As I mentioned in my initial review, my GO:KEYS had a defective key right out of the box. The key was in a particularly bad spot: A below middle C. While practicing music for Sunday, the key was nearly dead and I just couldn’t live with it. So, I returned the GO:KEYS to Guitar Center. The folks at Guitar Center offered to get a replacement from Roland, but I didn’t want to take another chance on the first production run. I chose a refund.

Happy to say, the salespeople at Guitar Center (Nashua, NH) were very helpful and understanding. This is the first time that I received a keyboard with an obviously non-working key. Guitar Center handled the situation quite well and efficiently. It pays to be courteous and kind to the staff of your local musical instrument store!

I think Roland have a good concept with the GO:KEYS. But, even the best of ideas are thwarted by bad components, poor manufacturing, or ineffective quality control. Overall, this is a shame. The GO:KEYS clearly is a little brother to the JUNO-DS workstation. The basic sound of the GO:KEYS is quite good, especially its electric pianos.

After writing my review, I spent a few hours producing a demo track. (Here is the MP3 file.) The GO:KEYS is MIDI class compliant and I had Ableton Live Intro communicating with it in seconds. I pulled in a few ambient loops from Equinox Sounds Total MIDI: Funk and assigned MIDI channels according to the GO:KEYS’ convention:

Ch#  Part       Allocation
---  ---------  ----------
 1   PIANO      User/Panel
 2   ORGAN      User/Panel
 3   STRINGS    User/Panel
 4   BRASS      User/Panel
 5   BASS       User/Panel
 6   SYNTH      User/Panel
 7   FX/GUITAR  User/Panel
 8   Bass       Loop Mix
 9   Part A     Loop Mix
10   DRUM       User/Panel
11   Part B     Loop Mix
12   Part X     Loop Mix
13   Part X     Loop Mix
14   Part X     Loop Mix
15   Part X     Loop Mix
16   Drum       Loop Mix

Each of the GO:KEYS panel categories (PIANO, ORGAN, etc.) has its own MIDI channel. Each of the Loop Mix parts has its own MIDI channel. When sequencing in Live, I assigned tracks to the “User/Panel” channels.

The GO:KEYS tones follow the Roland JUNO-DS patch map. This is further proof that the GO:KEYS is directly derived from the JUNO-DS. I recommend downloading the JUNO-DS Parameter Guide which contains the JUNO-DS patch list. Finding the bank select and program change for a GO:KEYS tone is simply a matter of scanning the JUNO-DS patch list for the equivalent voice. A few of the patches have been renamed. See my partial tone list for examples. (I won’t be finishing the list now that I’ve returned the GO:KEYS.)

For example, here is a partial list of drum kits and patch select values:

    Hex            Dec
-----------    -----------
 56  40  03     86  64   3  HipHop Kit
 56  40  04     86  64   4  R&B Kit
 56  40  00     86  64   0  Pop Kit 1
 56  40  08     86  64   8  Pop Kit 2
 56  40  01     86  64   1  Rock Kit
 56  40  05     86  64   5  Dance Kit 1
 56  40  06     86  64   6  Dance Kit 2
 56  40  07     86  64   7  Dance Kit 3
 56  40  09     86  64   9  Dance Kit 4
 56  40  02     86  64   2  Brush Jz Kit

 78  00  00    120   0   0  GM2 Standard Kit
 78  00  08    120   0   8  GM2 Room Kit
 78  00  10    120   0  16  GM2 Power Kit
 78  00  18    120   0  24  GM2 Electric Kit

Mind the index of the program change values (zero vs. one). Remember, in Live, all indices start at one, including bank select values.

Additional experiments with MIDI OX show that the touch strip sends both modulation (MIDI continuous controller 1) and pitch bend messages. Like the JUNO-DS, the GO:KEYS “includes a GM2 compatible sound set.” Neither the JUNO-DS or GO:KEYS implement all of the CCs, NRPN, etc. required by the General MIDI 2 standard. The GO:KEYS does respond to the same CC messages as the JUNO-DS. Nice.

