Masters of the Universe
Elka Master Keyboards
With rack expanders forever dropping in price, the concept of one 'master' keyboard capable of controlling all MIDI devices in a system becomes more appealing by the minute. And with the MK88 and MK55, Tony Wride believes Elka have fulfilled the promise of MIDI and produced the ultimate master keyboards, jam-packed with features.
When MIDI arrived on the music scene most people were thrilled at the prospect of being able to link various musical devices together. The days of the professional 'keyboards person' surrounded by a multitude of ivory and plastic keys hiding the gold cloak and long blonde hair looked like coming to an end. With MIDI and the advent of synthesizers, samplers, and effects in rack-mount form (indeed a lot of the best equipment only comes in rack form), the musician can limit his on-stage/studio equipment to one or two keyboards and a rackfull of expanders.
Until recently, the missing component from this dream set-up has been a powerful master keyboard. The Yamaha KX88 and Roland MK series were the first real attempts at producing a master keyboard but these had several limitations; for example, the capacity to transmit on only two MIDI channels at any one time. They were also limited in their performance capabilities.
Now it seems that the Italian manufacturers Elka have taken the lead away from the Japanese and have produced, in my opinion, the ultimate master keyboard.
If you're sitting comfortably then I'll begin with the cosmetics of this indomitable beastie! On opening the inevitable cardboard box you are confronted with the first plus - it comes built into its own professional flightcase. Great! Particularly for those on the road. However, since the bottom part of the flightcase is not removable it may not complement the decor of the average living room or home studio. This can be rectified by applying a tin of black paint (optional) and a brush! Personally, I think the flightcase is a nice touch since it protects the instrument, avoids both the extra cost and effort of buying a separate case, and reduces the total weight to a mere 62lbs. Try lifting a Yamaha KX88 in a flightcase single-handed!
The keyboard is an 88-note piano-weighted affair which I, and several others who tried it, found a joy to play since it has the right feel. However, the feel of a keyboard is a matter of personal taste and if you have been raised on light action plastic keys it may not suit your style of playing. To the left of the keyboard are two wheel controls, one spring-loaded to the central position (a la Pitch Bend) and the other having completely free movement (a la Modulation) but with a noticeable central notch. Both of these wheels can be programmed to perform a variety of functions.
The main body of the MK88 is an all-metal construction finished in a tasteful shade of gunmetal grey! At first sight, the control panel resembles the navigation console of the USS Enterprise, but once you grasp the layout of the instrument it is a blessing in disguise since there are very few 'while holding down button XX, press button YY fourteen times to select the MIDI Channel Select function'... A 32-character backlit LCD display to the right and a host of red LEDs on the control panel provide their own light show on a darkened stage! More on the front panel later.
Along the back are a whole host of sockets: two Pedals, two MIDI Ins, four MIDI Outs (2 x 2), four Footswitches, and Power, of course. Also at the rear is a Dynamic Sensitivity control which allows you to quickly adjust the overall touch response of the keyboard. No, this doesn't mean that the physical feel changes, it merely adjusts how the dynamic curves react to your style of playing. So if you have a light touch after years of pressing plastic keys, this control will help. (More on Dynamics later.)
A total of 128 programmable Performance Presets are available on the MK88, grouped into eight Banks of 16 (four Internal and four on the optional RAM pack). Each Performance Preset memorises a vast array of programmable functions (Splits, MIDI Channels, Dynamics, etc) and contains a 'Set Up' memory which controls the whole MIDI environment (Program Changes, Volume settings, Song selection and so on). What can be achieved at the press of one button has to be seen to be believed, and I wonder just how much memory the MK88 does contain.
To visualise the power of one of these Performance Presets, close your eyes and imagine that your fairy godmother has just given you the following pieces of equipment: a Yamaha TX802, an Ensoniq ESQ-M, an Akai S900, two Yamaha SPX90 effects units, a good mixing desk, a Roland D50, an R100 drum machine, and a QX3 sequencer (if you feel that having 'real' musicians might be a bit expensive)! Now add the Elka MK88 to allow the human input into this mega set-up. Pressing one button on the MK88 could achieve the following: the R100 and QX3 song selected, the MK88 keyboard divided into six split zones (each on different MIDI channels and having individual dynamic characteristics), all the rack gear set up with the required sounds and effects, and all volume levels adjusted to suit the mood. Now open your eyes again, look at your latest bank statement and be brought down to earth with a jolt!
As mentioned, each Performance Preset can have up to six separate Split zones which can be independently programmed and overlapped if required. Each 'split' can be individually adjusted in five ways. To make these adjustments is simply a matter of selecting the 'Panel' mode (a single button to the right of the 'navigation console') which then gives you access to the central control matrix (see photo). A red LED to the left of this matrix tells you what line/control you are on and movement between lines is achieved using - yes, you guessed it - Up/Down buttons!
