Before you try to win one in our competition, this preview of Kawai's latest synth (and rack-mount alternative) should help whet your appetite.
THOUGH SUCCESS MAY breed contempt, it also breeds competition. In the world of synthesisers, the current success story is the Roland D50 and its L/A synthesis, which allows you to mix sampled waveforms or combine them with traditional analogue waveforms. This voice structure (also used in the MT32) allows the creation of sounds reminiscent of samplers as well as more conventional analogue synth timbres.
The first synth to adopt a similar approach to that of the D50 was the Ensoniq SQ80, which adds sampled attacks to the waveforms found in the ESQ1. But now Kawai have their answer: the K1 and K1M module. Based on the initial specs, these do not appear to use exactly the same voice structure as the D50 or SQ80, but comparisons are inevitable. The price will be significantly lower, however, so it could prove to be a real winner.
The spec worth mentioning first is the impressive choice of 256 different on-board PCM waveforms, some of which are multi-sampled and some of which are up to one second long. The sounds are stored in eight-bit format, but at full volume and without any envelope information. They're fed through an amplifier on playback with a floating point output scheme which should give a dynamic range that's significantly higher than the theoretical limit of 48db. The choice of waveforms runs the gamut of acoustic sounds and includes one-shot transients like the hammer strike of a piano, the snap of an electric bass, percussion sounds from Kawai's own R50 and R100 drum machines and the breath of a flute; as well as a number of looped sounds, like strings, voices and piano sustain.
A single patch on the K1/K1M consists of a combination of either two or four of these samples - then called Sources. A joystick on the front panel allows you to adjust the balance between the Sources in real time. Like the MT32, the instrument can play a total of 32 Sources at once, so the total polyphony is 16 voices using patches with two Sources and 8 voices using patches with four Sources. A nice feature that the K1 shares with the MT32 is that up to eight different timbres can play simultaneously and that they can be dynamically allocated.
A glance at the parameters for each of the individual Sources within a single Patch offers a good insight into the instrument's capabilities. Each Source has a delay control which permits bringing the sound of the Source into the Patch after a brief delay, as well as a normal ADSR envelope dedicated to an amplifier. The basic frequency of each waveform can be adjusted with coarse and fine tuning controls and can be affected in real time by a dedicated LFO, a Vibrato control and an Auto pitch-bend function. Pitch and amplitude levels can also be modulated in real time by velocity, aftertouch and keyboard scaling. Finally, two Sources can be ring modulated (AM) to produce "metallic" sounds. Oddly enough, there aren't any filtering capabilities. None of the PCM partials on the D50 an be filtered either, however; only the square and sawtooth waves from the synth partials, so the units aren't alone in this.
Up to eight single Patches - of which the K1 can hold 64 - can be combined into a Multi Patch - the K1 has room for 32 of those. (Optional RAM and ROM cards will double that capacity.) These are strikingly similar to the powerful Multi Patches available on Kawai's K5 additive synth. Each single patch within a Multi Patch can be assigned its own MIDI channel, keyboard zone, velocity zone (two are available for each key), transposition, fine tuning, level, pan position (L/C/R), control status (keyboard or MIDI), and polyphony (a fixed number of voices or dynamic allocation). All single patches in a multi can also be set up to independently respond to various MIDI controllers, such as pitch-bend, mod wheel and so on. Also as on the K5, splits, layers and flexible sequencing setups should be easily arranged with these Multi Patches; though it'll be made more difficult with the K1's smaller 16X2 back-lit LCD display. The K1's 61-key weighted keyboard responds to both velocity and aftertouch, an impressive feat for what promises to be an inexpensive keyboard.
The K1M is not rack-mountable, but instead is configured as a table-top box which is roughly equivalent in size to the R50 drum machine. Both units offer stereo outs, a headphone jack, a memory card socket and MIDI In, Out and Thru jacks.
Speaking of MIDI, the K1's MIDI implementation includes the ability to operate in the increasingly popular Multi mode (though it's not even an official part of the MIDI spec) and to respond to new MIDI Registered Parameters for remote control of functions like tuning, pitch-bend amount and so on.
Based on a quick listen I got at the recent NAMM show, the K1 and K1M could well give the synths already using similar methods of synthesis a run for their (or your) money. Full reviews to follow as soon as we can get our hands on them.
Prices £595 (subject to confirmation)
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Review by Bob O'Donnell