Photos: Mike Cameron
Ever wished you could own a weighted MIDI controller keyboard, but not had the room, the biceps or the bank balance to cope with a full 88-note model? Well, Studiologic have cottoned on to this potential market and now offer a range of weighted, graded hammer-action keyboards with aftertouch in four (yes, four!) sizes: 88, 76, 61 and 49 notes, together known as the VMK 'Plus' series. There are, in fact, five models available, namely the VMK149 Plus, 161 Plus, 161 Organ Plus, 176 Plus and 188 Plus. The model on review is the 76-note one, but four of the five models are functionally identical, the only difference being the keyboard lengths. The one 'rogue' model in the series is the 161 Organ Plus, which sports a 61-note, synth-action, 'waterfall' keyboard (styled after the flat-fronted keys found on a Hammond) instead of a weighted-action job. Contrary to expectations, the 161 Organ Plus does not feature any form of organ tone generation: these are all purely MIDI controller keyboards. The 'Plus' in the series title refers to the USB connector fitted to each, which supplements the dual MIDI output sockets and also provides buss power directly from your computer. There's no mention of USB in the user manual, so I think it's unlikely the USB connection has any uses beyond its use as an alternative to the MIDI outputs, but it's straightforward enough to set up. Simply connect the VMK to the computer with the USB cable, the VMK powers up automatically, Windows XP registers it as a 'USB audio device' and it's immediately ready to roll. Sonar 6 picked it up in the device list without a hitch. Not using the VMK with a computer? No problem: an external 9V PSU is also provided to power the VMK when the standard MIDI connections are used instead of USB.
If the VMK176 Plus seems familiar, that's because its predecessor, the VMK188, was reviewed in the April 2005 issue of SOS. Functionally, the two generations are pretty much identical, the main differences being the USB connector and a major cosmetic overhaul. Whereas the VMK188 was black, with difficult-to-read, black-embossed legending, the Plus series are silver-grey, with silver-on-grey screen-printed legending — a helpful improvement. Also, the Plus series introduces Fatar's Grand Touch key action, although the lack of detailed information on the web site means that it's unclear whether this action is new or merely a 'rebranding' of the previous one.
The VMK series is manufactured by Fatar, an Italian company who also supply keyboard actions to many other instrument manufacturers. As mentioned above, the action fitted to the VMK Plus series goes by the name of Grand Touch, and it seems to offer more comfortable access to the whole velocity range than some earlier Studiologic models I've encountered, although I found that precise control of the middle to upper velocity ranges was a bit hit-and-miss. No adjustments to the velocity curve can be made on the VMK, but your host DAW or software instruments should provide some degree of velocity-curve compensation, so it's not necessarily a problem. Similarly, the absence of keyboard zoning for creating splits and layers (the keyboard itself transmits on only one MIDI channel at a time) could be dealt with using a suitable software utility program such as Plogue Bidule. These omissions mean that the VMK may not be ideal as the main on-stage MIDI controller of a large MIDI rig — but then I'd venture to say that's not the market at which it is primarily aimed.
Velocity response of individual keys on the review model was variable. A handful of notes didn't consistently reach 127 and occasionally fell quite short, especially when I was playing quick repeats. More seriously, note #64 (the 'E' above middle 'C') could only reach a maximum velocity value of 90. Since the VMKs have been available for several months now, I doubt that this can be attributable to pre-production teething troubles, so a test of any potential purchase is recommended! The keyboard itself is enjoyable to play, not too heavy, with a firm key 'bottom' and not too much clattering.
The user manuals for the entire VMK series can be downloaded from www.studiologic.net. All these manuals (and the printed one that accompanied the review model) claim a total of 77 assignable controllers per preset, provided by four banks of nine sliders, two banks of eight buttons and two banks of eight switches, plus the assignable transport controls and footswitch sockets. This is certainly true for another, closely related model, the VMK88, which is an 88-key, semi-weighted controller keyboard. However, the VMK149, 161, 176 and 188 'Plus' models appear to have only one bank of controllers per preset. I contacted Studiologic Support to confirm this fact, but no reply was forthcoming. However, Fatar's UK distributor did respond, confirming that the 'Plus' keyboards do have only one bank of controllers per preset and informing us that the manuals on the web site are being updated to reflect this fact.
