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OPEN LABS OpenSynth neKo 64-220

June 1, 2005
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The OpenSynth neKo 64 from Open Labs might just be too flexible for its own good. Put simply, it's a music keyboard built around a computer. It also functions as a DAW that hosts virtual instruments, and it has plenty of MIDI knobs, buttons, and faders for controlling the aforementioned keyboard/DAW. The neKo 64 is capable of so many things that it's difficult to concisely assess it. It represents a complete music-production system squeezed into one box.

Inside and Outside the Box

When you place an order for a neKo 64, you can configure it to suit your needs. The model I received for review was a top-of-the-line neKo 64-220 ($9,871), running Windows XP Professional. It had dual 2 GHz AMD Opteron 64 processors; 2 GB of RAM; and an 80 GB, 7,200 RPM hard drive (see Fig. 1). Four RAM slots, five drive bays, and five full-length PCI slots are available for expansion. A DVD +/-R/RW drive is supplied for burning reference discs and backups. The instrument also has a Gigabit Ethernet port, two FireWire ports, and four USB 2.0 ports.

You could use any Windows XPcompatible audio interface with the neKo 64, but the M-Audio Delta 1010LT is standard equipment. It supports as many as ten simultaneous 24-bit, 96 kHz input and output streams. Open Labs has customized and panel-mounted the I/O jacks, providing eight inputs and eight outputs on unbalanced ¼-inch connectors, with two inputs and two outputs on balanced XLRs (see Fig. 2). XLR inputs 1 and 2 have microphone preamps, but no phantom power. One MIDI In, one MIDI Thru, and two MIDI Out ports are available, as well as coaxial S/PDIF and word-clock I/O.

The neKo 64's alphanumeric keyboard has a compact configuration similar to a notebook computer's, as well as a touchpad-style pointing device. Most of the time, however, I found myself reaching for the 15-inch color LCD touch screen.

The neKo 64 also has a 61-key synth-action keyboard with heavy-duty pitch and mod wheels. Assorted MIDI control panels surround the touch screen. One has 16 faders with two rows of 16 illuminated buttons, and another has two rows of 12 rotary controls with corresponding buttons. The third panel features transport controls, a numeric keypad, an LED screen, an eight-position joystick/rotary control, and various other buttons.

All of the neKo 64's resources come with a blank slate for whatever Windows-compatible software you want to run, and that software is responsible for a large part of the neKo 64's personality. The neKo 64 comes with a good software bundle, but you'll probably appreciate it more once you start installing your favorite programs.

The bundle includes Tracktion, a lean and mean digital audio sequencer from Raw Material Software; and Orion Pro, a loop-manipulation environment from Synapse Audio. Karsyn is a VST/DirectX host that turns your soft synths and plug-in effects into a virtual rack. To use neKo 64 as a performance keyboard, you would most likely use Karsyn to call up preset configurations, just as you would call up multis or combinations on a more traditional hardware synth.

Several virtual instruments are provided with the neKo 64, ranging from Green Oak Crystal to IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 LE. It's a reasonable lineup of respectable soft synths, albeit a bit short on star power.

The Essence of neKo

The neKo 64 has an impressive list of hardware and software, and it worked for me as advertised. The essence of the neKo 64, however, lies in two factors. The first is its vast array of MIDI controls and the software that determines how those controls are applied to the task at hand. The second is Karsyn.

An application called mFusion lets you manage the neKo 64's assignable MIDI controls (see Fig. 3). You can freely assign the various rotary encoders, faders, and buttons to MIDI notes, continuous controllers, and program changes. You can also assign them to computer keystrokes, musical keyboard transposition, or Windows application shortcuts. The direction of faders and rotary encoders can be inverted. Rotary-encoder behavior can be relative or absolute (like a knob), and you can adjust the sensitivity for finer control.

mFusion was released while I was writing this review, and it's a big step forward in the neKo 64's MIDI implementation. For example, it immediately solved one of my major frustrations: the fact that the neKo 64's keyboard has no octave shift controls. Every time I wanted to play bass lines, I had to go into the edit page of the individual synthesizer application or assign a pitch offset in my sequencer. With mFusion, I was able to change octaves either directly from the mFusion application window or by assigning buttons to transpose up and down by octaves.

mFusion organizes its reassignments into maps, and a collection of maps makes up a preset. A map can consist of as little as one control assignment, allowing you to develop a modular system of partial maps that can be combined into purpose-specific presets. For example, I created a map that assigned the last two buttons in the fader module's top row to shifting the keyboard down and up an octave, respectively. I then included that map in every preset I created, giving me consistent octave-shift controls without having to re-create the assignment every time I created a preset for a different circumstance.