Once I had things grooving in Live, I went through the tedious process of exporting each MIDI track to a Standard MIDI File (SMF), and then importing each SMF into SONAR to form a merged SMF. Come on, Ableton, people have been begging for proper full MIDI export for years. Please implement this feature! It’s ridiculous that it hasn’t been done already.

Once I had a complete SMF, I used the GO:KEYS restore function to transfer the SMF to the GO:KEYS. Just to be safe, I named the file to “SONG02.MID” to keep the GO:KEYS happy. The GO:KEYS successfully played the (loaded) SMF and I recorded the audio output of the GO:KEYS on a Roland Micro-BR. (A handy little recorder, that.)

In the end, I’m left with considerable respect for the JUNO-DS sound. I wish that the JUNO-DS had built-in speakers as well as battery power, given its more robust build. The Roland GO:KEYS has potential to be a successful, portable, little brother to the JUNO-DS once Roland resolves its quality issues.

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski

Roland GO:KEYS – First impressions

I’m happy to write what may be the first end-user review of the Roland GO:KEYS.

The GO:KEYS is one of two new entry-level keyboards from Roland. The GO:KEYS has a street price (MAP) of $299 USD and is intended to inspire new keyboard players without a big out-of-pocket outlay.

The hook is the five zone, Loop Mix mode. The 61 keys are separated into 5 one octave zones: Drum, Bass, Part A, Part B and Part X. Each key in a zone triggers a two measure musical loop that repeats until the zone-specific STOP key is struck. The Drum and Bass zone lay down the basic groove while Part A and Part B add the harmonic bread and butter, like electric piano comping or a string pad. Part X adds variation with up to four phrase subgroups. Only one phrase can play in a zone at a time.

The preceding paragraph takes more time to read than it takes to set up a backing track. When you have the band grooving, you can switch to regular keyboard mode and solo to your heart’s content. Whenever you feel like it, you can switch back to Loop Mix mode and move the band to a different place.

There are twelve different Loop Mix Sets. Each set is a scale-compatible collection of Loop Mix phrases. The twelve style names suggest the musical genres and the target audience for GO:KEYS. No polkas. The Sets are modern sounding, however, I can’t speak to the authenticity of the EDM styles. The FUNK set sounds more like funky smooth jazz — no JB, no George Clinton, here.

However, don’t let that stop you. Please watch the GO:KEYS videos that Roland has posted on Youtube. (Search “Roland GO:KEYS”.) You’ll quickly decide if the GO:KEYS is for you or not. I certainly have had a lot of fun jamming away.

Many aspects of the GO:KEYS are well-thought out. It’s clear that the developers tried to play their own creation and added a number of convenience features like using the touch strip to step through the Function menu. The GO:KEYS can remember previous settings across power-off and it remembers the last patch selected in each of the eight categories (piano, organ, strings, brass, drum, bass, synth and FX/guitar).

Recording and playback are fairly rudimentary. Don’t expect a workstation at this price point! You can record an improvised backing and save it to a song file. Thanks to USB, the song file, etc. can be saved to a PC or Mac through the back-up function. The PC or Mac treat the GO:KEYS like a flash drive. You copy the back-up folder to the PC/Mac and you’re done. The directions in the user manual are simple and accurate, so I won’t go into those details here.

Windows 7 recognized the GO:KEYS when I plugged it in. Windows installed the Microsoft generic USB audio driver. Windows didn’t try to install the flash driver until I attempted the first back-up. The driver installation at first appeared to fail. When I unplugged and replugged the GO:KEYS, everything was fine and the GO:KEYS drive appeared in Windows Explorer.

My GO:KEYS arrived with version 1.04 of its software installed. There is a version 1.05 update on the Roland support site. Roland’s on-line directions are simple and accurate. The update to 1.05 went smooth.

