Category Archives: Hardware

Yamaha MX88

img_2515.jpg
Sometimes less is more, and sometimes you can get a lot more instrument for a lot less money. That is absolutely the case with the MX88.

I bought it last year after I sold my Nord Piano. While the Nord was a great keyboard in its own right, I simply needed more flexibility, so I decided to let it go as the MX would do that for not a lot of money.

At $999, the MX is an absolute steal, and if you are in the market for a versatile gigging keyboard with 88 weighted keys, you should put it on your shortlist.

First of all, the acoustic piano sounds and plays better than its more expensive sibling the MOXF. Seriously, I had them side by side, and the MX felt and sounded more natural and dynamic!
The rest of the sounds are the familiar Motif XS stuff, although the MX does not sound as crisp as its progenitor, and some of the voices are a little stale and dated. Still, it covers a wide variety of sounds, and combined with its low weight makes this one convenient gigging machine.

To add even more value, Yamaha also includes a bunch of software, but I never bothered to download and install those, so they are outside the scope of this review.

In the year or so that I gigged the MX88, I really came to appreciate it; it wasn’t the best at anything, but it was good for almost everything. My main gripes with it are the low output level (the Krome that sits on the second tier is a LOT louder), and the external power adapter (which is common for keyboards in this price class). I also don’t love the GHS action, but in the end it is just so usable and practical that those complaints hardly matter.

It’s really great what $999 will buy you these days. If you don’t care much about programming your own, this board gives you the sounds of the old Motif XS at a fraction of the price, and that is going to be enough for a lot of people.

Advertisements

HEDD Type 05

fullsizeoutput_610

I bought these speakers in March this year, after hearing them at NAMM. I have lived with them for a while now and wanted to share my impressions, as there aren’t a lot of reviews of this model yet.

Frankly, for a while I wasn’t convinced these were right for me, as I felt they were fatiguing and disorienting. I almost returned them. But boy, now I’m glad I didn’t!

They sound very musical, they groove nicely and have plenty of vibe. It’s a modern sound, with surprising bass extension for a modest 5” woofer. It feels like they were tuned for contemporary music production, and they do that very well.

Initially I was a little taken aback by the deep bottom end, and tended to mix bass-shy as a result, but I got used to it quickly and now I don’t worry about it. I have found it is reliable and translates well.

I also love the green LED, which reminds me of the good old Genelec 1031A, a speaker I have fond memories of. And I really appreciate the fact that the signal path is all analog. I have nothing against DSP, but there is something to be said for this approach.

They have enough detail, there’s not much you’re missing on these. Dialing in EQ is effortless, with subtle changes readily revealed, and most importantly there are no surprises in translation. I can just get the vibe right and be confident it’s gonna sound pretty similar elsewhere.

If you want to know if they sound like the ADAM A5X, I’d have to say no. I was never fond of those, and always felt they were top-heavy and bottom-lean. The Type 05’s are better balanced to my ears.

Then there is the HEDD Linearizer plugin; you can instantiate it in any compatible host and it will noticeably tighten and “dry” up the sound. But it introduces a lot of latency, so I typically only use it when “mastering” (creating mp3’s or wav’s of the final mix).

Not everything is perfect, of course. They are pricey for 5” speakers, and the somewhat recessed midrange takes getting used to. People who love their NS10’s are not going to hit the ground running with these. And in my room the vertical sweet spot is somewhat narrow: my speakers are positioned so that the tweeters are at ear height when I’m sitting at my desk. When I stand up, the sound changes noticeably.

But in the end, it’s all good. I haven’t tried every speaker in this segment, but I feel the Type 05’s deliver the goods for their size and price. The best compliment I can give them is that I don’t worry about it anymore. I just get on with the job and trust that if things sound right here, they’ll sound right anywhere.

And isn’t that what a studio monitor should do?

KORG KROME 73

korg krome 73.jpg

After more than 10 years of (mostly) faithful service, my venerable Roland Fantom X7 was starting to show signs of old age; stubborn buttons requiring multiple presses before engaging, crackling knobs, and this would happen during gigs at times.
I wanted to buy a Yamaha Montage 7, but they were in short supply, and I had to buy a new fridge at the same time, so I ended up buying this Korg Krome 73 instead. The rationale was that it should be enough to hold me over until I’d have enough for a Montage or a laptop-based setup.
The Krome is cheap, and it shows. It is made of flimsy-feeling plastic, but the upside is that it weighs next to nothing. You can lift and maneuver it with one hand.
There are no upsides to the flimsy keyboard action, however. It feels like something from the Fisher Price bargain bin, and it is without a doubt the Krome’s biggest shortcoming. It makes dynamic playing a challenge, as the velocity response does not feel intuitive, and often softer touches are not detected.
Also, while it is nice to have 6 octaves, I think it would have made more sense to have an E-E layout, rather than the C-C. that way, middle C would still have been close to the middle of the keyboard. Inexplicably, Korg does do this on the Kronos 73, so why they changed this for the Krome is beyond me.
Another pet peeve is the external power supply. Now I understand that is a factor in keeping the cost down, but the thin and bendy wire is simply unsuitable for road use. In fact, an acquainted keyboardist is already on his third power supply, and keeps a spare just in case.

