the rest of us”.

Each of the two instruments weighs in at a hefty 4GB  – 5 GB in size. But that’s nothing for modern day hard drives. Session Keys is easily managed within Kontakt or Kontakt Player. There is currently a very attractive special on if both pianos are purchased. They’re both so good, you won’t go wrong with either. If you are a piano junkie, go for both.

Check out the e-instrument web site for more information:

e-instruments Session Keys

And check out a detailed hands on walkthrough of all the Session Keys features with yours truly here:

Eli Krantzberg
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Eli Krantzberg

Apple Certified Pro Eli Krantzberg is an internationally known author and music software trainer for Groove3. His instructional videos have helped demystify music software such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Sonar, BFD, Melodyne, and Kontakt for thousands of users all over the world. Based in Montreal, Canada, Eli is involved in all aspects of audio production. In his studio he works with various artists, as well as on commercial jingles, corporate videos, and original music composition.
Eli Krantzberg
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