The GO:KEYS sound set is a real bright spot. The standard “panel” voices are taken from the successful JUNO-DS series. In fact, I auditioned these voices by trying them out on a JUNO-DS88 before ordering the GO:KEYS. The GO:KEYS voices sound very similar, especially when you send the GO:KEYS through decent monitors. The built-in speakers are OK, but again, don’t expect super high quality in an inexpensive keyboard. The GO:KEYS is perfectly respectable through the Mackie MR5 mk3 monitors on my desktop.

Here are the sonic highlights:

  • The electric pianos are really strong. Many voices have tasty, appropriate effects (e.g., phaser) applied. If you need acoustic piano, try GO:PIANO instead.
  • There are a slew of synth leads and basses. I’m in love with Spooky Lead which is a classic fusion, R&B tone.
  • Organs are typically Roland — OK, but not tachycardia-inducing.
  • The strings are also typically Roland — darned good.
  • Acoustic sounds — few as they are — are decent. I like Soft Tb and Ambi Tp. Other acoustic sounds may be found in the GM2 sound set. (Don’t forget to enable them in the settings!) The woodwinds are surprisingly good for GM2.

I haven’t dug too deeply into the rest, but the voices triggered by the phrases sound good and are well-chosen. Clearly, the JUNO-DS is the original source.

At this price level, the GO:KEYS is a preset-only machine — no voice editing. The most you get is the ability to set the reverb level. Even the reverb type is fixed (a nice hall). There are decent multi-effects under the hood as heard in the electric piano and clavinet voices. Alas, everything is preset and fixed. Roland would still like to sell you a JUNO-DS.

The GO:KEYS includes a full General MIDI 2 (GM2) sound set. It sounds like an improved set over the much older RD-300GX for which I have produced many GM2 Standard MIDI Files (SMF). I have not tested GM2 compatibility. Roland are very careful about this and have not advertised full compatibility. This is not much of an issue for me as I have plenty of sequencing resources on hand already.

The GO:KEYS does not have conventional pitch bend or modulation wheels. The touch panel has two strips that apply pitch bend or filter/roll effects. The adjacent FUNC button selects the mode. The filter and roll are applied to everything, so you get a DJ-like effect that rolls the rhythm or squishes frequencies. Pitch bend mode also seems to include modulation. I hear the rotary speaker change speed on some organ voices. Unfortunately, attempts to change rotary speed also bend the pitch.

Hey, Roland! I regard this behavior as a bug. The documentation is really loose about what these touch strips do. In the next update, please make one strip pitch bend only and make the other strip modulation only. Punters everywhere will thank you!

The GO:KEYS is very light weight coming in under nine pounds. Power is supplied by either the included adapter (5.9V, 2A) or six AA batteries. The voltage rating is a little odd, 5.9V. I wonder if it’s OK to use a more common 6V adapter provided that the current rating is sufficient?

The GO:KEYS has two slots to accomodate a music rest, but doesn’t come with a music rest. The GO:PIANO bundle includes a music rest, not the GOKEYS. I want to use the GO:KEYS at rehearsals and will call Roland to see if I can buy a music rest. Of course, the Yamaha music rests that I have on hand do not fit the slots and cannot be easily adapted. (Arg. Put the Dremel tool away.)

As you might think, the keybed is not super stellar at $299 street. The keys are piano size and shape with a nice texturing (not plastic-y smooth). The keys don’t feel too bad although it’s more difficult to palm swipe piano-shaped keys with an edge.

Key response is OK, but not as good as a more expensive instrument. (Full disclosure, I played a $3,000 Yamaha Montage last night.) One key is a little dead and its response is quirky. I’ve encountered the same problem with a single key on the otherwise superb Arturia Keystep, too. It’s hard to make a keyboard at this price point that provides high quality and reliability. Even though the GO:KEYS’ case feels sturdy, I wouldn’t gig this machine too hard. You get what you pay for.

