Technics' new flagship keyboard is the company's most sophisticated offering yet — and the first keyboard to provide a full‑blown colour LCD screen. But is it really an instrument for today's musician, or has the 'home' keyboard concept had its day? Simon Trask colours in the dots with the KN5000.
Technics have been responsible for at least one defining moment in the history of the keyboard, with the introduction of the KN2000 in 1993. When the instrument debuted at the Frankfurt Music Fair that year, it caused quite a stir with its large white‑on‑blue backlit LCD screen, which put other 'home' keyboards — not to mention synths — to shame. Home keyboards (which I'll just call 'keyboards' from now on for the sake of brevity) had been trailing synth technologically for so long that the KN2000's innovative display came as quite a shock. Its trailblazing 64‑voice polyphony was also impressive, while its introduction of quality sample‑based sounds, sonic programmability and a multitrack onboard sequencer put it more on a par with the synth workstation than any previous keyboard. At the same time, the musicality of its style programming. together with the inclusion of more modern styles alongside the traditional keyboard fare, showed that there was more to the auto‑accompaniment section than the keyboard cliché of plinky Viennese waltzes and Latin pops for the Come Dancing generation. All in all, then, the introduction of the KN2000 (reviewed in SOS August 1993) signalled a new era of keyboard sophistication and confidence.
Ensuing years have seen other manufacturers rise to meet Technics' challenge with ever more sophisticated and contemporary‑looking keyboards. The keyboard as a genre has embraced and extended the workstation concept, not least by playing up the traditional keyboard's strength in live pattern‑based sequencing (ie. auto‑accompaniments), notably with synth/keyboard workstation crossovers such as Yamaha's QS300. This adapted the auto‑accompaniment concept to appeal to a younger, more dancefloor‑orientated market (and we're not talking ballrooms here). Technics themselves updated the KN series in late 1995 with the KN3000, an evolutionary rather than revolutionary keyboard which enhanced the 2000's sample‑based subtractive synthesis architecture and introduced full sonic programmability. Two years later Technics are introducing a new flagship model to replace the 3000 — and in a KN2000‑style display of technological one‑upmanship, the company have gone for another first: a large full‑colour LCD screen. So have Technics revolutionised the keyboard again, or is the KN5000 all colour and no substance?
Sight And Sound
The KN5000 adopts the 'don't‑try‑too‑hard‑to‑look‑like‑a‑home‑keyboard' approach increasingly in favour these days at the upper end of the market — black casing, low‑profile black speaker grilles which blend in with the rest of the front panel, lots of black buttons, and, oh, did I mention black? The only really unusual thing about the front panel is the colour display (see 'A Clearer View' box). Ironically, this emphasis on a sober 'synth‑like' appearance comes at a time when synths are becoming more colourful and adventurous in design. Still, for those put off by traditional keyboard aesthetics the KN5000 is reassuringly heavyweight in appearance.
For its size, Technics' new keyboard is also fairly heavyweight in the pounds and ounces department — though it's still carryable under one arm. This extra weight can presumably be put down to the built‑in amp and speaker system, which consists of five speakers (four for mid/high, one for bass) together with 66W of onboard amplification (30W of which is for the bass alone). This new system, designed by an ex‑RAMSA engineer now working for Technics, is quite possibly the loudest to be implemented on a keyboard, and certainly one of the best. The speakers produce a sound which is crisp, spacious, well detailed and well balanced, and they're able to handle high amplification levels without breaking into a sweat. The bass end has a satisfyingly visceral punch to it at higher volume levels, and in fact the KN5000 is proof positive that built‑in speakers don't have to be wimpy and uncool. At the same time, of course, there are standard L & R audio out jacks so that you can route the final stereo signal direct to external amplification or a mixing desk instead. Additionally, the KN5000 has a plug‑in 1Gb hard drive option, which also provides a stereo jack that can be used to output stereo drums or mono bass and mono drums separately from the main output.
While synth manufacturers have been busy rediscovering the value of plenty of front‑panel knobs and sliders for sound editing, keyboard manufacturers have never given up their own version of the controller‑rich front panel, which typically entails providing real‑time control over auto‑accompaniment features. The KN5000 is no exception here, which is great if you're into live pattern‑based sequencing. In typical modern‑day keyboard fashion, the 5000 lets you create your own style sections (patterns) and call them up live from dedicated front‑panel buttons. The keyboard gives you Intro, Ending, Fill‑in 1, Fill‑in 2 and four Variation sections to play with. You can also store 'snapshots' of all current sound, style, effect and keyboard‑part (Left, Right 1 and Right 2) settings into 80 Panel memories for instant recall from the front panel, providing even more scope for live sequence‑based performance. What's more, you can alter the part mix, and drop individual parts in and out live, using the eight pairs of buttons below the LCD, with a graphical mixing desk in the display showing levels and mute status for eight parts at a time. The KN5000 also has six Manual Sequence Pads which can be used for live triggering of Phrases, or for triggering actions such as incrementing and decrementing Panel memories. Along with 13 preset Phrase banks, there are two Compile banks which you can use for combining Phrase selections yourself, and two User banks for recording your own Phrases. When you trigger a Phrase, it automatically conforms to the tempo and harmony of the active auto‑accompaniment pattern; some preset Phrases loop as well. Only one Phrase can be active at a time, which is a shame.
