When buying a car we often look for extra gear that comes with it... CD/MP3 players, heated seats, AC unit, shiny rims, spoilers... Some of those things may be revealed on sight, some of those might be a bit hidden, and some of them you don't even notice until you try/buy the car.

Same thing goes here. Each keyboard is different and the specifications say almost everything about a particular keyboard you want to know. Good thing about specifications is that you can easily spot differences and features in a keyboard. So if you don't want accompaniment styles you can easily skipp the ones saying "Onboard styles: 340". Or for example, if you use a lot of samples, and will spend a lot of time creating samples of your own – buying a keyboard with 16Mb of sample memory won't be such a bright idea.

So let's see what do manufacturers usually brag about...

1.jpg

Sample ROM – the amount of onboard sound samples. The more – the better. Bigger wave ROM usually means either more samples or longer samples, and longer samples sound more natural since looping them won't be that noticeable.

Imagine you have a 1sec sample of a grand piano. You really can't sample the natural decay in such a short time – so while programming their sounds, manufacturers usually just loop the end of the sample and use effects to slowly fade it out. Since you need more then just a single note sampled – the samples can grow to quite a big amount so some samples won't even last for 1sec. In bigger sample ROMs – samples last longer meaning the looping doesn't start immediately, and the sound gives out a more natural feel.

Polyphony – one of the most important specification of any keyboard. Polyphony is the maximum amount of notes the keyboard can play at the same time. And now the fun part begins... You see a keyboard which says 32 notes polyphony... and you think to yourself... "There's no way I can play 32 keys at the same time!" – and you'd be correct, and terribly wrong at the same time.

Let's take a grand piano sound for example... Most of them are stereo sampled meaning they actually use 2 oscillators to produce the sound – meaning they take 2 notes of polyphony per key. Modern workstations even use different velocity samples that crossfade depending how hard you play the keys. So OK... you have your great piano and you wish to add some creamy pad to it... you add a sound that uses 1 more note of polyphony. And now you use 3 notes per key. And since the pad just made your sound bigger, you decide to add a bit of strings to get that "movie" feel to it. You add some beautiful stereo strings which also use stereo sampling and use 2 notes per key. What you end up is: Piano (2notes per key) + Pad (1 note per key) + Strings (2 notes per key) = 5 notes of polyphony per key.

Now press a full chord (octaves with your left hand + a simple major triad with your right hand) and you end up pressing 5 keys each of which use 5 notes of polyphony... ergo – you're using 25 notes of polyphony with a single chord!

Now imagine you have big combis/performances containing more then just 3 voices... multiply all that... and you'll be way over 32 notes easily – even without pressing the sustain pedal (which obviously "keeps" the notes pressed).

What happens then is called note dropping. Since the keyboard can't reproduce more notes at the same time it just "drops" the first note played and reproduces the new one. This can easily be heard on keyboards with low polyphony while playing big arpeggios on the piano. At a specific moment the "early" notes will simply just stop playing.

Cutting down on polyphony is the main way manufacturers lower their keyboard prices, and almost every mid-range keyboard today has 64 voices of polyphony, while their big brothers have 128 or even more.

So when you buy a keyboard have in mind what's the polyphony and what's your playstyle. If you play loads of synth solos – even 20ish notes of polyphony will be enough since you hardly use a sustain pedal and keep 1-2 keys pressed at the same time. But if you're a pianist, you'll be running out of polyphony in no time – therefore, look for higher numbers.

Keybed – as mentioned before, there are several types of keybeds. Depending on your playstyle you will want a certain type of keybed. Graded hammer for pianist, semi-weighted for synth solos, waterfall for hammonds etc. The thing is... if you can't afford several keyboards, this is the place where you will have to compromise.

If you're mainly a pianist – you will want hammer graded keys... but what if you need to play organs on a specific song? Sliding heavily on weighted keys can be painful, but you will need to get over it. Same goes both ways... you might buy a 76key version of a workstation that has semi-weighted keys... Perfect for synth solos... even hammonds... but you will lack the great feel and dynamics when playing the piano.
On the other hand, if you can afford it – just go grab a stage piano and a workstation and you'll be covered for all types of sounds and playstyles.

2.jpg

Synthesis – this represents the type of technology used to reproduce sounds in a specific keyboard. It may not mean much unless you want a particular type of sound. For example if you're into vintage 80's sound you might wanna get a FM synthesizer like the Yamaha DX series or the legendary Korg M1. The sound of the late 90's goes to Korg's HI engine found in Tritons. If you get the chance to play a Trinity or a Triton classic, you'll notice how almost every sound reminds you of a particular song.

Many people say that new keyboards don't have character or "that feel" while playing... That's mostly because particular type of music in the past was made by particular type of keyboards. Workstations today tend to have crisp clear, almost perfect sounds – studio ready, while older keyboards had a bit warmer tune.

Expansions – self explanatory actually... Defines what type of expansions are available for your keyboard. LAN cards, Firewire interface, more sounds in a form of expansion cards, VirtualAnalog cards... those are all a form of expansions you can find.

Programs/Voices/Patches and Combis/Performances – Defines the number of preset voices and combis a keyboard has. Yamaha usually has presets that can't be overwritten and instead offer several user banks for your own sounds. On Korg keyboards you can easily overwrite any sound/combi you like, but low-entry and mid-range keyboards don't offer user banks, while Roland in general has much smaller banks for user sounds when it comes to mid- range keyboards.

