The price of compact MIDI controller keyboards has come tumbling down in the past few years, but weighted-action full-length keyboards have remained relatively expensive — until now. We investigate the 88-note keyboard that runs off USB power...
In recent years, the main focus for makers of master keyboards has been on smaller controllers with between 1.5 and three octaves. Perhaps the number of classically trained piano players out there is diminishing, or perhaps there are more younger musicians who have not trained on acoustic pianos, but whatever the cause, the small MIDI keyboard with a host of assignable knobs which allow you to twiddle and edit your synth parameters has become one of the strongest-selling items in most music stores over the last 10 years. Manufacturers like Midiman, Edirol and Evolution have built much of their recent success on the back of products like the Oxygen 8 and the MK249C, which combine a limited-size non-weighted keyboard with octave-transpose buttons and a bunch of assignable knobs, sliders and buttons.
In contrast, the majority of manufacturers seem to be steering away from larger, weighted-action master keyboards. However, I am happy to report that M‑Audio, the US outfit which recently acquired UK company Evolution, is bucking this trend by releasing the Keystation Pro 88, a fully weighted 88-note master keyboard with USB MIDI class-compliance as well as traditional MIDI hardware connectivity. Housed in a smart silver casing, with a large blue LCD screen to keep you informed of everything that is going on as well as a forest of knobs, buttons and faders, it really looks the part, too. In the past, many keyboards designed for use with a computer have had a rather cheap plastic look which belies their excellent feature set. The same cannot be said for the Keystation Pro 88, which has a very sturdy construction and looks as though it should stand up well to the rigours of life on the road. It has five rubber feet (two at each end and one in the centre of the base), so if you don't have a keyboard stand available, you can still put the Keystation on a table without fear of the screw heads in its base causing damage to the tabletop.
The Keystation's 10 programs (see the 'Factory Presets' box at the end of this article) may seem a little limited for a keyboard of this size and flexibility, but if you have a computer, you can use it to increase the number of sets you have available. The supplied CD-ROM comes with a PC librarian only, but I was delighted to discover that M‑Audio have now posted a v1.1 update for the Enigma Mac OS X librarian on their web site, and this allows the software to be used with the Keystation Pro 88.
There are now a couple of extra windows (see screenshot) to display the many additional parameters and the new zones which the Keystation implements. It's great to be able to see the Zones at a glance on screen, and similarly, the Zone Editor window allows you to see all the parameters for each zone instead of having to dial them up one at a time in the Keystation's LCD. The two windows interact in real time, so if you drag the upper limit of a zone on the graphic display, the box in the parameter display updates. I strongly recommend programming all Zone stuff this way and then transmitting it across to the keyboard.
Small MIDI keyboards which take their power from their USB connection have become quite common of late, but it is quite something to play an 88-note weighted mother keyboard that doesn't need to be plugged into the mains. As soon as I plugged the Keystation into my Powerbook, the backlit LCD display sprang to life. You should however make sure that your laptop's power supply is plugged in, as the Keystation, like many peripherals for portable computers, drains the laptop battery much faster than the computer does on its own.
I suspect that the majority of purchasers of the Keystation will be using it with a computer, and therefore don't require a separate power supply. M‑Audio certainly don't supply an external PSU with the unit, even though there is a 9V DC Input around the back for a standard PSU, if you should need one (for use with an older non-USB-compatible computer, for example).
Those of you who read my review of the Evolution MK461C master keyboard and its brethren in the June 2004 issue of SOS (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun04/articles/evolutionmk461c.htm) will be aware that Evolution are the masters of the Plug and Play class-compliant USB MIDI device — no drivers are needed to make their products work with OS X on the Mac or Windows XP. You may also remember my heartfelt wish that the acquisition of Evolution by M‑Audio might lead to M‑Audio's own products becoming as easy to set up and configure.
I am happy to report that the Keystation Pro 88 is just such an M‑Audio product. Drivers are supplied for Windows 98/ME and Mac OS 9.x users, but OS X and XP users don't need them. Plug the Keystation Pro in via USB with Logic open under OS X, as I did, and a dialogue box immediately reports an extra available two MIDI Ins and one MIDI Out. This is because in addition to the keyboard itself, the Keystation also features one of the few things I felt was missing from the Evolution MK400-series controllers, namely an additional hardware MIDI Input on the back panel. This means that you can plug another MIDI device into the Keystation, and have all its MIDI data output going into the computer as well as the amazing number of controllers from the Keystation itself. This is actually done as a second USB MIDI Port, allowing the MIDI In data and that of the keyboard to be routed to different destinations inside your computer.
