AF’s Weblog

May 3, 2012

How to Choose A Hardware Keyboard

Filed under: Electronic Instrument, Hardware, keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:40 am

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

By now, everyone was going to be loading soft synths into their laptops, and taking them to the gig instead of keyboards. Oh, and we were also supposed to travel around with personal jet packs and of course, flying cars.

Well, the future doesn’t always turn out as expected, does it? Hardware keyboards are actually having somewhat of a renaissance. Keyboards are a mature field, and there are a huge number of options that offer significant value, whether you’re looking for an inexpensive arranger keyboard like the Casio WK-7500, a full-blown workstation like Yamaha’s Motif XF series, something special-purpose like M-Audio’s Venom, or even a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art keyboard like the Korg Kronos or Roland Jupiter-80. Or, maybe you want a separate tone module and keyboard controller . . .

Casio WK-7500 (left) and Korg Kronos (right).

But all these options can be overwhelming—how do you choose the model  that’s right for your needs?  That’s what this article is all about, so  let’s get started.

let’s get to the heart of matter…

And Now, Our Main Feature(s)

A keyboard’s spec sheet contains a huge number of terms. Here are explanations of some of the most important ones.

On-board sequencer
A sequencer records your keypresses and controller motions, thus allowing you to record and play back compositions. For songwriting, this is great, and often gets ideas down faster than a conventional recording setup. The two most important characteristics are number of tracks (typically 8 to 32), and the number of events the sequencer can store. Note that an “event” can be a single note, so a figure like 10,000 events might seem like a lot. But moving a modulation wheel or lever from minimum to maximum might generate a hundred or more events. The more events a sequencer can store, the better.

Polyphony
This defines the number of voices that can sound simultaneously (the reason we don’t say “notes” is because technically, a voice may play back more than one note at a time, e.g., a parallel fifth). 64, 128, 256, and even more voices are common. This might seem strange—after all, you have only ten fingers. But with a piano sound, notes sustain in the background, which uses up voices. Also, if driven by a multitrack sequencer, more polyphony allows fuller arrangements by allowing more notes for each track.

Multi-timbral operation
This expresses the number of different sounds that a keyboard can generate simultaneously, and is an important spec for keyboards with on-board sequencers, or that you plan to drive with an external MIDI sequencer (e.g., a computer-based program). Most multi-timbral keyboards can do 16 different sounds simultaneously—one for each of the standard 16 MIDI channels.

Polyphony and multi-timbral operation are complementary: to play back lots of simultaneous sounds, you need lots of voices available for them.

Sample ROM
Sample-based synths store their samples in non-volatile ROM chips. Generally, more ROM capacity means either more sounds to choose from, or better quality versions of a lesser number of sounds. Back in the day, four-megabyte sound ROMs used to be considered big—compare that to the Motif XF, which has over 700MB of sounds.

Sample import
Several sample formats have evolved: the WAV file format for Windows, AIFF for the Mac, and sample formats specific to particular manufacturers (Akai’s format, while ancient, remains viable). The more formats a sampler (or synth with sample expansion) can recognize, the better but these days, most manufacturers are standardizing on WAV format files.

Real-time controls
Almost all synths have a pitch bend wheel and modulation wheel or lever (the latter might add vibrato, change tone, or other functions, depending on how the sound is programmed). To this basic roster others might add ribbon controllers (slide your finger along a ribbon strip to change a parameter value), data sliders, footpedal options, a joystick, etc. But many synthesizers take this concept one step further by including assignable faders, switches, and knobs that can (with suitable templates) control parameters in popular DAWs. Probably the best example is the integration between Yamaha synthesizers and Steinberg’s Cubase, as Steinberg is a division of Yamaha and there seems to be a lot of communication going on between the two divisions.

Storage
Options for storing sounds and sequences vary. Many synths now include USB ports so storage can be done to thumb drives, or even hard drives that connect to USB. Yamaha’s Motif XF series has the option to add up to 2GB of onboard, flash memory for storing your own sample sets in non-volatile memory.

