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Korg Krome

February 21, 2013

KORG’S FIRST workstation was the M1 keyboard workstation, introduced back in 1988. Tricked out with a 4MB sample ROM and an 8-track sequencer holding up to 4,400 notes, its amenities included a relatively generous and marginally configurable complement of effects, with proprietary memory cards allowing as much as 512K of additional samples. An additional card slot allowed room for programs, combinations, and more sequencer memory. Times change: Today, Korg’s Krome workstation comfortably accommodates a nearly-4GB sample ROM dressed in a powerful synthesis engine, flexible program and combination options, and an equally flexible and powerful sequencer that is ready to jump in and record at the touch of a button. Sixty-one-, 73-, and 88-key versions are available; I reviewed the 88-key instrument.

Well-Planned Work Surface The first thing I noticed was Krome’s relatively light weight: substantial, but far from unwieldy. Its sleek, slightly wedge-shaped profile is more than an aesthetic choice; the display and control panel are canted slightly forward for a better viewing angle, especially onstage. Generally speaking, I am more accustomed to semi-weighted synth-action keyboards, but Krome’s weighted keys are easy enough to get used to. Another nice touch is the unit’s illuminated joystick; its light marks each axis, making it easier to choose modulation or pitch bend without moving too far afield when you are on a darkened stage or dimly lit studio. A pair of switches above the joystick let you assign Control-Change messages, change octaves, turn portamento or user modulation sources on and off, and more. Switches glow a bright blue when engaged, making it even easier to take stock of operational status in the heat of performance.

The realtime fun begins with a Select switch that chooses the assignments of four knobs: Tone (filter settings), a user-definable set, and arpeggiator controls. The Tone section offers enough control for general realtime tweaking or major timbral adjustments without getting deep into Krome’s considerable synthesis engine. Responses to filter tweaks are smooth, and cutoff and resonance changes are devoid of zipper noise.

The Arpeggiator controls let you adjust the notes from a tight staccato to a smeared legato, make the velocity varied or uniform, and move from straight note values though swing and all the way to dotted performance. (You can adjust the number of steps in real time.) A pop-up readout on the instrument’s generous display provides feedback on parameter adjustments. (Disable the pop-up to tweak by ear.)

Next to the realtime knobs is a pair of Mode buttons: Media, and Global. The former lets you save and load sequencer and patch data to SD cards, and the latter sets up transposition, Master Tuning, and the Velocity Curve, and much more. You can also toggle Krome’s effects on and off, which saves a lot of hunting and pecking when printing tracks that may favor outboard processing. Likewise, you can toggle arpeggiators and drum tracks, which are available for each and every patch. Krome often provides several ways to accomplish the same task: For instance, to turn features on and off, use touchscreen switches in the display or those on Krome’s top panel. Change a value by rotating the Value dial, using increment/ decrement buttons, or by dragging your finger on the value in the display. It’s hard to go wrong, even if you’re in a hurry.

Detail of the touchscreen.
Display of Power
I’ve always gravitated toward Korg’s ergonomic workflow, and Krome’s generous, information-packed touchscreen ups the ante immensely. The top level of the Program display is a work of ergonomic art, allowing access to the most important tweaks you might want to grab, such as basic filter frequency and resonance values or transposition. Tabs on the screen let you get to just about any parameter, with hopping between menu and page buttons kept to a minimum.

Depending on the context, hitting the Page button exposes Krome’s deeper patch-editing options for programs or combinations, global parameters, sequence and pattern parameters, and more. The beauty of the Page button is that it is only a single page deep, and all related parameters, such as tunings or MIDI setup (in the Global Page, for instance) are accessed from tabs nested in each page.

The touchscreen elevates Krome’s onboard sequencer into a class by itself, with the ability to poke and grab individual notes in the pianoroll screen and change pitch, duration, location, and controllers. That makes it one of the few onboard sequencers I wouldn’t mind using.

