Long-term players in the controller keyboard game, Fatar have brought all of their expertise to bear on the Numa - so is it as sophisticated as it is stylish?
Photo: Mark EwingGrowing demand for hands-on control of DAWs, software instruments and effects has meant that today's master keyboards, from the full-scale, weighted, 88-note, feature-laden types down to the nattiest two-octave, battery operated varieties, come bristling with knobs, faders and buttons. Fatar have been making master keyboards bearing the Studiologic name for ages, their most recent models being the control-laden VMK range, reviewed in the February 2007 issue of SOS. It is, therefore, interesting that their latest 88-note weighted Numa keyboard takes an altogether different approach, by foregoing knobs or faders and focusing on the performance and quality of the keyboard itself. Bold claims are made for this particular keyboard, making the Numa potentially of interest to those who up to now have not been convinced by the feel of weighted MIDI keyboards.
The Numa's design and construction are nothing if not bold statements. The chassis is constructed entirely from ABS, which brings the benefit of reduced weight compared to other 88-note boards. This keyboard is clearly conscious of its looks — if it were alive it would spend hours peering into a mirror looking for blemishes. Despite being made of plastic, the whole assembly feels reassuringly solid — nevertheless, I wouldn't fancy the Numa's chances of avoiding a nasty crack if dropped onto its end. For that reason, gigging musicians would certainly need a sturdy flightcase to maintain its appearance, which naturally puts the weight up again. The Numa's design could be described as elegant minimalism — it wouldn't look out of place in a modern art installation (more Duchamp than Tracey Emin) or featured in a lifestyle advertisement in the corner of some expensive open-plan loft apartment on London's Bankside.
To the left of its otherwise featureless, glossy white surface is a small, shiny, black control panel that houses the Numa's user interface. The only other interruption to this sleek minimalism is the brushed aluminium upper-rear surface, which curves round to form the rear panel. This can be slid backwards to reveal a slot for the included perspex music stand. Most usefully, though, it increases the depth of the top surface to form a convenient platform for other devices — a second keyboard, a drum machine or, perhaps more essentially, a knobby USB MIDI control surface.
Fatar's much-vaunted 'You Play' system, which allows the user to create their own custom velocity curves, works very effectively. In You Play mode, the Numa analyses your performance for 30 seconds and then creates a velocity response curve that complements your playing dynamics. Fifteen such curves can be saved, enabling the Numa to be customised for a number of different players or situations. Fatar claim this is a unique system. However, Kawai actually got there first with a similar system on their MP8 Stage Piano (reviewed SOS November 2005).
Where You Play is unique is that it generates separate curves for the black and white keys, recognising that players tend to apply different degrees of force to each of these. The result is noticeably smoother and more consistent dynamic control, with fewer of those rogue 'stick-out' or 'lost' notes that often plague other weighted keyboard designs.
Out of necessity (due to the sliding aluminium upper-rear surface) the Numa's connections are located on the left-hand end cheek instead of the rear-panel, as you might expect. These are quite basic, consisting of a single MIDI output, two assignable controller pedal jacks, a USB connection and a DC power input jack. Also found in this rather unorthodox location is an unsprung controller wheel — more on which later.
The Numa's control panel is finished in a shiny black surface that Fatar call 'Gloss Metacrilato'. Stylish and elegant, this panel consists simply of a blue backlit 128 x 64 pixel LCD, below which are four buttons flanked by two circular 'dials', the sum of which serves as the Numa's user interface. Actually, these are neither buttons nor dials in the usual sense — they are capacitive touch-sensitive pads, a rather sci-fi approach for a distinctly sci-fi looking keyboard. The left hand dial is divided into four segments that function as up/down, left/right cursor buttons. The right-hand dial functions like a standard endless rotary encoder — just slither your finger round the ring to change values. In the default Play mode, the up/down cursor buttons are used to select Patches. The first five of these are 'templates', and permanently resident in flash memory, with up to 59 more locations available for user Patches, storable to internal EEPROM memory. The left/right buttons step through five 'quick edit' pages from where temporary changes can be made to each of the Numa's four key Zones. These include MIDI channel, Zone mute, Transpose, Program Change and Volume. However, these changes are lost if the Patch number is changed. To make more detailed changes that can be saved permanently, you must enter the 'proper' Edit mode by touching the left and right cursor buttons simultaneously.
Edit mode offers more detailed parameter settings, including those covered by 'quick edit', across 14 pages. Setting the four Zone key ranges is easy — select a Zone, play the lowest note followed by the highest, and it's done. Three key velocity modes are selectable per Zone: Dynamic, Organ and Staccato. Both Dynamic and Staccato modes make use of the currently selected velocity curve (soft, medium, hard or one of 15 user-definable curves — see the 'You Play' box). Organ, on the other hand, delivers a fixed velocity of 127, but with a useful bonus. Rather than having to depress a key for nearly the full depth of its travel before a note triggers (around 8mm) in Organ mode you trigger notes sooner, at around 5mm of key travel, making organ playing techniques easier to execute. This might also prove invaluable for playing other non-pianistic synth sounds; however, Organ mode does not output any velocity other than 127, making it of limited use in this respect.
