Arturia Origin Keyboard Review

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FIG. 1: The Origin Keyboard updates Arturia''s first hardware synthesizer, the Origin, previously available only as a rackmountable tabletop module. Among other features, it adds a versatile ribbon controller and duophonic aftertouch.

Arturia, best known for its faithful software emulations of classic analog synthesizers, made a huge splash two years ago with its first hardware synth, the Origin. The Origin supplied many of Arturia''s finest virtual instruments in a rackmountable tabletop module, making it perfectly suitable for use onstage or anywhere that setting up a computer would be cumbersome or inconvenient. Now the French manufacturer has introduced an even more self-contained system: the Origin Keyboard.

Like the tabletop model, the Origin Keyboard models six classic synths—the ARP 2600, Moog Minimoog, Roland Jupiter-8, Sequential Prophet-5 and Prophet VS, and Yamaha CS-80—and lets you combine virtual circuits from different instruments. It also has an organ tonewheel generator, a Bode-style frequency shifter, step sequencing, and ring modulation, as well as an oscillator and a filter unique to the Origin''s sound engine. You can read more details about the Origin''s architecture in EM''s March 2009 Origin review. This review will focus mainly on new features, many of which are available as a free download to owners of the previous model.

The Origin Keyboard''s control panel is identical to that of the desktop Origin. It is permanently connected to the keyboard controller by means of a rotating hinge (see Fig. 1). The panel opens to a fixed angle and folds down for transporting the instrument. I''d much rather the angle were adjustable because it can be difficult to see the 320x236-pixel color backlit LCD clearly if you aren''t viewing it from the correct angle—for instance, if you''re standing. Adjusting the contrast doesn''t help much. Another minor inconvenience is the location of the power switch, which is near the middle of the rear panel and beneath the control panel. From the front, you have to extend your wrist around the control panel to reach it.

The 61-note keyboard has a nice semiweighted action. It produces velocity and aftertouch, and you can use the joystick to graphically adjust the velocity curve''s five breakpoints and the aftertouch curve''s three breakpoints. I like this setup better than fixed preset curves because you can tailor the response to your individual playing style. On the instrument''s left side are assignable pitch-bend and modulation wheels that feel like hard rubber, two octave switches with color LEDs that indicate if pitch is transposed one or two octaves up or down, and an assignable ribbon controller. The flat portion above the keyboard''s right side is easily large enough for a computer keyboard, and despite some overhang, the Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard I positioned there felt quite secure.

The rear panel is also identical to that of the original Origin, with balanced inputs and outputs, coaxial S/PDIF out, three MIDI jacks, USB, and more. A quiet internal fan on the right side of the keyboard housing keeps the entire instrument cool.

Startup takes about 48 seconds after you flip the power switch. You''ll want to turn down your amplification or mixer channel during startup because the instrument produces a slight thump just before it''s ready to play, even when you turn down the Master Level knob.

If the 46-pound Origin Keyboard has a weak spot (other than its weight), it''s the display (see Fig. 2). Although I appreciated having a color LCD, it''s slightly smaller than those on workstations from Korg, Yamaha, and Roland. I might understand its smaller size if it were a touchscreen, but it isn''t. And because the resolution isn''t as sharp as I''d like, some onscreen text is so small that it''s difficult to read no matter how close you get. Considering how essential visual feedback is to working with software-based synthesis, a larger display is the first thing I''d want in an instrument like this. And in an age of tactile telephones and tablets, the Origin cries out for a touchscreen, even if it would drive up the price.

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FIG. 2: The Origin Keyboard''s flip-up control panel is identical to the original Origin and comprises 54 knobs, 81 buttons, a joystick, and a backlit color LCD.

The Origin was a terrific platform right from the beginning, and updates have enhanced its user interface and functionality even more. For example, playing multichannel presets (multis) from the keyboard or a DAW is more straightforward than it used to be. You can assign each program within a multi to a zone and assign each zone to a MIDI channel. Because each of the four zones can have its own channel, MIDI CCs can address specific zones. In addition, you can assign hardware controllers such as the pitch-bend wheel and ribbon to affect only the zones you desire. You can specify a note range for each zone by defining its low and high notes, by either playing them on the keyboard or turning the value knob.

