Keyboards through the ages

I am probably dating myself, but I just realized I am looking back on more than 20 years of electronic keyboard ownership!

I decided not to include non-keyboard/sampling gear as I had a studio back in the day and that list would run pretty long. Also not included are VI’s.

My list in chronological order:

roland_d20

ROLAND D-20
It was great because had an internal 9-track sequencer (8 tracks + 1 rhythm track) and a floppy disk drive, which meant you could create songs and arrangements and save them. I was in heaven. Of course, polyphony restrictions meant you could realistically never use more than four or five tracks simultaneously, but who cared? The sounds varied from cheesy (EP’s) to unusable (pianos) to passable (guitar/strings/drums) to really phat (bass/synths). The only thing missing was a sampler, which I needed for my Hiphop aspirations.

 

akai s01

AKAI S 01
A friend of mine bought this, and let me keep it. You could sample/playback 8 different sounds and editing was limited to trim and pitch, IIRC. You had like 10 seconds of sampling time (mono), but it was great in combination with my D-20 and a newly acquired Atari ST520!
Beatz, baby!

 

Roland sc-55-1

ROLAND SOUND CANVAS
The same friend dropped this little box off at my digs, which meant I could make full arrangements with just an Atari ST and Cubase. The sounds were small but believable, and they worked well together. The only thing that sucked were the drums, but that’s because I was doing Hiphop/R&B. It was really great for its time, and I cut my first record with just this and the Akai S01.

 

SQ2

ENSONIQ SQ2
Doing gigs on the Roland D-20 sucked. Bad. So I had to get something with better piano and EP sounds, and the SQ 2 happened to be the most affordable step up at my neighborhood music store. I use the term step up lightly, though. Sure, the sounds were better than the D-20’s, but not nearly as realistic as the JV80/JV90’s that started popping up in every cover band around that time. I think the Ensoniq would probably sound better today than its Roland contemporaries, but at the time I regretted the purchase. I later sold it for the XP-80. One thing I do credit this keyboard for is my lasting appreciation for 76‘ers. They just feel right to me.

 

akai s900

AKAI S900
I obtained this unit from a studio owner as payment (sort of) for a remix I did for him. He had an S 1100 and it was just sitting in his rack, collecting dust. The S01 was a more modern machine, had better sound quality and more(!) sampling time, but the S900 trumped it with more flexible programming and filters! Wow, filters were cool!

 

10_nordlead_01

CLAVIA NORD LEAD
I was starting to work in bigger studios and did work for one of the 2Unlimited producers. He told me about this new keyboard he had seen and heard at a trade show and he had ordered one on the spot. He said it was something unique and as easy to program as an old-school analog synth.
As soon as they hit my town, I got the first one of the truck. It was bulls-eye. This thing really raised my game as a budding producer. I was one of the few who could now emulate the sounds on Snoop’s records etc. Loved it to bits; it only had 4-voice polyphony, but in spite of that limitation it was surprisingly flexible. Polyphony was not restricted, so I could play back four mono-timbral sounds simultaneously, which was often all you’d need in Hiphop anyway. Oh, and I loved the pitch stick. And the Swedish-design cut-off corners. The Nord Lead 1 was also the first piece of gear I bought new.

 

roland jv-880

ROLAND JV880
This was sold to me by an acquaintance way below market value. In many ways it served as a replacement for the Sound Canvas, albeit with fewer parts (8 instead of 16) and slightly higher polyphony (28 vs. 24). It sounded a little classier, too, and you just had to have some of that Roland goodness in the mid-90’s. It served me well for some time, but I never loved it, and once I got the XP-80 I never looked back.

 

akai mpc 2000

AKAI MPC 2000
I had been working in a studio centered around the original MPC60, and I loved the concept, sound and groove of that thing. The MPC2000 was a somewhat affordable alternative, and I got it expanded to a whopping 16MB of RAM (16 times more than what was in my S900), 8 extra individual outputs, and a ZIP drive! I was the man. For the next couple of years, the MPC and Nord Lead were the backbone of all my productions, dressed up with duffs of Ensoniq and dollops of Roland. But while it was light years better than Cubase on an Atari in terms of MIDI timing and groove, it was a step back as a composition/arrangement tool, and it showed in my work sometimes.