Hard disk or RAM recording
If the keyboard has a hard drive, and can sample, sometimes you can record tracks of vocals, guitars, etc., just like a computer-based hard disk recording system. This is also possible with some synths that are RAM-based. Now we’re talking serious production – a keyboard like this blurs the line between musical instrument and recording studio.

Onboard effects
Most keyboards include at least rudimentary effects like delay and reverb, but some go much further, including multiple effects that can be used as insert, send, and master effects—just like a mixer.

How effects interact with the program or sequencer varies. Usually, you can store a particular effect or set of effects with a particular program. But suppose you have a sequence with multiple instruments, or a multi-timbral setup. Insert effects process individual tracks. Some keyboards also have master effects, which alter any audio, from any source, that appears at the output. Tone controls are good candidates for a master effect so you can, for example, brighten up the high end a bit or make the bass rumble. Send effects (also called Aux effects) can add a particular effect to multiple channels of your choice, so they’re somewhere between insert and master effects in terms of how they process the sound.

Interactive algorithms
The most sophisticated implementation of this concept is called KARMA, and is available for Korg and now, Yamaha keyboards. It’s hard to explain, but basically, the keyboard analyzes your playing and adds enhancements where appropriate. For example, a bass line might acquire pitch bend and portamento in selected places, or acoustic guitar parts may have “strums” added in for a more realistic sound. Other keyboards, like the Jupiter-80, perform their own type of enhancements (Roland calls the technology “SuperNatural”) that are also intended to enhance expressiveness. This type of “artificial intelligence” makes a difference in how inspiring an instrument can be, as it becomes more of a partner in the music-making process.

Roland’s SuperNatural technology incorporated in their Jupiter-80 adds exceptional expressiveness.

Sample slicing
This feature is found mostly in groove boxes, but is also incorporated in some keyboards, such as the Motif. The goal is to allow digital audio to follow tempo if the sequencer tempo changes. This works by slicing samples into smaller pieces, typically at prominent attacks or percussive transients. The sequencer triggers these pieces individually, so if the tempo slows down, the triggers occur further apart and the slices play back further apart to follow the beat. Conversely, with faster tempos, the slices trigger closer together.

Arpeggiator
An arpeggiator triggers notes sequentially in a pattern (sometimes arpeggiators are polyphonic, and can trigger several parallel patterns). For example, suppose you’re holding down a C major chord with the notes C4-E4-G4-C5. In “up” mode, these might play as C4-E4-G4-C5-C4-E4-G4-C5 etc. In down mode, it would do the reverse, playing C5-G4-E4-C4-C5-G4-E4-C4 etc. Other modes might be up/down, random, or extended, where the notes you hold down repeat over several octaves.

Arpeggiators are used a lot in dance and “new age” music, and to add flourishes in just about any type of music.

Expandability
Given the dizzying rate of technological progress, expandability is key to preserving your investment. Here are some of the possibilities.

Expansion card slots. Sample-based synths have a fixed complement of sounds. Adding cards expands this palette. Cards are typically genre- or instrument-specific (e.g., dance music, ethnic instruments, hip-hop, pianos, etc.).

USB or FireWire port. With all recent Mac and Windows machines sporting USB ports, they’re used for everything from file transfers between keyboard and computer to providing all the functions of a stand-alone MIDI interface so a program running on the computer, such as a sequencer, can communicate directly with the keyboard. Sometimes these even provide audio interface functions, especially if the keyboard has an external input.

Expandable sample memory. More sample memory lets you store larger numbers of longer samples before you run out of room. Expansion usually consists of inserting common, relatively inexpensive memory chips used in desktop computers.

Audio input. This can be used for recording your own samples, or tracks into a sequencer, and can also provide signals that the synthesizer can process.

The Editor for Korg’s M3 makes it easy to create sounds, or use it as a plug-in within your DAW. Click to enlarge.

