Want to get serious about your music? A quality master controller keyboard is a good place to start. Paul Ward looks at two machines that offer a little more than most.
The release of a new controller keyboard will never generate the kind of excitement that accompanies the launch of a new synth or workstation, but for anyone serious about their music a good one can make a world of difference. We're not looking for a bagful of tasty samples, accurate analogue emulation, or cartloads of effects. What we are looking for is a device that makes the best of an individual's playing style and satisfies their control requirements.
The MC3000 88-note master controller keyboard represents a joint venture between Oberheim and Viscount, and the result is a solidly professional-looking piece of hardware. It's resplendent in beige and black livery and is so substantial that a truck could probably drive right over it and the only thing you'd have to worry about would be how to remove the rubber scuff marks. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but believe me, this is one very chunky customer. I suspect that its design and colouring are intended to conjure up echoes of Oberheim's former glories, but I'd argue that the effect is a tad bland. That never stopped PCs from selling, I suppose!
Channels, Bays & Ports
There are no fewer than eight separately addressable MIDI outputs on the MC3000's rear panel, offering access to a total of 128 MIDI channels. This fact will certainly endear it to those wanting a controller for stage use. Two MIDI inputs are also provided,
OBERHEIM/VISCOUNT MC3000 £799
Powerful controller features.
Good weighted key action.
Healthy number of MIDI ports/channels.
Generous supply of pedal inputs.
Chain facility for live performance.
Can store and replay SysEx strings.
Onboard fader bank.
Patience and time required to get to grips with some of the more advanced features.
No dedicated sequencer controls.
No onboard backup facilities.
Lacks the MC2000's ability to add a daughterboard.
An accomplished, well-specified device with a depth of features that would satisfy home and professional users alike. With so many MIDI channels available and eight pedal inputs it would take a seriously large MIDI rack to outgrow this keyboard. At the price it must be considered an excellent buy.
A healthy complement of pedal inputs is provided. There are eight in total, three being designated 'system' pedals, which will act across all keyboard zones, while the other five are assigned to duties in specific zones. All of the pedal inputs are able to handle both switch and expression pedal types, but I couldn't find any facility to define the polarity of the switching pedals, and guess what? My switching pedal was the wrong way round. Some manufacturers get around this by making their machines determine the state of attached pedals at power-on, but sadly that isn't the case here.
An RS232 port is included for the connection of a mouse. The MC3000 is quite fussy about the type of mouse it will accept, requiring a three-button device with a PC/MS switch that must be set to the PC position. Oberheim have also provided an integral mouse mat to the right of the front panel. While on many instruments I would welcome the potential of a mouse for editing
All that remains of the rear panel are the standard 'Euro' mains connector, power switch and the LCD contrast control, which obviously got lost on its way to the front panel -- hmm...
Speaking of the front panel, it's a very workmanlike control surface. To the far left are a sprung pitch wheel and a pair of non-sprung modulation wheels. These wheels have a chunky appearance and a soft rubber texture, which makes them comfortable and tactile in use. However, they're placed to the rear of the keyboard, a position probably necessitated by the length of the keyboard, and I feel as if I'm stretching to get to them. Maybe I'd get used to it in time.
Zones & Layers
To the right of the wheels is a bank of eight control sliders, with associated 'Zone Key' switches. When a Zone Key is lit, the corresponding zone on the keyboard is active. When a Zone Key flashes, the zone is in a 'standby' state, ready to be brought into play by pressing the switch. When a Zone Key is not lit, the zone is inactive. Simple enough, methinks.
In the centre of the control surface is the LCD, underneath which lurk six 'software' function keys and the Write and Escape
OBERHEIM/VISCOUNT MC2000 £599
Similar set of features to MC3000.
Has the ability to add an internal daughterboard for instant sounds.
Small screen could prove annoying.
Still a heck of a weight!
Slightly cut-down version of MC3000, with the advantage of a daughterboard connector, which may make it a better choice for many. This is a value-for-money machine that should not be ignored and must surely be viewed as something of a bargain.
To the right of the display are the cursor buttons, Increment/Decrement buttons, and 'Dynamic Encoder' wheel for entering data values. Further to the right are the numeric keypad and mode buttons for entering the MC3000's various play and edit modes. On the far right is the built-in mouse pad, which could arguably come in handy even if you don't plug a mouse into the MC3000 itself.
