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Winter NAMM 2012 Special Report: Keyboards
By: Tony Grund and Jason Buchwald


AAS, famous for their Strum and Lounge Lizard offerings, was showing its new product, Chromophone.  Using physical modeling instead of samples, it aims to recreate various percussive instruments including vibes, marimba, xylophone, kettle drums, etc.  Further expansion packs are planned for the future.  We caught a live demo and the quality sounded quite good.

AAS Chromophone

Akai introduced several new products. By far, the biggest news of these was the MPC Renaissance. While it's not the standalone/computer hybrid we were all hoping for (it has to be tethered to a computer), if you are used to an MPC, this works in exactly the same way. The quality is definitely a step up from their recent controllers, featuring real MPC pads and a nice big screen, but we won't know just how great it really is until we get to see it in action with the software. An early demo looked quite promising, and we're very excited to get our hands on a review unit when it's released later this year.

Akai MPC Renaissance


The slimmer, more portable MPC/software combination is called the MPC Studio, which is a funny name since it is clearly geared towards the musician on the go. We guess perhaps they mean that you're taking your MPC studio with you wherever you go? It's certainly a neat idea — the knobs are flat so they don't rise above the pads, making the thing easier to transport, but it remains to be seen if the $600 price will be justified.

Last but certainly not least in the MPC line-up this year is the MPC Fly. This is a really cool solution for making beats on your iPad in an MPC-style manner. Picture an iPad case, with the iPad living in the top section, and MPC pads housed in the bottom. The case has its own battery so it doesn't drain the iPad's power when connected. To be honest, we see this as (most likely) being the biggest hit for Akai of all their new MPC machines because of the price and portability. Once again, we'll know more once we get our hands on it.

Arturia recently released the SEM-V, a virtual recreation of the classic Oberheim SEM module.  Not only does it sound great and authentic, but the SEM-V introduces many additional bells and whistles than the original featured.  Every parameter is user changeable, and there are even some alternate waveforms available that the original lacked.  Most impressive is polyphony!  You can essentially recreate the sound of Oberheim 4- and 8- voice synths, and some of the presets sounded like Oberheim’s OB synth series. 

Arturia SEM-V

Perhaps more surprising was Arturia’s new hardware synth: not the Origin, but the Minibrute, a one hundred percent analog, 25-key synth that has MIDI, USB, and CV connectivity, to allow you to place it any vintage or modern setup.  The front panel is all knobs and sliders — no digital display, reminiscent of early Roland Jupiters and Junos, but in a compact footprint. Famous for their virtual synth recreations, it was interesting to see Arturia introduce new synth hardware.  The Minibrute sounded very full, and the arpeggiator should keep things interesting. Our only complaint is that it seems that they took the analog approach a bit too far: there are no presets for quick sound recall! While we love the sound of analog, we also want the ease of use of modern technology, and it was strange to see Arturia go so completely old school on this one.

Arturia Minibrute

This special report features the products that really stood out for us, and given all the hype surrounding it, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Casio’s re-entry into the synthesizer marker. Regrettably, their two new synths, the XW-G1 (for DJs!) and the XW-P1 were something of a disappointment based on our initial demonstrations.

Casio XW-G1 and XW-P1 Synthesizers

They sounded good, and it’s cool that the classic CZ synth waveforms are included, but the sounds didn’t really wow us, and they weren’t nearly as tweakable as other modern digital syths. To be honest, we were kind of reminded of late ‘90s synths like the Yamaha CS1x. We could still be proven wrong after people spend some more time on sound design, but based on our initial reaction, we don't think this will prove to be the comeback that Casio is hoping for in the synth world.

Dave Smith Instruments
Dave Smith teamed up with Roger Linn to create Tempest, an impressive professional drum machine built around pure analog technology as well as audio samples.  While last year they teased us with the product in development, it was great to put our hands on the released product. Just about everything is tweakable, and to quote their website:

“Each of the six analog voices has two analog oscillators plus two digital oscillators (with a large bank of included samples), the classic Curtis analog lowpass filter with audio-rate modulation, an additional highpass filter, analog VCA with feedback, five envelopes, two LFOs, an extraordinary variety of analog modulation routings, and stunning sonic quality, warmth, and punch. Although optimized for drum sounds, it excels at tuned sounds as well, and even doubles as a six-voice analog keyboard synth.”

Fellow editor Tony Grund and I had the pleasure of getting a demo from Roger Linn personally, which was awesome.  Roger (and Dave) are very excited about Tempest, and Roger made it a point to emphasize that where Tempest really shines is in live use. It sounded great, and we can’t wait to review it.

Dave Smith Instruments Tempest Drum Machine

A really cool newcomer to keep your eyes on is the Rhizome. This is a “computer-based groove machine compatible with VST plugins,” which basically means it is a computer in a different shape. The shape is designed to be much nicer to make music with than a traditional computer, utilizing both knobs and touchscreens that are laid out in a producer friendly design. Because there is essentially a computer buried inside, you can load any VST software into it. There is also a controller-only option that controls your computer from the hardware, which also looked cool. We are definitely keeping our eye on this.

Feeltune Rhizome

Rob Papen
Another well-regarded soft synth maker, Rob Papen was showing off his latest, Blade. This great sounding plug-in offers great ideas for modulation. The XY screen is cool as it offers up a unique way to create a user-made LFO. We found it interesting that he's using what appears to be additive synthesis as an oscillator source. Overall, Blade looks great for creating organic sounds that mutate over time, as well as wobble type basses and synths.



Though we couldn’t get close enough to get a good hands on demo, Studiologic released an interesting new synth called Sledge, an analog modeling synthesizer. Interestingly, it uses DSP modeling technology from Waldorf (of Blofield, among others, fame). Besides the classic analogue synthesizer waveforms, a complete set of Wavetables, derived from the PPG Wave, are also included. Lots of hands on controls (including 32 pots!) should make this an interesting synth, though some might object to its startling yellow color. Throw a black Korg workstation and red Nord synth on stage and you’ve got one horrible ‘80s color explosion!

Vintage Vibe
Mixing modern and vintage, Vintage Vibe is doing some really cool things.  Originally a Rhodes and Wurlitzer restoration company (they actually worked on our Rhodes and Wurli in the past and did a great job), they are now producing their own electromechanical pianos.  However, they aren’t using any recycled parts. They are manufacturing their own — even new steel tines!  Interestingly, they have created a much lighter version of a Rhodes, with updated electronics and very cool custom paint jobs.  Most importantly, they played and sounded great.  For those of you with original pianos already, Vintage Vibe offers a number of cool upgrades, including internal tube preamps, vibrato, and more.  Funky!

Vintage Vibe Electromechanical Stage Pianos


And speaking of Waldorf, it's not news that they are back at it again, making keyboards based on their classic synths. What is news, however, is the newest addition to their line-up, the soon to be released Pulse 2. If you know anything about Waldorf, you know that the Pulse was a beast of an analog synth that dominated electronic recordings in the 90's. This fully analog recreation uses three analog oscillators in combination with an analog cascading filter to deliver the goods. We spoke to them at length about getting our hands on this when it's released later this year. We can't wait!

Waldorf Pulse 2




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