Andy Davies casts his eyes, and fingers, over Fatar's latest low‑cost master keyboards.
Along with power amps and patchbays, master keyboards have something of a reputation for being a little uninteresting. They are normally sparsely populated with buttons, and disappointing in the flashing lights department, but in a world where more synths come in modules than in keyboards, they have a place both in the studio and on stage.
Italian firm Fatar started out manufacturing keyboards for companies producing organs and synths, and their past client list includes major players such as Roland and Ensoniq. More recently, they have built something of a reputation for their own products — particularly their range of weighted, hammer‑action master keyboards, which simulate the feel and action of a conventional acoustic piano. Their new offerings, the CMS 61 and Studio 610, are not quite as grand, but should find favour with the fiscally‑challenged, or the player who doesn't require an authentic piano feel.
In a departure from traditional styling, the CMS 61 is a 5‑octave C‑to‑C, non‑splittable keyboard, built in a cream‑coloured plastic casing, with a large flat recess behind the playing surface on which to accommodate a computer keyboard and mouse mat. To the left of the keyboard are two control wheels: one is a standard pitch wheel, and the other, mysteriously labelled 'A', is a programmable mod wheel (more of which later).
Situated above the wheels are four buttons, entitled Channel, Program, Control, and Transpose, and used in conjunction with certain notes on the keyboard, these buttons access the CMS 61's various functions. The power switch can be found to the left of these buttons positioned on the side of the casing rather than at the rear, presumably to allow space for the use of a computer. A number of sockets are situated alongside the power switch, including two parallel MIDI out ports, a sustain and volume pedal socket, and a power socket. Power is supplied via a 'lump‑in‑the‑line' or 'carpet carbuncle' type of adaptor, which can prove to be very unsatisfactory when playing live.
The keyboard itself is velocity‑sensitive, with a very light, spongy action, but in honesty, this is no worse than keyboards fitted to quite expensive synths of a decade ago. On the minus side, it does not transmit aftertouch (although this can be transmitted using the programmable mod wheel), which, in my opinion, is a great omission, and a facility I would not like to be without.
To save the cost of a dedicated control panel, 18 of the black notes act as switches to perform the various functions on the CMS 61 — an extremely user‑friendly form of operation. Ten of these keys act as a numeric keypad for inputting data, two are for increment and decrement, and one is for bank changes. The others are marked Aft, Pitch, Mod, Vol and Pan, and are used in conjunction with the programmable mod wheel (Wheel A).
As long as you have a rudimentary understanding of MIDI, operating the CMS 61 is quite a logical process. The basic transmit channel is set by simply holding down the Channel button, and then using the appropriate black keys as a numeric keypad. Likewise, program changes are accomplished by using the Program button. The Inc/Dec keys can be used instead, and in this case the MIDI data is sent straight away, without the held button having to be released every time. Transpose is carried out in time‑honoured tradition by holding down the transpose button, and using the keyboard to select the root note of the desired key.
The CMS 61 scores most highly in the implementation of its programmable mod wheel (Wheel A). This is a freely‑programmable control wheel, which can be used to send any MIDI controller message from 0 to 127. As with the other functions, this is very easy to set up, simply by pressing the control button, followed by the desired black key (unless it happens to be Aftertouch, Pitch, Modulation, Volume or Pan which have their own keys). For other controllers, you key in the controller number using the 0‑9 keys or the Inc/Dec buttons. This allows you to fade in, pan, or otherwise modify the connected device using the mod wheel, which, in my opinion, is far more satisfying than using a mouse.
Essentially, the Studio 610 offers exactly the same spec and facilities as the CMS 61, but this time without the computer recess. The styling here is more traditional, with the black injection moulded casing looking suspiciously like the one used for the Studio 490 Plus — a new moulding having been simply added on the edge to accommodate the extra length of the keyboard. The control wheels are now positioned behind the keyboard, and a few inches in from the left hand side, making them feel slightly uncomfortable. The four Function buttons have been sensibly placed in the centre, and all the various ins and outs are now where you would expect to find them — on the rear. Unbelievably, the whole unit weighs just 2.5kgs, but although the construction appears to be light and plasticky, the end result still seems reasonably rugged.
The ability to play and control all your synths from one centrally‑located position seems an ideal arrangement, and one that many people are now adopting. In an environment where access to individual modules is, at best, restrictive or awkward, the majority of functions, such as Patch selection, Volume and Pan, can be carried out in relative comfort. Fatar have captured the market with their higher‑priced weighted keyboards, and these lower‑priced models offer a good balance between cost and functionality.
The CMS 61 is ideally suited for the computer soundcard market, which is growing in popularity, and the size of the Studio 610 makes it convenient enough to fit in front of a mixing desk, for those little overdubs and controller changes in the mix. Some features have been omitted, most notably aftertouch on the spongy‑feeling keyboard, and the whole build quality is, as mentioned, a bit plasticky, but I believe both models represent good value for money, offering the right mix of features in an extremely user‑friendly format. As with any master keyboard, check out whether or not you get on with the feel of the keys before you decide to buy.
- Competitively priced.
- Easy to use
- Fully featured at the price.
- Spongy feel to keyboard.
- Uninspiring build quality.
The external power supply makes these models less than ideal for live use, but either is a practical choice for the home musician working on a budget.