The black and white bits at the front comprise the weighted 88-key A-to-C keyboard, with aftertouch sensitivity. The weighted action seems reasonably comfortable to these fingers, but this is probably the one aspect of a master keyboard that is inevitably down to the individual to evaluate. For what it's worth, I'd say that the feel is somewhat lighter than a typical piano response, which is probably a reasonable compromise, given that that the majority of these machines are unlikely to spend their entire lives triggering piano patches. Each of the instrument's eight zones can be assigned its own velocity and aftertouch response curve, from a ROM palette of 16 variations. As if that wasn't enough, a further 48 curves can be stored by the user, and these are subsequently selectable on a per-zone, per-Program basis. Any response curve can be automatically mirrored, typically for crossfading purposes.
The machine powers up in Program mode, where MC3000 Programs are selected by way of the wheel, Inc/Dec buttons, or numeric keypad. Since Program mode is where average users will spend most of their time it's worth taking a look at the functions available from this screen:
The LIST function displays up to 10 MC3000 Programs on screen, to make selection easier in some circumstances.
VIEW shows a graphic representation of the current Program's keyboard zones.
INFO yields details of the various parameters defined for each zone, such as output port, channel, volume and program change, and also shows the MIDI controller numbers currently assigned to the pedals and sliders.
PRG allows a bank/program change message to be sent to any connected device, regardless of the program changes defined in the current MC3000 Program -- a kind of 'scratch pad'.
SOLO keeps the currently selected zone active while deactivating all others.
Chains & Programs
The current status of the output ports is displayed in the top right of the LCD. Active ports are displayed as a circle, while ports in standby mode are greyed out. When MIDI activity occurs on a port, the circle becomes a black dot. Inactive ports simply don't show up on the screen. This is all useful information, but it would be more useful if the port icons were numbered on screen for easy recognition. For long-term use I suspect I'd resort to a small sticker to provide a numbered overlay.
A total of 128 Chains of Programs, each up to 256 steps long, may be programmed within the MC3000 -- ideal for live use. Chains can be named, and steps may be added, deleted, or inserted. Several methods of stepping through the Chain are available, including use of the first three attached pedals, function key F6, the 'Enter' button, the Inc or Dec buttons, the cursor keys, the numeric keypad, or an 'A0' note from the keyboard.
Program editing is relatively simple, but it requires some thought with so many ports and possibilities to hand. A port, MIDI channel, low and high key are defined for each zone, along with a transposition amount, key mode (mono or poly), and portamento switch. Once this has been done, screens lead the user through bank/program selection and values for volume and pan. For those sound modules which allow it, reverb and chorus amounts can also be set here.
Rather than relying solely on bank and Program numbers, each zone may have a Program-name list assigned to it, chosen from a built-in selection, or from one of 48 tables which can be defined by the user. As standard, the MC3000 offers a GM list and several others for popular machines, including Roland's JV2080 and the Alesis QSR. Once a list is assigned to a zone, selecting patch numbers from the MC3000's screen causes the corresponding patch name to be shown too. It's nice to see patch names as you work, but there's no way to perform name searches, or to automatically import user bank names, so the usefulness of this facility is somewhat limited.
Each zone has an associated set of 'Aux' messages that do not really form part of the zone data itself, but allow messages to be sent to devices such as mixers or effects processors. The MIDI port and channel of these auxiliary messages are independent of the zone and, in addition to a program change, a user-defined controller message is also available. Finally, an option to attach a System Exclusive message to each zone is provided. These SysEx messages can be defined by the user, although a few useful examples are provided for good measure.
Each of the eight control sliders can be set to generate a specific MIDI controller number and an initial value within each Program; this initial value will be transmitted when the Program is selected. The same is true of the pedals.
The Order Of The Universe
Much can be made of the MC3000's programmability, especially by using the facility for generating SysEx messages, but there are one or two ways of getting yourself into a real muddle if you're not careful. I set up a Program which sent a 'GM Mode On'
88-key weighted keyboard with aftertouch.
64 velocity curves (48 programmable).
64 aftertouch curves (48 programmable).
64 Program tables (48 programmable).
64 SysEx tables (48 programmable).
1024 Program memories.
8 MIDI Outs.
2 MIDI Ins.
2 MIDI Thrus.
8 slider controls.
Sprung pitch wheel and two non-sprung mod wheels.