 

NORD_LEAD2

CLAVIA NORD LEAD 2
Why get a Nord Lead 2 when you already have the original one? Because you left yours on the train to Paris. Twice. The first time it was found -miraculously- sitting on the platform in Rotterdam. The second time my luck ran out and it was gone. So a Nord Lead 2 had to replace it. Not much of a loss, better polyphony (16-voice) meant I could now actually play chords on it, but I always regretted the absence of those “Swedish-design cut corners” of the original one! Otherwise it served just as well as the original one, perhaps better, as I could now use it live, too.

 

roland_d70

ROLAND D-70
Our neighborhood music store had a used one for an agreeable price, and I wanted one because Teddy Riley talked it up in Keyboard Magazine, and thinking I could replace the Ensoniq SQ2 with it for live use. Turns out it was pretty meh, it was less of a schlep and the piano sounded a little better, but over all it was a disappointment.

 

sqr

ENSONIQ SQ-R
Given to me by a friend, it was the rack version of the SQ-2. Came in handy once in a while when I didn’t feel like unpacking the SQ-2 between gigs, but redundant for the most part. However, owning it made it easy to trade in the SQ2 for the Roland XP-80.

 

roland xp80.l

ROLAND XP-80
One of my fav keyboards of all time. It does just about everything well, and excels at pad and bell-like stuff. Some of it remains unsurpassed to this day. The layout of the board is logical and intuitive, with all the controls in the right place, and switching sounds/performances is near-instantaneous. The sequencer is super-easy to use, everything sounds credible, although the drums are its weakest point. Still, it was the only thing I took with me when I moved to Kenya, and a true friend.

 

roland fantom x7

ROLAND FANTOM X7
When the XP80 succumbed to the rigors of African life, replacing it with the Fantom X7 seemed like a logical choice. I couldn’t try it out beforehand, but I figured what could go wrong? As it turned out, it was a mixed blessing. The Fantom X7 generally sounds good, but its menu-driven UI makes it cumbersome to use live, and the piano and organ sounds feel insubstantial. As a workstation, though, it is great. Clearly, the UI was designed with that in mind.
Since I got the NordPiano, I use it primarily as a top-tier board and I like it much better in that capacity. It does mostly synth stuff, and it really is pretty excellent for that. You can’t get those lush pads anywhere else.

 

yamaha p85

YAMAHA P-85
Needed something with a weighted action and this was about the cheapest thing on the market. Not bad value for the money, but a forgettable instrument all around. Sold it less than a year after I bought it.

 

KX8

YAMAHA KX-8
Even more forgettable than the P-85 to which it is closely related. At least the P-85 had sounds onboard. I guess the KX-8 didn’t suck, and at least it was cheap. But my off-the-cuff low-budget purchases have invariably turned out to be poor choices.

 

roland a70

ROLAND A-70
Got it for $150 as a controller for my VI’s. At that price it is pretty great, but I don’t like the action as much as the Fantom’s or even the XP80’s. It has amazing controls and functionality, none of which I have ever really used. But I am thinking of having it shipped here and learn to work it as a live controller for VI’s.

 

Nord-Piano-Front-570x256

CLAVIA NORD PIANO 88
Sometimes something just works, and the NP88 is one of those things for me. The action isn’t really great, but my only real problem is its limited functionality. I guess the NP2 addresses many of those limitations, so perhaps at some point I could trade up if a good deal comes along.

Spectrasonics Trillian

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I can keep this review pretty short; like its predecessor Trilogy, Trillian is THE definitive bass sample library. That said, there are certain synth bass tones in NI Massive that I prefer for some things, but as a one-stop-shop bass solution, Trillian is the business.

