You are here

Solton MS40

Multimedia Music Station By Michael Anthony
Published May 1995

Michael Anthony plays Orpheus in the underworld of home keyboards in an attempt to discover what level of technology lies beneath their distinctly untrendy exteriors.

Keyboards and modules with built‑in auto‑accompaniments have always been treated as a bit of a joke by serious musicians, but are those attitudes now out of date? Ketron Lab have been making musical instruments for many years, mainly for the home and cabaret markets, but with the introduction of the MS series, they may have come up with a line deserving of a wider audience. The MS40 sound module under review offers an 'instant gratification' Style generator/creator, scads of wonderful sounds (even the usually mundane GM set is worthy of attention), a generous backlit 40x2 display, basic MIDI recording, and an integral DSDD disk drive.

Looking at the sound generating capabilities first, there are 256 PCM/algorithm voices plus 192 percussion sounds spread over 12 drum sets (including one user drum set). The MS40 is also a 'real' synthesizer in that sounds can be edited, albeit in a slightly limited way. Available sound editing parameters comprise: DCA and DCF (attack/decay/release); Cut‑Off; Resonance; LFO Rate, Depth, Delay; Aftertouch; Reverb; and Chorus. There are four dynamic curves, with aftertouch assignable to modulation, pitch and volume. Portamento, portamento speed, a global transposer function, octave down function, keyboard split, a special user‑configurable scale section called Arabic scale, and the full chord facilities are also included.

The 256 'Multi‑Synthesis' voicings are arranged into two banks and boast 28‑note polyphony. No description of the synthesis method is provided, but the instrument obviously employs a sample‑based synthesis system of some kind, and the overall sound quality is very clean. Almost all user parameters can be saved to disk.

One very welcome feature is Program Mode. Similar to what other units often term as Combinations, this function allows for 128 user programs with three selectable modes: Patch, Duet, and Trio. All three provide four‑voice splits or layers with separate volume, pan, detune, octave shift, sustain, reverb and chorus/Leslie rotor control for each voice selected. Dynamically controlled velocity switching, which works in conjunction with a variable threshold, is also provided. With this option engaged, you can assign your choice of voices dynamically, allowing you to trigger different sounds the harder you play. The Duet and Trio functions are quite a neat little addition, reminding me of my old CZ101. What you have here is the ability to set up voices so that harmonisation effects are possible. In other words, one finger down, one voice, the next finger gives another voice, and so on. Duet provides alternating voices, while Trio changes in groups of three. There's even a floating keyboard split‑point option that, once again, can be saved to disk.

The drum section has seven distinct parts, all of which have separate controls for volume, reverb and pan. There is also a 'real‑time' on/off for each section, along with provisions for a user‑defined drum set utilising any of the 192 high‑quality percussion sounds included. Another innovative feature is accessed by pressing a dedicated button entitled 'Registration'. Almost every panel parameter can be recorded as a setup file into any one of 64 memories and saved to disk in a special user‑named file. For live gigs, this would be very useful indeed. I personally found it of particular benefit for memorising session work configurations and panel settings.

Control Layout

I happen to be a big fan of buttons, and the MS40 has 111 of them, along with 62 LEDs. All the control pads are made of a rubber‑type material which is both comfortable and responsive. Grouped around the display are the eight main function buttons which control all the primary status menus and sub‑menus. To the left of the display are the inevitable Page and Value increment/decrement buttons, along with most of the style and editing controls.

Below centre you'll find the Style‑Select keypad, Stop/Start buttons, tempo adjustment, arrangement plus master volume slider, and the individual Parts Level buttons. To the right can be found all primary drive access settings, along with the remaining arrangement pads. The voice, registration and programme bank selection keypad is in the upper right‑hand corner. Also on the top edge is a small cut‑out for a reasonably quiet cooling fan.

Inputs and controls across the back include the AC socket, On/Off switch, foot switch/volume pedal/video interface connectors (more on that last one later), two MIDI inputs (one regular and one that connects directly to the GM system), and MIDI Thru and Out. One nice touch, in a unit ostensibly aimed at the non‑professional market, is the provision of four separate audio outputs. In addition to the usual left/mono and right sockets are outputs 3 and 4, which can have both drum and section voices assigned to them, allowing greater freedom when mixing. A headphone socket in the far right corner and the front‑edge‑mounted drive rounds out the package.