Sounds And Styles
The KN5000 has a large collection of preset sounds and Styles for you to use. There are 13 Sound Groups, most consisting of 20 sounds ('Pads' has 40, and 'Strings & Vocal' has 30 — in response, apparently, to demands from KN‑series users for more of these sounds). Also provided are an organ drawbars page and an accordion page, dedicated to live creation of these instrument sounds (the drawbars page has virtual onscreen stops that you can pull out — virtually, of course). Technics have provided a well‑rounded collection of high‑quality patches, based on a set of impressive sampled sounds. Overall the sonic character is clear and sparkling — probably too clean and polite for some people's liking, but pleasingly rich and dynamic.
Styles are divided into 14 preset groups and one user group. The presets cover the usual range of traditional and modern musics found on keyboards, but with the emphasis more on the former than the latter. The Styles are, in effect, extended through the Music Stylist section, which basically provides a huge number of preset Panel memory combinations of Style, sound and effect settings. These are organised into stylistic categories, sub‑categories and individual memories for convenience (for example, Gospel/Blues/R&B: King of Soul: Feelin' Good). You can also load additional Styles into 20 Custom memories, either from Technics Style Library disks, or, using the supplied Style Converter disk, from other manufacturers' style libraries, or you can create your own. The quality, musicality and, for the most part, accuracy of the preset Styles are excellent, making them eminently usable. However, the modern dancefloor styles are the least impressive — which isn't to say that the keyboard isn't capable of being effective in this area.
Technics have provided a well‑rounded collection of high‑quality patches.
Sound And Effects Editing
Sound editing on the KN5000 gives you full access to a sample‑based subtractive synthesis architecture which can hold its own against many a dedicated synthesizer. For a start, each sound can consist of up to four Tones, and each Tone can velocity‑switch between up to four Waveforms (ie. the raw sample material of the keyboard), with user‑settable velocity ranges. The four Tones can, in turn, be both key and velocity split/layered, with crossfading between ranges if required. Each Tone has its own pitch, filter and amplifier sections, with associated envelopes, while each section has its own four assignable LFOs which are common to all four Tones. Each LFO can be assigned to any of the Tones, so, for instance, you could use LFO1 to modulate filter cutoff on all four Tones: however, one Tone within a section can't be assigned more than one LFO. A graphical 'patchcord' layout in the LCD makes these assignments clear.
The filter is a pleasant multi‑mode resonant type, with a choice of low‑pass 24dB, high‑pass 24dB, band‑pass, low‑pass 12dB + EQ, and high‑pass 12dB + EQ; the EQ is single‑band with user‑settable range (low or high), frequency and gain. You can also assign and program a Digital Effect for each sound, selecting from a small number of chorus, tremolo, delay and ensemble effects.
The KN5000 has 40 onboard sound memories into which you can store your edited sounds. The keyboard also has several effects processors which are common to all the parts, offering very competent effects. DSP Effect is a modulation effect processor with a collection of 32 modulation effect types, including chorus, flanger, distortion, auto wah, ring modulator and rotary speaker, plus combinations of these effects with single delay or parametric EQ; all are programmable, with anywhere from four to 17 parameters each, including reverb send level. Inevitably there's also a separate reverb processor, offering a choice of 14 reverb and delay effects. Individual keyboard and accompaniment parts can be given their own DSP and Reverb send levels, which can be stored along with the actual effects settings into the Panel memories. Also included is a new global effect, Acoustic Illusion, which seems to be a cross between an ensemble effect and a 3D 'expanded stereo' effect. It's an interesting addition, but I found myself using it selectively.
Compose Yourself In Style
The KN5000's Composer section lets you customise existing Styles or create your own, and then write the results into the 20 Custom memories mentioned earlier. One option is to simply copy in individual patterns from any preset Style memories. You can simply mix and match patterns from different Styles, or, more ambitiously, go on to use the Composer's real‑time and step‑time recording capabilities to customise copied‑in patterns. Another copy mode, Sequencer To Composer Copy, allows you to use any material which you record yourself into the KN5000's onboard multitrack sequencer or load into the sequencer off disk. The 5000's ability to load Standard MIDI Files into its sequencer opens up a vast range of MIDI song file source material (not to mention possible legal ramifications if you re‑use any of it commercially), and also makes it possible for you to draw on the pre‑recorded instrumental phrases supplied by MIDI 'song construction kit' disks.
