I am musical director (MD) for my own group, RIOT (The Royal Improphonic Orchestra & Theatre), but I play more improv shows every year as guest musical director. Different groups I work with have different needs, which is why I use a musical workstation. These days I use a Korg Kronos X with an 88 key, weighted hammer action keyboard. I particularly like that it has all functionality in one (closed) form factor. I know that soft synths and VST plugins are probably the future, but a setup with keyboard and PC is just a hassle on stage. With the Kronos I have all functionality right there under my nose.
I use the keyboard in different ways. In what follows a coupe of use cases.
The Kronos comes with over 1000 preprogammed sounds.
Piano is obviously the go-to instrument. The Kronos has several precisely sampled high quality piano programs. Depending on the mood I use bright rock piano’s, honkey-tonk and dark new-agey piano programs. I use electric piano sounds for more funky stuff.
I often use wind instruments, flutes, saxophones for atmospheric stuff.
Strings are great for underscoring. I like pizzicato strings to create tension. But I also use various pad sounds, e.g. for mysterious, creepy or majestic spheres.
But I’ve really used all kinds of sounds one can think of. For scenes at exotic locations or with exotic characters I might use things like sitars (think India) or didgeridoo. I have used gongs for scenes at temples, full stops church organs for horror/vampire movies. I have used gamelan for a scene that took place on the island of Java. I’ve used voice choirs for heaven.
This workstation is far more than just stock sounds. Here are some capabilities, and how I use them.
Combi’s are layers of up to 16 different instruments. The can be touch sensitive, i.e. depending on how hard you hit the keys, different instruments might play. There are several 100s of factory presets loaded by default.
The Kronos can e.g. whole symphonic orchestra’s in a combi, which I’ll use to MD e.g. classic opera-style songs, or for underscoring of e.g. pirate genres (think Pirates of the Caribbean). Complete with booming timpani’s when you hit the keys at full velocity. Great fun!
Other use cases are a simple as using a string ensemble ‘under’ a master piano sound.
Combi’s really shine in combination with Karma: Karma is like an arpeggiator on steroids, and it allows for arranger-like use cases. Karma also takes care of percussion/drums. and I use it a lot for genre-base songs. Think metal, reggae, dance, you name it. But also things like jazz quartets.
The Kronos has a built-in sampler (which I do not use) and can load external samples. I have made several custom sample banks. One use is sound effects – there are plenty of sites that offer high quality, royalty free samples and I have over 500 of those sound effects catalogued and loaded into my Kronos.
The Kronos also has a built-in sequencer, and it can be used as a DAW (Digital Audio Worstation) – which I do not. But the sequencer has a nifty functy function called RPPR (Real-time Pattern Playing & Recording). This allows little sequences (musical phrases if you wish) to be sequenced, and then assigned to particular keys on the keyboard. Very impressive in combination with Karma.
Set List Feature
The Kronos has a set list feature; main use case if for live musicians to program the order of the songs in the performance, and have all sounds/presets/combi’s ready in that order. Obviously, for improvised performances that is of little use.
But I use the setlist feature for a different use case. For example, I mentioned I made my own sample banks with sound effects. The set list feature allows me to easily find back which key is mapped to which sample.
You see at the bottom several slots; slot 1 contains bells, pings and news jingles; slot 2 contains sounds of war etc. Slot 0 (Animals) is selected and the body of the screen tells me which sample is on which key, e.g. E2 has an owl sound.
I also use the set list functionality for DJ-ing with the keyboard.
I enjoy designing sounds, but it is time consuming, and the Kronos really comes with a vast library of stock sounds and combi’s. Every now and then I can’t find the sound I am looking for. Examples:
- I created my own puff organ sound (think fancy fair, circus or amusement parks). That was done by combining various organ and accordion-type sounds.
- I create a ‘musette’ sound (like for underscoring a scene in Paris or Buenos Aires) by combining accordeons and bandoneons, and a but of brass section layered under the left hand.
Korg sells a device called a Nanopad, whcih is basically 16 rubber pads and a touch sensitive surface (like the mouse touchpad on a laptop). It configures automatically to the Kronos, which has a built-in pad functionality, be it on the Kronos touch screen. I program the nanopad to trigger e.g. RPPR sequences, sound effects, or chords. The latter should be interpreted as chord progressions, really; I’ll typically program progressions of 4 to 8 chords onto 4 to 8 pads. I don’t really use the touch surface.
The Kronos is a heavy beast! With a flight case it weighs over 40 kilograms/80 pounds. That’s the only disadvantage I can think of.
Another factor is that it is a very deep & complicated instrument. I know many a musician who have returned it because it turned out to be too complex for them. Personally I enjoy tinkering with gadgets; I have wasted many a night trying to find out how to accomplish this or that and have thoroughly enjoyed it! After having owned it for almost 3 years I feel I have barely scratched the surface of what this beast can do. Highly recommended!