The notion of in‑built accompaniment styles is one with which some people feel uncomfortable, but remember that they do have an off switch! There are 99 styles on offer and, surprisingly, many of them are actually quite useful, though I doubt if 'Weiner W' or 'Polka Ober', will be in great demand in the pop world. In addition to the on‑board styles, there are also 24 user style locations. You can either programme your own or purchase Styles, Songs, Grooves and PCM sounds from the extensive factory disk library. It's also possible to 'lock' styles once they're entered, in order to prevent them from being accidentally overwritten.

Styles consist of any permutation of the following: two intros, three fills, four main section arrangements labelled A to D, and two different endings — more than enough to create some quite impressive compositions. One neat feature causes the arrangement to 'jump' from one main pattern to another following use of any of the three fills on offer.

Any preconceptions I may have had regarding 'home' market synths have been severely revised following my exposure to the MS40

The style system has five main parts: Drums, Bass, Chord 1, 2 and 3, plus a lead channel that can be configured in different ways. Key Start and Key Stop do exactly that, and there are a number of Arranger modes. These include Easy Chord (one or two notes plays it all), Pianist (the other sections accompany you, observing correct harmonic intervals), and Dynamic Arranger/Retrigger. These functions lend a more personal feel to your playing. Other modes include Bass to Lowest (note), Bass Sustain, Octave Hold, Swell to Right, Restart, the all important Hold, Auto Crash (the Arranger will automatically insert cymbal crashes at pre‑determined points), and an Automatic Tempo function. The included Auto Fader allows the entire mix to be remotely faded in or out. As this function can be enabled through MIDI, I found it quite useful while engaged in some of my more complex mixes. Other goodies closing out this section include the aforementioned Arabic Scale which allows you to experiment with customised tunings. Not only can you create your own unique templates, you can save them to disk with the Registrations.

There is a complete GM assignment page allowing for temporary or permanent changes to the current 16 MIDI parts on line. Available parameters encompass Voice, Volume, Pan, Reverb, Chorus, Key Shift and MIDI channel. Pattern (aka Style) editing is comprehensive. You can even designate your preference between 'Parallel' or 'Close' chord structures (Parallel signifies that when changing key, transpositions are done in a parallel manner, whereas Close uses the closest inversions possible). And finally, it's possible to play any piece of music in 'real time' and record directly to disk. Playback of the resulting Standard MIDI File from disk is automatically engaged when you exit record.

Souped On Sonics

The sound department is where the MS40 absolutely shines. With few exceptions, the 256 voices, the 192 percussion sounds and the factory‑loaded programmes are of a uniformly high quality. Aside from a bit of noise or a slight truncation fudge here and there, I found very little to complain about (see side box for faves). Ultimately, the best description of the MS40, in a word, would be 'warm'. In turning off the effects, I was struck by the overall realism of the sounds. Rosin rubs, guitar string slides, boxy thumps — all of the expected 'live' chunks are here. Besides an excellent 128 GM sound set, there are another 128 adventurous voices which seem to comprehensively explore other sonic possibilities. The sounds are divided into 16 families: Pianos; Chrom (instruments such as Celeste); Organs; Guitars (sample the gritty electrics); Basses; Strings (Singles and multis); Ensembles; Brass; Saxes; Flutes; Lead/FM; Pad/FM (awesomely lush!); Synt/FM; Ethnic; Percussive; and Effects (check out the 'James Brown' grunt!).

Glueing this all together is an onboard digital effects processor. Although this is reasonably adequate, with 15 reverbs, Chorus 1&2, Pan Chorus, Rotor (Leslie effects), Rotor fast/slow, Delay 1&2 and Echo Repeat 1&2, I would have been happier with a bit more in the way of multi‑effects and parameter control (the tempo of Echo repeats, for example). In general, though, the internal DSP is well‑behaved and quiet. In fact, I'd have to say that the MS40 is a low‑noise unit in almost every respect.

