"I got a brand new pair of roller skates / you got a brand new keytar."

“I got a brand new pair of roller skates / you got a brand new keytar.”

Korg’s RK-100 turns 30 this year, marking a milestone for one of the first keytars. (KORG is using the term “keytar,” not the less-pleasant-sounding “strap-on,” and who am I to argue?)

It’s easy to forget that part of the reason that keytars made an appearance briefly in the mid-1980s was that the role of the synthesist had changed. This was not simply a ploy for keyboardists to prance about onstage. The rise of electro and synth pop meant that the keyboardists themselves had found a more central role in the music and sound, a lead, front-of-stage part in the band rather than as a rhythm section.

Then again, not everyone is Rick Wakeman, and old habits die hard — guitars are things worn on shoulders; pianos are not things worn on shoulders, apart from accordions, which have image problems of their own. The music descended into camp; the keytar descended into camp. And after the understated Roland SH-101, which added a tiny arm to an otherwise conventional keyboard, KORG, Yamaha, Casio, and later Roland went for splashier designs that probably should be left in the 80s.

Not that keytar advocates have given up. Roland’s AX- line was a hit. Herbie Hancock plays one. (Those four words balance out anything anyone else might say about the keytar.) When the AX-7 was discontinued, fans clamored to bring it back – and Roland responded. Alesis launched the Vortex, a more affordable alternative that adds drum pads; this year, it went wireless.

In celebrating their keytar’s thirtieth birthday, though, KORG has gone further. The new RK-100S is a “reimagining” of the original, not a remake – the polar opposite of last year’s MS-20 mini reissue. And that’s a good thing, too. The MS-20 synth holds up to modern demands in sound and connectivity; add MIDI, and it’s basically timeless. An original RK-100 is not something you’d want: it’s chunky, cheap, has no internal sounds, and lacks velocity sensitivity or useful controls beyond mod.

The RK-100S promises to be sexy new Battlestar Galactica to old Battlestar Galactica – Tricia Helfer and James Callis in place of a shiny tin can. (“Reimagined.”)

Click for high-res version.

Click for high-res version.

RK-100S – New Body, New Brains

Body. The first thing you need to know about the RK-100S is wood.

Yes, finally learning something from those guitar players and other instrumentalists, the RK-100S has a solid wood body. But wood is a wonderful material, both sturdy and light. Even with six AA batteries loaded, the total weight is still 3.4 kg (seven and a half pounds).

So, with choices of red, white, and serious-looking black, the RK-100S doesn’t look ridiculous. A 37-key keyboard will still look large on most people – this one is slim, but long, at 830 x 262 x 71 mm/32.68 x 10.32 x 2.80 inches. But the RK may be the best-looking keytar ever. And it’s mobile: it’ll run about four hours, KORG says, on those AA’s. (It’s a shame they don’t have a higher-capacity battery, though, especially as there’s room.)

Intelligently, at least, the RK trims down the way the MS-20 mini did – it shares the same mini keybed.

Ribbons and controls. Possibly the most sensible decision on the RK is finally getting the control complement right. There’s a short ribbon on the neck, plus – in a first for any major-manufacturer keytar – a long ribbon along the keys. This actually lets you be a little bit more like Rick Wakeman, since you can use the keys for discrete pitches and the ribbon for sweeping, long, continuous pitches. You can switch between “pitch” and “filter” (though not mod?!) on the neck. It’d be nice to see an additional mod control – the other controls you see are volume, pitch selection, and switches. But the ribbon probably makes up for that.

keytarsonstands

keytarside

Sound. KORG’s MMT (Multiple Modeling Technology) is onboard, providing a set of microKORG XL+ sounds from the same engine. It’s two-part multi-timbral with Layer, Split, or Multi, and you can use 8 voices at once (4 voices with the vocoder) – probably all you’d really want on a keytar.

MMT uses different modeling techniques, as the name implies. It’s real Virtual Analog, and the microKORG XL+ sounds really good (even if some of us favored the raunchier, lo-fi sounds of the original microKORG). And you therefore get a pretty flexible synthesis engine, heftier than what Roland’s AX-Synth provided when it was introduced five years ago.