But, of course, there is good stuff too. The Krome is cheap, but packed with value. First of all, it has a killer Rhodes sound that is great to play, even on that crappy action. The acoustic piano sounds very good, but it is let down by the action’s velocity response. I suspect that the Krome 88’s weighted action would work great with it. Organs and clavs do the job, and all in all the Krome delivers in the meat-and-potatoes keyboard department.
Synth sounds are good, too, but coming from a Roland Fantom I miss the warmth of the pads, and some of the softer stuff. The Krome does bright and punchy, but smooth and mellow is not what this things is all about.
Brass sounds are good, too. It doesn’t excel here, but it can definitely hang with the competition here.

Despite its shortcomings, I’ve come to like the Krome; as a second-tier board it makes a lot of sense, and it’s great value for money. I do wish Korg would have included USB-audio functionality, as its direct competitors (Yamaha MOX, Roland FA) do offer that. A regrettable omission, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending it to anybody who’s looking for an affordable but great-sounding all-round keyboard.

Clavia Nord Piano 88

Nord-Piano-Front-570x256

I don’t know how we happen to be in July already, and I have yet to write my first blog of 2013! But I am happy that my first post of the year is about the Nord Piano. I have primarily reviewed software over the last two years or so, and the NordPiano is the first keyboard I have bought since my FantomX purchase back in 2005.

I have already written about the NP88 here and I can only say that my initial impressions have pretty much stood the test of time. It sounds remarkably consistent on a variety of different speakers and amps, sounds good in mono (except for one occasion where an intricate mono-cum-headphone-out-summed-to-other-mono introduced a nasty phasiness that made the piano sound, well, nasty) and best of all: it makes me want to play.

This review could end right here, because that last quality is one that renders all others irrelevant. Sure, I could blab on about the sound quality, which is good but not outstanding, the action, which is probably the most criticized aspect of this keyboard, and for a reason.

But at the end of the day, the NP88 just feels right to me, and isn’t that the most important thing? I even record with it at home, as the finger-to-sound connection of the board makes me play better than I do with the multi-GB piano sample libraries now hibernating on my hard drive. I don’t worry about the realism of the recorded sound. It sounds way better than any real piano on 1970’s recordings, so it is a total non-issue for me.

My only concerns are a lack of proper pianissimo samples, a minijack input that -inexplicably!- can only be routed to the headphone out and not the line outs, and the absence of layer/split functionality.

The minijack issue is a great example of a missed opportunity, as many solo pianists with restaurant gigs would have welcomed the ability to play along to backing tracks on their iPod/iPhones without the need for an external mixer.

The layer functionality has been added in the NordPiano2, as well as the ability to load up sounds from the Nord sample library, so it is conceivable that I may trade up to that at some point in the future.

But for now, I don’t even look at other digital pianos anymore. The NP88 is not the perfect DP by a long shot, but I am perfectly satisfied with it.

Avid MBox 3 Pro

I have had the MBox3Pro for a year now, long enough to share a few of my observations.

First of all, it is very heavy for its size. I kind of like that as it gives the unit a nice, solid feel, but it is something to consider if you plan to move it around on a regular basis. It is portable, but you’re going to feel that weight in your backpack.

Let me relay the negatives first: at first I had trouble with the headphone outs. Half the time they wouldn’t work on startup, requiring a reboot (or two), to activate them. A few times they would produce a loud hissing noise, requiring another restart. Very annoying, although powering off and on again (once or multiple times) would always fix the problem.

This is a known issue, and Avid has been working on a fix.

What’s more, I only got the included direct-monitoring reverb to work once, it has been MIA since. That is actually a good thing because the one time it DID work it sounded awful (and mono).

The good news is that a driver update seems to have fixed the headphone issues, I haven’t had any problems with them since, so fingers crossed. I am a bit mystified as to how this problem was solved, because even after the driver update I continued to experience these problems for a while. These days, however, everything is great. Maybe I’ll get the reverb to work properly (and in stereo) with a future update, too.

On to the positives: it sounds good (disclaimer: I do not have a $10,000 signal chain to validate this statement) and once in operation it just gets out of your way and on with the job. I really like the GUI of the mixer and it is flexible enough for my modest needs at home. You can get separate cue and headphone mixes on all outputs, or use them in parallel.

It is also noticeably more efficient than my Saffire LE. I’m primarily a Cubase/Nuendo user, and on my old iMac I would regularly have to freeze VI’s to keep the system running. With the MB3P the same projects could run without freeze. I have since moved on to a quadcore MacPro and I hardly ever run out of room with the buffer set to 128 samples.

The mic pres do the job well enough, although you’ll never mistake them for Neves. The softlimit function is handy, but it seriously chokes the sound when pushed, so you’d be advised to adjust your gains carefully. There is plenty of gain, btw, for both my mic and keyboards.

