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Keyboard Shake Up

  • Music

I did a thing.

On “small-business Saturday” this year, I paid a visit to my favorite local music store: Coffey Music here in Westminster. I’d become intrigued by a new keyboard — Korg’s upcoming Nautilus. The Nautilus is, essentially, Korg’s flagship Kronos 2 minus a feature here and there. Some of the deleted features are minor, and others less so.

Korg Kronos 2 61

For all the details, you can read about the Nautilus and the Kronos at Korg‘s web site. The Reader’s Digest version is that Kronos has been top of Korg’s line for the past several years (the original Kronos debuted at NAMM in January of 2011, and the Kronos 2 emerged in 2015). It manages to squeeze the best of everything Korg’s ever done into one package. There are nine “sound engines,” covering sampled pianos; virtually modeled electric pianos, organs, strings, and synths; digital waveform-based synthesis; FM synthesis; and full-fledged digital sampling and editing. On top of that, there’s a MIDI/audio hybrid linear sequencer (almost a full-fledged DAW), step sequencers, an array of digital effects, MIDI and audio routing and mixing, drum tracks, vector synthesis, and something called KARMA — more about KARMA later. This is all accessed, managed, and played via Korg’s familiar structures of “programs,” “combis,” and “sequences.” Programs and Combis date back at least as far as the DS-8 (my first digital synth!) from 1986, and they’ve existed in some form ever since.

I did a thing, and brought home a 61-key Korg Kronos 2

Anyway, at the risk of “burying the lead” too deeply, I did a thing, and brought home a 61-key Korg Kronos 2. As part of the “deal,” I traded my Roland VR-09 and the 88-key Kross 2 I bought back in June of 2018. I kept the 61-key Kross, though, as a second keyboard, and the Casios (WK-7600 and CTK-6000 arrangers, Donna’s Privia PX-160 and my old Privia PX-310). I’ve really come to love the Kross of late! You may wonder why I would have kept the 61-key over the fully-weighted 88-key. The answer is pretty simple: I haven’t used the 88-key model in months — maybe even over a year. Most of the places I play, I simply don’t have the space. If I decide I “miss” a full-sized keyboard, we have two full-on digital pianos in the house (I still own the aforementioned Casio Privia PX-310 that the Kross 2 88 “replaced” that I could use as a controller for the Kronos).

Elektron Model:Samples, Arturia Micro Freak, and Arturia Keystep 37

The reality is that with the power in the Kronos, I may not even really need sound engines in the little Kross 2, and if that turns out to be the case, I’ll pretty happily use it as a MIDI controller for the Kronos. I’ll also use it in my minimalist “Creation Station, as its sounds and control features are really well suited to what I want to do with that. As I’m writing this, my mind is spinning with the possibilities for ways to combine all this wonderful gear for both composition and performance, and I’m really jazzed about it!

Note: I’d planned on keeping at least the WK-7600 arranger for some little trio gigs that we’ve been working on, but I may very well end up using the Kronos for those as well.

So, why the change?

Kronos’ CX-3 virtual drawbars

You may wonder why, after my long love/hate relationship with Korgs, I went back to the well again. Well, I was working on some sounds for a track for a song that a friend is recording. I required multiple layers of organ and electric piano. And, I needed to be able save it in a quickly recallable package. I was able to make the Kross do exactly what I wanted for its part. What’s more, I could reuse the part for something else if I wanted, without conflict with other parts within the instrument. On the VR-09, however, I could only save the new part in such a way that recalling it would make changes to the entire configuration of the keyboard.

Wait, what? That is, frankly, useless.

Another shortcoming of the VR-09 has always been the effects section, which necessitated adding outboard effects processing specifically to get a proper-sounding rotary speaker effect. So, a combination of frustrations. And while I may miss the physical “drawbars” in the organ section, the Kronos has them on the touchscreen. No, it’s not quite the same as grabbing a drawbar and pushing or pulling it to make the sound you want, but I think I can live with it (if it turns out I can’t, I’ll consider some sort of MIDI fader box, or use sliders on the Kronos itself).

But Why Another Korg?