88-key weighted keyboard with aftertouch.
32 velocity curves (preset only).
32 aftertouch curves (preset only).
48 Program tables (16 programmable).
48 SysEx tables (16 programmable).
256 Program memories.
4 MIDI Outs.
2 MIDI Ins.
2 MIDI Thrus.
4 slider controls.
Sprung pitch wheel and two non-sprung mod wheels.
Internal daughterboard connection socket.
Several useful features lurk in Utility mode. MIDI bulk dumps are performed from here, ensuring that precious data can be stored to an external device for safekeeping. Various dump options permit the storage of specific data types, or you can make a simple dump of everything. A very flexible MIDI monitor is included, and this could save hours of frustration in complex MIDI rigs. The MC3000 allows for selection of individual ports and even provides filtering to remove control, SysEx, or program change messages from the displayed data.
Utility mode also hosts pages where velocity and aftertouch curves are edited, Program name and port name tables are created, and tables of user-defined SysEx messages are built. A special Tools page enables checking of battery power and memory usage, and even includes an option to change mouse 'sensibility'. Try turning it down to zero and see if it asks you to turn on Blind Date...
I've often criticised master keyboards for not providing the user with sufficient visual feedback, and I was pleased to see that the
Viscount OP1 Soundcard Programs
Setting the right DAT recording level: SOS January 1995. Noise and how to avoid it: SOS May 1995. A Concise Guide to Compression & Limiting: SOS April 1996. The Mysteries of Metering: SOS May 1996.Minimising Mixer and Effects Noise: SOS July 1996.
GrandPiano 1, 2 & 3
Electric Piano 1, 2, 3 & 4
Jazz Organ 1, 2 & 3
Strings 1 & 2
I do feel that there could have been more use of graphic diagrams on the MC3000's screen, to show routings and connections. The MIDI patchbay screen takes a little time to get to grips with, and it would be nice to see a screen dedicated to showing output activity, along with port names and visual clues to velocity, last message type, and other such useful information. It is possible to collate all of this data by visiting various screens, but the MC3000 fails to pull it all together. I'm being a little cruel here, since I'm not aware of any other manufacturer having achieved this, at least to my satisfaction. As it is, the screen is reasonably helpful in showing the status of, and activity at, each of the eight output ports.
As a whole, the MC3000 package holds together very well. I managed to get myself confused long before this keyboard ran out of possibilities, which says a lot about the depth of control on offer -- or maybe about my state of mind!
I might have wished for the ability to load and replay MIDI song files, and a floppy drive would have meant that the keyboard was self-sufficient in terms of storage and backup facilities. Dedicated sequencer controls would have been the icing on the cake. But I recognise that these are all features which add to manufacturing cost, and the current price seems reasonable for what is on offer.
All is not lost, though, since the MC2000 has one delightful little surprise up its sleeve -- or on its motherboard, to be precise. Here we find a Waveblaster header port ready to receive a Waveblaster-compatible daughterboard. This is a clever move, since there's a wide range of daughterboards on the market. The MC2000 has specific support for XG (Yamaha), SCD (Roland's Sound Canvas Daughterboards), Viscount and Sound Dream-based cards. Alternatively, a standard GM card can be defined. All of the onboard card's sounds find their way to a pair of left/right output jacks on the rear of the MC2000. The review model came fitted with Viscount's own OP1 daughterboard. This card treated me to the bittersweet experience of excellent sound quality coupled with a severely restricted sound palette. There are a mere 25 timbres to play with, all placed in their respective GM positions and ready to be pushed through the 11 modulation and 13 ambience treatments built into the card. The sounds themselves are generally very good indeed, but if you find the full GM sound set restrictive, the OP1 will be like taking up permanent residence in a cell in Alcatraz. And no, there are no drum sets, though the OP1 can, at least, manage a modicum of multitimbrality, with three-part playback. Even this has its restrictions, in that part three is only capable of playing one of the three bass timbres! Anyone interested in the OP1 will probably be primarily concerned with the quality of the patches, and if all you require of onboard material is a solid collection of basic keyboard sounds, the quality of those held in the OP1 will certainly not disappoint. To start with, the pianos are very good indeed -- not quite on a par with the likes of Korg's SG sounds, perhaps, but certainly better than most soundcard offerings. The electric pianos are simply superb, and feature the smooth change-over from soft to hard timbres that I have badgered manufacturers about for years. The nylon guitar is extremely well rendered -- one of the best I've heard. The organs have a dirty 'realness' that should do for most tasks, and the strings are beautiful across most of the keyboard, only really running out of steam in the highest two octaves. But I'd advise Viscount to check out a vintage Oberheim analogue synth before they try to come up with another Synth Horn patch!