Regardless of what message an individual control sends natively, a host application (such as your DAW) recognizes mFusion's output. If your host application doesn't allow reassignment of MIDI Control Change messages (or if it makes the process difficult), you can create an mFusion preset that produces just the right messages to make life easier. If your host application allows reassignment and if it features a learn mode, you can use mFusion to define the behavior of the controls — relative or absolute, normal or inverted, and so forth.

The Host with the Most

Imagine a big, almost infinitely expandable rack of synthesizer modules all wired to a mixer that has snapshot recall, allowing you to freely change the mix of synths. Imagine that the rack also held innumerable effects processors, and that the mixer was able to reroute the synths and reorder the effects instantly. Now put the whole setup under MIDI control, so that you can send a single program change and reconfigure everything at once. That's essentially what Karsyn does (see Fig. 4).

Karsyn is Open Labs' version of Brainspawn Forte, a virtual live-performance workstation that enables users to load any number of VST or DirectX instruments and effects and configure them individually or in combination. The interface resembles a rack of synth modules. Each module holds an instrument and optionally one or more insert effects and is assigned to an output bus. Each output bus may contain its own insert effects and is used to route the output of one or more synth modules to a physical output. Multiple synth modules can feed the same bus, and multiple buses can feed the same physical output.

From the main interface, you can open each instrument's edit window for control and editing. Karsyn also lets you remap program changes or channel numbers, split the keyboard, and assign MIDI controls from the neKo 64's various control modules. In combination with mFusion, that process can be easy if you have access to the synthesizer's controller mappings. Check your software instrument's documentation for details.

Karsyn's Scenes are what pull it all together. A Scene can be viewed as a multi (or combi) program insofar as it allows you to combine different individual patches. When you save a Scene, you are saving virtually every current Karsyn parameter, including the all-instrument and effects parameters (whether they're saved as presets or not), bus assignments, keyboard splits, channel mapping, and controller mapping.

You can set up your favorite virtual organ so that hardware faders represent drawbars. Additionally, with a simple Scene change, you can switch to your favorite analog synth emulation with the faders controlling the synth's onscreen controls. The next Scene could layer (or split) your favorite virtual electric piano and clavinet plug-ins and run them through a virtual amp for some tasteful distortion, with the distortion parameters controlled by the neKo 64's rotary controls.

In Practice

The possibilities are staggering, which brings us back to where we started: it's a challenge to wrap your brain around what the neKo 64 can do. It takes some digging to figure out how to configure things, and it takes a bit of planning to find the best way to do it. Once you have everything set up, you'd better have it documented so that in performance, you can remember which knob controls which function. You may find yourself putting console tape below the control modules to assist your memory.

It would have been helpful if Open Labs had provided documentation, at least in the form of PDFs, for all of the soft synths and effects. Karsyn's PDF is there, and Open Labs offers a few printed documents that help you get started; the documentation, however, falls short of what I had hoped for such a sophisticated and expensive instrument.

The neKo 64's power would be more obvious to the beginning (or prospective) user if the included presets took better advantage of its possibilities. I found myself wiggling faders and knobs on Scene after Scene hoping for some cool results, but to no avail. The Scenes do demonstrate the layer and split capabilities, although using the Mute button to indicate which synth modules are active in a given scene is counterintuitive.

If you were to put the neKo 64 next to the most popular keyboards available, you would be underwhelmed by its sounds. Although there are some decent soft synths, they are not utilized to their potential in the default Scenes. More to the point, such a comparison is a bit off target. The neKo 64 sounds only as good as whatever virtual instruments are installed — better, in fact, because it makes it so convenient to combine your favorite soft synths.

