What should keyboards look like in the age of computers? At the high end, we’ve seen futuristic, PC-powered beasts like the Windows-compatible NeKo and Linux-powered Korg OASYS. At the low end, we’ve seen keyboards like the Novation ReMote SL, specially designed to control soft synths.

Yamaha and Korg gave their own answers for the mid-range market last month, with the unveiling of Yamaha’s new MO synth (shown below) and Korg’s TR workstation. In some ways, they’re decidedly retro, like Korg’s 64 MB ROM. In others, they acknowledge the presence of computers, with features like the Yamaha’s software integration. And Yamaha’s keyboard earns extra points for being a great hammer-action keyboard that’s lightweight and has a $1700 street price. Here’s a preview of these two new ‘boards.

Korg TR

The Korg TR boasts “brilliant sounds for musicians who may not be rich, but just might be brilliant.” Basically, think a “light” version of Korg’s Triton key line, complete with lots of sounds, built-in effects, sequencer, and arpeggiator. And it’s upgradeable to a sampler.

What makes this a 2005 keyboard: Single-cable USB, and expansion via SD cards.

What’s to like: Korg has done a good job on recent models of thinking about performance, with lots of real-time control.

90s Flashbacks: 64 MB of ROM looks positively anemic when a few dollars will buy you gigs of soft synths. Not feeling flashbacks yet? I have one word for you: SCSI. That’s right, you can connect SCSI samplers and SCSI hard drives to this bad boy. Go digging in your closet (or better yet, a friend’s / local music school); I’m sure you’ll find the SCSI gear.

Then again, if you’re looking for a hardware synth that’s fun to play, US$1599 (61-key; 76 also available) isn’t bad for an instrument with “workstation” features, and Korg has done an excellent job packing good sounds into a small space — listen to their (somewhat cheese-inspired) demo. And, I’ll admit, the real bottom line here is that 90s sounds were coming back. If anyone opens a 90s nostalgia bar, I’ll — oh, wait, I think it’s already happened.

Bottom line: this looks like a truly terrific hardware synth for people wanting inexpensive workstation features and digital sounds. Analog lovers and soft synth aficionados will probably look elsewhere.

Korg TR Workstation [Product page]

Yamaha MO Synth

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit: it’s been a long time since I sat down for an extended period with a Yamaha synth. The MO gets my attention right from the get-go for one reason: hammer action on the 88-key MO8. Yamaha does a terrific job with affordable hammer action, besting just about anybody else for the price, so my expectations are high on this one. (The MO6 61-key is naturally synth action.)

Runs in the family: Whereas the Korg is a sibling to the Triton, Yamaha is providing a more affordable version of their excellent Motif. Other specs look very much like the Korg, too: sequencer, arpeggiator, patterns. The Yamaha has a bigger sound library (175MB instead of the 64MB on the Korg), but no SD expansion. What it does have is connectivity: you can connect flash disks, CD/DVD drives, hard drives, the like. (See Yamaha’s compatibility page.)

What’s to like: Lots of connectivity, affordable, and it’s super, super light (10kg-21kg).

What makes this a 2005 synth: Support for Yamaha’s Studio Connections (via Cubase) means tight integration with your software. The bad news: you have to use Cubase. (Well, bad news for some of us.) Fortunately, this keyboard has remote control capability for Logic, DP, and SONAR out of the box, and ships with Mac/Windows editing software. God Bless them.

Flashback: Digital out, dedicated USB connections for your computer and your external flash drives . . . it’s 2005. One look at the front panel of the Yamaha, though, and you’re partying like it’s 1990. Kudos, Yamaha, for dedicated pitch and mod wheels. But the array of buttons looks a wee bit . . . Yamahanian.

Yamaha MO6/MO8 [Product page]

CDM Knee-Jerk Pick

I hope to get my hands on both of these keyboards soon, but the knee-jerk pick, despite an unfriendly button layout, goes to the Yamaha. With out-of-the-box remote control support, a reasonable-sized internal soundbank, and a great hammer action in the 88-key model, this one looks the most promising.

What’s on your product radar? Give us a buzz and let us know. And are you still loyal to hardware keyboards for performance? (Plenty of reasons why that can be a good way to go!)