Overall, I’m pleased with the GO:KEYS. It’s a good starter keyboard and it looks (and sounds) to be a decent portable rehearsal instrument. The GO:KEYS is an attractive alternative to Yamaha and Casio products in the same price bracket. Definitely worth a look and a listen.

Update: After writing this review, I sequenced a GO:KEYS demo track in Ableton Live. The defective key became worse and I returned the GO:KEYS. Please read about my experience and listen to the demo track.

Copyright © 2017 Paul J. Drongowski

Montage review: Yes, I’ve played one!

The Yamaha Montage synthesizer is now hitting stores in North America. One of the local retailers (GC in Natick) have a Montage set up for demo. Let’s go!

The demo unit is a Montage8 with the 88-key balanced hammer effect keyboard. I have always liked Yamaha’s upper-end “piano” actions and the Montage8 is no exception. I primarily play lighter “synth” action keyboards like the MOX and the PSR-S950. Fortunately, I spent the previous week working out on the Nord Elecro 2 waterfall keyboard, which requires a slightly heavier touch. I played the Montage8 for a little bit more than an hour without my hands wilting — a good sign.

First off, the demo unit was plugged into two Yamaha HS7 monitors and a Yamaha HS8S subwoofer. GC usually patches keyboards through grotty keyboard amplifiers, so I suspect that Yamaha provided the monitors in order to create the best impression of the Montage. I was dismayed when I started off with a few B-3 organ patches and could not contain the low end. The front panel EQ simply didn’t do the job. Time to check the monitor settings. The HS7s were flat, but the HS8S subwoofer level was cranked. After backing off the sub, all was right with the world.

Yes, some people like to simulate small earthquakes with subsonic frequencies. This, however, is not conducive for acoustic music. It’s not conducive for peaceful co-existence with your bass player either. If you encounter a Montage in the wild, check the EQ before proceeding!

So, as you may have gathered already, this is not a review of Montage for EDM. I took along my church audition folder (covering gospel to contemporary Christian to traditional and semi-classical music) and a small binder of rock, jazz, soul and everything in between. I’d like to think that this is the first time anyone has played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the Montage, however poorly.

The electric pianos are terrific. I had a fine old time playing soul jazz and what not. Great connection between keys and sound. Comparing against Nord Stage, I would say that the Montage is top notch in this department and definitely a cut above the old Nord Electro 2. Yamaha did not put the Reface CP (Spectral Component Modeling) technology into Montage; they didn’t need to.

Tonewheel organ is still Yamaha’s Achilles’ heel. There is some modest improvement, but the Montage is not in clone territory. In this area, I would say, “Advantage Nord.” If I can cover B-3 with the MOX on Sunday, I’m sure that the Montage is up for medium duty. However, the tonewheel organs lack the visceral thrill of the EPs. I will say that the 88-key action did not inhibit my playing style too much. (If I was going to buy a Montage, tho’, it would be a 6.)

The pipe organs got some tweaks, mainly by enhancing the Motif pipe organ sounds via FM. There are a few lovely patches, but I will still look to the Tyros (and the PSR expansion pack) for true realism. The Nord Electro 5d has modeled principal organ pipes where the drawbars change the registration. Ummm, here, I would give the edge to Nord. Plus, the pipe organs in the Nord sample library are more on par with the Tyros and PSR expansion pack. Hate to say it: Montage pipe organs are good “synthesizer pipe organs,” and that ain’t entirely a compliment.

The new strings are wonderfully realistic, especially for solo/melody lines. I really enjoyed bringing sections in and out dynamically. (The expression pedal was sync’ed to the SuperKnob.) With the changes in our music ministry group, I’ve been playing more melodic and exposed parts. I could really dig playing a reflective improvisation for meditation using the strings and woodwinds under Motion Control.