Companion software. To simplify creating your own sounds, some keyboards come with Editor software. This puts parameters on-screen and lets you edit them, which is often a faster and more direct approach than going through menu screens on the keyboard itself. What’s more, some software lets you treat the keyboard as a VST or AU plug-in within your DAW.

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

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December 12, 2011

Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Review

Two years ago, Native Instruments introduced Maschine, a kind of hybrid MPC combining software and hardware technologies. The software is now in version 1.7 and the manufacturer has also introduced Maschine Mikro — a simpler but cheaper version.

Besides being a huge success, Maschine marked an evolution on the hardware and software levels. First of all, the reader should refer to the user reviews. You’ll surely notice that some cons that we pointed out in our Maschine 1.0 review (in French) have been already fixed. But let’s start with the hardware of Maschine Mikro and the applications for which it has been conceived.

Mikro But Powerful

There is more than a family resemblance between Maschine and the Mikro version, but their dimensions are slightly different: the smaller brother is 12.6″ x 7.7″ x 2.2″ big (against 12.6″ x 11.6″ x 2.4″). This means that the Mikro version is about 6″ shorter, which is not bad considering a small desktop already fully packed with the computer keyboard, a MIDI keyboard, a mouse, controllers, etc. With a weight of 2.6 lbs (1.3 lb lighter than the “Makro” version), the Maschine Mikro is easily transportable in a backpack.

The first visible change is that the Mikro has only one display (instead of two) with a lower resolution (half as many pixels). Second major change: it has far less encoders! From the 11 encoders available on Maschine you get only one, placed above the display. The backlit switches are also decimated: you get only 28 from the 41 present on the original Maschine. Luckily, the number of pads is still the same (16) and the software is identical.

The transport console is almost the same (Loop is replaced by Restart) but there is no more direct access to the groups. With Maschine Mikro, you’ll have to push a Group button and then one of the pads. Two steps instead of one; slightly less practical. Also note that you can select a group using a keyboard shortcut as well, which is the lesser evil.

Generally speaking, it’s more difficult to browse through effects, sounds, patterns, plug-ins, and projects using only the hardware, due to the smaller display and the single rotary encoder. As we expected, Maschine Mikro makes the user more dependent on his computer mouse, screen and keyboard… This is not necessarily an issue if you use your DAW at home with your sequencer, but it might become a problem for live musicians because they don’t have the possibility of storing parameter automation data directly unto the hardware unit nor adjusting several values simultaneously. They’ll have to use an additional MIDI controller, which is not the case with the original Maschine. The last hardware difference is that Maschine Mikro has no MIDI connections on 5-pin DIN connectors!

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Maschine is back — smaller and more affordable ($349 instead of $599). The difference with its bigger brother concern mainly the hardware unit and the fact that it is more difficult to make music without putting your hands on your computer mouse and keyboard. In fact, Maschine Mikro is designed for musicians who work at home with a sequencer and want to use the hardware controller mainly for groove programming. In this case, Maschine Mikro fulfills its role very well because grabbing to your mouse is not an issue. If you want to use Maschine for live performances, real-time sound tweaking and parameter adjustment, and also if you want to control everything from the hardware unit, try the “complete” Maschine version, which thanks to the frequent software updates has become more and more powerful every time.

Advantages:

  • Price!
  • Reliable and comprehensive software (version 1.7)
  • More than 6GB of sounds provided
  • Very affordable additional sound banks
  • Komplete Element for free
  • A real inspiring tool
  • Hardware quality

Drawbacks:

  • Not as powerful as Maschine for live applications
  • Recording automation data directly from the hardware unit is impossible

To read the full detailed article see:  Maschine Mikro Review

 

January 15, 2011

Winter NAMM 2011 Day 2 Highlights

And here are some video demo highlights from Day 2:

To see all news and videos visit: Winter NAMM 2011

December 17, 2010

Gifts for Geeks

Clock is ticking, and there is still time to please and be pleased. Here are some ideas for Christmas gifts for musicians and gear heads to fit all tastes and wallet sizes.

