Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Keyboard shopping

So for the last many years, I've been using a combination of keyboards for various gigging situations. I'm primarily a saxophonist so I've been able to make do without a great keys setup, but with an upcoming gig with Skinny Bros around the corner, I decided to bite the bullet and invest in something better.

I came into the search wanting to find alternatives to the Nord- everyone uses it but there must be some decent alternatives, right?  Plus I figured given the number of years they've been dominating the market there must be some attempts at competition at this point.

So for those curious about all the nitty-gritty details here's what happened:

  • Went to Steve's, Italmelodie, and Archambault and did lots of side-by-side tests of various keyboards.
  • In particular was quite pleasantly surprised with the Roland V-Combo VR-700.

    This keyboard appears to be a combination of the Roland VK organ tech with the Roland RD digital piano (and ensemble instruments).  Years ago when I first went digital piano shopping (my priorities being 88 keys, weighted action, and good piano sound) the RD series in my opinion had the best piano sound, and the second-best action behind the Yamaha P-series.  Anyway after being impressed in store, I was shocked to find it on special at $1.1k at Italmelodie.  A total steal!

    Its organ and piano sounds sounded great to me.  The real drawbars, Roland D-Beam, mod wheel, and easy access to sounds and options were all big pluses.  However it's a large and heavy keyboard, weighing in at 35lbs.
  • Did more online research at home and discovered the Hammond SK1, which seemed like a really cool contender to the Nord Electro market domination.

    Compared to the Nord it apparently had the ability to split and layer sounds, and a verbose screen.  At the time I also mistakenly thought the Nord Electro did not have the ability to load external samples (which the Hammond SK1 could do) but this was just a misconception.  Sound-wise it seemed comparable (from online demos) and weight-wise definitely in the same category.  Around $2.1k and to be honest this unexpectedly hip 5 over 4 product demo video suckered me in even further.

  • And then of course there was the Nord Electro 4D, the main difference between it and the Electro 3 being its real drawbars.

    Around $2.3k.  Although I would have liked the synth features of the Nord Stage, the price and lack of drawbars were turnoffs- I also knew I could use my old Roland XP-60 for more synthy things.

  • So I continued to do research and returned to the stores, this time with two keyboard geeks in tow.  Spent a lot of time with side-by-side comparisons and go to try the Hammond SK1 and really really liked it.  Was feeling that a real competitor to the Nord domination had finally been found and the slightly cheaper price, ability to split and layer, decent screen, ability to load arbitrary samples, light weight, and real drawbars were all compelling features.  Was feeling very strongly about it.
    Ending up passing on the Roland V-Combo VR-700 purely based on its weight (35 lbs vs the Electro and SK1's 15lbs) however if I were looking for a keyboard primarily for home, it would have been an easy buy at the awesome sale price of $1.1k.
  • Slept on it, and the next day went back to Steve's and plunked down cash for the Hammond SK1.  Floor model was the only one available and managed a $75 rebate.
  • Brought the Hammond home, overjoyed over purchase, plugged it in, started playing it more extensively...  and the joy started fading.  Somehow it didn't sound quite so good at home.  Tried headphones.  Tried my amp.  Not feeling good about my purchase.  Worrying.  Played it more.  Really finding certain toy-like aspects to the piano sound that are not doing it for me.  Discovered that split and layer functionality only work between the organ sound and an ensemble sound, not between two ensemble sounds.  Which is kind of useless.  Serious doubts.  I... think I fucked up.  I... think I bought the wrong keyboard.
  • Slept on it and next day played some more.  Still not liking it.  Went back to the store and tried the Nord Electro.  Oh fuck this sounds SO MUCH BETTER.  I... think I fucked up, for sure now.  Went home and tried the Hammond SK1 some more.  Yep, definitely sounds like a toy.  And thanks to a friend's exploration, discovered a fatal flaw- if the treble knob on the Hammond SK1 is set anywhere other than 0, a very audible static hum can be heard.  Shocked that such a bug could exist, we assumed it was a defect in the floor model, and not a Hammond SK1 bug- how could they ever ship with such an obvious flaw?
    (As it turns out, after some online research, this in fact was a flaw in the initial shipment of the SK1 and was fixed in a firmware revision. I'm still shocked that they could ship with this)
  • Next day, went back in to Steve's and exchanged for the Electro 4D.  So yes, I became one of those red keyboard douchebags.  But WOW does it ever sound great.  Furthermore, the tweaking options for each sound are incredibly rich compared to anything else on the market.  There's a reason why it's the market leader.
Roland V-Combo VR-700 Hammond SK1 Nord Electro 3 Nord Electro 4d Nord Stage 2
Price $1.1k (sale) $2.1k $1.95k+ $2.2k $3.5k+
Drawbars? Y Y N (digital) Y N (digital)
Split and Layer? Y Organ + Ensemble N N Organ + Ensemble + Synth
Tweak** Low (One Param + Mod Wheel + D-Beam) Low (One Param) High High High
Screen? Digits Words Digits Digits Words
Weight 35lbs 15lbs 15lbs+ 15lbs 21lbs+
Organ Good Okay BEST! BEST! BEST!
Organ Types B3 B3/Vx/ Farfisa/Pipe B3/Vx/ Farfisa B3/Vx/ Farfisa B3/Vx/ Farfisa
Synth? N N N N Y
Load external samples? N Y Y (4 DVDs of sample libraries included) Y (4 DVDs of sample libraries included) Y (4 DVDs of sample libraries included)
Other onboard sounds GM + more Band + Strings (No Pizz) + Synth Band + Strings Band + Strings ?unknown?

Touch was about the same across all models, in terms of quality, although each one had a unique feel.
*EQ in the Hammond SK1 is bugged in default firmware (loud hum when Treble knob is at a non-zero setting) but can be fixed by downloading and installing a newer firmware.
**Certain sounds, particularly the clavinet sounds, were superior out-of-the-box on the Hammond SK1 compared to the Nord Electro. However, there is only one parameter that can be tweaked on the various sounds. So on the Hammond SK1, the "regular" clavinet and auto-wah'ed clavinet are two separate presets. On the Nord, you can add an auto-wah to the clavinet through parameter tweaking and have a lot of control on the envelope filter's intensity. Overall this is definitely a win for the Nords.

Note #1
And for a little context, my previous setup was a Casio Privia PX-555R for mostly piano and a little rhodes and wurly and the Roland XP-60 for mostly synth and passable rhodes and passable but not easily tweakable pad-organ. I still use the Roland XP-60 in my dual keyboard setup. The Privia though, although I totally love it and swear by it in terms of price/quality ratio (this is a sub-$500 keyboard!), was just too heavy and massively bulky (88 keys, 37lbs !!, and was a pain to fit in a car). Honestly that was my own fault- if I were in the market today I would have bought one of the much lighter and smaller lower-end Privias without as many features. At the time I didn't understand the value of having a lighter keyboard and wanted the "maxxed out" (sound and feature-wise) Privia. Of course I hardly ever use any of those sounds and features now. For those looking for an 88-key weighted-action keyboard on a budget, I still would recommend the Privia. In the higher price range, I'd go with a Roland FP or RD series.

Note #2
No store in town had the Nord GB61 case in stock, which is just silly. Broke down and ordered it from Steve's ($75) but it will take 10 days. In the meantime I am carting the 61-key Nord around in a massive 88-key padded case.