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RK100S First Impressions Review

 
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darkgoob



Joined: 25 Mar 2008
Posts: 11

PostPosted: Thu Apr 02, 2015 11:55 pm    Post subject: RK100S First Impressions Review Reply with quote

So I got my RK-100S yesterday and here is my "first impressions" review.

Build and shape: 9/10

The design feels very solid. Not too heavy, not too light. Buttons feel nice and clicky, and light up when pressed, for a very cool effect. Keys feel really nice. Over-all it just feels like a very high-quality musical instrument, not some plasticky piece of crap like most things these days. Only issue I saw was that one of the keys, if pressed from high up on the key, was not very smooth in its action, but this did not affect normal playing. I've heard the pegs can come loose but I got mine from the more recent production run, after a 4 month backorder delay. So I'm hoping that the pegs have been redesigned on these more recently released ones. The shape of the body, and balance of the instrument feels great.

Ergonomics and usability: 5/10

In terms of usability regarding the positioning of buttons and controls, I really think the RK-100S could be vastly improved with a redesign to address certain issues. A firmware update could also help a lot, which I will explain below.

Good Stuff

First the good stuff: the easily assignable favorites buttons are very cool. The smallish mini-keys take getting used to, but are not a deal-breaker, and it lets you have more keys in a smaller instrument, which is not necessarily a bad thing. When playing with one hand, everything feels like it should, and it's cool to be able to use the "filter" or "pitch" buttons on the neck as a sustain pedal.

Awkwardness of using the Long Ribbon

You cannot use the long ribbon with your off-hand because the hand you're playing the keys with will block part of the ribbon, and you obviously can't play it with the hand you're playing the keys with unless you use your thumb for this, which is very awkward and even painful. It would have made a lot more sense had they put the long ribbon along the edge above the keys, rather than below, so that you could tap or swipe its full range with your off-hand, or hit it with any of your four fingers as you play.

But the main awkwardness of this keyboard's whole design becomes obvious when you try to actually use the "filter" mode of the long ribbon controller.

For example lets say you are playing a little melody with your right hand, and you want to change the tone of the sound by using the Filter mode of the long ribbon controller. Well, now you have to hold down the Filter button on the neck using your left hand, and then run a finger up and down the long ribbon controller. If you had a third arm and a third hand, this would be possible. Unfortunately it's not possible.

The awkward thing that you must do to use the long ribbon controller is to either:
a) hold the filter button down with the left hand, which engages a sustain-pedal effect, and then use the long ribbon controller to change the filter effect on the remaining sound that is left after you finish playing with your right hand and move up and down the ribbon; or
b) press Shift+Filter before playing a song, which engages a mode where the Filter button will be latched always, meaning the long ribbon is permanently in Filter mode and the sustain pedal is always on, freeing up your left hand.

Both of these options a) and b) suck! a) sucks because you have to STOP playing with your right hand to use the long ribbon, and I don't want to STOP. b) sucks because I hate playing with the sustain pedal always down, as it muddies up the sound, and it's awkward to use the long ribbon with the left hand while playing with the right hand, because the right hand blocks the left hand from being able to touch any part of the long ribbon to the right of the right hand without crossing your arms and contorting yourself. It's awkward to even try to explain why it's awkward! Further b) sucks because you cannot press Shift+Filter without stopping playing with your right hand, because the Shift button is on the main body, so you must press it with your right hand, while the Filter button is on the neck, and must be pressed with the left.

As it stands, the best you can do is press and hold Filter after finishing a riff before letting go of the last key(s), then while holding Filter, using your right hand, modulate the sound starting from the far left of the long ribbon (because if you start in the middle, then it starts the filter mod abruptly in the middle of the range, as opposed to starting at the zero of the mod range).

I would also like to see the long strip start any filter modulation at zero no matter where you tap it, and then have the amount of modulation go up no matter what direction you slide from there (ironically, this is basically how pitch modulation already works, except pitch modulation goes +/- where I would have the filter modulation always go +, since it has to start from zero for the transition to be invisible, and it can't go negative without redoing the whole system).

Shift Key

This bad placement of the Shift key is the main flaw of this keyboard's design IMHO. They could fix it with a simple firmware update to make double-tapping Filter or Pitch buttons engage a latch, and further, make sustain inactive while Filter is latched. Really, sustain should have been its own separate button, which could also be latched with a double-tap. Especially since there's no way to attach a standard sustain pedal to this keyboard, it seems like a bad solution to make other useful buttons double as the sustain pedal!

