The Italian Job
Fatar Studio 90 Plus Master Keyboard
This inexpensive controller is made by an Italian company with over 30 years of keyboard manufacturing experience, and promises piano feel from a patented hammer action. Derek Johnson finds out how it measures up.
Fatar is an Italian company which has specialised in making keyboards (and only keyboards) for musical instruments since 1959. It will almost certainly surprise you to learn that Fatar keyboards have been used in many organs bearing the names of other manufacturers on their outer shells, and that certain products from none other than Roland and Ensoniq have boasted Fatar ivories. Thus, for Fatar to diversify into dedicated master keyboards is a small but logical step. Perhaps as a result of their particular, long-standing expertise and a highly automated factory, the end result is a range of affordable and playable keyboards.
The Studio 90 Plus 88-note master keyboard we're about to take a look at benefits from Fatar's 'patented hammer action,' which, according to Fatar, reproduces the feel of a real piano keyboard through the action of a dummy hammer assembly. So, do we believe the hype?
Physically, the Studio 90 Plus is simple and stylish. The sleek black package has plenty of rounded edges and, in addition to its 88-note keyboard, sports a selection of editing buttons, a two character LED display and a list of parameters screened onto the front panel. Perhaps the only jarring aspect of its layout is the slightly unfortunate position of the mod and pitchbend wheels, in the upper left hand corner of the instrument, above the keyboard rather than alongside it — not the most elegant or ergonomically sound location.
Turning our attention to the rear, the connectors are thoughtfully recessed, and include a sustain pedal socket (but no volume/expression pedal socket), three MIDI outputs (although each transmits identical data) and a 9V power socket (I would have preferred an internal PSU). Incidentally, don't be fooled into thinking you can lug this baby around as easily as you would the average synth: it is rather heavy.
The Studio 90 Plus offers an adequate, if not lavish selection of MIDI controller functions. For example, it can transmit on up to three MIDI channels at once, with each channel playing its own patch from your external sound sources. These three channels can be layered or split three ways across the keyboard — you could have one sound across the whole keyboard layered with two other patches playing either side of a split point, so it's fairly flexible. Each zone or split can also have a transpose factor of 11 semitones up.
To transpose down, it's necessary to first transpose up, and then use the Octave parameter (up or down seven octaves) to shift an octave down. So, to transpose down a semitone, use the Transpose parameter to shift 11 semitones up, and then the Octave parameter to shift that down a full octave. Not terribly elegant. A collection of parameters (see box) makes up what Fatar call a program, and there is room for 100 programs on board. Unfortunately, there is no way to save programs externally: you'll have to resort to the program chart in the manual to write down your settings.
Initially, setting up the Studio 90 Plus to your requirements feels a little clumsy. This is due to the fact that almost every function needs to be confirmed by pressing the Enter button. The keyboard has a single, two-digit LED display. Beneath the display are three 'mode' buttons labelled Prog(ram), Value and Param(eter), each with its own LED. The Program button is pressed to access the 90 Plus's 100 programs; key in the number of the Program you want on the keypad, and press Enter.
Simple enough — but when it comes to editing a program, the procedure gets a bit long-winded. First, press the Parameter button. Now select one of the 19 program parameters with the keypad and press Enter — the Studio 90 automatically goes into 'Value' mode and you key in the parameter value you require, followed by another press of the Enter button. You have to do this to select split points, and for the transpose, octave, MIDI channel, preset number and footswitch control values for each of the three zones. On the plus side, the list of 19 parameters on the front panel make it hard to get lost: just remember which of the three mode buttons you need to press at any given time.
You may be wondering how it is possible, when you can only enter values of 00-99, to tell your external sound source to play any patch numbered 100 or above. Well, it basically isn't possible. The manual suggests that you assign the 100 sounds you'd most like to use to the first 100 locations of the program change table in your synth to get around this problem. This isn't an elegant solution, and no help at all if the sound source in question has no program change table (for example, the average General MIDI sound module).
The real selling point of the Studio 90 Plus is not its control facilities — though they are adequate — but its keyboard. Like a real piano keyboard, the Fatar needs a little more strength on the player's part, but the reward is improved expressiveness and playability — the keys even have a convincing bounce as they come to rest. The downside is that those used to synth keyboards may find this action a little noisy. We had the Commander C80 master keyboard (reviewed in June's SOS), itself a very playable instrument, in the office at the same time as the Studio 90 Plus, and this made for some interesting comparisons. The C80 has a very nice piano-like feel, and a lot of very powerful master keyboard controller functions. The Fatar offers very much more simplified control features, but has a keyboard that 'feels' even better. Even more than on the Commander C80, the player needs, or will develop, quite strong fingers, and since the keyboard seems to be pretty close to an accurate piano scale, those used to the keys on a synth (which are nearly always smaller than those on a piano keyboard) may find that their stretch doesn't reach quite the right notes at all times. Play a high quality multi-sampled piano sound with the Fatar, and it's sometimes hard to believe that you're not playing the real thing. This is all the more surprising considering its price — just £699, a figure which, in conjunction with its keyboard feel, goes some way towards offsetting the slightly opaque operating system and awkwardly located pitch and mod wheels.
If it seems that I've been unduly harsh in my criticism of the Studio 90 Plus, it's because I feel a number of facilities have been sadly left half-developed. As a master controller, it is still perfectly functional, given a little extra effort on the user's part. But how much more would have been added to its cost by a three-digit display and a little more functionality? Still, Fatar have provided a very affordable controller keyboard with basic MIDI functions on up to three different channels. Where this instrument really scores, at any price, is with the keyboard itself. It really is good, providing what is, to these fingers anyway, the closest to a real piano feel yet.
The Studio 90 Plus would make the ideal master keyboard for the musician who needs, above all, a keyboard that feels right, with any MIDI control facilities coming as a useful bonus. And at the price, I can see little, if any, competition.
Studio 90 Plus £699 inc VAT.
Arbiter Pro MIDI, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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