The keyboard itself has a very nice feel; it's not too heavy and fatiguing to play, but nor is it too light, so you still get that 'resistance' from the keys which is so necessary for triggering a real piano sound. The feel has a major impact on how you play a piano sound; within hours of receiving the review unit, I was using it very successfully for a rehearsal at which the rest of the band said how good the piano was sounding. The following week, when I used the unweighted 461C instead, there were comments about it not sounding so good! On both occasions, I was of course triggering the same EXS24 sample in my Powerbook.
The only master keyboard I have ever played which feels more natural for piano than the M‑Audio is the Kurzweil PC88, and on that instrument, the piano sound is built in, and has been fine-tuned to respond perfectly to the action. But the Keystation's natural feel is remarkable, especially at its £399 price point. If you wish to fiddle with the response, there are nine different velocity curves which can be selected, but I have to say I found the default setting (a simple linear one) was just fine.
In addition to the 88 weighted wooden keys, the Keystation features no less than 24 fully assignable rotary knobs, 22 assignable buttons and nine assignable 60mm faders (which have the same drawbar-invert function as on the MK461C and MK449C keyboards and the UC33 controller box). Add to this two wheels (pitch-bend and modulation), five transport buttons, two footswitch inputs and a volume (expression) pedal input, all of which are also fully assignable, and you end up with a pretty impressive package.
With 24 rotary knobs, and 22 buttons, I felt as though I had returned to the old days of keyboard playing, when every parameter had a control of its own — even when playing virtual synths. Previously with controller keyboards, I have always found that I either had to pick which 10 or 16 parameters I would need to access most often, or create several different banks of controls, for example one for editing the filter and LFO and another for the envelopes. With the number of controls on the Keystation, you can have everything you need at your fingertips, whatever virtual device you are triggering.
The controls of the instrument are essentially an expanded and refined version of those on the MK461C. Above your left hand are the nine Function keys labelled Global Channel, Channel Assign, Control Assign, Program, Data LSB, Data MSB, Store, Recall and Zone Range above the corresponding button. A single press activates each of these, and then you can use the numeric keypad or the '+' and '-' buttons to enter or adjust the value shown in the display for the next three seconds (after which the unit returns to normal operation).
In addition to these most commonly used nine functions, another seven are available via dual key-presses, and these combinations are clearly labelled below the buttons as Control Mute, Control Select, Drawbar, MIDI Out from USB, Velocity Curve, Device ID and Memory Dump, so you don't have the brainache of trying to remember which dual key-presses activate which functions.
Most of these functions are self-explanatory, but a few are worth looking at in a bit more detail. Drawbar, in particular, is worth its weight in gold to organ players, as it instantly inverts all the 60mm faders so that they send their lowest value at the top of their travel and the highest at the bottom, thereby simulating exactly the way drawbars functioned on Hammond organs. Although I have seen other products offer this function, in my experience you have to invert each slider individually.
MIDI Out from USB is another useful function. This allows the Keystation to act as a USB MIDI Interface for other devices by sending out whatever MIDI messages come down the USB cable from the computer via the Keystation's MIDI Out. The reverse is also true — data coming to the MIDI In port is automatically sent up the USB cable to the computer. Without this option activated, the data sent from the MIDI Out is what the Keystation itself is generating (so that it can be used as a Master keyboard even when there is no computer in the system). When it is activated, the Keystation no longer sends its own controller information out of the MIDI Out. This may seem confusing at first, but if you think of it in a similar way to Local control on a keyboard which does make sounds, it becomes simple. Whenever you are using a computer, you should set the MIDI Out from USB to On, and whenever there is no computer, you must set MIDI Out from USB to Off, or the Keystation will not trigger external modules.
The Octave Up and Down buttons double as a transpose parameter when pressed together and the Snapshot function (which should be familiar to MK461C users, and sends out the current position of every knob, slider and button) is activated by pressing the '+' and '-' buttons together. Again, good panel labelling means that you do not have to hunt in the manual to find out how to do these things. In fact, the only thing which isn't on the front panel is what to do if you have a footswitch with the opposite polarity to the Keystation's programmed default. I needed the manual for this because it isn't done via the front panel! All you have to do is hold the offending footswitch down as you power up the Keystation and it takes this as the default off position. This does mean, however, that you have to remember to do this every time you power up the Keystation, because it can't be memorised.