Feed Your Muse Krome seems designed to feed your muse from the get-go. Sometimes the most inspiring song starters are in Combination mode—and carefully layered, split, switched, and processed combos are difficult if not impossible to replicate in a keyboard sequencer, most of which operate on a strict, single program-to-track basis. With a single button press, Krome’s Auto Song Setup command will dutifully copy every one of the combination’s parameters, including splits and effects routings, across multiple tracks, which are simultaneously record-enabled. It’s a great solution to the muse-crushing task of re-creating a combination part by part and parameter by parameter.

Every patch has an accompanying arpeggiator and drum pattern. The grooves are well-mated with the patches, but a quick trip to the display lets you find the patterns you’re looking for if you have something else in mind, so it’s just a little easier to quickly audition a sudden inspiration against a rhythm track.

With nearly 4GB of samples, Krome covers lots of ground ranging from conventional pianos and brass to dance and electronic music production and cinematic scoring. Most of the piano sample data is derived from the Kronos sample library, complete with unlooped, full-decay samples covering the entire range of the instrument; not a wobbly sustain loop or a tweezed-sounding high note in the lot. The Krome Grand Piano works just fine as a solo instrument or centerpiece in a composition. Among the electric pianos, I was hard pressed to tear myself away from the E. Piano Mark 1 Phaser patch, which faithfully evoked the sounds of Joe Zawinul and Don Grolnick.

Pads gravitate to the warm and delicate side, ranging from more traditional, placid beds to pads with all sorts of motion, including tempo-synced filters, panning, and more. Basses were full and punchy. I found a few dubstep-type sounds in that category, but there’s a huge supply of timbres to customize to taste. Some of the upright bass patches (and there are a number of variations) are rich and full, with a satisfying, throaty growl. The drums (also derived from Kronos) are the best I’ve heard in a keyboard workstation; thanks to generous velocity layering, there’s plenty of variation from stroke to stroke. Mix and match from a wide variety of kit pieces.

Krome Polish The effects setup in Krome is about as flexible as those in any workstation I’ve used, with six inserts, two master bus effects, and a final, output-stage, Total Effect. This function lets you treat sounds individually so that edgy, distorted sounds can sit alongside more pristine instruments with little compromise. The additional three bands of EQ for up to 16 programs help everything coexist peacefully.

As easy as it is to program from the touchscreen, Krome ships with editor/ librarian software; the instrument’s USB connectivity rapidly syncs the instrument with the editor, and changes made in the editor are reflected on the touchscreen. Likewise, tweaks from the keyboard update the editor. The USB port also furnishes MIDI I/O to your favorite DAW, and The Krome driver showed up as an external instrument in Apple Logic 9.1.8 without a hitch. If you need to take your sequencer and patch data around sans computer, you’ll be grateful for the SD card slot on the rear panel. With support for capacities up to 32GB, you’re more than likely to have enough room for many set lists’ worth of patches, sequences, and MIDI files.

With so much to like about Krome, there are a couple of compromises in moving an 88- key instrument into a more affordable price point. I might wish for more than a single stereo pair of outputs, but the instrument’s versatile internal effects-busing capabilities go a long way toward easing the pain when you need to play dense sequences. I miss Aftertouch as a more tactile and direct part of a synthesizer’s expressive modulation palette. And it’s not a big deal, but I question the decision to opt for an 1/8" headphone jack over the more traditional 1/4" output. Nevertheless, the $1,599 street price is a big deal here, with an 88-key, weighted-action instrument stuffed with nearly 4GB of samples, prodigious effects routing, and a user interface you can get tight with quickly. All in all, I could easily rely on the Korg Krome as a desert island synth, with an abundant supply of sounds, plenty of effects, a slick sequencer, and a workflow second to none.

Marty Cutler is a former assistant editor for Electronic Musician, a sound designer, and a bluegrass banjo player of note (or many notes).

STRENGTHS: Touchscreen provides intuitive workflow. Huge library of sounds, with gorgeous, unlooped pianos and velocity switched drums. MIDI connectivity via USB. Flexible sequencer and effects routing.

LIMITATIONS: No Aftertouch. Single stereo output; 1/8" headphone jack.

$999 (61-key); $1,199 (73-key); $1,599 (88-key)

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