The classical woodwinds got a boost in Montage, too. The woodwinds are all excellent although the sonic delta above Motif XF (MOXF and MOX, too) was not as “Wow” as the strings. Most likely, my ears were getting tired at that point…

Since I was losing objectivity, I just briefly touched on brass. I need good French horns and Montage did not disappoint. I wish that I had spent time with the solo trumpets and trombones, but my ears were telling me to knock it off.

The new Telecaster (TC) is quite a treat. The “Real Distortion” effects (Motif XF update 1.50) are now standard and the programmers made good use of them. I wish that the Montage had the voice INFO screen from the PSR/Tyros series. The INFO screen displays playing tips and articulations for each voice. This makes it a lot easier to find and exploit the sonic “Easter eggs” in the patches. (“Play AF1 to get a slide. Play AF2 to get a hammer on.”)

Fortunately, it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and the store was empty — disturbed only by the occasional uncontrolled rugrat pounding on some poor defenseless keyboard. Overall, I felt like I really heard the Montage and could make a fair evaluation.

I did not dive into editing, arpeggios, motion sequencing, recording, etc., so this is surely not a comprehensive review. Anyone spending less than one month with this ax cannot claim “comprehensive.” It just ain’t possible, so I would call my initial opinion, “first impressions.” That said, I can see why the Live Sets are important. I mainly dove in through Category Search where some of the touch buttons are a wee too small. Punching up a sound in full combat requires BIG buttons.

Montage looks, feels and sounds like a luxury good. Montage is also priced like a luxury good. The Montage8 MAP is $4000 USD. It is quite a beast physically and I would most likely go for the Montage6 at a “mere” 33 pounds and $3000 USD. None of the Montage line would be an easy schlep, especially when I have to buzz in and out of my church gig fast.

Would I buy one? Tough call. On the same field trip, I got to sit in a Tesla Model S ($71,000 USD) — a luxury car built around a computer monitor or two. I just recently bought a Scion iM (AKA Toyota Auris, Levin, Blade, whatever) for about $20,000 USD. Both cars could get me to the gym and back. I like my iM. What does that say about me as a customer? Do you think I would buy a Montage? Enigmatic.

See the list of new waveforms in the Montage. Also, check out the latest blog posts! Update: May 10, 2016.

Nord Stage 2 ex: Test Drive

The Yamaha Montage announcement got me thinking about the kind of “all-in-one” keyboard that I would like to play. I still enjoy playing my Nord Electro 2, but the NE2 falls short as an all-in-one. My all-in-one needs to be strong in B3 organ, pipe organ, acoustic sounds, and to a lesser extent, electric pianos. Ideally, the action would be a waterfall keyboard or a good quality “synth action” keyboard. I do not need the weight or expense of a hammer action keyboard. And speaking of weight, the all-in-one should be as far under 20 pounds (about 10 kg) as possible.

The current Nord Electro 5d has gotten very favorable reviews. As one would expect of Nord, it is one of the leading clonewheels, has very good electric pianos, and plays back sampled acoustic instruments from the Nord Sample Library. The 5d has a waterfall keyboard, sliding drawbars, and a nice clear OLED display. The 5d can layer and split voices with a few limitations. Finally, musicians can create sample-based voices of their own using the Nord Sample Editor.

Looks great and the on-line demos sound good! Now, where can I find one to try? This is a dilemma faced by many musicians today and it’s not only trying to find Nord products on display in store. Brick and mortar stores cannot afford to keep a wide spectrum of keyboards on the floor just in case someone feels the urge to try out a new ax. Keyboard sales are not that hot — guitars out-sell keyboards by 5 to 1 when measured in dollar sales volume. Plus, pro-level keyboards are expensive and that’s a lot of money to tie up in inventory.

Fortunately, the nearest GC (the store whose name I dare not speak) had a Nord Stage 2 ex 88 on the floor. So, I grabbed my audition folder and took a drive. I’m glad that I did. (Wednesday night at 8PM is a good time. No shredders and head cases.)

