Ensoniq KS-32 MIDI Studio
It's called a studio; it could be called a workstation; but actually it's a serious keyboard. Nicholas Rowland identifies a product with several possible identities and several possible markets. Have Ensoniq weighted in vain?
Good things sometimes come in big packages - like this new synth and master controller from Ensoniq. But is there room for it in a crowded market..?
"The feel of a true piano plus the features of a MIDI workstation" is the billing that accompanies the latest addition to the Ensoniq keyboard family - the KS-32. This, it seems, is a "synthesiser with feeling" aimed primarily at people who prefer playing keyboards to programming them. Ensoniq have subtitled it "a weighted action MIDI studio" and of those four carefully chosen words, it's the first two which are probably the most important in terms of the target market.
Certainly if their advertising and information leaflets are anything to go by, Ensoniq are putting a lot of weight (sic) behind the KS-32's feel and responsiveness. "As a pianist," croons the literature, "the feel of your instrument is the most important feature. You react to an instrument, playing better when it gives something back to you..." Too true, mate, too true. But of course, the weighted keyboard isn't the only piece of the action. It comes attached to a multi-timbral programmable digital synthesiser, with on-board FX, 16-track sequencer and MIDI master keyboard capabilities. Clearly, we're talking something akin to the much-maligned workstation here.
So what of this newly designed 76-note weighted keyboard? Is playing it, as the sales literature claims, "like sitting at your favourite piano?" Well, compared to the one I inherited from Auntie Elsie, it's actually a lot better. A whole lot better in fact. And even if it doesn't quite match up to the feel of your favourite piano, you'd have to agree that this set of ivories is a real pleasure to tickle.
The secret, apart from the weights incorporated into the keys themselves, is something called a flying-action weighted mechanism. Every time you press a key down, this is thrown forward and up, in a manner designed to simulate the physical movement of hammers inside an acoustic piano. It works surprisingly well, giving the keys that slight feeling of looseness which characterises the hammer actions on many acoustic pianos.
Of course, not being the real thing actually gives the KS-32 a number of advantages. For a start, you wouldn't find many Steinways offering a choice of 14 velocity response levels - or as many pressure settings. Nor would they provide aftertouch, pitch and modulation wheels, and 16 programmable keyboard zones for splits and layers.
Steinways are also limited when it comes to choice of Internal sounds, (though there are people who believe this to be a creative advantage!) By contrast, the KS-32 comes with 180 onboard preset sounds - 80 in RAM, the rest in ROM.
These sounds are created from up to three voices, themselves created from three digital oscillators each utilising one of 168 samples of acoustic and 'synthetic' sounds (hereafter referred to as waves) plus Ensoniq's unique Transwaves. More of all this anon. For now, let's do what anybody does when assessing a new keyboard: spend half an hour clicking through the presets.
The first thing you notice is that there are a lot of keyboard related sounds - pianos, both acoustic and electronic, jazz and pipe organs, harpsichords, clavinets and so on. Not surprisingly, the same bias towards the piano player is revealed in the list of waveforms (...well, all those piano sounds have to come from somewhere, don't they?). Of the three megabytes of waveform data tucked away in the KS-32's slimline case, one megabyte is taken up with samples derived from acoustic pianos.
The piano presets are generally superb - at least to a keyboard player's ears. True pianists might still pine for those natural resonances which only real string and wood can provide. My particular favourite was Dark Grand, which as its name suggests, sounded suitably gloomy and sonorous. Great for all those 'I vant to be alone' moody musings. Unlike many piano presets, which often give you slight variations on the same thing, the KS-32's pianos all have a very definite character - from the Elton John of the punchy Rock Grand to the man about the House 90's Keys. The electric pianos also cover a good range, including some convincing Rhodes-style replicas, and for classics of a different era, the harpsichords are particularly realistic.
