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Browse Keyboard by Size in Tweak's Keyboard Showroom
What is a requirement is that the keyboard actually works.
You press a key and a note on event is sent over MIDI. Be careful buying a
used keyboard. Test it. Make sure all the keys work evenly.
Lots of old synths with have a note or two that is temperamental. If one note
is significant louder/softer than all the rest, pass on it. Beware of buying
synths in online auctions. Old synths do fail. Their
internal rom batteries die, displays flicker and go out or just get dim. Unlike
wines and vintage guitars and violins, synths do not get better with age.
Like your car, they are only more likely to fail with age.
"Synth action" keyboards come in 88, 76, 61, 49, 37, 25, even
less. Here's the page on
small controller keyboards.
If you're strictly doing stuff that just requires a small range, like samples, or
need a small footprint cause your on the road, you might be able to get away with
a small controller. (Lots of pros with massive rigs keep a little mini keyboard
next to their computers so they can quickly send off a ditty or two.)
But assuming you only want one keyboard, and you want to do typical melodic stuff,
pads, leads, and sometimes pretend like you are playing a piano, then you need at
least 49 and larger boards are definitely better.
Classical composers and hard core tweak heads will agree: 88 is best.
It maximizes the number of notes you can have on a channel and allows you to
make more useful zoned presets. At 76 keys the classical dudes/dudettes start shaking
their heads, wondering how in the heck they can do Penderecki on 76 (sometimes
73) keys <smile>.
But your your typical hardcore tweak is still enthused with the great feeling 76
key boards from Kurzweil, Roland, Yamaha, or Korg, with a very sexy synthy feel,
with assignable knobs, onboard arpeggiators, even faders, drum pads and d-beams, etc.
61 keys are good for those if money is an issue
(and it usually is for 95% of us involved in the MIDI enterprise), or for those
putting their money on the sound, like in with a Triton, Motif or Fantom, or for
your second synth if you are expanding. And they are not as big, and that
is sometimes good if you have lots of items competing for your prime studio real
estate. Using the transpose function on your sequencer you can always get
around the few problems you will encounter by your choice just by setting the midi
thru to plus or minus 12 semitones. With 49 keys you ARE going to run out
of notes playing solos and bass, and it can be frustrating, especially during an
impassioned recording and you run out of keys! I know. I started with
a 49 key Six-Trak. But with creative pre-thinking of what you intend to play,
even these can work well.
If you are planning to do sound development you should bite the
bullet and get the full 88. Most pros use 88 keys, and if you want to sell
sounds to them you better know what's going on in the nether regions of your
Boards for live use also benefit by 88/76 keys, especially if you are called on
to comp with a bass part as you pound the keys.
This refers to the feel of the board. There are many boards that feature 88 key "piano" action. They do cost more. This does not mean they are better for you. If you are a trained pianist, you may want to go this route, but if you are a guitarist building a midi studio, you're going to have a train a whole new set of finger muscles.
With a synth action keyboard there are some advantages. You can usually play faster and easier. Much like the difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric axe. Doing synthy and stuttery techno stuff and super-fast drum flams, the fast light snap of synth action is better suited.
But of course, if you have dreams of playing Beethoven's 5th, better go for the
weighted keyboard as the impassioned percussive strike of power just does not feel
that passionate on wispy plastic keys. One cool thing if you do get a board
with piano action is that, even if you can't play piano now, after you find your
way around and your hands get used to it, you will be able to walk up to any piano
If you like to work with the keyboard
without a computer, or take it on gigs, then having a sequencer is
important. If you are running a computer sequencer you really don't
need another. It might come in handy on occasion as a scratch pad, but most
of the time it will go unused. The arpeggiator, which strings notes
you are momentarily holding down into a cadence, is a different story and is a welcome
addition in any board. Those that are particularly useful for sequencer applications
are arpeggiators that will sync to the MIDI clock coming from the sequencer.
You press record, switch on the arpeggiator, slam down a chord and, viola, instant
sequence. Especially for techno, trance, space music, ambient, the arpeggiator
will get used and you will be glad you have one. But if you don't have one,
don't sweat. Sequencers like Logic, Sonar, and Cubase have their own software
arpeggiators that can be set up in a few seconds. I prefer to write my own
arpeggios on sequencer grids.
Velocity, which makes the sound more pronounced (louder) the harder you play, is absolutely critical. You have to have it. Even if you are just buying a tiny little board just to trigger notes, make sure it is velocity sensitive.
