Purchase upcoming, opinions requested. Would you bother with another hardware synth?


#1

Hi, all

Currently I “between bands/gigs”, having left Welsh Floyd to pursue my own music, and because of the day job I can only commit to weekend gigs, which was going to cause a problem with the Floyd band at some point. So I intend to get back to my own stuff which has been languishing on the shelf for too long. I am now the wrong side of 50, so feel it is better to try my own stuff, even if it fails, rather than spend another 10-20 years playing Pink Floyd (iconic and timeless music that its), and I have been doing the 'Floyd for 10 years; it has taught me a hell of a lot, but it is time for a change.

Anyhow, I will have some spare dosh coming my way in a month or so that I can splurge on musical toys, so the G.A.S is starting to bubble :slight_smile:

My current gig rig, keyboard wise is a Roland FC300 Foot controller, Yamaha EX5 (main controller) and a Korg Kronos (top tier). Then I have a laptop running Cantabile - I used that in Pure Floyd to host backing tracks, the light show and NI B4II, but in Welsh Floyd I had the organs in the Kronos, so Cantabile was just running the backing tracks and light show in that incarnation of the band. Oh, I have also gotten my Nord G2 engine back in service in the gig rack. :slight_smile:

Now I certainly intend getting a decent Brick PC similar to the ones being suggested in other topics, and getting Cantabile at the heart of the rig (instead of at the end of the chain) so it can run the plethora of VSTis that I have - the current laptop is not quite up to the job.

I wish to retire my EX5 from gigging as it is 17 years old, so the big question after all that preamble is what to replace it with. I like to have two boards on stage to spread the sounds out on two keyboards in complex songs. So my choices are to replace the EX5 with another “major board” from Yamaha, Korg, Roland, Nord or Kurzweil. Or do I just bite the bullet, save a shed load of money and get a MIDI only controller to go with the Korg and whatever I have hosted in Cantabile?

In terms of going for a controller only, I am not a piano player, so do not really like fully weighted keyboards. The Kronos is the 61 key “synth action” keyboard type, so I would like the controller to be a semi weighted similar to my EX5 - which I really like the feel of, and I like the length of the keyboard - 76 notes.

So, I am interested in opinions from other community members on what they would do in my position, and based on your collective experience.

Q1. Would you even bother with another board with sound generation built into it these days?
Q2. If you went for a controller only board, what is the best out there in terms of feel and control surface options?

I am probably going to visit a music shop with a good range in to try out the hardware options - a six hour round trip for me to a decent shop! But I will probably have a very critical ear and hard nose in terms of “Does this give me anything over and above a Kronos, a Nord G2 and all of those Soft synths”!

E.g. I am a huge Yamaha fan, but got bored of their Motif, Motif, More Motif phase, got fed up of waiting for them ever doing anything interested again and went for the Kronos instead in 2014. They now have come up with the Montage which I am interested in, but I am on the fence about until I get to try it. It probably sounds great, but do I really need AWM 2 when I have HD-1 in the Kronos (with uncompressed samples streaming from an SSD, and with Wave Sequencing to boot) FM-X is “half an FS1r” (I have one of those), I have more FM in the gig rig/studio than I know what to do with(!), and I am disappointed that Yamaha did not revisit neither AN and VL modelling or the EX5 FDSP concept within the Montage.

But… If I went Controller and VSTi only, the cost saving on the hardware would allow me to get a more powerful Brick PC and probably a few more VSTis…

Controller wise, there is actually nothing wrong with the EX5, but I have had reliability problems in the PSUs, which are switch mode (urgghhh) and Yamaha no longer repair them - but the A3000 (cheap as chips) use the same PSU, so getting a few of them as donors is an option. My EX5s are a bit tatty now, so one option is to look for a pristine model as my controller.

Opinions?


#2

Hey Derek,

the TL;DR version of this: no, I wouldn’t!

Caution: long post following :nerd:

My original hardware setup up until some 18 months ago consisted of a Kurzweil PC3 or PC3K alternatively (I’ve got both of them…), plus a Yamaha Motif XF6 on top. Nice and universal setup, but heavy. Plus, editing on the Kurz is not a lot of fun; it’s pretty convoluted.

So, when Cantabile 3 came along, I decided to to the full software route - and TBH, I haven’t looked back! Especially the concept of songs and song states, with full configurations ready for total recall and my big “red button” to take me from one state to the next, is just a pleasure to work with on stage.