In addition to the onboard sounds, there is provision to load in PCM samples and grooves (essentially drum loops — see side box), though at the moment, you're restricted to the use of the Solton disk library. Orchestral voices, special effects, ethnic instruments and drum grooves are presently on offer. The sample/loop occupies a special memory slot, ever ready for incorporation into one of your meisterwerks. There's even a multi‑task mode that permits the loading of samples while playing. All of this, claim Solton, will help obviate the obsolescence often associated with electronic musical instruments... er, right...


MIDI implementation on the MS40 is fairly good. Besides the individual GM MIDI input and full observance of the General MIDI protocol, you can program style patterns on an external sequencer, then transfer them into the MS40. All the MS40's auto‑accompaniment features are also transmitted over MIDI, so you can come up with something spontaneous using the auto‑accompaniment and beam it over to your external sequencer for polishing. The MIDI section also provides for System Exclusive, Control Changes, Clock In/Out, Dump, Special transmit channels for Registrations/Programmes, and so on. For the tech‑y types, an excellent serving of Non‑registered Parameter Numbers (NRPN) are on the SysEx menu, mainly dealing with effects and assorted drum options; utilising an external sequencer, you can address these parameters directly. While the on‑board recorder can be used for 'real‑time' data entry, since the MS40's disk drive also has the ability to read and write MIDI files, for serious work an external system would be a better choice (see box on MS40 sequencing). The disk drive can load and save user Drum Sets, User Voices, Style Patterns, Registrations, and Programmes, along with Format, Pattern chains, and so on.

One further feature you're bound to love (or not!) is the VI 1 Video Interface — Karaoke! Of course there are those sad people who actually like Karaoke, and for them there's very little anyone can do, but there are some less frivolous applications for the technology which enables you to insert lyrics and chord names into standard MIDI files using an external sequencer. Let's say you've got a session going with a group of singers, or perhaps even a live gig where not everyone is sure of their words. Just set up a video monitor with the interface, sync up the unit to either tape or sequencer and let her rip. Now you have scrolling lyrics and chord charts. One band I know use this system both in rehearsal and at gigs! Personally, I like the old method of writing lyrics down, but at least a TV monitor doesn't rustle as you turn the pages.

Accessories provided are a demo disk, a Music Support (to prop up your music), and the Owner's manual. Options include a six‑ or 13‑section User Programmable Pedal Board, the Video interface, and various other pedals (Volume, Sustain, and so on). There's also a hard case and the disk library.

Rapping It Up

I have to admit to liking the MS40. I have a friend who swears he can identify the lineage of a synth simply by hearing a patch, but the MS40 proved too much of a challenge even for him. The point is that most of the currently popular synths with any real merit come from a very small pool of manufacturers, so if you want something unique in the way of sound, you need to look further afield than the usual big names. In the case of the MS40, not only is the sound quality very good, but the GM sounds are just that little bit different to everyone else's GM sounds, which gives the instrument a character of its own.

Obviously the MS40 was designed for the shadowy world of cabaret, Karaoke and whatever species the home organist has currently evolved into, but that doesn't make it any less valid an instrument. If you use synthesizers to provide live backing at gigs, then you could do a lot worse than the MS40, and even if you're the type of musician who wouldn't be seen dead playing live to an auto‑accompaniment system, there's no arguing that practising with an in‑time, perfectly‑behaved robot backing band is infinitely better than trying to practise on your own. In the studio, the MS40 is a worthy GM synth in its own right.

Auto Styles can also be very useful in the early stages of songwriting, so don't just write them off as something 'nasty'. Whatever you think of home keyboards and their spin‑offs, it's a fact that technology becomes cheaper as the market becomes wider, and I'm sure that in years to come, some of the best bargains in electronic musical instruments will come with built‑in speakers, auto styles, and probably even Karaoke lyrics bouncing across their LCD screens.

