Quinsoft K4 Magician
Atari ST Software
Few players get the best out of their synths these days without the help of a software editor. Gordon Reid boots up his ST and goes to work on his Kawai K4.
Got a Kawai K4? Got a software editor for it? Thought not, so you might like to check out this one from Quinsoft.
THE KAWAI K4 is one of the world's best kept secrets. If it had been called the Roland D60, or the Korg M2 (it closely resembles the M1 in many ways), it might have been one of the success stories of the early 90's. Unfortunately, despite the success of the K1, the Kawai name hardly carries an air of top-notch professionalism about it, so despite excellent synthesis capabilities, good MIDI implementation, an easy to use and intuitive operating system, and great sounds, the K4 has become a high-quality also-ran. And one of the problems with second-division synths is a lack of third party support; you know the kind of thing - voice cards, editors, and librarians - so I was pleasantly surprised when I recently learned of two Editor/Librarians that have just become available for the K4. One of these is the Quinsoft K4 Magician which, at £49.95, has to be worth a look.
THE K4 MAGICIAN works with any Atari ST, from the basic 520 up to the latest Mega machines. It is not guaranteed to work with non-Atari operating systems, but seems foolproof under TOS - which is, of course, how most of you will be using it. Loading the program takes you straight into the Singles editor (a Kawai Single is equivalent to a Korg Program) so this is where we'll start.
As soon as you load the program you realise that Quinsoft have eschewed conventional wisdom, dropping the "as many parameters on the page as possible" approach, in favour of an entirely new editing process. Quinsoft call this their Magician Editor. The basic principle of the Magician is to assign every editing parameter to an on-screen fader. But, since there are only 16 faders per screen (severely limiting the amount of editing that can be performed at a given time) there are 12 editor pages; Common A & B; Sources 1, 2, 3 & 4; Filters 1 & 2; and Envelopes 1, 2, 3 & 4. This division of pages mimics the K4's onboard operating system very closely. Each fader is named in the space directly above it, but the labels (plus their associated values) are usually wider than the space allowed, so it's sometimes difficult to see which name (or its abbreviation) applies to which fader. This is-a fundamental limitation of the Magician approach but, in fairness, is not one that takes long to get used to. It's very simple to use the Magician - pick up a fader with the mouse, and move it to a new position. For minor adjustments where mouse control is dangerously coarse, a fader can be also clicked up or down by one quantum. (If any masochists out there in MT-land still think that digital parameter access is a good thing, the Magician will also cater for your needs - the numeric value of each parameter is updated as you move the corresponding fader.)
A small graphic screen in the lower left-hand corner shows three envelope curves. These refer to either; Source 1, Source 2, and Filter 1; or Source 3, Source 4, and Filter 2; depending upon which of the editor pages you are currently updating. Again, this parallels the K4 architecture precisely and is the correct configuration to be of most use to the programmer. Unfortunately, key-scaling and velocity curves are not displayed, nor can they be modified within the editor. These ought to be available, if only as an option. Increasing the number of pages comprising the editor from 12 to 14 wouldn't make any difference to the general feel of the package, and would make it much more useful for the serious programmer.
A waveform selector is permanently displayed throughout all 12 Singles editor pages, and this provides both wave selection and muting facilities for all four partials. Wave names are shown in addition to waveform numbers, and the selection may be accessed and updated whenever desired. Clicking on a wave name brings up a shortlist of the K4's waveforms, but you can quickly scroll through all 255 if necessary. This is fairly quick and simple in use, although a better method would be to list as many waves as possible on screen simultaneously - with a monochrome monitor this would be all 255.
The remaining controls in the Singles Editor are the file-handling commands (Load, Save...) and buttons to take you to the Multi-, Effects-, and Drum- Editors.
The Magician approach has strengths and weaknesses: Editing is quick and simple and, for anyone brought up on the ARP Odyssey (or, for that matter, on the JD800), the sound of a partial can be visualised by looking at the fader positions. But, because of the 12-page approach, programmers lose the ability to see "at a glance" the overall composition of their patches. Other editors present a complete K4 voice on one screen (although you need a monochrome monitor or mono emulator and good eyesight to use them) and I suspect that serious K4 programmers prefer this approach.
