Orla Master Keyboard
As more musicians finally begin to wake up to the benefits of using a dedicated master keyboard, Paul Ireson checks out two recent examples from Orla, the DMK7 and DMK8.
As musicians begin to wake up to the benefits of using a dedicated master keyboard, Paul Ireson checks out two recent examples from Orla, the DMK7 and DMK8.
Some things are a pleasure to buy - it causes me no pain to part with the money for a new synth, sampler or drum machine, in fact anything that makes an immediate and obvious difference to the way my music sounds. On the other hand, there are those items that are equally essential for the making of modern music but are a lot less fun to prise open one's wallet for - compressors, gates, and master keyboards, for instance. Particularly a master keyboard, a device which - horror of horrors - makes no noise whatsoever! For this reason, value for money tends to become an even more important factor when choosing such items. If you are in the market for a master keyboard, you might well cast an eye in the direction of Orla's two new offerings, the DMK7 and DMK8, for the simple reason that they're that much cheaper than so many of their rivals.
The DMK7 and DMK8 have identical control electronics but come in different physical packaging. The DMK7 is the cheaper and smaller of the two models, with a 61-note weighted plastic keyboard. The feel of the DMK7's keyboard is a compromise between an unweighted synth and weighted piano action, which I personally found a little unsatisfactory. Having learned to play on plastic synth keys, an unweighted action feels more natural to me (and I think to many others), but no matter.
Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels are mounted on the front panel of the DMK7, behind and to the left of the keyboard. It would be more convenient to have these controls mounted directly to the left of the keyboard, as on the DMK8, but I suppose the DMK7's arrangement saves on cost by keeping the keyboard smaller and making construction simpler.
Next to the wheels are eight buttons for calling up the main keyboard functions (MIDI, Dynamics, etc), and to the right of these are selector buttons and volume controls for each of the five Sections that the DMK7 can control (four Keyboard Sections and one Rhythm Section). The volume sliders allow real-time volume control via MIDI for all slaved instruments, provided that the slaved modules recognise MIDI Volume that is. Stop and Start/Continue buttons are also provided on the Rhythm Section controller.
In the centre of the panel is an LCD display, below which are conventional cursor and data entry buttons. To the right of these is a 10-key numeric keypad, an Enter button, three more function buttons, and a master volume slider. The feel of the buttons and sliders is definitely on the cheap side, but such compromises are probably acceptable on budget gear - it's better to have a cheap MIDI volume slider than none at all.
The DMK7's big brother, the DMK8, shares the same front panel controls but has an altogether more impressive physical presence. The keyboard is 88-note, with a suitably heavy, wooden piano key action. The Pitch Bend and Mod wheels are mounted in the conventional position to the far left of the keyboard. The whole unit actually comes built into its own flightcase: a great boon if you need to lug it around a lot, cutting down the combined weight of keyboard and flightcase considerably. If you've ever tried carrying an 88-note master keyboard in a separate flightcase, Orla's thoughtfulness in this area will touch you deeply.
The rear panel of both keyboards incorporates five MIDI sockets - In, Thru and three Outs - and two footswitch sockets. One footswitch socket uses a ¼" jack for connecting a volume pedal, and the other a five-pin DIN socket for a multi-function pedal providing Sustain, Sequence Up and drum machine Start/Stop/Continue controls.
MIDI control is what a master keyboard is all about, of course. The Orla keyboards offer MIDI control facilities over five Sections: four Keyboard and one Rhythm. Sections 1-4 are controlled from all or part of the keyboard, the Multi-Split function determining which area of the keyboard each is mapped to. The four Sections can be split or layered across the keyboard in anyway you like, and can transmit note and controller data on up to two MIDI channels. This opens up the possibility of some pretty serious layered sounds - imagine eight sounds stacked across the whole keyboard. As there is only one Pitch Bend and one Modulation wheel, control of these parameters can be switched on or off independently for each of the four Keyboard Sections. The depth of the Pitch Bend effect can be varied as a global parameter. Keyboard Aftertouch is also turned on or off with the Modulation control, and Program Change messages can be sent for each channel of each Section.
The Rhythm Section may be assigned to any MIDI channel, and the controls provided are Stop and Start/Continue buttons - the keyboards also generate MIDI timing clocks, with tempo variable between 40 and 240 bpm, in 1 bpm steps. This allows the remote start/stop of sequencers or drum machines in performance.
All five Sections have volume controls, sending out MIDI Volume data on whatever channels have been assigned. A master volume control is also provided on the far right of the front panel. An optional volume pedal can be used instead. The master volume can be turned on or off for each of the five Sections individually, so if you want to be able to fade down the volume of three of the Keyboard Sections, and leave the other Keyboard and Rhythm Sections untouched, you can assign the master volume control to do just that.
The dynamic (velocity) response of the whole keyboard can be varied in 16 steps to suit your playing style or to adapt for the varying dynamic response of different instruments. I found myself switching between levels particularly when moving from playing drum voices to synth sounds.
Each Keyboard Section can be independently transposed from one octave down to three octaves up, in semitone steps. A further transposition-related function is the ability to define an Arabic scale - I sometimes wonder if anyone ever uses the exotic scale functions that manufacturers are implementing now. I'd like to think so, but it's really hard to say. Sustain control is available via an optional multi-function pedal, and the Sustain function can be switched on or off for each of the four Keyboard Sections.
All of the settings for each Section, from MIDI channels to current program number and volume levels, can be stored in any of the 128 preset memories, enabling instant recall of entire setups. A further useful performance feature is the ability to arrange these presets in a sequence, and then step through them using an optional footpedal.
As I said, master keyboards are rather less glamorous and less dramatic purchases than a lot of other things on the average hi-tech muso's shopping list, and consequently price tends to become even more important for the potential buyer than most other considerations. For this reason alone these Orla keyboards are a fairly attractive proposition, though they also have features to recommend them beyond mere value for money: real-time volume control of four independent sections, remote sequencer start/stop, and a built-in flightcase for the DMK8. Not exactly revolutionary, but possibly just what the musician on a budget needs.
DMK7 £575; DMK8 £999 (inc VAT)
Elka-Orla UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson