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

December 6, 2010

Korg PS60 Review

Filed under: keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 1:44 pm

While the market of low-budget synthesizers has never been so flourishing, Korg launches a performance synth conceived for live applications that require spontaneity and real-time options. Let’s step into the details…

3 pm on a gray autumn Saturday. Thick smoke fills the dark rehearsal studio when a hoarse voice raises from behind the drum kit…

“Hey, let me know when you are done turning knobs and playing with your touchscreen so you can finally give us some Rhodes and finish your synth solo!”

– I’m almost done, I just have to insert a program into the 2nd channel, edit a keyboard split and adjust the FX sends because I need an overdrive for the piano and a subtle delay for the solo part…

– What? A short delay? You’ve been setting your gadget there for hours. We’ve played only five songs and we still have 25 to go! We must pack our gear in two hours, drive 60 miles, mount again, make the soundcheck and start the show at 9 pm tonight…

– OK, I’m ready. Three, four, dzoiiiiiiing!!!

– What’s that chord you’re playing? Don’t you know “All by myself” is in A sharp?

– Darn, I forgot to transpose! I hate A sharp: too many black keys! Wait a minute guys, I just have to push the edit button, browse the transposition page… hm, wait, where is it? On the MkII, it was the 8th on the third-level to the right, but with the MkIII, it’s…

– I’m gonna kill you! I can’t stand your black and white keys, your cables hanging around, your twisted keyboard stands that keep on ripping my car’s leatherette seat covers…

 

Many keyboard players have experienced this when they still don’t master their brand new workstations yet, in spite of several weeks dedicated to getting to know their instrument. Complexity overcomes spontaneity! But what options do we have left, except for stacking several synths to have everything at our fingertips and edit splits and layers faster than Keith Emerson can play a fill over a five-octave keyboard or Jim Morrison can drink five bourbons… The Korg PS60 aims to be the answer: compact, quick, affordable, fully packed with ready-to-use sounds, and very editable. Let’s see if it holds true!

Double Six

Korg PS60

The PS60 is a very compact five-octave keyboard with the Korg-typical pitchbend/modulation joystick placed above the keys. Not very long nor heavy at all, due to the fact that it’s made out of plastic with a very nice and glossy finish. On the other hand, you’ll have to protect the device to take it on the road because it’s no tank… On the front panel there are many controls spread over a quite unusual layout. From left to right, you’ll find the joystick with a Hold key that allows you to hold the value corresponding to its position on the modulation axis, i.e. you can lock the return spring that brings the joystick back to the center position. You’ll also find a volume control and a key dedicated to Leslie simulations for organ sounds. But it has a fixed assignation… There’s also a row of keys for octave and half-tone transposition. Well done! Just above that, you’ll find a control section to store/recall performances pushing only one or two buttons. In the middle, a small 2×16 character, gray-blue LCD is placed above the selection keys for mode and performance selection.

But the most original section is clearly the control field’s right section. It allows you to select, turn on/off and mix on the fly two sets of six separate sound layers. In order to do that you get six rotary controls, 12 program-change keys, six channel on/off keys, a quick-edit selector for four parameters (volume, octave and two FX sends), and a split control section. You can quickly stack six program layers. When you activate the split key, you get two sets of six layers on both sides of the split point. The six parts are sorted by category: acoustic piano, electric piano, organ, strings, brass, and synth. Further on to the right, you’ll find nine controls and two keys that allow you to edit directly the two master effects and the global EQ to adapt the sound to the music. Once you are satisfied with the results you can save everything in no time. There’s no need to say that the handling is very easy and practical. But as you will see later on, the PS60 is not only a spontaneous stage keyboard but also a really comprehensive synth.

Korg PS60

Now, let’s take a quick look at the rather spartan rear panel: external PSU connector (normal for a low-budget product), on/off switch, stereo analog out, MIDI in/out, and a pair of multifunction foot controllers. Nothing revolutionary for today’s standards… The minijack 1/8″ headphones out is on the front panel. Nice! Let’s close this short overview by noting that the five-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive but it doesn’t support aftertouch, and it sports half-weighted keys with better quality than its competitors in the same price range.

Sound Set

Korg PS60

The PS60 uses a sound synthesis based on samples taken from the M3/M50 series in a compressed PCM ROM equivalent to 49 MB at 16 bits/48 kHz. You get 120 voices of polyphony and 12 simultaneous channels of multitimbrality. The unit always works in performance mode, which means that it always uses an arrangement of one or two sets with six sound layers. Each layer includes one of the 512 internal programs, including 440 factory-loaded ones. Each program includes a small demo to be chosen from 383 audition riffs which cannot be programmed. The sound samples provided with this review use these riffs to allow you to get a quick overview of the pop/rock oriented sound possibilities.

You’ll find some multisample acoustic pianos in different stereo variations (with or without sustain pedal and different tempered tunings) and a piano from the M1: typical sounds of older Korg workstation generations that cannot come close to the level of multisamples used by modern workstations. The multisample electric pianos sound much better, especially two Fender and one Wurlitzer sampled with three velocity steps. The Clavinet sounds are ok, especially thanks to the FX section. You get eight electric organs, which cover most music styles from smoky jazz to spellbinding gospel and distorted rock.

Korg PS60

You’ll also find two strings sections from previous Korg workstations: a very wide stereo ensemble and a small, slightly aggressive section. Choirs are well represented with four pop and classic multisamples provided in three variations. Brass sounds do not have an homogeneous quality. On the one hand you have the very nice, stereo pop section, the trumpet, trombone, French horn, flute, and clarinet sounds, but you also have three miserable saxophones. Even though the guitar & bass category doesn’t belong to the six instrument families on the front panel, you’ll find acoustic/electric bass and guitar sounds all the same. Bass guitars sound pretty good but guitars are disappointing: dead attacks, short held notes, audible loop points. However, the excellent amp simulation effects save the day… You also get about 50 different waveforms in different variations (sawtooth, sinus, impulse and DWGS & VS waves) — tradition is not a meaningless word at Korg. On the other hand, you won’t find any drum kits; it’s a pity since they are sometimes very convenient…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The PS60 offers an interesting concept at a very affordable price. You get a rather good pop/rock sound selection that, honestly speaking, cannot compete with big workstations or high-class stage keyboards. The same applies to the sound synthesis parameter set that requires an external piece of software (which is provided, luckily). One thing that sets the PS60 apart from all those high-end, sophisticated products is that it is clearly superior when it comes to quickly stacking, splitting, mixing and editing different sound layers during live performances. This will appeal to nomad musicians who want to avoid damaging their budget and their back!

Advantages:

  • Short learning curve
  • Well though-out direct-access controls
  • Good sound quality
  • A real synth with multimode filters and modulation matrix
  • FX section with one insert per voice (except for strings)
  • Editor/library manager included
  • Quality standard dynamic keyboard
  • Very easily readable LCD
  • Compact size and light weight
  • Rewritable OS
  • Reasonable price

Drawbacks:

  • Limited direct access to some sound synthesis parameters
  • Rather annoying menu browsing
  • Only 20 performance memories
  • No sequencer nor arpeggiator
  • Keyboard without aftertouch
  • No drum sounds nor kits
  • Construction a bit fragile

To read the full detailed article see:  Korg PS60 Review

October 1, 2010

Korg MicroSampler Review

To everyone’s surprise, Korg has launched a small sampler keyboard. Let’s see what we can do with it and for what purpose…

The first all-in-one sampler keyboard saw the light of day almost 30 years ago. Born under the Californian sun in 1981, the Emulator provided four or eight voices, a four-octave keyboard and 128 KB of RAM that allowed the user to save four seconds of audio data at 8 bits/28 kHz. “Play a turkey” said the ads… you could even play eight turkeys if you paid $15,000! In those days, big Fairchild systems were the rulers and the Synclavier could not sample audio yet. The Ensoniq Mirage was the first to make this concept affordable in 1984. And the arms race began: memory, resolution, sample rate, polyphony, sound synthesis section, effects, sequencer… E-mu, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, Akaï, and Roland became the major players. And Korg joined in the adventure in 1986 with the DSS-1. With the advent of computers and their giant sample banks, the sampler keyboard market reduced to zero, nothing… until recently, when Korg surprised everybody by launching a feather light sampler keyboard called MicroSampler. For whom, for what and how?

A Strange Package

Korg MicroSampler

With almost 4.4 lb., the MicroSampler is no tank! The front panel is made out of gray cheap-looking plastic. All controls are recessed into the housing; this design protects the controls during transportation indeed but it also makes access harder. It is specially troublesome for the “Tap Tempo” and “Sampling” buttons given that we would like to push them more easily! The unit is equipped with six encoders, that recall the program selectors of a washing machine, and 16 switches. The front panel is divided into four main sections: keyboard (that allows sample selection and assignation), pattern sequencer, sampling, and browsing. The latter consists in a backlit LCD, browsing keys and two encoders: the first one allows you to browse the parameters and the other one to edit them. The keyboard offers 37 velocity sensitive keys in small format. The MicroSampler is definitely made for skillful people when it comes to editing and playing, even if the black keys are a bit larger than on most compact keyboards… Right above the keyboard, you’ll find a 37-LED display inserted in a metal bar, which indicates the sample(s) being currently played or edited. By the way, the unit has no joystick nor wheels! On the other hand, it has two slots for a cell phone, a pack of cards, chewing-gums, or money…

Korg MicroSampler

On the front panel you can also find an XLR connector for the gooseneck dynamic mic included. All other connections are on the rear panel: headphones out, stereo audio output and input on 1/4″ jacks, Midi in/out, type-D USP port, power in, and on/off switch. The USB port allows you to connect the keyboard to a computer to transfer samples and Midi data (see gray box). Under the hood, there’s a closed compartment for six AA batteries that allow you to play for about four hours (battery indication with visual alert on the display), which is ideal to sample sounds on the beach or in the rain forest… Handling is rather easy and most controls are easily accessible since the unit is very slim. By pushing the “Edit” button and a key you’ll access the edit page directly above it. The only issue arises with the “Value” encoder, which is not absolutely precise for parameter editing. We would have preferred increment/decrement buttons.

Memory and Sound

Korg MicroSampler

The MicroSampler is stereo and has 16 bit/48 kHz resolution, like all Korg products since the Trinity… Its permanent memory allows you to save eight banks of 36 user samples each (160 sec. per bank and only half that in stereo). You can use only one bank at a time after having loaded it into the internal temp memory. We don’t know if audio data is compressed but 15 MB of internal temp memory correspond to 116 MB flash memory, in linear format. The polyphony provides 14 voices but samples that use time stretching require twice as much voices.

The MicroSampler is provided with a sound bank stored in the internal ROM. It includes 36 samples and 16 patterns, some of which you can listen to here (drums, pitched, looped): Not very generous and poor quality… In “sample” mode, you can access the 36 samples dispatched over the whole keyboard in their original pitch, except the higher C key dedicated to the stereo audio input. In “keyboard” mode, the current sample is applied to all 37 keys; the second C from the left corresponds to the original pitch. You can transpose beyond this pitch range, even with an external master keyboard! If other samples are looped while you switch to this mode, they will continue playing back. On the contrary, you have to release the notes to change the sample.

Now let’s take an even closer look…

Conclusion

The MicroSampler revisits a 30-year old concept with modern technologies. The results? Extremely light weight, mobility, permanent memory, real-time sampling, integrated effects, basic sequencer, and connection to a computer. With its small keyboard, basic editing, integrated mic and standalone capability, it will be best used for mobile or live applications; it cannot compete with software solutions in a studio. The ergonomics could be better considering the target users: better access to the controls, remote sampling start, standard-size keys, more banks… Finally, the MicroSampler is a nice compact tool which is less a toy than it seems, and it is just waiting for you to take it for a ride somewhere.

Advantages:

  • Very compact size
  • Easy to use
  • Real-time capability
  • Real-time time stretching
  • Flash memory
  • Comprehensive effects section
  • Memory exchange with a computer
  • Downloadable PC/Mac editor software
  • Wav/Aiff import via editor

Drawbacks:

  • Recessed controls
  • Limited sound synthesis possibilities
  • Proprietary sample format
  • Not conceived for multisamples
  • Playing limited to 37 keys
  • Only one bank in the RAM
  • Limited number of internal banks
  • Limited number of samples per bank
  • No save function for a USB key or a card
  • Almost no pattern editing possibilities

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Korg MicroSampler Review

September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

August 5, 2010

Akai Miniak Review

After having repositioned Alesis on the market, Numark seems to have entrusted Akai with the fate of the synth/drum machine product range. The Miniak is the first Akai synth “in the modern era”.

