With rain pattering at my window and distant thunder grumbling and cracking, a deep, rhythmic bass line followed by the mellow croon of a Wurlitzer piano begin to play in my head. It hasn’t stopped raining since the morning, and The Doors’s moody and eerie classic is on repeat in my mind, as it always is when it rains here in the desert. I couldn’t ask for a better day to review our favorite New York City mad scientist’s latest offering in a string of keyboard emulators built for guitar, the Key 9. Being a keyboard enthusiast as well as a guitar player, I have always been infatuated with the sounds in our favorite tracks behind the guitars; Hammonds, Wurlitzers, Rhodes, and Minimoogs are just a few instruments I love almost as much as the guitar. When the Key 9 was announced, the old familiar GAS kicked in and I knew I had to review it. Having played real electric pianos, I was excited to see how Electro-Harmonix’s latest offering holds up to the funky and mellow.
Before we talk logistics, we have to understand how an electric piano works. The tone is generated similar to a normal piano, except instead of the hammer hitting strings of different lengths, it hits a tine or a reed specially tuned to the pitch of the key you hit. A special pickup system takes that vibration, and converts it to voltage which is then amplified through the speaker. The two most common and endearing types of electric piano are the Wurlitzer and Rhodes. The Wurlitzer’s reed tone is usually classified as darker with a bit more bite, while the Rhodes tine tone is usually chimier and more complex. Both keyboards respond very differently to attack, and both the tones of the Wurlitzer and Rhodes can be approximated on either model with change in attack; the harder the mallets strike the keys the darker the tone is, and vice versa. (Attack is arguably the most important part of any good electric piano sound.)
They Key 9 offers simulations of classic Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds, as well as a few new and unique offerings. The Rhodes setting has a rounded, mellow sound, and is a good approximation of the basic character, but a few of the upper harmonics in the tone are a little dissonant (these are meant to simulate the sound of the mallets hitting the tines, and are an integral part of the Rhodes sound). Adding some chorus from the parameter controls and changing the way you play will get you some mildly convincing tones. The Wurlitzer is a little less complex, and it sounds just like a guitar with a filter. With the added tremolo provided by the parameter controls, this is remedied a bit, but 90 percent of any electric piano sound is the attack, and unfortunately that famous Wurlitzer bark is just not there. However, I commend Electro-Harmonix for its valiant attempt at one of the hardest emulations to really nail, I don’t think anyone could get any closer than they did.
Some of the best sounds available on the Key 9 are the more percussive sounds. The Mallet setting sounds very rich and warm, with a great attack. The organ on here seems to be an improved version of earlier attempts (the B9 and C9), and is very full sounding, with a ton of body and perfectly tuned upper and lower harmonics. Plugging it into my personal Leslie speaker I was rewarded with an extremely convincing organ tone, full of percussive richness and warmth that could easily find its way onto a record. The Steel Drums are incredible fun, and sound very accurate compared to real ones, but the notes have no sustain (it seems this setting was made more for rolling notes). The Vibes sounded useable, but again like the Rhodes the upper harmonics were a little too dissonant for my taste. Although most of these sounds can be mixed with the dry signal of the guitar, I find that keeping it out completely helps add to the realism and believability.
The newest offering from Electro-Harmonix is a bold and unique move, which I commend wholeheartedly. It could get some guitarists more interested in keyboard sounds, add some spice to recordings, or turn a few confused heads at a live gig looking for a keyboard player. Some of the tones fall flat (but let’s be honest, they are damn hard to emulate in anything, let alone a singular guitar pedal), but there are plenty of convincing tones and much fun to be had with the Key 9.
What We Like: Really expressive percussive sounds and a wide range of instruments simulated, and the Rhodes and Wurlitzer sound pretty good with added effects from the control parameters. Full, warm, and rich organ sound and an included power supply
Concerns: Upper harmonics can be a little too dissonant on some instruments. Wurlitzer lacks that famous “bark.” Tracking sometimes a little off.