Digital Wave Memory Synthesizer
A digital wave memory synthesizer to be precise. Kawai may well be the world's largest supplier of acoustic pianos but does their forte also lie in the hi-tech field? Mark Jenkins investigates.
The inclusion of a DIY waveform creation function should make the K3 polysynth a more than interesting prospect. Mark Jenkins checks out its other redeeming features.
Kawai have had mixed success with synthesizers over the years, despite their dominance of the acoustic piano market worldwide and their importance in the Japanese MIDI community (you don't get to have the first MIDI ID code after Sequential Circuits without being pretty influential).
Kawai's new synth, the K3 (along with its modular rack-mount version) displays some interesting ideas, and contrasts markedly with the early eighties generation of Kawais, the SX-210 and SX-240. The SX-210's problem was that it was virtually the last non-MIDI polysynth to be brought in before MIDI became almost compulsory, and that it lacked memory space, offering only 32 programmable memories. It did have some good features, such as a large LED display which actually showed you a name for each sound (rather than demanding that you remember that 'memory 42' was that sort of swishy sound you liked on contemporary synths such as the Juno 60). The reasons for the lack of impact of the SX-240 are less obvious - relatively high cost and the greater experience of Kawai UK in the organ business than the synth business were probably the main factors.
But now Kawai UK have a full-blown Digital Wave Memory Synthesizer to deal with, and it will be interesting to see what they make of it. But what did we make of it?
Unfortunately this is going to be one of those reviews which you have to read pretty closely, because it's short on hard conclusions. Only YOU can decide if the K3 will fulfill your particular requirements, because in some ways it's quite an exciting machine, and in others it's very ordinary.
Let's start with the basic spec: a 5-octave (C-C) keyboard with velocity and pressure sensitivity; pitch-bend wheel; single rotary incrementor editing; patch number, parameter and value display (no patch names); 31 selectable waveforms; 50 programmable memories; cartridge port for 50 more memories; MIDI In/Out/Thru; and 6-voice polyphonic playing - no keyboard splits or multi-timbral stuff.
The K3's abilities are obviously going to be compared with those of the Ensoniq ESQ-1 (8-note multi-timbral, pseudo-sampled sounds with a massive sequencer), the Roland Alpha Juno 2 (the same velocity and pressure sensitivity but for less money) and of several other competitors, including Korg's DW8000. One thing it shares with the Casio range of synths, unfortunately, is poor note assignment - if you hold sustaining notes with your left hand, they can be suddenly cut off if you hold too many notes with your right.
But that's a relatively minor quibble - the fact is that the basic sound of the K3 is pretty good, with the keyboard's touch response allowing a lot of expression, and the editable parameters giving quite a wide scope for the programmer.
As seems usual on most synths these days, the factory preset sounds in the K3 don't give a fair representation of what sounds are possible. Sometimes I believe manufacturers would do better, sales-wise, to hold back the release of new synths to allow their own programmers to come up with representative sounds, instead of putting instruments on sale with more naff sounds than good ones. After all, 70% of the reason why people buy a particular synth is determined by the sounds the product makes when they first hear it. First impressions count in this game, especially in the K3 sector of the market where there is no feature or price advantage between products and competition is very tough.
It's still worth running through some of the K3 preset sounds, with a mention of what they're supposed to represent inserted after our initial impressions.
Patch 1 is clearly a grand piano, not bad but lacking in movement, a factor which can be improved using the 7-mode Chorus; slow choral, slow/fast (in stereo), medium, fast deep, ambience 1 and 2, and short delay are all available variations. Patch 4 is a DX7-like Rhodes, and 6 a sharp, Wurlitzer-like piano.
Patch 7 is a good, thick string effect. 8 is a thicker Arco bass with after-touch filter and volume control, and 10 an undistinguished solo violin. Patch 11 is a flattish brass sound with some filter response and 12 a sharper brass, while 15 is a synth organ sound (described as 'Rock Organ').
Patch 16 is a good Hammond sound called 'Jazz Organ' and 17 is a 'Church Organ' with a little white noise added (which may or not have been intentional). Patch 19 is a good harpsichord simulation, 23 is a poor clavinet, and 26 a powerful MiniMoog-like mono bass sound. There's also a mono sound in 5ths and an ineffective sitar drone, followed by some plucked and percussion sounds, several sweeping synthy sounds with random filtering, then a flute which certainly won't put James Galway out of business, some useful PPG-like digital effects, a token helicopter, and a strangely poor trumpet.