An Easy Composer option allows you to quickly create patterns by mixing and matching individual 'phrases'. You get eight parts, as the drum part is broken down into three sub‑parts: bass drum and snare, hi‑hat and cymbal, and percussion. Easy Composer lets you select a Style type for each part (for example, 8beat, Dance Pop, Jazz Fusion) and then call up any one of a number of instrumental phrases in that style. Anybody who has used a Yamaha QY‑series walkstation or QS300 workstation will be familiar with this approach.
Of course, the KN5000 also gives you the option to record the five auto‑accompaniment parts of every pattern yourself from scratch, in real and/or step time. The real‑time Composer sequencer works in loop overdub record mode, and lets you select different parts without having to stop the sequencer, making it very easy to build up a multi‑part pattern live. Patterns can be from 1‑8 bars long, with a time signature of from 1/4‑8/4. You also need to select a root key, chord type (major or minor), bass type (normal or seventh) and accompaniment type (normal or seventh); these settings define which root note and chord type for left‑hand chord triggering will play back the actual recorded pattern notes. Auto‑accompaniment on keyboards works by taking the selected Style pattern and adjusting its bass and harmony parts live, to harmonise with the trigger chords you're playing on the keyboard. For this method to work, the patterns themselves shouldn't contain chord changes — rather, you play any chord changes yourself live on the keyboard during performance and the backing follows you. However, there's no reason why you couldn't record a pattern as you wanted to hear it, chord changes and all, and then simply trigger it live on the keyboard by playing only the 'source' chord that you've defined. Switching between Custom memories live is a seamless process, so you can treat multiple memories as parts of a single song. You can also use the Panel 'snapshot' memories mentioned earlier to extend the possibilities — for instance, changing the keyboard sound and effects settings, or muting selected parts. Part mute settings can be stored per Panel memory, but not, it seems, for individual Variation patterns, which is a shame. You can also mute parts live (realistically, only two parts at a time) by pressing the relevant pair(s) of up/down buttons below the LCD screen. Part levels (again, storable per Panel memory) can be adjusted live by pressing the up or down buttons as appropriate, for as many as eight parts at once, if your fingers can manage it.
The KN5000's multitrack sequencer lets you record up to 10 songs; each has its own dedicated Panel memory, so you can completely customise its keyboard setup, including all mixer and effects settings. Recording can be in real time (with loop and punch‑in/punch‑out options) or step time. There's also an Easy Record option, which lets you record an 'auto‑accompaniment plus melody' keyboard performance, complete with live front‑panel changes. Easy Record lets you get away from having to build up all your sequencer parts from scratch — though once you've recorded an auto‑accompaniment performance you can also record additional tracks in the usual manner, if you want.
The 5000 provides both note and drum grid‑style editing pages, of the sort that will be familiar to users of computer‑based sequencers (only with a smaller grid). Also included is a very respectable range of bar‑ and track‑level editing functions: song/track copy; track clear; track merge; quantise; transpose; velocity change; note change; track advance/delay; and bar copy, erase, delete and insert.
The KN5000 is Technics' best keyboard yet, and one of the most sophisticated on the market...
When you record an auto‑accompaniment performance using Easy Record, the sequencer only records the trigger notes you play on the keyboard, not the actual notes of the accompaniment parts. While this saves on memory, it does mean you can't edit the parts, or save your performance as a usable MIDI file. Disappointingly, there's no convert‑to‑notes feature either, although you can work around this by setting the accompaniment parts to transmit via MIDI on separate channels, hooking the 5000's MIDI Out to its MIDI In, and setting five tracks to record the MIDI data received on those channels. Sequences can be saved to floppy disk in MIDI‑file type '0' or Technics file formats, and the KN5000 can also play MIDI files direct from disk, automatically switching into General MIDI sound mode to play back MIDI song files. The keyboard has the ability to display song file lyrics onscreen as the song plays, and lets you mute any single MIDI channel (useful for dropping out the melody part), make mixer changes, adjust input level for the rear‑panel microphone socket, and make associated settings for the dedicated onboard mic reverb. Also included on the keyboard are software pages for setting up MIDI‑controlled harmonisation for an external vocal harmoniser, whose output you can then plug into the 5000's auxiliary audio inputs. Incidentally, the optional 1Gb hard drive mentioned earlier, which plugs into a bay on the keyboard's rear panel and can store up to 1920 data files, can apparently only store and read song files in Technics format. The drive can also be hooked up to a Windows 95 PC via a parallel port connection for backup purposes (requiring special software and additional expense), but if you copy a MIDI file onto the drive from a PC the KN5000 won't read it; instead you'll have to copy the file onto a floppy disk and load it into the 5000 that way.