But as good as the synth bass sounds are, the library’s true strength is its excellent acoustic and electric basses. These are simply in a league of their own, nothing else comes close. Indeed, you’d have to have a pretty great bass-player and premium signal chain to approximate the sound quality on offer here.

Playability, too, is second to none. Most of the stuff feels lively and responsive, although I typically set a MIDI velocity limiter at value 125, to avoid trigger the slides etc. While it is cool and fun to play with, it can be distracting and somewhat restrictive in conjunction with the velocity response of my Roland Fantom X7.

Compared to Trilogy, the tweakability has been noticeably improved. Each sound has a few quick controls assigned to the most relevant parameters, but the old edit pages are still there. Multi-timbral operation is logical and intuitive, and many synth sounds really lend themselves well for exploration beyond the bass register. One of my personal faves is using the Chapman Stick as an electric guitar!

Drawbacks? Nothing much. The new acoustic and electric sounds are huge and can take up to twenty seconds to load (I run them off a dedicated 7200rpm HDD), and I often grab legacy Trilogy sounds because they load faster. Oh and you’ll need a lot of RAM for the new sounds, too.

Otherwise, I really can’t think of anything else, it is that good. Trillian is not cheap, but it sure is worth every penny.

Izotope Alloy 2

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

Looking at past reviews, I see that I am never enthusiastic about the “good deals” I got. The sweetness of the lower price is not yet forgotten, but I never feel that it was money well-spent.
As I keep saying, my impulse buys are rarely good ones, but Izotope’s Alloy2 is the shining exception. It was not on sale, but the regular price ($199) is extremely fair, considering all that you get.

Alloy 2 has 7 sections: an EQ, a transient shaper, an exciter, two compressors, a de-esser and a limiter. Each of these can be individually switched on and off. The transient shaper, exciter and compressors have multi-band functionality which greatly enhances their usefulness. But you can get the details from Izotope’s site or other reviews, so I’m gonna skip all that and get right down to business.

This thing sounds seriously good. It doesn’t do vintage or classic stuff, but it does digital, and it does digital right.

At the risk of offending legions of pro engineers, the presets in this thing are fantastic. They provide excellent “ballpark” sounds, which serve as great starting points for further tweaking. And not a lot of tweaking is needed, typically it is adjusting thresholds etc. and pretty soon you’re good.

I use it mostly for vocals and drum buss, and it is excellent on both. Most of the presets sound very current and up-to-date, many of them designed to give you that ‘boom, now it sounds like a record’ feeling. To really get it right, you’ll need to dive in there to finish it up to make it ‘sit’, but a lot of the hard work has been done for you and in my case, many of the presets are great time-savers.

For those who prefer to start with a clean sheet: all the different blocks give you an amazingly versatile and superb-sounding tool that allows to sculpt and mold the sound to your heart’s content.

It’s hard for me to think of true negatives; I think the exciter is probably less impressive in isolation. It distorts pretty quickly but at modest levels it doesn’t appear to do much. That said, whenever it is active in a preset it is easier to pick out what it does by switching it on and off, so perhaps it is simply my ineptitude.

Also, this is a modern plugin and you’re not gonna run 500 instances of this on your MacPro. It is not too heavy considering all it does, but it does take cycles, and when you have a lot of instances open, you will notice.

In conclusion, Alloy 2 sounds great, has excellent presets for those who don’t want to be bothered, offers deep control for those who need it, and generally delivers on all counts. I think it is well worth the $199.

 

Camel Audio Camel Crusher

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I appreciate you reading my review, but since this is a free plugin, you’d better download it and get busy with it!

Most developers have some kind of free product, and while some are genuinely good and/or useful, a lot of it is just a waste of disk space.

The Camel Crusher is among the best that I know of. If this was $99 it would be good value. For free? Bloody amazing!

It sounds really, really good. I am not a fan of distortion and didn’t think I’d have use for this, but it turns out this little gem is supremely versatile and it goes from subtle but audible coloration to beyond 11 and breaking your speakers.

