Awesome Idea, Not Ready For Prime Time
I so want to give this keyboard the absolute top rating, but I can't.
First, the good stuff. Great Fatar keybed, weighted and all that, feels like a real piano. With a good piano patch, it's really nice.
The star of the show, I guess, is the "light guide." Not a gimmick at all, this is incredibly useful when you're playing MIDI patches with weird key layouts. A drum set, for instance: how the hell are you supposed to know which key is a snare, which a kick, which a cymbal, floor toms, cowbell, all that? Just memorize it? Not likely. With the S88, the keys light up with different colors: maybe red for snare, blue for kick, yellow for toms, etc. Or say you have a violin patch that only maybe 3 octaves, not the full 7+ of the piano. This keyboard lights up the active keys, no light on the dead keys that have no note associated with them. Or say you're playing an organ patch, a B3 for example: the organ's top keyboard will be one color, the top keyboard will be another, and over to the left, about a dozen keys are yet another color to indicate they control various drawbars. The light guide only works with Native Instrument software, but that's a lot of software, if you have one of their big suites, like Komplete, or Komplete Ultimate. Native Instruments claims that other developers are beginning to design software sounds compatible with this keyboard, but that remains to be seen.
In addition to the lights, there are 8 physical rotary dials on the deck of the keyboard that change control parameters with the different patches. Twisting an actual knob rather than using the mouse is so much nicer, faster, and more accurate.
Now for the bad news. If you use the S88 with a DAW-- any DAW-- using more than one Native Instruments MIDI patches, the light guide will revert to the last NI patch you opened, and there you are stuck. Let's say you lay down a bass line using some NI bass patch. The light guide is all there, just as it should be, lovely. Then you open a drum patch. Good enough: there's the drum light guide. Boom boom chika-boom, you lay down your track. Then you decide to tweak your bass line. Go back to the bass, hit a key, there is the bass SOUND... and the drum lights. I figured this was a bug, or a glitch, maybe a toxic reaction with something else on my Mac computer, maybe this thing hated my solitaire game, or my word processor... so I called Native Instruments tech support. They barely seemed to even comprehend what I was saying. Finally, they'd say something inane and generic like, "Have you downloaded the latest drivers?" Because, they seemed to be saying, this is functioning wrong, so maybe it's the drivers, or maybe I have a cord unplugged. No, I said, it's brand new, just loaded it all one week ago. Oh... okay... try this... try that. Nothing. Oh, said one guy, push this combination of actual physical control buttons on the S88's deck. Nope. That changed the light guide all right, but to something else completely wrong. So I emailed Native Instruments, spelled out my problem in painstaking detail.
Not even a wrong reply. They just ignored me.
Here's the bottom line: you buy from Native Instruments, you're on your own. They appear to have made a corporate decision to invest approximately zero dollars in tech support. And zero hours. And zero interest. Nothing. They seem to think their very nice products (when they work) will carry the day. And they are nice products. But if something goes wrong... well, dude... lots of luck.
On the bright side, Sweetwater provides tech support for their products. I called. The tech support guy was obviously unfamiliar with this feature-- unfamiliar with the S88 itself except in passing (no recrimination there: Sweetwater only carries about a million different products)... but to Sweetwater's credit, my tech support guy did ferret out a bug fix, of sorts: it's clunky, it's an extra set of steps, it seems way out of keeping with where computer-based products SHOULD be in plug-and-play 2016. The bug fix is this: every time I change a patch, I have to open the software and find a little button gizmo and click that. I guess NI couldn't be bothered to actually design this thing all the way, so they stopped JUST short of really 100% done. This is about a 94% keyboard. Then, of course, they don't have any tech support to speak of, so that 6% looms large. (Google "Native Instruments Tech Support" and read a litany of horror stories, many worse than mine.)
Anyway, this is my main keyboard in my recording studio. The good outweighs the bad--so far (two months). I like the good things about the S88 a lot, even though it is sort of crippled by NI's design laziness. But I can be philosophical about this: software circa 2016 is still pretty crappy, when you get right down to it. Take Pro Tools for instance: every single time I open Pro Tools, there is this idiotic error message that represents exactly nothing. There is no error at all, but there sure is an error message, every stupid time. So I have to go through the idiotic motion of telling the dialog box to close, then I can go into Pro Tools. And of course, Pro Tools crashes more frequently than rush hour where every single driver on the road is drunk. So... Native Instruments pretty much sucks, with their "not quite ready for release but here it is anyway" business model, but so does every other software developer. Such is life.
But I'm keeping the keyboard, right? If Sweetwater tech support had not found this bug workaround-- as Native Instruments' tech support could not-- then I would NOT keep this keyboard. It would be worthless to me. But... but I'm keeping it. And I use it every single day. And I'm going to buy Ultimate 11 in about 3 days from now, when it is released. So... NI sucks, but... "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" Whack!
Ugh. I think I need an intervention.