The KN5000 is Technics' best keyboard yet, and one of the most sophisticated on the market, a thoroughly professional instrument which offers more than enough, both technologically and musically, to satisfy the traditional keyboard buyer. Meanwhile its large colour LCD should be a hit, both practically and aesthetically, with everyone. Musically speaking, Technics' new flagship errs on the side of the traditional keyboard market. While perhaps not surprising, this does seem a shame when the 5000 has so much to offer the more modern user — not least its live sequencing capabilities. Then again, musically there does seem to be something of the Jekyll and Hyde about keyboards in general these days, as manufacturers try to keep in with the traditional market while, in varying degrees, seeking to cater for the tastes of younger buyers. Of course, which part is Jekyll and which is Hyde depends on your musical preferences! Custom Style programming does mean you can 'roll your own' on the 5000, but still I can see a younger market being somewhat put off by the more traditional musical fare on offer here, if not by the sophisticated technology.
The KN5000, then, will appeal greatly to traditional keyboard performers, should be seriously considered by composers and arrangers, and may yet find a place in the more adventurous (and stylistically forgiving) dance studio as a live production tool.
A Clearer View: The Colour Display
From the moment you power up Technics' new keyboard, its LCD screen becomes the centrepiece in more ways than one. The screen is contained within a front‑hinged central section of the front panel which can be raised manually to sit at one of several viewing angles; the raised section is held firmly in place by a rear metal support arm which slots into a series of notches at both ends of the section. Also provided in this central section is a slider which lets you quickly adjust LCD contrast to retain clear readability at different viewing angles, together with parameter select and adjust buttons below and to the left and right of the display.
The new colour LCD is akin to those found on laptop computers, though at 4.75 x 3.6 inches (6 inches diagonal) and 320 x 240 pixels it's smaller in both size and resolution than today's laptop offerings. The display is crisp and clear, yet not too sharp, making it comfortable to read and easy on the eyes during extended periods of use. Computer users note that you can load in your own background images off disk as BMP files; just remember that readability is desirable too!
- Keyboard: 61 keys, with attack velocity and channel aftertouch.
- Synthesis method: sample‑based subtractive.
- Sample ROM: 16Mb.
- Polyphony: 64 voices.
- Sounds: 290 preset Sounds; 15 preset Drum Kits; digital drawbars; 2 accordion registers; 40 programmable Sounds; 1 programmable Drum Kit.
- Sound editing: up to 4 Tones with key and velocity split/layering; pitch envelope, resonant multimode filter + envelope, amplifier + envelope per Tone; four freely assignable LFOs; Digital Effect; controller assignments.
- Effects: Digital Effect; DSP Effect; Digital Reverb; Acoustic Illusion.
- Styles: 200; 2 Intro, 2 Ending, 2 fill‑in and 4 Variation patterns per Style; 14 preset Groups + one Custom Group.
- Panel Memories: 80 (10 Groups of 8).
- Composer: 5‑part Style pattern sequencer with approximately 10,000‑note capacity, three record modes (easy, real‑time and step) and copy functions; 3 Memory banks; 20 Custom Memories.
- Sequencer: 16 tracks; around 40,000‑note capacity; 10 Songs; 96ppqn resolution; three record modes (easy, real‑time and step); bar‑level and graphical event editing.
- Display: 320‑ x 240‑dot colour LCD with 192‑colour palette and user‑settable contrast.
- Disk drive: 3.5‑inch DD/HD floppy disk; optional internally fitted hard disk.
- Connections: L and R/R+L stereo audio outputs; L and R/L+R auxiliary audio inputs; microphone input; computer serial port connection (PC/Mac); MIDI (In, Out, Thru); 2 footswitch jacks; expression pedal jack; 4‑way foot controller socket; stereo headphones jack.
- Speakers: 12cm x 2; 6.5cm x 2 for mid/high; 14cm x 1 for bass.
- Amplifier output: 66W (18W x 2 for mid/high, 30W x 1 for bass).
- Options: HD‑AE5000 1Gb fixed hard drive plus additional stereo output: £549; HD TechManager5000 hard disk backup software.
- Weight: 15.1 kg (33.3lbs).
- Dimensions: 106.2cm x 17.4cm x 41.4cm (W x x D).
- Crisp, clean, dynamic overall sound, with powerful amplification and speaker system.
- Varied collection of quality sampled sounds, plus full sound editing.
- Colour LCD screen easy on the eyes.
- Live pattern‑based sequencing.
- User Style creation with copy from sequencer tracks.
- Can't convert auto‑accompaniment parts to MIDI notes in the sequencer.
- Can't store part mutes per pattern.
A mature, sophisticated yet exciting keyboard workstation, the KN5000 is a solid all‑rounder which updates the KN series to good effect.