Aftertouch (also called pressure sensitivity or channel pressure) is a controller that is activated when you hold the keys down a press them into the keybed. Often the effect is subtle, and is used mainly on long sustaining sounds like synth pads and strings and to add a nice touch to leads. It does very little for drums or piano like sounds. One can get by without it, however you will be missing one of the more expressive ways to control a synth. I wouldn't work without it, but that is me. Aftertouch nearly always puts you in a higher price bracket. If this is your first synth, don't let the lack of it prevent you from proceeding. You can get the same sound that aftertouch provides by using the mod wheel.
Velocity is usually routed to loudness and timbre. Aftertouch may be routed to volume, timbre, vibrato, FX, depending on the patch. Many composers turn off aftertouch using sequencers because they generate a lot of events and can clog the midi bandwidth. In the early days, sequencers were limited to a few thousand events and you had to turn it off. Nowadays, its usually not a problem to leave it on all the time.
A workstation is a marketing term for keyboards that "do everything". This typically includes sequencing, sampling, effects, and mixing, though recently workstations are adding the ability to record audio tracks. Having on board sampling in you main keyboard is always nice, but isn't always necessary. You can always run one of a great variety of software samplers on your computer, such as Kontakt, Emulator X, Mach Five, or a real outboard sampler like an MPC 5000. You will note that once sampling is added to a keyboard the price goes up somewhat substantially. Let me be very clear and tell you that for studio mavens the software sampler has long defeated the old Emu and Akai hardware rack samplers.
Truth: Some of the older "workstations" with synths and sampling options are much harder to use than a synth and a software sampler. By older I am referring to the Yamaha EX series and others of the 90's but also the original Tritons. The sampler in these "combo" boards may be compromised by slow SCSI interfaces (which may require that you add hard to find cd roms players and hard drives) and simplistic editing features. SCSI is the "old way" we connected samplers to computers. Beware of what you are getting into: a headache. You are hearing this from someone who knows SCSI samplers.
Modern workstations have made a turn around. I date the modern era of workstations to have started with the Fantom S, Triton Extreme and Motif ES. The Triton has been replaced by the new Korg M3, The Motif is now on model XS and the Fantom is now at model G, replacing the X. The manufacturers have realized that ease of use is important and we now have keyboard workstations that have great samplers onboard. The Fantom series (S, X and G) is really great here and super easy for one-shot samples. But not so easy for building new complex instruments out of raw samples. Being able to port samples to and from a PC, using USB and memory cards and thumb drives is a relatively new thing here, and its great. But read specs carefully. Never assume a workstation has a sample transfer feature unless they spell it out. The older ones simply don't have the feature while the newer once may want you to add an optional card.
My studied opinion is that if you are serious about sampling, do it on a computer then and get a workstation that you can port your very best, one shot hits and ambient pads that you use in lots of songs. Keep your string sections and pianos in the domain of the soft sampler.
The Roland VP770 is a specialty synth based on Vocal modeling
The more knobs the merrier. Especially if these transmit midi continuous controller messages. Make sure you check before you buy because on an old board they might not. The bare necessities here are a functioning pitch wheel and mod wheel. Avoid buying a keyboard that doesn't have these. Yes, avoid 'digital pianos' that leave these off. You need them to make electronic music. Ok there are always workarounds to almost any MIDI data routing problem so if you already have a wheel-less midi digital piano, don't sweat. Just don't buy one if you haven't already. Ideally, your keyboard will have some controllers too--either knobs or sliders that send events out the midi port. These become very useful as you find your way around the midi universe and you can use them to sweep filters and fade FX, not only on you keyboard's sound engine but in your sequencer as well where it can effect anything in your midi system.
But do you really need 35 knobs and 16 faders on your keyboard to control your computer creations? Keyboard controllers indeed are very popular and powerful controlling MIDI. Great for trancey stuff. But otherwise, don't buy all the hype. Not everyone needs them. I tweak lots of stuff in my compositions but rarely do I need more than the 4 sliders and pitch and mod wheels. You can usually reassign whatever sliders you do have to do a task at hand. Synth programming, believe it or not, is easier done with the mouse than it is with a controller. Yet, it is true that programming is best done when you have dedicated knobs and sliders on the synth, like on a MiniMoog Voyager, Radias, or Virus TI2. Heh, go click on those URLS to find out the price of admission.
