KEYBOARDS AND SYNTHS
Arturia MatrixBrute Everyone predicted a new analog synth from Arturia, but even the clearest crystal ball would have missed the MatrixBrute, a monster synth that looks like the offspring of the Schmidt Synthesizer and a Monome. It sports three oscillators (one serves double-duty as a third LFO), a multi-mode Steiner-Parker filter and a Moog-style ladder filter that can be configured in several routings, real analog effects, and a modulation matrix that offers real-time control over nearly every relevant parameter. Oh yeah, it can function in paraphonic mode, too.
Also making its debut was Arturia’s Keystep polyphonic step-sequencer, which includes its own mini-keyboard for portable riffing, along with both CV/gate and MIDI compatibility.
Casio has been slamming home runs into the stands (keyboard stands, get it?) in recent years with instruments that perform well above their prices. The MZ-X500 is a full-fledged arranger workstation with such amenities as a color touchscreen, sliders for organ drawbar control with rotary simulation, a 16-track MIDI sequencer, 16 multifunction trigger pads, and surprisingly realistic auto-accompaniment styles. You can import and customize rhythms from Standard MIDI files, and record an external vocal or instrument atop your keyboard performance with the results saved as a WAV file. How does it sound? From our hands-on time, a lot better than it should for just over a grand—but if you’re on an even tighter budget, check out its little brother, the MZ-X300.
Clavia’s flagship piano-focused keyboard, the Nord Piano 3, ups the ante in sample memory (1GB for piano sounds, 256MB for a separate sample-based synth section) and improves the quality of the keybed, now employing a triple-sensor virtual hammer action. Notably, a lot more of the key dip range is usable for triggering the sound, which equates to more musical response at lower-to-medium velocities. “Machine gun” single-note trills are also more easily accomplished, and the keyboard even senses release velocity. Nord can be an acquired taste for some, but for a dedicated slab piano that makes no compromises, this is what high end looks and sounds like.
Today’s Crumar is anchored by Italian sound designer Guido Scognamilio of Genuine Soundware, celebrated for his vintage keys plug-ins. When we reviewed the dual-manual Mojo in 2012, we said we’d be opening it up to find the tonewheel generator inside if we didn’t know it ran a bespoke and hot-rodded version of VB3. Of course folks wanted a single-manual version for easier inclusion in multi-keyboard rigs. The Mojo 61’s drawbar tones and Leslie simulation will still melt your face off, and some pipe and transistor organs—not to mention a couple of very authentic electric pianos—are on hand too.
Oberheim OB-6 “Never be afraid to compete with yourself,” synth design icon Dave Smith said as he unveiled the analog OB-6, a collaboration with fellow icon Tom Oberheim. Based on the oscillator and filter designs of the vintage OB series (which are in turn based on the SEM), its all-voltage-controlled architecture is to those synths as the Prophet-6 is to the Prophet-5; totally authentic sounding but more flexible, stable, and functionally better in every way that matters. We’ll take both, please.
Italian newcomers Dexibell caused a stir among everyone who auditioned its line of Vivo digital pianos, which span home console, portable (with built-in speakers), and stage models. Their claim to fame is a main sample set inspired by “Chopin’s favorite piano” and supported by a quad-core processor and converters offering 24-bit/48kHz resolution. We’ll have more info on this exciting upstart as it becomes available.
Korg unveiled the Volca FM, which not only apes the original DX-7’s color scheme, but is also fully compatible with its presets, which can be loaded via SysEx. Throw in some real-time control over modulator and carrier envelopes, as well as algorithm selection, and you’re in for a treat onstage or in the studio.
Korg also showed the new NanoKey Studio and NanoKontrol Studio, tiny Bluetooth-plus-USB controllers that integrate with the company’s growing lineup of iOS software. In fact, both models come with a massive software bundle for both iOS and Mac/Win.
Kurzweil showed us big upgrades to its flagship Forte weighted stage-synth, including a 76-key version, with 16 multi-timbral zones, 16 internal arpeggiators, piano sounds with sympathetic string resonance, and now, full access to the VAST sound engine (with a software editor) for deep programmability that’s finally on par with the legendary K-series synths. The lower-cost Forte SE is positioned between the Forte and the Artis, with a compact 88-key build, monochrome screen instead of color, and eight zones. Otherwise, its sound set is virtually identical.