Most NE5 reviews focus on the clonewheel and electric piano sounds. Nord Stage reviews put the synthesizer section to the test, too. My review is different because I decided to concentrate on the quality of the sampled acoustic instruments. One leap of faith is needed: the acoustic instruments on the Stage are not doctored up by the synthesizer when compared to the NE5. Still, a favorable response to the Stage has encouraged me to look for an NE5d to try, possibly by going to the downtown Boston store. (A day trip for me.)

I scrolled through the Stage’s presets and pulled an appropriate lead sheet from my audition folder whenever I found a voice that I wanted to try. I played mainly hymns and liturgical service music from our repetoire: contemporary hymns, traditional hymns, gospel hymns, etc. Yeah, some B3 got in there. I’m weak.

Without being long-winded, here’s a quick rundown.

  • The handfull of pipe organ sounds (big church and chapel) are pleasing and useful. The big cathedral sounds are not overdone, one of my biggest complaints with typical synth “church organs.”
  • Strings? You got ’em. Big, small, sections, solo. The majority of the string voices are very playable. Big strings that are rich without getting screechy in the high end.
  • The orchestra brass ensembles are generally darned good. The trombone section is too loud and brash for church. Softer French horn voices are needed, too. The few horn voices are borderline bright and loud — I need mellow. The pop brass ensembles sound terrific. (“Knock On Wood,” anyone?)
  • Woodwinds, too, are a mixed bag. The woodwind sections are good and playable. The orchestra solo winds (except the flute) are terrible. If I bought an NE5d today, I would cobble together my own solo oboe and clarinet. Although it wasn’t a focus, I played one sax patch that was pretty decent and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play it in public.
  • B3. Nord groovy as usual. The B sounded darker compared to my memory of the NE2. The Stage has the fast/slow switch on the left where it should be. Nord needs to make the switch BIGGER as it is really difficult to find and hit. (I switch speeds via foot pedal normally, so this is a minor niggle.)
  • Electric pianos, thumbs up.

The Nord Stage 2 ex 88 has a hammer action keyboard. I was pleasantly surprised to find it easy to play organ with this action. The keys did not cut my hand when doing palm swipes and I didn’t have too much trouble playing with a legato touch. Nice work, Nord.

You might reasonable ask, “Why use sampled pipe organ when the NE5d has modeled pipe organ?” The modeled organ solely consists of principal pipes. I think I could use the modeled organ to lead congregational singing as principals are a clear, supportive voice. However, after listening to the demos, the principal pipes alone get “same-y, same-y” fast. I hope Nord continues their work on modeled pipes as the current implementation needs a more varied sound (e.g., reed voices, and so forth).

Overall, the Nord Stage 2 88 left me with a very favorable impression. Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, the acoustic instruments are pro-quality and suitable for liturgical music. I will seek and find a Nord Electro 5d for trial. It’s worth the effort. The Nord Stage 2 ex Compact (73-key waterfall) has a street price around $3,600 USD. The Yamaha Montage 7 (FSX action) has a street price around $3,500 USD. I see a shoot-out on the horizon…

PSR-E443: Snap review

Ah, it’s always fun to post a “first impressions” review of a new toy! In this case, the Yamaha PSR-E443 portable arranger.

I like to use a battery powered keyboard at rehearsals since an all-in-one sets up and tears down without a lot of work. Up to this point, I’ve been playing an old Yamaha PSR-273. The 273 first made the scene in 2003, so it was definitely time for an update.

The PSR-E443 is the top of the entry-level portable keyboards from Yamaha. It has 61 keys and a built-in stereo sound system comprising two woofers and two tweeters. The E443 is powered by either an AC adapter (PA-150) or six AA batteries. So far, I’ve only used an AC adapter and don’t have a feel for battery life. Fortunately, the MOX6 uses the same PS-150 adapter and I didn’t need to buy yet another adapter. (The E443 does not ship with an AC adapter.)