This is the MOST important thing, and which you should get depends on the type of music you typically want to make. And also depends on what other sound sources you have. If you already have a virtual analog synth of quality, or a lot of "analog" software synths, you might want to get a bread and butter sample playback synth. If you don't want a multiple module studio and only want one keyboard and a computer and nothing else, then yes, you ought to get one loaded with options of different kinds of synthesis. The older Yamaha Motif's (ES and below) really shined in mixing synthesis types under one hood with its plugin cards for FM synthesis, analog, etc, thanks to the PLG expansion boards. The discontinued Triton too, was way up there thanks to its MOSS expansion board. The Alesis fusion, now discontinued, also had different types of synthesis, at a really good price. Oddly, in 2007 manufacturers ditched the idea of different forms of synthesis under one hood. Don't expect it in modern workstations, except the Fantom G
But with the majority of synths you have to make choices. Do you want authentic analog modeling or clean sounding sample playback? Don't let all the "hip dudes" on the net color your thinking away from sample
playback synths. If you want realism, plan to do orchestral sounding stuff, mainstream, pop, you need a convincing piano, string section, brass, and dry traps then you need a sample playback synth. The Roland Junos, Yamaha Mo, and Korg M50 shine on the low end while the Motif, Korg M3 and the Fantom hold up the high end.
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Now if you are strictly doing dance, trance, D 'N B, techno, then yes, the analog modeling synth (also called Virtual Analog synths or VA synths) will do the things you want that a sample playback synth cannot touch. Nord, Novation, Access Virus and Waldorf and Roland V-Synth on the high end and the Roland GAIA, Korg Radias in the middle with the Korg MS2000, Alesis Micron and MicroKorg towards the low end. On the highest end, perhaps, is the Alesis Andromeda and the Moog Voyager, which are true analog synths, not models of them. For more on VA synths, check out this article.
With its massive sound, hands-on ease, and affordable price, the GAIA SH-01 is a high-performance value with old-school charm. The triple-stacked engine puts potent virtual analog synthesis under your fingertips, yet the control panel is so fun, friendly, and inviting, even first-timers can create great sounds. The signal flow is simple to grasp, with logically arranged knobs, sliders, and buttons. Hands-on control and fat sound make this little powerhouse a joy for music students, songwriters, session players, and live performers of all styles and skill levels. Tweak: New in 2010
This type keyboard is not for covering all instruments' like brass, guitars, pianos, organs, etc. These are the modern day equivalents of old analog synthesis, which makes sounds by shaping a raw waveform with a filter and envelope. While these modeling synths are "retro" in that they emulate the old beasts of the past, they also dramatically extend them. The Old synths were mono; they had one voice and grew to 6 or 8 voices before being replaced by PCM (sample playback) synths around 1989. Today's virtual analogs have anywhere between 4 and 32 voices. Also, the new analogs have effects built in that none of the old machines had. The result, real time filtering controlling massive soundscapes. But of all of them, only the Andromeda is truly an analog machine, the rest are computer models of analog synthesis.
Can you tell the difference between modeled and real analog? Yep! But we are quickly becoming accustomed to the new "analog" sound, and some, when we go back to out old analog synths, find them a little untreated and dare I say, thin. ("Thin", BTW, is the absolute worst curse word you can call an synth these days).
Access Virus TI2 Keyboard Integrated Modeling Synthesizer
The Access VIRUS TI2 synthesizer keyboard is designed
to lead the world in a completely new direction. Total Integration uses
innovative technology to greatly expand the VIRUS Synthesizer, resulting
in an advanced stage/standalone instrument, while simultaneously extending
the product capabilities with a suite of compelling studio integration features.
Moog Music Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue Analog Synth
The Minimoog Voyager Electric Blue is the culmination
of Moog's efforts to make the Voyager not only sound great but look fantastic.
Tweak: Fantastic build--Its a mini Moog
with MIDI, touch pad, and real analog oscillators and the famous Moog filters.
Go to the comparison chart
Rich's first keyboard was a MOOG Prodigy back in 1985. Rich currently uses a V-Synth GT, Motif XS6 and a maxed out Fantom S88 as his keyboards and has a large rack of Emu synth modules, a Triton Rack and two Emu samplers.
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"Music can, in a few moments, admit us through vast portals into avenues, courts and halls of infinite extent and variety. Music can suddenly raise up an entire structure and, by the device of modulation, lift it on to a podium, abruptly recess its facades and turn them bodily into the sunshine"
John Newenham Summerson (b. 1904), British architect, author.