Kawai K11 Keyboard Synth
The ever-popular K1 has been the mainstay of many a hi-tech musician's keyboard armoury, but will this 32-note polysynth follow in its footsteps?
Kawai's K-series synths, notably the K1, grace many a studio and are favourite buys on the secondhand market — but it's been a long time since there was a new addition to the family. Now Kawai re-enter the fray with the K11; Derek Johnson finds out whether it was worth the wait...
Although Kawai have never really been in the big league of synth manufacturers, they have produced more than their fair share of hits: indeed, if the only synth they had ever produced was the 1988-vintage K1, musicians would remember their name with affection. That synth, seen as a poor man's D50 (or, perhaps more correctly, D10/D110), offered sample-based synthesis at a very low price point, and all its variants (keyboard, free-standing and rack modules, effects and drum section-laden K1 Mk II) still do a healthy trade on the second hand market — at least four of SOS's staff and contributors have a K1 of some sort. It's a fun instrument, full of useful and often idiosyncratic sounds.
Kawai's latest instrument, the K11, offers an enhanced version of their K4's PCM-based Digital Multi Spectrum (DMS) synthesis, now called DMS2. The K11 (that's K eleven) appears to offer the sonic guts of Kawai's GMega General MIDI module attached to a 61-note velocity and aftertouch sensitive keyboard and, like the GMega, the K11 is 32-note polyphonic and 32-part multitimbral. This seemingly impossible feat is managed through the provision of two MIDI inputs, each of which addresses its own separate stream of 16 MIDI channels.
There are no surprises sound-wise, since DMS2 is a variant on the now over-familiar samples plus synthesis. In its favour, the K11 features 6MB of 'CD quality' samples (16-bit at 44.1kHz) that are refreshingly free of both quantisation noise and the infamous buzzing/out of tune loop syndrome. That's not to say that we are talking long samples, or that waveforms feature many multi-samples, because neither is the case. Samples are short, and multi-sampling appears to be minimal, with most waveforms having one or two audible split points. In spite of this, the K11's waveforms still sound authentic, if lacking a little in depth. In any case, the character of a K11 patch actually comes more from the synthesis parameters than from the basic waveform, which is not often the case with S+S instruments. The K11 also features quiet 18-bit DACs, a built-in Macintosh computer interface and 55 tuning temperament types.
Physically, the K11 is small and very light, and fits easily under an arm. This compactness is aided by the location of the pitch and mod wheels — at the upper left of the keyboard — and by the external power supply; that provided is a two-pinned affair and can be rather unstable (you supply your own shaver adaptor!). If you're looking for information on the integral all-singing, all-dancing multi-effects processor, then stop holding your breath: the K11 simply offers six varieties of reverb and a few parameters (including decay, pre-delay and hi and low depth). Real world connections include a stereo output, headphones socket, sustain pedal socket and two MIDI Outs (which both output the same data).
The K11's waveform ROM contains 256 instrument and 256 percussion waveforms; they're separate, in that instrument waves can't be used in drum kits and percussion waves can't be used in synth patches. The instrument group consists of a small selection of 'DC' (digital cyclic) waveforms, which are resynthesised versions of the 'body' or held portion of a sound, and a large collection of genuine PCM waveforms; Kawai have included all manner of basic synth sounds (for example, sine, triangle, pulse, sawtooth), orchestral instruments, saxes, basses, guitars, percussion and sound effects (helicopter, birdsong and applause, to mention but a few).
The Percussion group contains DC waveforms, traditional kit sounds, tuned percussion, latin percussion and 50 reversed sounds. There is also an odd selection of 112 looped sounds (they repeat over and over, like a stuck record) that actually includes a number of non-percussion sounds (Slap Bass, Pan Flute, Orch Hit, Sitar and more). This is weird, but allows the user to really twist out of shape the idea of what a 'drum kit' should be — a K11 kit could easily be a combination of traditional kit sounds, a couple of octaves of tuned percussion, real instruments and a few off the wall sound effects.
The K11 features three banks of patches: preset General MIDI, Standard Preset and an editable User bank, each of which contains 128 patches plus seven drum kits. Only one bank can be used at a time and it's not possible to use Bank Select or similar functions to simultaneously access sounds from more than one bank at a time. A K11 patch uses one or two waveforms (Sources) for a total of 32- or 16-note polyphony, followed by a comprehensive range of synth parameters, including a resonant DCF (digitally controlled filter), LFO and a seven-stage DCA (digitally controlled amplifier — envelope generator if you like). Unusual features include amplitude modulation (rather like a simplified form of ring modulation, where one waveform is modulated by the other), and the ability to 'link' both DCFs in a two-Source patch. Linked DCFs could be used to create a band-pass filter, applicable to one Source only; the other source goes straight to the DCA.
As with the K1, it's not possible to initialise a patch, which means that a new patch has to be based on one that is already there. Also clumsy is the fact that a single-Source patch can't be changed into a two-Source patch or vice versa, nor does muting one Source in a two-Source patch double the polyphony, as you'd expect.
While each of the K11's patch banks contains seven drum kits, the percussion voices that make up the drum kits are actually arranged in yet another bank, of 128 sounds. A percussion voice uses any one of 255 percussion waveforms, and can be treated to an abbreviated form of DMS2 synthesis, including resonant DCF, DCA and tuning; voices are then arranged into a kit, which could have a sound assigned to each note in the MIDI range of 128. Also available is a gate time parameter, which determines how long a waveform will sound for, regardless of the decay setting on the DCA. Particularly welcome is the fact that drum sounds respond to up to two octaves of pitch bend — a trick that Yamaha would do well to learn.