AS WITH ALL Quinsoft Librarians, this one is easy to use. Throw away the manual and have some fun. Five banks of 64 Singles are catered for, and library compilation couldn't be simpler: load up a few banks of sounds, select the voice you want from a source bank and drag it to the desired slot in a destination bank. Load and Save perform the expected operations to and from disk, while Get and Send do the same to and from the K4 itself. (The Magician can also Get or Send directly to a RAM card plugged into the K4; bravo.) It's quick, it's simple, and it works like magic. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to view whole banks simultaneously. Sixteen Singles constitute a block, and only two blocks are shown onscreen at any time - one from any of the four source files, and one from the destination file. It should be possible (using small graphic fonts) to display entire banks on screen, but Quinsoft have obviously opted for clarity against versatility.
"Every section of the editor is simple to use and contains most of the features you need to get the best out of your K4 or K4r."
A FULL BANK of 64 Singles is supplied on disk two. These were programmed by the guy who wrote the editor itself (Quentin Rice, take a bow) and, although talented computer programmers don't necessarily make the grade as synth programmers, some of these voices are rather good. My favourites include: 'Dark Choir' (an M1 rip-off if ever there was one); 'Dark EP' (the sound a Fender Rhodes might have made had the tines been wood rather than metal); 'Rapido' (a sort of picked guitar); and 'Honkey' (which perfectly captures the spirit of Keith Emerson's 'The Sheriff'). Don't take this library too seriously - it's obviously intended as an educational tool as much as anything else - but, since K4 libraries are rather thin on the ground, you can justify some of the cost of the editor against the voices supplied with it.
A KAWAI MULTI is almost identical to a Korg Combination. Eight Singles may be combined into multitimbral performances, or into layered and stacked cacophony. Very few parameters are needed to perform these functions, so they are all presented in a single Multi Editor page. This offers options to select the Singles (which can be individually muted); allocate note ranges, MIDI channels and volumes; define output assignments, individual transpositions and tunings; and choose the Kawai equivalent of local On/Off - known as Keyboard/MIDI/Mix mode selection. No graphics are used in the Multi Editor and, frankly, they aren't missed. Although it would be a luxury to be able to select note ranges graphically, I'm not complaining. Am I? Three additional parameters enable you to name your Multi, set an overall MIDI volume, and define which effect patch is to be used within the Multi.
The K4 offers the same number of Multis as it does Singles (64) and when the synth is used as multitimbral expander (of course, the K4r is never used any other way) the Multis become more important than the Singles. Consequently, a Multi Librarian is as important as a Singles Librarian. So why doesn't this editor provide one? Perhaps the answer lies in memory limitations (see below) but, since much of the same computer code could have been used for both Librarians, I don't really understand why Quinsoft failed to include the second. Minus several million Brownie points, I'm afraid.
DOWN IN THE depths of the bottom right-hand side of the Singles editor screen lurks a button named Extras. Click on this and an overlay screen offers nine further options. These are: Print Library A & B, Print Multis, GEM Desktop (superfluous), Effect Edit, Drum Edit, Print Patch, Initialise Editor, and Quit Program. A tenth button - Done - returns you to the Singles Editor.
The Effects Editor uses four windows. The first lists the 16 effect types stored within the synth. A second contains pan and Send controls (which enable you to set the level of effect independently for each multitimbral channel). A third window contains the three variable parameters for each effect type chosen and the fourth allows you to select which of the 32 effect patches is to be edited. Unfortunately, the editor doesn't know whether an effect is in use within any of the Singles or Multis currently loaded into the editor banks. So you could be happily creating a devastating patch using stunning effects, and simultaneously be destroying a selection of your most important sounds. Clearly, you need to keep track of what's going on because the program doesn't.
