Keyboard Virtual Instruments
In the second half of 2003, the four major digital music sequencers for the Mac reached relatively satisfactory levels of stability and usefulness in Mac OS X. Soon thereafter, plug-in makers began to ship plug-ins and virtual instruments (VIs) for OS X's three supported plug-in formats: Apple's Audio Units (AU), VST, and Digidesign's RTAS.
Applied Acoustic Systems' Lounge Lizard EP-2, an electric-piano emulator, and Native Instruments' B4, an organ emulator, are the first free-standing VIs in their respective instrument categories. They share a couple of strengths and weaknesses: both sound and look great, are easy to set up, and have controls that are mostly the same as those in previous versions. But they also suffer from graphic quirks when you use them within some sequencers, and neither application's manual has been updated for OS X.
Lounge Lizard EP-2
Lounge Lizard EP-2's centerpiece is a realistic Rhodes electric-piano sound, combined with a fine variety of Wurlitzer electric-piano tones and a host of preset sounds that range from the exotic (Galapagos Bass) to the fruity (Banana Piano). EP-2 has a load of time-shift parameters -- such as wah, phaser, tremolo, and delay -- that you can tweak to create your own sounds. But the real fun lies in programming the piano's "physical" characteristics -- including the stiffness of its mallets' coverings, for softer or brighter tones -- and the vibrancy and decay of its fork, a central element of e-piano tones. And you can save your newly created sounds as presets, which appear in EP-2's browser. You'll need a weekend to familiarize yourself with the variables here, but it will be time well spent.
B4 is a beautiful audio re-creation of a Hammond B3 organ, a standard instrument for jazz and rock musicians. Its clean B3 and mesmerizing Leslie-speaker sounds are so good, you might believe you're playing a real organ. B4 offers two screen choices for controlling parameters: an instrument view or a palette of tone-knobs, for voicings, and drawbars, for pedals and registers. The OS X version includes the Tonewheel Set Vintage Collection, previously available separately, which adds the sounds of a variety of B3s with aged tonewheels, emulations of Vox and Farfisa organs, and the sounds of an Indian harmonium. You'll find plenty of tones to love. (If you have an earlier version of B4 and want to work with AUs, you'll need to download the B4 1.13 update from Native Instruments' Web site.)
What You See and What You Don't
Both apps work great on their own, but they exhibit visual oddities when used within every OS X sequencer except Steinberg's Cubase SX 2. In Apple's Logic, both emulators' screens remain in the foreground while Logic's appears to be inactive -- although you can use Logic's controls, you can't scroll the windows. In MOTU's Digital Performer (DP), any window can be brought to the front except the Audio Units window, so you'll need to access Audio Units via the Windows menu or the Audio Units window's title bar. And entering notes with your mouse when you're using B4 produces visible "ghost" keys and drawbars. In Digidesign's Pro Tools, both VIs stay in front, denying you access to Pro Tools until you close the VIs' windows. Finally, when used as a plug-in, B4 supports neither keyboard shortcuts in OS X nor Digidesign's RTAS format. (We tested in OS X 10.2.6, using Cubase SX 18.104.22.168, Logic 6.3.3, DP 4.1, and Pro Tools 6.1.2.)
Macworld's Buying Advice
Both B4 and Lounge Lizard EP-2 offer superb emulations of their real ancestors. The visual glitches that occur when you use them in sequencers are mildly frustrating, but these obstacles don't significantly affect the pleasure of playing these very cool virtual instruments.