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Workstation Synthesizers

Spotlight 0524 Workstation Synthesizers header artwork

Looking for an all-in-one playing and sequencing solution? Look no further...

With the power of modern laptops and abundance of virtual instruments and sample libraries, it’s never been easier to carry around an entire studio setup. However, there are still plenty of situations where a standalone hardware workstation can be an attractive option. For live performances, having a single instrument loaded up with all of the sounds you need throughout your setlist can be a game-changer, and they can offer a convenient way to get ideas down quickly when inspiration strikes. In this month’s Spotlight, we take a look at a selection of instruments that pack in all of the sounds and sequencing capabilities you need to create a song without firing up your DAW.

Akai MPC Key 61Akai MPC Key 61

Akai MPC Key 61 / 37

With the MPC Key 61 and 37, Akai have paired the sampling and performance capabilities of their legendary MPC units with a powerful synthesizer, as well as throwing in a healthy selection of connectivity and interfacing for good measure. Onboard plug-ins offer a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instrument sounds, with rhythmic programming taken care of by 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads with aftertouch, while a pair of mic preamps make it possible to record external sources directly to the unit’s internal storage. The unit boasts 128 MIDI tracks that can be used to sequence internal or external instruments, and eight audio tracks that can be loaded up with a wide variety of built-in processing plug-ins. A large multi-touch display is paired with a set of four assignable Q-Link encoders, providing users with precise hands-on control over everything from plug-in parameters to audio and MIDI editing.

There’s no shortage of I/O, with four line-level outputs joined by a pair of XLR/TRS combo sockets that will accept mic or line-level signals, as well as MIDI in, out and thru connections, eight CV/gate outputs for integrating modular rigs, and built-in USB audio and MIDI interface capabilities. If that’s not enough, the MPC Key 61 also boasts USB ports that will accept USB MIDI devices and class-compliant audio interfaces (with support for up to 32 inputs and outputs). The more recently released MPC Key 37 offers the same processing power, and still features the full MPC sampling experience, but in a more compact footprint with slightly reduced connectivity.

MPC Key 61: $1499. MPC Key 37: $899.

MPC Key 61 £1699.99, MPC Key 37 £769. Prices include VAT.

Casio WK-6600Casio WK-6600

Casio WK Series

There are two workstations in Casio’s WK series: the WK-7600 and WK-6600. Both are equipped with a 76-note keybed, but differ slightly in the amount of additional features they provide. A 16-track sequencer with built-in editing capabilities is present on both units, and the WK-7600 is also capable of recording audio from its mic/instrument input; the WK-6600 is still equipped with an external input that can be routed to the output or built-in speakers, but doesn’t provide any recording facilities. The WK-7600 comes loaded with 820 onboard sounds and offers 64-voice polyphony, while the WK-6600 provides 700 sounds and 48 voices, and each model is equipped with 260 and 210 built-in rhythms and patterns, respectively. They both offer the same collection of effects including reverbs, choruses, EQs and more, along with an auto-harmonise feature and an arpeggiator, although the WK-7600’s top panel sports an expanded set of hands-on parameter controls.

WK-6600 $299, WK-7600 $449

WK-6600 £469, WK-7600 £521. Prices include VAT.

Korg Kross 2 61-MBKorg Kross 2 61-MB

Korg Kross 2

Korg’s Kross 2 retains the compact design of its predecessor, but extends the polyphony to 120 voices and comes packed with over 1000 onboard sounds that range from acoustic and electric pianos to strings, drum kits and contemporary sounds aimed at EDM production. Additional stereo samples up to 14 seconds long can be captured via the unit’s line input, before being trimmed, normalised or resampled and assigned to one of 16 playable pads. Thanks to Korg’s EDS-i sound engine, the instrument also offers five insert and two master effects that can be used simultaneously, with a generous selection of processors offering everything from delays and reverbs to amp modelling and vintage effects emulations — there’s also a vocoder that can be used to process the Kross 2’s mic input.

A 16-track MIDI sequencer allows users to record their keyboard and pad performance along with any controller movements, and the pads double up as a 64-step sequencer. Some 772 preset drum patterns provide a wealth of rhythmic backing options, and an arpeggiator makes quick work of generating phrases or emulating strumming patterns. 61- and 88-key models are available, both of which boast a lightweight design and will even run on AA batteries for the ultimate portable writing solution. If you do want to use the Kross 2 alongside a computer, USB MIDI and audio connectivity makes it possible to integrate the instrument with a DAW, or benefit from additional sounds, patch editing and backing track playback using Korg’s range of additional software applications.