For the first phase, my ambition has been to really get my setup reduced to just one master keyboard and a guitar - no footboard! When playing guitar, I have my patches set up as song states, and I use my piano hold pedal to step through the states - simple as that; no more pedal tango ;-). As a master controller, I still use my Kurzweil PC3K - simply because it is there, and the keybed is a joy to play on! Also, its nine long and solid faders are excellent for controlling Cantabile parameters - I just wish for some more buttons to control some Cantabile and LivePrompter actions.

The only downside to the Kurz: it is HEAVY - 24 kg plus flightcase :frowning2:. So I’m always looking for an easier-to-carry alternative. For some time, the Arturia KeyLab 88 was high on my list - nice-looking, good set of faders, knobs and pads, a decent Fatar keybed, and a significantly lower weight make a good package. But I’ve heard a number of user reports on flaky build quality, with keys failing after some time, which made me a bit apprehensive. The other alternative for me would be the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 - same Fatar keybed, even a bit lighter than the KeyLab. The only downside to this: no faders or pads, just some rotary encoders. A number of other 88 key master keyboards fell from my short list, since they don’t provide aftertouch, which is a must-have for me.

Currently, I’m in the process of expanding my setup with a small secondary keyboard - it’s just a bit easier to have your solo sounds or some special effects on a separate keybed instead of having to split or layer. And organ solos on a hammer-action keybed are a bit strange… But since I only need a controller keyboard, I simply got myself an Alesis VI 49 for this task - very cheap, small and light, which now sits right on top of my Kurz on the second tier of my Spider stand.

Due to the fact that the Alesis has such a small footprint, I didn’t have to move my Kurz down, so my lower arms are still in an almost optimal playing position when standing. My keyboard rig does look a bit top-heavy (I’m 1.88 m tall), but it’s a joy to play - and as the band’s lead singer, I’m not going to sit down for a gig…

My pedal setup is simple: just a dual piano pedal (Fatar VFP2) and a yamaha FC-7 (very nice pedal for playing standing up, since its angle can be specially reconfigured for a standing position).

One thing I’ve learned with my single-keyboard setup is that in many cases, layered sounds are far easier to manage and play than splits. I frequently simply layer sounds on top of each other and blend between them via the expression pedal or the mod wheel. Works nicely for organ layers on top of a piano sounds, but also for the occasional brass riff - simply press a pedal for brass and release to go back to piano.

My recommendation would be: if you have a decent PC in your (home) studio, try setting up a couple of “software-only” songs in Cantabile with your existing keyboards, using them just as controller keyboards, so that they are easily replaceable by whatever future solution you may choose. Use racks to abstract away some of your keyboards’ features like faders, knobs, buttons (e.g. a “faders” rack, translating your keyboard input into standard controllers, that you can easily re-configure when your master keyboard changes). Use songs and song states extensively to really automate your setup to get the most out of Cantabile.

I would also recommend to set up a “universal” song with just a couple of basic sounds (piano, epiano, hammond) and a means of switching between them quickly - this is super-helpful when you rehearse some new songs and you haven’t had the opportunity to set up specific Cantabile songs in advance.

When you’re happy with the software side of things and you trust the setup sufficiently, you can then decide what hardware changes you want to make - invest in a new main masterkeyboard or a secondary controller, or maybe a separate controller like a Novation LaunchControl. Also, based on your experience with this set-up, it will be easier to decide on the right configuration of your “brick”.

If you don’t have a powerful enough PC in your studio, I’d recommend going for the most powerful “brick” you can afford to start your setup - with the u-he line-up and other instruments, you can’t have too much horsepower. If you’re heavily into sample-based instruments, setting up your “brick” with tons of M.2 SSD space will dramatically reduce your load times, which may actually make it practical to switch samplesets between songs, instead of simply pre-loading everything you may need.

Hope this helps!

Cheers,

Torsten


#3

Cor, it was longer than original post!

Thanks, Torsten. Control surface wise the Kronos is well endowed, so that is not an issue for me. I was looking at the S88 if I could get used to the larger board, but I have grown up on Yamaha Semi weighted action via the DX7II, EX5, SY77 and SY99.

The key thing (groan) for me is to find a good controller. The problem is few companies have a 73/76 note controller in their product Range. It is either 61 or 88 with a gap in between. Then you get the ones that look a bit crap and then you get the ones without aftertouch (a no-no for me as well).

