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Keyboard workstations - mature, obsolete, or just on a plateau


Dan South

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The rate of improvement in each successive generation of keyboard workstations has slowed down considerably in the last couple of years.

 

Has the feature set of the keyboard workstation reached its logical conclusion, or are we going to see significant innovations in the future?

The Black Knight always triumphs!

 

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Depends on what you mean by "improvement"... some of the best sounds aren't from the current generation of workstations... it's hard to improve on "outstanding" and "drool worthy" sounds.

 

Originally posted by Dan South:

The rate of improvement in each successive generation of keyboard workstations has slowed down considerably in the last couple of years.

Korg OASYS seems like the clearest pointer to the future...
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BTW... the Roland E-550 arranger has 1 Gb of Wave ROM. That's a big jump, and no doubt we'll see these sizes on the next generation of production workstations. (If we weren't busy comparing with "software" which takes advantage of the scale of the PC market, then maybe that would appear more impressive.)

 

Having said that, I would like to see more 'synthesis' than just focus on huge Wave ROMs. (Which may or may not result in better sounds.)

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Excellent question Dan!

 

I think the workstation has definitely gotten better in terms of offering everything i.e. sounds, synth engine, sampling, sequencing, hard disk, recording, DAW control, etc.

 

IMO, further advancement would be more open ended architecture and hard disk recording capability.

 

That is simply a function of manufacturer cooperation and cheaper RAM and hard drives.

 

The Korg OASYS and Open Labs NEKO are the beginning.

 

I am hopeful that Yamaha and others will release something similar in 2007. :cool:

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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Workstations are the SUVs of our world. They're big and stupid. They are OBSOLETE. Does anyone actually use the sequencers and samplers on these things? I've tried but it's an exercise in futility.

 

Sonically, every model is the a regurgitation of the previous model with a few enhancements sounds. But it's all moving down-stream. Now you can get the sounds of the Triton in the little Micro-X or X-50.

 

Workstations make little sense in the studio when you can do everything faster, easier and with much better end results with software. Most people end up using them as expensive controllers. Live, they are too unwieldy, the 88s too heavy, and sonically no better than cheaper/smaller keyboards.

 

The workstation manufacturers got into this idiotic feature war years ago and now the things are loaded with features no one wants or can figure out how to use. Of course, when was the last time they surveyed their audience????

 

Busch.

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Originally posted by burningbusch:

Workstations make little sense in the studio when you can do everything faster, easier and with much better end results with software. Most people end up using them as expensive controllers. Live, they are too unwieldy, the 88s too heavy, and sonically no better than cheaper/smaller keyboards.

There are many ways in which "software" could be improved in terms of both user interface and quality. I think the best opportunity is in one integrated package.
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They're improving right along in ease of use. I use the sequencing section of my XP-60 and Fantom S for pure MIDI work. It's fast if everything's coming off the board. Also, if you use the sequencer in the workstation and decide to edit a sound, the edits are automatically saved with the note data in track. I like that... no housekeeping to do.
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Originally posted by soundscape:

Originally posted by burningbusch:

Workstations make little sense in the studio when you can do everything faster, easier and with much better end results with software. Most people end up using them as expensive controllers. Live, they are too unwieldy, the 88s too heavy, and sonically no better than cheaper/smaller keyboards.

There are many ways in which "software" could be improved in terms of both user interface and quality. I think the best opportunity is in one integrated package.
I don't see it that way at all. Locking it into hardware, 9 times out of 10, means it's proprietary. These never work. One company can make a decent B3 emulation, but their ac. piano sucks. Another has good synths, but mediocre acoustic sounds. With software I can pick and choose the best of the best.

 

"Solutions" like Neko and Receptor are just tacking a keyboard on to a computer. There are some slight interface advantages, but in the end it's a computer and there are proprietary aspects to both those systems.

 

Hardware solutions on the surface have appeal, but they are compromised, sometimes heavily compromised, for the convienience.

 

Busch.

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Well, maybe I'm missing something but how (for example) does one get this brass sound out of software?

 

http://www.korg.com/downloads/mp3/triton/Zee_Bop.mp3

 

 

The user interfaces of all current solutions are inadequate. However, general purpose computers are generally designed for desktop applications first, although even here the user interfaces haven't changed much in some time and are far from beyond criticism.

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I take an opposing view. Workstations are a great way to get away from the studio and put together a song in an environment that enhances creativity. I cannot take my studio to the back deck, but I can set up a Fantom, chair and headphones and put something together with ease. I don't care if the piano sample is only 8 meg or the orchestra sounds are limited. That can all be fixed later. What I want at that time is something familiar and quick. No distractions other than the setting sun or flying birds or running squirrels or ...

 

My old Fantom 76 still makes a great stage unit. It might be a little big but it sounds okay, is very easy to set up zones for internal and external devices, has most every sound I need and can be found cheap.

