One keyboard, a mind-bending nine engines, lots of tech specs … now that we’ve lived in a world of impressive, technically-intimidating workstation keyboards for a couple of decades, it’s easy to imagine your eyes glazing over when there’s a new one, let alone the general public. So, what might get your attention? This.

“Workstation keyboard” is usually a phrase that sends me for the exits; my computer makes a perfectly good workstation, thanks. I’ve understood why people like them; I’ve just never seen one that could personally excite me. But now that the trade show hype has died down, it’s time to take a serious look at the Korg Kronos. This one is a bit different. It’s the first real integrated computer-in-a-keyboard workstation since the Korg OASYS – and it and the OASYS really do something no other integrated keyboards have. (Just sticking a PC in a keyboard shell doesn’t quite count; that’s almost more of a case mod than an integrated design.)

Now, imagine the OASYS in a completely new generation, and at half the price. The OASYS was priced so that it seemed like only rock stars need apply, however – US$8000. Kronos is US$3700 street, a price that has typically bought you an arranger keyboard, not something like this. Kronos, at that price, really does seem like a studio in a box. It’s certainly not cheap (not with very capable instruments under a grand), but it enters the realm where a musician could make an investment in a keyboard that’d outlast a couple of generations of computers and (ahem) computer repairs.

Underneath its shell, the Kronos is still based on the Linux kernel (via a custom OS), lots of Korg software, and an Intel processor.

Kronos is impressive enough that other, computer-loving fans I know are taking a look. So, I asked Korg if they could walk us through more of the technical details.

This isn’t a review. But while Korg’s Richard Formidoni is positively glowing about their new baby, I do listen to what he says. Rich is one of us – and having been to his home studio, I can tell you that while he may be a company man, he has a cherished place for some instruments from makers beginning with the letter ‘R’ and rhyming with Yoland, not just Ma Korg. And while his pride shows through, he also has some great details for us. (In the grand tradition of CDM, I’ve … not edited those answers. All the news fits, so we print.)

So, consider this a full, detailed preview. I actually think it benefits from some distance from the NAMM show, the week in which everything is unveiled at once. If you miss the din of NAMM, replace all the bulbs in your house with fluorescents, fire up some white noise generators and background crowd sound effects discs, and then buy yourself breakfast at IHOP before charging yourself $500 to sleep over. And stay tuned for when we get to try this thing first-hand.

The original OASYS. It had a sexy metal body that looked like something from a Klingon engineering deck. But have a close look at the Kronos. While it appears descended from the architecture and philosophy of OASYS, down to similar menu pages, its synthesis engines and new features make it a worthy rival to its predecessor. Oh, and it’s half as expensive.

What’s the relationship of Kronos to OASYS, technically or in terms of learned experience?

There’s absolutely a blood relation. Much of the technology that was originally developed for OASYS has made its way to KRONOS (sound engines, UI, etc). That being said, KRONOS has more than enough innovation to stand on its own. It has quite a few performance-oriented aspects that wouldn’t have been possible without new hardware. One example is the inclusion of a fast solid state drive with direct access to about 12gb of sample libraries, rendering the blanket spec of “ROM size” totally irrelevant. More on that later. In terms of compatibility, KRONOS can load OASYS Programs, Combis, and Sequences.

What’s the underlying hardware engine? (OASYS I know was a Pentium 4 with a custom embedded OS based on the Linux kernel.)

It’s a dual-core Atom processor, again running a custom OS atop a Linux kernel. This is a big deal for a few reasons… Read the next answer for details. 🙂

It’s very apparent how much the Kronos does, and I think typically we end the conversation that way — “look, it does this, this, and this.” But walk us through, if you will, how someone might typically uses all of these engines? It appears that there are some significant features there (like the ability to seamlessly change sounds, which certainly is non-trivial on a computer).

Strap in, this’ll be the long one…

A walk-through would definitely start with a description of the nine engines. I’ll try to differentiate a little than our marketing copy, which as you might imagine, I am starting to recite in my sleep.

1. SGX-1 Premium Piano: This lets you play and modify large acoustic grand piano sample libraries, directly from the internal solid state drive. There are two 4.7gb libraries, a German grand and a Japanese grand. We include 30 piano types based around these libraries, with different response and tonality. SGX-1 lets you interact with the pianos by adjusting lid position, damper resonance, note release (simulating old damper felts), adding mechanical noises (keys, damper rise/fall), and adjusting velocity intensity/bias. Obviously, the big deal here is the SSD playback. It lets us use more velocity layers, high quality, unlooped samples, and gives us huge polyphony (SGX-1 can sound 400 mono channels at once).