The Keystation comes with its 10 memories pre-loaded with factory setups, which can be reloaded at any time by holding down the '+' and '-' buttons as you turn the unit on. These contain typical setups which are likely to be the most useful to the user. So 01 is a General MIDI Preset, 02 a GM mixer preset, and 03 a GM2/XG preset. Then we get away from GM; memory 04 is a Propellerhead Reason Mixer and 05 is a Reason Instrument. My favourite is the Native Instruments B4 in 06. 07 and 08 contain Cubase SX/Nuendo and Logic presets respectively, and 09 has a Soundblaster synth setup.
While it is unlikely that more than one or two of these will prove instantly useful, the amount of work that has gone into those one or two will save you a lot of programming time. Even if you don't have the instruments concerned, it is a lot quicker to adapt an existing preset than program one from scratch. For example, I was able to adapt the drawbar-based B4 preset into one for Emagic's EVB3 in about 10 minutes.
I had some trouble getting the transport controls to work with Emagic's Logic, even when I loaded the 'Pro 88 Logic Preset.LSO' file on the supplied CD-ROM into Logic. I contacted the guys who designed and set up the Keystation here in the UK at the old Evolution offices, and between us we managed to work out what was going wrong. First of all, you need to enter the appropriate MIDI key commands in Logic 's user preferences. These cannot be updated with an LSO file, so the commands have to be entered using the Learn Key function in Logic (see the screenshot below for the list we used). Then we discovered that the transport keys were toggling, which meant that only each second press of each key was actually working. It turned out that I had an early version of the Logic preset before this had been fixed, but the more recent one has been put on the M‑Audio web site for anyone else that needs it. It took about 30 seconds to change the output commands so that the buttons were no longer toggling.
Below the main Function buttons are additional buttons to allow control of the Zones and Groups which are a new feature on the Keystation Pro. Once you get to 88 notes, it is rare that you need to use the entire keyboard to play one sound except for the grand piano, which means that when triggering other instruments, you probably want to split the keyboard into various zones to control different timbres on different MIDI channels or even instruments. The Keystation Pro 88 allows for four different zones on the keyboard, each of which can have its own associated range, MIDI Channel, program change and transpose settings. Additionally, you can decide whether controllers like the pedals and wheels affect each zone individually.
These Zones can be activated and deactivated during performance without the need to change programs. It means that you can essentially keep four different sub-programs in each main program (say a piano over the whole keyboard, a bass sound in the left hand and strings and brass layered in the right hand) and then mix and match them as required. Deciding which are active at any given time is the job of the four buttons just below the main function buttons. Each has an LED associated with it so that you can see at a glance which zones are active at any time.
The Zone buttons have a secondary function which I have not seen before — that of activating the three different Groups of controllers. Group A comprises the wheels, pedals and transport controls, B covers the 24 rotary knobs and the nine buttons beneath them, and Group C includes the nine 60mm sliders and the nine buttons beneath them. Each controller is labelled on the panel with the group letter, as well as its own individual number in the format A35, C3 or B46, so can you see immediately which group a controller belongs to.
Now you might wonder why you would want to deactivate groups of controllers. The main reason is that when you recall a program, you can choose to only load part of its controller set, leaving other controllers still left on the previous assignments. For example, you may be only using the slider and buttons beneath them to control an organ sound for Native Instruments' B4, but may want to use the 24 rotary knobs for a parameter-heavy synth like Gmedia's impOSCar. If you deselect Group C (the sliders and buttons) once you have the B4 program loaded before recalling the program for impOSCar, then the synth controller assignments for the 24 knobs and their nine buttons will be loaded in, but the nine sliders and their buttons will remain assigned to their B4 parameters. Then, by deselecting both Groups B and C, you could load the transport controls for Logic into Group A, but keep the synth and organ controls on B and C respectively. Of course, it does require a fairly organised mind to keep track of what you are controlling where, but you are not forced to use this facility if you don't wish to. An extra bonus is that when you switch the unit off, it retains whatever is in the current setup as an additional memory, so you can have a complicated multi-Group selection available to you at power-up.
The only thing I don't like on the Keystation Pro is the same thing I mentioned at the end of my MK461C review — there's no hard-wired master volume control here, either! But as I said in that review, this is really only an issue if you do a lot of playing live, and need to turn down an incorrect sound or stuck note in a hurry. In the studio, this should never be a problem.
However you look at it, the Keystation Pro 88 respresents tremendous value for money. Whilst Fatar master keyboards of this size have been available for well under a thousand pounds, they have not had the numbers and flexibility of controllers that this unit has. In fact, no keyboard this size has been able to work directly with computers via USB before, so that in itself makes it unique. Its primary raison d'être, as a hammer-action 88-note keyboard, more than justifies the purchase price on its own, but when you add in all the knobs, sliders, buttons, wheels and pedals, you really do have the ultimate controller keyboard at a steal of a price.