Category Archives: Hardware

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.

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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.

ROLAND FANTOM X7

REVIEW 1 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Tuesday-Oct-04-05 at 04:12)
I’ve owned and loved the Roland XP80 for 5 years, and the Fantom X7 for about two months now. Here are a few of my observations: * If you are a keyboardist and you play live a lot, leave the Fantom off your shopping list. It doesn’t have a numeric keypad, so you have to scroll through humongous sound lists to find the patch/performance you need.

But…they have the “favorite” function? Yeah, that works okay for patches, but in performance mode you still have to scroll (with the dial or inc/dec keys) to get to your favorite! Why Roland forgot to address this simply beggars belief.

But…they have the “livesettings” function? Yeah, great. Unfortunately, switching between settings happens with nearly 1 second delay, which is unacceptable when you have to switch within the same song. The XP80 did a much better job, was a more thought-through design. You can switch between performances seamlessly, it has faders for volume and assignable controls, rather than the rotary knob-design of the X7.

My take on the X7 is this: some of the sounds are really excellent, the MFX are definitely two steps up from the XP80. Its samples and DAC’s are a lot cleaner and tighter than the XP’s. But why on earth did Roland abandon its time-honored JV/XV policy of including all the previous soundbanks in this keyboard?

Moving from a JV1080 to a XV5080 was ideal, because you had all your old patches plus a lot of very cool new ones. I miss a lot of the XP80 sounds, and the FantomX7 does not always provide better alternatives. And then the acoustic pianos… I don’t care what they say about multi-megabyte piano-samples, the samples might be better than the XP80’s but the resulting patches are less engaging and inspiring to play. The ep’s, however, are a lot better.
In spite of all my grudges, as a workstation it plain rocks. The sequencer, audio-integration and big colour-screen put it ahead of anything else out there. If that’s what you’re looking for then you’ll find this one a very satisfying buy. Let’s hope that Roland will address the live-issues in a future OS-update. So far, I’d rather have my XP80 back for gigs, but I’ll give this a few more months before I make a final decision. Roland, updates please!

 
REVIEW 2 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Thursday-Oct-06-05 at 02:40)
In addition to my previous comments, I’d like to say this: The X7 sounds very good in the studio. But I have noticed that it depends on high-end sound reinforcement a lot more than the XP80 did. The XP80 would sound roughly the same on almost any type of speaker/PA. It didn’t have a lot of presence in the midrange, but this actually helped in most situations as that part of the spectrum is always already very cramped (vocals, drums guitars etc.) The Fantom has a lot more presence but that can be a blessing as well as a curse.

I did an outdoor event last weekend on a fairly huge PA and it sounded divine. However, the night before I did a club gig and although the speakers (Mackies 450) are considered good, I couldn’t get the Fantom to sound like anything but a herd of elephants with the flu. The XP80 was a lot more consistent in this respect. To be fair, I have experienced similar problems with a Motif and Triton, so I guess the XP80 is an exception rather than the norm.

A good thing is the ease of use in the programming department. I don’t really do programming, but editing existing patches is now a lot easier than boiling eggs for breakfast. Downside: to get a more consistent livesound: you NEED to edit the existing patches. And another gripe: Why does it take 90 seconds to boot up? That is not cool during a gig…. All in all, I feel that this keyboard was made for DJ’s/producers, and not for keyboardists. Right up to the presets, which cover a disproportional large amount of techno/dance sounds but fail to satisfy in the acoustic instrument emulations.

Playability is generally okay, but aftertouch response is nowhere near as good as the XP80’s (but then, no keyboard’s aftertouch is as good as the XP80’s). The $64,000 question is: Is the Fantom X7 a worthy successor to my XP80? For live: Nooooooo! And I suspect that this aspect of the keyboard can not be improved by OS updates, as it is the very windows-driven nature of the OS that makes it unsuitable. Workstation: Sure. I mean, GUI, 8-track audio-recording, sampling, up to 512MB of RAM…you do the math.

 

REVIEW 3 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Sunday-Jun-17-07 at 06:40)
In addition to the reviews I posted in 2005, I’d like to inform you more about what I have found out about this instrument in the last two years. As stated before, the piano sounds are tiny, which makes for an unsatisfying playing experience, but lets the sounds sit extremely well in a mix. You will hardly need any EQ or compression to make it fit, so to speak.