The top line of the matrix allows the split points and keyboard mode to be defined - a simple matter of holding a button and pressing two keys, then choosing one of three modes for that split. The alternative to Split Mode is Full Mode, which enables the selected voice to be heard over the full extent of the keyboard (88 notes). Full Mode can be brought into operation by pressing a footswitch, so the three possible combinations are: Split On/Full Off (sound only heard in Split Mode); Split On/Full On (sound heard in both modes); and Split Off/Full On (sound only in Full Mode). This may seem irrelevant but consider having a Piano sound selected in Full Mode then being able to switch to a split keyboard with, say, Piano and Strings at the bottom, a Lead sound at the top, and being able to switch between the two at the press of a footswitch. I did, however, notice that if you changed from Split to Full whilst holding any notes, then those notes would hang on. A small drawback, possibly due to my incorrect programming, which is easily rectified using the 'all notes off' command.
Moving down the control matrix, the Transpose line lets you transpose your 'split', up or down, while the MIDI Channel line lets you choose which channel you want a particular split to transmit on and via which MIDI Out socket.
Possibly the most powerful feature of this keyboard is the high resolution dynamics, comprising both Attack and Release velocity, with the ability to select one of 19 - yes, 19! - different dynamic response curves for each Split zone. The choices are: eight positive responses (four Linear, two Logarithmic, two Exponential), eight Inverse responses (inversions of the Positive ones), two Fixed values, or 'Real Time'. The Real Time selection allows you to control the dynamics of that Split from one of the controllers, ie. a foot pedal, provided the controller has been assigned accordingly.
Okay, I hear you say, what is so fantastic about all these dynamics? Well, if you set one Split to have a positive response and another to have an inverse response some amazing results can be obtained. A soft keypress would mean that one sound would be heard, playing heavily results in the first sound decreasing while a second sound dominates, and a medium touch allows both sounds to be heard. If you thought the expression available from a piano was unbeatable, wait until you try the MK88!! I know of no other master keyboard, in fact any other keyboard, that has anything like as much control over the dynamics for this sort of price (£1299).
The final matrix line of the Split controls is 'Aftertouch'. Polyphonic aftertouch, with eight response characteristics, routable to one of seven different control functions, is available for each Split. A fairly firm increase in finger pressure is required to bring the aftertouch into play and I found it somewhat better to use than the spongy feel of, say, the DX7. The polyphonic bit requires you to have a sound source that can react to polyphonic aftertouch information and some of the new synths, like the Ensoniq SQ-80 and EPS sampler, have this facility. No doubt more manufacturers will follow suit.
The seven assignable functions consist of Modulation, Pitch, Foot Control (no, it doesn't control which pedal your foot should be on!), and four Volume functions. The latter are very useful for introducing a sound, such as strings, after playing the initial sound of, say, a piano on a slow Lionel Ritchie style ballad.
That completes what can be programmed independently for each of the six Splits, now let's move on to the general controls.
Moving down the MK88 control matrix, the General Controls section covers the assignment of the two Footswitches, four Function buttons, two Pedals, three Sliders, and two Wheels to the control of various functions. You can select any number of the Splits to be affected by the these controllers or send the controller information to an alternative MIDI channel. Depending on the controller, you can route it to either one of the preset functions (eg. Sustain, Portamento, etc, for the switches; Volume, Dynamic value, etc, for the 'movable' controllers like the sliders and wheels), or to a fully programmable Free function. You have eight of these Free functions in each Performance Bank (64 in total) and they are literally 'free' to be programmed to perform just about any function. For instance, you could assign one of the footswitches to act as a Start/Stop controller (for triggering sequencers, drum machines, and/or arpeggiators etc), one of the sliders to control Portamento rate, and one of the wheels to adjust the volume on your MIDI hi-fi unit!
Basically, the MK88 controllers are completely user-definable and remember that you can have a completely different controller set-up for each of the 128 Performance Presets. Powerful!
The remaining two lines on the control matrix are dedicated to what can best be described as 'MIDI effects'. The first of these is the option to set either a Delay on the transmission of the MIDI note information or to produce a MIDI Echo with up to five repeats. The delay time of both of these effects is automatically synchronised to the clock frequency, either internal or external. Therefore, when using the internal clock, the Tempo slider can be used as a delay time control. You can also adjust the delay time by selecting one of eight possible time delays, which are all based on note values of a bar (crotchet, quaver etc) played with respect to the tempo you have set. When linked to a drum machine, the ability to have synchronised 'in-time' delay or echo produces a very 'tight' end result.
The Echo effect is very clever since you can have up to five repeats and the velocity level seems to be decreased to produce a lower volume. Remember, both the Delay and Echo are MIDI effects, so if you only have one keyboard Split in operation, on pressing a key the note will not be heard until the delay time has elapsed. To produce the best result requires the use of two Splits, one without the effect and one with. Of course, with this arrangement the Delay or Echo can be a completely different sound!
