Remember the module? It's like a synth but it's got no keys. Weird, huh? Simon Trask takes a look at the new 1U, half-rack, 16-bit, MIDI box of sounds from Kawai.
Anyone with an eye for a bargain will no doubt have spotted this new sound module from Kawai currently being advertised at under £200. But is it really an offer you can't refuse...?
Kawai's current strategy in the hi-tech instrument market is hard to figure out. Back in '87 and '88 the company's star shone brightly in the hi-tech firmament with synths like the sophisticated, prestigious K5 and best-selling budget K1. Add to this the spin-off modules like the K1m/K1r and PHm, the R100 and R50 drum machines and the Q80 hardware sequencer and you had some serious competition for the more established hi-tech names.
Following the less successful K1II and K4 synths, however, Kawai's hi-tech output has been sporadic and low-profile to say the least. The XD5 drum module and Spectra synth didn't exactly take the market by storm and latterly the company have seemed more content to stick with budget home keyboards and not-so-budget home organs and digital pianos.
So what are we to make of the XS-1, a compact synth module which places the emphasis firmly on straightforwardness and affordability? At its RRP of £259 it undercuts budget modules from Roland/Boss (DS330) and Yamaha (TG100) by around £100. But with a 'street' price some £60 below this, it must currently be one of the most tempting offers for musicians on a tight budget.
Essentially sound is generated from a mix of samples and waveforms, but the XS-1 doesn't actually sound like a sample-based instrument. In fact, it's much more reminiscent of a digital synth from several years back - before samples gained any kind of foothold in the synthesiser world. The strongest sounds, to my mind, are the pads such as strings, etc. Bass sounds are rather noisy in their lower register but have a pleasingly warm quality to them; some also have plenty of cutting edge.
There's a reasonable selection of pianos and organs, some pretty dreadful brass and wind sounds, lead sounds which don't lead very effectively, and various rather plinky and brittle tuned percussion sounds. The overall tonal quality of the instrument is sharp, reasonably warm, but not particularly big or expansive. I suppose you could say that it sounds its price.
There are two types of Patch: Single - of which there are 64 preset and 32 user - and Multi (16). There isn't a lot you can do to edit the Single Patches apart from setting various vibrato and bend parameters and altering ADSR settings for a couple of envelopes.
The Multi Patches contain four Sections, each of which can be assigned one Single Patch. Depending on the MIDI channel and note-range settings you give to these Sections, Multi patches can be 4-part MIDI multitimbral, or any combination of layered, split and/or MIDI multitimbral sounds. In addition, there's a 'drum kit'-style collection of 32 drum and percussion sounds which default to MIDI channel 10 and are available in both Single and Multi modes.
You can set the overall volume of the Drum Section together with the MIDI channel on which it will respond (1 to 16). There's only one, fixed 'drum kit' assignment of drum and percussion sounds to MIDI notes, and you can't alter the panning of each sound - a rather irritating limitation to my mind.
The number and selection of drum and percussion samples is, well, limited and unadventurous by today's standards. The sounds are usable though not overly inspiring. The single bass drum provided does at least have a satisfyingly deep thud to it, and provides a solid, punchy underpinning to any rhythm. The two snares are respectively loose/rattling and tight/lively affairs. Overall the drum and percussion sounds have a sharp, punchy, 'electronic' quality to them - no doubt due in part to their short sample durations. Still, if you really must have a large number of drum and percussion sounds, there are several inexpensive drum machines currently on the market to choose from. An XS-1 plus one of these would only set you back around £500.
Operationally the XS-1 is an odd mix of straightforward and confusing. Its 1U half-rack dimensions don't leave much room for operational niceties, but the layout of buttons is straightforward, with dedicated buttons providing ready access to the various operational areas of the instrument.
At the same time, the display limitations of its 3-digit LED mean you have to grapple with numbers rather than plain English. Fortunately the XS-1 does come with a peel-off 'ready reference' sheet which lists all the Single Patches and edit parameters by name as well as number. You can either leave this on its backing strip and keep it near the instrument, or else peel it off the backing and stick it on the top panel.
Clearly, price has been an overriding factor in the XS-1's design. Personally, I would be tempted to save up a bit more money and opt for a slightly more expensive module (such as the TG100 or, even better to my mind, a DS330). Overall the XS-1's sonic and size limitations rather work against it, and it does sound a little dated - though it's not altogether unappealing for being so.
Price: Kawai XS-1 £259 RRP
Distributor: Kawai (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)