MC2000 & OP1 Expansion Board
The MC3000's sibling, the MC2000 controller keyboard, appears at first glance to be simply a cut-down version of its larger brother, and this is largely the case. While its internal workings remain substantially the same as the MC3000's, and it still has 88 keys, there is a reduction in the number of MIDI outputs, physical control sliders and pedal inputs -- from eight to four in each case. There's no provision for a mouse, and no mouse mat, though a large, flat area remains where you could affix your own if required. The number of Program memories is reduced to 256 and there are just 16 programmable SysEx and Program-name tables. The MC2000 does not offer customisable aftertouch and velocity curves, and its LCD is reduced in size, making it a little too fiddly for my taste. It's arguable how much time anyone would spend editing Programs compared to how much time they'd spend playing the instrument, but with the MC2000 I found myself paging around far more, to make even simple changes, than I did with the MC3000. Finally, the MIDI patchbay functions have disappeared, presumably since this is less likely to be a requirement with a maximum of four MIDI outputs.
All is not lost, though, since the MC2000 has one delightful little surprise up its sleeve -- or on its motherboard, to be precise. Here we find a Waveblaster header port ready to receive a Waveblaster-compatible daughterboard. This is a clever move, since there's a wide range of daughterboards on the market. The MC2000 has specific support for XG (Yamaha), SCD (Roland's Sound Canvas Daughterboards), Viscount and Sound Dream-based cards. Alternatively, a standard GM card can be defined. All of the onboard card's sounds find their way to a pair of left/right output jacks on the rear of the MC2000.
The review model came fitted with Viscount's own OP1 daughterboard. This card treated me to the bittersweet experience of excellent sound quality coupled with a severely restricted sound palette. There are a mere 25 timbres to play with, all placed in their respective GM positions and ready to be pushed through the 11 modulation and 13 ambience treatments built into the card. The sounds themselves are generally very good indeed, but if you find the full GM sound set restrictive, the OP1 will be like taking up permanent residence in a cell in Alcatraz. And no, there are no drum sets, though the OP1 can, at least, manage a modicum of multitimbrality, with three-part playback. Even this has its restrictions, in that part three is only capable of playing one of the three bass timbres!
Anyone interested in the OP1 will probably be primarily concerned with the quality of the patches, and if all you require of onboard material is a solid collection of basic keyboard sounds, the quality of those held in the OP1 will certainly not disappoint. To start with, the pianos are very good indeed -- not quite on a par with the likes of Korg's SG sounds, perhaps, but certainly better than most soundcard offerings. The electric pianos are simply superb, and feature the smooth change-over from soft to hard timbres that I have badgered manufacturers about for years. The nylon guitar is extremely well rendered -- one of the best I've heard. The organs have a dirty 'realness' that should do for most tasks, and the strings are beautiful across most of the keyboard, only really running out of steam in the highest two octaves. But I'd advise Viscount to check out a vintage Oberheim analogue synth before they try to come up with another Synth Horn patch!
The power and flexibility offered by the MC3000 is capable of making it a favourite of professional live performers. On stage I'd be more than happy to have this machine in my corner; its abundance of connections and Program memories should be enough to allow anyone to get through a gig with capacity to spare. The ability to split, layer and crossfade is standard fare for a master
"The MC2000 has one delightful little surprise up its sleeve -- a Waveblaster header port ready to receive a Waveblaster-compatible daughterboard."
If there's one aspect of this instrument likely to put off the semi-professional user, that is surely its weight. Although it is possible for one person to lift the MC3000, there's very little to get hold of that provides a reasonable grip. A couple of handles recessed into the underside would go a long way towards addressing this issue. The MC3000 is ideally suited to live performance in every other way, but once it was flightcased you'd certainly need a little help from your friends to get it out of the van and into the venue!
The MC3000 couldn't really be described as flash, pretty, or particularly exciting, but it does a solid job for a reasonable price. I can see professional players getting a lot from it, particularly those who do live work. If you've ever considered a master controller yourself, and you have a large MIDI rig, you really should check this one out.