Technics SX-KN2000 keyboard
Keyboards — the next generation.
Simon Trask assesses the latest heavyweight keyboard challenger to synthesiser supremacy. Can Technics land a knockout blow?
Fact: keyboards are becoming more like synthesisers and synths are becoming more like keyboards. Even Korg - shock horror - have succumbed to the lure of auto-accompaniments, producing the i2 and i3 Interactive Music Workstations - essentially an X3 Music Workstation with sophisticated programmable auto-accompaniment facilities (but no built-in speakers!).
Roland, too, have brought their synth sounds to the keyboard market or their new flagship keyboard, the E86, which utilises the same sound source as their JV80 pro synth. Meanwhile, for better or for worse, General MIDI is acting as a great leveller, with keyboards and synths alike acquiring GM performance modes coupled with Standard MIDI Files disk read/write functions giving them the ability to play back MIDI songfiles.
So are the companies which are best placed to succeed in this Brave New World the ones who have a foot in both the synth and the keyboard camps? On the evidence of Technics' new flagship keyboard, I'd say not necessarily so. Technics have no record in synth design and manufacture, yet the KN2000 combines keyboard and synth characteristics so successfully that you would never know it. And in two respects they have seized the initiative from other manufacturers: the 2000's 64-voice polyphony at least doubles that of the competition, while its large backlit LCD and seamless integration of keyboard-style buttons and synth-style software pages put other manufacturers to shame. This is user-friendliness with, er, knobs on.
The KN2000 has all the features expected of a high-end keyboard these days: preset and programmable Sounds and Rhythm Groups (styles), internal digital effects processing, an onboard 16-track sequencer, a built-in 3.5" disk drive with Standard MIDI Files read/write capability, a central backlit LCD, a General MIDI mode, and a MIDI implementation which actually makes sense. In fact, the 2000's MIDI spec more than makes sense - it allows the keyboard's user to smoothly integrate external MIDI'd instruments into its auto-accompaniments and sequences, using internal and/or MIDI'd sounds for each part. The keyboard is also accessible 16-part-multitimbrally via incoming MIDI, so you can play back multipart sequences on it from a MIDI sequencer; put it into General MIDI mode and you can play GM sequences back on it from your sequencer of choice.
This sort of MIDI flexibility is important on a high-end keyboard these days, as a growing number of keyboard owners are no longer content to use their instrument in isolation. However, the key (ahem) considerations in evaluating any keyboard are still the quality of its sounds and the musicality and flexibility of its auto-accompaniments. In these respects, too, the KN2000 scores highly. Let's take the sounds first. The 2000 breaks no new ground here, being a PCM sample-based instrument like just about every other contemporary keyboard and synth in the known universe. Technics' particular variation is their new Dynamic PCM sound source, which, to quote the company's KN2000 brochure, "uses high-capacity LSIs to sample the most subtle nuances of a musical instrument's sound." So now you know. In practice, the 2000's sounds do have a musical responsiveness which is very pleasing in performance. There's no denying that Technics have become very proficient at capturing and reproducing instrumental samples. Owners of existing KN keyboards will be familiar with the sort of sound quality which emanates from the new instrument: crisp, clear, clean and bright with plenty of presence. If there is a criticism which can be made of the 2000 in the sound department, it's that it lacks warmth and fullness. However, it's not alone in this - many digital instruments today still haven't managed to capture that elusive 'analogue' quality.
Personally I found the KN2000's sounds to be very playable; their clarity also ensures that the auto-accompaniment arrangements are clearly discernible, with no muddying of the mix. The 2000's 250 preset Sounds do a good job of covering the standard range of instrumental sounds found these days on keyboards and synths alike. Among these are some very playable acoustic pianos; a collection of electric pianos which concentrates on the bright, '80s digital style but includes some lovely shimmering sounds; a reasonably effective collection of basses (though lacking anything with real oomph, and including an acoustic bass which is disappointingly lacking in body and warmth); ensemble strings and pads which are pleasant rather than gorgeous; synth lead sounds which lack the gutsiness of the classic analogue leads; and a punchy, vibrant though unadventurous collection of drum and percussion sounds. Incidentally, as you can assign Left, Right1 and Right2 parts to the keyboard, sound layering is possible under the right hand.
