A 'home' keyboard with attitude, or does the WX2 have ideas above its workstation
A synthesiser with built-in speakers? Maybe, but never judge a keyboard by its casing. Andrew Jones WXs lyrical...
A synthesiser to most people's minds should be a sharp, wedge-shaped keyboard instrument with lots of buttons, sliders and flashing lights. It should look like it would be at home in a space ship and be very black. On no account should it have speakers or those wretched accompaniment features you hear in Dixons on a Saturday afternoon.
So what in God's name is this? It's got synth capabilities, internal speakers, a sophisticated accompaniment section and it's not even particularly black. Obviously some upstart new company trying to change the established order...
Actually GeneralMusic aren't that young. Formally known as Gem, the company have dabbled in the synthesiser market for some time now (the WX2 is, in fact, a 'home' version of their WS2 synthesiser) - although they are, perhaps, better known for their organs and digital pianos.
The first thing that strikes you about the WX2 is the uniform layout of the keys, spread out like a cross between a ZX80 and a supermarket till. The large screen offers copious amounts of information, including scored notation and lyrics from songs loaded in via the internal disk drive. To complete the line up there's a trackball in place of the normal pitchbend wheel/joystick which takes a little getting used to, but actually works quite well.
GeneralMusic have also taken an interesting approach in overcoming some of more the complex programming operations. This involves the use of eight function keys which call up a variety of options on screen. For example: choosing a preset is simply a matter of selecting the type of sound you want from a list of 16 banks including synths, pianos, etc. This brings up a detailed list of the eight sounds available per bank on the screen - each bank being listed above one of the function keys. Press the appropriate function button and you're there. It's a straightforward system used for a variety of functions on the WX2 (including the accompaniment section) which soon becomes intuitive.
There are four basic modes of operation. Real-time Performance mode is where you need to be when actually playing the WX2; you can select up to 16 sounds simultaneously. Internal Style mode is used for selecting preset rhythms and arrangements (jazz, Dance etc.) while Programmable Style mode offers you the means of creating these for yourself - 32 may be stored in internal memory. Finally, Song & Song Styles mode is used to create sequences with or without the existing internal Programmable Styles.
Overall, the WX2 is very easy to use; the layout of the buttons in distinct sections helps your find you way round the top panel and work out exactly what does what. The only exception to this is the sequencer which I found very difficult to understand. Matters weren't helped by the rather poor preliminary instruction manual supplied with the WX2 - although GeneralMusic have promised that another is in the pipeline.
On many home keyboards, the sequencer simply acts as a recorder that allows drum and accompaniment patterns and any associated keyboard data to be recorded in a single take, rather than be built up track by track from scratch. The WX2, however, offers both these options, together with a host of facilities and a level of screen information which approaches that of a computer-based sequencer. Some of the operations are, however, rather fiddly and can be difficult to fathom. I trust this will be given special attention in the revised manual. Resulting songs, incidentally, can be saved to disk.
The preset layout conforms to the General MIDI standard so all the sounds are in familiar locations (a grand Piano, for instance, resides in program number one and there are the usual sound effects presets in the final eight). There are also a number of other sounds located 'on top' of the main presets, sharing the same locations. So, for example, WXGrand Piano shares its location with the Bright Piano preset - the latter being accessed by pressing the Page+ button. This is becoming quite common in keyboards of this ilk and is a neat way of cramming extra sounds in. In total there are 384 preset sounds sharing 128 locations.
But how do they sound? Well, for my money, the WX2 has some of the best presets available on a keyboard of this kind. In fact it is difficult to find many bad ones among them. The piano sounds are very realistic - especially the aforementioned grand - and even some of the brass sounds (always difficult instruments to recreate on a keyboard) are impressive.
