Korg’s Nautilus puts much of the functionality of the Kronos into a far more affordable instrument.
Have you noticed how little the keyboard workstation has evolved in the past decade? After the Korg M1 introduced the underlying architecture in 1988 there was an arms race between the major manufacturers, with Korg again taking the lead in 1995 when the Trinity introduced multitimbral effects, and yet again in 2005 when the OASYS stuck its expensive fingers up at the competition by introducing multiple synthesizer models and making everything, well... beautiful. After that, there was the not‑so‑simple matter of making things lighter and more affordable but, since the launch of the Kronos in 2011, progress has slowed to a crawl. I’m not saying that there have been no great synths released in the past few years — in my view, the Waldorf Quantum and the Yamaha Montage have both advanced the cause of the keyboard synthesizer — but as yet there’s no sign of a new workstation that takes us to the next level in the ways that the M1, Trinity and OASYS did.
You might think that I’m giving the manufacturers a bit of a kicking here but, on the contrary, I have great sympathy for them. The keyboard workstation as currently constructed just... works. The sound quality keeps getting better, it’s easy to understand, and it provides the features that composers and players need. While manufacturers continue to tweak a bit of this and add a bit of that, I can’t help feeling that adding a fifth leg and covering it with a nicer tablecloth doesn’t redefine the concept of a table, so where do Korg go from here?
After the Kronos, the Kronos X, the Kronos 2 and the Kronos LS, the latest variant of the Kronos is the first that doesn’t bear its name. It’s called the Nautilus, and I’m not sure whether that’s in honour of the crustacean or Captain Nemo’s submarine, the latter of which was a century ahead of its time but ultimately doomed. Hopefully neither. Like the Kronos, it comes in three configurations: 61, 73 and 88 note. Two of these are similar in size and weight to the equivalent Kronos and they share the same high‑quality keyboards, with the Natural Touch semi‑weighted keyboard in the 61, and the RH3 hammer action keyboard in the 88. The one that’s different is the 73. The Nautilus uses the Natural Touch keyboard, whereas the Kronos has a shorter RH3. I think that this is a point in the Nautilus’ favour; I much prefer semi‑weighted keyboards on 73‑ and 76‑note synths and workstations, and the adoption of this on the Nautilus 73 makes it considerably lighter and more manageable than its Kronos counterpart.
Other significant differences are to be found on their control panels. Firstly, the Nautilus’ touch‑sensitive display is smaller than that of the Kronos, although I didn’t find this to be a problem because the page layouts have been intelligently redrawn. (If you’re accustomed to the Kronos, you might find the changes to be a bit frustrating at first, but it won’t take you long to get used to them.) In truth, a 7‑inch screen is a bit parsimonious by modern workstation standards, but I think it’s obvious that Korg couldn’t exceed the Kronos’ specification without causing problems within their pricing structure. Secondly, there’s no vector joystick, the number of knobs and switches is greatly reduced, and there are none of the multi‑purpose faders that helped to make the Kronos so immediate in use. The difference is most stark to the right of the screen where, amongst other omissions, you’ll find no numeric keypad and no physical controls for the sequencer. There’s an on‑screen numeric pad so you won’t find yourself endlessly scrolling but, clearly, the Nautilus is gong to feel rather different in use. Oh yes, and there’s no ribbon controller in the performance panel either.
Internally, there’s less that’s obviously different. All nine of the Kronos’ synthesizer engines — PCM, virtual analogue, organs, plucked strings, FM, acoustic and electric pianos as well as the virtual MS20 and Polysix — are retained and with the same maximum polyphonies. I can see some people complaining that these have now been around for many years, but some of them have improved in that time — indeed, I found that the EP‑1 engine features a new model in the Nautilus (the Kronos’ Tine EP1 has been expanded into Tine EP Early and Tine EP Late) — but there’s a strong argument for ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Likewise, the available PCM RAM remains 2GB, the Kronos’ 24‑bit 48kHz sampler is retained and the effects structure remains unchanged with per‑timbre EQs, 12 Insert effects, two Master effects, two Total effects, 197 effect types, 783 presets and what appear to be the same modulation and control busses. Sure, there are a few other small differences — for example, the Nautilus has gained the Quick Layer/Quick Split function from the Kross — but these are small beer; the Nautilus is pretty much a Kronos as far as the underlying sound generation and programming is concerned.