Kross 2-61-MB $929.99, Kross 2-88-MB $1299.99

Kross 2 61-MB £785, Kross 2-88-MB £1100. Prices include VAT.

Korg NautilusKorg Nautilus

Korg Nautilus/Nautilus AT

Korg’s flagship workstation boasts a huge selection of sounds, with no fewer than nine dedicated sound engines offering acoustic and electric pianos, tonewheel organs, guitars, basses, drums, percussion and more, along with an array of synth sounds provided by the company’s MOD-7, PolysixEX, MS-20EX and STR-1 engines. The instrument’s recording section features 16 MIDI tracks and benefits from an RPPR (Realtime Pattern Play/Recording) mode, along with 16 audio tracks capable of simultaneously capturing up to four 16- or 24-bit audio tracks at 48kHz. Basic onboard editing functions are provided and it’s also possible to automate the internal mixer. There’s plenty of built-in processing, too: a separate three-band EQ is available for every timbre, sequencer track and audio track, and there are 12 insert effects that can be assigned to individual or multiple sources, along with four additional effects slots (two send-based, and two for the final output).

A set of encoders and buttons provide hands-on control over key parameters, and are joined by an eight-inch TouchView display that offers in-depth control over all of the instrument’s functionality as well as providing access to menu systems and displaying detailed visual feedback. There are 61-, 73- and 88-key models available, with the first two equipped with synth-style keys and the third fitted with a weighted hammer-action keybed. The more recent AT variants are equipped with 61- and 88-key aftertouch-capable keybeds (there is no 73-key AT version) and a modified sound library, greatly extending the instruments’ expressive capabilities. Korg also offer an official upgrade service for those wishing to add the functionality to their existing Nautilus.

$1699.99 – $2899.99

£1699.99 to £2599.99 including VAT.

Kurzweil K2700Kurzweil K2700

Kurzweil K2700

The latest iteration of Kurzweil’s K2 series workstation offers over five times the polyphony of its predecessor, with the company’s VAST (Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology) engine boasting a huge 256 voices. There’s no shortage of onboard sounds either: a 4.5GB factory library packs in everything from pianos to orchestral instruments, and there’s an additional 3.5GB of space for users to populate with their own custom samples, as well as a pair of mic/line inputs for integrating external sound sources. As for synth sounds, a built-in six-operator FM engine is joined by a virtual analogue engine sourced from Kurzweil’s VA1 instrument, and realistic tonewheel organ sounds are on offer courtesy of the KB3 ToneReal engine. Thirty-two effects units offer everything from reverbs and delays to modulation and rotary cabinet simulations, and there’s a global master effects section kitted out with three-band EQ and compression.

The K2700 features an 88-note hammer-action keybed that offers up to 16 independent zones, with faders, encoders, buttons, pad triggers and a ribbon controller providing a wealth of hands-on parameter control, and a set of four pedal inputs make it possible to add up to four footswitches and a pair of assignable CC pedals. A built-in 16-track sequencer offers event- and track-based editing tools such as quantise, swing, controller scaling and more, and there’s also an onboard arpeggiator and riff generator along with a MIDI CC step sequencer for creating complex modulations. DAW integration is provided by a USB audio/MIDI interface, and USB host functionality makes it possible to expand the onboard control facilities with additional keyboard or fader/encoder units.


£2499 including VAT.

Kurzweil PC4Kurzweil PC4

Kurzweil PC4 Series

Kurzweil’s PC4 and PC4-7 are 88- and 76-key workstations that offer many of the features of the flagship K2700 at a lower price. Polyphony still stands at 256 voices, but with the factory sample library (and user sample space) reduced to 2GB, although you still get the full complement of sound engines, onboard effects and 16-track sequencing capabilities. There’s a reduction in audio I/O and external pedal connectivity, and although the audio interface capabilities of the K2700 are omitted, the PC4 is still equipped with USB MIDI. The latest addition to the range, the PC4 SE, lowers the price even further while still packing in plenty of features, albeit with fewer top-panel controls. You still get an 88-key hammer-action keybed, 256-voice polyphony and a 2GB factory library, but with five split zones and no additional sample support. The FM, VA1 and KB3 engines remain, as does the 16-track sequencer, and there are still the same amount of onboard effects — although with more limited editing options.