 

Robert

This post edited for speling.
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Originally posted by Dan South:

...

Has the feature set of the keyboard workstation reached its logical conclusion, or are we going to see significant innovations in the future?

I think the expressed needs are finally being met. We have enough polyphony to compose a song without worrying too much about voices dropping. Nice features like drum pads are being added. I think the next step is improved computer interface. Companies are starting with Yamaha's MLan system that opens up in Cubase. Roland's is experimenting with VSTi interface. My worry is the alliance that hardware companies are building with DAW's. The Yamaha interface focuses on Cubase and Sonar is an afterthought. If they can improve DAW interface for all DAW's that will be the next step.

 

Robert

This post edited for speling.
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Originally posted by burningbusch:

Workstations are the SUVs of our world. They're big and stupid. They are OBSOLETE. Does anyone actually use the sequencers and samplers on these things?

 

Workstations make little sense in the studio when you can do everything faster, easier and with much better end results with software.

 

Busch.

PD raises his hand. :wave:

 

For my purpose, a workstation would serve as mobile recording studio.

 

I'd love to mock up a track and drop vocals in one board. Especially when it comes to working with folks a) in other places and b) that I might not want in my house. ;)

 

So, while it may be the musical equivalent of a gas guzzling SUV, it sure would make my life easier. :cool:

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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Originally posted by RABid:

I take an opposing view. Workstations are a great way to get away from the studio and put together a song in an environment that enhances creativity. I cannot take my studio to the back deck, but I can set up a Fantom, chair and headphones and put something together with ease. I don't care if the piano sample is only 8 meg or the orchestra sounds are limited. That can all be fixed later. What I want at that time is something familiar and quick. No distractions other than the setting sun or flying birds or running squirrels or ...

 

Robert

Funny - that's precisely why I love my Acer Ferrari laptop with Reason v3 installed in lieu of a workstation. No dedicated keyboard is as easy, portable or powerful to use, and I have an array of controllers and interfaces to choose from... all at a cost well under what I paid for my former workstation, the Yamaha Motif ES8 (which I sold). And Reason's sound quality is much better than any hardware workstation I've run across yet.

 

To add to the fun, I just bought Reason Pianos which are truly inspiring and offer a level of control and sound options that even hardware workstations of the future will be hard pressed to match.

 

Hardware will always change - even my laptop will one day be outdated - but with Reason I can change hardware at will and maintain a familiar interface while growing with the program. Reason is already my "studio" of choice and I believe that one day soon it will also be my live performance application of choice.

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Reason is nice software and I have owned it for a long time. It does well on a laptop, but for some reason, it does not feel like an instrument to me. There is something familiar about sitting down at a keyboard you have owned for a few years. I know exactly how it will respond when I use the joystick or press down on the keys. I jeed to feel like I am playing an instrument, and that might be my biggest problem with reason. I don't like the sequencer and I find myself fighting the software. I prefer a different work flow. But, that is why there are so many options when creating music.
This post edited for speling.
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Originally posted by soundscape:

Well, maybe I'm missing something but how (for example) does one get this brass sound out of software?

 

http://www.korg.com/downloads/mp3/triton/Zee_Bop.mp3

 

 

The user interfaces of all current solutions are inadequate. However, general purpose computers are generally designed for desktop applications first, although even here the user interfaces haven't changed much in some time and are far from beyond criticism.

If you're referring to those little horn blats, that's not much of a challenge. Granted most brass software libraries are not designed so that you can grap a chord and out comes a believable horn section. You work with them using various articulations. Though software like VSL Virtual Instruments switches through the articulations in real time.

 

But grabbing a chord and expecting it to sound like a real brass or string section isn't easy. The ROMplers certainly can't pull this off.

 

The demo that you linked to is a good example of the limits of a ROMpler. It sounds fine, but it sounds like a ROMpler demo. It doesn't sound like a real band or real musicians. Of any of the sounds, the best the ROMplers do are the electric guitars, IMO.

 

Busch.

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Originally posted by ProfD:

PD raises his hand. :wave:

 

For my purpose, a workstation would serve as mobile recording studio.

 

I'd love to mock up a track and drop vocals in one board. Especially when it comes to working with folks a) in other places and b) that I might not want in my house. ;)

 

So, while it may be the musical equivalent of a gas guzzling SUV, it sure would make my life easier. :cool:

See, rather than lugging a 70 lbs 88-note workststion (probably 100 lbs with case) I would take a 5 lbs laptop with external audio and use PT, Logic or Cubase. The mic pres will be far better than what you'll find on a workation. You never know when you're going to capture a great vocal moment, so trusting it to a substandard mic pre is not a good way to go, IMO.

 

I just bounce-to-disk the scratch track, so I don't need to worry about MIDI and soft synths, etc. The singer sings against that I can can record as many takes as need and can easily comp together a final vocal track. Easy, high quality results.