So there's certainly nothing special about the K3's factory sounds - in fact you'd do better to dig out the plug-in RAM cartridge supplied, which contains some better synth effects, some more digital sounds and even an ambitious attempt at the Fairlight's 'Orch 5' sample. Of course, if you want to keep all the sounds you've been given with the machine, you've got nowhere to put any of your own (unless you own an Atari 800 computer, as we'll see).
As we mentioned, Kawai's K3 has 50 onboard memories accessed by the front panel touch buttons, the 51st button being used to switch on the Link facility which allows you to programme a chain of 31 memories (internal or cartridge) for use in live performance. 31 should keep most users satisfied. The internal and cartridge buttons have LEDs just above them which reassuringly flash if you change from one to another before choosing a new sound - of course, being able to call up sounds by pushing just one button, rather than punching in two numbers, gives the K3 an advantage over the Junos and Prophets of this world.
Next to the Internal and Cartridge buttons are the Mono and Portamento buttons, again with LEDs, and above them the Write button which allows you to store new patches and chains. There are also two grey Edit buttons - these are Parameter, which turns each memory button into a parameter selector, and Master, which switches over the last 12 buttons to 'global' functions such as Tune. The editable parameters on the K3 are as follows:
OSC1 WAVE 0-33
Silence, 31 factory waveforms (see below), a user-definable waveform and white noise are the options here.
16/8/4' footages for both oscillators.
PORTA SPEED 0-99
Fast to slow portamento.
Volume mix between the two oscillators.
PITCH BEND 1-7
Bend wheel range in semitones from +/-1 semitones to +/- a 5th.
AUTO BEND —31/+31
Defeated if portamento is on, this parameter produces a bend up or down to the note played, with time determined by the LFO delay time.
OSC 2 WAVE
As for OSC 1.
OSC 2 COARSE -24/+24
Tuning relative to OSC 1, in semitones.
OSC 2 FINE —10/+10
Finetuning for richer sounds.
Quite a powerful Low Pass filter, but without Band Pass or other options.
Including self-oscillation at a setting of 31 for special effects.
LOW CUT 0-31
Setting of a High Pass filter for reducing the bass element of a sound.
ENV AMOUNT 0-31
The Filter Envelope is a conventional ADSR which is brought into play here.
Programmable overall level for each sound.
Triangle, Saw, Reverse Saw, Square, Inverted Square, Random and Chromatic Random, the last of these being quite useful.
Speed of vibrato, wow or other modulation effect.
Also used by Auto Bend, bringing in modulation effects after a fixed delay - of course, you can bring in modulation with the pressure sensitivity, but there's no modulation wheel, so you may find yourself setting the incrementor to 28 as I did and using it as a performance control!
OSC, VCF, VCA 0-31.
Independent setting of vibrato, wow and tremolo depths.
VELO VCF 0-15
VELO VCA 0-15
PRES OSC BAL 0-15
PRES VCF 0-15
PRES VCA 0-15
PRES LFO-OSC 0-15
A highly versatile section, offering any depth of velocity or pressure response for Filter and VCA, plus Oscillator Balance and Modulation Depth on pressure only. Choosing very different waveforms for the two oscillators can produce interesting PPG-like effects using the balance parameter to fade up OSC 2.
Keyboard control voltage opens or closes the filter as you play further up the keyboard.
Opens or closes VCA as you play up the keyboard, useful for simulating piano response of deeper strings.
Seven modes as listed in text.
If you edit a preset sound you can store it internally in one of the 50 memories or on a RAM cartridge, provided you switch off the rear panel memory protect button first. The K3 cartridge is very similar to the familiar DX7 RAM/ROM cartridge.
As for the internal waveforms, they are listed on a crib card enclosed with the machine, and represent acoustic instruments ranging from Piano, Bell, Oboe and Slap Bass to Glockenspiel and Trumpet, plus a few odd waveshapes such as Digital Harmonics and the standard Square, Sawtooth and Sine. There's also White Noise and the option to create one waveshape of your own - this is done by specifying amplitude levels (as on the OSCar monosynth) from 0 to 31 for any 32 of the first 128 harmonics of your basictone ie. you could have harmonics 1-20, plus 60-70, and harmonics 127 and 128, making 32 in all. It would most likely sound awful, but do you get the picture?
