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Xpress Keyboards

Native Instruments' new soft synth bundle By Frank Moldstad

Top to bottom: B4 Xpress, FM7 Xpress and PRO-53 Xpress.
Native Instruments has bundled "lite" versions of three of its popular soft synths in a new product called Xpress Keyboards, aimed at home users or anyone wanting to add selections from these outstanding keys to their virtual rack. It includes B4 Xpress, FM7 Xpress and Pro-53 Xpress, which are respectively, a Hammond-style B4 organ, an FM synthesizer and a Prophet 5-style synth.

The previously released full versions of PRO-53, B4 and FM7 soft synths are highly regarded for their vintage sounds and analog-style user controls that allow extensive modifications to the patches. Xpress Keyboards gives you some of the same patches from the full versions, with much more limited user controls. But at a street price of less than $100 (MSRP $119), this bundle is a great value, considering that the full versions cost hundreds of dollars each.

Xpress Keyboards include a good assortment of 160 patches between the three keyboards. The PRO-53 and FM7 Xpress synths have 64 presets each, while the  B4 Xpress organ has 32 presets. For the sake of comparison, the full version of PRO-53 has 576 presets, the full version of FM7 has 256 presets and the full B4 version has 120 presets.

  System Requirements

 Mac: OS 10.2.6 or later, G4 500 MHz, 512 MB RAM
Windows: Windows XP, Pentium III/Athlon 500MHz, 256 MB RAM
Standalone: Support for ASIO, Direct Sound and Core Audio
Plug-in: Support for Audio Units and VST
Once they're installed, the Xpress Keyboards can be played directly from a MIDI controller keyboard or accessed as plug-ins in a VST or Audio Units host program. I installed Xpress Keyboards on a Mac G4 running OS 10.3 with a Midiman 2x2 USB interface connected, and was up and running in about 15 minutes.

There are no MIDI configuration issues because Xpress Keyboards runs by default in OMNI mode, meaning it sends and receives on all channels simultaneously. I connected a Nord Lead 2 hardware synth as a controller, with its “local” sounds turned off so I would hear only the Xpress Keyboard sounds. With a keyboard controller, you can play the Xpress Keyboard synths live in real time, for recording or performance. You may have to adjust the latency on your audio card if there’s too much delay between pressing the key and the sound of the instrument, but this shouldn’t be an issue with a robust computer and high-quality audio card with Core Audio or ASIO drivers on the Mac, and is Direct Sound or ASIO-compatbile on the PC. On my trusty old G4 with an M-Audio Delta 1010 audio interface attached, I was able to play via the external keyboard with no noticable latency.

A MIDI Assignment feature allows you to match an external controller's knobs to Xpress Keyboards’ virtual interface parameters such as Brightness, Resonance, and Attack.

The other way to use the Xpress Keyboards is as a VST or Audio Units plug-in in a host sequencing program. Applications such as Logic Audio, Cubase/Nuendo and Digital Performer can be used on the Mac; on the PC, VST-capable programs include Cubase/Nuendo, SONAR, and Audition. (OS X users trying to integrate VST and Audio units plug-ins in a unified environment might appreciate a standalone program from fXpansion called VST-AU Adapter.) There are also VST-compatible freeware sequencing applications that will work. To use Xpress Keyboards in  plug-in mode, you open up the sequencer and select whichever keyboards you want from a list, then assign MIDI ports and channels. Then open the keyboard program, whereupon the interface will pop up, and you can play it in the sequencer from an external controller. (The actual procedure varies slightly from one application to another.)

Using Xpress Keyboards as a plug-in in a sequencing program has several advantages. First, you can save modified sounds in the sequencer with a song, something you can’t do when playing the Xpress Keyboards directly from a keyboard. Second, the same instrument can be opened multiple times (on multiple channels) in a sequencer – which is not possible with a standalone keyboard, since the Xpress Keyboards operate in OMNI mode.

PRO-53 Xpress
As a PRO-53 user, the first thing I wanted to check after installing Xpress Keyboards was whether the PRO-53  Xpress patches sound the same as the ones in the full version. And they do. I opened the PRO-53  full version and Xpress version side by side on my computer, played the same patches on each, and couldn't distinguish the sound of one from the other.