"...the character of a K11 patch actually comes more from the synthesis parameters than from the basic waveform, which is not often the case with S+S instruments."
When the synth is fired up, you are provided with a choice of two modes: Compose and Performance. Compose mode is actually a combination of both single and multitimbral modes, a la Emu's MPS keyboard. In this mode, the K11 features 32 parts — or Sections, according to Kawai — and each Section can be assigned a patch, a volume level and a MIDI channel number labelled 1A-16A (for MIDI In A) and 1B-16B (for MIDI In B). However, patches can be edited within each Section, as long as you are working with the User patch bank. There are a number of useful non-destructive Section-specific parameters such as level, pan, attack time, tuning, filter cutoff and key range, amongst others, that don't permanently alter a Section's patch.
Performance Mode allows you to keyboard split or layer up to four patches (called Sections again); Performances are selected, not by using the increment knob, but by pressing the buttons in the middle of the front panel, with eight banks of eight, for 64 in total. Key splits are possible but velocity splits are not, which is a shame. All other expected features are present for each section: volume, pan, effect send, and so on, as well as some basic control over envelope attack and release and filter cutoff, as in Compose mode.
Note that Performances can't be used in Compose mode. If you want to do this, then you'll need to recreate a Performance using four Sections in Compose mode, assigning them to one MIDI channel, and editing them accordingly.
Almost all the K11's button presses and parameter changes are transmitted as System Exclusive data through its MIDI Out, which, if a little memory intensive, is good news for MIDI power users. Whether it's program changes or complicated real time parameter changes, anything can be easily recorded into a sequence; generic SysEx-based editors should also be easy to configure. For example, it's possible to change patch banks, change from Compose to Performance modes and so on, and record those changes into a MIDI sequencer, should you want to. SysEx is also used to select the seven drum kits, rather than Bank Select commands; this is necessary since the drum kits appear outside the 128 basic patches ordinarily accessible via MIDI.
Further on the MIDI front, the K11 features a group of four buttons labelled 'Quick MIDI'. Press one of these, and you can use the increment knob (or mod wheel) to quickly change patches, volume levels, pan positions and effects level (the latter using controller 91) settings on external MIDI sound sources, while having no effect on the K11 itself. These movements could also be recorded into a sequencer, and add a little 'controller keyboard' sheen to the synth.
Using the K11 can be initially a little confusing, though the operating system is essentially logical. Once you've got used to the lack of independent single and multitimbral memory sections, and the lack of patch initialisation and an edit buffer, and have come to terms with the not-always-helpful main manual, the K11 is pretty straightforward. The small display does involve rather a lot of moving back and forth through parameters, but this is nothing unusual in modern synths; new users may also be irritated by the small increment wheel, which can be especially tiring to use for large value changes. Editing drum patches is a little unfriendly since, unlike most other serious synths, selecting an individual sound for editing isn't simply a matter of pressing a key on the keyboard: you have to actually scroll through to the key you'd like to edit, which is a bit of a drag. And don't lose the wave list booklet: apart from listing the K11's SysEx data, it names all 512 waveforms, which is rather useful since the LCD shows only waveform numbers during editing.
I have a couple of other other negative points. Firstly, there is no volume pedal input. This is a facility I use a lot when just playing (rather than sequencing), and I missed it. Secondly, the reverb send, whether in Compose or Performance mode, only has two preset levels, High or Low - which, though irritating, is not as irritating as finding that you can't actually switch the reverb off, and even with all reverb parameters set at their minimum values, a slight, low-level hiss is consequently always present. A similar 'preset' parameter value is also found for the filter resonance depth; this can have a value of only 0-3. A little more control should have been given, I think. Alternative tuning systems are always welcome, but I think Kawai have missed an opportunity: in spite of supplying 55 different tunings, there are several variants on a few systems (Pythagorean, Werckmeister, Meantone, Kirnberger, etc). If, like me, you're looking for gamelan, quarter tone or arabic tunings, then you'll look in vain. It's not even possible to define your own tuning systems. One good point is that each Section in Compose or Performance modes can have its own temperament, which does open up a few unusual avenues of exploration.
That's the nasty stuff out of the way. In spite of these criticisms, I rather enjoyed the K11: finding 32-note polyphony and 32 independent multitimbral parts in one synth was a refreshing change, as was the collection of buzz-free PCM waveforms. Portability was a high point as well — fed up of the room you're playing in? Simply pick up the K11 and run downstairs. This compactness makes it a good bet for gigging musicians in need of a portable controller and a good source of sounds. With regard to such intangibles as 'feel' and 'style', the K11 actually scores rather high; ultimately, I found it to be a friendly and good-sounding instrument.
Summing up the K11 is tricky: the lightweight exterior leads one to expect — or hope for, rather — a cheerfully low price. In fact I was reminded of Yamaha's SY35, which had a release price of £599. The K11 is similarly portable, combining a good collection of sounds with a playable, if slightly spongy, keyboard — K1 owners will know what I mean. The K11, however, lists at £950. This is actually no real surprise, since the sound creation possibilities are more comprehensive than the SY35, and our marvellous currency still isn't doing us any favours. The K11 doesn't have much head-on competition, but within 50 quid or so, the likes of Korg's M1, Peavey's DPM2 (both of those feature on-board sequencers) and Roland's JV30 are available, not to mention the SY35 (still only £699 after Yen-Sterling adjustments — though its lower price admittedly reflects its more basic spec). A sub-£800 K11 would have been unassailable, but even at its current price, it has more than enough unique features to commend it to all manner of musicians, whether gigging, studio, student or multimedia. As ever, have a listen, and the choice is yours. Kawai's new synth could easily be the right one.
Kawai K11 £949 inc VAT.
Kawai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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