Yup, I was looking at those M.2 SSDs for a brick to make it lightning fast from a disk perspective. :slight_smile:

One option for me would be to sell my Kronos 61 and get a 73 and then go for a controller on the top, where I am quite happy with 61 keys.

I am not discounting the Montage yet, this is likely to be my last ever physical keyboard purchase, as I tend to keep them for a long time, and the Kronos and whatever I purchase will probably keep me going until stage retirement.

The Kurz is about the same weight as the EX5 in flight case, so I am used to lugging that. Would be nice to drop a few Kgs mind!


#4

Short answer? No, I would never consider limiting myself into a hardware synth situation ever again. The only exception to that might be something dedicated to very basic classic sounds that was outstanding, like a Nord Electro or Crumar MOJO but really, I still think I even have that stuff beat in a soft-based rig. But synthesizers- the cost/benefit ratio doesn’t add up to me.


#5

For performing live, the controller/laptop is the way to go. In a live situation, it is really hard to tell the difference between vst and hardware unless you are in a perfect acoustical environment. When mixed with a band, and considering the acoustics of most venues with the added ambiance of audience noise, no one will know.

I think the only advantage to having hardware synths is that most of them are more durable and have better keys and actions than many of the controllers out there. You still have to deal with the weight.

  • Paul

#6

Thanks, Guys.

That is a good point, Paul, re controllers and action. I gigged for years with the EX5, a Novation Remote61 (feeding a rack of synths and of course B4II in Cantabile)) before replacing the Remote61 and Rack with the Kronos. In terms of key and overall build quality the Kronos was streets ahead of the Remote61. Sure there was a large price differential, and you are getting much more of an instrument, but the build quality is noticeably different.

I guess it’s why people still go out with old, trusted workstations, like I have been using my EX5 mainly as a Master keyboard. I only used it for a few sounds, where I felt it still excelled the Kronos.


#7

I think it depends how you want to work.

I played one of the biggest German productions in may and this was completely endorsed by Yamaha. So I had to play a Montage. Besides that I don’t like the new Montage (but I like the Motifs) a workstation like that invites you to play with the presets, parts and all that stuff. I’m sure you know that feeling from the Kronos.
With a PC-based setup YOU have to create all those presets and environment by yourself. This can be an advantage or not… it depends on you.

@bartok2112: May I add a comment to your post. I do music as a profession about 8-9 years now and I’m honored to sometimes play with the best musicians around. And you know what I figured out? In the end you do ALL THAT STUFF (freaky top non plus ultra VSTs, computer nerd things, etc.) for just one person: Yourself! No one cares out there if you play a Montage, a Kronos or anything else as long as you do your job! Maybe sometimes you have an interested colleague who asks you a few things. But the audience? No way… they don’t care. You can play with a Tyros… or you can even play nothing at all and do playback… they don’t notice. What I want to say: I don’t think it’s a good idea to start from the question “what do other people expect” or “what do other people hear”. You should do, what you want to do.

And back to topic: Sometimes I miss the hardware… especially when it comes down to stability. But IF it works (and it did the last gigs flawlessly) than it’s totally a pleasure playing all those great synths and instruments. Also the effects (check out Toraverb or all the plugins from D16 group) will blow you away. None of the workstations is able to reproduce such sounds.

@Derek: You surely saw my post about my last build of a keyboard. Meanwhile a added a set of improvements regarding housing and internal wiring. As I plan to “professionalize” this maybe it’s a good idea, if you beta-test one of those workstations. If you are interested, just PM me :wink:


#8

Hi Derek.
I’d have to say I’m pretty much in agreement with most here. I’d be going for the PC/Cantabile/VSTi configuration and that’s coming from someone who has a room full of hardware synths (from mid 70s to today).

I too am a big fan of Yamaha. My first synth was an original DX7 which I still own and I still have my SY77 which I’ve had for 26 years. I love the combination of AFM and AWM2 in the SY and I’ve made a ton of patches for it over the years.

It has only been the last couple of weeks that I’ve started looking at the Montage and I’d love to have a play on one and see what it can do. However, for that kind of money, one could set up a Cantabile rig with Komplete 11, all u-he synths, GSi vb3 and Spectrasonics Keyscape and cover just about all ground you could want and more!!