Awkwardness of the Neck Controls

Further I do not understand the purpose of putting the short ribbon controller and octave controls only on the neck, where they cannot be accessed if you are playing the instrument with two hands. (For that matter I don't even know why there is a neck in the first place, other than to make it "look like a guitar", even though there is nothing at all useful about that, other than having a phallic symbol sticking out of your keyboard and putting half of the useful controls farther away from your hand's natural positions.) They should have put duplicate buttons and strips onto the main body for everything that's on the neck, so when you're playing it with two hands, you could still do all that stuff. For example if you're playing with two hands, you can't use the short ribbon, nor the Pitch or Filter buttons for the long ribbon, nor the octave buttons.

If the neck had more than one short ribbon it would make sense to monopolize your whole left hand with it, but just having a single axis of control take up your entire left hand is just dumb. My favorite MIDI controller is the Alesis Photon, where a three-axis optical controller allows your left hand to control three different MIDI parameters simultaneously, which can be very expressive and awesome indeed. Korg could have done something like that here, had they put a simple thumb joystick (like from an XBOX controller) or a pressure-sensitive X-Y pad. Anything but just a basic strip!! Give me a break.

Given how great their iOS apps are, IMHO they should have put an iPhone/iPad holder in the neck, so you could use the Korg iOS apps without having to have your iPad duct-taped to the keyboard. Just a thought!

Annoying Sound Switch

To change patches you flip a metal switch up or down. Well, that's just weird. I've never once seen such a thing before. In pictures of the device I was hoping this would be an X-Y joystick for controlling sound modulation or something cool like fading between patches (alá the original Wavestation), but no, it's just a +1 or -1 increment switch for finding a patch. Holding down shift you can also change which favorites bank you're in. Given that there are 200 patches, it can take awhile to get through all of them.

Sound: 6/10

The sound engine is straight from the Microkorg XL, so if you're happy with that analog modeling, then great, but I've never been the biggest fan of that sound. I wish they had made some improvements to the sound engine or done something more modular like Roland's plug-outs.

The synthesis engine is based around two voices which can each have two oscillators, two LFOs, two filters, and standard ADSR envelopes for various stuff. The signal path is customizable with respect to the filters (parallel/serial/etc.) and each voice has a shaper that you can tack onto the end. The behavior of the long and short ribbons can be customized to a degree. The short ribbon is very useful and can act like a mod wheel or pitch-bend wheel, and you can customize those aspects just like on any other keyboard, by assigning the mod to just about any parameter in the synthesis engine, like cutoff frequency, LFO frequency, etc.

The built-in patches mostly suck. In almost all of them, vibrato is assigned to the short ribbon in mod mode. I freaking hate vibrato! I never ever use it. Whoever designed these patches is either in love with vibrato, or they have a major vendetta against people don't… ugh. If you want to change it to something useful like filter cutoff frequency, this requires using the Mac/PC software, which is a huge pain (as I will talk about in the next section).

There are a few cool built-in patches but this keyboard is stuck in that no-man's land where it does not have any great-sounding samples but its analog modeling is very digital-sounding. It's a step up from your typical cheapo Casio or Yamaha keyboard from the early 90s, but I can't see it replacing any of my analog-modelling virtual instruments or iPhone/iPad apps (like Korg's own iMS20 and iPolysix, which I use ALL the time).

And that's really sad and disappointing to me, because the main reason I bought the RK100S was to hopefully escape from having to use VIs. I was hoping this synth engine would even be better than the iMS20 or iPolysix, but it turns out that no, it's not. It's not bad but it's not a replacement for serious tools like those. And that's just kind of sad, since Korg themselves are who made those apps. Why can't they put the Legacy Collection capabilities into a keytar like this? Sigh.

Still, you can make some pretty nice sounds with this thing, and I'm sure that you could use it for live gigs in a band, etc. But I was hoping that it would allow me to get rid of my complicated rig for live shows and just bring one instrument. Maybe I'll change my mind after playing with it a bit more, but so far I can't see that happening.

Software & Technology: 4/10

There is a proprietary USB MIDI driver you can download from Korg. Works fine. That's a good thing if you want to use this as a controller for VIs and such, because based on the lackluster sound and even worse software (see below), sadly, that's all you will likely use it for.

