Review by Mike Metlay
Toontrack’s EZkeys platform combines beautiful sampled virtual keyboards with an easy block-based track assembly system that works standalone or inside any DAW as a plug-in. You can play the instruments by hand or load MIDI files (yours or Toontrack’s) to create an arrangement. It’s easy to use, straightforward to program, and offers authentic and beautiful sounds. The newest EZkeys instrument is called Dream Machine, and I have to say that despite my good experiences with other EZkeys products, this one instantly became my favorite.
Until now, Toontrack has taken a “depth before breadth” approach to sampling keyboards for the EZkeys line. When you buy an EZkeys product, you get one instrument, presented with a variety of tonal tweaks and miking/processing and deeply sampled for maximum authenticity. But whether it’s a grand piano, electric piano, organ, or other keyboard, you’re still only getting one or maybe two instruments in the box.
Toontrack teased a different approach with String Machine, an ARP Solina that could be blended with elements of other string-ensemble keyboards for more sonic variety. But with Dream Machine, they’ve finally gone all in on the hybrid-instrument approach, and the results are just fabulous.
Dream Machine is a previously unheard-of blend of a Rhodes Mk7 electric piano, a celeste, a marimba, and a xylophone. For each of the 47 factory presets, you’re given a set of macro controls relevant to the sound—sometimes they’ll be relative levels of different instruments, other times they’ll be effect parameters and wet/dry mixes—so you can dial in your perfect tone and save it for future use in a User preset bank.
The sounds range from dry to drenched with reverb, chorus, autopan, tremolo, and more, and all are intended to provide a deep, dreamy atmosphere for your compositions. A bit under half of the sounds are in two special submenus: Mallets, for sounds that rely more heavily on the xylophone and marimba than the keyboards, and Soundscapes, where the tones have been processed with slower attacks and massive sustain to create rich padlike tones. There’s a little bit of everything, from fairly straight Rhodes patches to sounds so processed that they sound almost like organs with percussion stops!
When I reviewed the Dream Pop MIDI Pack for EZkeys some time ago, it worked well with the instruments I had on hand, but Dream Pop really came into its own when combined with Dream Machine! Even more perfect was the matchup between Dream Machine and the new Melancholic Pop MIDI Pack, which contains nine song structures ranging from 68 to 126 BPM in 4/4 time plus one song in 6/8 at 87 BPM, all with beautifully-played chord progressions to evoke a thoughtful and meditative mood. Either this or Dream Pop would be a no-brainer to add to Dream Machine as a jump start to your compositions.
I’m not a conventional pop songwriter; my tastes lean toward sound design, soundtracks, and ambient music, and this combination of instrument and MIDI landed squarely in my happy place. This is the first EZkeys instrument that I can really enjoy tweaking and twisting to fit my cues and songs, and because it’s so unique in tone, it doesn’t leave me thinking, “Well, maybe I should build my song in EZkeys and export the MIDI to play another piano/electric piano/Mellotron/whatever.” I found myself just playing away and enjoying Dream Machine, and taking inspirations from the complex and well-thought-out chord progressions in Melancholic Pop.
Times sure have changed. Call up the Mystic Movie preset, play it with a Melancholic Pop progression like “Feeling Cold,” and you’ve basically got a movie soundtrack from the 1980s… minus the rat’s nest of cables, jittery old-school MIDI sequencing, and piles of cranky synths with D/A converter noise, that is. And with a turn of a knob or two, the sound becomes all yours, ready for your next audio-for-video or game gig.
I’ve always been a fan of the compositional tools built into EZkeys and an admirer of its excellent sampled sounds, but Dream Machine is the first of the Toontrack keyboards that I’ve really fallen in love with. It’s sheer magic.
Prices: EZkeys Dream Machine, $179 ($89 for owners of other EZkeys instruments); Melancholic Pop MIDI Pack, $29
More from: Toontrack, www.toontrack.com