numanero

There’s a curious distinction in hardware keyboards. You’ll find plenty of keyboards geared for performance with software at the low-end to mid-range. But if you want a keyboard with uncompromising durability and action – and you’re willing to pay more and lift more weight – those choices suddenly disappear. Suddenly, you have to buy a workstation keyboard or something with built-in sounds or even built-in speakers. What if you want a really uncompromising keyboard to use with software and nothing else?

It’s almost as though manufacturers assume “serious” musicians want to gig with built-in sounds on a standalone keyboard. That’s a pretty stunning assumption in the year 2009, given the versatility, reliability, and unmatched sound quality and diversity of software instruments. If you’re looking for a controller alone, your options are limited. M-Audio, Novation, and others have some great affordable options, but nothing really high-end. Roland, Yamaha, and Casio have some nice controllers, but the higher-end models aren’t dedicated to the task, and therefore there’s no way to dedicate all your dollars to the controller itself. (Dig deeper, and there’s still more sacrifices to make – yes, you can have x, but then we take away y…) My short list would probably be Doepfer’s lovely keyboard in a road case and Studiologic – and that’s about it.

Studiologic’s new Numa Nero, therefore, looks like the serious controller a lot of us have been waiting for. It’s a full, 88-note keyboard made for serious musicians. Yes, part of it is plastic, but plastic doesn’t necessarily mean “cheap” – good-quality plastic can be more durable than other materials. And the design itself finally focuses on getting you the best-possible keybed and action, assuming your software will take care of the sound generation.

  • Graded hammer action (essential for piano players, as it makes the lower end heavier than the higher end)
  • The last key mechanism design by late Fatar founder/designer Lino Ragni
  • Double-dipped, “full-body” solid black keys – not hollow black keys. (The press release points out that most digital pianos have hollow keys, which is something I can verify. Unless you play in C major all the time, this is a major problem.)
  • 20 dynamic curve settings which “sense” playing in real-time and respond accordingly. It sounds like the piano action equivalent of anti-lock brakes; I have to try it to understand what they mean!
  • 4 zones with independent velocity curves, MIDI, program, pedal, and control settings
  • Two pedal inputs, plus an illuminated side wheel controller. (The side is an unusual place for a wheel, but I could still see being able to reach it live.)

numanero_close

Now, what’s missing from all of this is a control surface, which bothered me initially – you don’t, for instance, get faders to use as drawbars. Upon reflection, though, I actually think having all that empty space is a huge advantage. If you’re an organ player, you can add a drawbar controller. If you’re controlling unusual instruments, you could add a touchscreen-equipped laptop. Or add a monome. You get the idea.

And the best feature of all may be this: “An aluminum back piece slides out to support another keyboard, sound module, or laptop, without the need for another stand.”

No, my only remaining gripe is that, while the keyboard supports aftertouch, it’s monophonic aftertouch, not polyphonic. Poly aftertouch seems to be a dying breed, but it would certainly have qualified this keyboard as “ultimate.” I’m nonetheless dying to play the Numa Nero. I’ve been waiting a long time for a worthy controller that doesn’t try to make sounds or arrange beats for you or do anything other than talk to your software setup, and this could be it.

US$1274, which goes to prove my point – focus entirely on the controller, and you can keep the cost low without compromise. Weight: 57.3 ponds.

There’s also a 22-pound Numa Nano coming at winter NAMM; keep your eyes out for that one – if it could be just as brilliantly-designed but more liftable, it could be the perfect companion, a nano on the road and a Nero back in the studio (or when you’ve got transport).

Numa Nero Product Page

And yes, it’s worth considering the entire Studiologic range. Ironically, the line they call “vintage” is the one with lots of added controls. They’re absurdly cheap for the quality, have action that can beat most of the pricier options out there, and immensely logical designs that pack maximum playability into the weight and form factor. The designs are, charitably, “workmanlike,” but if it’s more playable, who cares? I also understand they’re easy to service. Now, the only remaining question is why the Italian-based Studiologic seems to be so alone in getting this area right.

  • flip

    Any word on how much the Nano will cost?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    No pricing yet; I'm assuming they'll announce the Nano price at NAMM.

  • http://www.proemland.com proem

    its as though they were listening in on my thoughts… i HATE control surfaces on midi controllers… i have three control surfaces already why would i want another?