Late after the extinction of analog dinosaurs, musicians started to rediscover and revere these fat monsters. Manufacturers, which were developing preset-based digital workstations, decided to digitally model the behavior of analog circuitries. The last step was to conceive ergonomic user interfaces that included direct controls for a more authentic playing feel (to make the illusion more real, say analog fundamentalists). Very few manufacturers started to develop real programmable, polyphonic analog synths… One of the exceptions was Alesis who, against all odds, launched ten years ago the most powerful analog synth in history: Andromeda. This was a masterly achievement but also their deathblow: Numark bought the manufacturer in 2001, drastically reduced the Andromeda market price and launched a very successful range of analog modeling synths.

In 2003, the Ion provided eight voices of pure happiness with three powerful oscillators, two full-featured filters and a front panel fully packed with control elements. More affordable versions came out pretty fast: born in 2004, the Micron used the same sound synthesis as the Ion and even added effects to the rig, but it was hosted in a compact housing with reduced space for controls — not very ergonomic. Numark bought Akai Professional the same year and immediately redeployed the MPC product range. Now, they have introduced the Miniak: a Micron synth repacked under the Akai brand. So, the key question is: do they need cash and have relied on a tried and tested technology already amortized, or is it a strategic move to try to reposition the two brands? Anyway, people under 20 will think the Miniak is the first Akai analog synth. With a bit of luck, the rest of us might remember that their first analog synth was the AX80. In 1985!

New Look

Akai Miniak

Repacking means getting a new outfit. With its strong black PVC housing mounted on a rugged metal bottom side, the Miniak is no exception to the rule. The unit is manufactured in Taiwan and has a remarkable construction quality. The impression of sturdiness is reinforced by the weight of the unit: 11 lb. are quite a lot for such a compact device. It’s actually a big difference in comparison to the Micron’s aluminum lightness! The finish is perfect, be it the silkscreen or the encoders that use a metal axis screwed on the housing for a longer life. The three XYZ encoders are absolute encoders: they can be assigned to sound synthesis parameters and they have 12-bit resolution, which translates into 4,096 possible values. The fourth encoder is labeled Data. This incremental control with push function allows you to switch between menus and parameter edition.

Akai Miniak

Besides the play mode, sequence triggering and volume controls, you’ll find three quality wheels (pitch plus two freely assignable modulation wheels) that light up orange. The 37 half-weighted keys are velocity and aftertouch but not pressure sensitive. The response of these standard sized keys is quite good and make playing easier. There is an XLR input for dynamic microphones, like the gooseneck mic included. All other connections — firmly screwed on the housing — are on the rear panel: a socket for the external power supply, power on/off switch, stereo inputs and outputs on balanced TRS connectors, phones out, two footswitch inputs, MIDI in/out/thru, and a connector for a notebook-type anti-theft device. Just like on the Micron, we miss a USB port on this synth…

Arduous Editing

Akai Miniak

Getting started is pretty straightforward: just look at the silkscreen and push, simultaneously, the “program” button and a key to select a bank; then simply browse the programs with the incremental knob. Now, you can play the keyboard, trigger rhythm patterns and arpeggios, depending on the note you play; adjust the tempo with the “Tap tempo” button; and edit three sound parameters using the assignable XYZ encoders or the three wheels. Dedicated buttons allow you to transpose the keyboard up to three octaves up and down, considering that the Miniak can handle all 128 MIDI notes. It’s ideal for live performances!

Akai Miniak

On the other hand, editing possibilities are very frustrating because, excluding the three assignable encoders, all other settings must be made via menu pages. Once again, push the “Programs” button and a key to access the section you wish to edit (oscillators, pre-mix, filters, outputs, envelopes, etc.). Afterwards, you’ll have to browse the menu pages using the “Data” selector: push it to edit a parameter and push it again to toggle back to navigation mode… Considering the large number of editable parameters, you’ll beg for a dedicated editor. But it’s no use: Akai doesn’t provide anything! However, you’ll find a VST/standalone editor for Windows from HyperSynth: http://www.hypersynth.com/miniak-editor.html (which we haven’t tried out). By the way, we would also like to criticize something else: the backlit LCD display has only 2×16 digits and is much too small to manage the countless parameters. It is hardly readable in spite of its adjustable contrast (blue characters on blue background) and it is too recessed into the panel (the readability decreases when you don’t stand directly above the display).

Now let’s dig into the sound!….