For the sake of review, I played similar styles and MIDI songs on the old PSR-273 and the more expensive PSR-S950 arranger workstation ($250 street for the E443 version $1,900 street for the S950). The E443 sells for about the same price as a mid-range “boutique” guitar pedal. Given that the E443 consists of a computer-based sound generator, analog-to-digital converter (ADC) for the auxiliary audio input,
LCD display, keyboard and media content (e.g., styles, DJ patterns, voices), it’s quite a manufacturing feat to deliver a fun, usable product at such an aggressive price point!

In terms of build quality, you definitely get what you pay for. The build quality of the old PSR-273 seems to be more robust than the E443. Yamaha definitely has taken cost of the E443 in order to sell it for a $250 street price. Although the E443 is a reasonable solid product for the home, it would definitely not hold up on the road. The push buttons do not have the same solid feel as the S950 (or the MOX synthesizer) and one needs (and should use) a gentle touch when pressing buttons. Cosmetically, the only really bothersome observation is the obvious difference between the top C key and the rest of the keys in the key bed. The top C is an add-on key which is not aligned evenly with the rest of the keys and which has a slightly different color (shade of white) than the other white keys. In comparison, the old 273 and the more expensive S950 have nice even keys and consistent key color.

The E443 has a somewhat “retro” sound set augmented by many additional voices that were added over the history of the E4xx series. The E443 and 273 share many of the same panel voices which is a little disappointing. These common voices sound somewhat better on the E443 due to better effects, equalization and sound system. However, with only a few exceptions, the panel voices in common share the same waveforms. One of the exceptions are the string voices. The E443 strings sound much better especially in the lower octaves.

The XG sound set is definitely a step up from the 273 although the S950 XG sound set is at a still higher quantum level in quality. I played the same commercial XG file (“Smooth Operator” by Sade) through all three instruments. The 273 is truly pathetic, the E443 is acceptable, and the S950 is not too bad at all. The E443 does not have the benefit of the XG variation (DSP) effects as available on the S950 and the solo sax sounded just a tad naff. However, I think a typical consumer would be happy with MIDI file playback through the E443; it definitely beats the Microsoft wavetable synthesizer!

Although it sounds a bit negative at this point in the review, the E443 definitely shines brighter than the 273 due to the additional, augmented panel voices. These voices include the several “Cool” and “Sweet” voices, three dynamic velocity-switched voices, a handful of newer voices like “Woodwind Section”, and the many “DJ” synthesizer voices that were added to implement the DJ patterns. There are also some wonderful world voices like Trumpeta Banda and Harmonium. The sound designers also added a few dozen dual (layered) voices. Even though the dual panel voices use the same waveforms as normal non-layered panel voices, many of these dual panel voices are fatter, very playable and usable. I’m looking forward to using these “newer” voices and the improved strings at rehearsals.

The area where the E443 shines brighter than the S950 (!) is the real-time tweaking provided by the two sound control knobs on the front panel. Even though I’m not a huge synth enthusiast, I used the knobs to tweeze voices like the dynamic overdriven guitar while jamming over a style. I’m now sold on having a few knobs around for real-time tweaking and would love to see a couple of knobs on the mid-range arranger workstations. Pressing up/down buttons in the S950 mixing console just doesn’t have the same feel or immediacy. Further, a quick check with MIDI-OX shows that the E443 sends MIDI CC messages for cut-off frequency, resonance, reverb level, chorus level, attack time and release time when the appropriate knob is twisted.

The E443 also has some advantages over the S650 (the next model up in the arranger family). The E443 supports limited voice programming and stores the same six voice parameters for the main and dual voice. These voice parameters are stored in registration memory. This makes the E443 voices tweakable. The S650 lacks even this rudimentary level of voice editing.

