Winter NAMM 2008 Show Report: Keyboards
By: Jason Buchwald
So many toys; so little time!
Winter NAMM left quite an impression on me, far beyond what I ever could have envisioned from reading accounts of the show in music magazines for years. For those of you that have never been to NAMM, the only way I can think of describing it is to take the largest airport you know and fill the entire airport with music equipment, musicians, and all associated technologies. Really — it’s that big. And while some of our staff have been attending NAMM for over fifteen years, for some of us it was our first time, and you know what they say about never forgetting your first time!
And while everything you could hope to see (and more) were on display at the show, it was mostly an evolutionary year without many significant standouts, but as always, there were plenty of neat new things to catch our eyes and ears. Here’s what we found in the world of keyboards that left an impression on us:
We really dig Arturia’s products. We recently reviewed their Jupiter-8 plug-in and were very impressed by it. Eager to see Arturia’s booth, we were happy to see them in full force.
The Origin tabletop hardware synthesizer (a first for Arturia) is finally available! Unfortunately, the announced keyboard version was a little late getting to the show from Europe (Arturia is based in France), so we didn’t see that one. The specs are similar, though: 32-voice polyphony, TigerSHARC Processors to deliver analog sound, and software to use the Origin as an AU or VST plug in. You can play up to four synthesizers at a time, and modules from the CS-80, Moog Modular, ARP 2600, plus your own sounds, can all be modified and layered together. It sounded great, and we can’t wait to try one out in our testing labs!
Another very cool product one display was the Analog Factory Experience. This is a well-integrated hardware and software solution, featuring 3,500 presets from Analog Factory 2.0, which includes sounds from all of Arturia’s classic synths (Minimoog V, ARP 2600 V, CS-80V, Prophet V, and Jupiter 8V). The hardware controller, built by CME, is a 32-key velocity sensitive keyboard with eleven switches, eleven encoders, four sliders, and one pitch bend wheel, along with hold, sustain, and expression connectors. Housed in an attractive aluminum and wooden case, it can also function as a universal MIDI controller. The software was well organized and made it very easy to find just the sound we wanted. Expect our in-depth review soon.
In a big pond, Big Fish Audio is poised to make an even bigger splash (pun intended). We found ourselves really enjoying their Addictive Drums plug-in. As you can guess, it is a virtual drummer. Available in all the popular plug-in formats, it comes with over 3,500 grooves. Included kits include a Sonor Designer, Drum Workshop Collector’s Series, Tama Starclassic, and Sabian and Paiste cymbals.
Not only did it sound great, but the user interface seems super easy and fun to use. You can change just about everything in real time: drum type, rhythm, effects, etc. Best of all, if there isn’t enough in there already, BFA just released an expansion pack that includes three vintage Ludwig kits. For those of us who don’t have daily access to real drummers and pro studios, you certainly can’t go wrong with this plug-in, but we’ll confirm that suspicion in an upcoming review.
Clavia introduced the Nord Wave synthesizer. Based on a legacy of virtual analog synthesizers, Clavia takes the new generation of lead synthesizers to the next level. The Nord Wave gives you traditional analog sounds that interact and coexist with pretty much anything you want. It combines analog, FM synthesis, wavetable and sampled waveforms with literally any standard audio file as a sound source. It serves as both a sample player as well as an analog synthesizer.
Among other sounds, the Nord Wave ships with a selection of the sixty-eight tapes used by the Mk I, Mk II, M300 and M400 Mellotrons. The rest of this library will be available for free to Nord Wave users on a DVD or as downloadable archives.
As we stated in the opening story, we’re all loving the sound of the Prophet ’08 — it has become a permanent addition to editor Michael Weeks’s studio, and we wouldn’t be surprised if a few more staffers add one to their collections. The tabletop version was on display, and it shares the same wood end caps that add class to all of the DSI products.
It was great to see the LinnDrum II, and it sounded incredible — the most incredible, intense, sonically pure drum sounds ever conceived at any price. OK, so really, the box didn’t have any audio outputs hooked up to anything, and the prototype isn’t nearly ready to be generating sounds (according to Dave Smith), but the blinking blue lights and backlit display sure looked pretty! That Dave… such a tease, tempting us with a silent drum machine!Kurzweil
Kurzweil has seen some turbulence in recent years and nearly went out of business, but they now seemed poised to make a comeback… in a big way! This was one of the pleasant surprises we found at the NAMM show. We spent quite a bit of time with some members of the Kurweil team: John Richmond and Dave Weiser, who are very dedicated and excited about their new keyboards. They have good reason to be.
The PC-series keyboards, PC3X (88 fully weighted keys) and PC2X (76 keys), really impressed us. The PC3X features 128-voice polyphony, a powerful new synthesis engine (Dynamic VAST), over 850 presets, sixteen (yes, sixteen!) independent arpeggiators, and sixteen effects over twelve busses, and it was a pleasure to play.