Of course, when I started tweaking some of the numerous knobs on the full version, there were all kinds of new variations -- but that's because the full version has about 70 parameters, while the Xpress version is limited to eight parameters and a Modulation Wheel. PRO-53  Xpress does have Brightness, Resonance, Shape, Attack, and Decay controls, providing a nice range of tonal possibilities. An Effects control let you increase or decrease the chorus, delay, or hall, depending on the preset. The Modulation Wheel is very effective for adding real-time expressiveness to a sound.

The PRO-53  was modeled (literally) on the vintage analog Prophet-5 synth made by Sequential Circuits in the 80s. PRO-53  Xpress includes 64 of the 576 presets from the full version, including a good collection of bass patches, some big textured synth pads, and bright leads and brasses. There are also quirky presets, such as IntroFX 1, and brash in-your-face patches such as EnergyNote.

FM7 Xpress
Moving from the Prophet-5 sounds of PRO-53  Xpress, we come to the Yamaha DX7-style FM7 Xpress. This is based on Frequency Modulation synthesis, another groundbreaking 80s style. FM synthesis is still popular, and Native Instruments' success with the FM7 soft synth will attest to that.

There are 64 presets in the FM7 Xpress version, drawn from the full version’s  256 presets. Among them are nice variations on the piano, such as Wurlizterich, Glassy E-Piano and Flyin Keys, and pads from orchestral to sci-fi. Many of them can be used as eerie sound effects. Some synth pop favorites from the 80s are here, too, including distorted lead instruments and repeating pulse tones.

One graphic example of the difference between FM7 Xpress and the full version is that the full version has more than 1,000 parameters, while there are eight interface parameters plus a Modwheel in FM7 Xpress. Similarly, Host Automation in FM7 Xpress has nine parameters, with more than 1,000 in the full version. But whatever its limitations, FM7 Xpress still has that sound!

The eight parameter functions in FM7 Xpress are capable of a surprising range of sound manipulation. I particularly liked the Harmonic parameter’s ability to layer overtones on a basic sound. And tweaking various combinations of Attack, Decay, and Release to alter the envelope times can result in some impressive new variations.

B4 Xpress
The Hammond B4 organ is the dean of vintage keyboards, with a signature sound favored by artists ranging from Jimmy McGriff to Santana’s Greg Rollie. But anyone who’s ever tried to lug a Hammond organ to a gig should appreciate what Native Instruments did with its B4 emulation. It even has Rotor control, simulating the ethereal rotary speaker sound associated with the Hammond.

B4 Xpress version has 32 presets, while the full version has 120.  It has theater organs and church organs, with presets like Jimmy McG and Green Onions. There's even a Farfisa. In addition to the Rotor Control, other parameter controls include Drive, for setting distortion levels; Vibrato; and Percussion, for a punchier sound. There are also Bass, Treble, and Brilliance controls. There is no Realtime Drawbar control as in Native Instruments’ original B4. But again, the authentic sound is there.

Although Xpress Keyboards is designed to be user-friendly for soft synth or MIDI novices, there’s nothing entry level about the sounds. The 160 presets in these three programs are all superb, and would be a welcome addition to any musician’s arsenal. If you want extensive user control over parameters, this program is not for you, and you would be better off checking out the full standalone versions of these keyboards. But if you’re looking for a varied and excellent assortment of vintage keyboard sounds at an economical price, this is your ticket.

Later on, if you do want more of these sounds, Native Instruments offers Sonic Xpansion Packs for each of the three Xpress keyboards. And, each of the three Xpress keyboards is upgradable to the full version, but the upgrade prices are a little steep: the B4 Xpress to B4 upgrade is $189 USD; the FM7 Xpress to FM7 upgrade is $299 USD; the PRO-53 Xpress to PRO-53 upgrade is $189 USD. In fact, if you shop around, you could actually save money by purchasing full versions separately -- an upgrade from PRO-53 Xpress costs $189 USD, while has the full version available for $165! That way, you'd have both the Xpress and full versions available.

One final note: At presstime, Native Instruments had just released a 1.0.1 update (available here) that solves a tuning problem at certain sample rates, such as 48kHz. This review was conducted at 44.1 kHz sampling, with no tuning problems.

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Related Keywords:Xpress Keyboards, B4 Xpress, FM7 Xpress, PRO-53 Xpress, Native Instruments, soft synths

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