The whole point is that SGX-1 provides the most realistic, detailed, nuanced, and flexible collection of pianos that we’ve ever offered.

2. EP: This engine recreates six different models of electric piano: Four tine-based Eps (Mark I, Mark II, Mark V, and Dyno) and two Wurlys (200 and 200a). It uses a method called MDS (Multi-Dimensional Synthesis) which doesn’t have some of the more unnatural characteristics of looped samples, so it responds smoothly as you play harder. Any audible switching between soft/loud, and sweet/strong is gone. It also has the vintage effect models from the SV-1, without taking up any of the internal effect slots. Tremolo, vibrato, all the fixin’s from the classic EPs are there.

3. CX-3: This is the software version of our CX-3 tonewheel organ. It lets you use the physical sliders as you would drawbars, and accurately models the chorus/vibrato, percussion, overdrive, leakage, and amplifier/rotary speaker. The fun part for me is how ridiculously tweakable it is. For example, you can basically design your own rotary speaker, as well as the room it’s sitting in… And you can add four additional drawbars to the organ, with customizable pitches. I’ve logged a few gig/studio hours with this engine alone, and I’m pretty thrilled that Urban Sun finally has true drawbar organs to work with.

4. MS-20EX: Taken almost directly from our Legacy Collection software, this recreation of the MS-20 monosynth (now with 40 notes of polyphony) is a point-to-point model of every component from the original design. It was created by the same designers who made the original. You can even run audio input through the frequency-to-voltage converter, and have the synth sing along with you. You can create patches just as you would on the original, except instead of using actual cables, you just touch points on the display.

Put simply, it’s an MS-20 that would not pass a screening for performance-enhancing drugs.

Ed.: Careful, Rich, the iPad fans may chime in here … as may someone with some other drug reference, dunno. Readers, see image above.

5. PolysixEX: Along the same lines as the MS-20EX, it’s a recreation of the venerable Polysix (only now more like a Poly180). The display lets you touch a graphic representation of the Polysix, and we’ve also mapped all the controls to the KRONOS control surface for hands-on tweaking.

Just like the original Polysix, the PolysixEX is a great way to get into synthesis. It can be incredibly powerful, but it’s also really approachable. If you’re new to analog synthesis, it’s a wonderful place to start experimenting.

6. AL-1: A more futuristic look at analog modeling. We often describe AL-1 as “futuristic” because of its potential to go so far beyond classic analog synthesis. It’s a ground-up design, with massive capabilities. Each instance (two per Program) can have three oscillators, five envelopes, five LFOs, a step sequencer, and various filter types including a Multi Filter, which lets you blend together (and morph between) different filter shapes. One of its most notable features is the Ultra Low-Aliasing Oscillators, which sound pure throughout the audible frequency spectrum.

7. MOD-7: This is a frequency modulation synthesizer based on Korg’s VPM architecture. It can read SysEx from classic FM synths (you know the ones), and it lets you go beyond the traditional “choose an algorithm” format, and create your own using a patch panel system. You can also modulate using PCM samples, ring modulation, and waveshaping. All things considered, MOD-7 offers the most programming depth of all the engines in KRONOS.

8. STR-1: This is a plucked-string physical modeling engine. You can design a string, with specific properties like damping, dispersion, and nonlinearity, and then excite it at any given position with a pluck, strike, or scrape. It’s very good at replicating string-based instruments like harps, guitars, sitars, etc., but it’s also capable of percussion, bell, and wind sounds, plus some really haunting textures that wouldn’t be possible for a string to generate in the real world. There’s a lot of fun to be had by warping the string’s physical properties with the Vector Joystick as you play.

9. HD-1: Our all-purpose, high-definition sample playback engine. Eight stereo velocity layers with crossfading means we can into greater detail than we ever could before. As with SGX-1, we’re taking advantage of large sample libraries being played from the internal SSD. With access to nearly 12gb of sample data (remember what Korg did with only 4mb in the M1?), It is a huge Swiss army knife of sound. HD-1 also incorporates Wave Sequencing and Vector Synthesis, from the Wavestation.

