Kawai's SX 240 portable keyboard appeals to the eye but what about the ear?
James Betteridge is not totally convinced by the new Kawai portable but remains impressed by its new method of parameter selection for editing.
Today the proverbial polyphonic bandwagon is brimming with the output of a seemingly unending stream of manufacturers eager to get a slice of the action, and each month sees a few more leap aboard. Of course, this means that your only chance of staying on top of the situation is to read and listen to magazines like this one: it's an ill wind...
Kawai have been around for a while now, and have created an excellent reputation for their electric/acoustic pianos, fashioned in the style of the famous Yamaha CP70/80. They entered the synth market a while back with a neat, though less than staggering, poly in the form of the SX-210, and now they proudly present the next part of what promises to be a series of electronic instruments, the SX-240.
The 240 is equipped with 2 banks of 8 DCO's (digitally controlled oscillators), ie it's 8-note polyphonic. These can be configured in any one of three key-assign modes.
1. Although in this mode you are limited to monophonic playing, you are given the full weight of all 16 oscillators triggered by a single key thus producing a big, thick sound well suited to certain lead/melody lines. While it is possible, in this and any other mode, to finely detune the second band of DCO's with respect to the first to give an approximation of that analogue, VCO drift, there is unhappily no 'detune' facility for the mono mode. This is where all eight oscillators in each of the two banks can be slightly detuned relative to each other, with only the first two remaining at 'true' pitch. This is very effective in enlarging the, overall sound, and is another strange omission. The existing 'leadline' preset has been programmed in the mono mode, and isn't at all bad, but it really does miss the extra dimension of detune.
2. Poly 4 — the 16 oscillators are split in four, giving 4-note polyphony with the weight of 4 DCO's per note.
3. Poly 8 — the advantages of 8-note polyphony, but with only 2 DCO's per note.
As bemusing as the lack of detune on a synth of this price, is the lack of cross modulation, which immediately cuts out a particular range of useful metallic and gong-like sounds.
More surprises are in store with the keyboard itself which is of the standard unweighted, plastic variety, and which isn't in any way touch sensitive. Velocity sensitivity is becoming a fairly standard inclusion, even on substantially less expensive instruments, and this could be considered by many as a significant omission.
There is capacity for 48 editable patch preset memories (6 banks, A-F of 8, 1 -8) — not a very impressive number in the light of many other current models which offer getting on for twice that number. There is, however, a tape dump facility allowing a practically infinite library of sounds to be built up.
The keyboard has a fixed split point at middle C such that a different voicing can be assigned to each section, and a pair of levers allow the upper and lower levels to be balanced. Alternatively, the 'dual' button, allows the two sounds to be layered on top of each other, and any single memory can store both parts of a split or dual preset to allow quick access.
Other standard facilities include chord hold, adjustable portamento and glissando, and a variety of sockets for such pedals as sustain, preset advance, sequencer programme select, plus others for clock in/out. As far as performance controls go, the modulation button is rather small and inconveniently positioned with regard to the pitch-bend lever. I wouldn't have thought anyone would have made that mistake these days.
The SX-240 is by no means all bad news. Even though the points made thus far are largely negative ones, it really does come up trumps on the 'user communications' front with a new and effective method of parameter selection for editing. Anybody who's ever operated the likes of the SCI 6-Traks or the Korg Poly 800 will know the drawbacks inherent in normal 'digital access' systems. Although such instruments are very commendable in that they offer a lot of facilities at low cost, when it comes to editing, they are generally slow, cumbersome and confusing to use. Conversely, the one-knob-per-function design, whilst operationally preferable, is mightily expensive.
With these two often unacceptable extremes in mind, various manufacturers have been coming up with useful convenience/cost comprises, and with the 240, Kawai have struck upon a rather good one: selection of a variable is achieved by using a set of nudge buttons to sequence through two rows of LED's, each of which is labelled and corresponds to a specific variable. The LED's are arranged in groups relating to the various sections of the synth, eg VCA, EG's, DCO's etc, and as each LED/function is alighted upon, the name of the relevant variable is presented before your very eyes on a large, and very readable 8-digit alphanumeric display. For instance, '88LFOSPD' in the window, tells you that the speed of the LFO is set at 88 (on a scale of 99), while 'POLY-8' lets you know the current assign status. Whenever you enter the 'write' mode to store a programme, you are given the option to rename the memory. In this mode each key relates to a different letter, number or sign.
Having found your variable, there is a single, centralised incrementor, in the usual form of a large round knob, by which all adjustments are effected.
When all is said and done, it has to be the sound of an instrument that is its main quality. The sometimes rather clinical purity of DCO's, which results from their high stability, is present with the 240, and although an ensemble effect is included, it has a fixed speed and depth, giving a set chorus-like effect, which may or may not be right for any given voicing. With the current fierceness of competition an instrument of this price has to produce great sounds, and although some of the factory presets are quite nice, very few are riveting. The filters don't seem to have the power or the right characteristics to shape the sounds to their full potential. There are some quite nice soaring high strings that sound as if they have accompanying french horns in the lower register, a fairly acoustic sounding bowed cello, a cathedral organ complete with choir of angels (almost), plus a reasonably convincing trumpet, but other standard instruments such as electric piano, flute, harpsichord and clav, were very ordinary.
A 1500-note, polyphonic, real-time, single track sequencer is built in to the SX-240. The 1500 notes are divided into 8 sections which can be chained together in any order, including repeats, to produce longer pieces. In this sequencer mode, what are normally the 8 preset buttons (1-8) are used to select the section required. A sequence is programmed by playing live in time with an internal metronome, heard through a small, dedicated built-in speaker, and being single track, it isn't possible to build up a piece layer by layer, you get just the one shot.
The sequencer can be synchronised with an external clock (MIDI or otherwise) to keep it perfectly in time, but if you're just working with the synth on its own, one main drawback is the lack of any 'auto-correction'. This would normally correct any slight timing inaccuracies, but without it you are free to wander in and out of time, and nothing will do anything about it. Having said that, it IS possible to edit out your mistakes, so no one's asking you to be perfect. A nice feature is that you can have the root note of the sequence following the lowest note played in your left hand, allowing it to be used as a simply executed basis for a right hand accompaniment. As a kind of basic auto-play facility, it's a good idea.
At its current price, then, the SX-240 is going to have a tough fight on its hands.
Review by James Betteridge
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