Make Noise introduced a genuinely innovative, all-in-one desktop synth called the 0-Coast (pronounced “no coast”). True to its fusion of East-and West-Coast synthesis paradigms, it includes an Overtone Generator that adds harmonic complexity, a Balance parameter for blending those overtones with the fundamental, and a contour generator that deviates from the standard ADSR paradigm in clever ways, with an emphasis on percussive attacks. A few other distinctive parameters round out the package and, being a Make Noise synth, almost everything can be voltage-controlled.
In addition to all of the commotion over the OB-6, Tom Oberheim revived his Marion Systems brand to launch two new Eurorack modules—the SEM*Plus and Mini*Sequencer. The added features on the SEM*Plus include multiple LFO waveshapes and dual ADSR envelopes. The Mini*Sequencer captures Tom’s sequencer innovations from last year’s Two-Voice reissue, making it readily available to anyone with a few patch points to spare.
We’ve seen a few music-teaching keyboards where the keys light up to guide you, but what makes the McCarthy Music Illuminated Piano stand out is the solid integration with the companion iPad app. The app generates all the sound and controls the key lights. You can start by just watching and listening, then step up to a play-through mode where the playback wiper waits for you to find the right notes, then graduate to free-play mode. Importantly, some underlit keyboards made us feel like we’re always fumbling to chase the lights. That’s not the case here; it feels natural.
British boutique synthhouse Modal Electronics brings the fat with the 008. Where its model 002 (debuted last year) is a 12-voice hybrid synth with digital oscillators feeding analog filters, the 008 packs eight voices of discreet analog. It features extensive modulation routings with depth set at the destination level, a 15-way multi-mode filter, a two-track step sequencer, an arpeggiator, and very crisp screen which jumps to show whatever parameter you’re grabbing at the moment. Everyone who laid hands on it thought it sounded amazing, us included. And it’s built like a tank.
Monoprice 606607Monoprice’s strong suit is utilitarian gear that’s sturdy and almost impossibly affordable, and now they’re applying that ethos to MIDI keyboard controllers. The 25-key 606304 and 49-key 606607 are velocity-sensitive and have five-pin and USB MIDI outs, four knobs with two banks, a master fader, plus pitch and mod wheels. Using the Edit button, the keys can perform other functions such as data entry.
Though it wasn’t spanking new as of NAMM, this was some of our first hands-on time with the Novation Circuit, a combination drum machine, synth, sequencer, and effects processor meant for standalone music production. Getting a groove going is so immediate and so darned fun that we defy even the most rigidly trained classical pianist to put this thing down after picking it up.
Roland FP-30Roland makes its latest entry into the affordable, compact home digital piano field with the FP-30, and the company didn’t skimp on musical features. Included is the acclaimed SuperNatural sound engine, WAV and SMF support for play-along, and Bluetooth connectivity for use with MIDI apps. This is a one-box solution, so speakers are onboard with a 2x11W amp.
Another Roland highlight was the A-01, an analog and MIDI controller with built-in 8-bit synth and 16-step sequencer. It can be used stand alone or docked in the K-25m Boutique-line keyboard case. In addition to MIDI over DIN, USB, or Bluetooth, it provides CV and gate outputs and speakers. Power it using batteries or USB.
Roland’s all-analog System 500 Complete Set is a stunning Eurorack package based on the legendary System-100m and produced to exact specifications by Malekko. Housed in a vintage case with wood end-caps, the five modules include a dual-VCO, a dual VCF, a dual-VCA, a dual envelope plus LFO, and a delay/phaser unit.
Studiologic SL88 Studio The company also launched a full line of accessories, including cables, stands, LED clip-on lamps, and instrument bags, as well as introduced the JC-01, a lightweight, portable Bluetooth audio speaker with a vintage Jazz Chorus look. Going for utter simplicity in a MIDI controller, Studiologic’s SL88 Studio lightens up the weight to just 30 pounds (compared to its sibling, the hammer-action SL88 Grand). A crisp, color LCD plus editor software makes programming splits, layers, and velocity curves a breeze, and a clever magnetic rail along the back lets you attach accessories such as a laptop shelf. What you see is what you get, and what you get is one of the most portable and great feeling full-function MIDI controllers we’ve seen.
