It's Italian, it costs thousands, and it's not an Armani suit. Undaunted, Simon Trask tries it on for size, and discovers a new breed of keyboard incorporating new synth technology and a Farfisa beat.
Are keyboards about to take over from synths at the forefront of electronic musical instrument technology? Farfisa's new F1 keyboard, the result of over five years' research and development, throws down the gauntlet...
In recent years, keyboards have acquired many of the accoutrements of the synth workstation, while of course continuing to offer their own characteristic features, ie. auto-accompaniments and built-in speakers. Just about the only feature of the synthesiser which has yet to find its way onto keyboards is full patch editing; however, this is something which Farfisa intend to add to their new keyboard, the F1, as an upgrade, while apparently Technics' new flagship keyboard, the KN2000 (due in the summer), will provide patch editing from the outset. So what can we expect of this new generation of keyboards? Are we witnessing the final etching away of the differences between keyboards and synths?
With the weight of a multi-million-dollar investment by its parent company Bontempi behind it, Farfisa has spent the past five or six years developing a powerful multisynthesis technology based on chips which they have developed in-house, so it's not altogether surprising that in at least one respect the F1 should mark a first for any hi-tech instrument, whether synth or keyboard: in addition to the usual global effects processing, each of the keyboard's four Poly accompaniment sections and two line/mic audio inputs can be given their own effects processing - a situation akin to the provision of channel (insert) and global (send/return) processing on a mixing desk.
The mic/line inputs are primarily intended for singers to route their warblings through onboard effects processing. Up till now, effects processing on keyboards has been minimal, but the F1 offers a larger number and variety of effects than some synths. Similarly, the F1's 76-note keyboard, which is responsive to both attack velocity and channel aftertouch, improves on the offerings of many a synth.
In addition to 122 preset Sounds and 60 preset auto-accompaniment Styles, the F1 has 99 Programmes (sets of complete front-panel settings) together with a 16-track onboard sequencer which can store in the region of 50,000 events (25,000 notes). An onboard 3.5" MS-DOS-compatible floppy disk drive lets you save and load all F1 data, and import and export sequences in Standard MIDI Files format - although there doesn't appear to be a GM/GS configuration mode to handle all those commercially available MIDI songfiles.
With the ever-growing number of parameters provided on keyboards these days, manufacturers have had to start augmenting the traditional button-per-parameter front panel with an LCD and software pages. Farfisa's implementation of this approach is well conceived, the hierarchy of pages clear and logical. Synth players will have no difficulty negotiating this aspect of the F1; keyboard players unused to software pages will find the keyboard provides a user-friendly introduction.
Buttons in the left-hand half of the F1's front panel allow you to select a 'family' of Sounds for each of the Poly1 Lower, Poly2 Lower and Bass parts of the auto-accompaniment Styles, select the auto-accompaniment sections of the current Style (intro, fill-in, variation and so on), and select various features such as Rhythm Variations, Manual drum playing from the keyboard, and Human Touch Accompaniment. This latter feature lets you control the 'busyness' of the auto-accompaniment patterns from the dynamics of your playing; for instance, with the jazz accompaniments the kick and snare drum parts become sparser when you play softly.
The Poly1 Upper and Poly2 Upper sound selection buttons in the right-hand half of the F1's front panel 'mirror' those of the left-hand Poly sections. Other buttons let you turn the mic/line effects on/off, trigger drum and percussion samples and/or effects from dedicated pads, call up Programmes from a dedicated numeric keypad, and play multitrack sequences (with mute/unmute control over individual tracks from dedicated track buttons).
The F1's sequencer is the most powerful and flexible that I've come across on a keyboard; in fact, it matches those typically found on workstation synths. Essentially, you create Patterns of up to 16 tracks, each of which can transmit on a different MIDI channel, then you chain those Patterns together to create a complete song. Replace and Overdub real-time record modes are available, and you can also get at the individual notes and other data using Event Edit mode, while track mixing and demixing functions let you combine and separate different musical parts (MIDI channel settings are preserved).
In familiar keyboard fashion, you can of course also record an auto-accompaniment progression and melody into a track; this is ideal if you don't want to record your own parts - but equally, you have plenty of scope for adding further parts to an auto-accompaniment if you want. Track parameters within a Pattern allow you to set delay, quantise and transposition amounts, together with Initial Program and Initial Volume, MIDI channel (1-16 or All), velocity compression amount and velocity level.
