How to Choose a Keyboard Workstation
Keyboard workstations add performance and sonic versatility to any studio or live rig. This Sweetwater Buying Guide includes information that can help you choose a keyboard for your needs. Since there’s so much to consider when purchasing a keyboard workstation, don’t hesitate to call (800) 222-4700 for assistance.
What is a Keyboard Workstation?
A keyboard workstation is equipped with tools for both performers and composers alike. In addition to basic “bread-and-butter sounds” that professional keyboards typically come with, a workstation generally has more synth sounds, more effects, and other music creation such as advanced patch editing and sequencing. Whether you’re a “one-man band,” performing in a group, or writing original music, the workstation can accommodate your musical needs.
Type of Synthesis
Keyboard workstations provide you with a greater palette for creating original sounds and effects than other types of professional keyboards. Workstations employ different methods of sound generation, such as analog modeling (great for electronic music) and sample playback (for realistic renditions of acoustic instruments). Many keyboards even offer full sampling functionality, so you can record any sound and reproduce it in varying pitches across your keyboard. If you really need to cover all the bases, you should consider a top-of-the-line workstation (such as the Korg Kronos) that employs multiple synth engines. With a robust control set that gives you the ability to modulate hundreds of presets or build patches from scratch, the keyboard workstation makes it easy to design and shape your own sounds.
Perhaps the coolest thing about a workstation is its ability to generate multiple sounds simultaneously. If you’re a film composer, for instance, you could sequence strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and grand piano patches for a cinematic orchestral score. If you’re a songwriter, you might assemble a “band” consisting of drums, bass, organ, and guitar. If your workstation records audio, you could even add vocals to the mix. For live performance, you might choose to layer a synth pad, violin, choir, and piano – for a unique composite sound you wouldn’t be able to achieve with any other type of keyboard.
Sequencing and Audio Recording
Whether you’re performing live or writing music, MIDI sequencing is a valuable tool. With the push of just a few buttons, you can record numerous accompaniment parts of on your keyboard, except the ones you are going to perform live, and play along with the sequenced backing track. Some workstations also have a mic/line input that lets you record audio, such as vocals or guitar, and incorporate it into your sequenced track. Also, if you are performing cover music and want to produce more authentic covers, workstations give you options such as pre-programmed MIDI files for reproducing the music more accurately.
Applying effects to a MIDI or audio track can turn an ordinary sound into something special. All keyboard workstations include onboard effects processors. Many feature effects that can be applied to individual tracks (insert effects) as well as to the total mix (master effects). Additionally, workstations that include audio recording capability usually provide important sound shaping tools such as EQ and dynamics processing. This gives you even more control over the final sound that you produce with your keyboard workstation.
What Is An Arranger Keyboard?
There is another type of professional keyboard called an arranger. Arrangers have evolved into a necessary tool for the professional performing musician, and have even made their way into the studio. The main difference between a workstation and an arranger is that the arranger keyboard has built-in “auto-accompaniment.” In other words, with the push of just a few buttons, the keyboard will provide backing tracks that automatically match the style, rhythm, and tempo of what you’re playing. This has become a unique tool for composers who have to produce music quickly in a style they may not be familiar with. Even songwriters who don’t know how to program drums or play guitar can use the arranger to hear their songs being played by a band, without having to call in musicians. Finally, for the working solo performer, the arranger can add new dimension to your sound by giving you the advantage of sounding like a full band.
What to Look For…
Pro keyboards come in a variety of sizes with various numbers of keys. It’s common to find workstations with 88, 76, 73, 61, and even 49 keys. You will also hear the words “hammer action” (which emulates the weight and feel of a real piano keyboard), “semi-weighted”, and “synth action” (which describes light spring-loaded keys) in regard to keys. You must determine which combination of keybed action type and number of keys will provide the best combination of feel and functionality for you.
RAM/ROM – Upgradeable
This is an important issue in choosing a keyboard. ROM (Read-Only Memory) expansion allows you add sound cards, thus extending the sonic range and useful life of your keyboard. For sampling keyboards, the amount of RAM (Random-Access Memory) determines how much sampling time you’ll have.
Type of Synthesis
The type of synthesis depends on the type of music you want to make and also on what other sound sources you have. If you want convincing piano, string section, brass, and percussion sounds, a sample-playback synth will work well. If your genre is electronic music, a workstation with analog modeling would be more appropriate. Once you determine the type of synthesis that you prefer, it will be easier to choose an instrument. If you really need to cover all the bases, however, you might consider a top-of-the-line workstation (such as the Korg Kronos) that employs multiple synth engines.
Sample Rate and Bit Depth
In a professional setting, an issue of sound quality that can make a difference is the sample rate and bit depth of the samples, such as 24-bit/96kHz. With many workstations offering sounds that were recorded in world-class studios with premium vintage gear, the question of sound quality becomes an issue of whether or not the sounds a particular keyboard produces inspire you.
Knobs and Controllers
The bare necessities are a functioning pitch wheel and mod wheel. If a workstation has knobs and sliders, make sure they transmit MIDI continuous controller (CC) messages. These become very useful as you find your way around the MIDI universe. You can use them to sweep filters and fade FX in the keyboard’s sound engine, and also for controlling levels in your sequencer.
This is important for archiving or saving your patch information. Its purpose is twofold. If your keyboard needs repair, you won’t lose your settings when the keyboard is reinitialized. Also, in time, the number of patches you create may exceed the memory capabilities of the keyboard. Removable media allows you to organize your patches as your performance needs require.
Many keyboard workstations offer a USB interface for data transfer and archiving. If you are working with a computer-based DAW, a USB port that passes bi-directional MIDI allows you to use your keyboard as a master controller for your favorite software and virtual instruments. A keyboard with a built-in audio interface can be a very cost-effective way to get high-quality audio in and out of the computer without having to invest in additional gear.
Where Do You Go from Here?
By now you probably realize that there are many options to evaluate when choosing a keyboard workstation. Your Sweetwater Sales Engineer can be a valuable resource, with the knowledge and training to help you make a decision. Call us at (800) 222-4700.