MS40 Specification

  • 2x40‑character Backlit Display
  • 256 PCM/Multi‑Synthesis Voices
  • 192 Percussion Voices in 12 Drum Sets
  • 128 Programmes (Combinations)
  • 128 User Voices
  • 28‑note Polyphony
  • 16‑part Multitimbrality
  • 99 Built‑in Styles
  • 24 User Patterns (Styles)
  • 23 DSP Effects
  • 256K Sample RAM
  • 3.5‑inch DSDD MS‑DOS Disk Drive

Connections include:

  • MIDI In (x2), Out, and Thru
  • 4 Audio Outs
  • Volume Pedal Input
  • Video Interface Input
  • Footswitch/Pedalboard Input
  • Headphone Input
  • Sustain/Piano and Sustain Pedal Inputs

The Solton Of Sound (Or A Few Of My Favourite Things)

Any preconceptions I may have had regarding 'home' market synths have been severely revised following my exposure to the MS40. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that changes made to the patch banks only take effect when the next note is played and don't interfere with currently sounding voices. Here's a list of my personal faves. Take a copy with you when you go to check the synth out.

01/2Concert GrandA warm, full, articulate sound. All the pianos are excellent.
19/1Rock OrganShades of Uriah Heep. Switch on slow rotor for the full effect. There are some nice organs hiding in Bank 2 under Pad/FM.
23/1HarmonicaLovely stuff. With a bit of bend, it's Breakfast in America.
34/1FingeredGood, all round bass sound. All the basses are brilliant.
34/2Fing BassA real rocker!
38/2Techno BassFat and useful.
85‑88/2Basses allCalled Pop, Sinus, Bourdon and Sub bass, I'd suggest you remove china from high shelves when using these sounds. Bombastic!
25/1Nylon Guitar Luscious, very authentic, and if used with correct phrasing, quite believable. Also try 25/2 Spanish.
29/1Stopped GuitarExcellent for chunking. Another to try is 29/2 Stop 5th.
30/2BlueleadI loved both of these electrics (actually all the guitars are great. In bank 2 under Synt/FM there's another eight crankers to try.
43/1CelloAll the strings are fantastic, but in the singles category this one takes the prize.
65/1BlowsaxIf I only could pick one sax ever, this would be it! You can hear the spit 'n' smoke.

Finally, of the programmes, be sure not to miss Philarmo, Orchestr, Fantasy 1‑8 and Rave. Have fun!

MS40 Sequencing

Solton have realised that most serious studio users these days use some kind of computer system for sequencing, and have consequently decided not to include a full sequencing system in the MS range. You can overcome this limitation, however, by utilising the Song Record facility in conjunction with Pattern Edit mode.

Song Record mode will faithfully record and send back out of the MIDI port all notes, control and program change data, either from hands‑on playing or from internal/external sources. By utilising Pattern Edit mode as a phrase recorder on up to nine MIDI channels (options include any one of five instruments, Tempo, Quantisation, number of bars up to 16, chord table and Metronome on/off), you can perfect the phrases required for your sequences on both a punch‑in and overdub basis.

Once satisfied, you can enter Song Record mode and record the results while playing your lead line. Obviously, no step‑entry mode is available, which means that you'd better either be very good or very patient! Eventually a song can be achieved using this method. Personally, I'd like to see the inclusion of an overdub feature in Song Record mode. Perhaps in an update?

The best option is still the use of an external dedicated sequencer, though this system works reasonably well in a pinch.


Simply stated, Syngroove is an exclusive Solton feature that enables any Groove file that is loaded into the MS40 Pattern (Style) section to be automatically synchronised with the internal clock. Any change to the tempo will be reflected by a corresponding change in Groove tempos. Grooves are essentially specially‑prepared percussion sample loops, similar in most respects to the drum loops found in profusion these days. The only real difference, outside of format, is that they contain certain timing code info required to engage the MS40 sync circuits.


  • Warm, delicious sounds throughout.
  • Elaborate, but well thought out, user‑friendly control surface.
  • Solid construction and design.
  • Loads of usable Styles.


  • Fairly basic effects.
  • The elaborate control surface can be quite daunting initially.
  • Frugal sequencing capabilities.


To paraphrase, no synthesizer can be all things to all people, but the Solton MS40 does come very close. With its wide palette of gorgeous sounds and scores of exceptional features, you'd be hard pressed to find anything that gives you more punch for the pound.