 

Busch.

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ROMplers work right out of the box and will do so for many years (if they haven't already). They can be easily set up at the lake during the summer vacation (where no computer is the whole object of a vacation).

 

They all have good and bad sounds just like computers. They all have good and bad features, just like computers.

 

It all depends on a person's taste and needs.

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Actually I was on vacation last week, and I took no dedicated keyboards but I did take my laptop. It's part of my life: email, web, forums, news, weather, reservations, personal calender... these are necessities even more important than TV or radio. I even took gig offers via my laptop while vacationing. Recreationally I also use the laptop for some gaming now and then. Might as well keep a virtual studio on it since I gotta have a laptop anyway.

 

Pretty much every argument for a workstation can be met or exceeded with a laptop and controller combo, but very few arguments for a laptop can be filled with a workstation... unless it's one of those nEko's that can do email also, but a nEko won't fit in my carry-on.

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Originally posted by burningbusch:

Originally posted by soundscape:

Well, maybe I'm missing something but how (for example) does one get this brass sound out of software?

 

http://www.korg.com/downloads/mp3/triton/Zee_Bop.mp3

The demo that you linked to is a good example of the limits of a ROMpler. It sounds fine, but it sounds like a ROMpler demo. It doesn't sound like a real band or real musicians. Of any of the sounds, the best the ROMplers do are the electric guitars, IMO.
Yes, and that's just it. In many idioms, you don't want instruments that necessarily sound "real". The "classic" example of this is the Korg M1 piano (I suppose ironically, since the M1 is now available in software form) which is today all but useless, but it (or similar) has long been used in house music where a "real" sounding piano would sound absurd. (Perhaps the real, but pre-ROMpler, classic example is a Rhodes.) In some idioms, these sounds well be recordings of live instruments but they are processed so the sound is altered.

 

So no, that demo doesn't sound exactly "real"... but mostly it does sound good!

 

With "real orchestral" work I have no doubt that the hardware is blown away for now by the likes of Vienna Symphonic Library in a Gigasampler rig but for now there seem to be all sorts of sounds that just don't appear to come out of software, maybe the exception is the likes of the Korg M1 or the E-mu Proteus/Emulator-X stuff. I have to say I find this frustrating.

 

The other problem to me is the general claim that "more real" equates to better. Sometimes it's a matter of taste or the style of music. Other times, the sound has features that are "more real" (e.g. piano hammer release sounds; at least these can be turned off) but are quite undesirable. Or it's just plain sloppy work in terms of velocity switching or ill-matching or bad multisamples across the keyboard. It's the sort of poor quality control that I wouldn't expect from the likes of the "big three". Of course, you can always pick and choose the best, but the nice thing about an all-in-one package is that you don't have to. Maybe this will improve in time; e.g., SoniVOX (formerly Sonic Implants) are supposed to be releasing their Gigasampler-based "MUSE" plug-in with multi-gigabyte sample library and General MIDI support.

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The workstation is like the minivan. It's very practical.

 

It attempts to be jack of all trades and master of none. It will never completely die away, nor will it completely take over the market. I expect it to evolve, and that niche products will inform it's evolution.

 

Jerry

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you're guys forgetting that there is no software without a hardware...so whether you load it into keyboard making it workstation or into laptop computer it's no difference at all what you're doing. Its only question of how good hardware do you use to run your software.

 

Recent roland product juno-g is a great example, so easy and powerfull to use that you can record something in 5 minutes (it weight is 6kg, almost like a laptop). In oposite to Sonar software which took me a month to figure it out... :D

♫♫♫ motif XS6, RD700GX
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Can you really complain about lack of portability of an 88 key worstation by comparing it to a laptop and mini-controller? How about a laptop and and a quality 88 key controller? Laptops are greate. Love the one I picked up this summer. I shoved two gig of memory in so it can run Sonar, Reason, Live, Project5 or most anything else I care to load. It is great at arranging music and providing sounds but it is not an instrument. I don't consider those little controllers to be instruments. Most have mini-keys or poor velocity responce. I've traveled with an Oxygen 8, XBoard and Kontrol49. None of those feel like a quality instrument or inspire me by their touch. In that respect, a good workstation does beat a laptop and controller, badly. But, when I am in the mood to compose by using chords, loops and patterns then a little controller is fine. However, when I put something together using mostly loops and patterns it feels like I am just arranging someone elses work. Not creating my own art. For art I need an instrument.

 

Robert

This post edited for speling.
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Originally posted by Dan South:

The rate of improvement in each successive generation of keyboard workstations has slowed down considerably in the last couple of years.

 

Has the feature set of the keyboard workstation reached its logical conclusion, or are we going to see significant innovations in the future?