Sound programmability on the KN2000 gives you access to two levels of editing: easy ('quick fix' editing, with a small number of parameters) and tone (the full set of parameters). You can store the results of your fiddlings into two banks of 18 onboard memories, which can in turn be stored to onboard disk or dumped via MIDI SysEx. The inclusion of filtering is welcome, although there's no separate filter envelope, and although two of the filter types supposedly include (non-programmable) resonance you'd never know it from the aural evidence; we're talking weak. On a more positive note, the KN2000 provides one of the most sophisticated and versatile implementations of effects processing to be found on a keyboard. You can use three effect types in combination, labelled Reverb, Digital Effect and DSP Effect, and program your own parameter settings. The Digital category includes chorus, ensemble, tremolo and delay, while the DSP category includes distortion and overdrive, exciter, stereo delay, flanger and phaser. Considered overall, these effects are adequate rather than impressive.
The KN2000 gets high marks for its diverse yet well-balanced collection of preset Rhythm Groups (styles). The traditional keyboard styles (rhumba, beguine, paso doble, Viennese waltz and so forth) are there aplenty to please the traditional keyboard player, but the 2000 also provides plenty of styles to please the newer breed of keyboard player (jazz rock, soul, fusion, funk, rock, Latin rock, house, rap...). The 16Beat styles work very well for '80s soul and pop, and are very appealing, not to say inspiring, to work with. In fact, taken as a whole the KN2000's preset styles have a real sense of musicality about them, coupled with a musical sparkle and verve which makes them a pleasure to use. If there is an area which still needs a lot of work, and which is still under-represented, it's contemporary dance styles. In fact, there's a lot of scope for development in this musical area on keyboards in general, together with interesting possibilities for new live performance/remixing techniques based on the concept of working with blocks of music.
Of course, nowadays high-end keyboards - the KN2000 included - feature user-programmable style memories, allowing you to expand beyond the presets through buying third-party styles on disk or programming your own. Should you be interested in following the latter path, the KN2000 provides a very accessible and straightforward implementation of style programming; both real-time and step-time recording modes are provided, with the large LCD window really coming into its own for the latter. Personally I would have liked more memories (you get 12 memories, organised as 2 x 6), and the limitation of only being able to record single Intro, Fill-in 1, Fill-in2 and Ending patterns of your own for each of the two memory banks is annoying. Manufacturers should realise that if they're going to provide programmable features then they should also provide a healthy complement of onboard memories.
The KN2000's onboard 16-track sequencer is well designed and reasonably flexible, with many of the recording and editing features you would expect to find within a workstation context nowadays (see 'Hard fax'). The sequencer will let you record your own music from scratch, but, as on many a keyboard with a built-in sequencer, you can also simply use it to record your left-hand chord voicings for auto-accompaniment sequencing, then record your melody line on top. Many of the possible front-panel manipulations (eg. selecting different Panel Memories, different Sounds, different keyboard parts, Techni-chord on/off) can be recorded as part of a sequence, allowing for a commendable degree of 'automation'.
Other features worthy of note are One Touch Play, which lets you call up at the touch of a button Sound combinations and other front-panel settings suited to each of the preset styles; 24 Panel Memories, which let you store and instantly recall your own complete front-panel setups, independently of any particular preset style; and the 2000's ability to sustain active sounds over Sound and Panel Memory changes.
The KN2000 is a powerful and versatile, yet very accessible, keyboard which puts together all its many elements in an impressively confident and appealing manner. Its sounds, auto-accompaniment styles and front-panel user interface set high standards for other keyboard companies to match - and the synth manufacturers, as well, could definitely learn a thing or two about user-friendly front-panel design from it. Technics' new keyboard is also an immensely playable instrument, and one which convincingly encompasses a wide variety of musical styles. If you're looking for sonic and stylistic expandability, it delivers in this area, too. Although on the expensive side, it's not a keyboard which short-changes the user. All in all, the KN2000 ushers in a new era of keyboard confidence and power.
|Ease of use||Very user-friendly|
|Originality||A bold step forward for keyboards, yet based on familiar concepts|
|Value for money||Good|
|Price||£1999.99 inc VAT|
|More from||Panasonic UK Ltd, (Contact Details)|
Review by Simon Trask
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