To create a new wave, you can either pop out and buy some safety pins and bin-liners, or choose Edit Master and 46 (Harmon/Inten). If you proceed with the latter option you'll notice that the alternative markings under the LEDs (Count, Harmonic and Intensity) show you the number, value and level of the harmonics used. You can use the Copy button to step along a series of gradually increasing or decreasing intensities, while Erase will reduce the current harmonic to zero and the main incrementor knob is used to advance to the next harmonic or set the level of the current harmonic.
The K3 takes a second to calculate the sound produced by your new waveform, and you can't actually hear the changes as you're going along, so unless you are entirely sure what you want, harmonic synthesis in this manner can be a time-consuming 'suck it and see' business. You have to decide where you are going to place your new sound in advance, as you can't exit from the editing procedure to choose a patch location before storage, but you can usefully compare it with the original using the Write button.
The Copy function does speed matters up a trifle, allowing you to increment each successive harmonic by a value between -3 and +3, but you'll probably want more exotic combinations than this method produces most of the time.
We've mentioned already that the Kawai K3 is pretty expressive as a performance synthesizer, so it's a shame there is no dedicated modulation wheel. The pitch-bend wheel is sprung (Sequential fans take note) and there are rear panel sockets for Program Up (using the Link function or just stepping through the internal or cartridge memories) and for Release (a much more sensible label than the common misnomer 'Sustain'). The K3's Mono switch could more happily have been labelled Unison, since it switches all the oscillators to one note rather than just selecting one pair of oscillators, while the only other major rear panel features are the MIDI In, Out and Thru ports.
You'll find several parameters relating to MIDI operation in the K3's Master section: Omni (Poly) mode can be selected and Send and Receive channels (1-16) are independent (although there's no Local Keyboard Off function to electronically disengage the sound circuitry from the keyboard, which makes the K3 unsuitable for use as a controlling 'mother' keyboard). The Function (MIDI information received) parameter can be set as follows:
1. Key Down (no velocity), damper and active sensing...
2. plus velocity...
3. plus pressure, pitch-bend and modulation...
4. plus program change...
5. plus portamento and volume...
6. plus System Exclusive.
Exclusive 1 allows you to send a single patch dump over the MIDI output - perhaps for storage on a computer or sequencer - while Exclusive 2 allows you to do the same with User-Defined Waveform data, the format for which is carefully reproduced in the K3 handbook. Kawai have taken a leaf out of Yamaha's MIDI keyboard book and also opted for non-implementation of the highly useful Mono mode (MIDI Mode4), thus ensuring that K3 owners must forego the delights of multi-timbral playing. Pity.
For those of you with little space to spare in the studio or at home, the self-editing K3M modular version of the K3 comes in 19" rack-mount form and looks a good buy. There is also a K3/K3M editing/patch storage program promised for the Atari 800 micro. We haven't seen the program running yet, since at the time of writing it wasn't quite clear who was going to deal with it in the UK - the package was written by Hybrid Arts of America whose UK distributors - Syndromic Music - don't handle the 8-bit 800 series micros, while Kawai UK have no experience with any kind of micro technology. Perhaps somebody should convert the software to run on another micro like the BBC, as that might help the K3 get a foot in the door of the UK educational establishments? Worth considering.
The synth is too straightforward to need a lot of computer help on the conventional patch editing side, but the harmonic waveform synthesis section could easily benefit from micro control and a visual display.
The K3's construction is solid and its styling good, everything's very simple, easy to use and readily accessible. For all that, sadly, it's still difficult to get excited about the Kawai K3. There's nothing technically the matter with the machine at all - its voice circuitry is reasonable (although the factory sounds are dull as usual), its keyboard is pleasant to the touch and highly expressive, its method of calling up new sounds is rapid, and its control layout is ergonomically satisfactory.
But the harmonic definition process isn't all that stunning, the digital waveforms provided are more or less the same as on Korg's DWGS models (the DW8000) which have been with us for some time now. The lack of a modulation wheel most players will find annoying (though there's always after-touch), and the imitative sounds such as Piano and Strings just don't compare with the Ensoniq ESQ-1's at a couple of hundred pounds more.
So where does any hope for the Kawai lie? In some healthy shop discounts for the K3, in the compactness of the rack-mounting version, and in aggressive marketing - keeping well away from the staid home organ mentality. And since none of these are out of the question, perhaps there is hope for the K3. After all, Depeche Mode have just bought a couple....
MRP £1085 inc VAT.