The final matrix line selects the Loop function, which enables you to temporarily memorise a sequence played on the keyboard up to a length of four bars. Once you have recorded the sequence - a fairly simple process - you can then play it back and transpose it using the lowest octave of the keyboard. It is certainly a useful feature to have, and is far less restrictive than an arpeggiator, but I wonder how many people would find a use for it in a world full of more powerful dedicated sequencers.
I lied. The Loop function is not the final line because at the bottom of the control matrix on the front panel is a row of 19 buttons which double up as Performance Preset and Matrix selectors.
I bet you thought that I had told you all of the things available on a Performance Preset. Well I haven't quite finished. Remember the bit before looking at your bank statement? The bit about setting up external MIDI equipment? Well, something called 'MIDI Patch', consisting of 12 slots, is available to each Performance Preset and it is this that allows you to set up your MIDI system. There are 11 preset functions available (Program Change, Song Select, Volume, Start/Stop, etc) plus the eight Free functions already mentioned. However, it should be remembered that there are only eight Free functions in each Bank, so some careful forward planning is required to maximise their use.
Programming the MIDI Patch is fairly straightforward and you could, for example, assign the 12 slots in the following way: slot 1 to Song Select, slots 2-7 to Program Change for your six Splits, slot 8 to switch one of your synth modules to Mono Mode operation, slot 9 to Program Change the effects units, slot 10 to reduce the Volume level of one of your modules (or the master fader of your Yamaha DMP7 mixer even), leaving slots 11 and 12 assigned to Free functions (to switch on your MIDI coffee machine and MIDI microwave - when someone eventually gets round to inventing them!).
Having spent some time setting up all of the preceding features, you'll be glad to learn that the whole lot can now be stored in one of the 128 Performance Preset memories. There are, however, even more things to be added, if required, before the final storage. You can give the Performance Preset a name, set the Tempo, and activate the External Splits 5/6 function.
Do I detect a look of confusion on your face? External Splits 5/6? Well, just when you thought the velocity sensitive keyboard on your synth was going to become redundant, Elka have added yet another feature which allows you to use an external MIDI keyboard as an extension to the 88 notes already available! You can use up to 29 additional notes from an external keyboard to activate Split Zones 5 & 6. The MIDI In socket is used for this and all the features programmed into Split Zones 5 & 6 (that includes the dynamics) will be available. If you have a keyboard with a Local On/Off facility (eg. a DX7 MkII), you can feed the keyboard through the MK88 and achieve some amazing results.
Now, provided you have switched off the memory protection, everything can be stored.
Yes, there are more. Each Bank has its own Performance Sequence facility which allows you to programme a sequence of up to 30 Performance Presets which can be incremented using a dedicated footswitch. This is obviously a great bonus for the performing musician.
A Chain function allows you to shift between Performance Presets without changing certain parameters. The things that will change are the MIDI Patch, the controllers, the dynamics settings, and the aftertouch. The main use of this facility is to carry out a Program Change without altering Tempo, Split Zones, Transpose etc.
If you want to send a Program Change to one of your connected MIDI peripherals, this can be achieved but seemed to require a minimum of five button pushes! Obviously, using this facility is not the best way to achieve a program change in a live situation.
Finally, a RAM cartridge containing four Banks fits into a slot to the far right of the instrument, so a performer or studio could have a collection of these cartridges available (they cost £54.95 each) to suit any need. One for each new studio session perhaps?
As if you haven't guessed, I liked the Elka MK88. It provides more than enough facilities at a very reasonable price and should become the standard by which all future master keyboards are judged. The MK88 does require a bit of time to gain an understanding of all of its features but the logical front panel layout and reasonable manual help make this fairly painless. If you are a professional keyboard player, a studio owner, or someone looking to invest in a master keyboard for your over-expanding MIDI system, take a long and serious look at the MK88. If finances dictate that the MK88 is beyond your reach then take a look at the smaller MK55.
The MK55 has a shorter 61-note plastic, weighted keyboard (the MK88's is wooden) and comes without the flightcase, but it has all of the same programmable features and is half the price. Linked to an existing keyboard and using the External Split 5/6 facility (where 56 extra notes on the external keyboard can be used), you would end up with a very powerful master keyboard set-up.
There are, however, a few points to consider. First, I can't afford to buy one! Second, to most musicians the name Elka conjures up the vision of 'musical furniture', which is a great shame. I strongly advise that you do not allow the name to put you off buying what is a truly amazing keyboard, after all, Yamaha produce a lot of 'musical furniture' too! Third, I just hope Elka's marketing and distribution set-up is geared to putting the MK88 into those shops specialising in hi-tech MIDI equipment, where it firmly belongs. Whatever you do, don't dismiss this machine without first having a closer look.
Price MK88: £1299.95; MK55: £599.95 (both inc VAT).
Contact Elka-Orla (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Tony Wride