Synthesizers, Stage Pianos & Organs: Keyboards for Live Bands & Serious Music Makers
There are different kinds of cameras for different kinds of shooters (DSLRs for serious photographers, point-and-shoot cameras for snapshot takers, mirrorless camera systems for DSLR users on vacation, etc.), and similarly, there are many different kinds of musical keyboards, too. There are large wooden digital pianos that are designed for home usage, there are lightweight portable keyboards for beginners who want to learn how to play, and there are keyboards designed for serious musicians who perform live, and create new music with the same attention to detail that fine oil painters apply to the canvas. In this article we’ll take a close look at that last category of keyboards, which are essentially made up of synthesizers, stage pianos and organs.
The main qualities that differentiate these instruments from other kinds of keyboards is the overall dense nature of their sounds, the degree to which you can manipulate and customize the sounds, the lack of built-in speakers (they all depend on external sound amplification, such as keyboard amplifiers) and they offer more professional input and output connectors. The controls on these keyboards are specifically laid out so that you can quickly access key parameters while you’re playing. It’s also common to find little touches on these instruments that make them more emotive to play, such as the wooden pitch stick found on Nord keyboards.
Synthesizers excel at providing both imitations of traditional instrument sounds, and a diverse and malleable array of electronic timbres. It’s common for synthesizers to supply you with a sizable number of presets, so you can just turn them on and start playing. They also give you the option of programming and saving your own custom patches.
Korg microKORG XL
The original microKORG proved to be one of the most popular synthesizers of all time. The quality and variety of its sounds, its intuitive user interface and compact size appealed to many live bands and electronic musicians. The microKORG XL is its successor, and if you’re looking for a big keyboard sound in a tiny package, this is it. The XL version features MMT analog synthesis modeling, which previously was only found in Korg’s more expensive RADIAS and R3 synthesizers. The microKORG XL is outfitted with a USB port, which enables you to connect it to a computer (Mac and Windows compatible) and utilize the software sound editor (which is available as a free download). The microKORG XL has eight voices (twice as many as the original), and 17 effects algorithms (eleven more than the original microKORG), and a much more evolved 16-band vocoder, plus it can be powered with six AA batteries. Even though the microKORG XL provides you with richer sounding tones and gives you a lot more versatility, it shares the same ease of use and pure musical fun that made its older sibling so popular. There are numerous cases available that fit both the original and the XL version of the microKORG, such as the Gator Cases GK-2110 Gig Bag, the SBK Controller Soft Case, and the Korg Micro Series Bag.
Based on the flagship Motif XS engine, the Yamaha MOX6 is a powerful workstation synthesizer with a built-in USB audio interface. This means that in addition to being a stand-alone performance and composition instrument, it can be connected directly to a computer (Mac and Windows compatible) and used for recording and multi-tracking with DAW software. The music making side of the MOX6 is loaded with 1,217 voices and a total of 355 MB of sounds, and it features virtual circuitry modeling for an authentic tone. Its digital recording side enables you to record four tracks simultaneously into a computer (a two-channel stereo feed from the MOX6, in addition to inputs for guitar, microphones and line signals). You get all of this and a newly designed 61 key semi-weighted action keyboard, and somehow it manages to remain lightweight and ultraportable for traveling to rehearsals and gigs. Compatible cases for traveling with the MOX6 are the Gator Cases GKBE-61 Economy Keyboard Bag and the wheeled GK-61 Lightweight Keyboard Case. This keyboard is also available as the 88-key Yamaha MOX8.