The biggest internal difference between the two marques is therefore the removal of KARMA, but this may be an irrelevance for many users because it failed to catch on to the degree that I suspect that Korg and Stephen Kay had hoped. I’m not entirely surprised. Having reviewed it a few weeks before, I bought a Korg Karma workstation in 2001 but, despite my initial excitement, it became one of the least used keyboards in the working end of my studio. It wasn’t until I started to mess around with KARMA on the OASYS some years later that the penny dropped, and it has since helped me to compose several tracks in which the boundaries between human and machine performance have been blurred into (almost) non‑existence. But despite my epiphany, I can’t see the omission of KARMA greatly affecting the desirability of the Nautilus, especially since it has been replaced by a powerful polyphonic arpeggiator that does far more than generate the simple patterns that we used and loved in the ’70s and ’80s. It works like this...
Each Program contains four Scenes that can hold either one arpeggio pattern plus one drum pattern or one arpeggio pattern plus one step sequence. You can select which arpeggio pattern is placed within each Scene, and edit it using a small range of parameters that you can also tweak using the top panel knobs while the arpeggio is playing. Patterns need not be simple; notes can have different durations and velocities, thus enabling quite sophisticated accompaniments and strums. If you select a drum pattern for each Scene an unusual Snare parameter allows you to select the instrument played on the snare steps but, if you prefer, you can replace any or all of the drum patterns in the Scenes with an (up to) 64‑step drum sequence that accesses 12 percussion sounds from the current kit.
Each Combi and Sequence also contains an arpeggio with four Scenes, but these can now hold two arpeggio patterns plus one drum pattern or two arpeggio patterns plus one step sequence. You can select the MIDI channel on which each arpeggio pattern outputs its data, and this can be different for each Scene. You can also assign the MIDI channel for the drum pattern or step sequence. While the results don’t have the complexity or human feel of KARMA, this still allows you to develop quite complex ideas, and I can see some players being attracted to its simpler approach. If you like what you’re getting, you can record the arpeggiator’s output into the Nautilus’s main audio/MIDI sequencer to further expand it and, of course, you can write the patterns you create to the workstation’s capacious memory.
Despite being a physical wreck hobbled by an orthopaedic boot when it arrived, I found even the Nautilus 88 to be manageable: not too deep, and not too heavy. If there was one thing that I didn’t like about it (actually, there were two, but we’ll come to other in a moment) it was the length of time that it took to boot up — just shy of three minutes! This can be a bit frustrating in the studio, but it would be a nightmare on stage were there to be a power glitch. A long delay while initialising a modern workstation is far from unique to the Nautilus, but it’s one reason why I prefer to use other technologies when playing live. Many are the times that I’ve reached around the back of a misbehaving digital synth or older workstation and flicked it off and then on again to continue playing before the audience had time to notice that there was a problem. But nearly three minutes? That’s almost as long as a Pink Floyd intro!
Once the Nautilus had booted, it took me to Program A000: Nautilus Dry/Ambient piano. I started to play, and was a bit nonplussed — compared with my OASYS or the Kronos it didn’t sound quite good enough. But pianos are very personal instruments, so I was just about to dive headlong into the menus when I noticed the on‑screen instructions that suggested that I adjust User Knobs 1 and 2 to balance the near‑field and ambient sounds to taste. Having done so to my satisfaction, I then found the evening slipping away and everything was going swimmingly until I moved away from acoustic and electric pianos and started to test the CX3 organ. The sound quality remains as excellent as ever, but the loss of the assignable faders on the top panel meant that I had no ‘live’ control over its drawbars. This will be an irrelevance if you don’t like to ride the drawbars while playing but, if you do, it’s a serious shortcoming. But the real shock to my system came when I turned to orchestral sounds, pads and lead synths. The sound quality and flexibility remained everything that you would expect, but this was when the Nautilus’ most significant shortcoming made itself felt: no aftertouch.
If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I’m unapologetic about having ‘a thing’ regarding aftertouch. It’s not just that I was brought up on an ARP ProSoloist, it’s a genuine and permanent need. I often use both hands and both feet (bass pedals to the left, swell pedals, switches and sustain pedals to the right) to play on stage the keyboard parts of tracks that have been overdubbed many times in the studio so, unless we get a bit rude, I have nothing left with which to control wheels, joysticks, ribbons, or anything else that requires five appendages. Consequently, I need aftertouch to introduce modulation, to create pitch bends and filter sweeps, and to increase and decrease the speeds of my Leslie effects. I would therefore like to introduce Gordon’s Law Of Universal Aftertouch, which applies to all high‑quality electronic keyboard instruments and forms the basis of the Grand Unified Theory of synthesis and performance. In short, if I press a key just a teensie weensie bit harder, it should affect everyone in the audience. On my 25‑year‑old XP80 (and many others) it does. On the Nautilus, it doesn’t. But what if you don’t subscribe to Gordon’s Law? Obviously, you should be locked up but, that aside, the Nautilus starts to look rather attractive because the loss of a pressure‑sensitive keybed is a significant factor in a price reduction of more than £1000$1000 when you compare each model with the equivalent Kronos.