I still haven’t answered the “why Korg?” bit, given … well … history. Quite simply, it’s a combination of the proverbial lightbulb coming on over my head about the way the Kross 2 works, coupled with Korg making their entire line of “workstation” synths use a consistent operating scheme. I caught a glimpse of this while watching the videos on YouTube and Korg’s web site, first about the Nautilus, and then again about the Kronos. And, when I sat down (or, more accurately, stood) in front or the Kronos in the store, I felt immediately at home, even though the Kronos offered so many more options and opportunities.

I should quickly mention that yesterday was not my first encounter with the Kronos — I first went in to take a look seriously at the Kronos last week, and I’ve often drooled over it in the past. Additionally, I’ve spent a couple of weeks on research into the various workstation-level alternatives: Roland’s Fantom and FA series, and the Yamaha Montage/MODX series — though, to be honest, the alternatives really didn’t have a lot of a chance.

Yamaha is still clinging to their aging AWM2 (introduced with the SY77 in 1989) as their primary sound source, and frankly, the Montage sounds and feels dated. The MODX is a paired down Montage, so, less of the same. That’s not to say the Montage isn’t still a decent instrument. But, I just don’t think it offers the choices and flexibility of the Kronos.

Roland’s technologies are probably the most modern of the “big three” manufacturers, and their workstations are based on their new Zen Core synthesis engine, coupled with their V-Piano Technology and SuperNATURAL Acoustic models. Notice that the V-Combo organs are gone. If you want that, you need either a VR-09b or a VC-730. While Zen Core looks very cool, and it can be a lot of things, Roland’s direction seems to be more towards electronic production and modern synthesis. It’s all really cool stuff. But, my approach to that kind of music is decidedly different — hence my decision to start with the stuff from Elektron and Arturia. And, I still want to put together a modular/Eurorack system one day.

Oh, I might add that the Kronos was also the least expensive option, not that it’s an inexpensive instrument by any means, and it’s the most expensive keyboard I’ve purchased since I bought the first VFX-SD II I owned back in about 1990 (though if you translate 1990 dollars to 2020 dollars, the Ensoniq was actually more expensive!).

It’s KARMA, Baby!

One of the other selling points of the Kronos over the Nautilus for me is the inclusion of Korg’s KARMA. When the original Korg KARMA came out in 2001, Rob and I were working on the second iteration of UgotaWanit. The KARMA would have been perfect for some of the stuff we were doing, but at somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000, it was well out of my budget. Still, I’ve wanted KARMA ever since. So, what is it?

KARMA, which stands for Kay Algorithmic Real-time Music Architecture, can best be described as a unique, somewhat interactive, somewhat generative, over-grown arpeggiator. Events can be triggered based on dependencies of other events within the sequence, or based on what’s being played on the keyboard. The results of this interaction can be applied to in various ways to the sound being played on the keyboard, or another sound within the Kronos, or even sent via MIDI to other instruments. This, BTW, can be accomplished, after a fashion, on Elektron products though the possibilities are a quite a bit more limited.

A more in-depth description of KARMA can be found at KARMA-Lab’s “What is KARMA” page (it’s actually explained better there than Korg ever did). KARMA, which was originally part of Korg’s Triton series, has been a part of their flagship synth’s ever since.

Other Technologies

As I mentioned, the Kronos is literally crammed with different kinds of synthesis, notably wave sequencing and vector synthesis, both of which first appeared in Korg’s original Wavestation. There’s also FM synthesis, a technology made famous by Yamaha’s DX7. Korg have been continually refining that technology, too, and the included FM synthesis engine improves further on the idea, and even includes the ability to load original DX7 sounds! If FM is really your thing, and you’re not interested in an all-out workstation, you’ll want to look at the new Korg OPSIX. It looks like it finally makes FM understandable and approachable. Korg’s Wavestate is, kinda sorta, the evolution of the original Wavestation, albeit without the rest of the workstation capability.

Anyway, I’ve rambled, or gushed, on for far longer than I’d intended. I’d better get back to doing what I really should have been doing this evening — getting my keyboard rig re-arranged, and at least a part of the creation station cobbled together so that I can work on music while recuperating from my upcoming disk surgery.

Oh yeah, did I mention that external audio sources can be mixed with into the Kronos, and used in various ways, the least exciting of which is modifying them with Kronos effects. I’ve already tried this for a few minutes with my guitar. The sound, at least in headphones, was stunning. More on this later….

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