Born to Run

Finally, the Miniak is a very compact, rugged and clever instrument that produces vintage synth emulations as well as modern techno sounds. Compared with the Micron, the biggest change is only aesthetic. However, the Miniak does bring some improvements in the control layout, which enhances operation. The Miniak is a stage monster conceived to be transported all over the world to play live on stage. On the other hand, it is not so powerful for direct editing. That’s the other side of the coin: with such a small size and price, it offers a very limited number of direct controls. This is when we start dreaming about a Maxiak fully packed with knobs and buttons!

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Powerful sound synthesis
  • Control resolution
  • Construction quality
  • Compact and easily transportable
  • Integrated effects
  • Included gooseneck mic
  • Pattern generator
  • Real dynamic keyboard

Drawbacks:

  • Complex direct editing
  • No USB port
  • No dedicated editor
  • Vocoder’s intelligibility

To read the full (this is just the beginning) detailed article with sound samples see:  Akai Miniak Review

June 10, 2010

Rhodes Mark 7 73 Midi Organ

To see more gear video demos see:  Audiofanzine Video Vault

March 31, 2010

Best of Musikmesse 2010: The Top 11

They came to Frankfurt, Germany, showed their stuff, we looked, touched and video taped. Now with everybody back home, it’s time to make sense of the best gear presented at Musikmesse 2010.

Wrapping up a trade show like Musikmesse is no easy feat.  The editorial purpose here is not to declare that such and such product is the best, because as we all know it’s comparing apples to oranges in most cases.  For us here at Audiofanzine is it an opportunity to give a congratulatory nod to the products that we felt stood out in the crowd and did something for us.

Audiofanzine’s Top 11 picks from Musikmesse 2010 is presented in no particular order.

1.  RME Babyface:

Equipped with 192 kHz AD- and DA-converters and two microphone preamps the bus-powered Babyface uses the USB 2.0 high-speed bus and has been optimized under Windows and Mac OS. The Babyface combines analog circuit design with AD/DA converter chips of the latest generation. On top RME’s SteadyClock is designed to ensure an AD- and DA-conversion. Both digitally controlled preamps provide individually switchable 48V phantom power.  The Interface allows to record multiple channels and it’s still very simple setup. It is very small and actually fits in a laptop bag. Most other small interfaces are a lot bigger…

2.  Line 6 Variax James Tyler:

james tylerThis new line of guitars is designed to ”deliver the feel of the finest boutique instruments and the optimal tonal performance of Line 6 guitar modeling technology,” the company says.

Variax guitars are designed to reproduce the sounds of a collection of 25 vintage electric and acoustic instruments, and a dozen custom tunings. The modeled instruments include solid-body, semi-hollow guitars and hollow-body electrics with a variety of pickup configurations, six- and twelve-string acoustics, and other guitar-related instruments including a resonator, banjo, and an electric sitar.  This new line of guitars will be available in three styles, said to reflect the designs of James Tyler in each curve, component and control.

3.  Roland GAIA SH-01:

roland gaiaThe triple-stacked engine of this synthesizer features a “fun, friendly and inviting” designed to attract first-timers, according to Roland. The signal flow is said to be simple to grasp, with logically arranged knobs, sliders, and buttons.

This instrument is designed for music students, songwriters, session players, and live performers of all styles and skill levels and features, among others:

  • Three virtual analog engines onboard, each with a dedicated oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and LFO
  • Layer up to five simultaneous effects, including distortion, flanger, delay, reverb, low boost, and more
  • 64-voice polyphony for massive sounds without note drop-out

To see the rest of the Top 11 from Musikmesse please see: Best of Musikmesse 2010

November 19, 2009

M-Audio Axiom Pro 49 Keyboard Controller Review

Filed under: keyboards — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:12 am

It used to be black and now it’s white. M-Audio’s controller keyboard is back with a new look and on steroids…

The first thing you’ll notice as soon as you unpack the Axiom Pro is that it looks different compared to the standard Axiom. No black and gray sleek finish anymore, instead you now have a shiny white finish to emphasize the black controls with red and gray labeling. The color combination gives it an iPod Classic, 80’s revival look–it even has a chrome detail on the top of the encoders. Some might find it a bit too fancy but the contrast of colors will surely make it easier to use in dark environments, compared to the standard Axiom, be it on stage or in the badly-lit cellar you call home studio. M-Audio also used the occasion to add nice blue LEDs to 19 buttons and the keyboard’s LCD display.

White on Red

M-Audio Axiom Pro 49The controller’s layout will be familiar to people used to the first model. Apart from the look and the LEDs, the Axiom Pro has exactly the same controls in exactly the same place as the Axiom.