Computer Music

Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer

Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer : and your iThing speaks MIDI

Together with an Apple iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, and the free MIDI Memo Recorder app, MIDI Mobilizer can play, record, and backup MIDI information any time, any place. Whether you want to capture a quick musical idea or back up the settings of all your MIDI gear, MIDI Mobilizer is a simple and compact solution for everything MIDI.  Price: $70

Peavey AmpKit Link

Peavey AmpKit Link :

Turn your iPhone into a virtual amp for $30. The sound quality is fair considering the price. The marketing strategy of offering a free amp and then have us pay for additional amps is not so bad, considering that guitar players usually have their favorite amps and do not play with 15 different models.

Plugin Lexicon

Plugin Lexicon :

The new software package makes all the effects processing of Lexicon’s PCM96 available as a plug-in designed to add “inspirational new sounds to a user’s DAW that are not available anywhere else.”  The PC- and Macintosh-compatible PCM Native Effects Plug-In Bundle is designed to work with DAWs like Pro Tools and Logic, as well as with any other VST, Audio Unit or RTAS-compatible host.  Price: $1200.

Apogee One

Apogee One : All in one in your pocket

ONE is described as a single input, stereo output USB music interface designed to work seamlessly with Apples iTunes, GarageBand, Logic, Final Cut or any Core Audio compliant application on a Mac. Unlike any product in its category, ONE features an internal reference condenser microphone, ideal for capturing inspired musical moments, according to Apogee. ONE also includes a microphone preamp, an instrument input for guitar, bass, and keyboards, and a studio-quality stereo output for headphones or powered monitors.  Price:  $249

 

Native Komplete 7

Native Komplete 7 : The Bundle of the Decade?

The latest version of the Komplete bundle combines a range of NI products, while the Komplete 7 Elements collection is designed to set a new price point for music production enthusiasts on a budget.  The seventh generation of Komplete now comprises 24 individual products, including the latest Reaktor 5.5 version as well as the new Reaktor Prism, Rammfire, Reflektor, Traktor’s 12 and Vintage Organs. Other products now contained in Komplete include the Abbey Road 60s Drums vintage drum library, the performance effect The Finger, the electric pianos and an electric bass by sampler Thomas Scarbee, the four acoustic pianos from the Classic Piano Collection, the cinematic Acoustic Refractions instrument and the Reaktor Spark synthesizer, amounting to about 10,000 sounds and 90 GB of studio-grade sample material overall.  Price: $559.

Guitar Pro 6

Guitar Pro 6 :

Version 6 is definitely a major update for Guitar Pro. What used to be a small software tool has become the ultimate reference in its category thanks to its intuitive user interface, well thought-out features and an absurdly low price. Should you upgrade your previous Guitar Pro version for $29.95? Yes, a thousand times yes! You’ll benefit from a better design and a much better sounding and efficient audio engine than in previous versions. Should you buy the full version for $59.95 if you don’t own a guitar tab editor? Yes, a thousand times yes!

Pro Tools 9

Pro Tools 9 : Compatible Soundblaster (among others) !

Pro Tools 9 is an open platform that doesn’t require an Avid/M-Audio interface anymore, but can work with or without any Core Audio or ASIO compatible interface – on Mac AND PC.  The new version enables bigger mixes with more tracks, and pro features including Automatic Delay Compensation, multitrack Beat Detective, full Import Session Data dialog, DigiBase Pro, and other separately priced add-ons—now standard.  Price: $599 for the full version.

Pianoteq Play

Pianoteq Play :

Pianoteq Play is a virtual piano based on the physically modeled Pianoteq software instrument, appraised by many musicians for its close intimacy and responsiveness.

