Roland MKB200 MIDI Controller Keyboard
Roland's latest MIDI controller is certainly an improvement over their previous efforts, but the competition has got tougher, too. Simon "Chops" Trask gives the new MKB the once-over.
The second generation of "silent" MIDI keyboards have more synth overtones than piano ones. How does Roland's latest entry match up with the rest?
ROLAND WERE ONE of the first instrument manufacturers to push the idea of a silent MIDI controller keyboard, with their MKB1000 and MKB300 - which they marketed in conjunction with a range of keyboardless expanders. Together with Yamaha (with the KX88), they set the standard for controllers which aspired to be the grand pianos of modern music technology.
But now that the real grand pianos of music technology - the new generation of electronic pianos - are aspiring to be MIDI controllers, the second generation of dedicated controllers (Oberheim's Xk, Akai's MX73 and the Bit MasterKeyboard) are switching sides, and taking on synth dimensions.
Roland's contribution to the new breed, the MKB200, has a five-octave, synth-style keyboard which is sensitive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch. As always, the effectiveness of this dynamic ability depends on what your slave MIDI instruments can respond to in the way of dynamics. However, one feature which may be useful to owners of non-dynamic MIDI instruments is the MKB's ability to convert its aftertouch data to modulation data (a similar feature is also to be found on the Bit, incidentally). It's also possible to turn aftertouch transmission on and off.
Further flexibility in dynamic control is provided by a choice of five velocity "levels". These control the range of velocity values that are generated by the MKB, and hence the degree of responsiveness exhibited by slave instruments - which can be useful in compensating for extremes of velocity response. Roland have given the MKB two Whole modes (Lower and Upper) which can also be combined in split and dual textures (the former with a floating split-point which can be set to any note on the keyboard).
Lower and Upper can each be assigned a MIDI channel (1-16), patch number (1-128) and master volume amount - the latter handy for balancing the volume levels of different sounds. These values, together with splitpoint, keyboard mode, dynamics level, after-touch on/off and key transposition, can be stored in up to 128 Patches, which can in turn be called up from the MKB's front panel, or stepped through in either direction using a pair of footswitches.
The MKB has no internal memory capacity for storing its Patches, so these have to be stored in one of Roland's M16C RAM cartridges. However, this makes no practical difference to either the speed or the ease with which Patches can be called up and stored. And there's no extra initial outlay, as a cartridge comes free of charge with every MKB200.
But while dynamics scale and aftertouch switching are both Patch-storable, it's a shame they can't be separately defined for Lower and Upper "zones" (as they can on other controllers). This would be particularly useful in split and dual modes, since you might, for instance, want to use aftertouch with one sound but not another, or balance different sounds in performance, or compensate for the differing velocity responses of different instruments.
A similar state of affairs applies with the keyboard transposition mentioned earlier. The MKB200's five-octave range can effectively be expanded by transposing the keyboard up or down an octave in semitone steps. However, this applies to both Lower and Upper "zones", so in dual and split modes (or if you decide to switch between Lower and Upper without changing Patch) there's no way of independently controlling the octave ranges of two separate sounds from the MKB itself.
It all comes down to performance flexibility and convenience - both of which you should expect a MIDI controller keyboard to provide. Convenience in particular arises from centralising features, so you don't have to deal with individual instruments all the time. This is, after all a prime raison d'être for every MIDI controller keyboard in existence.
Another area which other controller keyboards - but not the MKB200 - have involved themselves in is remote control of sequencers and drum machines through being able to send sequence start/stop/continue and tempo commands from the controller's front panel.
Now, everyone will place their own values on the availability of such features, and their absence shouldn't detract from what is essentially a decent if relatively unsophisticated MIDI controller keyboard. But the decisions as to which features should and shouldn't be included on a type of instrument which should have a fairly well-defined role do sometimes seem rather arbitrary. Especially since their inclusion would rarely entail any great extra software effort at the R&D stage. Ah, well.
As with Roland's RD200 and RD300 electronic pianos, much of the programming on the MKB is achieved through pressing a dedicated Function key together with a key on the keyboard. Thus the bottom 16 notes of the five-octave keyboard are used for selecting MIDI channels, while the top two octaves are used for selecting a keyboard transposition value. All parameter assignments are clearly indicated on the front panel above the relevant keys, just in case you forget any of them.
Now, this may seem a bit low-tech when compared to the 'sophistication" of digital access, but in fact it's an extremely quick way of going about things - in an area where time is often of the essence.
Most MIDI instruments allow their reception mode (Omni on/off Poly or Mono) to be selected remotely by MIDI commands. These commands can be sent from the MKB's front panel/keyboard, allowing you for instance to switch slaves in and out of multitimbral mode. This is likely to be a quicker way of setting mode changes than having to deal with individual instruments, and is therefore good news.
The rear panel of the MKB sports a healthy array of sockets, including three MIDI Outs - a sensible idea which could make all the difference between having to buy a MIDI Thru box and not. Also to be found are jack inputs for two sustain footswitches (allowing independent control of Lower and Upper zones), two volume pedals (ditto), modulation on/off footswitch and two Patch stepping footswitches (up and down). These are augmented on the front panel by two volume sliders at the left-hand end of the instrument, again for controlling Lower and Upper zones independently.
The MKB involves itself in limited MIDI controller assignability. The front panel sliders, together with the volume pedals, can be assigned to transmit any MIDI controller codes from 0-121 (ie. both continuous and switch controllers). However, it's not possible to program different assignments for Lower and Upper controllers, nor can the sliders and the volume pedals be separately programmed.
A rather limited (and limiting) state of affairs, when you consider that Akai's MX73 has an assignable footswitch and footpedal for each of its four zones...
An unusual bonus for owners of Roland's Juno 106 and MKS7 is the ability to edit sounds on these instruments from the MKB200's front panel. Up to 16 sound parameters can be edited using the Bank and Tone buttons to select the parameters (there's a chart in the manual) and the sliders to alter the values. The result? A commendably fast way of editing sounds which should be welcomed by owners of the relevant instruments (particularly the MKS7, which can only be edited externally anyway - though only the continuous parameters can be edited in this way).
All in all, Rolands MKB200 doesn't offer all the sophistication that some of its competitors can boast. That much is fairly clear. However, it is one of the simplest (and therefore easiest and fastest) controllers to use day to day. And that, when there are always 101 other things most keyboard players need to be doing at any one time, has to be a big point in its favour.
Price £798 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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