 

M-Audio Axiom Pro 49From right to left you’ll find eight velocity-sensitive pads, six transport controls for the sequencer, eight rotary encoders (which aren’t notched like on the old Axiom), nine sliders, nine buttons, eight global control buttons underneath the large backlit LCD display, a very convenient 12-key numeric keypad (which also includes letters, so maybe you can send an SMS with your Axiom…), two octave change buttons, and the essential pitch-bend and modulation wheels.

 

M-Audio Axiom Pro 49No big changes on the front panel… nor the rear: on/off switch, PSU connector, USB port (so you can power it via USB), MIDI input and output with 5-pin DIN connectors, and two 1/4″ jacks for sustain and expression pedals (not included). Nothing’s new under the sun. The real innovation is found on the most important element of any keyboard: the keyboard itself.

 

M-Audio Axiom Pro 49Thanks to the new TruTouch proprietary technology, the Axiom Pro provides a much more convincing playing feel than the Axiom. Even though the keys are still only semi-weighted keys with aftertouch, the keyboard feels heavier under your fingers and less cheap than its predecessor. Nice!  When it comes to MIDI, the keyboard works fine with a sequencer: velocity and aftertouch values match the velocity curve you set on the keyboard. On the other hand, we are less enthusiastic about the pads, whose response is not consistent throughout the whole surface. When you hit the side of the pad you record a much lower velocity than if you hit the center. In short, you’ll have to hit precisely in the center of the pad to avoid ugly surprises …

One last remark regarding mechanical parts: the sliders on the model we tested were a bit stiffer than the sliders on the old Axiom. It’s neither better nor worse, it’s just different. We’ll have to wait and see if it stays that way after long hours of use.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The Axiom was already a very good controller keyboard and it’s no surprise that the new Axiom Pro outdoes it with its improved keyboard, HyperControl technology, LEDs and ASCII message support. It will take you no time to learn it and its several sequencer mappings will allow you start working right away. Considering that it provides exactly the same control elements as its predecessor and that there is no 88 weighted key model, this Axiom is more like a Mark II than a Pro version. It’s an excellent choice for people looking for a high-quality, versatile keyboard but I’m not sure it makes sense for people who already own the previous model.

It is definitely worth the 30%-40% price increase compared with the older version, but it’s probably too high a price for Axiom users considering an upgrade. We regret that M-Audio didn’t seize the opportunity to add more new functions (more pads or an XY pad, like on competitor products). We can’t really complain about anything on this model except that it’s more like an Axiom II than an Axiom Pro…

Advantages:

  • Look
  • LEDs for dark environments
  • Very pleasant feel
  • Hyper-convenient HyperControl technology
  • Control possibility via ASCII messages

Drawbacks:

  • Still no 88-key version
  • We expected more new functions
  • No HyperControl presets for many sequencers

To read the full detailed article see:  M-Audio Axiom Pro49 Review

September 19, 2009

Yamaha Tyros 3: The Arranger Keyboard Rearranged

Filed under: keyboards — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 9:32 am
Yamaha Tyros 3 product review

Perpetuating the Tyros line for the third time, Yamaha presents a new, high-technology arranger keyboard that provides a rarely achieved musicality.

Some time ago, arranger keyboards were the “poor cousins” of the music industry. Those gadgets became educational tools for children and then for adults looking for strong musical sensations. Today, they are powerful production workstations with a large ROM, sample memories, DTD, USB port, etc. Some manufacturers equip them with technologies developed originally for their workstations, which results in the latter being not so predominant anymore. The Korg PA2X, for example, includes a real Triton/M3-like synth. Ketron’s Audia is a comprehensive audio loop machine with real-time pitch shifting and time stretching functions. The Tyros 3 is not fancy and Yamaha decided to improve every possible function of the original concept: sound realism, harmonization, FX processor and user interface.