I think they're far from reaching their logical conclusion. There's huge room for improvement, in my opinion, on many fronts, including sound quality, playability, ease of use, portability, etc.
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I agree with Busch, I find workstations to be bloated, redundant and unnecessary. I'm frustrated with the fact that the keyboard industry seem to evolve around these workstations, and are building everything into the one keyboard instead of creating more affordable, and dedicated/specialized components and modules (eg. lack of new rack based samplers - since they are all built into a workstation now). The analogy with the SUV is apt IMO. I have a slightly different perspective though.

 

I realize I might not be exactly the target audience. The one case where workstations make any sense are for musicians that are strictly solo keyboard based: they don't play anything else, they'll only use onboard sounds, and they don't want to play with any other musicians to compose, record, and arrange a track. For those people, I can see how its a tidy package.

 

For me, personally, I like to play different instruments: guitars, drums, bass, whatever. If I want a sound for an instrument I can't play, I'd rather find a musician who can do the track, and bring him in. Admittedly, I guess I'm of the old school of being a piano/organ/whatever player, rather than the "keyboard guy" who is given the task of filling in all the missing parts in a live band. Music not being my way of making a living is probably a good reason why I never had to accept that side of things.

 

So I guess, part of it comes from differences in tastes. For me, and I would suggest an increasing number of people who are focusing more on playing a dedicated instrument rather than synthesizing a bunch of parts, it doesn't make very much sense.

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I think we are at a very exciting time in keyboard development, but aren't we re-inventing the wheel all the time?

 

DAW's and workstations getting closer and closer to each other with respect to features and user friendliness. Computers are getting used more and more in live performances which put higher demands on stability and reliability which I think we will see. So where do the workstation and DAW intercept?

 

Personally, I think the Workstation will die as the concept we know from M1, SY, Tritons, trinitys, motifs and Kx000. Who uses the internal sequenser anyway? Oasys takes a quantum leap step towards computers being an optimised Linux computer based on simple PC parts but personally I think it is a too expensive and a too closed system.

 

 

Ánother thing that I find very interesting, Keyboardists/producers have very different needs and tries to use the machines like swiss army knifes.

 

for example:

 

1) live performers who want's as much sonic power as they can get within a small rig, use workstations for live performances and uses up a very limited amount of their boards actual power with a very limited user interface. Compare for example S90-motif series with the nord stage/electro user interfaces, very different boards but think of what feels like a real instrument and which is more versatile or direct......menuland or knobs, that's you're choice.

 

2) Studio musicians who want's to have enormous sound quality/genuinity perhaps only found in enormous sampling libraries or the real stuff(Rhodes, Moogs, steinway grands........) or very special pieces of software VSTi's like absynth.

 

Another interesting issue is that still most of the work is being performed towards imitating something real, be it a real synthesizer or a VSTi(think moog clones. Where is the spirit from the development of real innovative instruments of our time? Certaninly not within the workstation domain- rather in the VSTi domain. And c'mon is little phatty really something really innovative?

 

Busniess wise I think it would be interesting to see how the sales of workstations are today compared to yesterday- for example how many M1s were sold compared to motif es?

 

The workstation is soon to be dead long live the DAW workstation intercept-DWI...

 

Fred

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Originally posted by RABid:

Laptops are greate. Love the one I picked up this summer. I shoved two gig of memory in so it can run Sonar, Reason, Live, Project5 or most anything else I care to load. It is great at arranging music and providing sounds but it is not an instrument. I don't consider those little controllers to be instruments. Most have mini-keys or poor velocity responce. I've traveled with an Oxygen 8, XBoard and Kontrol49. None of those feel like a quality instrument or inspire me by their touch. In that respect, a good workstation does beat a laptop and controller, badly.

 

Robert

I agree with your point and disagree at the same time. I have as of yet to find a dedicated (re: silent) controller that I feel inspired by, but I believe that controllers and softsynths overall are rapidly developing whereas workstations have indeed reached a plateau. The perfect controller is probably a lot closer than the perfect workstation. None the less I enjoy my digital piano as a true instrument that inspires me to write and play music, and it also makes a good USB controller so I have the best of both worlds by simply adding a laptop to my piano. And maybe I'm alone in finding Reason to be inspiring to my music making but I do, and not just for manipulating loops but for full-on scoring.

 

You also make the case for laptops by having many different programs from different companies on it whereas a workstation has one program from one company that you are completely dependent on for upgrades, sounds, etc. Many musicians have laptops anyway so they are all but inevitably going to run some kind of music app on them, and probably several. That has to be taking a bite out of the hardware workstation market.

 

I haven't made the move to relying on a laptop on stage but I am close to it and always thinking about it. I'm sure I'll always use dedicated keyboards like digital pianos in addition to my laptop because I like having immediate and reliable primary sounds, but having a convoluted and expensive workstation on stage is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

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