The neKo 64 is a heavy keyboard (49 pounds), but it isn't as heavy as some. It's noisy for a keyboard, but not noisy for a computer. Its keyboard action felt good to me, and it drew praise from some of my colleagues who are better keyboard players than I. Its pitch wheel tended to stick around its null point, occasionally failing to return to zero when I eased it back gently. Open Labs reports it had received a bad batch of pitch wheels and will replace them under warranty.

In an effort to offer the most stable environment possible, Open Labs has gone to the unusual length of replacing the Windows XP Professional shell with its own. The Open Labs shell is said to bypass many of the general-purpose compromises inherent in the standard GUI, stripping it down to the functions essential for music production. In practice it works well, but it's difficult to quantify just how successful its architects were. It's certainly not crashproof, but it crashed only once during my testing.

The Final Analysis

I like what Open Labs has done with the neKo 64. I used it for everything from sequencing to composing and recording, and it rose to each challenge admirably. The more time I spent tweaking its MIDI configuration, the more I liked it. Most of the time, I absolutely loved the touch screen. It felt so natural to be able to grab a control onscreen and adjust it directly. Sometimes, however, it was a bit difficult to make fine adjustments or grab small controls. Open Labs suggests using your fingernail rather than your fingertip, and that's a useful suggestion, but an even better solution would be using a stylus that is similar to those used with a PDA.

Would I spend almost $10,000 on the neKo 64-220? That's a tough question, largely because it duplicates a lot of gear that I already own. The ability to put my computer and my keyboard controller into a single unit is appealing, and having MIDI knobs and faders built in is a great asset. Without options, the neKo 64's base price is $5,455, but if the price is still too high, less expensive models are available. Open Labs recently introduced the neKo GS and the neKo LE, more modest versions priced as low as $2,295.

If you were to judge the neKo 64 purely on its hardware components, you would probably consider it too pricey. By the time you calculate the value of its optimized configuration, integrated design, and customizable interface, however, you would come to appreciate its value.


Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education and is the author of SONAR 4 Ignite! (Muska & Lipman, 2004).

NEKO 64 SPECIFICATIONS

CPU (1) or (2) 64-bit AMD Opteron
RAM 512 MB, expandable to 8 GB
Disk Drives (1) 80 GB, 7,200 RPM hard disk; (1) DVD-ROM/CD-RW optical
Expansion Slots (5) PCI (4 available); (5) drive bays (3 available)
Analog Audio Inputs (8) unbalanced ¼" TS; (2) balanced XLR mic/line
Analog Audio Outputs (8) unbalanced ¼" TS; (2) balanced XLR; (1) ¼" stereo headphones
S/PDIF I/O (2) stereo coaxial
Maximum Sampling Rate 96 kHz
Word Clock (1) BNC in; (1) BNC out
MIDI I/O (1) In; (2) Out; (1) Thru
Additional I/O (6) USB 2.0; (2) FireWire; (1) 10/1,000 Base-T Ethernet; (1) ¼" footswitch
Keyboard 61-key semiweighted synth-action, Velocity and Aftertouch
Standard Modules alpha control; rotary control; linear control; QWERTY keyboard
MIDI Controls Pitch-Bend wheel; mod wheel; 8-position joystick; (16) faders; (24) rotary controls; (56) assignable buttons; (16) application buttons; transport controls; numeric keypad
Additional Features 15" color LCD touch screen; 2-button trackpad; DVD +/- R/RW drive
Dimensions 45" (W) × 7" (H) × 19" (D)
Weight 49 lbs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

OPEN LABS
OpenSynth neKo 64-220

keyboard workstation
$9,871 (as reviewed)
$5,455 (base price)

OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 3

PROS: Powerful computer with dual 64-bit CPUs. Keyboard, audio I/O, computer interface, and MIDI controls tightly integrated. Responsive 61-key synth-action keyboard. Touch screen interface. Extremely configurable MIDI implementation and virtual instrument host.

CONS: Expensive. Insufficient documentation. Default sounds are not great. No phantom power on mic preamps.

MANUFACTURER

Open Labs
www.openlabs.com

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