|| KETRON SD5: THE ARRANGER'S WORKSHOP.
A Review by David Etheridge (Performing Musician
Many workstations seem to offer variations on a basic theme, with nothing inherently different from their competitors.
Music Mart looks at a new model from Ketron that does it all differently, and better.
Arranger keyboards offer the player the most flexible format for live playing, with one touch features that
transform the most elementary keyboard technique into a full band arrangement. Most manufacturers take a tried and tested approach
that they know works, and the results can be predictable in their excellence. Most of the oriental manufacturers are similar in
their approach. You know exactly what you'll get, all presented in a familiar way, and no worse for that either.
And then there's Ketron.
This wildcard of a company resolutely does things differently, reflecting the wayward and individual nature of the Italians.
They're never one to do things the same as anyone else, and this seemingly eccentric and carefree approach can drive you up the
wall if you're accustomed to the highly organised and planned approach of the Japanese. So this month we're looking at the new
SD5 workstation. It does everything other workstations do, does it in a totally different manner from the rest, does a lot MORE
than other workstations, and has taken the art of intelligent accompaniment to a new quantum level.
BODY COPY: The Ketron SD5 is a 61 note velocity and aftertouch sensitive workstation with 32 note polyphony and on onboard 22W
speaker system. There's a whole host of voices onboard: 290 Orchestral sounds, over 1000 drum and percussion sounds, 292
second voices, 120 programs of layered sounds, 60 programmable 1 touch sounds, two independent drum sets, the first with 24 new
drum sets and the second with 62 live drum sets with audio
loops. And while we're about it there are 10 drawbar settings for Hammond sounds and a multi effect DSP with 60 different
effects. Add to that the onboard sequencer, MIDI file player with text and karaoke features, 13 Arabic scales, and the
large range of accordions that Ketron are (in)famous for, and
we've got a workstation to make you sit up and take notice.
Let's have a look at the controls; there are a lot of them and cover a lot of ground. The controls next to the keyboard aren't
the usual pitch and mod wheels. Ketron have opted for a Roland style joystick/flipper, which may be more substantial than its
competitors, and on the mod setting also offers 'morph' on some sounds, which fades in different tones according to the sound
selected. On the organ sounds the mod wheel doesn't add Leslie FX; these are enabled via the sustain pedal. Below this are jack
sockets for Mic (with gain slider) and headphones. On the far left, just above
the pitch/mod flipper are 16 multi-tabs which select various drums, FX, registrations and groups. The first set
of buttons on the main panel select the different part volumes
for multitimbral and performance setups (drums, bass, chord, lower, 2nd voice, right) and below this is the master volume
Next to this are the disk drive sections. A DD/HD floppy is fitted as standard, and there's an optional massive 6 gig IDE
drive, which should store a few years worth of material! There are buttons for the vocaliser section with it's harmoniser and
vocoder options, transpose and cursor buttons (the latter make navigation much simpler than on previous models), save and exit,
and at the bottom of this section buttons for rotor on/off and fast/slow, bass to lowest, manual bass, jump and tap.The large centre display is surround by multifunction buttons
(F1-F10) that call up individual sounds and styles, as well as entering menu pages, and the display has an adjustable contrast
Below the display are the style select buttons, with transport controls and play modes, including the four arrangement buttons,
which also double as vocaliser controls. More on the styles in a moment. The right hand side of the control panel covers voices,
which are grouped generically, as is common practice on many GM instruments. Together with these are buttons for performances
and registrations, adding harmonies, octaves, pattern play and
edit and drum remix features. Around the back are connection for the video interface, PC/Mac
interface (perversely, this is a 9 pin host socket instead of the all conquering USB connection; Ketron supply their own proprietary
lead for this), 2 MIDI Ins, a single Out and Thru, jacks for sustain and volume, a multi footswitch 'D' connector,
L(mono)/R out and mic out sockets and a pushbutton to turn the onboard speakers off.
Sounds and scores.