Customizing patches is done through a proprietary Korg app that runs on Mac or Windows. I have a Mac and I honestly hated using this app. The UI is awful. The fonts are tiny on my screen and it looks like it was designed to run on a PC from 2001 at a native resolution of 800x600. On my 15" MacBook Pro's super-high-rez screen, the window for this app is about three inches across, and the fonts are so small I could barely read them. The controls are all microscopic and many of the things that should be sliders or knobs on screen are, instead, just a number that you click on and slide around to change it. My eyes seriously hurt after using it for very long. I ended up having to decrease my screen resolution to find it usable at all. (There is no iOS or Android app to customize patches. This really made me sad.)

After turning my screen resolution down to where I could actually use it, the software was utilitarian at best. I was able to open a patch, edit it, then save it back to the keyboard. I'm not sure why but the patch on the keyboard reset itself back to the factory default after I changed patches and went back to it.

The keyboard does not support Bluetooth for audio nor for MIDI, which I was also sad. There is no accelerometer or motion/orientation sensor inside that could act as a mod control, which would have really been nice, given that it's a keytar. It feels like this keyboard could have come out in 2002 and nobody would have been impressed with the technology. Who knows how long ago they designed it?

What would really be awesome would be aftertouch and/or keys that each had a touch-strip on them, so you could slide your fingers up and down on the keys to modulate each note individually. Of course that would probably cost too much, but sigh.

Features: 8/10

Aside from these complaints I felt that this keyboard has a lot of great features. It's a very limiting design with lots of seemingly bad design choices, but if you accept it for what it is, there certainly are a ton of features. And the features do work.

I mean, it's awesome to have a battery-powered keyboard with a decent built-in sound engine that can be worn and attached directly to an amp. Having vocoder capability is also very cool, and that might end up being the killer app of this keyboard, given the fact that its not very well optimized to be played as a traditional keyboard and its controls are so awkwardly placed for that purpose. If you're singing and you don't need two hands to play a keyboard song, then the problems of sustain being held is not a big deal.

The patches being fully customizable via software is another really nice feature. I didn't like the version 1.0 of the software, but the fact is, it DOES have this feature, and it DOES work, and that's still better than NOT having this feature.

There is also a really cool feature that lets you check remaining battery life, which gets displayed on the light-up favorites buttons. This is a VERY useful feature, one that I'd consider mandatory for gigging.

I really liked the ability to plug stereo headphones into the same port that's used for mono output. The port auto-detects if it's stereo or mono. that's cool.

I liked the built-in arpeggiator that you can customize on the fly and play in Latch mode. This is probably the saving grace of the RK100S, given the fact that you can't really play the keys and use the long ribbon at the same time. With the arpeggiator latched down, now you can take full advantage of the ribbon controller. Give the fact that they dedicated two whole buttons to the arpeggiator (Tap and Arpeggiator), and the long ribbon is really only useful with the arp active, I suspect that Korg intends you to use the arpeggiator heavily. Too bad the arp is only 8 notes, then.

I would have much preferred if the keyboard had a small bit of built-in memory that let you create on-the-fly loops of a riff, Ableton-style, instead of a simple 8-note arpeggiator. But it is what it is.

Overall: 7/10

It's a fun instrument and but if you buy one, you must accept that this instrument is its own peculiar animal. It's not like playing anything else I've ever played, and the limitations of the design force you to play in a manner that feels very limiting. Sometimes, limitations enhance creativity by giving you a reason to do things a way that you normally wouldn't, and force you to play a different style. Whether or not the RK100S turns out to be a creativity-enhancing tool that forces you to think outside the box, or whether it ends up just being an exercise in frustration, likely depends on the attitude and creativity of the musician. Either way, they could've made it more broadly appealing and useful with some improvements. I feel that with a redesign (perhaps an RK-150?) this instrument could really be made into something amazing and indispensable. But as it stands I think it will likely end up in the "neat toy" category for most people (as opposed to "serious instrument"). For a $700 keyboard it's a bit too much on the limiting side to really rank too highly IMHO. At this price I'd rather pay a bit more and get a bit more, since we're not really talking the budget category here. This makes more sense as a second keyboard you wear while playing your main keyboard, and I doubt Korg would want to design something that made the Kronos obsolete Razz

Personally my dream instrument would be if they took the RK100S, made it with a carbon fiber skeleton instead of a wooden solid-body (think Skelletron guitar), got rid of the guitar-like "neck", lengthened it to 49 keys, added bluetooth MIDI, more controllers, XYZ accelerometer input, top-of-keys long ribbon, aftertouch, iPad slot, lithium-polymer batteries with a 12-hour life, and optional attachable lithium-polymer powered speakers Very Happy Of course that would be the RK-3000 to be released in the year 2019 for $3000. Anyway i digress.
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darkgoob



Joined: 25 Mar 2008
Posts: 11

PostPosted: Fri Apr 03, 2015 7:32 pm    Post subject: Second Impressions Reply with quote

No judgement is really possible without using it in a live gig, so I took it to a show last night, and the RK100S was awesome.

