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April/May 2014

by Finn Scholes

Gear Review: Korg KROSS 61 Workstation

by Finn Scholes

Gear Review: Korg KROSS 61 Workstation

KROSS is a new ‘music workstation’ style synthesiser range from Korg. Workstations are designed to be everything you’’d ever need in a keyboard: a massive range of sounds; effects to change those sounds with, so you can make even more sounds; sequencers for recording ideas and backing tracks; and of course the classic ‘combo’ mode, where one button will start an entire band playing so you can go get a drink from the bar.

One important thing to mention up front is that the entry-level KROSS models are pretty cheap, for this kind of thing. The rrp is just $1299 for the 61-key version that I am reviewing. There is also an 88-key version of this keyboard with weighted keys, available for a rrp $1999. (No case with either, but you’’ll get a suitable soft case for about $80.) Multi-sounded keyboards typically cost so much more in NZ, you’’d sometimes be better off just using a MIDI controller and spending the money saved on some type of light-emitting suit, which would obviously improve your performance to no end.

Price aside, the first thing I noticed about Korg’s KROSS 61 was how amazingly light it was, at an easily lifted 4.3kg. Great for gigs where there aren’’t any nearby car parks – even the most feeble player could manage taking this around on their own. You could probably even take it on a bike or skateboard, if you are confident you’re not going to fall. Also, it has a handle, behind the central screen, which would make it super easy to pack up and down – perhaps even do some flamboyant key-tar style dance moves with it.

The KROSS has a kind of modern retro look to it – as if they were going to remake Star Wars, but make it about musicians. It also comes in red, which I understand is very hip at the moment. There’’s an adaptor, of course, but it can also be powered by six AA batteries, which should give you about four hours of off-the-grid playing time.

There are 61 keys on this model and I think that’’s a perfect amount. In combination with the octave buttons, and a keyboard split function, this is totally sweet.

The manual is nice and small, which I’’m really into, though I didn’’t need to read it anyway. Getting around this keyboard’s sounds is just like most other Korg workstations – which admittedly can be a little difficult at first for newcomers. The KROSS however, has a general keyboard-style knob, which makes it much easier to find all of the classic sound banks on first try. Then you can edit the sounds to a degree, and save them to the many ‘favourite’ buttons at the front.

The hard data reveals that it offers 112 Mb of Wave ROM with 420 multi-samples, 890 drum samples, 900 preset programs and 380 combinations. Programs can be browsed and chosen with the Sound Selector knobs, data wheel, cursor buttons and the Favorites buttons. Four banks of 16 Favorites are available. Programs, Combis, Sequences (both 16-track and step) can be stored as Favorites for easy recall. Five insert effects and two master effects can be used per Program/Combi/Sequence. An onboard multi-track audio recorder can store to SD or SDHX cards. Keyboard performances and audio (vocals, line input for guitars, etc) can both be captured – even simultaneously.

Now, for the most important part (as far as I’’m concerned) of any keyboard review: does it sound good? Well, actually, the Kross has pretty decent Rhodes, organ and piano sounds. Yay!

There are about 50 sounds for each style keyboard, and they cover a wide range of sounds. Most importantly, they seem to be making a pretty good attempt at sounding like the real thing. Of course you can’t beat the ‘real thing’, but carting around a Rhodes or an organ can be full of annoyances. Pianos are also obviously impossible to get anywhere… don’t get me started on repair and physio costs…

The bass, synth and pad sounds are not bad either, if you’’re into them. There’’s an arpeggiator button, which I’’ve always been a fan of, and of course there’’s the classic pitch bender and modulation wheel, which everybody loves.

Like most multi-sounded keyboards, there are also the usual strings, brass, bells, guitar and drum sounds. I’’m not sure what to say about these things because I never use them. I’’m sure they have their place in music somewhere… who knows where music will go in the near future and what will become fashionable.

This KROSS has a very light action, which many won’t like, but I don’’t mind. It could be described as being a bit ‘cheap’ feeling, but then this keyboard is anything but expensive, so that’’s surely forgiveable.

The 16-track sequencer (with overwrite and overdub modes and dual polyphonic arpeggiator) wouldn’t get much use from me, but is a potentially handy thing for those playing without laptops, or perhaps doing gigs in casinos – or for quickly recording ideas, and storing them too. (I didn’t have time enough to try any serious recording on it unfortunately.) I gather that this is one of the cheapest Korg keyboards that comes with sequencer.

The KROSS also has a ‘drum programmer’ feature, in which you can program your drumbeats using the ‘favourite’ buttons along the front. They light up when you push them and it makes drum sounds! The 700 onboard drum patterns have editable Trigger Mode, Key Range and Latch.

Onboard effects (over 100 of them) can be run straight, in series, or parallel and different effects can be assigned to individual drums. Oh, and there’s a Vocoder as well.

Rounding all this up, I think the KROSS 61 represents a good buying option for those for whom a specific strength of set of keyboard sounds is not imperative, those who are yet on their way to developing their synth skill set, or perhaps will use it as a second instrument. Great too for vocalists wanting to use WAV/MIDI backings that come in a flexible and very convenient package.

I’’d never want to spend tons of money on a workstation, so if I was going to get one, this would perhaps be it. The decent piano, Rhodes and organ sounds have me sold. Also, the keyboard’’s super-light weight made me feel like I was incredibly strong, which is always a plus.

Finn Scholes is an Auckland-based trumpeter, keyboardist and filmmaker in cinematic jazz five-piece Carnivorous Plant Society.