Oscillator 1 can be driven by ana analog in, by PCM/DWGS playback, or modeled saw, pulse, tri, sine, formant, and noise. (Oscillator 2 has just the modeled waves.)

There’s waveform modulation, cross-modulation, unison, ring, sync, KORG’s VPM (frequency modulation) and combinations thereof. And thanks to MMT, you get wave shaping (DRIVE, DECIMATOR, HARDCLIP, OCT SAW, MULTI TRI, MULTI SIN, SUB OSC SAW, SUB OSC SQU, SUB OSC TRI, SUB OSC SIN, LEVEL BOOST), plus two selectable multi-mode filters.

There’s also an EQ and 17 master effects.

You get 200 programs based on this engine, though it appears, sadly, you can’t program your own – too bad with that engine inside. (I’m looking into that.)

And because everyone needs a vocoder…

Extras. KORG has added a 16-band vocoder with formant shift and formant hold. This will separate the electro men from the boys / women from the girls, if you can pull this off without looking ridiculous. Ahem. The sound should be familiar, though; again, it’s the microKORG XL+ engine.

There’s a mono mini jack which you could use for the mic or more creative uses.

Critical on a keytar, there’s also a basic arpeggiator, with step function, up, down, random, and other patterns.

There’s also MIDI out and USB, so you can still use this as a controller, as on the original.

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Pricing / Availability

Keep in mind that lovely wooden body, and let’s talk price.

US pricing hasn’t been set yet, but in Europe, £695 UK / 832€ pricing is set. That almost certainly includes VAT, though, so I would guess the US should be well under $1000. (My guess, not KORG’s.)

You just have to want a keytar. A microKORG XL+ costs you a fraction of that. On the other hand, this is a lot prettier, and potentially a lot more playable if you can adapt to keytar technique.

Comes with a case. Does not come with roller skates.

http://www.korg.com/us/products/synthesizers/rk_100s/index.php

  • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

    Wait? Who actually wants a keytar these days, seriously? And then: What about us left handed keyboard players? There is a reason why there exist left hand versions of the most popular guitar models out there – and yes, I know from own painful experience that they are a rare, expensive species…

    Also, I don’t get it: Since this is not wireless, and obviously depends on the USB connection, how can they make it a regular USB port with not cable protection? Worst case scenario on stage: You move forward one step while playing that crucial intro or synth solo, cable’s too short… Boink, song ruined. I think, wireless keytars are the only reasonable option if you would ever do such a thing.

    And yes, wooden bodies make a whole lot of sense for guitars, where part of the sound is how the strings resonate in the body and this whole physics goes into the pickups. But a keytar is basically sending digital data to an actual synth, so what’s the point? Make it plastic that weighs only 1-2 kg and every keyboardist’s back will thank you.

    The final thing I don’t get about this particular model is the placement of the second strap knob: It is *under* those right hand controls, at the bottom of the keytar, which doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Wouldn’t the keytar fall over all the time? Shouldn’t that knob be on the left/upper side of those controls?

    • Robert Dorschel

      To answer to Henry:
      1) Keyboards are ambidextrous instruments. The pitch/mod wheels have always been on the left, never seen a “lefty” synth.
      2) You’re right, why isn’t it wireless? but aside from that, most guitarists learn to wrap any cable up through the right side of the strap to prevent tug outages, so there’s no issue there.
      3) I understand your question on the weight of wood vs plastic, but believe me, you actually need the extra weight and heft to hold the thing down and relatively still in a playable zone, otherwise if you have too little weight, the strap will slide all over the place on your shoulder, and the thing will tip when you don’t want it too. Don’t believe me? Try strapping on a Casio SK-1. I did that once. Silly me.
      4) I questioned the right strap position too. But again, I get it; you need it there for two reasons: to have the strap hold back your cables, and you actually need the keybed to come forward up to your hand when you’re playing, otherwise the angle of your right hand gets tilted way up, like you’re pushing down with your palms.