Below are my revised ratings and new impressions!

Sound: 8/10

My first impressions may seem rather harsh now that I have used it with a live band. We did some hip hop funk fusion, some alt rock, and some jam. The RK100S went right into the PA and sounded great. The factory rhodes patch sound was excellent and convincing; I don't think you would know from the bar up front that it was a keytar and not a Nord Lead or King Korg etc.

Ergonomics/Usability: 7.5/10

I will also eat my words a bit regarding the ergonomics. Initially I said "5/10", and heavily criticized:
- how the long ribbon is implemented
- how the neck controls are unavailable in 2-handed play
- shift key placement

I still would like to see a firmware update enable the long ribbon pitch and filter buttons able to be latched with a double-tap or long-press, and I still wish they would have put secondary duplicate controls on the main body for two-handed use, but I did not initially realize the strategy and use-case scenario behind this design, and now that I have, I am boosting this score and giving credit where it's due. Let me explainx

In actual use with a five-piece rock band, I realized my initial criticism was not applicable in that setting, and I made good use of the long and short ribbon controllers, as much as I was able to.

Sure, the limitations are still there, but they are well-suited to playing a tidy role in a rock ensemble. When there is already a bass and two guitars, plus vocals, drums, melodica, and xylophone, there is not much sonic territory left for a keyboard. To stand out, you need clear sounds with a texture that cuts through the mix without dominating it. For solos you want to have a trick or two up your sleeve, and the long ribbon gives you that rabbit to pull out of a hat at the climax of a solo or end of a song. You also want to be able to sink back in the mix and support the other instruments for when they solo. The RK100S does all of this very well, and then some.

In those situations, two-handed playing is not really necessary. So in that sense, the keytar is a "tar" in the sense of sonic territory and musical role, not just shape. Form follows function, and the design of this product makes a lot more sense as a tool for a certain kind of job.

My first impression was based on using the RK100S for other kinds of jobs. Maybe that's unfair, but it was not obvious to me initially that this instrument would be limited in the ways that it is. I don't necessarily see those limitations as bad things because sometimes the best tools for a given job are those tools that are the most specialized for them. The RK100S is a specialized tool. Whereas a Kronos is a giant Swiss Army knife, the RK100S is a rapier.

Since RK100S is so new and unique, I don't know that there is a precise name for the role it lets you play in a band. It felt super liberating and empowering, without feeling dominating or combative like I have often felt when behind a giant workstation synth at shows. Being able to go stand next to the guitarists and make eye contact, dance while playing, and hear out of the same monitors, lets you fit better into both the rhythm and the mix.

Musical Liberation: 10/10

If getting a keytar was all about being able to become "one of the guys" with the guitar players during songs, instead of being stuck at stage left behind a wall of gear, then for that, the RK100S deserves a 10/10. It even comes with a nice soft carrying case. Thank you, Korg!

Revised Final Score: 8/10

RK100S is worth the money! I'm buying two!!

I would say 9/10 if they make the patch editing software better. I'd like it to be open source too, so the community can build our own, and maybe port it to iPad. They should also let you set the default behavior of the ribbon controller for each patch and make some firmware tweaks to the controls. But I would still buy it.
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darkgoob



Joined: 25 Mar 2008
Posts: 11

PostPosted: Sun Apr 05, 2015 7:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Couple of notes.

In the software, "Transmitting" a patch to the RK100S does nothing permanent. It just loads the patch selected in the software into the RK100S's temporary memory. Meanwhile you have to "Write" the patch to save it.

It's really cool that you can download libraries of Microkorg XL and XL+ and import them into the RK100S.

The RK100S arpeggiator works really well with a live band. Having the tap button on the body helps you keep it in step with the drummer.

After playing with the software a bit more, I've been able to milk some better decent sounds out of it, but I still would have liked more polyphony. I compared it to my favorite VI, the Pro53 by Native Instruments, and you can get pretty close. I don't think anyone's going to sell their Dave Smith Prophet '12 module though.

Using the long ribbon is not painful as I originally thought it would be. With some practice I've been able to use it more effectively while playing with the fingers and using the thumb for the strip, or using the pinky. I'm not sure I was wrong about the placement but it's more usable than I thought at first.

