Synthesizer users will perhaps know Generalmusic from their previous foray into synthesis with the GEM S2 and S3, but the company's main market has traditionally been home keyboards. Recently they've also been raising their profile with the RealPiano series of physically modelled digital pianos and modules (see review of the GEM Pro2 in August's issue), and rumour has it that next year will see a physically modelled synth from the company.
Meanwhile, Generalmusic are aiming two new instruments, the SK76 and SK88, at the synth workstation market. Both are based on the company's WK series of home keyboards, yet offer power and flexibility to match -- or even better -- that provided by established synth workstation manufacturers. This isn't as surprising as it might seem to those unfamiliar with keyboard developments over the past few years. Keyboards have progressed in leaps and bounds technologically during this time, and extended their self-contained performance ethos to include workstation features, in the process blurring the boundaries between keyboards and synths. At the same time, keyboard Styles have improved vastly in musicality, and become much more contemporary as manufacturers have reached out to younger buyers. The SKs retain the keyboard auto-accompaniment capabilities of the WK series, presumably with the intention of enhancing their appeal to the company's familiar market. So are the new instruments synths or are they home keyboards? And does it really matter?
The SK76 and SK88 are, as you might imagine, 76-key and 88-key versions of the same instrument. The 76 has a semi-weighted synth-style keyboard action (a bit 'clacky' for my liking), while the 88 has a fully weighted hammer-action piano keyboard. I had the 76-key model for review, but all my comments can be taken to refer to the SK88 as well. More expensive Powerstation versions of each model come fitted with an internal 540Mb hard disk, with a large collection of song files, samples and auto-accompaniment styles already installed. In addition, all four models come with 2Mb of battery-backed sample RAM fitted as standard, and can also be fitted with up to 32Mb of volatile sample RAM using standard SIMM chips. Generalmusic have dropped the built-in speakers that the WK series had and given the SK76 a suitably synth-styled casing. However, the front panel's combination of a large graphical backlit LCD and plentiful buttons and sliders is characteristic of today's home keyboards, and is in fact adopted from the WK4.
The user interface is for the most part accessible, though not always as intuitive as you might hope. Particularly effective are the large LCD pages, which are uncluttered, easily readable and informative. Also commendable are the yellow/green LED backlighting and surround lighting for most of the front-panel buttons and their associated labelling. Not everyone will find the LED lighting aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but it's undeniably practical in low-light situations such as on stage (SK, apparently, stands for Stage Keyboard). Less satisfying are the cramped, fiddly, uncomfortable buttons on either side of the LCD -- which, ironically, are about the only buttons not to benefit from LED lighting. The SK76 has two headphone sockets, located on the front panel below the stylishly curved pitch and mod wheels. Meanwhile, round on the rear panel are the usual Left and Right stereo audio outs plus two individual audio outs, two mic/line inputs, two independent sets of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, pedalboard and computer serial port sockets, RGB and S-VHS monitor outputs, and four individual pedal/switch inputs (one preset to volume, three programmable).
The mic/line inputs allow external signals such as vocals and guitar to be routed through the SK76 and mixed in with the instrument's own stereo output. As standard, the signals remain in the analogue domain and are passed straight to the stereo output buss; however, with the addition of the forthcoming optional A/V Harmoniser board, the signals will be digitised -- for vocoding, up to four-part harmonisation, and routing through the SK76's on-board digital effects.
The SK76 comes with over 600 factory sounds, and has plenty of additional programmable memories. It adopts the General MIDI sound set with 16 groups of eight sounds each, which it treats as bank one of 16 banks. The first four of these banks are ROM, the remainder RAM; you can freely store any edited sound to any RAM location.
The SK76 provides sample-based subtractive synthesis editing capabilities to match those from the established synth manufacturers. An SK76 sound can have up to three Layers, each of which can use one or two oscillators. For each Layer you can select one of five Algorithms, which define the configuration of oscillators, filters and amplifiers -- one single-oscillator Algorithm and four dual-oscillator Algorithms. The dual-oscillator types let you choose whether to have two amplifier envelopes or one with a balance control, and two filters in parallel or series.