Roland GAIA SH-01
The 37-key Roland GAIA SH-01 strikes a nice balance between the hands-on tone shaping quality of vintage synthesizers (by providing you with a healthy amount of knobs, faders and backlit buttons) and the modern, computer-connected keyboards of today. You create sounds on the GAIA by manipulating its oscillator, filter and amplifier, and you can tweak things further with its LFO and envelope generators. Achieving complex sounds is easy, because you can layer three sets of these tones on top of each other for every voice (in case you’re counting, that’s three oscillators, three filters, three amplifiers, three LFOs and nine envelope generators). Plus there are multiple effects, and many clever features that make using the GAIA easy and inspirational. You can take your sound design even deeper with the separately available SD-SH01 Sound Designer software (Mac and Windows compatible), which displays all three tone layers simultaneously, and allows you to view and record waveforms. There is also a handsome looking dedicated case for the GAIA, the Roland CB-37SY.
Digital Pianos and Organs
Many musicians require digital pianos and organs that dedicate much of their processing resources to recreating select instrument sounds, and making them as realistic sounding as possible. The actual keys on these keyboards tend to closely mimic their analog counterparts, whether it’s a piano’s graded hammer action keys, or the “waterfall” style of keys from vintage organs.
Nord Stage 2
Vintage organs, electric pianos and concert grands are main ingredients found in many styles of music, but they’re also cumbersomely large, incredibly heavy and prone to malfunction, which makes them challenging to maintain and very difficult (or impossible) to bring on the road. However, many musicians still need a great-sounding keyboard that provides these bread and butter tones, and they require their instrument to have a very musical feel and response. One of the most comprehensive solutions that fill these needs are the Nord Stage 2 keyboards, which offer rich sounding, sample-based acoustic pianos, vintage electric pianos, a B3 tonewheel organ, Farfisa and Vox organs, as well as some classic analog, FM and wavetable synths. The Stage 2 is available in versions with 76 or 88 weighted hammer action keys, or with 73 semi-weighted waterfall keys (the 73 key version is extra compact and lightweight). All three of these keyboards are compatible with the separately available Nord Triple Pedal, which gives you sustain, sostenuto and soft pedals, and control over mechanical noise for a fully realistic playing experience.
The Kurzweil SP4-8 is a fine example of a stage piano that combines premium instrument sounds, a simple, user-friendly interface and a compact and lightweight body (while still offering 88 weighted hammer action keys). The most important sounds on the SP4-8 (like its piano and organs) are prominently featured and easy to access, but there are 128 sounds in all, and they come from the acclaimed Kurzweil PC3 series. While the SP4 keyboards are the most affordable models that Kurzweil offers, their sounds are all top-shelf quality. This keyboard gives you the lush Triple Strike Grand Piano, as well as incredibly realistic bass guitars, six-string guitars, drums, percussion, orchestral sounds and more. With a couple of button presses, you can quickly create up to four zones of sounds across the keyboard. A USB port on the rear makes it easy to upgrade the firmware, and it allows the SP4-8 to double as a USB MIDI controller for computer software (Mac and Windows compatible). A good way to transport the SP4-8 is with the separately available Kurzweil KB88 Gig Bag. This keyboard is also available in a 76-key version, the Kurzweil SP4-7. Sustain pedals are included with purchase.
Yamaha is a manufacturer of world-class acoustic pianos, so it only makes sense that they would have the know-how required to produce high-quality digital stage pianos, and the Yamaha CP50 is an excellent example of this. Among its many instrument sounds are 12 acoustic and vintage electric pianos, including the Yamaha CF3, which is a 9-foot acoustic grand. Many of the sounds in the CP50 are identical to those found in the more advanced Yamaha CP5 piano. There are 215 sounds in all, as well as effects, and a convenient 3-band EQ (with three dedicated hardware knobs). The knobs give you a quick and easy way to alter the overall sound and feel of an instrument sound. You can combine and save different sounds as “performances,” which can be combinations of instruments in splits and layers. You can also record your performances as .WAV audio files into an external USB flash drive through its built-in USB port. The CP50 is also available in a B&H Kit which includes the keyboard and a deluxe assortment of accessories, such as a double-braced stand, a padded bench, Ultrasone headphones, a keyboard case with wheels, a sustain pedal and an 8GB USB flash drive.
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