As a stand-alone workstation it really is awesome, but although it was nice of Roland to include USB, its implementation is clumsy at best. You have to switch between MIDI and data-transfer mode, which is manageable (although it does mean that you have to close and restart your DAW everytime you switch back to MIDI), but you also have to unplug and reconnect the bloody cable everytime you do.

Also, other manufacturers have added far more comprehensive interfacing with computer-based DAW’s, Roland’s USB port does midi and…well, you can transfer audio and data to and fro, but this temporarily turns off all other functionality of the Fantom. So far, to my knowledge Roland has not improved any of the live-functionality or addressed any of the issues I pointed out in my previous reviews.

So it’s still cumbersome to use live, but in spite of all these complaints, I have sort of learned to live with them, and now I really do appreciate the versatility and quality of the sounds on offer. I still prefer them over Yamaha’s Motif or Korg’s Triton, although the former wins on points for features and functionality and the latter scores on playability. But the Fantom’s rich and detailed sound characteristics give it an edge all of its own.

ROLAND XP 80

REVIEW 1( as posted on the Sonic State website on Sunday-Dec-16-01 at 20:31)
I bought the XP 80 after years of working in studio’s where the JV’s 1080 and 2080 ruled the mix. I basically bought it to have access to all the same sounds you hear on commercial records, neatly packed into one keyboard. As such, it works fine for the keyboardists playing in Top40 orchestras, since you’re likely to find whatever sound you need to emulate most of the hit records in the last 20 years or so.

If your looking for your typical rockguitar-and-drums-defeating artillery it may not suit your style/taste, as the XP’s overall character is more one of detailed clarity rather than power-by-the-pound. But mind you, in patch mode those distorded leadguitars and wahwahs sound simply awesome.

The XP really is all the JV 1080 sounds with the 2080 display, and a lot of very handily positioned performance controllers. I love the fact that the transpose keys are defaulted to octave-shift, a well though out function when you are using the keyboard in split mode, got it? There are two assignable sliders ride above the pitch/mod stick, which I haven’t used much but might be convenient if you need that type of control.

Must say though that their position next to the volume slider is a bit of a bummer. But brilliant in its simplicity is the effects on/off buttons. There are three, multiFX, Chorus and Reverb, and they can be switched on or off individually. Try switching the delay on and off while you are soloing, sweet.

I don’t really use the sequencer that much, since I mostly work with Cubase. But it’s handy when you come in the rehearsal room with the sequence of your new song in the XP’s diskdrive, just load it and play the darn thing. I do use the drive also to store performance settings. Saves me having to sys-ex all data into Cubase for every song. Nifty features like taptempo control with a pedal really turn this one into a very smart live sequencer, though -again- I haven’t really used that.

Operating all this wonderful stuff is easy for anyone who has at least had two hours on any other digital Roland synth. Although I prefer the sound of for example Ensoniq’s late MR 61, Korg’s Trinity/Triton or the new Kurzweil PC 2, in terms of value for money I think the XP is still a great offer even now, which is like four years after its introduction?

Potential Fantom or XV 88 customers, forget those and get a XP 60 or 80 instead. Use the rest of the money to buy either expansion boards (some of those really sound much better than the ROM-sounds), or another module or so. If the XP had had the pianosounds of the Session board, with Rhodes and Wurlys from ’60s and 70’s board and some more bass and drums I would rate this a hands-down-5-outta-5. As it is, 4-outta-5 is not bad for a synth that is four years old.

P.S.: if you want an XV 88 because of the hammer action, better buy Roland’s new RD 700 with an extra expansion board. Saves you money on a shitty D- Beam controller I’ve never seen anybody use, and thei figure you want good pianosound if you are going to buy a hammer-action keyboard. compare the XV88’s pianosound with that of the RD 700, it really isn’t fair.

REVIEW 2 (as posted on the Sonic State website onThursday-Oct-06-05 at 03:00)
I recently bought a Fantom X7 and I would now like to praise the XP80 even more. It’s one of those RARE keyboards where they accidentally get almost everything right. Because of the neutral sound it will probably never attain “classic” status, but it really is the best all-round keyboard ever made (and I have compared it to your Tritons, Motifs and Kurzweils).

As a workstation, the Fantom X7 is phenomenal (lots of RAM, audio-recording, sampling etc.), but as an instrument it doesn’t even come close. Fortunately, I still own the XP80 (though it’s on another continent) and I’m gonna buy a second one just in case… Let’s hope Roland will figure it out, and release an XP90 with the XV5080 sound engine, USB2.0 connectivity (and please make the implementation better than on the Fantom), plenty of user memory etc.