  • synthetic

    No pitch wheel? Arrghgh! Was this designed by a musician or a sculptor? :P

    Fatar used to mean something when the keybeds were made in Italy. (SL-1100, etc.) When they moved that to China the quality really suffered. Hopefully this is a better example but the ones I've tried for the last few years have been not great.

    I'd love to see a controller with wooden keys and optical sensors for aftertouch and velocity (instead of the papery plastic strip everyone uses that feels terrible). Best I've found is the Kawai MP8II, but it's a digital piano and it's very tall. I'm willing to invest a bit of money in this and I think a lot of other people would, too.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @synthetic: Yeah, I agree, still some more things I'd like to have come together.

    I actually don't mind plastic keys if they get the weight right. But while sacrificing a control surface is no problem, it'd be nice not to lose pitch + mod (both of which are on the Doepfer, btw).

  • http://www.zenarchery.com Joshua

    Man, I lucked out massively — I got an older Studiologic 88 key controller from Sam Ash for $60 a few years ago — it had shipped with some kind of problem and they couldn't sell it and were using it as a floor model.

    It's a bit beat up, but it works really well, and I don't move it a whole lot — at something like 80 pounds, I'm not lugging it around for local gigs.

    This thing is cool. If I had need to upgrade, I'd buy this. As is, I'm considering building my Mac Mini into the Studiologic's case to use it as a sort of hardware platform for Reason. :-)

  • plurgid

    you mentioned CME.

    Good Gawd. I'm not even sure I can begin to describe the awfulness that is my CME controller.

    The hardware itself is quality enough, but the firmware is so *incredibly* buggy, even the most recent version. The process to upgrade your firmware is undocumented, the installer is a laughable cut-and-paste assembly of what are no doubt example code tidbits gleaned from google. Support will not help you. Period.

    The hardware would be good, IF the &%$#@#$% firmware worked, and really, for the most part it doesn't.

    Don't buy CME, until they get their act together. It's not worth the money you'll save, just get a Novation or something.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @plurgid: Yipes, good to know. Actually, on reflection I'm going to revise that statement. The CME action is good enough, but I don't really know you need the motorized control surface on there, I'm not entirely convinced on the servicing issue, and for the action it's still in roughly the same class as some of these other instruments, even without getting into firmware issues. (I can't speak to the firmware question; I'm not familiar with that.)

  • poorsod

    "US$1274, which goes to prove my point – focus entirely on the controller, and you can keep the cost low without compromise."

    is that a typo?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @poorsod: No, it's not a typo.

    Studiologic has controllers with hammer action, some of which are under $200. And because on some models the action of the controller keyboard is tied to other functionality, you could easily wind up spending twice as much as that for a similar model.

    Now, of course, it's impossible to talk about price without being partly culpable in the migration of manufacturing from countries like Italy (also where Roland had previously done a lot of manufacturing) to countries like China. That's not to say Chinese manufacturers aren't capable of producing quality that meets or exceeds the Italian vendors, but if the *reason* for the move is price, it's unlikely that quality alone can prevail. And so we have an industry-wide trend that puts cost first. That issue is complex, as even independent makers can tell you who have tried to source, say, circuit board printing. But it does illuminate this question of where our priorities are, and I think that's worth more investigation.

  • http://www.renoise.com Bantai

    <q cite="product site"> 1 assignable FLUORESCENT wheel</q>

    That round thing on the left side… Maybe you can use it as a pitch/mod wheel?

  • http://www.chromedecay.org Joshua Schnable

    It's great to see Studiologic move their line forward from the ages-old style of the SL and VMK series. Peter, you may have missed this, but on the product page it says it can be powered via USB – that's a huge, huge plus.

  • Optional Ortega

    I looooove my Studiologic VMK 188 Plus. The action is fantastic, much better than CME, M-Audio or Roland in my opinion. I bought mine to replace my original workhorse controller, a Peavey DPM C8, after it decided to become unreliable after 15 years of nonstop abuse. One thing to note about most Studiologic controllers: They will probably arrive damaged. I had to go through THREE before one arrived that didn't have a smashed or cracked end cap or key. After a little searching online it seems this is not uncommon at all. The controllers aren't packed for squat and one spill on the back of a UPS truck could spell cosmetic disaster. I almost held out for the Numa but really like the control surface integrated into the VMK. Plus, the VMK is almost half the price with essentially the exact same keybed.