Even though each manufacturer calls the same thing different, a single voice/program/patch is actually just a single sound. So if you want to play a single sound (like a piano, hammond, guitar, bass) you will go into this mode.
Combis/Performances usually stand for several sounds mixed, layered, split across the keyboard.

Sampling/RAM – defines if the keyboard has the sampling option and the amount of memory you can use for new samples. Older keyboards have less sample RAM, and use very hard to find or obsolete devices to transfer the samples... Floppy disks, SCSI drives and SmartMedia cards are just some of the ways you transfer samples on older keyboards. Today all that is replaced by a simple USB port or SD card slots.

Sampling option offers you the chance to expand your factory sound library with your own samples or 3rd party samples. If you don't like the factory hammond – try loading samples from the real thing. You don't like the plonky piano sound on your Triton? Load a huge set of Steinway grand pianos and enjoy the richness of the real deal!
There are tons of free samples around the interwebs for all types of keyboards, but the really good ones are usually the ones you have to pay for.

Sequencer – An internal recorder. If you want to record your playing directly on the keyboard you'll probably want to have this feature on your keyboard. Today, almost every keyboard has a sequencer. The major difference between them is how many tracks can they record and how many features they have when it comes to editing those tracks.

Basic sequencers will give you the chance to record only a few tracks... For example bass, drums, pianos and pads with no chance of editing the recordings. So if you messed up the recording you won't have any other choice except starting all over again.

As we move to more expensive keyboards you'll find 16 track sequencer... 32 track sequencers with audio tracks next to regular MIDI tracks... on-screen editors, pianorolls, note- per-note editing and so on.

Note that you could always hook your keyboard to your PC and do the recording in a software sequencer like Nuendo, Cubase, Logic either by using the keyboard as a MIDI controller, or simply by recording audio directly from the keyboard's output channels.

Effects – also a part where manufacturers cut down stuff to offer cheaper models. Number of available effects is very important when it comes to workstations since you will be using several sounds at once, and you will want all of them to sound great.

Let's take Korg workstations as an example. The flagship workstations like the Triton Extreme or the M3 use up to 5IFX (insert effects), 2MFX (master effects), 1TFX (total effect – M3only), while the midrange workstations like the Triton LE and the TR have only 1IFX and 2MFX.

So what's the big deal? Like mentioned before... the trouble starts in combi/performance mode. While playing single sounds, that single waveform has access to the full effects system.

So the piano program on the M3 will use all 5 IFX, 2MFX and the TFX to shape the final sound. Choruses, reverbs, delays, EQs, rotary speaker effects (leslie), amp drives are just some of many effects found in workstation keyboards.

Now, when you go into combi/performance mode and want to use for example:
Piano + strings on the lower part of the keyboard and a hammond organ on the upper part of the keyboard – you will need to assign the corresponding effects to make the whole thing sound great.

So you take a little bit of reverb, put it on the piano, then a small touch of vibrato for the strings and, of course, the leslie effect rotary speaker for the hammond. Since you're dealing with different soundsets – you'll probably want to even them up in the final mix by using some sort of EQ or limiters... and you're already up to 3-4-5 effects.

You still don't see the problem? While in Program/Voice mode, a single sound uses all available effects. While in Combi/Performance mode, all sounds have to be routed through available effects.

If you have a Triton LE or the TR you won't be able to assign all the effects mentioned above since you only have a single on at your disposal. In that case you will need to compromise and either use the reverb/delay for the piano (and lose the leslie), or have a killer hammond but no delays on the piano.

Once again – your needs, your playstyle, and your budget will be the final judge on how big a deal this is to you.

Inputs/Outputs – Defines what type of I/O devices your keyboard supports. Most home pianos don't even offer L/Mono – Right outputs at all – instead they have multiple headphones outputs. MIDI In/Out/Through, multiple pedals, assignable outputs, audio inputs, microphone inputs are all of the features you may find and may decide upon purchase.

Arpeggiator – a very cool feature almost every workstation has. Basically an apreggiator is a built in generator that can play the sound for you in a specific pattern. It can be used for drum loops or for creating cool motion sounds that "run" across the keyboard while you keep only a couple of keys pressed. Also note that KARMA (either the standalone keyboard from Korg or the one found in the M3/OASYS) is not an arpeggiator – it is actually far more.

Arpeggiator plays static variations over and over again. Having multiple variations doesn't mean they're still not static. KARMA on the other hand generates notes in real time depending how you play and what you do with the realtime-control panel.
So if you use just the very basics – you can use KARMA as an apreggiator. Just let it repeat a sequence over and over, but you can also program it in a way that the generator does a specific thing depending on your play. Drum fills on glissandos, different variations on higher velocities etc... Very complex stuff right there.

3.jpg

Oscillators – Basically how many different waveforms can a keyboard handle per voice. It's used in creating sounds and velocity switches via parts. For example – using OSC1 for the piano sample while OSC2 is used for string resonance samples). Yamaha Motif XS has up to 8 parts per voice meaning – theoretically you can have 8x4 parts in a single performance mode.
 
Last edited by a moderator: Jan 11, 2014