Keyboard sounds are not the KS-32's only forte though. There are plenty of other instruments - guitars, bass, brass, strings, choral etc, plus some rather wonderful analogue synth soundalikes. Again the presets are, virtually without exception, an impressive and highly usable bunch. I'll just draw your attention to the fat cat Pro Brass patch and atmospheric flamenco guitar (labelled 'Spain') then step aside and allow you to try it out for yourself.
In addition to the melodic sounds there's a full arsenal of drum and percussion instruments covering the usual rock, pop, dance, latin and electro kit angles. Among them are a few more unusual goodies: try imagining what Steam Drum, Synth Kiss and Slinky Pop sound like. Initially, the drum sounds are organised in 20 different kits, with the various components of these spread across the keyboard. Two of the options give you kit or percussion sounds mapped to the General MIDI specification.
The on board presets can be augmented using ROM and RAM cards, giving you access to anything up to 340 sounds at a time. As the KS-32 is fully compatible with all the sounds created for the SQ series of instruments, there are well over a 1,000 different sounds to choose from. Of course, you may opt for the DIY route for creating new sounds, in which case check out the programming facilities listed in the box 'Voice Architecture' accompanying this article. Before your eyes flick over, however, let me just say that if you thought digital synths equal programming hell, the KS-32 may well change your mind.
Now your eyes have flicked back again, you'll find the rest of us have moved on to the onboard FX. Since these use the same 24-bit chip as Ensoniq's brilliant DP/4 - the mother of all multi-FX units - you know they're going to be good even before switching on. It's just a shame that compared to the DP/4 there are so few to choose from: three reverbs (hall, room and warm chamber), 8-voice chorus, chorus/reverb, two flavours of flanger/reverb, phase shifter, phaser/reverb, rotary speaker/reverb, distortion/chorus/reverb and compression/distortion reverb.
The good news is that they are fully programmable and offer a wide choice of parameters per effect. Also, the entire effects set-up, complete with modifications, is saved as part of the data for each sound. Considering FX are integral to the power of many sounds, these days, this is exactly as it should be.
The KS-32 also offers the luxury of real-time control of FX parameters. This is via any one of 16 selectable modulation sources - including six ramps, plus velocity, aftertouch, modulation wheel, pitch, external MIDI control etc... in fact more or less the same list as can be used to provide real-time control over certain parameters of individual sounds. (Again, for more on this see 'Voice Architecture' box.) And yes, before you ask, you can select different controllers for sounds and FX.
Apart from saving individual sounds in RAM, the KS-32 also allows you to collect them together in groups of eight and give them a home in the one of the KS-32's 100 Performance Preset memories, for instant recall at the touch of a button. And here, we begin to turn the pages of a new chapter in the KS-32's rollercoaster of a manual. This tells us how we can create layers of up to eight sounds, set up upper/lower splits and also modify and save other performance parameters such as Volume, Pan, Key Zone, Transpose, Release Time, MIDI channel and Program Change.
You can also assign a global effect to cover the whole preset, though this automatically takes precedent over any FX you might have set up for individual sounds. Presets can also be set up to control external MIDI sound sources. In fact by creating a default preset the KS-32 will automatically assign tracks 1-4 to the onboard local sounds while defining tracks 5 to 8 as MIDI control tracks. Tracks 3 and 7 are automatically set as lower splits, with tracks 4 and 8 as upper splits.
Individual sounds (or MIDI control set-ups) within each preset can be recalled using the track buttons, also used in programming the sequencer. In fact, if it helps, think of the performance presets exactly like 8-track sequences - only without the note data. OK, maybe it doesn't help. But it helps me glide smoothly into the next section of the review: the on board sequencer.
To get going, just select the sound for the particular track, hit record and follow the metronome. When you've finished, press enter to save, select another track/sound and then play another part. Sequences can be recorded in real or step time: real time gives you a choice of looped, replace and add options. The eight tracks are all polyphonic, and they can be used to control external MIDI instruments, as well as, or instead of, the internal sounds.