  • http://www.melodiefabriek.nl Marco Raaphorst

    where can I put my laptop?

    it needs more rock and roll

  • fluxmov

    @flip: thomann.de wants 698 EUR for the NUMA NANO (not yet available, of course).

    I love my tank-like Doepfer LMK1V2 that I bought some years ago from a friend… yet I wish it had some faders or a mod wheel.

  • mediawest

    no controllers or wheels… nah…. dont need five controllers on my workstations…. love the new axiom much more…. key weight is good also…. this reminds me of my old korg T1…

  • JonYo

    @Bantai: If that side wheel doesn't have a spring-load mechanism to return it to center when you let go like a rregular pitch wheel, then it's not going to work as a pitch wheel replacement in a performance situation. I assume it's just the usual mod-wheel, no spring load, with 0 at full-forward rather than center. I do like placement on the side though, that's way more natural for me.

  • JavaJ

    Those crazy Italians- putting the mod wheel on the side like that. I checked the site and they offer a customization program (you can choose the case color, aluminum color, and add a logo)- now that is cool.

  • kobe

    i totally would have bought this instead of my motif ES8 a couple years ago.

  • Karbon8

    Sorry to throw this in slightly off-topic, but what are the other hammer-action keyboards ie. the Yamaha kx8, M-audio Keystation pro and CME 88 key one like in terms of the keys (any others?) ?

  • Dude

    waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay overpriced

    i have a fully weighted 88 key keyboard from the 90's that was made as a practice piano with shit stock sounds and has midi out

    go to craigslist. they are out there and probably free

    mine was.

  • http://www.2twenty2.com Stephen Parker

    Great to see these keyboards getting some deserved coverage.

    I used to distribute Fatar and I was lucky enough to be present when Fatar decided on some of the features for what became the NUMA and now the Numa Nero – both of which have graded keys, but the NUMA Nero has wooden keys of a slightly different design, but both of which should comfortably surpass the feel of most other controller keyboards.

    A few people have commented on the design in the past – the keyboard was designed by Axel Hartmann (Alesis Andromeda, various Waldorf and Access keyboards and his Neuron), and one reason that the control wheel is on the left is that as a Piano, you wouldn't normally find a pitch controller on the same surface as the keybed – this keyboard is all about the feel and the quality.

    The sliding Aluminium panel is to enable the player to decide what they want to use as a controller – you can easily fit (for example) a laptop and control surface on the back securely and without affecting your ability to play.

    Someone mentioned earlier that these keyboards were made in China – completely incorrect still made at the factory in Recanati.

    Lastly – the name – we wanted to avoid calling the keyboard something like the Pro88xy… when Fatar had us over, we were staying on the Adriatic coast in the town of NUMANA – hence NUMA.

    I had a play on the NUMA nano at Frankfurt and it too should be a worthy addition to the line

    Steve

  • daniel

    got an sl990 xp for about 380 euro last year, i think it was a special offer, can't remember.

    very nice price for the action (although playing on a grand piano obviously feels much better). lack of usb isn't an issue because it's always plugged in, plus no additional usb port is taken on my laptop. lack of controls isn't an issue because the keyboard is stationary so lugging around multiple items doesn't happen and i'd rather have a good dedicated controller with illuminated rotary encoders. i guess it all depends on your needs, i don't really use my nocturn much…

    i wasn't so sure about it before i bought it, but now i think that the action really is close to the only thing that matters in a keyboard controller so it's important to try out the keyboards. incidentally i heard many good things about doepfers but when i got the chance to try them i was utterly disappointed for some reason… i remember also not liking the keystation pro. the cme88 wasn't bad, i can't remember anymore why i didn't buy it.

    well the kx8 has a yamaha keybed but i passed it for the lack of expression input, but that could have been added into the midi chain with midi solutions hardware for 120 eur. sadly there is no aftertouch in the sl990xp or the kx8 keyboards, and i think the vmk series' action actually felt different…dunno anymore. i think i read an official kawai statement on a forum that they didn't include aftertouch in their keyboards because it makes the action muddy, but not sure. maybe i'm going to buy a light-weighted organ action keyboard with aftertouch some day… might as well get hardware drawbards and bass pedals, right? lol.

    i also tried stage pianos for their beds and liked the mp8ii a lot. the mp5 was nice too, but the price difference between the mp5 and the sl990xp was enough for me to think it'd be better to spend the money on music software instead because i didn't plan on using the mp5 for its internal sounds anyway…

    sometimes i did wish i could just turn the studiologic on and play, but after having bought pianoteq that wish didn't really come up much anymore.