The synth sounds are very imaginative, in the main; among the lead voices are a couple of neat attempts at classics such as OB Filter and ARP 2600. And the theme continues with a range of sweeping analogue presets like FiltRes 1 and 2, Pulse 1, 2 and 3 and Analogic. The pads include a selection of warm and angelic string sounds and a trio of Prophet reproductions labelled, imaginatively, Prophet 1, 2 and 3.
There's also a variety of sound effects completing the General MIDI set including Helicopter, Applause, Gunshot and Seashore. Used mainly as fillers on other GM keyboards these are often ignored, but GeneralMusic are to be congratulated for producing a realistic set of sounds made all the better by an imaginative use of effects. They still may not be that useful, but at least they sound good.
Finally, we come to the rhythm presets. The trend towards classic sounds continues here, with a host of dance/rap sounds (from the usual array of drum machines). Of the eight percussion sets included there's nothing that could be considered new amongst them, but the range is broad enough to cover most styles.
Incidentally, although this is likely to be of limited interest to MT readers - or indeed anyone not planning to gig with this instrument as part of a duo at their local pub - the in-built loudspeakers add a punchiness to many of the presets which is most flattering. I suppose you could describe it as a slight 'blurring' of the sound caused by the limited acoustic properties of the speakers and their enclosure. Whatever, it is all but lost when these are bypassed and the keyboard is connected to an external system.
The presets can be edited or synthesised to produce new sounds using a simple process that displays all the editable parameters (such as resonance, attack and decay time) on the screen. You don't have the flexibility that a fully-fledged synthesiser offers, but all the options are displayed simultaneously so it's easy to keep track of where you are. You can, by the way, store edited sounds and load others from disk.
So what about the accompaniments? Try, if you will, to bury those preconceptions and put aside those images of burly store detectives dragging small children away from home keyboards as they attempt yet another rendition of 'The Entertainer' in your local department store. These are accompaniments for the '90s. They display a great maturity and depth, cramming in as many of the preset sounds as possible and mixing them in an often fascinating way.
Aside from the usual Swings, Boogies and Latins, there are a number of attempts at modern dance - the House pattern being the best of the bunch. They don't quite offer the menace and power you're probably looking for, but make excellent starting points for further experimentation. To this end, it's easy to add or subtract parts as the patterns play and there are the now standard Intro, Fill and Variation facilities.
But that's not all. You may be wondering why the WX2 is called a Multimedia workstation. Does it, perhaps, offer CD-ROM facilities, virtual reality, a laser display or QuickTime video generation? Actually no. It's simply a means by which you can plug the WX2 into an ordinary TV set - though this does require an additional upgrade costing £200. Using this option, musical score and words can be displayed on either the WX2's display or on the television set - or both. Karaoke anyone?
With so many strings to its bow, one is entitled to ask whether the WX2 is simply a jack of all trades. Well, as a home keyboard it's a match for anything else on the market with performance capabilities and features second to none. Though its preset sounds don't really break any new ground, they ooze quality and are all very usable. And, with its tweakable synthesiser section, more interesting, personalised sounds are possible.
In terms of its rhythm and accompaniment facilities, again, you'd be hard pressed to buy anything better - or more versatile. Moreover, it's an easy machine to get into and doesn't involve too many late nights with only an instruction manual for company. The sole exception to this is the sequencer, as I've mentioned, but even that has to be praised for offering you more advanced features than you'll normally find on a machine of this type.
Nevertheless, in many people's eyes, the WX2 will, I suspect, still be seen as a home keyboard masquerading as a synth workstation, and with a RRP approaching £2000, will be regarded with suspicion. That's definitely a pity; the WX2 deserves serious consideration.
|Ease of use||Straightforward, except for the sequencer.|
|Originality||A synth with speakers - that's original|
|Value for money||Rather expensive, though it does rival most synth workstations.|
|Star Quality||Further proof that keyboard technology is where it's at.|
|Price||£1899 (£2099 with upgrade). Both inc. VAT|
|More from||Key Audio Systems, (Contact Details)|
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Review by Andrew Jones
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