Synthogy Ivory Pit performers for theater as well as touring pros will rejoice at Synthogy’s new Ivory II VR module, which combines the sound quality, oodles of layers, and harmonic resonance modeling of Ivory II—widely acknowledged as the platinum standard in virtual pianos—with the stability of dedicated DSP hardware. It comes with the base trio of Ivory II Grands, and you can add American D, Italian Grand, and Uprights by inserting USB3 flash drives, which live safely in a locking compartment. It has 24-bit/96kHz resolution and sports a pair of XLR combo jacks that let a singer-songwriter mix mic and line inputs with the piano sounds with no need for an external mixer.
Every so often we come across a synth that’s not particularly exotic in its architecture, but sounds and plays so nicely that we keep coming back to play it. That’s surely the case with the Vermona ’14, a two-oscillator, fully analog monosynth that offers a handful of physical modulation sources (including Aftertouch) that will be most appealing to the sort of players who read Jerry Kovarsky’s “Art of Synth Soloing” column every month. Just play one. It’s addictive.
The KB37 is a new CV keyboard-slash-Eurorack case from Waldorf. Though it’s not the first we’ve seen, it makes whatever modules you install handle like a cohesive, throw-it-under-your-arm instrument. For our money, that makes it an ideal point of entry if you’re curious but apprehensive about Eurorack. Waldorf plans to sell it empty or as an integrated system with its own modules, including the NW-1 wavetable oscillator and Mod-1 modulation source.
Yamaha MONTAGE6 That a successor to the Yamaha Motif was coming has been something of an open secret in the industry. However, nothing could prepare us for how fantastic the Montage sounded, not to mention the downright musical thinking that went into redesigning its interface. A new sample-based CFX concert grand leads off a total of 18 times the WAV ROM of the Motif XF. Moreover, Yamaha added an eight-operator, multi-timbral FM synth, as well. The SuperKnob (or a CC pedal) lets you sweep macros of multiple parameters, with control over such important details as range scaling and polarity per setting. It can also do glitchy EDM with more cred than any do-it-all hardware keyboard we remember playing, and Aftertouch applied to new orchestral multis sounded like Danny Elfman just walked in the room.
Yamaha has ditched the pattern sequencer in the Montage, noting that its users prefer DAW integration for that (Steinberg Cubase, they’d hope), but the bottomless pit of phrases and arpeggios made famous by the Motif is on hand for live performance. Most importantly, the sound quality in every category—whether it’s brand new or contains some Motif DNA—is noticeably improved over the Motif XF; we could tell even on the noisy trade show floor.
On a more impulse-buy tack, Yamaha debuted an attachment that turns any of its Reface mini-synths (reviewed in the September 2015 issue; visit keyboardmag.com) into a keytar.
Zoom ARQ The Zoom ARQ Aero RhythmTrak is an instrument made up of a tambourine-sized controller that connects via Bluetooth to a hardware base station. The system provides sampled rhythm and synth sounds, and lets you capture phrases and loops. The Ring Controller has 96 pressure-and velocity-sensitive pads that illuminate. As alternative MIDI controllers go, this one is intuitive to use and hard to put down because it’s so fun.
THE ACTION IN ACOUSTIC PIANOS
Unlike the electronic keyboard world, acoustic pianos don’t usually go through design overhauls big enough to rattle the industry but there are upgrades that over time change the way things are done. One of the changes we’ve seen is the use of carbon fiber in the action, which adds more durability and stability compared to wood. However, each manufacturer has varying degrees to which they use it.
For instance, Mason & Hamlin’s WNG composite action is almost completely made of carbon fiber, while Kawai has relegated carbon to what they’ve determined to be only non-tone-generating parts. Other manufacturers like Seiler still use primarily wood actions but are experimenting with bamboo hammers, which are bigger but weigh the same as their traditional hammers. Their new piano, model ED 186A, was one of our favorites at the show, garnering rave reviews from our roaming piano crew. It’s technically a “hot rod” built by master piano builder Joe Swenson, but judging from the great response, they might consider a wider implementation.
