Derek Johnson takes a look at two 88‑note master keyboards that provide piano‑like feel without breaking the bank.
The MIDI music market is now mature enough that the appearance of a new master keyboard is no longer cause for comment. This is a refreshing state of affairs which means that reviewers (like me!) no longer have to set the stage or try to persuade the wary reader that, honest guv, master keyboards are really quite a good idea. Even though a few stragglers may find it hard to justify the added expense for a keyboard that makes no sound, in general, most of us can see that buying a keyboard we really like and using it to play sounds from remote modules is quite a tidy and convenient way to operate, even if we haven't necessarily gone down that particular path yet ourselves.
When it comes to remote keyboards, Fatar is name often mentioned in these pages; this isn't surprising since, apart from making keyboard beds for a large number of synth and organ manufacturers, the company have been building a reputation for the production of affordable, quality master keyboards in their own right over the past couple of years. Their range has been going through a revamp lately, though the 88‑key, piano‑action 2001 is still top of the range, with cheap and cheerful synth‑action keyboards at the bottom for less than £300. Just below top is the creditable Studio 1100, and for the more financially challenged, there's the Studio 900 — and by a strange coincidence, these are the two keyboards we'll be looking at.
Both the 1100 and the 900 offer 88 keys, and Fatar's patented 'hammer action'. This uses a crafty little counter‑weight allied to a mechanical device to give the keys a piano‑like feel and resistance. It actually works — a keyboard so equipped feels as much like playing a piano as it's possible to get without actually playing a piano. There's even a pleasing bounce as a key comes to rest.
First up is the Studio 1100, which features velocity sensitivity and aftertouch on its 88‑note keyboard. The front panel is quite clearly divided into sections: a Preset/Function section, containing a row of four Function buttons, labelled 1‑4; a Zones section, also with a row of four buttons; and a Perform/Edit section, containing a pair of sliders — one an assignable controller that doubles as a data entry slider and the other an overall volume control, which allows you to adjust the level of all four Zones at once — plus a three‑character LED display and a pair of left‑arrow/right‑arrow buttons labelled Preset/Zone. The upper left‑hand corner of the fascia is home to the pitch‑bend and modulation wheels.
The control facilities of the 1100 include up to four splits or layers, with each Zone (as they are called) having its own MIDI channel, programme number, upper and lower key range limits, volume and transposition value. There are 32 editable Presets on board, where you can store custom settings, and Presets are selectable in four banks of eight. The 1100's assignable slider can be programmed to transmit any MIDI controller, as can the volume pedal socket at the rear. The rear panel also hides a sustain pedal socket, MIDI input and two MIDI Outs — don't get too excited, they're not independent. Power comes from an external adaptor.
I found programming the Studio 1100 to be straightforward, though the review model was the first in the country and lacked a manual, which necessitated a little bit of initiative to puzzle the machine out. Luckily, the obvious moves I made proved to be the correct ones, and my conclusions as to how the Studio 1100 works follow.
You create your own Presets via the selection of buttons on the front panel — note that some of the black keys on the keyboard double as a numeric keypad. Preset numbers and parameter values are shown on the three‑character LED display. As mentioned, the keyboard can operate on up to four zones; these are selectable with the four buttons in the Zone section on the front panel — an LED above each button indicates whether a Zone is active or not. The first thing I discovered was that by pressing and holding a Zone button and keying in a number on the keyboard, I could transmit a Patch Change on that Zone — Bank Select is available too. I also discovered that when I selected a Patch Change, that patch automatically became part of the current Preset — there are no edit buffers here.
A little further exploration revealed that pressing a Zone button, followed by any one of the Function buttons, took me into edit mode. Each of the Function buttons accesses three parameters (which are listed below each button); press a button to cycle through its parameters, and use the control slider as a data entry slider to alter a parameter value. The Functions available under each button are as follows:
- 1: Low key; high key; receive channel (a global channel for receiving MIDI SysEx dumps).
- 2: Program number; Zone MIDI channel; wheel switch (the pitch‑bend and mod wheel can be disabled for each Zone).
- 3: Volume; velocity response; aftertouch switch (aftertouch can also be disabled for each Zone).
- 4: Transpose (+/‑24 semitones); control slider assign; volume pedal assign.
When you've finished altering function parameters to suit your setup, press any Zone button and you're done — your settings are automatically memorised in the currently selected Preset. It's worth noting that a Zone can be turned on or off at any time without going into edit mode (just by pressing its Zone button), and new program change numbers can also be selected at any time by pressing a Zone button and keying in the desired program change number on the keyboard.