While all this is simple enough, the KS-32 soon reveals hidden depths - tap tempo, automatic punch in/out points for each sequence, and comprehensive post-recording editing facilities. Step editing allows you to seek out and destroy single bum notes, while post quantizing (up to 64th-note triplets) will sort out any dodgy timing. And while you're at it you can also change the number of bars and beats, edit the clock and key range data, transpose, timeshift, append sequences, merge tracks and even tone down any over-zealous application of controllers such as mod wheel and pitchbend.
In terms of a complete 8-part sequence you can mute or solo individual tracks, alter volume and balance and routing to the stereo outs via - or not via - the chosen FX. Like I said, comprehensive. One neat feature (indeed, essential given the amount of editing possible) is the ability to audition each edit before you decide to commit the changes to the KS-32's memory.
This has enough room to save up to 70 sequences, providing the combined total doesn't exceed 8,500 notes. If you're desperate for more - and let's admit it, who isn't? - the optional SQX-70 memory expansion kit will give you 49,500 more notes to play with. Sequences can then be marshalled into up to 30 songs, each a maximum of 99 steps long with up to 99 repetitions per step. To make the most efficient use of memory space, you can transpose or mute individual tracks and save this as part of the song data. In other words, there's no need to create a separate sequence if you want the drums to drop out during the middle eight.
A song on the KS-32, however, is much more than simply a set of sequences chained together, since having created a song and edited its steps, you can then record another set of eight song-length tracks. These are completely independent of the individual sequences and each can be assigned its own sound and set of track parameters. On top of this, you can also create a Mixdown Track covering the entire length of the song in which you can record separate volume and pan changes for each track.
Finally, we come to the KS-32's capabilities as a MIDI controller. As we've already hinted, basic MIDI parameters can be quickly set up for each voice in a performance preset. The eight tracks of a song or sequence can also send MIDI information independently and polyphonically on eight different MIDI channels. However, the range of MIDI controllers is not as wide as it should be considering the amount of remote programming (real time) which is now possible using this method.
While transmitting in Mode 1 (Omni on, Poly), the KS-32 receives in Omni, Poly Multi and Mono modes, which means it can not only be used as a multitimbral sound module on the end of your sequencer, it can also be hooked up to MIDI guitar and breath controllers. Other MIDI highlights include the ability to respond to real time and song position pointers.
The KS-32 is a deceptively simple keyboard. So deceptive and so simple that after a few hours of busily trying out all my favourite pieces with the most suitable and then most unlikely sounds, I began to panic. What the hell was I going to write about? 'Nice keyboard feel... great sounds... smashing effects... er, yes it's nice.' However, once you plunge off-road and start pressing a few buttons - as well as poking your nose into the off-puttingly thick manual (thick in terms of size, not how it's written you understand) - layer upon layer of sophistication begins to reveal itself.
Nevertheless, for a reviewer it's actually quite hard to reach a conclusion about something that's well packaged, well specified and well made, yet lacks that spark of brilliance which would involve words like 'visionary', 'inspirational' and 'significant'. As a musician, though, what you look for in an instrument is somewhat different. Particularly if you're the kind of musician who plays in three bands, does a weekly spot at the local restaurant, as well as Sunday lunchtimes down at the pub as part of a drum and keyboard duo, and on a rare night off might dabble around with a sequencer and a few bits of MIDI gear.
This, I feel, is who the KS-32 is aimed at and I have to say that Ensoniq are to be congratulated for coming up with exactly the right package. It may be evolutionary rather the revolutionary, but it's user-friendly, versatile, relatively sophisticated and can function as a standalone music workstation or as the central instrument in a deep and meaningful relationship with MIDI.
And, of course, it has weights. As it says in the sales literature, "in the end, it's the feel of the KS-32 that will win you over". It certainly felt good to me. So go put your feelers out at a dealer near you.
Price: Ensoniq KS-32 MIDI Studio £1895 inc VAT
More from: Sound Technology plc (Contact Details)
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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