On the Program page, the Performance tab reveals settings for real-time controllers—the ribbon, aftertouch, the pitch-bend and mod wheels, and an optional expression pedal. The 16.5-inch ribbon is fully programmable and can modulate any destination available to other mod sources. You can also use it to trigger notes, playing it like a keyboard. Most of the time, though, you''ll probably use it to bend pitch. It can change pitch any amount from one to 48 semitones up and down from its zero point, with a smooth glissando or stepped quantization. By default, the ribbon''s center is its zero point, but if you change the setting from Absolute to Relative, the zero point is anywhere you place your fingertip. You can also specify how fast the ribbon''s value returns to zero when you lift your finger: slowly, quickly, instantly, or not at all.

While controlling pitch bend, using my fingertip to stroke or hammer on the ribbon at different return-to-zero settings produced all sorts of musically interesting results. I noticed that although the ribbon responds over most of its length, the active area at its bottom extreme was half an inch further from its edge than its top extreme; I had to avoid sliding all the way down to keep it from returning to zero. Arturia assured me that a fix is in the works.

I was quite impressed with Arturia''s rather ingenious trick called duophonic aftertouch, a type of note priority I''ve never seen before. With channel aftertouch—the type produced by virtually all keyboards that support aftertouch—pressing down on a key affects all notes being played on the same MIDI channel. With key (also called polyphonic) aftertouch, pressure affects only the note triggered by the key being pressed and not other notes playing at the same time. Unfortunately, key aftertouch can produce enough data to bring your DAW to its knees. With duophonic aftertouch, keyboard pressure affects only the lowest, highest, or last note played, depending on the setting. With careful playing technique, you can mimic key aftertouch without risking any data overflow. I hope other synth manufacturers adopt duophonic aftertouch in future instruments.

The Origin''s newest sound engine is called ToneWheel. It''s used to create drawbar organ sounds, and you can layer two ToneWheel generators simultaneously. It furnishes nine drawbars, along with controls for tuning, hardness, click, percussion, and other parameters. Paired with the Origin''s new rotary speaker effect, the ToneWheel template lets you quickly program realistic Hammond B-3-type sounds.

Both editions of the Origin—the tabletop module and the keyboard—come with Origin Connection (Mac/Win), an application for storing presets and installing OS updates. I was hoping the software would make it possible to transfer data to the Origin from Prophet-V, CS-80V, and other Arturia soft synths. If Origin Connection could do that, users would have an extensive, ready-made supply of downloadable programs created by top sound designers. However, the Origin''s data structure is so different from that of the soft synths that exchanging sounds is impossible.

I highly recommend the Origin Keyboard. It''s an inspiring piece of well-designed gear at a fair price. It isn''t cheap, but you get a tremendous amount of sound engine for your money. Although the Origin has lots of useful and interesting factory programs, it''s one of those synthesizers obviously designed with programmers in mind. If you like to build sounds from scratch, you could spend many happy hours and years exploring and programming the Origin Keyboard. If live performance is your gig, it could very effectively take the place of half a dozen vintage keyboards onstage. I was especially impressed by the well-thought-out versatility of the ribbon controller, which may be reason enough to prefer the keyboard model over the module.

The Origin platform is subject to frequent updates, and version 1.3 should be available by the time you read this. It will add desirable functions such as macro programming, sample-and-hold, and a compressor effect, as well as a new Jupiter-8 programming template and the ability to store favorites. Such capabilities will only add value to an instrument any synthesist would be happy to own. By so successfully emulating classic keyboards, the Origin Keyboard has itself become one.

Former EM senior editor Geary Yelton has reviewed synthesizers for EM since its very first issue. He lives in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, N.C.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Arturia Origin Keyboard product page.