76‑note master keyboards at under £500 are relatively thin on the ground. Derek Johnson takes a look at a Korean‑made contender for your cash.
After a brief fall from grace when they were simply not available at a price that made them attractive, master keyboards are once again a fact of life; there are so many reasonably priced models on the market that it really is an option for the '90s MIDI studio to be equipped with sound sources in module format, conveniently controlled from a remote keyboard. This approach allows the musician to choose the keyboard that really suits him or her: it's no longer a case of choosing a synth for its sound and putting up with a keyboard you might not care for.
Depending on your requirements, MIDI master controllers can offer piano‑weighted keyboards loaded with control facilities from multiple splits, working on multiple MIDI channels with multiple MIDI outputs; at the other end of the scale is the cheap synth‑action keyboard that simply offers a way to transmit note information, velocity, a couple of controllers and patch changes. Both have their places in the market.
Samick's KK1L, manufactured in Korea, falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The KK1L offers a velocity‑sensitive 76‑note keyboard, with pitch‑bend and mod wheels. The keyboard itself offers a light but responsive action and goes some way to providing a piano‑like feel without actually adding the weighted response of true piano‑action keyboards.
The grey exterior of the KK1L is tidy, if perhaps a little 'square'; build quality seems sturdy, and there is none of the 'plasticky' feel you sometimes find with cheap synths. Apart from the keyboard and the wheels, the front panel also has a Volume slider and some basic sequencer controllers: Start and Stop/Continue buttons and a Tempo slider — very thoughtful and welcome additions to a keyboard of this price. A group of 12 function buttons select keyboard mode (Single, Dual or Split) and allow the user to select program changes, MIDI transmit channels, aftertouch, portamento time, pan, velocity curve, transpose value and balance. In the middle of the front panel is a chart showing the eight user‑selectable velocity curves which allow you to tailor the keyboard's response, to some extent, to your own playing style (one of these curves offers an inverse response, whereby heavy finger pressure = soft velocity response over MIDI). There's also a 2‑line x 16‑character (non‑backlit) LCD and a pair of up/down buttons, which alter parameter values or move the cursor around the screen, depending what mode you're in. All that remains is the data entry keypad, which rather curiously includes two Enter buttons; the manual offers no explanation for this unexpected bonus in the button department, and both function identically.
While there are three MIDI Outs at the rear, including one labelled Ext (the manual says this is for connection to a drum machine or sequencer, leading one to suspect that everything except MIDI Clock has been filtered from the data stream), the same information is output from all three sockets — rather like a built‑in MIDI Thru box. The remaining connections are a pair of sockets for sustain and soft pedals — but no volume pedal.
In use, the KK1L is simple. It offers three modes, selectable by the labelled function button: Single, where just one patch is played across the keyboard; Dual, where two patches on different MIDI channels are layered across the keyboard; and Split, where two different patches on two different MIDI channels are separated by a user‑definable split point. For Dual and Split, the user can select one transmit channel; unfortunately, one layer or one side of the split always transmits on MIDI channel 2. In Split mode, the split point is chosen by simply pressing the Split button, followed by a key on the keyboard. Easy. Note that if you press the Program Change function button while in Split or Dual mode, you are immediately put back into Single mode. The front panel also offers remote control over sequencers and overall volume, as well as patch changes, pan position, breath controller and balance. Making these choices is simply a matter of pressing the right button and using the arrow buttons or numeric keypad to select the desired value (just remember to press an Enter key afterwards).
So far so good. Looking at the front panel of Samick's keyboard initially creates a little excitement: the function buttons have all the right labels (Aftertouch, Breath Controller, Portamento Time and so on). Unfortunately, the excitement is short‑lived. Look deeper, and things start to get a little strange. The first surprise is that the KK1L has no user memories, and no back‑up of a user's last settings. Switch the machine off and all the settings from your session are gone — and there's no way to do a SysEx dump of the keyboard setup to an external device either. The next time you power up, the KK1L will default to Single mode and transmit program change 001 on MIDI channel 1.There aren't that many parameters, so you could keep notes and quickly alter them each time you power up (to be honest it takes only seconds to set up the KK1L to your requirements) but it is a bit of an oversight. Just a few memories — 32 or so — would have been enough. The second surprise is: no aftertouch from the keyboard. This really is odd. The KK1L can transmit aftertouch — press the Aftertouch function button, and the mod wheel transmits aftertouch instead of modulation — but this is hardly the point. Aftertouch is a real‑time performance function, and having to take a hand off the keyboard to introduce the effect does interrupt the flow somewhat. Breath Controller is introduced in the same way.