You can also get a particular track to loop within the overall duration of its Pattern; this can save on memory, and also lead to some interesting results if you loop several tracks of differing lengths. You can also get the F1 to repeat a section of an entire Pattern, and jump to a predefined Coda section at any time. And for the vocally minded the F1 even lets you input onscreen song lyrics! Other sequencer-based features of the F1 include the Jukebox (which lets you chain up to 16 Songs in memory at once - each selectable from one of the 16 track buttons) and the Compilation (a series of Songs on floppy disk which can be loaded and played automatically).
The F1 is a cutting-edge keyboard in many respects. But all the clever design and presentation will come to nought if its Sounds and Styles don't make the grade. Fortunately there's some pretty good stuff here. Let's take the Sounds first. The bass presets, indeed the instrument's bass end, prove to be impressively full, warm and groovy. Farfisa also deserve credit for including such a wide variety of drum and percussion sounds - and for their punchy quality. Whack up the volume and you've got a powerful 'drum'n'bass' machine - thanks in no small part to the keyboard's stereo 30w speakers, which can pump out a clear, dynamic sound that should appeal to anyone who likes their music loud 'n' lively.
The F1 also provides a reasonable, though by no means startling, variety of piano and organ sounds. However, there's a tendency among the acoustic and electric pianos towards harshness, and in some cases, thinness of tone. I found it very hard to get along with 'Piano 1' (the default sound), which is far too clunky and hard for my liking; 'Piano 2', to my mind, has a much more musical tone. In general, the F1 has a rather sharp top end which I don't find altogether appealing, though its effectiveness varies according to the Sound in use.
As another general observation, the samples which 'underpin' the F1's Sounds are not the best I've heard; background noise together with loops which come in too soon and noticeably thin out the sound suggest that there's room for improvement. Nor are the F1's Sounds, taken as a whole, the best or the most adventurous I've heard coming from a keyboard or synth. But given that further samples and Sounds can be read from plug-in cards, and Sounds can also be loaded off disk into a RAM bank, this isn't nearly so damning as it may first appear.
As I mentioned earlier, a future upgrade will also make possible user programming of Sounds, so clearly there's scope for going beyond the presets. The manual makes passing reference to card Sounds "obtained with the various other types of synthesis that the F1 has been implemented with", but doesn't elaborate. Certainly, the technology underlying the F1 has been designed with multisynthesis in mind.
But it's with the 60 preset Styles that it becomes apparent the F1 has something of an identity problem. Many of these are of the traditional variety, as favoured no doubt by Farfisa's traditional organ and keyboard buyers. The few 'contemporary' styles included (house, soul, techno, rap) don't really convince, and there are none of the 'world' styles which the more adventurous keyboard manufacturers are starting to include on their instruments. It is possible to create your own custom variations of the preset styles, though you're confined to setting 'levels of elaboration' for the existing parts.
The F1, then, is a powerful and well-thought-out keyboard which does indeed mount a strong challenge to the supremacy of the synth. However, its preset samples and Sounds don't place it in a class of its own, as you might expect them to do on an instrument of the F1's price. At the same time, other keyboard manufacturers' style programming is both better and far more adventurous and varied.
Farfisa have a powerful instrument on their hands, but they're going to face stiff competition from Roland's E86 and Technics' KN2000 keyboards - both of which will be cheaper - in the coming months. Furthermore, the F1 risks falling between the cracks of consumer choice - on the one hand it could be too 'racy' for the company's traditional users, on the other hand it perhaps doesn't strike out boldly enough to capture the hearts and wallets of a younger generation. There again, there's no denying the power and flexibility of Farfisa's new keyboard, nor the possibilities it presents for user customisation. And a powerful onboard sequencer coupled with a well-conceived MIDI implementation make it a good bet as the centrepiece of a MIDI setup.
F1 with dedicated keyboard stand: £2499
F1 B (minus stand): £2199
Five-way multiswitch board: £73
13-note bass pedalboard: £165
Microphone boom stand: £40
Expression pedal: £30
Sustain Pedal: £20
All prices include VAT
More from: Farfisa (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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