No-one can doubt Fatar's long-established record for making quality MIDI controller keyboards, but that market has become highly competitive over the past couple of years. Can the VMK188 hold its own against all the budget alternatives?
Fatar were one of the originators of the master keyboard concept, and are one of the remaining manufacturers who still make the actual keyboards which go into electronic musical instruments. Over the years, they have supplied the lion's share of keyboards in products by European and American synth manufacturers, and they have also always had their own line of master keyboards. My main memory of these was that whilst the keyboards were excellent, the cases were less good, and the OSs which allowed you to set up what the controller would do over MIDI were a little clunky.
But it seems that the chaps at Fatar have gone back to the drawing board of late. When I took the review VMK188 out of the box, I noted that the former square-ended, boxy look had been replaced by a sleek rounded case which clearly takes its inspiration from the lines of a grand piano itself. The curve up from the keys to the top control panel, in particular, gives the VMK188 a classic look, and drew exclamations of admiration from the rest of the band when I turned up with it at a recent gig (I always like to give master keyboards the baptism of fire while playing live, as this is one of their primary uses).
However, a product has to strike a balance between aesthetics and practicality, and one problem became apparent before we'd finished our soundcheck! One of the things which makes the keyboard appear so piano-like is the fact that it is not covered in white legends telling you the function of each button. Instead, Fatar have opted for embossed legending, using the mould of the control panel to make the legend for each knob and switch stand up from the control panel. I was reminded of Hotblack Desiato's spaceship in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy which featured black knobs with black legends on a black control panel. It may look pretty classy, but it's a devil to read — you have to move your head around until the light catches the embossed legend so that you can read it. This is difficult enough in my bright studio where I am finishing this review, but it's almost impossible on a dark stage or in a moodily lit control room, and could have unpleasant consequences for what comes out when you start to play (unless you're planning to join Disaster Area, of course, in which case it's unlikely to matter anyway).
On powering up the keyboard, the bright blue LED sprang to life, providing a stark contrast to the rest of the black-on-black keyboard. Unlike some recent controller keyboards, the VMK188 does not take its power from its USB connection to the computer — because it doesn't have a USB connector! Power comes from the supplied 'wall-wart' PSU, which is something of an irritation in the live context.
The VMK188 features nine sliders, like all recent master keyboards, so I wasn't surprised to see that the first program on the unit is called 'B4'. However, there was no preset for use with Emagic's EVB3 virtual instrument (my virtual Hammond of choice), so I set about creating one. Pressing the Edit button brought up the instruction 'Press Or Move Any Controls' which was clear enough. I grabbed the first slider that came to hand (the fifth one) and then looked in the display. It now said 'Edit Slider S4'. I double-checked and I was definitely moving the fifth slider. When I tried to move another one, the VMK188 ignored me. I eventually found that to select another slider (or any other knob or switch) I had to press Enter, and then the 'Press Or Move Any Controls' instruction would return.
But I was still confused. Why was the slider numbering wrong? I eventually picked the first one and found that the display now read 'Edit Slider V1'. In other words, the designers assume that you will use the first slider for volume (the rest are labelled from 'S1' to 'S8'). Trouble is, they forgot to tell the guy doing the front panel; there is not even an embossed bump to tell you. I suppose you might reassign it to something else, but the same is true of the controls at the bottom left of the front panel, which can be assigned to anything but are clearly designed to be used for transport functions — and they are labelled with standard transport symbols!
Once you have the right control selected, you use the Page Up and Down controls to cycle through the five available parameters: MIDI Channel, Control Change, minimum and maximum Values and Polarity. To control EVB3, I needed to reassign the Controller numbers that the sliders were transmitting. Stepping up one menu option to Control Change, it was a simple matter to use the data-entry knob on the right of the control panel to dial in the right controller number. However, I then found that I could not simply touch the next slider and dial in its value; I had to hit Enter, then touch the next slider. The display had then reset to show MIDI Channel again, so I had to Page Up once to get back to Control Change. I had to do that for each of the nine sliders, which meant 18 extra button-pushes. If I had wanted to edit the minimum fader value on each, that would have translated to a further nine, as I would also have needed to press Page Up again each time. This suggests to me that Fatar's OS designers are rarely in a hurry!
As I was starting from a preset designed for use with B4, the polarity of the drawbars was already correct, but this can be changed if desired. However, on the Fatar you can only do this by resetting the polarity of each slider individually, rather than with a single 'reverse polarity' button, as is possible on some recent controllers. This does mean you can mix and match fader polarities if you wish, albeit at the expense of the time you need to create or edit presets.