Thanks to Korg’s high‑quality keybeds, it’s great to play and, of course, it sounds superb.
There has been no point reviewing the Nautilus’ sound engines, sampling and sequencing because these have been covered in depth in the past when discussing the Kronos, and because there’s a wealth of online information about all of them. So let’s summarise. The Nautilus is, in essence, a Kronos that has gained a polyphonic arpeggiator but has lost KARMA, aftertouch, a wealth of top panel controls and about a third of the price. Although it looks a bit Spartan, it clearly sits between the top end of the Krome range and the Kronos itself, although much closer to the latter. Thanks to Korg’s high‑quality keybeds, it’s great to play and, of course, it sounds superb. If the discarded facilities are unnecessary for what you want to do, it starts to look like very good value. If you need them, you’ll have to stump up the extra for the Kronos itself or wait to see where Korg take their top‑end workstations in the future.
It may not be a top‑end workstation, but the Nautilus’ rear panel still has a fair amount going on. Starting on the right you’ll find the master (quarter‑inch TRS balanced) L/R audio outputs and a headphone output that carries the same signals. Alongside these there are four further quarter‑inch outputs, and you can freely route almost anything to these. Next come the balanced analogue audio inputs, which again use quarter‑inch TRS sockets. Unlike those on the Kronos, you have to use menu options to determine whether these expect mic or line level signals, and at what gain. There are no dedicated digital audio inputs or outputs, although you can transfer audio to and from the Nautilus via USB. Three pedal sockets are provided (damper with half‑damping capability, switch, and expression) and these lie alongside 5‑pin DIN sockets for MIDI In, Out and Thru. The final I/O is provided by a USB‑A socket for external USB 2 storage and MIDI controllers, and a USB‑B socket for connecting to a Mac or PC. Furthest left (as you look at it) lies an IEC mains socket for the internal power supply. Interestingly, the power consumption appears to be 20W less than that of a Kronos, perhaps as a consequence of newer technology within.
The Nautilus has an internal SSD offering 53GB of storage, 27GB of which was free on the review unit. This is tiny by today’s multi‑Terabyte standards but, despite the loss of the Kronos’ second internal drive bay, you can add up to eight external storage devices via USB. Given the increasing capacities of USB sticks and external drives this should be adequate for all but the most monstrous sample library requirements. Of the 26GB of SSD space occupied when the Nautilus arrived, much was used by the 14 expansion libraries installed as standard. This is an increase of three libraries when compared with even the latest Kronoses (Kronosi? Kronosen?) and Korg promises that there are more to come.
The Nautilus also features a different set of factory do‑dads when compared with the Kronos, with more preloaded Programs, Drum Kits and Wave Sequences, but fewer preloaded Combis. Then there are the Nautilus’ 2176 arpeggiator patterns, 1593 of which are preloaded, and its 1272 drum patterns in addition to 1000 slots for user drum patterns. If you prefer to use or tweak existing sounds rather than start from scratch, the Nautilus will still keep you occupied for a very long time.
- It has all of the Kronos’ sound engines so, by default, it sounds superb.
- With the Kronos’ sampling and sequencing engines surviving largely unmolested, it’s also immensely flexible.
- It’s significantly more affordable than a Kronos.
- Some players will prefer its arpeggiator to the discarded KARMA...
- ...whereas others will not.
- In a flagrant breach of Gordon’s Law, aftertouch has gone AWOL.
- Fewer physical controls make it less immediate and restrict performance when compared with a Kronos.
The Nautilus is not a successor to the Kronos; it’s a cut‑down version for a significantly lower price. If the things that have gone missing don’t concern you, it’s a cracking package that offers an immense amount of music creation and performance. If they do, you’ll have to stick with the Kronos or look forward to what Korg do next.
Nautilus 88 £2549, 73 £2199, 61 £1949. Prices include VAT.
Nautilus 88 $2699, 73 $2399, 61 $1999.