      I just hope the thing has a reasonable price. AND I can’t believe it’s not programmable (a preset synth only? why? how hard would it be? There’s already librarians for the mK). Since it’s preset-only, the price should be low!

    • Robert Dorschel

      I don’t see any reason it would be dependent on a USB connection. It’s battery-powered and has the audio output on the front panel. I would use a right-angle cord for that, btw. You could use MIDI instead of the USB for MIDI out (way more reliable connection at the port, and universal too). If you need a USB-MIDI connector, just pick up one of those $5 USB-MIDI cable off of eBay.

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      Hi Robert,

      In fairness, I don’t think your answers are sufficient in this case.

      1. I know that. I am left handed and it has taken me quite some time to find the “right” guitars that would fit my idea of sound, playability, looks – and cost. And I am aware that instruments for left handed people are a niche market, so there is most likely very little incentive in it for regular manufacturers. I even notice that when thinking of default assignments on drum machine pads. Just as I would play a drum kit mirrored to how a right handed drummer would play it, I would also play a Tempest, Maschine or MPC differently. Fortunately, that can be solved with just some software configuration of those pads assignments.

      2. I do the same with my guitar cables, yes. But it still does make sense – even guitarists do it on larger stages…

      3. I follow your reasoning up to a certain level. And I even appreciate that my guitars are made of wood and not of plastic – just for the feel of it. But I also know how heavy 3-5 kg can *feel* after wearing them for several hours. And my point was that the wood does not make any difference to the sound of a synth – unlike what it does to the sound of a guitar.

      4. As much as a USB cable can pop out its plug, so can a MIDI cable. Ok, maybe sliiightly less, but still. And you would depend on either USB or MIDI for using the keytar to control all your other gear behind you (unlike regular guitarists, btw), so it would be a nice design move to actually make such connection more secure. Basically the same as with power cables that can either be just plugged in or secured via an extra angle. That’s all.

      But all that being said, I couldn’t care less at the end of the day, because I’m so not in the market for a keytar anyway. I’m just wondering…

    • Robert Dorschel

      I don’t have a need for one either… unless they run at $250 or less :)

    • youngcircle

      Robert I actually learned three things about life/synths in your above comments. And you seem real nice and affable. But ripping on clueless, mean-spirited trolls can be fun and educational for all. Give it a try one day!

    • Robert Dorschel

      nyuk nyuk nyuk

    • redgreenblue

      Alright, time for someone who actually plays one of these things to weigh in.
      For me the onboard synth is completely unwanted. These keyboards function best as a controller for a couple of reasons. Even if I LOVED the onboard sounds there is no doubt that I would want to use it to control other instruments on stage. Which means more than on cable. I hate having a midi cable running from the thing as it is, let alone two or three cables (if I were running stereo from the Roland units) And while they are much lighter now, synth engines do add weight to the unit. However, a little weight isn’t a bad thing. I have the Alesis Vortex and that is so light that it feels strange compared to my keyboard of choice, the Casio AZ-1, which I think is the best of the breed. 41 keys (not having an E up top is a real issue, I have to reprogram key splits if I use the Alesis), aftertouch (which is essential for me, it makes a HUGE difference with expressiveness) and assignable controllers.
      As far as the left handed thing goes, well that is just silly, as has been previously mentioned there are NOOOO keyboards with right side controls. I doubt that there are any significant amount of people willing to learn a whole new playing technique for this style of keyboard.
      As an aside, the other big issue with the Alesis is that horrible thumb pitch bend, I just can’t get used to that. {Anyone want to buy a barely used Vortex?)
      The other thing that kills me about the new generation of this stye of keyboard (I hate the K-Word) is when they put the ports on the bottom of the unit. No no no! you cannot set the thing down if there are cable poking out of the bottom. They belong on the far right side, it is the only place that makes sense.
      At $700 I see these as being a monumental failure, blown out next year for $400. Sure, there will be some Brooklyn bands who buy these for the ironic factor, but I don’t know who else will actually use it.
      Which isn’t to damn the whole category. There is no doubt that these keyboards have an inherent risk of the cheese factor. But they CAN be played with taste, as Robert will testify to.