#9

Agreeing with all of the above. I really love my Nord Stage 2, I really do, but could not live without my VSTs, and Cantabile just brings it all together. It’s so powerful and reliable, and still getting more powerful with every update.


#10

Hey Derek,

In my case, yes, but only because of how I approach redundancy in my setup. The way I do it is to have 2 up to date laptops and a keyboard with sound generation that is an excellent controller and has passable setups i’ve created that are matched up and called by midi banked program messages. So, if I am in the middle of a song and the laptop has a problem, I just mute my soundcard and turn up the master volume on my keyboard sound generator to finish the song and get to where I can troubleshoot the problem or sub in my backup laptop. I go for using the vsti’s exclusively. If you went this route there is a good if not excellent Kurzweil model PC3LE7 that looks like it has your needs covered. It is also one of few 76 key controllers with a high quality semi-weighted Fatar keybed and aftertouch. There were more but they are discontinued like you noted.

This gets good reviews here on the site and elsewhere online : Arturia Keylab 61. Best of luck in your shopping!

Dave


#11

I sooooo agree with Torsten. I have said this very thing in several posts on this site. I am so glad not to be limited by the hardware manufacturers anymore. I have been fully soft synth for about 7 yrs now and love it. My back thanks me every gig for it. Dropping a few grand on a hardware keyboard is ridiculous to me now that C3 has become the powerhouse it is, and soft synths increasingly surpassing hardware quality(not to mention the $$ savings).

Corky


#12

Thanks for all the replies, guys.

@David - Good to see another Yamaha SY fan. I started with an SY77 in 2007, but ended up with a TG77 and SY99 - Both modded to have the “Cool Blue” LCD display so you can actually see the darn screens!

@dave_dore - I agree some redundancy is useful - even if just basic sounds for getting you through a gig. I was thinking about Kurzweil, but the PC3LE7 is discontinued - would have been ideal. Ebay examples for that are pretty scant right now, but I will keep an eye on that. When you start looking at the more current Kurz models, the costs quickly rack up again to Montage level. The Keylab option gets me back to my issue that I would prefer a 76 note controller. Shame, as they do have good reviews.

@FantomXR - All good points. Doing complex programming does not worry me as I am an engineer by trade and like a challenge! You point about the audience not caring what you make your sounds on is a good one, and I have made that several times on other forums. The person that does matter is indeed myself. :slight_smile:

@corky, @Torsten @hermanoantequera, @FredProgGH, @bartok2112 - thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

The general vibe is pretty much as I expected :slight_smile:

The one thing that is a definite is that my rig will include Cantabile on a “Brick PC” for all of those wonderful VSTis. The PC is an investment to make, the VSTis that I want I mostly have. :slight_smile:

It’s then a question of investment in the replacement for the EX5 - controller only or another synth. I am lucky in that I have the required budget, but I need to spend it wisely. I guess right now I’m still a bit of a fence sitter at present I guess regarding going fully soft synth only! If I go a hard synth route, it is probably my last purchase of one, and it will need to blow me away and offer something that I don’t already have, otherwise the hunt for a good controller is on, but therein is the problem. Finding a new 76 note controller seems nigh on impossible. One option is to compromise on a 61 note controller (do I really need those 15 extra keys) or try an 88 note controller out and see if I can get on with the different action. From that perspective, I am still drawn to checking out the Montage. It will give me a new good controller in 76 note form factor and should be good quality (as does the Kronos), they both make excellent noise. As much as I am a fan of the Kronos, there is something about the Yamaha sound that is different. And I can then expand on them with a Cantabile Rig (and my Nord G2 Engine). If I cannot get a good sound out of that lot, then I may as well give up!


#13

Yes sure… but if you ask the same question in a yamaha-montage-forum the answers will be different :wink:


#14

That is so very true. :slight_smile:


#15

I am a Yamaha fan. Got the Classic Motif, XF, and now looking at the Montage. I am a person who holds his pants up with a belt AND suspenders. So I always have 2 laptops with identical software setups, and one hardware synth at all gigs. I tried to only play the Yamaha hardware synth (Motif XF), but, being a B3 (C3) fan, few hardware synths can reproduce it as well as VB3 (Nord is the only hardware that can offer an authentic B3 sound). Tony Monaco does a comparison between real, hardware and software B3 (without letting you see) and challenges you to tell the difference. Nord and VB3 are pretty exact. That said, I prefer software synths, but, like with the WTC, one bad day can be devastating. I am looking at the Montage. Played it, and it felt good. Piano sounded great, as well as, EP. But, I would never replace Classic Keys or LL with it. My approach is 2 LT’s (I run Ableton from Cantabile 3, as well) and one hardware. Just rambling. Too much coffee this morning.