We also recognize that voicing and location play heavily into a piano’s sound and feel. Some manufacturer’s pianos were hard to adequately test drive due to noisy locations, while others fell short due to what we felt were voicing shortfalls, not quality issues. That being said, this year the Bösendorfer 280VC Vienna Concert grand was our favorite piano; a warm and rich instrument that was well-voiced and located in a quiet room so we could hear nuance. Our best indicator is that everyone that sat down to play stayed longer than they planned to; the true sign of a great instrument.
Upstart company Ravenscroft really grabbed our attention, both with its stunning grand pianos and lively sampled sound, which were displayed on a Kawai VPC1 controller. Many companies used the VPC1, which says something about Kawai’s superb action in its digital keyboards. Coupled with Ravenscroft’s piano samples, it’s a winning combination for sure.
Speaking of Kawai, the manufacturer consolidated its entry-level pianos into the new GL series, which eschewed frills in design with a thicker shell and a sturdier construction overall. Upgraded with an extra-wide stretcher bar, a steel-reinforced keybed and the Millennium III carbon-composite action, these pianos raise the bar on the quality of entry-level pianos.
The latest generation of Yamaha Disklavier self-playing acoustic pianos, dubbed Enspire, offer stellar reproduction resolution and ditch the familiar control box for companion software (iOS, Android, Mac, or PC). The software wirelessly controls the piano and provides access to the entire ecosystem of Disklavier performances (500 built in; over 6,000 downloadable) for learning or just listening. To top it off, a new PianoSoft feature allows you to sync stereo audio with real-time playback. That’s just scratching the surface, but suffice it to say that these are the most sophisticated player pianos ever made.
Yamaha also announced five new TransAcoustic hybrid pianos—the C1XTA and C3XTA grands, and the YUS1TA, YUS3TA, and YUS5TA uprights. All of the instruments are acoustic pianos that utilize the resonant characteristics of the instrument to add dimensionality to digitally produced timbres. The technology also allows you to layer acoustic and digital sounds.
Modeling of struck and pitched percussion sounds pretty specialized, but AAS Chromaphone 2 is one of those plug-ins you’ll find yourself using for a lot wider range of sounds than you’d anticipated. It can sound surprisingly like an acoustic drum kit if you want it to (but always with an inimitable character), like mallets from somewhere Neil de Grass Tyson may or may not consider a planet, and just about anything in between. It’s the king of crystalline, sparkling percussion and an invaluable sound design tool.
The enhancements to MOTU Digital Performer 9 are focused on optimizing performance on today’s multi-core computers. The latest generation of the pre-rendering engine, for example, was shown to run ten times the virtual instruments as real time. Latency is down to 1.39 ms round trip, which was tested with a MOTU 1248 Thunderbolt interface with a 32-sample buffer. Also, The new SMPTE-Z and Hardware Insert plug-ins will be a boon to studio dwellers who compose music to picture.
Band-in-a-Box is the world’s favorite accompaniment-generating software because its styles and RealTracks allow for nearly endless variation so you can whip up quick chord progressions that sound like you spent time sweating every note and instrument sound. It’s like a top-end arranger workstation on massive steroids. NAMM saw the arrival of the 2016 version for Windows (as of this writing Mac is still the 2015 edition). A redesigned chord page and essentially more of everything help you up your game.
If you own any Rob Papen soft synths, Prisma is a new “shell” that lets you host up to four of them at once inside what your DAW sees as a single plug-in instance. You can edit each instrument individually, then save the whole thing as a multi. Scheduled for a March release, Prisma will be a free download.
Abbey Road Studios is known, among other things, for four musical icons that are similar but different. No, we’re not talking about the Beatles. We’re talking about the studio’s four EMT 140 plate reverbs, each of whose sonic character has now been lovingly modeled by Waves Audio in the new Abbey Road Reverb Plates collection. You can run them pristine, or tweak settings that mimic their sonic patina.
LIVE AND STUDIO ESSENTIALS
Fostex has been a household name in affordable multitrack gear since some of us saved our summer job earnings for the X-15 four-track back in . . . well, never mind. The new TR Series headphones bring much of the pro performance of the reference-standard TH500RP in at a more affordable price, with two impedance choices (80 and 250 ohms), and closed, open, and semiopen designs for each. Further amenities include multiple sets of ear pads at different thicknesses.