There are six options in the Sound Edit menu: Waveform, Volume, Amplitude, Filter, Pitch, LFO and Pan. The Waveform section lets you assign a ROM or RAM Waveform (multisample) to each oscillator, and set associated parameters such as waveform direction, transposition, fine-tune, wavestart location, dynamic control over wavestart, and aftertouch pitch sensitivity. The resonant filter section offers a choice of five filter types: low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, parametric boost and parametric cut. Each of the two filters is a two-pole 12dB/octave type; they're usable as a single four-pole 24dB/octave filter when connected in series. The oscillators, filters, amplifiers and balance and pan sections each have separate key on and key off envelopes with up to 10 segments, plus associated keyboard tracking curves with up to six segments. A single freely assignable LFO provides a choice of six waveforms, with associated rate, delay, sync, and modulation amount settings.
Sonically, the SK76 has a clean, crisp, transparent but well-rounded sound with a punchy bottom end. Overall, it's a sound that can be polite or powerful, but is short on warmth and character. The ROM source sounds have been well sampled, and overall the factory collection of sounds is well-varied yet consistent in quality; the synthesis and add-in sample capabilities provide plenty of scope for creativity and customisation. In addition, the four programmable effects processors (two for the Style backing parts, two for the keyboard parts) provide a strong and varied selection of effects.
Surprisingly, the SK76 has no built-in sampling capabilities to complement its sample RAM, audio inputs and A/V Harmoniser board signal digitisation. Generalmusic have announced no plans for sampling yet, though the updatable operating system makes it a possibility. To get samples into the SK76, then, you have to either rely on Generalmusic's own large commercial library of samples, built up from their SX and WX keyboards, or else source your samples using an external sampler or computer-based sampling package, and import the results via MIDI in Sample Dump Standard format or off floppy disk (it's a shame there's no SCSI). The SK76 includes Sample Translator software which allows samples in other formats (Akai, Kurzweil, Sound Designer I, Sample Vision, AIFF, WAV) to be converted to native format -- with the limitation that an SK76 Waveform (sample keymap) can contain at most 16 samples.
Compared with what you'd get on a dedicated pro sampler, the SK76's sample edit capabilities are somewhat limited, providing normalisation, gain, trim, and sample looping. There are no looping functions such as you'll find on dedicated samplers -- not even a zero crossing-point finder -- and no helpful waveform display (let alone zoom and 'splice' features); and don't even think about time-stretching or pitch-shifting. The expectation seems to be that you'll do this externally and then import the results.
The SK76 has an on-board 32-track sequencer which can store up to 250,000 events across up to 16 songs. There are two record methods: Quick Record and Record. You use the former to record a Style performance, with or without a melody part, and the latter for standard multitrack recording. In Quick Record mode, keyboard parts are recorded into tracks 1-8 and auto-accompaniment parts into tracks 9-16 (see below for more on Styles and auto-accompaniments). The sequencer records the actual notes generated by the auto-accompaniment section, not just the harmony trigger chords as happens with some keyboards, so you can customise the recorded backing parts by editing them at bar and event levels. You can also use the two record modes to mix and match auto-accompaniments with your own parts recorded from scratch, or use just standard Record mode to record all 16 tracks from scratch. To get more than 16 tracks, you have to create the additional tracks yourself manually, one by one, using the Create Track function on the Edit Track/Split page (the manual isn't at all clear on this, incidentally); alternatively, Generalmusic UK have a disk of 32-track Song templates available free.
The standard Record mode provides three recording options: linear, forced stop, and loop. You can also select from replace, overdub and punch in/out recording methods. Combining loop and overdub allows you to build up rhythm patterns of any length, and at any location, by adding different instruments on successive passes. The sequencer also lets you record multiple tracks at once, so you can record, say, a bass and piano split performance into two tracks, or bass split with layered piano and strings into three tracks.
You can store all the required settings in up to eight Performances for each Song; one of these Performances must be used as the 'setup' Performance for the Song, while all eight can be positioned anywhere in the Song as part of the recording, or called up spontaneously from the front panel (see the section below for more on Performances).
Performance selection and other general settings such as tempo, volume, effects selection and effect send levels are stored in a Master track, which can be edited in Microscope mode for fine control. The sequencer also has Chord, Music and Lyric tracks, used to create a melody score complete with lyrics and chord symbols, which can be displayed in the LCD and, optionally, on an external monitor.