A look under the hood

Yamaha Tyros 3

Like its predecessors, the Tyros 3 is fitted inside a PVC housing with gray aluminum finish on the top and black finish on the bottom. Considering its price range, I would have preferred a brushed aluminum housing that made it look more classy without adding much weight. Even if it is not made for that, do consider getting a carry case because the part underneath the keys tends to bend if you push on it. The manufacturer offers a very nice-looking one with the “Tyros 3” logo embroidered on it. The FSX keyboard has 61 velocity and pressure-sensitive keys. It’s the best light keyboard we have ever tested: straight response, perfect balance and full control. This keyboard is even better than the famous Yamaha model on the DX7, Korg Trinity and Triton… Yamaha has been constantly improving the layout of the different control sections since the first Tyros came out. This time around the layout seems perfectly thought-out. On the left side you will find everything regarding styles and sequences: in the lower part is the style control (intros, variations, breaks, endings, accompaniment modes, tempo, pads, etc.), in the middle part are the style selection buttons sorted by category, and in the upper part the sequencer controls. You can also find the mic section here: settings, vocal harmonies, etc.

Right at the center of the device is the big 7.5″ VGA display (640×480 dots). Its active color matrix provides a strong luminosity and an excellent definition. The display is adjustable (but not motorized–as if someone cared). It is surrounded by buttons for selecting sounds and styles, navigating within the different menu pages and direct editing of parameters. It’s nice and does its job pretty well. The fact that it’s not touch screen is not a problem at all, on the contrary that will help you keep it cleaner. Below the display, you’ll find eight pairs of function buttons (to edit values in the menu pages) and nine very-much-appreciated sliders that not only allow you to edit faster with the integrated mixer (more on this later), but are crucial for the modeled drawbar organ presets. As soon as you select one of these presets, the display shows a graphic representation of some Hammond B3-like drawbars, that you can control with the sliders in real-time for live applications. This is a great improvement on the older models and we celebrate it.

Last but not least: the right side of the device is dedicated to sound presets. In the lower part you can control the snapshots, the OTS registrations (more on this later), the main L/R channels and the select/mute functions of the different channels. In the middle, you’ll find the preset selection buttons sorted by category. The upper part is dedicated to the different effect sections of the presets. And you also have here the direct-to-disc section (more on this later) and the system menus.

Conclusion
Yamaha Tyros 3
The Tyros 3 is the result of top-quality improvements that started years ago. It has been a long way since the first version of the product. Its indisputable musicality is the instrument’s most outstanding quality–leaving the competition far behind, especially when it come to the new SA2 sounds and their unique expressiveness. The styles also gained more sound realism thanks to the new drum samples and the generous FX section. The 61-note keyboard has an exceptional quality but unfortunately there’s no 88-key version available. In spite of its impressive number of settings, the Tyros 3 is highly ergonomic and easy to use, making it the ideal solution for professional stage applications. People who like to mess around with sounds and styles will not be disappointed either, and the Tyros 3 is also a nice studio tool. However, we regret that the sound synthesis was “outsourced” to a software (considering the size of the display), and that the sequencer is based around the arranger. The all-plastic assembly and the few accessories provided are also disappointing, considering the price of the product. But our overall impression is very positive. When you start one of the styles of the Tyros 3, you can’t help putting your fingers on the keyboard and start beating the floor with your foot… it’s easy to be inspired!

Pluses:

  • Supreme sound
  • Accompaniments’ quality
  • Excellent keyboard manufacturing
  • Comprehensive connectivity
  • Drawbar organs modeling
  • Number of powerful multi-effects
  • Highly ergonomic user interface
  • Direct-to-Disc function
  • Sound editor for PC/Mac
  • Wave samples import

Drawbacks:

  • Plastic construction
  • Limited direct editing
  • Arranger-based sequencer
  • Few accessories included
  • Commercialism at its best (or worst)

To read the full detailed article see:    Yamaha Tyros 3 Review

April 25, 2009

Making a Studio Pt.1

Studio Considerations

The magic of the recording studio has often mystified even the most seasoned professionals. With all the knobs, switches and buttons on various gear and large format consoles, no wonder confusion sets in to most non-techies. Many people, especially artists, composers, producers, and engineers, will end up putting together their own studio for writing and preproduction, with some eventually deciding to take the plunge and create a full-fledged recording complex that is capable of recording major albums. This series of articles will try to shed some light on the considerations to take into account when making a studio, be it a small home studio or a professional recording studio.

Ouverture

Is bigger better?

Is size important? Some may say it is so but this is not always the case. The dimensions of the studio are very important. A room too large may become over-reverberant or full of unwanted echoes. A room too small may sound tight and unnatural. It is important that the room size and room sound is relevant to the type of music you are recording. You don’t want to go into a very small tight room to record BIG rock drums. Although, big room sounds can be achieved by adding external reverb effects to simulate rooms at a later time when necessary.