Described to us as “the Swiss Army Knife of Keyboards” in that it has something for everyone, in every imaginable setting, we agreed with that description. We explored many of the patches, and found everything from Stevie Wonder ‘60s Rhodes keyboards (most of which were dead-on) to sounds from today’s hip hop world (i.e. Fergie, Gwen). There are also two expansion slots, which provide access to cards like the new analog synth collection, for example.
Another nice feature of the PC-series is that they come with software editors for your computer. This was designed by the same team (Soundtower) that has created software for Korg’s Wavestation and Triton line of synthesizers, and the version we saw, while only a demo version, looked to be well conceived. This keyboard could very well put Kurzweil back on equal footing with many of its contemporaries. It’s that good!
MOTU released Electric Keys ($295), a cross-platform virtual instrument that delivers authentic sounds from fifty classic, vintage, electric keyboard instruments from the last forty years. This massive 40 GB sound library includes over 20,000 24-bit 96 kHz multi-samples of legendary electric pianos, electric organs, clavinets, Wurlitzers, tape samplers, string machines, keyboard basses, and other rare and exotic electric keyboard instruments.
Fifty well-preserved and maintained vintage instruments were used to create the sounds in Electric Keys including instruments from Fender, Yamaha, Korg, Roland, Hammond, Wurlitzer, Hohner, Elka, Farfisa, Mellotron, Moog, RMI, ARP and others. Electric Keys supports all major plug-in formats and also runs as a stand-alone application, turning any laptop or desktop computer into an electric keyboard instrument.
Given our affinity for vintage instruments (we own a vintage Rhodes and Wurly) we’d love to take a closer look at this product and see how it stands up to some of the other virtual instrument plug-ins we’ve been reviewing.
By now many players are at least familiar with Muse Research’s Receptor products — two-rack space self-contained computers with a proprietary interface optimized for running your virtual instrument plug-ins in a live performance environment. They sell various configurations bundled with various virtual instruments from other companies. The new Reactor Komplete ships preinstalled with the entire Native Instruments virtual instrument collection. Wow!
While the Receptor has been running VST plug-ins since the product’s inception a few years ago, the big news was that Muse Research has almost completed an update capable of running RTAS virtual instruments. Just imagine being able to take Digidesign’s Hybrid or Velvet on stage without a Pro Tools rig!
No, not another synth. The real deal. Abraham S. Brandstetter, now in charge of Rhodes Music Corporation, is making real Rhodes pianos. As we actually own a Mark I Stage, we were intrigued by the 2008 model Rhodes. The new Mark 7 pianos come in black, white, and red, and of course, in 88-, 73-, and 61-key varieties. Models feature passive amplification, active amplification, and active plus MIDI.
We got to play the new Rhodes, and it was very responsive, yet still maintained the expressiveness Rhodes are known for. A nice touch was interchangeable stands, which allowed the piano to easily be fitted with four legs or placed on top of specially designed speakers. Cool!
We are long time users of Roland products, and it was great to attend the unveiling of their new “G” line of synthesizers. These include the Fantom G6, Fantom G7, and Fantom G8 (61, 76, 88 keys, respectively). These workstations utilize a new audio processor, twice the wave ROM capacity as their predecessor, a huge 8.5 inch LCD with mouse connectivity, and two slots for Roland’s new ARX expansion boards utilizing Roland’s supernatural sound sets.
What really caught our attention were not only the high quality sounds, but also the sound cards themselves. Rather than just offering basic sample sets, the cards actually contain their own processors that enable new functionality and control for the specific card!
We were especially impressed by the piano ARX expansion board, which beautifully displayed on the large LCD parameters to control, for example, the tine and hammer placement on a Rhodes. Equally important, it was pretty convincing sounding! Roland intends to expand this line of cards, and it should lead to great sounds with tremendous control options. Also included are 128 tracks of sequencing/recording in Roland’s new sequencer, which includes up to twenty-four tracks of audio. This will certainly prove to be one of the most powerful workstations on the market.
The same G technology can also be found in Roland’s V-Synth GT (see our in-depth review this month), RD-700GX, and RD-300GX piano keyboards.
In business news, Roland also announced it has merged with Cakewalk and will now offer Sonar 7, Project 5, Rapture, and Dimension Pro under the Roland name. An interesting product we discovered under this line was the Proteus Pack Sample Collection. This includes the complete Proteus 2000 line of sounds (including the related modules).
Okay, so this isn’t a keyboard. But you have to hold them up with something, right? For years, Ultimate Support has produced great keyboard stands. First came the A-frame and then the Apex column, both of which are “stand standards” widely used on stage and in studios.
Their newest offereings, out later this year, are quite futuristic looking, like the new, stark white VS-80B, or the really cool Apex stand made from what looks like a dark wood and brushed metal end caps. Ironically enough, while we were discussing the new stands, Jon Anderson of Yes joined in our discussion — he wanted one too! And yes, his voice really is that high.
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