#16

I really don’t like to repeat myself (even tho I do), but in several threads I have stated how long I have been exclusively using soft synths. Here were the questions I asked myself while making the transition:

Is it less expensive than hardware? YES
Are the sounds as good as or better than hardware? YES
Are the vst’s more tweakable than hardware? YES
Are updates to vst’s more often than hardware? For the most part…YES
Can you whip out just any sound you want without being limited to a manufacturers ideas? YES

Then I talked to many techies and realized that laptops are much more dependable than 10 yrs ago, and only getting better. And guess what? The hardware synths are…(drum roll)…COMPUTERS TOO!

Barring power fluctuations, I have never had a laptop fail me on stage. I have had hardware fail. Is it cheaper to have 2 laptops with all your gear inside, or back up a $4000 hardware synth with another one. As many people have said on this site, “I went to software synths, and never looked back”.

Don’t get me wrong…I loved my hardware synths, but I, my bankbook, and my back love the vsts better. All it takes is one power surge to take out an expensive synth or a much cheaper laptop, and usually, a laptop will recover, as the synth is in shipment to the factory for expensive repairs. I truly can’t imagine hauling all that gear again, much less my old B3.

My prime example is a youtube video of Billy Joel’s tech, showing the 88 key MIDI controller sitting inside an empty piano frame connected to a laptop running Ivory.

I rest my case (whew)! :smile:

Corky

PS…And ain’t it just about the music anyway? I can please a crowd with a harmonica or a Steinway Grand.


#17

It’s a great case, Corky :slight_smile:

My issue is to get a good controller keyboard of the type I Ike, the differential between that and a synth is small enough not to discount the option as it gives you more sonic flexibility. I want the option to mix and match still. I want to move over to a good soft synth setup as well, but still am not 100% comfortable yet of being 100% soft. Have had a few too many unresolved glitches and issues and never found out why. So will be getting best of breed PC and WIN10 Pro to allow tight control (and do updates when I want to, not when WIN10 Home decides to). But want some good hardware as well with nice keyboard to play. the only thing that might sway that is if somebody can show me a current 76 note semiweighted controller keyboard with after touch for a good price.


#18

I guess with your specific keybed requirements (76 notes, semiweighted, aftertouch), it will probably be difficult to find something outside the various workstation offerings (Kurzweil PC3 K7, Yamaha Montage 7, Korg Kronos 73).

One possible alternative I’ve found is the Swissonic ControlKey 88 - an 88 key keyboard controller with a semiweighted keybed with aftertouch. It’s pretty cheap - we’re talking 250 EUR here - but seems pretty solidly built. Have a look at this review - ignore the German accent :wink: .

I guess at this price you can’t go too wrong - and the Big T does have a 30-day return policy in the UK…

So maybe you could live with 88 keys after all…

Cheers,

Torsten


#19

Yeah, that is worth a look. Thanks for that.


#20

Well, as one who has unearthed all of my hardware synths again recently, let me explain why.

I love layered sounds, and having many things going on simultaneously. I only play as a one-person show, though.

I have my sustain pedal polarity reversed on some of my controllers so that I can hit a chord or a “one finger wonder” patch and let it drone on while I do leads and other stuff on other keyboards.

One thing I ran into with the all-software approach was that my computer’s CPU was becoming overloaded very quickly! (Alright, I do run some very CPU-heavy synths – Linplug’s Spectral, a few of the Roland Cloud classic emulations, etc…)

I’ve found that adding back my original Wavestation and the Wavestation SR, the Kawai K5000s, and the Ensoniq ESQm (and perhaps the Yamaha TX81Z will also follow) and forcing myself to use them more often took the load off the computer so that I could exploit those marvelous CPU-heavy synths and all the effects I could throw at those items!

Plus, thanks to Cantabile 3 as the central processing unit Deluxe, I have VST effects on those hardwre synths now to die for!

The result is I can have a huge amount going on at once.

That may (most likely) not be applicable to your situation, but it surprised me how much fun I’m having by not being limited by the CPU (and I have an Intel Haswell Core i7 4790@3.6Mhz with 16GB DDR3 1600Mhz RAM).

Terry