Song Edit mode provides a familiar array of edit features, including erase, copy, move, quantise and transpose (which work at bar level) and microscope editing (which works at event level). You can use these to edit both the linear tracks and the tracks generated by the auto-accompaniment section in Quick Record. Finally, the SK76 has a Jukebox function which lets you compile a list of your 16 Songs in any order for automated playback, while, inevitably, it can load and play General MIDI songfiles and save Songs in SMF format (in both cases complete with any lyrics and chord symbols used).
The SK76 has 64 on-board programmable Style Performance memories, which let you store keyboard, sound, effect, style, mixer, tempo and pedal settings -- in effect, the 'state' of the keyboard -- for instant recall. All changes from Performance to Performance are executed smoothly, with no timing or other glitches. If you're not interested in Styles, you can still use the Performances to store keyboard and MIDI textures and associated on-board effects settings, with up to eight Sounds, each of which can be given a number of settings, including volume, pan position, transposition, detune, delay, velocity curve, velocity range, and audio out and MIDI Out port and channel. You can set each Sound to internal or MIDI play or both, and customise the Sounds assigned to individual parts by making offset adjustments to envelope ADR, filter cutoff and resonance, and LFO settings for each part (you can do all this for the backing parts too). However, you can't create individual key zones; instead, Sounds 1-2 are assigned to the left and Sounds 3-8 to the right of a global (albeit easily re-programmable) split point.
If you need more key zones and more Sounds or MIDI parts for keyboard performance, you can turn to Song mode, as the 128 Performances there (eight per Song) add key zoning for each Sound or track and can have up to 32 keyboard and MIDI zoned parts, matching the number of tracks.
Styles, for those unfamiliar with the concept, are pattern-based musical templates which are used as the basis of a performance by an electronically-generated 'backing band'. This band 'reads' chords that you play live in a selected area of the keyboard and adjusts its playing accordingly; the resulting backing is commonly known as auto-accompaniment. Typically, while you play chord changes with your left hand to trigger the backing, you can add a melody part with your right. That's the traditional way to use Styles, anyway. The modern way, well suited to dance music production, is to use them for live pattern-based sequencing; this involves recording your own multitrack patterns into the various Style sections of user-programmable Style memories and then calling up the patterns live from the front panel.
The SK76 has a total of 128 Style memories -- 96 preset and 32 user-programmable, organised as 16 groups of eight Styles each. Its preset Styles cover modern and traditional musical styles in a 50/50 split (see 'The Gen On The Gem' box), and are of decent musical quality, though not the best I've heard -- or the most authentic or versatile when it comes to the modern dancefloor styles.
However, the 32 user Style memories mean that you can increase the number of musical styles of your choice, either by buying Style disks from Generalmusic or by programming your own. You can do this from scratch using the Style sequencer, or copy some or all of the parts from other Styles. Mixing and matching parts from different Styles is an easy way to get started, and fun. Sadly, there doesn't appear to be any way to grab phrases from the SK's on-board multitrack sequencer. Each Style has four Variations, an Intro, an Ending and a Fill-in pattern, all selectable from dedicated buttons, with three Fill buttons determining whether the Fill sticks with the same Variation or goes to the previous or next Variation. Also provided is a Fade I/O button for smooth automatic fades. What's more, each of the above sections has three separate patterns -- one for major chords, one for minor, and one for dominant sevenths. If you're programming Styles that don't require chord changes from the keyboard, you can still use the different chord types as a ready way to call up different patterns.
The SK76 has various chord-recognition modes for translating played chords into accompaniment harmonies, from single-finger in the lower (harmony) zone up to two-handed chords across the entire keyboard. Chord recognition can handle the more 'difficult' jazzy chords, as well as chords over pedal notes.
The SK76 is a sophisticated, powerful and imaginatively designed workstation with plenty of depth and flexibility. Its sonic capabilities are impressive, with powerful sample-based subtractive synthesis capabilities, open-ended sonic expandability provided by the sample RAM, and versatile and satisfying multi-effects processing, plus scope for a huge number of on-board sounds to be stored. However, some might find the SK76's overall sound a bit too clean and bland for their liking, perhaps slightly lacking in warmth, ruggedness and character -- though the instrument does have a pleasingly rich and punchy bass end, and provides a solid, crisp delivery of rhythm tracks which should go down well with dance musicians. Disappointments would have to be in the areas of sampling (it's not available), sample-editing (it's limited) and sample transfer/disk storage (there's no SCSI port).