Like other parts of the Magician, the Effects Editor is simple to use, and perhaps that's just as well. Both the Quinsoft and the Kawai manuals are next to useless at explaining the K4's effect section, so you're going to have to feel your way. Sensibly, there's a safety net: if you foul things up, the factory default effect patches are stored on disk two and can be recalled using the Load command. That reminds me - the Effects Editor has its own Load, Save, Get, and Send buttons.
"Some synths cry out for computer-based editors - unfortunately for Quinsoft, the K4 doesn't fall into this category."
THE DRUM EDITOR is the final menu item in the K4 Magician and, like the others, is a piece of cake. Each of the two drum sources per key (plus their associated parameters) are presented against a graphic representation of a single octave of the keyboard. You can change octave by clicking on a set of five on-screen buttons giving the full five octave range of the K4 - and all the drum parameters can be selected and modified using the mouse or cursor keys. There is very little else to say about the drum editor; it's clear, it's simple, and it works. If there is a criticism (and there is) it's that you can only see one octave of the keyboard at a time, making it necessary to use pen and paper to lay out a complete drum section over five octaves.
SOME SYNTHS CRY out for computer-based editors: in particular the Casio VZ-series, the Roland D5/10/20, and anything made by Yamaha. Unfortunately for Quinsoft, the K4 doesn't fall into this category. Its top panel controls are well laid-out, positive in action, and accompanied by large, friendly letters. The menu structure is comprehensive and intuitive, and for anyone acquainted with a D50, is simple to understand and use. Nevertheless, the sheer power of the K4, with its multi-patches, effects, and drums, may daunt the novice synthesist, and this is where an editor/librarian should score; it should be simpler to use and quicker than the onboard operating system, and should make the relationship between the various sections of the synth much clearer. Perhaps with this specification in mind, the Magician Editor flies in the face of conventional editor wisdom. The screen layouts (particularly in the Singles Editor) do not conform to the usual "let's make all these digital parameters look like a Jupiter- 8" approach, nor to the "lots of little boxes with numbers in" philosophy. So how have Quinsoft done in creating a new, and simpler, "standard"?
Firstly, criticisms. One: the manual could do with a serious re-write. For the first few pages there's nothing wrong with it that a decent proof-reader couldn't sort out, but as it progresses it begins to assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. Since many musicians will buy the editor precisely because they don't understand their K4 (or K4r) more care should have been taken. Two: omissions. Keyboard and velocity scaling should have been included, and a few more features (such as parameter copying between patches and a Randomiser) would have been welcome. Three: The inability to format disks in the program is an absolute pain in the arm, and you're going to end up killing something if you can't find a formatted disk after hours of patch programming. Four: there's no Multi Librarian.
Now the good points. One: every section of the editor is simple to use, very quick to operate, and contains most of the features you need to get the best out of your K4 or K4r. Two: Quinsoft have attempted to create (and to some degree have succeeded in creating) the most user-friendly editor available, and one that can be used on any Atari ST. This has meant using large friendly letters and simple graphics within a program that runs in rather limited memory and is compatible with colour as well as monochrome systems. Unfortunately, you don't get owt for nowt, and something had to give. In this case the casualties were full waveform and librarian lists (they couldn't be read on a colour monitor), advanced editing functions (not enough program memory), and some of the K4's less often used parameters (not enough data memory).
IS THE QUINSOFT Magician Editor the one for you? If you have a 520Mb Atari or a lo-res colour monitor I suspect you have no other options - it's the Quinsoft editor or nothing. However, if you're a relative novice starting out on the synthesis trail, you might still be advised to give the Magician a close look even if you have a monochrome ST1040 or better. An entry-level package should have an entry-level price, and £49.95 just about fits the bill. An entry-level package should be very simple to use, but shouldn't restrict your creative programming as you become more adept. Again, with one or two reservations, the Magician fits the bill. Finally, an entry-level package should be absolutely water-tight in operation since, by definition, it's going to be used by novices who won't be able to track down MIDI errors or SysEx problems. During this review, no problems. So now all you have to do is ask yourself, "am I an entry level K4 programmer?".
Price £49.95 including VAT.
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Review by Gordon Reid
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