JVC KB-500 Stereo Keyboard
The KB-500 is a little more expensive than many other portable keyboards, but the difference really shows, both in construction and in sound production. Although primarily intended for home use in conjunction with a hi-fi system, its standards are set high enough to consider it for recording or even stage use.
Importantly, the keys are full size, if anything unusually deep and firmly sprung, moulded in plastic with rounded edges. The overall finish is in black and cream, although there's an option of a silver finish, with effects switches in blue, selector switches in white and power and volume in red. Miniature sliders are used to balance the relative volumes of the different sections, while at either end of the machine on the top surface there's a 12cm speaker delivering 2½ watts; it's possible to select a 'stereo' setting which 'opens up' the sound between the two speakers or two line outputs. There's also a switch for a fixed sustain, and another for an ensemble effect which helps to raise the machine to the level of a professional sound. The four percussive sounds: Piano, Hawaiian Guitar, Harpsichord and Vibraphone are given a subtle stereo phasing effect, whereas the Jazz Flute, Clarinet, Organ and Jazz Organ are thickened up considerably. On the String and Brass settings, the ensemble is switched on permanently, and these sounds compete quite favourably with more expensive string and brass ensembles. The strings are full with a reasonable amount of bass, and the brass has an interesting 'wah' reminiscent of popular settings on several polyphonic synthesisers.
Several of the other presets are something special too; the jazz organ has a realistic keyclick, the clarinet an expressive delay vibrato, and the jazz flute a combination of delay tremolo and a 'chiff' of white noise intended to simulate 'overblowing'. In the model we examined, the white noise was much too loud, but overall the presets show a good deal of thought and, above all, musicality.
In common with the other keyboards reviewed, the JVC has various automatic accompaniment sections; switching the lower 1½ octaves of the keyboard from 'normal' to 'one finger' gives single finger chords, whereas 'multi finger' allows chords to be played normally, in a reedy organ voicing. In this limited sense the keyboard can be described as split, with the left hand volume varied by the 'accompaniment' slider. If the rhythm section is started while in either of these two modes, the left hand chords are played as a recurring staccato accompaniment, along with a preset bassline (one for each rhythm) and arpeggio, all with individually mixable volumes. The percussion sounds are bright and clear, with a convincing metallic ring to the cymbals and snare, and although there's no variation or fill-in available, each of the ten rhythms is imaginatively composed, using an appropriate selection of instruments in each case.
The JVC isn't intended to play back complete scores, but does have a versatile 'Compucorder' chord memory which can store the chords for up to 126 bars, in three groups of 42. The voicings and rhythms are freely interchangeable as the Compucorder is working, and programming is fairly simple, the device acting rather like a digital version of a cassette player with tabs for Record and Replay, plus Group Select. It's possible to skip from one group to another while playing and there's the usual 'synchro start' facility which means the Compucorder won't start to play back until a lower keyboard key is touched.
Despite the usefulness of these features, there's a good chance that many people will want to use the instrument in a straightforward single keyboard mode, and to this end there's one final feature which improves the sound even further. The 'Ultra-chord' facility converts melody notes into full chords determined by the lower keyboard in single or multi-finger mode, so that a C on the upper part of the keyboard becomes a C major (or minor or seventh) according to what notes are played further down, and an E played simultaneously will also become an E major (or minor or seventh). The capability of reproducing very complex chording techniques with only a couple of fingers must be a temptation which even the semi-professional would find it hard to resist!