There's always been something slightly unsatisfactory about controller keyboards. Budget examples of the genre often suffer from cheap keyboards and poor-quality controls, but even top-of-the-range models, decked out with ribbon controllers, continuous encoders, trigger pads and aftertouch sensitivity, often fail to replicate the immediate, intuitive expression available to skilled players of simple acoustic instruments like pianos or acoustic guitars. And even the best keyboard controllers, in the hands of the most expressive players, can be let down by the sounds to which they're mapped; after all, the number of hardware control methods is irrelevant if they're not assigned to samples or sounds that respond to those controllers.
But there are signs of progress. The MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) standard is being ever more widely adopted, allowing individual control of expression on a per-note basis over MIDI, instead of globally across an entire controller keyboard, and polyphonic aftertouch is finally becoming widespread as a result of improvements in keyboard manufacturing techniques, just a few years after being routinely dismissed as a creative tool that would be forever restricted solely to the most expensive instruments. And now there's a giant leap forward in terms of what a keyboard can offer as regards expression and control, with the announcement of Osmose, from French company Expressive E.
At its most basic, Osmose is a 49-note keyboard with full-size keys, compatible with MPE and MPE+. But not only does the innovative keyboard transmit polyphonic aftertouch, each key can also generate its own polyphonic initial pressure data — so the notes in a chord or melody can sound radically different depending on whether each note is tapped, hit stroked or gently depressed. Each key can also be wiggled from side to side to generate per-note pitch bend — a very intuitive means of adding vibrato during a performance which you may be familiar with if you've ever been lucky enough to play a Jenny Ondioline or a Yamaha GX1. Expressive E call their new keyboard design AKA (Augmented Keyboard Action), and some examples of the expression it allows you to impart to sounds can be seen in the videos at www.expressivee.com/discover-osmose.
Osmose certainly makes a very capable controller keyboard — but that's not all it is. It also contains an immensely versatile 24-note polyphonic synth based on the EaganMatrix designed for Haken Audio's premium hand-built Continuum Fingerboard controller a few years ago, and custom-adapted for Osmose. So there are also plenty of sounds on board which use the EaganMatrix's full range of synthesis techniques (including virtual analogue, FM, additive and subtractive and granular and spectral synthesis, plus physical modelling) to take advantage of all of Osmose's new means of expression, without you having to match them up yourself to suitably expressive samples or complex synth patches. A computer-based editor allows you to delve into the complex modular world of the EaganMatrix if you wish, but connecting Osmose to a computer is not a must; if you want, you can just turn it on and play. Sounds can be layered and split across the keyboard directly from Osmose itself, and six front-panel encoders (around the screen at the left end of the keyboard) allow you to tweak the sounds in real time.
SOS saw a very early Osmose protoype at Superbooth 2019, and even in its very early form, it was clearly a big step up for keyboard technology in terms of the new expressive possibilities it offers. Other controllers have given us responsive control surfaces with similarly intuitive simultaneous control of multiple playback parameters, such as the aforementioned Haken Continuum Fingerboard, but have never harnessed them in such an immediately accessible keyboard-based form, and certainly not at this kind of price — Osmose is due to retail for 1799 Euros, or around £1600 at the time of writing$1799. (By way of comparison, a half-size Haken Continuum Fingerboard is around double that, and the full-size Continuum three times as much.) Of course, that's still a lot to pay for even a fully-featured controller keyboard, but when you consider what else Osmose offers — the incredibly deep built-in EaganMatrix synth engine and custom-tailored sounds, and the unique expressive potential offered by the keyboard and MIDI spec — it starts to make sense.
As is often the way these days, impressive discounts are available if you pre-order Osmose early, but only until the end of December 2019 (see Expressive E's site for details). The keyboard itself is expected to arrive in summer 2020. We'll bring you a detailed review as soon as possible.