It is best to find the room that suits the sound you are trying to achieve from the beginning of the recording process. The smaller the room, the smaller and tighter the sound will be; this is not necessarily a bad thing. Small tight rooms can be good for vocals, guitars and percussion if you are going for a tight clean sound. Larger rooms have more air for the sound to travel in, so it will be in fact a bigger more open sound. The sound has a longer travel time for the sound wave to move, therefore the reflection from the walls will take longer to bounce back creating a bigger more spacious sound. The decision of size and sound has to be made early on before the recording starts. One advantage that a larger room will have is the ability to be scaled down by closing up the room using modular baffles or gobos (go betweens). Gobos are structures that are partitions, that help to block sound by placing them in between the musicians, instruments, and microphones. Placing the gobos around the microphone at a close distance will help a large room with too much ambiance sound smaller. This will eliminate the reflections coming off of the walls that are further away.

Ouverture

Small rooms can produce big heavy tight sounds with the absence of the decay from the reverb that is caused from big rooms. Sometimes a large room can sound like it’s washed out, or far away. With a good engineer any room can sound amazing with a little adjusting. A poor sounding room can be manipulated to sound good, although it requires much more work and time. Deciding on the proper room size for your needs is critical to the sounds that get re-produced. This will highly dictate the type of sound the microphones will pick up.

Clapping your hands in a room can give a good representation of what a room will sound like. The reflection coming off the walls will be picked up by a simple hand clap. The true test is to try out some instruments or vocals and position them in various sections of the room until reaching the optimum sound quality. If one side of the room sounds bad try a different spot or move around into a corner until the sound is improved.

Experimenting with different sections of the room also keeps the sound fresh when recording many instruments. If the acoustic guitars are recorded in the center of the room, when the time comes to record the electric guitars you may try recording them in a corner of the room for a different room sound. This gives clarity on the final mix creating separation and providing more distinction on various sounds.

If you are starting your own studio, remember that the bigger the studio the higher amount the bills will be. The benefit is that larger studios can charge more for their studio rates.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Check List: Part 3

Plan de groupeA Sony CD Recorder

CD RECORDER

Records and plays back compact discs. Gives the ability to record stereo mixes and playback these mixes on other CD players. CD standard for consumer playback is a sample rate of 16 bit and a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. Sony, Tascam, Alesis, and Yamaha all make good studio CD recorders.

Plan de groupeStuder 24 Track Analog Tape Machine

TAPE MACHINES

Recording machines that use analog or digital tape for recording and playback of music. Some purists in sound recording prefer the sound of analog tape. There are many digital tape machines used for recording both music and video.

CABLING

Literally miles of various cabling could be needed for a single studio. Common cables in sound reproduction are XLR balanced mic cables and Unbalanced 1/4 inch instrument cables.

MONITORS / AMPS

Speakers in the studio are referred to as Monitors. Powerful clean amps are needed to run monitors. Many monitors are self powered, which means that they have built in amplifiers. Monitors usually consist of high frequency tweeters, low frequency woofers and cabinets that contain the speakers and components.

Plan de groupeActive Studio Monitors

HEADPHONES / DISTRIBUTION

By using a set of earphones this allows communication between the control room and the studio, also allows pre-recorded tracks to be heard during the overdubbing process. Headphones are also referred to as cans.

INSTRUMENTS / KEYBOARDS / DRUMS / GUITARS

These are more of the tools of the craft. You may have all the best studio gear in the world, but if the instruments sound bad you are starting in the wrong place. Anything could be considered an instrument if it makes noise that could possibly be recorded on a record.

AMPLIFIERS

This is often referred to as an amp. Amps increase the amplitude or volume of electrical signals from sound waves. These are used in powering speakers. Guitar and Bass amps can be used for many other applications such as running a vocal or snare drum through them.

Plan de groupe

MICROPHONE STANDS

A wide variety of sizes and styles are needed for a proper studio. The mic stand helps to get the microphone placed properly for the best sound quality possible.

STUDIO FURNITURE

There are many types of racks and furniture designed to hold consoles and outboard gear. The interior decoration of the studio completely sets the vibe of the working environment.

To Be Continued…

That’s the end of part one. For part two, we’ll be discussing electricity, A/C requirements, separate rooms, location, and more…

To read the full detailed article see Making a Studio Part 1

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