    • redgreenblue

      And the mini-keys, I can’t handle the mini-keys.

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      What exactly is your problem? Other people issueing their opinions that may differ from yours?

    • just passing

      …says the person whose opening line was “Who wants a keytar anyway?” based solely on the fact that *he* isn’t interested in one.

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      Excuse me?

    • youngcircle

      Lol so you just took us through a nuanced, 4-point rebuttal to someone’s friendly offer to clarify things for you (“what about a lefty version?”/”there are no lefty synths”/”I Know That!”)

      But you couldn’t care less, and the above essays clearly demonstrate that. You think you’re too cool for a keytar, boy?? I got news for you Henry: you’re NOWHERE near cool enough for this instrument!!

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      Did I write anywhere that I would be “too cool” for anything? Don’t assume things that are not there.

    • foljs

      “”"Wait? Who actually wants a keytar these days, seriously?”"”

      Lots of people. It’s not for rawk people.

      “”"And then: What about us left handed keyboard players?”"”

      Well, make up your mind, do you want it or not? If not, why complain of being left out?

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      Can you do other than just trolling?

    • Ceefax

      Not wanting a keytar doesn’t invalidate his concerns about ergonomics.

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      Thank you for understanding my point.

  • Siike92

    Looks like a lot of places are already taking preorders. I’ve only seen the black one, but they seem to be going for $700 in bundles. Not too shabby, though I’ll probably pick one up when they drop a bit.

    http://www.kraftmusic.com/digital-pianos-and-keyboards/synthesizers-and-samplers/korg/keytar/

  • rimwolf

    From the product features page at korg.com: “There’s also a USB port for connecting it to your computer, allowing you to control a PC sound module or use the PC editor to edit detailed MIDI settings and parameters of the internal sound engine.”

  • steveoath

    Why no natural wood finish though?

  • Regend

    Nothing to see at the Korg booth. Toy Piano is cute though. I am sure plenty of youtube videos covering songs will be make with the toy pianos. If it had MIDI it would be useful…but it does not. Asked a rep if there would be an R3 replacement and he laughed at me and said no. Also, no microKorgs to play with and no microSampler. The “Triton” controllers have flimsy controller sliders. All in all I see a trend at NAMM…the plastics used seem less dense. Like those Khakis at Old Navy that feel thin compared to Dockers, Nautica, or Gap brand. I think the cost of petrol is getting high so plastics is not as cheap. Since we have passed peak oil, and the cost of plastics is going up, we’re going to need to find other sources of raw materials to house our synths and electronic music making machines.

    • Lion King

      I am adamantly opposed to music advice from anyone using Khaki analogies.

    • foljs

      “”" Like those Khakis at Old Navy that feel thin compared to Dockers, Nautica, or Gap brand.”"”

      That’s merely placebo — you being conditioned to pay through the nose for the same jeans.

  • Scott

    Keys need to run F-F rather than C-C. 38 key E-F would be fine as well.

  • Charlie Lesoine

    Is that who I think it is?

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    The RK-100S promises to be sexy new Battlestar Galactica to old Battlestar Galactica – Tricia Helfer and James Callis in place of a shiny tin can. (“Reimagined.”)

    Peter, you win the Internet for a day.

  • just passing

    > You just have to want a keytar. A microKORG XL+ costs you a fraction of that.

    And a microKORG XL+ and a Rock Band 3 keyboard costs only £8.50 / $15 more than a microKORG XL+ itself. It’s not just a keytar – you have to *really* want the integration too.

    Maybe one day someone will put a little synth in a strap-mountable box, like the old Zoom 9002?

  • James Husted

    It has come a long way from the Syntar (the first commercial “keytar”which was shown at the 1979 NAMM. The inventor, George Mattson (Mattson MiniModular) still has a working one.

  • http://www.3rev.net William Herrera

    I gotta say it is Sexy looking but I have to Dis it for the lack of programmability. It’s the 21st Century if you put a synth engine inside it had better be programmable. I have the Same problem with the Roland Lucina (I returned it). If it’s a “Controller” it should have more you know -controls. Yes they got a lot right but it’s not for me.