$1699 – $2499

£1709 to £1999 including VAT.

Roland Fantom 7Roland Fantom 7

Roland Fantom

The Roland Fantom series comes loaded with a vast array of onboard sounds, with their V-Piano and SuperNATURAL technologies promising to deliver the most realistic piano playing experience possible. Synth sounds are taken care of by the company’s ZEN-Core engine, and support for their ACB (Analog Circuit Behaviour) technology — and the recreations of iconic instruments it brings with it — can be added with an optional Fantom EX upgrade. Internal and external sound sources can be sampled directly to built-in pads for triggering, or assigned to the keyboard to create custom pitched instruments. As for sequencing, there are 16 MIDI tracks that can each house up to eight patterns, and there’s a whole host of processing and effects modules that include EQ, compression, delays, reverbs, chorus and more.

Top-panel faders and encoders provide control over key parameters, and more detailed editing and navigation can be carried out on a large central touchscreen. Along with a healthy selection of audio, MIDI and CV I/O, the Fantom features a built-in USB audio/MIDI interface, making it possible to integrate the instrument with a DAW setup, and it’s even possible to layer soft synths with the internal sounds and route them through the onboard effects and filters. Roland also offer the more compact and lightweight Fantom-0 series, which deliver much of the same functionality, but with a reduced amount of processing power and fewer onboard sounds.

Fantom $2999.99 – $3999.99, Fantom 0 $1899.99 – $2149.99

Fantom £3385 to £3937, Fantom-0 £1136 to £1781. Prices include VAT.

Yamaha MODX6+Yamaha MODX6+

Yamaha MODX+

The three models in Yamaha’s MODX+ range all offer the same set of features, and differ only in their keybeds: the MODX6+ and MODX7+ are equipped with 61- and 76-note semi-weighted options respectively, while the MODX8+ sports an 88-key GHS (Graded Hammer Standard) action. A 128-voice AWM2 (Advanced Wave Memory 2) engine derived from the flagship Montage M series offers everything from acoustic instrument and drum sounds to a wealth of synths. Each of the instrument’s 16 AWM2 parts boasts 18 filter types, and these are joined by a collection of envelope generators, nine LFOs, a three-band EQ and dual insert effects. Even more synth options are provided thanks to a 128-voice FM-X engine that builds on the capabilities and sounds of the iconic DX7, and there’s a generous supply of onboard insert and master effects that can be applied not only to the built-in sounds, but also to external sources thanks to a stereo analogue input.

A 16-track sequencer capable of storing up to 128 songs is present, and offers real-time replace, overdub and punch-in/out recording modes. Hands-on control is provided by a range of faders, encoders and buttons, along with a Super Knob that makes it possible to simultaneously manipulate up to 128 parameters. There’s also a built-in 4-in/10-out USB audio interface in case you do want to the use the MODX+ alongside a DAW, and this supports iOS devices as well as the usual desktop platforms.

$1349.99 – $1999.99

£1680 to £2239 including VAT.

Yamaha Montage M8xYamaha Montage M8x

Yamaha Montage M Series

The latest generation of Yamaha’s flagship workstation range offers three models: the Montage M6, M7 and M8x. The first two feature 61- and 76-note FSX keybeds with channel aftertouch, and the third is kitted out with an 88-note GEX version with polyphonic aftertouch. Polyphony sits at a staggering 400 voices, with 256- and 128-voice AWM2 and FM-X engines joined by a 16-voice AN-X engine designed to accurately recreate a range of classic analogue synth sounds. The company have overhauled the user interface and implemented a category system that makes searching for and loading sounds quicker than ever, and the collection of hardware faders, encoders and buttons are complemented by a large touchscreen display that offers more in-depth editing capabilities. Sixteen-track sequencing with real-time replace, overdub and punch-in/out recording modes is present once again, and DAW connectivity is provided via a built-in USB MIDI and 6-in/32-out audio interface.

Yamaha have recently released ESP (Expanded Softsynth Plugin), a plug-in which replicates the Montage’s features inside of a DAW, allowing registered users to work on Montage M Performances without their hardware. It currently offers the instrument’s sounds with limited editing capabilities, and Yamaha say that the full version will be available by summer 2024.

$3999 – $4999

£3219 to £4049 including VAT.

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