  • andrew zero

    1200 dollars? is that warrented here? its a 88key controller with great action. the price point seems off.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, this is irony –

    In the same thread, we have people complaining (incorrectly) that this instrument is made in China.

    We also have people complaining that it's too expensive.

    China, of course, like Italy has an instrument building technique spanning centuries, so this is in no way commenting on the ability of the Chinese people to make terrific instruments. But certainly, wherever things are made, if price comes first, you can't simultaneously complain about quality. If you want stuff that lasts, a non-disposable musical culture, then you have to be willing to pay more.

    And yes, I can absolutely, positively say that design decisions have a BIG impact on cost. Think about multiplying the cost of a part times 88 KEYS. And each key is an entire mechanism. This isn't rocket science, folks, it's basic arithmetic. Studiologic makes nice keyboards for under US$200, though, so if you're on a budget, look at the rest of their line. Simple as that.

  • http://www.jonathanleonard.com jonathan adams leona

    I'm also a fan of Fatar keybeds and recently picked up an SL-880 on craigslist. Its a few years old but still a great consistent action, and the new NUMA must be incredible to play. But I wanted to point out that the used models of the SL-1100 and 880 are still awesome controllers. The best part is that they are fairly easy to service. My used SL-880 after only playing for a few weeks developed a velocity problem on one of the keys. Ughhh maybe not such a great deal after all. I contacted the fatar distributor here in the US to find out if I could get some part numbers and maybe order a fix. They don't sell directly, but mentioned one of their dealers that sells their parts.

    I ordered some replacement velocity strips and in the meantime set about opening the SL-880 up and taking a look.

    The inside is quite simple and the keybed comes out easily. I was able to remove and clean the existing silicon contact strips as I have done in the past to restore analog synths like oberheims. In fact I recognized that the strips were the same as oberheim! IN the past I have used ionic surfactant solution to take away oxides, but some regular soap and water worked for this guy. Anyhow, the short of it is its working great again and I have an entire replacement set of silicon strips should anything happen. The self servicing aspect of a keyboard is actually really important to me since I have worked as a keyboard tech previously.

    I now see these same boards on CL for $150-$250. Connected to awesome software like truepianos, its quite a deadly combo. Ever try and take apart a keystation pro 88 when you are on tour and out of the country? Its not fun.

    The parts dealer I contacted was The Midi Store (www.midi-store.com) whom I was told is very good about keeping plenty of stock of fatar parts. They helped me confirm and determine the correct part numbers and gave me a great price.

    Compared to the yamaha attitude of 'we will sell our customers a new motif every 2 years' right from Athan's mouth, I am pleased as punch to have a wonderful controller that I can fix myself, and connect to OSX windows or 64studio or receptor to run the best possible VI dujour. As a standard, I would recommend an approach like this.

    Hopefully the NUMA (hands in the air!) will be as easy to work on. ;)

    Also, for the person who mentioned tricking out theirs with a mac mini – I was thinking the same thing! IN fact I think you might fit a mac mini and an RME Fireface UC, which the mini would need for low latency pro audio.

    Thanks for the heads up Peter it looks like a sweet board!

    jonathan adams leonard

  • nesdnuma

    Yes, the lack of polyphonic aftertouch on current keyboards is really a pity!

  • Batarang

    I'm sure they are excellent quality and worth every penny when you're talking about graduated action wood keys, but that's still too steep of a price for me. I probably won't be able to find a place to demo them in my area; that would be the only way I could tell for sure if its worth the investment.

