Category Archives: Top Ten List
Well, at least features that *I* say stink.
So I like to collect them, but what exactly are these mini keyboards? Are they instruments? Toys? Musical scratch pads? Cacophonous time wasters? Does anyone really know for sure?
The very early models tended to be very basic. This was for both technological limitations, and also because in a brand new market it was uncertain as to which features would be important to consumers.
As time went on, manufacturers seemed to have been intent on cramming as many representations of whatever technology was available at the time into these little noisy boxes. Doing so as cheaply as possible, though, meant that shortcuts were often taken. On top of that, they needed to be visually appealing to your average non-musical consumer (Oooo….shiny!)
In the time I’ve spent over the last thirty-odd years working with keyboards, these are the top ten things that consistently annoy me about them. It is highly unusual to find any model that doesn’t contain at least one of these annoyances. And I can think of a few models off the top of my head that contain all of them. Your mileage may vary, of course.
10) Non-standard AC adapters
Yamaha and Casio have opposite polarity adapters. Usually. However, even within these two major manufacturers there are still some oddball units, with either strange plugs or weird voltages. Other manufacturers, such as Kawai, tend to have their own standards. Trying to keep track of all the various ones for specific units is a real pain. For testing, it’s usually far easier just to throw some batteries in, since most use either C or AA.
9) Poor internal speaker(s)
There’s a difference between “inexpensive” and “cheap”. A difference you can hear, in the form of rattles, buzzes, and a miniscule frequency range. On some keyboards, the speakers are sometimes chosen specifically to mask deficiencies in the sound generating method employed. Which does help to explain item 3 below.
8) No rhythm/accompaniment variations
Fill & end buttons would be nice. Tempo being adjustable over a wide range is good, too.
7) Too many / lousy rhythms
A couple of dozen well-constructed ones would be preferable to a hundred that stink. Get rid of fixed-pitch percussion that requires you to play in the same key. And ditch the waltzes. Ditch the front-panel drum pads, too, unless you can assign different voices to them.
The next few are specifically voice related.
6) Really bad sounds
And by “bad” it can mean sound quality, choice of voices, or both. There’s no reason some of these should sound as horrid as they do. Square wave, sampling, PCM, additive synthesis, FM…it doesn’t matter that you’re using the latest technology if it still sounds like crap.
5) Too many sounds.
No one needs a 37-key mini keyboard with 240 anemic sounds. A few dozen quality voices that sound good should be adequate for most needs. This would also eliminate the need to devote huge swatches of control panel real estate to nothing more than a list of all the patch names. And unless the thing is specifically targeted towards kids, all of the “cute” or “funny” sounds are unnecessary.
It also might make sense to take all those cool sound effects and combine them into one patch, where each is assigned to one key. What is the point of being able to play the sound of a jet plane over the entire range of the keyboard?
4) No sound variations
Vibrato, chorus, or maybe sustain. A pedal jack is unnecessary (and frankly silly on a mini keyboard). A button is fine. As above, provide the user with a few good sounds and allow them to be easily modified.
3) No output jacks & other case flaws
Lack of a headphone jack is often cited as a simple cost-saving measure. This is somewhat difficult to believe. Most units have plenty of room; drill one hole and put in a switching jack.
The other major case issue is unnecessary cosmetic features such as grilles, vents, serrations, or anything else that serves no real purpose other than to collect dust. Recessed controls are particularly annoying, just as they are on full-sized keyboards, because they’re extremely difficult to clean.
Along with those standardized AC adapters, it would have been nice if they could have decided on a standard-sized battery door, too.
2) Poor quality controls
Membrane switches lack tactile feedback. While tearing or puncturing isn’t usually an issue, either graphics being worn off or the surface being scratched or scraped are common. Buttons tend to feel “squishy”, and sliders (if present at all) are rarely smooth.
And the #1 thing I hate, the thing that almost always guarantees a quick trip to the “For Sale” section of my equipment cupboard…
1) Digital access controls
Instead of an actual slider or button, a particular parameter is controlled by either typing in a number or by hitting up/down buttons. This is normally coupled with a lack of indicators. By that, I mean nothing to indicate the current patch, or rhythm track, or tempo, or in the worst cases, nothing to indicate the unit is even turned on. The settings are also volatile, so that each time you turn the unit off and back on again, everything has reset to the defaults.
Volume is the worst offender. It usually defaults to a too-loud setting, so the first thing you have to do after turning the unit on is to turn it down. Second is patch selection. This typically requires at least two button presses and you can’t tell what you’ve typed in until you actually play. Hitting these types of buttons usually results in some sort of audible click, which can be annoying. Increments are typically fixed, too, so that instead of a smooth range of volume or tempo you’re stuck with a number of discrete intervals.
I understand that most – if not all – of these gripes are designed in as a way to save money. Very few are the result of technological limitations. It’s easier to control the functions through software and dedicated logic chips than to use discrete components. It’s a tradeoff, though, and I think consumers – and certainly musicians – end up with the short end of the stick. It always feels as if the marketing departments decide to cram as much as possible into as small a space as possible while keeping costs down, and then the engineers are forced to come up with ways to make them work. Which results, of course, in all of the items listed above.
So the question is, what are some features that DO make sense? Are there any mini keyboards that avoid most of these pitfalls while still remaining interesting? Hey, Relic, are there any your grumpy old ass actually LIKES?
Yep. Stayed tuned.