One last negative point is that while a transpose value of +/‑12 semitones is available, this is actually a global parameter: it's not possible to set separate transpose values for the two voices in a Dual or Split configuration, or even for different modes.
So where does that leave us? Fortunately, I can just about excuse these negative points. As we were going to press, Audio Awareness, Samick's UK distributor, actually sliced a whopping £100 off the asking price, bringing it to a reasonable £499. At this price, it's difficult to be harsh. Perhaps I wouldn't have cut the corners that Samick did to get a keyboard out at this price, but then I don't make keyboards and don't have to make those kinds of decisions. So let's put our fair hats on and deal with the negative points. First of all, it may be that some (or indeed many) of the KK1L's potential buyers won't miss aftertouch from the keyboard. In a studio situation, the mod wheel can be used to record aftertouch data into a sequencer, which might be an acceptable compromise. In fact, this may be a more efficient way of recording what is, after all, a memory‑hungry MIDI controller. The lack of user memories is harder to deal with, but given the sophistication of many current sound modules, multiple splits and complicated performances could be programmed in the sound module. Given a customised program change map, a single program could be used to select the setup for a given song — in a live situation, say.
And while I say that there are no user memories, during a session (as long as there isn't a power cut), each of the KK1L's modes functions as as sort of a temporary memory. That is, the keyboard remembers whatever settings you've selected for Single, Dual and Split modes — you can switch between the three modes without losing your settings, and each time you select one of the modes, the relevant programme changes are sent to your remote sound source. The rule here is to think laterally.
However, it is the quality of the KK1L's keyboard itself which stands out, with a light, easy feel that should be attractive to synth players, while retaining just enough piano‑type action to keep that market satisfied. It's a very playable way of inputting notes to a sequencer. If you use a lot of aftertouch in your real‑time playing, however, then you may have to pass, since a lot of modern synth patches do take full advantage of aftertouch, bringing in different textures or elements as aftertouch is applied during playing. You can add aftertouch to a sequencer track or a held chord with the mod wheel, but it's not quite so spontaneous! The closest controller I could find to the KK1L is the Roland A30, which costs a little less, does transmit aftertouch from the keyboard and has 32 user memories. However, the keyboard is of the springy synth type, it offers only three velocity curves, against the Samick's eight, and it relies on an external power supply for power.
The bottom line for the KK1L is really its provision of such a nice keyboard. For those of you used to synth keyboards, the luxury of having 76 non‑springy keys under your fingers will come as a revelation. Musicians going the other way, from acoustic pianos to synths, will find a 76‑note keyboard to be a good compromise in terms of size — a 61‑note keyboard can be frustrating for a pianist — and feel, not to mention cost. Anyone wanting to follow the route of separate keyboard and sound module(s), but not requiring overkill on controller features or a huge hole in their budget, will find that the KK1L has something to offer.
Also available from Samick is the KK1. This model offers the same basic functions as the 'L', but upgrades the keyboard considerably. For £799, the KK1 offers a high quality, 88‑note, hammer action keyboard. I haven't played one yet, but I have it on good authority that the feel is very good. Could be worth a look if you must have a genuine piano action.
- Single — one patch across the whole keyboard.
- Dual — two patches on different MIDI channels layered across the whole keyboard.
- Split — two patches on two different MIDI channels either side of a user‑definable split point.
- Programme Change.
- Transmit Channel.
- Velocity Curve — eight, user‑selectable.
- Transpose — +/‑12 semitones.
- Aftertouch — assigns aftertouch to mod wheel.
- Breath Controller — assigns breath controller to mod wheel.
- Portamento Time — assigns portamento time to mod wheel.
- A quality, 76‑note keyboard? For £499?
- Easy to use.
- Highly playable.
- Sequencer remote controls.
- Internal power supply.
- No user memories.
- No aftertouch from keyboard.
- No volume pedal input.
If you're willing to accept the omissions, the KK1L is good value and feels pleasant under the fingers. Boatloads will probably go to musicians on a budget.