With the arrival of yet another virtual electric piano with the Waves Electric 88 it got me wondering. What is it about the Rhodes that inspires software developers to pursue the perfect emulation? The history of the Rhodes piano is quite a story and you can read about the journey of Harold Rhodes and his development of the instrument here.
I have played one and as I recall the keyboard action was just horrible – really heavy to my soft synth hands – but the sound was sublime. Most of my experience of course comes through records it was used on. Riders on the Storm by The Doors, Get Back by the Beatles, I’m Not in Love by 10cc and then much of Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder’s music from the 1970’s. The most iconic performance for me is Ray Charles playing Shake a Tail-feather in the The Blues Brothers movie.
There’s something in the way the sound is created. Hammers hitting strips of metal called “Tines” like a sideways vibraphone. But it’s not just the physical glockenspiel-like vibration it’s the tonebar that picks up the sound and the preamp and amplification that give it the grit and variation that we’ve come to love. And then there are the effects. The classic tremolo of course, the phaser, chorus, wah and a delay are always popular.
Pretty much every digital synth, keyboard workstation and sampler will have some kind of Rhodes electric piano going on. And this follows on into software versions – it’s a standard sound. But sometimes when a manufacturer focuses on recreating the feel, heart and soul of this classic electric piano – whether Mark I, Mark II, stage or suitcase – magic can happen.
Here’s my top 5 software recreations of the Rhodes electric piano, in no particular order.
1. Applied Acoustics Lounge Lizard
The oldest, the grand-daddy of all virtual Rhodes is the Lounge Lizard from Applied Acoustics. Originally released in 2002 Lounge Lizard is based on physical modelling rather than the more common sample based emulations. So instead of recording the sound of a piano they create a computer model of how sound is generated when a mallet hits a tine. They are now up to version 4 and I should point out that the instrument includes physical models of both the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer piano. As you’re not dealing with samples the sound can be more or less infinitely variable. The controls vary how the various elements of resonators and vibrations interact giving Lounge Lizard a unique feel when editing. It comes with a load of presets and lots of room for finding the perfect sound.
Lounge Lizard is standalone and in plug-in formats VST/RTAS/AAX and AU for $99. There’s a free demo version available on the Applied Acoustics website.
2. Arturia Stage-73 V
Arturia have also gone the modelling route with their Stage 73 V piano. It includes models of the Mark I, Mark II, Stage and Suitcase. All the controls of the original instruments are there including developments that came in over the years of production. So you can switch between the tone knob of the 1973 model and the bass knob of the 1974 version. Arturia have put a lot of focus into the amplification and effects loop, including a volume and sustain pedal. They’ve gone for the look of stomp effects rather than incorporating them into the body of the piano. Under the hood (as it were) are mechanical controls allowing you to govern things like tone bar resonance, pickup distance and hammer hardness. This again is the advantage of physical modelling over a sample based instrument.
Arturia Stage-73 V is standalone and in plug-in formats VST, AAX and AU for €199. There’s a free demo version available on the Arturia website.
3. Native Instruments Scarbee Mark I
Moving into the realm of the sampled instrument with the Scarbee range of electric pianos hosted by Native Instruments. They have come in several forms over the years but the Scarbee Mark I is their definitive sampled Rhodes machine. This is where the “painstaking” approach of sample based developers comes into play. Everything is sampled umpteen times at umpteen levels of everything in order to capture the “soul” of the instrument. There has to be a point at which the detail starts getting lost under the weight of the samples and variations. Suffice to say they did a magnificent job and believe that a soul is captured in 1.3GB. It runs in Kontakt 5 or the Kontakt Player and benefits from it’s excellent effects engine.
Native Instruments Scarbee Mark 1 runs inside Kontakt 5 for £59. There’s no demo version but more information can be found on the Native Instrument website.
4. Cinematique Instruments Electric Piano
Perhaps a lesser known purveyor of fine sampled instruments I really like the Electric Piano they produced for Kontakt. The samples are taken from a fairly beaten-up 1975 Mark I and as they point out it’s the flaws that make it irresistible. I’d agree. This instrument has a fabulous amount of dirt in it. It has a grit that I hadn’t found before. It’s not as exhaustive or comprehensive as some others coming in at just 220MB, but in my view they did a great job with what they had. Simpler, easier, less fussy and a great sounding instrument. It was updated last year to pull all the patches into one complex patch and they improved the GUI.
Cinematique Instruments Electric Piano v2 runs inside Kontakt 5 for $39. There’s no demo version but more information can be found on the Cinematique Instruments website.
5. Waves Electric 88
And so we come back to the plug-in that sparked this little round up. I wrote about the release of this their first sampled instrument in an article here. For this baby you need 4GB of disk space so it must be nearly 4 times as detailed as the Scarbee. There’s a lot of talk of pains being staked and absolute attention to detail and actually, priced for a limited time at $39, it’s probably bloody good value.
Waves Electric 88 is a standalone and plug-in running in VST/AAX/AU/RTAS formats for OSX and Windows. There is a demo version to try which they say will move you to tears, from the Waves website.
I really like the electric pianos that come with Kontakt 5’s band section – they’ve always done me all right. Although I do find myself trying out the vibraphone’s and Celeste as well when looking for that tinkly sound. I’ve also used pianos from SampleTank and Halion to great effect – but the five I’ve listed here are something a bit special.
I’m lucky enough to own the Arturia V Collection which includes the Stage-73 V that otherwise, when compared to the similar quality of the alternative offerings, seems really overpriced. It has to be down to the sound at the end of the day. I don’t want a real one because as keyboards they are hard work to play, so instead I guess I’m looking for that allusive feel and authenticity. Should you go for sample based or physically modelled? You’ll just have to try them and see. By the looks of things the Waves Electric 88 is a steal and we all deserve to have a great Rhodes piano at our fingertips.