Modarrt says there is no need to tweak settings and parameters, as Pianoteq Play is delivered with “perfectly designed instruments.”  Pianoteq Play supports all Pianoteq instruments, and the grand pianos K1, C3, and M3 are embedded.  Price:  $99

RME Babyface

RME Babyface :

RME succeeded in launching a compact and rugged interface with remarkable sound quality. At about $750, this baby provides two quality mic preamps and converters, ADAT in/out, a jog wheel, a transport bag, and a pair of nice-looking VU-meters. Add TotalMix FX —the virtual mixer that allows you to manage all 22 channels and process the signals (EQ, filter, reverb, and echo)— to the package and you get the best mobile audio interface on the market.

Akai APC 20

Akai APC 20 : Enter the Matrix

Yes, the APC40 is much more comprehensive than the APC20! But if you have only $200 for a Live controller, the APC20 has only one competitor in the form of the Novation Launchpad. The latter is less expensive but doesn’t have any faders, which makes it less interesting…

DJing and Live Sound

Traktor Kontrol S4

Traktor Kontrol S4 :

Combining an extended version of the existing Traktor Pro software with a dedicated hardware controller, the Traktor Kontrol S4 is aiming to provide an all-in-one solution for digital DJs. The controller comprises a four-channel mixer, an integrated 24-bit/96kHz audio interface based on NI’s Audio 4 DJ, and interface sections for looping, cueing, track browsing and effects control.  Price: $1000.

Hercules DJ Console 4-MX

Hercules DJ Console 4-MX :

Hercules launched this year the newest version of their DJ Console line for Pro DJs, the DJ Console 4-Mx, a controller featuring large jog wheels (each equipped with touch sensor) a built-in audio interface tailored for DJing, and control over 2 and 4 virtual decks.  The DJ Console 4-Mx has steel and aluminium crafted body with a variety of controls including 89 controls in 2-deck mode and 150 controls in 4-deck mode.  Price: $450.

Pioneer DJM-2000

Pioneer DJM-2000 :

Let’s be clear: this is a great piece of gear! Well thought-out, nicely finished and with a great sound, it offers countless possibilities to allow the most demanding DJ’s to have endless fun. With this product, Pioneer targets night clubs with big budgets who want to offer the best to their DJ’s. The latter will have the possibility to prepare their sets before performing, and to come to the club with only a CD or a USB key — no need for a computer.  Price: $2500.

Denon DN-X1700

Denon DN-X1700 :

The DN-X1700 is a four-channel tabletop mixer with rubberised knobs, 60mm Alps K Series channel faders, 45mm FLEX cross fader, a color LCD display, extended 24-point LED channel and output metering, and LED ring metering around the control knobs.  In operation, the principal features related to the power and flexibility of the DN-X1700 are its Matrix Input Assignment with digital input and MIDI/USB audio, independent and parametric three-band EQ with Kill on each channel, and dual independent EFX processors.  Price: $1800.

Fender Passport 500 Pro

 

Fender Passport 500 Pro :

The eight-channel Passport 500 PRO is the new top-of-the-line Passport system:

  • A port that lets you record your performance with CD quality (.wav) straight to a USB flash drive.
  • CD-quality .wav and mp3 file playback.
  • Sub-out jack for an external powered sub-woofer.
  • Redesigned speaker system with 10″ woofer and improved clarity.
  • Price: $1000.

 

Presonus StudioLive 24.4.2

Presonus StudioLive 24.4.2 :

StudioLive 24.4.2 sports the same user interface, feature set, and I/O configuration as the StudioLive 16.4.2 but with several additions and enhancements. The main difference is that the new mixer provides 24 input channels and 10 aux buses, whereas the StudioLive 16.4.2 has 16 channels and 6 auxes. In addition, the new mixer’s Fat Channel has fully parametric EQ, rather than semi-parametric, and the gate and limiter have been enhanced. Instead of one stereo 31-band graphic EQ on the main bus, you get four dual 31-band graphic EQs that can be assigned to the mains, subgroups, and aux buses.  Price: $3,300.

