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The Case Against MIDI Controllers
on December 8, 2010
When I was shopping for a keyboard, originally I was in the market for a MIDI controller, not a keyboard/workstation type device. I was looking for something that transmitted data only, both via USB and MIDI output, preferably with 76 or 88 keys. Having checked out several boards in this price range, I found most to be spartan and light on features. However, on a whim, I checked out the Casio WK 200, and I was very impressed by the sounds and features, especially in this price range.
I've been a musician for the last 20 years, so my immediate perception of Casio keyboards (and pretty much any stand-alone keyboard in this price range) was that they were fully-featured kid's toys. To my credit, I started playing when the electronic keyboard was no longer a synth, but not quite a workstation. In those in-between days, the quality of sound and features was seriously lacking, so much that pretty much anything with built-in speakers could be safely written off as junk, and you wouldn't even dream of using it live or in the studio.
Anyway, after making up my mind that all I needed was a board that would interface with my soft synths, I started checking out MIDI controllers. However, the lack of significant features in this price range left me somewhat unimpressed. After branching out to workstations in this price range, I found the WK-200 met my immediate feature requirements: MIDI via USB and at least 76 keys. The rest turned out to be just gravy, because this board has a few key features that really set it apart from MIDI controllers.
Firstly, I'll describe the sounds on board. The pianos are beautiful, full of character and very believable. This includes several Rhodes and Clavinet voices, with all of their pearly harshness when a full-velocity strike is performed. The chromatic percussion sets are good too, full of very musical timbres. The guitar and bass guitar sections are passable, along with the strings and brass, although there are a few stand-outs, most notably the upright bass along with the tenor and alto saxes. Beyond that, there are some decent sounding rhythms and drum sounds, but I use software to simulate drums, so this was not immediately useful to me. The "string ensemble" voices were the only thing I found to be lousy. Perhaps it's just my ear, but nothing sounds worse or more fake than that generic "string ensemble" sound, and I'll hold that against the WK 200 the exact same way I'd hold it against a Yamaha Motif. Don't get me wrong, the Motif is amazing, but I just hate the sound of "string ensembles". The brass ensembles suffer in like fashion, to a lesser extent.
As mentioned before, there were a few key features that set this board apart from a dumb MIDI controller, and one of those features is the sampling abilities of this board. This board supports numerous slots for melodic and rhythm-based samples, a feature you wouldn't even dream of finding on most MIDI controllers without even considering price points. Samples are of reasonable audio quality with 10 seconds of sample time, making this perfect for, say, accurately simulating the 8-second reel of tape on a Mellotron (each key having a tape consisting of an 8-second pre-recorded voice, which I guess would make it a very primitive example of a sampler). In any case, the sampler was a huge bonus. In addition to that, the USB MIDI functionality allows for two-way MIDI traffic, meaning you can use software to trigger the sounds on the board for cool arpeggiated effects. Speaking of, the WK 200 features a limited arpeggiator, again something you wouldn't find on a MIDI controller in this price range.
So to add it all up, factoring in the length of the board, the MIDI connectivity, the good-to-awesome soundset (at least for the bread-and-butter sounds), sampling functionality, and overall aesthetics, the WK-200 was an obvious choice for me. Even the built-in speakers are good, with strong bass response and crisp, clear highs. The board is light, the keys are full piano style (synth action though, not weighted) and the board is just a pleasure to play.
There are a few things that were not included on my ideal wish list, not the least of which a power supply, which has to be bought separately. That struck me as kind of stupid. Also, there are no pitch or mod wheels, so no joy there. I would have liked to have some kind of SD slot for expansion and data transfer, but that's not a deal-breaker for me. The one thing I seriously fault Casio for on this board is the LACK OF STANDARD MIDI INPUT/OUTPUT. All of it is done via USB, and there's not a standard MIDI jack to be seen on this board. I have keyboards that are 25 years old that have MIDI in and out. What gives?
Anyway, for the price, you can't beat this board. Don't let the fact that it's a Casio or that it's a budget-priced workstation deter you from hearing this board out. You may find it's a good fit for your studio or live sets. While this board is nice, it's not as solid as my old-school Casio CZ-5000 synthesizer (we're talking their top-of-the-line from 1985), but as they say, they don't make 'em like they used to. In any case, this keyboard is a great addition to my studio, and I'm very satisfied.