In keeping with the current vogue, the VMK Plus keyboards are designed to provide hands-on control of DAW and soft-synth parameters, and are thus aimed squarely at the computer-based studio market. To this end, the 176 is equipped with nine sliders, eight knobs, eight buttons, five transport controls and three footswitch sockets, all of which are freely assignable to the full range of MIDI controllers and various other functions.
There are 30 'preset' memory locations available on board, which include a number of factory-programmed setups designed to control specific software devices. The review model offered presets for General MIDI, Propellerhead's Reason, NI's Pro 53 and B4 (or Logic EVB3), NI's Absynth and FM7, MOTU's Mach 5, IK's Sampletank, Steinberg's Cubase, Logic EVP88 and NI's Elektrik Piano. The product brochure also mentions Spectrasonics' Atmosphere and Synthogy's Ivory, and these presets are presumably included in current production versions. Further presets are apparently available as downloads from www.studiologic.net, but, surprisingly, they take the form of Excel spreadsheets, the data from which has to be programmed into the VMK manually! This is bizarre, given the presence of a USB connection that could theoretically be used to upload data directly to the VMK. It proved to be academic, however, because the preset download page was not accessible during the review period. In addition, preset data cannot be archived externally, either via USB or any kind of flash memory card.
To load a preset, you first hit the Enter button to make the selection, whereupon it takes a lengthy three to four seconds to load while the VMK scans its controls. Whenever a preset is selected, a pair of MIDI Bank Select messages and a Program Change message are also sent (definable for each preset — although it seems that these cannot be disabled, which may be an inconvenience, depending on how you like to work). Rather more useful would have been the option to specify default values for each assigned controller, that are sent whenever such a preset is selected. Then you could have specific soft-synth 'preset edits' stored in the VMK itself, although the fact that there are only 30 preset memory locations on the VMK would preclude your having too many of these.
I tried the Native Instruments B4 preset. Whilst no substitute for NI's own B4D hardware controller, it nevertheless offers control over some of the most useful B4 parameters. Drawbars are, naturally, controlled via the nine sliders (inverted, like a Hammond) while the eight buttons and eight knobs control other essential on/off or variable parameters such as Overdrive, Key-click Level, Percussion Level, Rotary Speed, and so on. Some sort of template overlay cards would really help with identifying which knob or button does what; it's all too easy to accidentally turn up the Overdrive when you meant to turn up the Key-click Level. Frustratingly, the B4 preset offers no control of the lower manual or pedal drawbars. If alternative slider 'banks' had been implemented (see the 'Erratum?' box), these could be programmed, but as it is you'd have to program your own 'lower manual' preset in a different memory location to achieve full control.
Since editing procedures were covered in detail in Paul Wiffen's April 2005 review of the VMK188 (which you can read at www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr05/articles/fatarvmk188.htm), I won't cover the same ground here. However, I will say that his comments on the 'clunky' operating system are still valid, and that editing the VMK, while simple in principle, remains a fairly button-intensive and time-consuming affair. To supplement his observations, I should add that any changes to a preset (while you're in edit mode) cannot be auditioned until the preset has been saved. This results in a great deal of button-pushing simply to confirm that the knob you've just assigned to a particular function is in fact assigned correctly. One can only hope that the buttons have been designed to withstand a lot of pressing!
For anyone working in a studio-based, computer-oriented setting and looking for a well-endowed control surface married to a quality weighted keyboard, especially one that is shorter than the usual 88 notes, the VMK plus series could fit the bill. However, I can't help thinking that its rather pedantic operating system is a bit of an obstruction to a productive workflow, and if keyboard length is not an issue, some people might prefer to combine the weighted keyboard of an existing digital piano with one of the many available stand-alone USB control surfaces that integrate more efficiently into the computer environment, and whose operating systems are rather more elegant.
When the VMK188 was reviewed in SOS in April 2005, its retail price was £699. The VMK188 Plus comes in at £499, which is a significant £200 drop, while the VMK176 Plus on review here is listed at £449.99. It's still a little more expensive than some current alternatives, but the inclusion of a quality weighted keyboard should not be overlooked.