One of the big themes of KRONOS is making sound design fun, varied, and inspiring. There is so often a divide between modeling synthesizers and sample-based instruments, so it’s pretty exciting to have one instrument that raises the bar in both areas. Having three different flavors of analog modeling is a great example of that. If you want quick and easy, go for the PolysixEX. If you want to experiment with a semi-modular patch panel, grab the MS-20EX. If you want to go beyond “classic” capabilities, fire up AL-1. I end up using the word “playground” very often while describing it.

There’s also onboard KARMA, a powerful sequencer with 16 MIDI tracks and 16 24-bit audio tracks, our Open Sampling System, and loads of effects… I don’t want to undervalue these aspects, but the fact that it’s nine complete synthesizers is definitely a paramount feature.

So, this is all well and good… It’s a synthesis monster. You can get lost for weeks, just programming sounds. The real beauty of it, though, is how all of them can work together and feed off of each other.

For instance, we now have a “Set List” mode that gives you immediate access to Programs, Combis, and Sequences from the same display. You can organize sounds and songs into groups of 16 slots. You don’t have to duplicate sounds in an empty bank any more, or waste a Combi location just to play a single Program. Now you can make quick shortcuts. This is a godsend when you’re playing live.

There are also some “under the hood” operations that really make all the difference in the world for live players as well as studio guys. For example, the smooth sound transitions are a vital new feature that the world has been waiting for. As you’re playing, you can now switch to a new sound (regardless of mode), and the last one decays naturally, as if you just reached for a different keyboard altogether. We’re able to do this without limiting the number of effects you can use, the number of timbres playing, or any of the other limitations that exist in other instruments.

Here’s another one: KRONOS is always performing dynamic allocation of CPU processing power. Each of these synth engines has its own polyphony spec, and when one engine is running low, it will steal voices from another engine that isn’t using it. The same is true of the effects, which are running on a separate processor core, unaffected by the synth engines’ performance. KRONOS also allocates voices depending on other factors, such as where on the keyboard you’re playing, how fast you play, etc.

The practical upshot of all these technologies is that there’s no disconnect between you and your music. You never have to think about polyphony, you don’t waste lots of time loading samples, you never have to worry about CPU overs. It’s just an immediate connection between you and your music. It’s what makes it an “instrument” rather than a “system.”

If we need to draw a comparison to the DAW world, think of it this way- When you’re changing from Combi to Combi, you could equate it to loading a DAW template with 16 CPU-gobbling softsynths and 16 effect plug-ins already assigned to tracks. Depending on your system, that template could take a little while to load. On KRONOS, you can dial through about six Combis per second, and start playing them immediately.

Speaking of DAWs, another great aspect of KRONOS is that it runs as a VST/AU plugin via a software editor. This opens up a whole series of doors for a studio musician… You can run all nine engines at once, 16 timbres total, controlled via the plug-in editor, without using your computer’s resources. Whenever you revisit a project within the DAW, the editor software will recall the appropriate settings, so it’s just the way you left it. It also has class-compliant USB MIDI and audio I/O capabilities. I’m actually listening to Pandora right now, being piped through via USB to KRONOS’s headphone jack.

Artist feedback was a part of this, I know — who did you work with (of those you could name) and what kind of feedback did they give?

We worked very closely with Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Lyle Mays, Jae Deal, Adam Blackstone, Tom Coster, Jordan Rudess, Frank McComb, Jeff Lorber John Novello, Eldar, David Haynes, and Russ Ferrante… Plus a few others. I don’t want to (mis)quote them directly, but we got plenty of positive feedback from all of them.

Most of these artists are mission-specific… Some wanted to focus on the EPs, some focused on organs, etc. As a result, KRONOS has lots of signature sounds, representing customizations we made with these artists to tailor the instrument to their needs. This includes key response, tonal changes, effect choices, EQ, etc. We encouraged them to be very specific about their tweaks, because we wanted the resulting sounds to feel like you’re borrowing the artist’s instrument, rather than just calling up a new Program.

I will say that all of these sound design sessions ended with some variation of “So, when can I get one?”

As you can see, it’s easy for me to start ranting… I’m genuinely thrilled to be a part of KRONOS’s development, and I can’t wait until the rest of the world gets to try it.

More information…

Like I said, this isn’t a review – so if you’ve got questions, fire away.

In the meantime:

And for some history, here’s me writing about the making of the OASYS, way back in 2005 for O’Reilly:

Inside a Luxury Synth: Creating the Linux-Powered Korg OASYS