The first is cheap, light and small, enabling its owner to have a meaningful, but nevertheless low-level musical relationship with a computer soundcard or similar. The second type is expensive, big and very, very heavy -- consisting of Steinway grand keyboards welded to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and offering enough technology to subjugate entire galaxies of MIDI modules. In terms of size, specification and price, you could call the Roland A33 a bit of an in-betweenie. For example, its six-octave, 76-note keyboard makes it something of a player's instrument, although the keys aren't weighted like most professional controller keyboards. And while the MIDI spec is relatively straightforward, the A33 has a couple of tricks up its sleeve which make it a more attractive proposition than the handful of other controller keyboards in this fair-to-middling price range.
I should point out now that, while it will communicate with anything you can shake a MIDI lead at, this keyboard is essentially optimised for use with GS sound modules, Roland's proprietary, extended version of General MIDI. That explains why, although it makes no sounds of its own, the numeric data-entry buttons are also labelled with the names of GM/GS sound banks, and, for that matter, why it has dedicated on/off controls for chorus and reverb. This is darn useful if you possess a GS/GM module, particularly those various models, designed for computer use, that have no display. Conversely, if you're not a GS Joe, these features are ever so slightly redundant.
Physically, the A33 is a well-turned out package that oozes quality. The keyboard itself has a firm, responsive action which is pleasant to use. And all those extra notes! It's like being allowed to run free in the big boys' playground. [Steady on there -- Ed.] The keyboard is transposable up or down by up to two octaves, giving a total range of nearly 10 octaves. You've probably spotted one of Roland's combined pitch-bend/modulation controllers lurking on the left there. Personally, I find these more intuitive than trying to manipulate two separate wheels. The modulation axis can be switched to transmit aftertouch, which the keys can't. However, it goes without saying (or maybe it doesn't) that the keyboard is velocity sensitive, with user-programmable sensitivity. Round the back you'll find a socket for the optional DC adaptor (the A33 will run on batteries as well), jack sockets for an optional sustain switch and expression pedal, and the all-important MIDI In, two MIDI Outs and one MIDI Thru. One neat feature is that each MIDI Out can be separately switched on or off from the front panel. Despite the lack of any display, the keyboard is a breeze to set up and edit, primarily because there are plenty of buttons available to help -- none of this using the keys of the keyboard to tap in program number and the like.
There are three keyboard modes: Upper, Lower and Split. The Upper and Lower sections can either be used separately (with a programmable spread across the keyboard) or combined together to create Layered patches. Split mode divides the keyboard into two sections, normally with a default split point of C4 -- though, again, this is user-programmable. MIDI channel, octave shift, pitch-bend/modulation on/off, sustain on/off and expression on/off can be set separately for each section. Any MIDI controller from 0-95 can be assigned to the data-entry slider, allowing you to remotely control functions such as volume, pan, reverb and chorus send level, and so on. However, since the A33 isn't equipped with a display which allows you to monitor data when transmitting it, it's not suitable for any operation involving Registered and Non-Registered Parameter Numbers.
The A33 also features a start/stop button for an external sequencer. Here you can make use of the A33's in-built MIDI Clock generator, with bpm (beats per minute) programmable via the data-entry slider. As an alternative the keyboard will re-transmit any MIDI clocks received via its MIDI In socket through both MIDI outs, having first merged it with any other outgoing MIDI data. Having set up your complex patches, you can save them to one of 32 user memories, allowing you to reconfigure your MIDI setup at the touch of a button.
Taken at face value, the A33 scores highly enough, particularly if you're looking to partner it with a GM or GS sound module. It's solidly built and attractively presented, and even though they may not be weighted, those 76 notes are ideal for keyboard players who like to stretch out, both physically and musically. My only difficulty with the A33 is knowing that for the same kind of money there are now keyboards around (of the 'home' variety, admittedly) which offer comparable levels of external MIDI control, with the advantage that they also produce sounds. What's more, to get the most out of the current wave of sound modules, you need far more than an ability simply to trigger notes and change patches. It all leads me to wonder whether in-betweenies really make good long-term investments. However, if you know you're not likely to want more than the A33 offers in the foreseeable future, it's a cost-effective controller that's comfortable to use.
Lots of notes.
Nice keyboard action.
Inflexible in the long-term.
The A33 is especially recommended if you need
76 notes, as it's a shade cheaper than the nearest
competition (though it lacks weighting), or simply
need a well-built controller for your GM/GS sound module.
£ £399 including VAT.
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