WHATEVER HAPPENED TO Kawai? The K1 burst onto the music scene three years ago followed by module and rack-mount versions. Then came the K1 Mk II and the K4: it was all good gear. But after that, Kawai's development of PCM instruments seemed to have ceased. More recently (at last year's British Music Fair, in fact) the company announced an addition to the range - the Spectra.
The Spectra uses 16-bit PCM and DC (Digital Cyclic) waveforms. There are 128 of these, although some seem to be variations on each other rather than totally new sounds. The sonic variety, therefore, is not as great as it might at first appear to be. There are 64 presets and 32 programmable sounds onboard, each termed a Patch.
Sounds are reminiscent of the K-series instruments, though not, I'd venture, quite on a par with them. But the Spectra retains the K-series' Multi Patch setup. This allows four Patches to be played at the same time, greatly increasing sonic versatility.
The Drum section is independent of the voice section and contains 36 preset rhythm patterns. There are intros, endings and fill-ins, too. You could use these as the foundation for a song and you can switch from one pattern to another during play. Most are in a modern idiom and you could create a reasonable drum track by mixing the rhythms. You can also play the drum sounds manually from the keyboard. You can record these via MIDI to create your own drum tracks. When you start layering sounds, however, you must be aware of the polyphonic limit of ten notes for the voices and four notes for the drums (five using the keyboard percussion).
Although the Spectra doesn't have the automatic chord backing you find on portable keyboards, it does have an interesting arpeggiator which arpeggiates chords held in the lower part of the keyboard. There are five groups of functions which allow you to edit the sounds. These include volume, chorus, waveform, vibrato and auto bend parameters. Intriguingly, you can apply two envelopes to a waveform, so while there is no ADSR delay function to help produce crossfades, you can create double strike effects. You can adjust the key scale factor (how the envelope responds according to the pitch of the note) and you can choose from four velocity response curves. The keyboard is velocity sensitive but it does not support aftertouch.
In Multi Patch mode you can determine whether the Patch in a section responds to the Spectra's keyboard, incoming MIDI messages or both. Patches can be detuned, transposed and their volume adjusted. They can also be assigned to specific areas of the keyboard, allowing zones to be set up.
In Multi mode, incoming program changes can be made to change the voice in any Multi section, while program changes on channel ten will select different rhythm patterns. This seems to reinforce one of the Spectra's major functions as the "sound' end of a workstation setup, albeit with only five tracks. In fact, it's only the lack of a sequencer which denies it a "workstation" title.
You can filter out the reception of pitchbend, modulation, velocity and System Exclusive data. You can dump Patch, Multi and Drum data via SysEx messages. Save it to your sequencer and you'll be able to store all your music info in one file or at least on the same disk.
Niggles? You can always find something to niggle about, especially on budget equipment, and given the price, it's only natural that compromises have been made. The sounds are workmanlike rather than outstanding, although the Multi Patches are capable of producing some good combinations. In a mix, the sounds can be very effective, as proved by the three built-in demo tunes. But there are no filters, no signal processor and aftertouch isn't supported, even via MIDI. An LCD would certainly be more informative than the LED and, to be honest, it is rather a pain having to look up all the numeric settings in the manual to see what they mean. A few extra pounds for an LCD would have been well spent. As a gesture towards user-friendliness, there is a pull-out card under the keyboard which lists the presets and major editing functions.
The Spectra is undeniably a budget-priced instrument and when it comes down to value for money, it's difficult to complain too loudly about the Spectra's spec. So who is it aimed at? If you're a newcomer to sequencing and on a very tight budget but needing a range of voices and drum sounds, then it could be the instrument for you. In fact, there's really nothing quite like it at the price. Its nearest competitor is probably a Yamaha portable keyboard (which will have built-in drum rhythms and accompaniment patterns) or Kawai's own (and more expensive) K1 or K4 (which don't).
While not everyone is going to rush out and buy a Spectra (as they rushed out and bought the K1), it does seem to have defined its own particular niche in the marketplace. And if you inhabit that niche, I can conclude in time-honoured reviewer fashion by saying - check it out.
Price £449 (including VAT at the old rate of 15%).
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