There are a couple of anomalies to look out for: the Studio 1100 doesn't offer a selection of velocity curves, but rather uses a gradually‑changing overall response (found under Function switch 3), with inverse velocity available at a setting of ‑5 and fixed velocity at 0. A value of +3 seems to be about right for the average player. The other anomaly arises when you're assigning MIDI controllers to the control slider or the volume pedal; you have a choice of any controller between 0 and 120, but selecting a value isn't simply a matter of moving the data entry slider from bottom to top; moving it from bottom to top provides controller numbers 0‑16; then moving it from top to bottom provides numbers 17‑32, from bottom to top again shows numbers 33‑48, and so on. This is strange when you first encounter it, and the same system also operates for selecting a Program Change in Edit mode.
Note that the two arrow buttons below the main display (labelled Preset/Zone) are also labelled Load/Save; this is presumably to allow the 1100's memory to be saved and loaded over MIDI. I discovered that you do this in the following way: press a Zone button, followed by Save, and that Zone's eight presets are sent over MIDI. Loading is done in the same way, except that you press the Load button, whereupon the 1100 waits for MIDI data to arrive. While saving the 1100's memory in four banks of eight patches may seem a little strange, it actually makes it easy to mix and match different banks of presets.
The Studio 900 has the same velocity‑sensitive keyboard, the same size and the same control wheels as the Studio 1100; it also looks almost the same, apart from the smaller array of buttons. The similarities end there, however, since the 900 is a simpler device, transmitting on one MIDI channel at a time (no keyboard splits). This isn't a problem if all you want is a high‑quality, 88‑note MIDI keyboard, especially considering the 900's full list price of just £599.
Operationally, the 900 is a breeze: you can change MIDI channel, send program changes (with a Bank Select option), set a transpose value and send volume, modulation, pan and aftertouch data via the mod wheel. This last point is the single fly in the ointment: aftertouch is only transmittable when assigned to the mod wheel, rather than directly from the keyboard, a problem common to the Samick KK1L that we reviewed in the September issue of SOS. Whichever controller you'd like the mod wheel to transmit is quickly and easily assignable, but it's a shame that aftertouch is lacking from the keyboard.
The various functions on offer are chosen by pressing the buttons — labelled Program, Channel, Transpose and Control — on the front panel, and inputting a numerical value using a range of black keys, which once again double as a numeric keypad; controllers to be assigned to the mod wheel are selected by pressing the Control button and the black keys labelled Aftertouch, Pitchbend, Modulation, Volume or Pan. At the rear, the 900 also features volume pedal and sustain pedal inputs and two MIDI Outs; once again, these simply send the same data, which saves you the trouble of having to chain two sound sources together. The simplicity of the Studio 900 may well be desirable to the studio musician, who can generally get by without the facilities provided by the 1100, or substitute them using other studio equipment — multiple splits can aften be programmed via software or within a sound module itself, for example. However, it's the lack of aftertouch from the keyboard which mars the 900 slightly for me.
Fatar are continuing with their mission to provide a range of keyboards to suit every requirement and pocket. Neither of these keyboards is expensive, but at £599, the Studio 900 is the bargain, while the £849 Studio 1100, with all its facilities, is competitively priced. While the overall master keyboard market is as hot as it's ever been — Fatar are not alone in the budget master keyboard stakes — these two keyboards do have a lot going for them.
Operational differences aside, both the 900 and 1100 feature the same high‑quality keyboard, and thus are equally pleasing to play. As with most keyboards which offer a piano‑like action, there is a certain breaking‑in period if you're moving over from a synth keyboard — it can be hard work to begin with. One point worth bringing up is that, as much as the 1100 or 900 feel like playing a piano, the average MIDI musician won't always be playing piano sounds. Playing 'typical' synth sounds — pads and washes for example, and even percussion sounds to a certain extent — does take a little getting used to on a weighted keyboard. Since it takes a lot more effort to play than a synth keyboard, you may need a little acclimatisation time before you can play drum parts and string patches without recording widely varying velocity values into a sequencer. On the other hand, since the keyboard can be so sensitive, the variety of velocity values can give a part a little more life and expressiveness.
One last point: both these babies are heavy. Even when mounted in their optional flightcases, they're going to be bit of a maul to carry to gigs. Still, they're considerably lighter than the average Steinway. Note that if you're a live kind of musician, both the Studio 900 and Studio 1100 are available fully flightcased, for a small premium.
- Easy to use.
- Four zones and plenty of control.
- Excellent keyboard feel.
- No multiple MIDI outputs.
- No LCD display or numeric keypad.
- Excellent keyboard.
- Very easy to use.
- Nice price.
- Simplistic specification.
Hard to fault at the price: multiple zones, great piano action and relatively compact package.