On the sequencing front, the SK76's multitrack offering is one of the better examples of the on-board genre; and the Style section, in conjunction with user Styles and Quick Record mode, can be put to good use for live, spontaneous pattern-based sequencing and recording. This capability, plus the sample RAM and the punchy bass and drum sounds, should make the SK76 attractive to dance musicians. I can also see the SK76 appealing to singer/songwriters, singer/keyboardists and plain old songwriters, with such features as the auto-accompaniment 'backing band', the audio inputs and upcoming A/V Harmoniser board, and the Score display and monitor outputs. However, if none of the 'extra' features interest you, you've still got a powerful synth workstation, and an instrument that allows you to create versatile keyboard textures for performance work.
Piano, Chromatic Percussion, Organ, Guitar, Bass, Strings, Ensemble, Brass, Reed, Pipe, Synth Lead, Synth Pad, Synth SFX, Ethnic, Percussive, SFX.
8-Beat, 16-Beat, Rock, Funk, Dance 1, Dance 2, Jazz, US Trad, Trad 1, Trad 2, Latin 1, Latin 2, User 1, User 2, User 3, User 4.
Hall 1-3, Warm Hall, Long Hall, Street Concert, Chamber, Studio Room 1-3, Club Room 1-3, Vocal, Metal Vocal, Plate 1-2, Church, Mountains, Falling, Early 1-3, Stereo.
Mono Delay 1-2, Stereo Delay 1-2, Multitap Delay 1-2, Ping-Pong, Pan Mix, Chorus 1-2, Ensemble 1-2, Phaser 1-2, Flanger 1-2, Chorus Delay 1-2, Flanger Delay 1-2, Dubbing, Distortion, Distortion Delay, Pitch Shifter 1-2, Shift Delay, Rotary 1-2, EQ Jazz, EQ Pops, EQ Rock, EQ Classic.
Keyboard: SK76 -- 76 dynamic keys; SK88 -- 88 dynamic keys (attack and release velocity, channel aftertouch).
Polyphony: 64 voices.
Multitimbrality: 16 parts (Style mode), 32 parts (Song mode).
Sound generation: Sample-based subtractive synthesis.
Sample ROM: 8Mb, 264 Wavetables (multisamples).
RAM: 1.9Mb system RAM (standard), 2Mb battery-backed sample RAM (standard), up to 32Mb volatile sample RAM (optional).
Sounds: 16 Sound Groups x 8 Sounds x 16 Sound Banks; Banks 1-4 are ROM; includes 29 drum kits.
Effects: Groups A and B, with 1 reverb + 1 modulation effect processor per Group; global two-band EQ; effects are editable.
Performances: 64 (Style); 16 x 8 (Song)
Styles: 96 preset, 32 user-recordable; 8 backing parts; 4 Variations, Intro, Ending and Fill sections.
Sequencer: 32 tracks, 250,000 events, 16 Songs.
Display: Graphical backlit LCD.
Storage: Built-in 3.5-inch DSDD/HD floppy disk drive; 540Mb internal hard drive (optional on standard model; fitted in Powerstation model).
Connections: Left and Right stereo audio out jacks, two individual audio out jacks, mic/line input jacks with independent level knobs, RGB and S-VHS monitor outs (require AV board), computer serial port, pedalboard connector, MIDI A and B (each In, Out and Thru), volume pedal jack, sustain pedal jack, two programmable pedal jacks.
Strong, clear, well-balanced sound.
Accessible front panel with backlit buttons.
Fiddly buttons on either side of the LCD.
No sampling capability.
No SCSI port.
The SK76 is a powerful, versatile and generously featured workstation instrument which combines synthesizer and keyboard functions to good effect. It would make a good songwriter's instrument for the studio, but is also a good stage performance instrument, not only for traditional auto-accompaniment work but also for modern pattern/loop-structured dance performance.
£ SK76 £1999; SK76 Powerstation £2499; SK88 £2499; SK88 Powerstation £2999; 13-note pedalboard £199; multimedia kit (serial cable for connection to PC plus driver) £TBA; A/V Harmoniser board £229. All prices include VAT.
A Generalmusic UK Ltd, Unit 1, Mercian Park, Felspar Road, Amington Industrial Estate, Tamworth, Staffs B77 4DP.
T 01827 312230.
F 01827 312620.