Does EZbass deliver on the promise of a virtual bass player?
Toontrack EZbass aims to put a virtual bass player in your DAW, continuing to round out the rhythm section in the same way they’ve done with EZdrummer and EZkeys. As with these older siblings, the developers accomplish this with an engine that marries sampled instruments and a library of editable MIDI performances. So, does EZbass live up to its potential?
EZbass comes with two 5-string electric basses presented in gorgeous graphics. The Modern instrument is an Alembic, ideal for contemporary and dynamic playing styles. The Vintage instrument is based on a Fender Jazz Bass—a go-to for more traditional styles.
Toontrack has done an impeccable job of sampling across fingered and picked playing styles, including velocity-appropriate fret buzz and key-switchable articulations—alternating fingers, picking direction, slides, slaps, mutes, ghost notes, and harmonics. As with the real thing, discrete signals from the bridge and neck pickups are available to balance as you wish.
Each instrument includes fingered and picked presets ranging from clean DI to different flavors of amps, distortion, and effects. Rather than providing a pile of virtual gear choices, Toontrack has opted for a simplified holistic approach. Each preset displays a handful of germane macro controls that adjust multiple parameters under the hood. This serves admirably in getting a wide variety of useful sounds without overwhelm or bass geekery.
The effects are primarily tonal in nature, with a few spatial ones thrown in for fun. You can always choose a clean DI preset and run to other plugins or gear if you want more exotic processing. The omnipresent Sub-Bass control mixes in sine waves at the fundamental and octave to dial in how much you want to shake the foundation. Restraint is advised.
Both instruments sound incredible and are a real pleasure to play. Toontrack’s history of expansion packs suggests that they’re not likely to stop at just these two models, either. (Fretless, please!)
In the Groove
While the quality of the samples alone is worth the price, the real magic happens in conjunction with the groove engine. The Grooves tab reveals a library of professionally performed bass grooves. You can filter these by various parameters including genre, playing style, time signature, and more. Clicking on any result in the filtered list auditions the groove playing the current instrument setting, and in the master song key and tempo you’ve set.
The very cool Tap2Find feature lets you search the groove library either by tapping in a rhythm using your mouse or trackpad or by playing a melody via MIDI. Results rank according to match relevance. While EZbass doesn’t always find an exact library match, it can get you close or even inspire you with a variation.
Say It in a Song
Once you find a groove you want to work with, you commit it to EZbass’s Song Track. Here, you’ll find a timeline with three lanes: song section, chords, and MIDI. The chords lane consists of blocks that control the key transposition of the associated notes in the parallel MIDI lane. If you drag a library groove into an open timeline area, any key changes built into the groove—such as a 12-bar blues pattern—are preserved. If you drag to a timeline area where you’ve already defined key changes, the playing pattern conforms to those changes. Regardless, the overall groove is automatically transposed to match your master song key.
The Song Track is quite flexible, allowing you to slice, shorten, and lengthen blocks to apply desired key changes as you like. You can optionally assemble an entire song track inside EZbass. You can also select from a pulldown menu to instantly apply a variety of commonly played transitions between chord blocks—yet another shortcut to realistic bass lines.
Master controls in the Song Track let you easily dial in the entire performance. In addition to standard fare like octave and velocity, you can determine relative note length, how much damping is applied, and even how busy or sparse the playing is. These adjustments can radically transform the overall vibe of any groove with little effort.
On the Grid
The Grid Editor in Toontrack EZbass provides discrete control over every note in the current MIDI passage. While you’ll find all the expected MIDI editing options, the real star of the show is that the articulation is integrated into each note. So, rather than having to deal with a separate set of MIDI notes controlling keyswitching, you simply select one or more notes and choose an articulation from a pull-down menu. That makes it super easy to add or change desired notes to be fingered, slapped, tapped, and so forth to create the exact performance you’re looking for.
The Grid Editor can also display edit lanes predefined for controllers like pitch, damping, modulation, and other assignable MIDI CCs. The velocity lane also features overall controls for relative velocity, dynamics, fades, and randomization that can further refine and impart realism to a track.
The Drums & Keys tab lets you create a bass line from an existing MIDI file. You can drag-and-drop MIDI from Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 and EZdrummer 2, or from your OS file system. You can also drag a MIDI passage directly from your DAW if your DAW of choice supports it.
When importing a piano-based MIDI track, EZbass can derive a bass line from either the left-hand keyboard performance or from the combination of rhythm and chords. In the case of a MIDI drum file, you can set EZbass to finger against the kick or kick and snare, finger and slap against kick and snare respectively, or follow what Toontrack calls the power hand—the most dominant rhythmic element such as a hi-hat. Regardless, you can apply the results directly to your song—optionally with adherence to your chord changes—or use them to search the groove library for similar matches.
Audio Analyst Session
The Audio Tracker tab provides yet another simple way to realize bass tracks by converting audio to MIDI. This works either by recording audio directly into EZbass, dragging in an audio file from your OS, or routing an audio track from your DAW via a free Toontrack plugin. As with MIDI, the ability to drag an audio file directly from your DAW depends upon your DAW. After getting the audio into EZbass, you select between three analysis modes to help the software recognize what you’re feeding it—bass, guitar, or percussive audio.
The bass and guitar modes are designed for melodic rather than polyphonic source material. They also provide toggles for various articulations you want factored in. As Toontrack recommends, you’ll get much better results from a clean source such as a DI.
The guitar analysis mode can be quite handy for doubling guitar lines with bass—whether or not you choose to modify the results from there. The bass analysis setting allows you to reperform a recorded bass track with an EZbass instrument, just as producers now routinely replace drums with samples of their choice. For example, I was able to convert a standup acoustic bass recording to electric with little editing.
Percussive analysis extracts a rhythm based on transients it detects, rendered as a monophonic MIDI line without pitch recognition or variation. I used this successfully to translate mic’d body percussion into the rhythmic bones of a bass line with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Overall, while Audio Tracker’s conversion isn’t always perfect, it can be a huge time saver even if it requires a bit of tweaking in the Grid Editor.
Work Your Way
EZbass provides lots of workflow flexibility. You can keep the entire performance in EZbass using host sync. There’s also the option to export a MIDI file or drag MIDI directly from EZbass into your DAW, where articulation keyswitches appear as discrete MIDI notes. Alternately, you can export the audio—either as a stereo mix with processing or discrete tracks for DI, effects, and Sub-Bass—and then reimport into your DAW session.
All Basses Covered
Toontrack says that EZbass was years in the making—and the verdict is that it was worth the wait. The entire experience is extremely elegant, intuitive, and effective.
EZbass shines as a virtual instrument alone. The groove engine is sophisticated, and it’s ultimately your call how much you want to use the in-built grooves literally or as starting points for tailoring to your heart’s content. While the functionality for deriving bass lines from Tap2Find, audio, or MIDI isn’t always perfect, the worst-case scenario of getting into the general ballpark for some tweaking is also a huge time saver. Any way you cut it, EZbass delivers a serious leg up in crafting convincing virtual bass performances at a good value.
Toontrack EZbass provides a powerful reminder of the attitude, energy, and subtle nuances that an accomplished bassist can bring to tracks. Moreover, it delivers those qualities in the box with aplomb.
Supported Platforms: Mac/Windows (standalone, VST, AU, AAX)