To see many more gift ideas see:  Gift for Geeks- Xmas Shopping 2010

May 2, 2009

Percussa Audiocubes: The Test

Audio Cubism
Percussa Audiocubes: The Test

Out of the blue, it just appeared in my office, like the megalith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A cube: 7.5 cm long, as white and smooth as paraffin, with a pair of LEDs on four of its six sides, two ¼ inch jack inputs, a USB connector…and a button … … that I press … Let there be Light, as someone once said: the cube shines!

AudioCubes

So what is it? A new age light to go with one’s lava lamp? Or the latest cutting-edge technology in light-therapy? Not at all; a small sticker tells me that I am in the presence of an AudioCube 1.0, a device by Percussa designed to revolutionize our approach to music. Let’s see about that…

Charging…

The AudioCubes are charged in 3 hours via a USB cable for use from 3 to 5 hours …

The AudioCubes are, you guessed it, cubes that have a communication port on 4 of their sides capable of transmitting and receiving digital or analog signals, using infrared light, to and from other cubes nearby. As for using them as MIDI controllers, they can be used in two ways: in Sensor mode or Sender/Receiver modes, which involves at least two cubes. They generate two types of MIDI messages: either Note-on (triggering a note), or continuous controllers which are useful for progressively changing MIDI parameters.

Sensor Mode: In this mode the cube senses the distance to a nearby object, such as another cube or your hands: so you’ll be able, just by making gestures around the cube, to control the frequency cutoff and/or resonance of a filter, or modify the ADSR of an envelope…

AudioCubes

Sender/Receiver Mode: this is also interesting because it’s based on interaction between cubes. How does it work? Each AudioCube has 4 sides that can send and receive infrared signals to and from other cubes. 4 sides per cube gives you 16 combinations (each can be a MIDI command such as triggering samples) with only two cubes …

Far from being merely a MIDI controller, the AudioCube is also a lo-fi instrument. This means that it has a signal generator/processor with a 32 kHz/9 bit audio resolution… the sound goes through the same infrared ports as the MIDI or through jack cables. Each cube has a ¼ inch jack input and output.

Lastly, the icing on the cake, the AudioCubes are also lights. For each cube, there are three colors (red, green and blue) whose intensity can be controlled via MIDI and a sequencer. By mixing those 3 fundamental colors you can get just about any color. Some will consider these cubes a gadget, if they’re only interested in their controller features, while others, who see all the opportunities these AudioCubes offer in a live show, will find them essential…

It works in theory. Let’s see if it also works in practice…

Conclusion

The Cubes are on a roll !

Inventor of AudioCubes, Bert Schiettecatte, received the Qwartz Max Mathews award of technological innovation applied to the field of music from the hands of Enki Bilal (President of the 5 ° edition) April 3, at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.

The AudioCubes idea is excellent, but there’s still much room for improvement, both in terms of hardware and software. Of course, for around €649 for a set of 4 cubes, AudioCubes are amongst the most accessible of futuristic controllers. But it would have been nice if they had both more sensor responsiveness and accuracy on the one hand, as well as more ‘user friendly’ software on the other. But that doesn’t hinder these Percussa devices from being usable and even from causing a stir (see the box), but they will no doubt appeal more to musicians in search of original live accessories than those who really want to revolutionize their way of making music.

This brings us back to the famous debate about whether the latest inventions in the field of musical ergonomics, or even ergonomics in general, make a difference. Take the case of the Wiimote, which, after all, didn’t change anything in terms of the gamedesign of video games despite the frenzy it provoked in the media… Just like the Tenori-on, the Reactable, or Jean-Michel Jarre’s famous laser-harp, the AudioCubes are fascinating in their concept and visually attractive, but you’re never sure if you’re dealing with a ‘design’ object used for music, or a real instrument that’s also esthetically pleasing. You be the judge, but in any event Max/MSP developers will probably be paying close attention to this product, while others may just pass it by. However, the ‘AudioCube 1.0’ on each cube suggests that the story is to be continued …

The concept!
The different performance modes
Well-designed manual

Sensors lack precision
‘Lo-Fi’ audio not very interesting
Software is user-unfriendly …

To read the full detailed article see Percussa Audiocubes review

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