The Case For Master Keyboards
Master keyboards may seem expensive for 'dumb' instruments, but a good controller can make a player's life a whole lot easier. Julian Colbeck explains.
While no-one admits to thinking the idea fundamentally unsound, the number of players who have taken the plunge and actually bought a master keyboard remains small. Pifflingly small, even. There are many reasons why master keyboards have suffered such slender sales, principally the reluctance of people to buy a 'dumb', ie. non sound-producing, instrument, plus their unnecessary complexity and high price. But there are a number of powerful reasons why you should go the master keyboard route, especially for live work.
First some definitions. By "master keyboard" (although for some inexplicable reasons some say "mother keyboard"), we mean a dedicated MIDI keyboard controller; an instrument whose sole purpose is to co-ordinate a MIDI rig by storing multi-instrument patch configurations in its memory, thus allowing all your sounds to be playable and controllable from just the one keyboard. There are two aspects of such a piece of equipment to consider: the hardware, ie. the physical keyboard; and the software, ie. the level of control the instrument offers.
A dedicated master keyboard should be a long-term purchase. Since it doesn't contain sounds its sound cannot date. It can respond to new developments, technologies, sample rates etc. with ease, because all it is doing is storing data and triggering sounds. But in order that you should want to play the same physical keyboard for years and years, it has to be responsive and allow you to play at your best. Once you have found a model to suit your needs and style — and master keyboards come in a variety of weights (of action) and lengths — the advantage of consistency should become obvious. Consistency will not only pay dividends in terms of keyboard feel, but in terms of familiarity with left hand performance controls and foot controllers. In these instances familiarity breeds nothing so much as peace of mind and productivity.
Keyboard weight and, to an extent, length, are personal matters. If you play/played piano then a weighted action might be desirable, if not essential in some cases. Certainly it is difficult to get much gravity out of an organ-action keyboard playing a piano sound. The benefits of length, on a master keyboard, are less open to question. You must go for at least a 6-octave (76-note) model. The reason is simply that once you have zoned a couple of sounds, or assigned a few samples, you'll be left with precious little room to play with on anything smaller. Whether you opt for the full 88 notes or keep to a more modest 76 notes is up to you. Pianists will probably find the freedom of an 88-note keyboard of considerable value.
Already the master keyboard option is looking attractive (and don't forget about the considerable savings in cases and transport space if you use just one keyboard, with sundry tone modules) and we've not even touched on the software.
While almost every synth or digital piano claims to have master keyboard facilities these days, invariably this means little more than a second MIDI Out and the ability to zone a couple of external sound sources. A dedicated master keyboard should be able to mastermind your entire system. It should be able to control which sounds are selected on all of your sound sources, the volume of each patch, and set control parameters like velocity response and response to pitch and mod wheels... and you should be able to change all of this with a single button push (or better still a single step on Inc/Dec footswitches).
In live performance the value of being able to reconfigure your entire rig at a stroke needs little added justification. No synth can perform such duties in such depth. And the more control you exert over your system, the more you'll be getting out of your system. This makes obvious sense when it comes to sounds (allowing you to use the sound you want as opposed to merely one that is practical) but this level of control should also allow you to utilise effects properly, ie. a specific effect for a specific configuration.
It's surprising how few people bother to change patches on an effects unit via MIDI, since this can be a most powerful tool in terms of creating 'new' final sounds — using drastic EQ, heavy flanging, repeats etc. An effects patch is no more difficult to change over MIDI than is a regular instrument patch. A master keyboard should, with its added MIDI channel/patch change power, at least make you aware of this type of possibility.
In live performance, zoning (the practice of assigning certain sounds, ie. those of your connected instruments, to certain specific slices of keyboard area) really comes into its own. While it's true that many regular synths allow you to split the keyboard, and even split the keyboard between internal and external sounds, to set up even a half-way complicated patch of, say, a couple of samples to be triggered from notes deep in the bass, an electric piano layered with a marimba over most of the range, and a high string in the top octave, would be impossible on any current synth. Such a keyboard configuration not only allows you to cover parts and sounds that would otherwise be impossible for one keyboard player to cover, but it allows you to do it in relative comfort.
How easy it is to use all this organising power depends upon the model you've chosen. Some master keyboards seem to undo all the good they offer by being pigs to program. Fortunately even swine like Roland's A50/A80 perform wonderfully once you've set them up. Even more fortunately, the current trend is towards more accessible, logical master keyboards such as the new Akai MX1000.
There is no definitive checklist for master keyboard facilities. A good number of memory locations for system patches is of course essential, as is the power to step through the patches via footswitch, preferably in a number of preprogrammed patch chains. A minimum of four zones would also be advisable for those who use a lot of samples and/or those who have many instruments (and even a couple of modules can effectively provide plenty of instruments, if their multi-timbrality is not restricted by lack of polyphony).
Finally, let's briefly look at the remote keyboard — the 'sling-on' — an instrument who sole application is not just as a MIDI master keyboard, but a MIDI master keyboard designed for live work. The value of a sling-on depends entirely upon your flashness rating, on your ability as a performer to exploit the physical freedom that the keyboard brings. As master keyboards such instruments are invariably limited, if still effective.The first flurry of such instruments — Yamaha's KX5, Korg's RK100, Roland's Axis — all died deaths in various ways (terminal price-slashing, no sales, a mixture of both). The American company Lync makes the only current range of such instruments, though rumours of another stab at the idea from one of the majors persist.
The key to successful live work is minimising the dangers and maximising the opportunities. Unless you are prepared to follow in Rick Wakeman's footsteps, and simply set up dozens of mini keyboard links and set-ups and make a show of flying between them (and frankly even Rick can only just get away with this nowadays), then you are locked into buying a dedicated master keyboard for live work if you want to tap your system's potential to the full.
But is there perhaps an alternative, in the form of one of the various MIDI managers? Can't units like the DMS-8 or Sycologic turn regular synths into master keyboards, via some MIDI processing tricks? Yes they can, but without casting any aspersions on their power or capabilities rack type units, especially if they are remote from your physical keyboard and do not offer immediately visible patch information (ie. a name you can see, right in front of you), cannot hope to match a master keyboard when it comes to peace of mind. Also such units only tackle the software side of the problem. You are still left with the problem of keyboard types, lengths etc.
It comes down to this. If you are serious about live work, and plan to use more than a couple of sound sources, a dedicated master keyboard has become an essential purchase. Own up. Admit defeat. Choose your weapon carefully, and proceed.
The SOS Guide To Going Live
Feature by Julian Colbeck
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