Knob programming features the same five parameters as the sliders, but when it comes to buttons, you have a slight variation. Instead of minimum and maximum values, you have Key Note (for transmitting MIDI note numbers) and Key Mode, which allows you to decide whether releasing the button sends the key off message ('Push' mode) or whether you need to press the button a second time to do this ('Switch' mode — 'toggle' might have been a clearer term). Together with the reassignable 'transport' buttons, you can set up 13 buttons for use with each preset.
The VMK188 has three pedal/foot controller inputs (more than some master keyboards at around this spec/price point) and these have the same five parameters as the sliders and knobs. Here the Polarity setting is particularly useful, and could be used to deliberately invert one pedal but not another. The inputs are all freely assignable; personally, I prefer to have one 'hard-wired' to sustain-pedal duties, but it doesn't take too long to program this into your patches.
Exiting Edit mode is also a time-consuming business. Firstly, the VMK188 feels it necessary to double-check, asking you if you're sure you want to do this, and then once you've confirmed that you do, it takes a good four seconds to return you to Preset Selection mode. In the comfort of your bedroom, this may not seem like a long time, but on stage, I rather suspect it would!
The VMK188 does have one control which I've sorely missed on recent controllers — the Panic button. It's a real friend, especially if you are triggering a recalcitrant keyboard from the '80s with a penchant for continuing to play notes long after your song has finished. Alongside the Panic button is a dedicated MIDI channel button for setting the keyboard's global MIDI channel (although remember that you can program individual controls to transmit on different MIDI channels). This can be set to 'Off', though, which mutes the keyboard completely, so beware!
The adjacent Bank Select and Program Change buttons are used to determine which sound you're calling up on your target instrument, and this is where the VMK188's lack of a numerical keypad really made itself felt. Dialling in values is more time-consuming and less accurate than typing them in, and of course if you're as much as one digit out with a Program or Bank Change number, you could access a completely incorrect sound.
I have never been a great fan of joysticks, preferring to keep my pitch-bend and modulation on two separate physical controls, but I found myself adapting very easily to using this one, possibly because it is positioned in the centre of the VMK188, within easy reach of all parts of the keyboard. I was surprised to discover that the joystick was 'hard-assigned' to control pitch-bend and modulation; you cannot reassign these functions. I would particularly have liked the option to reassign something else to the joystick in place of modulation.
Aside from the lack of numeric keypad, I noticed a couple of other omissions on the VMK188. There are no Octave Shift or Transpose controls, although I suppose the thinking is that with 88 keys you don't need to shift octaves. There are also no Split or Layer functions. These are becoming a thing of the past on master keyboards anyway, the idea being that you can set up any required splits and layers on your target devices. However, I do regret that you cannot quickly set up a patch to select different programs on two different instruments; the two MIDI Outs on the back of the unit merely duplicate the VMK188's single data stream.
Finally, checking through the factory presets, I was surprised to find templates for Cubase, B4 and Pro 53 only. It wouldn't have done any harm to put a few more of the most popular virtual instruments in, especially as it takes so long to adapt presets to your needs.
So far this review seems to have concentrated on what the VMK188 doesn't do. But you might be surprised to learn that my overall impression of it is pretty positive, and this is down to what it felt like to actually play it. I tried using it to trigger Ivory, the Synthogy virtual piano instrument I reviewed in last month's SOS, and the results were simply superb, so much so that the VMK188 is now my keyboard of choice for triggering Ivory. I might prefer other master keyboards with more developed and faster programming interfaces for triggering synths and samplers, but for use with piano sounds, I think it's hard to outdo the VMK188. And I suppose that this is what you might reasonably expect of a product from one of the world's premier manufacturers of keyboard mechanisms!
In producing the VMK188, Fatar have clearly looked at what the most recent arrivals in the MIDI controller market are offering end users, but to my mind not enough has been done to make the programming of new patches faster and more intuitive. Despite the new look, there is less programmability and in-depth usability here than is offered by other master controllers, and it takes too long to set up or make simple edits to patches compared to doing the same tasks on competing products — M-Audio's Keystation range is one obvious point of reference. When you consider the higher price of the VMK188 against some of those competitors, you might think that a buying decision is an open-and-shut case. However, if you sit down and play a VKM188, I think you'll find the decision less straightforward. It's clear that Fatar still do what they always did best: they build playable keyboards that make performing a pleasure. If your priority is playing, rather than editing together a whole string of patches to control every last parameter of a virtual synth, then the VMK188 is probably the one for you.