I find that I can use this plugin on just about anything and it will do something good to it, but it excels at breathing new life and energy into dull or bland sounding tracks.

It is a distortion/saturator/compressor/filter, and it does all of that really well.

Controls are limited but that is actually a good thing. You don’t waste 30 minutes fiddling with knobs only to find out it’s not gonna work.

I’m gonna say it again, this thing sounds GREAT. It’s free. It is better than many plugins I paid good money for. It has a definite “analog” vibe to it.

What are you waiting for? Go get it!

http://www.camelaudio.com/camelcrusher.php

February 17, 2015:

Since Apple bought Camel Audio last year, this plugin is unfortunately no longer available. However, Camel Audio’s flagship product, Alchemy, reappeared bundled with Apple’s Logic Pro X and Mainstage 3, so perhaps this plugin will be included at some point as well. I sure hope so.

 

 

Softube Mix Bundle

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

A few years back, this bundle got a lot of hype on the net, and when it was on sale (I think it was around $180) I decided to buy into it.
The bundle comprises:
– FET Compressor
– Active EQ
– Passive EQ
– Focusing EQ
– TSAR-1R Reverb
While it is not bad at all, and reasonable value at the price I paid for it, I have once again learned that you get what you pay for. The great-sounding stuff costs way more. That is not to say that this bundle does not sound good, with a bit of care you can get decent results, but it is not the “just turn a knob and go wow” experience.

The best thing about the EQ’s is that the top-end is pretty smooth. You can add quite a bit of gain without it sounding harsh. Still, while you can shape tones nicely with these EQ’s, it all remains pretty bland. There is not a lot of character or excitement.

I keep trying to use the FET compressor, but I rarely get what I’m looking for. It does NOT sound like an 1176 to me, although my experience with the real thing is admittedly limited. Again, not to say it’s bad, just that it fails to blow me away. I have managed to get satisfying results on electric bass guitar with the plug-in, but not much else.

I use the reverb more. Mostly because it is easy to use and you get predictable results. Not a whole lot of flavor, but it sounds nice enough and does what it is supposed to do.

All in all, I don’t feel shortchanged as I got a good deal on it. But for the current retail price of $299 I find it a little underwhelming. I would not say it is bad value, everything works and if you happen to need a compressor/EQ/reverb bundle for that price it remains a sensible purchase. I just never fell in love with it.

LOUD

Why do guys out here in LA play so loud?!?

It is the nuttiest thing I have ever seen. Brilliant musicians, all turning their amps up to 11 and jamming with earplugs in! Why?!?

Just turn it down!

Hints:

– Play at a volume that is acceptable over a sustained period of time. If your ears can handle it, the audience can, too. If you need earplugs, you are playing too loud!

– Play to the room. Let the drummer play alone, without amplification, for a few minutes, so he can gauge how loud to play before the room starts to resonate uncomfortably. Have other players adjust to that level. Make the drummer understand that he should be playing at an average level below that, so there’s some room for crescendos and fortes.

– The bass is extremely room-sensitive. There can be lot of build-up and standing waves at high volume, which can effectively alter the way we perceive the pitch of the instrument. This has happened to me many times. In some rooms, at high volume the bass will sound almost a semi-tone higher than what is played. It is excruciating to try and play along in what sounds like a different key!

– When a player turns it up a little for his solo, remind him to turn it back down when he is done with it. It is amazing how often people will forget to turn it down (and that includes me, yes).

– To get an idea of what music sounded like before we brought 5 kW amps to the gig, do a couple of acoustic gigs. It is amazing how much difference that can make. Remember, there was a time when an entire big band would play with an unamplified double bass.

 

Really, guys, who are we kidding? I don’t know about you, but I can’t even play well with those earplugs in. I will use them on occasion when I fear the sound pressure could cause hearing damage, but it changes everything, and it feels and sounds unnatural to me. That is NOT how music is supposed to be made.

 

Turn it down, people. There is no need.