  • Esol Esek

    I played the Korg M50 machine gun keyboard, the one with the extra-special action, and it was such great fun to play. TOo bad it's $1500. Reminded me of a real piano. The feeling was very inspiring. I'm not dissing plastic keyboards, but weighted keys do something for me. Personally, also cant stand those minikeys, its like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

  • http://web.me.com/fantasongsmusic Michael

    I had an SL-880 for over 10 years. I loved that thing. Just got the NUMA NERO a few months ago and all I can say to anyone who loves the feel of a Grand Piano is buy this thing. It's unbelievable!!!

  • cavestudios

    Studiologic Numa Nero DISSAPOINTING !!!

    Let me start by saying that KAWAI really stuffed it up with the MP8 Mk II’s action. I think all professional piano players would agree that the MP8 Mk I has the best piano action ever assembled in a digital piano which sets the benchmark. In other words it has the closest action to a concert grand. Much better then Roland RD700sx/gx, Roland VPiano, Yamaha or anything else. Unfortunately KAWAI stopped making the MP8 Mk I and the only way of getting hold of one is second hand if you are lucky.

    It is quiet unbelievable that in this day and age when computers and soft pianos like Ivory are so good that you can’t find a decent controller with an authentic piano action. Surely couldn’t be that hard making one when they send a man to the moon.

    So the Studiologic Numa Nero seemed promising with the TP40/WOOD action. Here in Australia I waited for over a year to get one. Finally it arrived in February 2010 and WHAT A DISSAPOINTMENT. I tested the action without triggering any sounds first and most keys where making a squeaking noise. The keys felt cheep and stiff. There was no feeling of the hammer action it was just one continuous stiff motion from top to bottom. Then I tested it with triggering Ivory piano samples and the key velocities did not respond properly. I could play a note D3 and a note C3 with the same intensity and C3 would be half the volume of D3. Other notes would also either stick out or would be to soft. The whole action is generally flawed. There is also a problem when playing repeated notes softly it will suddenly give you a burst of midi velocity 127.

    With a price tag of $2300 AU dollars the cheep plastic finish and only one pedal it is no contender to the KAWAI MP8 Mk I.

    Needles to say I have returned the Numa Nero to the shop the next day.

  • greenmountains

    Sorry, but I've got to disagree with Cavestudios critique of the Kawai MP8 Mk1 vs Mk2. I've owned both and I like the Mk2 feel better, feels more natural, more authentic, more dynamic. Kawai 'succeed' in their new Mk2 key bed. Spefically, the Mk2's keys return "back to the top" position a bit faster and therefore feel a little less "mushy", a little less "sluggish" to me. We all have our opinions about key action; I for one like the newer MP8. I've not tried the Numa, but would like to.

  • vikeo

    i used to fatar numa nano and i happy

  • teflontdgr

    greenmountains – the MP8II is awful, man. Buyer's remorse much?

    I've read some stupid things about the VMK188+. People have been saying its action ranks above that of the RD700GX (one person in particular on the "musicplayer" forums, some idiot in a dream pop band – no experience with classical or jazz then! Just some bone-ordinary audiophile). Bollocks! It's a bit better than M-Audio, but not by much.

  • http://clavisound.gr Michales Michaloudes

    Great review. I have the Numa and I am completely satisfied.

    I have some problems though:

    1. Some keys are less sensitive (ex. C2). But I don't know if this is a simulation of real piano response! This instrument is so good that I don't bother.

    2. The hammer action is superb but too hard for me (personal taste). I think for studying is perfect :)

    3. Some keys indeed make some low noises. When you play soft and enjoy the sound (pianoteq or even old KORG X3! ) the sounds spoile some of the magic.

    Great instrument. I don't like to be called controller.

  • http://www.useddigitalpiano.net/ Ross Lesley

    I played the Korg M50 machine gun keyboard, the one with the extra-special action, and it was such great fun to play. TOo bad it’s $1500. Reminded me of a real piano. The feeling was very inspiring. I’m not dissing plastic keyboards, but weighted keys do something for me. Personally, also cant stand those minikeys, its like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

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  • guest

    StudioLogic has failed–for 3 years–to get their Mac firmware-updater to work, so all Mac users are completely screwed and stuck with the original, super-buggy OS.

    Avoid this keyboard like the plague!

    • Bubba Rubb

      Dude – I have a Numa and the action is BRILLIANT. Avoid the MAC like the plague