The difference between Dynamic and Staccato modes is, put simply, the point at which note-on and note-off events occur relative to a key's physical travel. In Dynamic mode, note-ons happen near the bottom, whilst note-offs are near the top, analogous to the hammer/damper motions of a real piano. In Staccato mode, note ons and offs are at the same point, at the bottom of the key's travel, enabling much shorter notes to be performed than in Dynamic mode. It's a subtle difference, but of potential benefit when using Staccato mode to play synth sounds.
The Numa offers two modes of USB operation from its system menu: USB MIDI and USB Virtual Com. The instrument starts by default in USB MIDI mode, and connecting the Numa to my PC via USB produced the expected result — the Numa was recognised as a 'USB Audio Device' and became available as an additional MIDI port in Sonar. USB Virtual Com mode enables the Numa to communicate with PC editing applications, and although none were available at the time of writing, 'Numa Interactive' software should be downloadable from Fatar's web site by the time this review goes to press. This will allow updating of the Numa's operating system (as and when updates are made available) and will also store Patches to a PC. Additional editing software is scheduled for the coming months, which, according to Fatar, "emulates the current Numa LCD display and patch editor functions for computer use."
The Grand Touch TP400 keyboard mechanism has a very high-quality feel, partly due to the use of 'full body' solid black keys, as opposed to the hollow ones found on many instruments. The keyboard also features taller white keys, for a 'throw' distance that Fatar describe as mimicking a full concert grand piano. The action is graded (heavier at the bottom, lighter at the top) and it certainly feels well-balanced, although I still found it generally heavier overall than most real pianos — the lighter weight of the top keys is arguably closer in feel to the real thing.
Fatar's claim that this is "the most inspiring, pianistic action ever conceived in an electronic instrument" is a bold one; nevertheless it does provide a pleasurable playing experience, and certainly seems to offer more consistent control over dynamics than many other weighted 'boards.
The wheel, aftertouch and the two controller jack sockets all operate in either positive or negative polarity, and are freely assignable to any controller number from zero to 127. They can also be individually disabled per Zone. Aftertouch can also (unsurprisingly) generate aftertouch data, while the foot jacks can be defined as continuous, open or closed switch controller types.
The wheel can additionally be assigned to output pitch-bend data. However, because the values output by the wheel run from zero to 127, 'pitch zero' (value 64) is at the centre of its travel. Since the wheel has no centre detent position, locating 'pitch zero' quickly and accurately is going to be difficult, making it impracticable as a performance tool in this context. The wheel's resolution is also very coarse, with drastic data discontinuities that can be seen in the screenshot above. Aftertouch also suffers from overly coarse resolution and similar discontinuities, failing to generate virtually any data at values less than 42.
The wheel itself is an enigma; its physical location makes it uncomfortable to use, as you have to reach almost to the rear of the end panel to find it. It is also completely invisible from any practical playing position, which causes one to wonder why Fatar went to the trouble of making it translucent and embedding it with attractive blue LEDs that glow brighter as you increase its value. No-one, least of all the performer, is ever going to see it!
Using the footpedal jacks with a continuous pedal also revealed a shortcoming: the maximum value generated was only 123. The same pedal I used for testing (a Roland EV5) is capable of generating the maximum value of 127 when used with other devices, so the fault clearly lies within the Numa.
Further software issues include a Panic button function that succeeds in resetting the controllers but fails to send any note-off information, and Program Changes which, when stored in a user Patch, fail to be transmitted when the Patch is selected. Many of the above problems are presumably due to this being the initial release version of the Numa's operating system (version 1.0), so one can only urge Fatar to resolve these issues at the earliest opportunity.
Finally, although one can appreciate the intent behind the hi-tech touch-sensitive controls, they proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. Occasionally they would fail to react at all on the first touch. More often, however, they were hugely over-sensitive, tending to react when my finger merely hovered over them. This resulted in erratic behaviour such as patches changing unintentionally, pages cycling as my finger passed over one button on the way to another, and edits being lost. Although options are available in the System menu to alter sensitivity, the problems are still exhibited even at the lowest settings. Nice idea, Fatar, but in this case not the wisest choice.
The aesthetic side of me likes the Numa purely for its appearance, but the all-important practical side recognises various causes for concern. Software issues can be fixed, but hardware ones (such as the location of the wheel) are less likely to be. Anyone needing more detailed control will also have to take account of the additional cost of a MIDI control surface, which could add up to a fairly expensive package. However, if all you need is the ability to play piano sounds on a luxurious keyboard, then the Numa could be exactly what you're looking for. .
There is a number of 88-note controller keyboards on the market at the moment, some with built-in control surfaces and some without, and at a range of different prices. Fatar's own VMK188 plus (fully weighted, full control surface), is an obvious alternative — and was reviewed in the April 2005 issue of SOS.
M-Audio's Keystation, also featuring a fully weighted keyboard and a control surface, would also be worth considering. Lastly, the CME VX8 and UF80 both offer weighted keyboards and control surfaces and both have recently been reviewed in SOS.