Hammond now sports a full line of Leslie effect pedals. The Cream is the big daddy introduced in 2013 with the most adjustments (and now with upgraded firmware), the Leslie G is optimized for guitars and includes cabinet selection and stereo input as well as output (via a 1/4" TRS jack), and the Leslie K will be intended for keyboards in the same compact footprint as the G. Hammond tells us you should go ahead and try the G on keys, too.
iConnectivity released the iConnect Audio2+, a 2-in/6-out audio and MIDI interface offering 24-bit, 96kHz resolution and the ability to utilize two computers simultaneously. The unit runs on bus power or an optional power supply (perfect for powering an iPad) and includes front-panel combo jacks, four TRS outputs, a stereo headphone jack, standard MIDI I/O, and USB ports.
JamHub has received accolades for its personal monitoring systems designed for quiet practice, but with the Stage model, JamHub has created an audio Swiss Army knife for smaller combos. Each of the six input channels still gives you knobs for “more me” and less of everyone else, but the new center faders feed main stereo outs, making it a P.A.-mixer-in-a-pinch. Got a front-of-house engineer on the gig? A 14-channel breakout cable sends them pre-fader outs while you still own your monitor mix. Topping it all off are effects and USB connectivity for capturing 14 channels into a DAW.
Mackie ProDX8 With the DL series, Mackie proved the concept of digital mixers that use an iPad as its user interface. Now the company has pointed a shrink ray at them with the ProDX4 and ProDX8, which let you control four or eight channels, respectively, from an iOS or Android phone. The DX4 has two mic preamps; the DX8, six! As with the DL series, the audio heavy lifting, such as EQ and dynamics, happens in the Mackie hardware itself, with your smartphone acting as control panel and/or feeding in backing tracks. Since this all happens wirelessly over Bluetooth, you’re in the clear if some computer company changes the connector on your next phone.
Samson showed up with many useful items that got our attention, such as the Expedition XP800, an 800W portable P.A. with an eight-channel mixer (four of which feature XLR mic inputs). The speakers and mixer snap together for easy transport. In addition, Samson’s new Z-Series headphones aim to bring studio-quality sound to folks whose music-making is mainly mobile.
Universal Audio gave PC users some welcome news with a Windows-compatible version of its Apollo Twin DSP-accelerated recording interface. It connects via USB3 and will remain Windows-only while the Thunderbolt version will be dedicated to the Mac. UA also announced a handful of new UAD plug-ins, including the Marshall JMP-2203 guitar amp simulator, the Sonnox Oxford Envolution (a frequency-tracking envelope shaper), and the Brainworx bx_digital multi-EQ.
In-ear monitoring technology got a major boost from Westone, which introduced three new models in its passive Ambient Pro Series. The single-driver AM Pro 10, the dual-driver AM Pro 20, and the three-driver AM Pro 30 incorporate the company’s new SLED technology to offer high-quality reproduction while letting the user hear ambient sound without losing the low end.
NAMM Quick Hits
Boss released the VO1 Vocoder, a stompbox with four modes—Vintage, Advanced, Talkbox, and Choir. In addition to 1/4" and XLR inputs, the VO1 provides an effects loop.
Harrison announced version 3.1 of its Mixbus DAW.
JBL showed the EON618S, a 1,000W powered subwoofer with an 18" speaker, DSP, and Bluetooth control for iOS and Android users. The company also debuted the Sub18 high-output studio subwoofer, featuring an 18" driver that reaches down to 18Hz and offers 8,000W of peak power.
MV Pro Audio hosted the new Klawitter Designs KD-X Elite Series reference monitors for the studio.
TC Electronic Ditto X4 Looper offers 5-minute loop tracks, true-bypass and stereo operation, with seven types of effects, MIDI sync, and control over decay.
Radial Engineering released the Shotgun, a device that lets you drive up to four amps without ground-loop issues. The outputs are buffered and transformer-isolated, and you can use it in mono or stereo (the latter with two pairs of outputs). Ground lift and polarity switches are included.