The software for editing patches really needs an iPad version (use with the iPad/USB adapter). I stand by my criticisms of the interface after using it a bit more… having to click and drag on tiny numbers (you have to get the first digit!) is really lame. When editing effects, if you miss where you clicked, then when you drag, it tries to drag the whole effect itself, and then when you let go the mouse, it resets the patch on the keytar. Other than that I haven't found any bugs (and that one can be worked around by hitting escape before releasing the mouse).
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Miko Montgomery



Joined: 15 Aug 2015
Posts: 2

PostPosted: Sat Aug 15, 2015 5:06 pm    Post subject: RK100s Pitch Bending Problems Reply with quote

Just got my new RK. While I do like it for the most part, I've come to detest the short ribbon. It's borderline useless for any kind of subtle pitch bending. It tends to bend up a full step rather than the half step I typically require. As a result, it takes all the subtlety out of my solos. Is there any way of adjusting the short ribbon via the sound editor? This is truly TERRIBLE.
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G-Rod



Joined: 20 Mar 2015
Posts: 10

PostPosted: Fri Sep 11, 2015 4:01 pm    Post subject: Extra libraries and MIDI Driver confusion Reply with quote

I'm quite new to Korg software and file management. I just received my RK.

How/where is it that you downloaded libraries of Microkorg XL and XL+ and how did you import them into the RK100S?

Also, at Korg's site there's a news announcement of the newest USB MIDI Drivers with a version number 1.5 and that it included support for RK. All I found were versions 1.2.1 and 1.2.2.

Thanks for any info/clarification,
GRod
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OpAmp
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Joined: 07 Jun 2013
Posts: 734
Location: Brussels, BE

PostPosted: Fri Sep 11, 2015 9:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi,

About the driver version. This is probably just a typo in the version number. I would just try version 1.2.1. You'll quickly see whether it works or not. Suprisingly the release date of that one is the same as the announcement (13/2/2013).

Download also the sound editor to unlock the full tweaking potential. It is also this tool that will allow you to open XL/XL+ sound librariy files and import those programs in a RK100S sound library and download the programs to then to the RK100S. (Menu, File, Import)

Have fun.
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JerryT
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Joined: 16 Nov 2005
Posts: 219
Location: Philadelphia 'burbs

PostPosted: Thu Dec 24, 2015 2:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very thoughtful and helpful posts for those who want to use all the features of the RK100s. I just want to replace a Yamaha KX5, that is, I just want to use it as a controller. I would especially like to know if the volume control on the RK100s will change the volume of the lead patch/sound of the midi device/keyboard I’m controlling? The volume control, on some instruments, only effects the output of the onboard sounds. In another post, a forum member noted that the volume control on the RK100s appeared to be an analogue control and may not do what I want, but I haven’t found anything definitive. As it seems that posters here use the RK100s regularly, I would appreciate your help.
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OpAmp
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Joined: 07 Jun 2013
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Location: Brussels, BE

PostPosted: Thu Dec 24, 2015 10:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can not confirm it as I don't have a unit, but I think the guy on the other thread is pretty right. The knob most likely is a simple pot meter attenuating the output jack signal. When turned, it does NOT send out any MIDI CC messages. (Weak) arguments why I think it as well:
* it is basically a microKorgXL(+) boxed in another package. There the volume knob is definetly a simple pot meter, which does not generate any CC message.
* the manual states that it controls the volume of the output jacket. It explicitly states the output jacket and not the level of the amp section in the sound engine. If the latter would be the case, this interaction would be done via CC events which would also be sent out.

Hopefully someone owning an RK can just confirm my statement.
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JerryT
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 26, 2015 3:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

You are correct OpAmp. Kong support confirmed. Thanks for your reply. I want to replace a Yamaha KX5 and I don't want to have to alter my entire approach to playing with the equipment I have. The great new features may require replacement of other equipment as well, a deal breaker for me.
Ciao, Jerry
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Korg PA900, Giulietti Alpine and Giustozzi 55/SL accordions with Limex midi, Ketron Midjay Plus, Yamaha KX5, MasterSound MK4 controller, Master Pro 2000 and 2006 controllers.
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OpAmp
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 26, 2015 9:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yep, I can imagine you don't want to alter your setup completely...
I checked the manual once more, unfortunately the ribbon controllers can only control pitch or modulation. You don't want to sacrifice these to control the volume by reassigning the CC to control volume of an external synth...
Too bad for you. Rolling Eyes

Bye.
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