There are a lot of good sounds on the SD5. The keyboard sounds work well and convince easily, with the pianos and organs being
very good (to surreal effect when adding a Leslie to a full church organ). The solo strings are pure Ketron, which have a
quality and vibrato to them that's totally different from anything else on the market. I'm guessing that the samples have been
recorded with a genuine passionate (there's no other word for it) vibrato rather than having an LFO shoehorned onto it in the
synth processing. I suppose it's the Italian blood coming out in the samples! That said, for the more romantically inclined musos
amongst you, they'll touch the collective hearts of the audience. The woodwinds are very good throughout and in many ways put
Japanese makers GM sounds to shame, while the guitars are excellent, even down to the unique 'Django', an accurate set of
samples from a Selmer Maccaferri model that I've heard nowhere else. Note also the pedal steel patch, where the sustain pedal
enables bends and slides within the played chord: absolutely fascinating. The mandolin uses a familiar shortcut by mapping a
single sample over the keyboard; the tremolo gets faster as you
go up in pitch, which gives interesting cross rhythms when playing chords.
The brass are a mixed bunch which might not appeal to everyone. Some brass sounds have a very cheesy (but stylistically accurate
for the 50s/60s) vibrato which is ideal for the MOR market, but might not suit more contemporary styles, and the sound 'Miles'
basically has a Harmon rather than Miles' straight mute sound, to be authentic. The synths and pads are very good, as are the
voices, although I missed the terrific vocal sounds available on Ketron's own SD1 -but I'm being picky. And of course we mustn't
forget the mighty accordion sounds: there's lots of them, and you'll be amazed at the variety!
The drums run the gamut of powerhouse, acoustic, electro and ethic percussion and work superbly, while the FX are amusing but show a
little cost cutting in the keyboard mapping, where only one or two sounds are spread right across the keyboard rather than a
whole group of them.
DIY Quincy Jones.
The styles section of the SD5 is the jewel in the crown. While most arranger keyboards give you intelligent chord accompaniment,
Ketron have taken it a whole lot further. There are ten musical genres: Unplugged (a completely new style currently unavailable
anywhere else), Pop, Dance, Ballad, Swing, Folk, Country, Rock & Roll, Latin and Ballroom. You might say okay, but what's the big
The big news is that many of the styles are not just the usual one or two bar vamps with fills, breaks and intros/endings, but
complete 12, 16 and even 32 bar progressions, with riffs, fills and and more: essentially complete song arrangements in
themselves. Why is it that you'll find better music on the
onboard demos of workstations than you ever hear on the radio??
The new Unplugged style features that most demanding of all techniques for the MIDI musician: guitar strums. The ones hear
are superbly accurate and full of nuances and open up many delightful new musical vistas.
Each genre offers several pages of different grooves, and each groove comprises different levels/variations of arrangement: A,
B, C and D. The basic grooves are on level A, with added instruments and vamps on B, C and D. Where you've got the
complete arrangement is in level D, and this button will flash if the selected style/groove has the full monty rather than a two or
four bar vamp over a single chord. Each arrangement can be adjusted to key or tempo, and using the hold button keep the
groove cycling while you play over the top of it. The quality of the arrangements truly are of the highest level, and the
intelligent chord analyser works all the way up to 11th chords with ease, while the jump button let's you switch between levels
of arrangement whenever you press the fill button. It's easy to use, it's truly ingenious, and it's terrific fun!
I've only touched on some of the features of the SD5, and this review could have been twice the length to include everything on
offer here. Suffice to say that in my opinion this powerhouse of an arranger keyboard is currently the most sophisticated of any
on the market. The whole Ketron approach is above all different from any other manufacturer, and herein lies its very appeal. The
sounds are distinctive and very high quality, once you get over the (by other standards) eccentric approach to just about
everything, you'll begin to see just what the SD5 is capable of. The synth engine is flexible without being overly complicated,
and the very flexible nature of the accompaniment means that you can tailor the sounds and styles in just about every way
While some of the sounds and styles may seem rather strange to some, for the intended MOR and entertainer market Ketron are
right on the money. They've sensibly included sounds and styles of many countries, so whatever your musical persuasion, there's
something for just about everyone here. And try the styles section, and those magical complete arrangements. Never before
have world class backings been so easy to use, of such high quality, and so inspirational to the player. Check out the mp3s
on BCK's own site, and you'll hear what the fuss is all about.
Excellent range of very individual sounds.
Wider range of styles than anyone else?
Astounding arrange features with complete backings, alternate riffs, chord changes and fills.
Excellent onboard amplification.
Colossal range of options and connections to just about anything.
The usual highly eccentric approach that we've come to know and love, which may be a culture shock to newbies.
Menus rather convoluted and the display doesn't always show the current item you're working on (only the Italians....)
Perversely, the PC/Mac connection is not a USB socket, although Ketron do their own lead for this.
Omits some of the fabulous vocal sounds on the SD1.