Like voices, the styles are a mix of old and new. The styles include many old chestnuts like “Cool8Beat.” The older styles sound better through the improved sound system, but they retain the same essential phrases. The newer styles, especially those in the “Dance” category create more excitement. There are also a few fun additions in the Latin and World categories. Each style has a “One Touch Setting” (OTS) voice that selects a voice that Yamaha deemed to be appropriate for the style. Of course, this is somewhat hit or miss as personal taste and preference varies. There are a few surprises like a very nice Sweet Flute and Piano layer.

The E443 is reasonably adept at playing commercial styles in the original (and older) Style File Format (also known as “SFF” or “SFF1”). I played the styles in the MIDI Spot Soul and Blues pack and got a fairly decent result. These styles were developed for the PSR-9000 (circa 2000). It goes to show that good programming and musicality trumps mere technology! I had more trouble getting the recent “HappyBeat” style to sound decent even though Musicsoft sells this style as “PSR-E443 compatible.” It isn’t just a difference in voicing — the actual harmony sounds off and discordant. I am increasingly disappointed in Musicsoft’s notion of “compatibility.”

I successfully played back the DJX II patterns which I have been converting for PSR. More about this in a future post.

Speaking of DJ patterns, we finally are getting to the E443 functionality that makes it unique in the current arranger product line! There are twenty EDM patterns. I don’t work in the genre, so I’m not really qualified to speak to their currency or quality. However, I do know that EDM styles change with lightning speed! I also know that you cannot load new (user) patterns into the E443. You have to be happy with what Yamaha have provided. Yamaha, even if you continue to keep the internal patterns locked up — a user cannot save or play the patterns to a MIDI file or data stream — please, please, please add the ability to load new patterns. This capability would really enhance the product and create a community of developers around the E4xx series. As Patti Smith said, “This is the era when everyone creates.”

I like the Old Skool and R&B Smooth patterns the best, but that’s just me. Old Skool immediately brings up memories of Grandmaster Flash and “The Message.” Each pattern seems to have an OTS voice (panel voice number 000). The R&B Smooth pattern’s OTS brings up a nice Sweet Flute and Voice Lead layer.

The E443 has 150 arpeggios (musical phrases) for additional instant, real-time fun. The arpeggios track and respond to notes played with the right hand. (BTW, with the main, dual and split voice capability, you can play a left hand bass along with a two-voice layer with your right hand.) Wisely, there are also forty arpeggios voices which automatically bring up a voice and an appropriate arp. This makes it easy to jump into arpeggios without having to do any configuration. Of course, you can change the arp type, voice, etc. to come up with new combinations.

Between the DJ patterns and arpeggios, the E443 approaches the capabilities of the MM6/MM8 “Mini Mo” workstation. The Mini Mo had DSP effects and a smattering of Motif voices, but the E443 has more voice editing and more user style locations — all at a much lower price. If you crave the old MM6/MM8 patterns, they are available through the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS), where Yamaha have re-purposed them. I tried MMS with the E443 and I’m happy to report that you can drive the E443 with MMS on iPad with a little knowledge and consideration of how MMS selects General MIDI voices and drum kits. This is a subject for another day.

The E443 has a pretty decent range of drum kits. Some of the kits have been around the loop once too often and lack punch. When I was experimenting with the DJX II patterns, I noticed that the E443 Dance Kit is the older version of the Dance Kit and has been assigned a different program change number (#113) than the most current kit on the S950. This may be an issue for content creators more so than regular players.

The E443 user interface is a significant refinement of the old PSR-273 era interface. The E443 provides many direct access buttons where you just need to hold a button for a little while in order to be taken to the appropriate editing screen. Further, Yamaha have made it much easier to navigate through the “Function” menu. In the 273 era, one had to repeatedly push the function button to step sequentially through the function menu. With the E443, you navigate through the function menu using the category buttons which do double duty as up and down. Another nice improvement is the transpose button on the front panel. On the 273, I would often skip past the transpose screen and have to circle all the way around the menu. This is a true pain at rehearsals as our music director will often call for a new key right on the spot.

Overall, the E443 is “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” For the street price, it’s hard to find a better value in both sound quality and fun!