The mono button is a real selling point, but I find myself not using it as much as I thought I would, and when I do I find the increase in loudness irritating. This is obviously not a design flaw, but it would be nice to be able to attenuate the summed mono signal to levels more proportionate to its stereo counterpart.

All in all I like the Mbox3Pro, but you’d better make sure it fits your needs. Compared to similarly priced units from the competition, it has limited connectivity and zero expandability. I also dislike the combi breakout cable for SPDIF/wordclockIO/MIDI and the external PSU. Not something to complain about at this pricepoint ($629 +tax, in my case), though.

One last gripe, Avid support requires a support ticket, and one is issued when you register your product online. When I wanted to contact them about the headphone problems I found out my ticket had expired (I think it is like 60 or 90 days after registration) and I should purchase a new one for $40.

Of course, I didn’t. Paying $40 to get someone on the phone because your product has a design flaw? I don’t think so. So even if I’m generally happy and satisfied with my Mbox3Pro, I shan’t be buying from Avid again anytime soon.

FOCUSRITE SAFFIRE LE

This is going to be one short review. There really isn’t much too say about the Saffire LE. It does the job it is supposed to do just fine, sounds decent and requires very little attention or care.

Earlier drivers were not as solid as the current one, with occasional glitches, but nowadays it is stable and reliable; the only quirk I encounter every now and then is that it fails to sync up when the computer comes out of sleep mode (or restart) but that does not happen often and dis- and reconnecting the cable takes care of that.

Within Cubase I normally have the buffer on 256 samples as that is the sweet spot for my aging iMac, but I have used the LE at 128 without problems. Sharing the firewire buss with other devices is a mixed bag, it worked fine with an Iomega HDD but with a WD Mybook not so much.

The mic preamps do the job, but no more than that. To me that is the LE’s weakest link, you’ll get the signal but it is a little thin and when you hit the limit things sound nasty. Line levels are slightly low, too. That could be the price you pay for a buss-powered device. Connectivity is good, though, and the software control panel/mixer is easy to understand and adjust.

This box is never going to win any awards, it is unassuming and not anything special. But it does not get in the way of you and the music and facilitates the recording process well enough.

For the money you can’t complain for what you get. Nothing is great, but everything works well. A good first audio IO for people on a budget. Nice.

edit:
As an afterthought: I suspect that this unit is really an M-Audio interface disguised as a Focusrite. when I check the system processes in OSX’ Activity Monitor there is only an M-Audio firmware root process, and I don’t own or have connected any of their stuff.

KRK RP5G2 & RP8G2


I used to own a pair of RP8G2’s a few years ago, and now I have a pair of RP5G2’s as secondary speakers. I like both of them, but there are a number of caveats.

First of all, the RP8G2’s are incredibly bassy, and this is greatly augmented when you place them on resonant surfaces (like a desk). When you have them on proper speaker stands away from the wall, it is not so bad and you could actually mix on them if you take the time to get to know them. But they are still bass-heavy and you have to allow for that when making mix decisions, which is -of course- not ideal. When placed on a desk and/or near a wall, they are only good for non-critical listening. But they are great for parties, as they go loud and sound good for most modern music.

I like the RP5G2’s much better. When used as nearfields they have enough low end for most styles except for really bass-heavy styles like Hiphop/R&B or EDM. They are also not as sensitive to placement as the 8’s. Downside of the smaller woofers is that they start to choke when pushed, they don’t go very loud. But you could get a reasonable mix balance on these, provided you listen at moderate levels and have something else to check the lowest octave or so with.

I would not call either of them neutral sounding. They actually sound a little polished and they are somewhat short on detail. My biggest beef with them (more so with the 8’s than the 5’s) is that they are a little fatiguing, especially over prolonged periods of time and louder levels. The 5’s do not go that loud so this is not as much of a problem with them, but it is definitely a part of the series’ character.

I somehow wonder whether the RP6G2 would be the sweet spot of the series? The 8’s are too bassy, the 5’s are too light and don’t go loud enough…

But with all that said, I think they are as good as it gets at their respective price points. The obvious competitors are the Yamaha HS and M-Audio BX series. Between these series it is really just a matter of taste as they are all competent stuff for the money. I went with the KRK’s because they sound a little more hi-fi. The Yamahas have a more forward “monitor” sound but lack depth. the M-Audio BX8 sounds similar to the KRK RP8G2 whereas the BX5 is -oddly- closer to the Yamaha HS50.

If you are looking for something on a budget, they are all good choices, so check them out (preferably in your own room) and get whatever works best for you. I do recommend to upgrade to better (but pricier) speakers as soon as you can afford it, though. These speakers do the job, but none of them will give you enough detail.

edit (September 24, 2011):
Thanks all for the comments. I kind of want to backtrack on the “fatiguing” statement. It was definitely an issue for me on the 8’s, but I have used the 5’s on an almost daily basis over the last few weeks and it hasn’t been a problem.