the dirty one

Kawai K4

When I was a wee lad, a mere pup, I set out to play keyboards in a rock and roll band. Of the many, many things I didn't know, the biggest thing I didn't know about playing keyboards in a rock and roll band was that you will never be loud enough to be heard unless you have what amounts to your own PA system.

(as it turns out, not being heard when you're a mere pup has certain advantages)

The second biggest thing I didn't know was that I couldn't afford anything but the most crappy sounding keyboards. Like this thing-


It must be great being the albino twin of Johnny Winter and having a hit song called Frankenstein, but the thing Edgar is playing in the video is not the thing being sold in this ad. The thing being sold in this ad had three crappy sounds and a volume control. No pitch bend or filters or programmability, absolutely not the thing being played on Frankenstein. Edgar and Univox sorta lied. It's OK, I'm over it. I needed to be, like the ad says, "perpetually moving onward."

And I did move onward, discovering that affordable old analog keyboards could be funky and cool (if you had a truck to move them) and that a 2x12 Peavey guitar amp got me loud enough to be heard, somewhat painfully. Over time I stumbled on some of the better early synthesizers, like this thing-


By the time I got one of these it had become the equivalent of the "funky old analog keyboard", and the used price was considerably lower than list. But it actually made kewl soundz like the ones Greg Hawkes was playing on smash hit records.

Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes

The Mini-Korg was cheap by this time because it didn't have what every keyboard player wanted- MIDI!

I was ambivalent about MIDI. Being a "purist" I believed that I could hear the time-lag of the MIDI note as compared to the one played directly on the key. Who knows? I'm over that now too. What MIDI was, it was the onset of the digital control of sounds, and like everything personal computers were doing for word processing, it was revolutionary. Every new keyboard on the market needed to support MIDI or it was D.O.A.

Beginning in the mid-1980's, the evolution of keyboards was intensely competitive, like the pre-Cambrian era of life on earth. Every year or two a new innovation would hit the market and kill everything else (anyone remember Ensoniq?). I stayed out of all that because, well, those things were way expensive, and almost instantly obsolete. So I never even noticed when this oddity came out.

the Kawai K4

By 1989 I wasn't into MIDI or sampling, or driving a truck to gigs anymore, and had a Yamaha DX-100 (about the smallest programmable synth then in existance) strapped to an old amp-stand to play keyboard sounds for Dark-30, a setup I continue to work with occasionally. (the thing that makes this sound good is the cheesy effects pedal)

DX 100 rig

Now, another thing I have learned over the years is that sometimes you can get what you never knew you wanted. I mean, I admit that I wanted to indulge in the keyboard wars of the late 20th century. I sorta knew what was the latest and greatest thing the pros were using, but what made any of them great, not so much. It was far too technical by that time for me, or anyone, really, who wasn't using them directly, to understand.

So when a couple of these antiques (over 25 years old and it's antique, right?) came on Craigs recently for practically nothing, I bit. I've got just enough experience fixing these things to not be afraid of them (although I probably should be). Pots get dirty, keys "go bad", wires come loose- these things I understand. For $25 I picked up this Kawai K4 here.

Kawai K4 at the Moonbase

This unit never was the leader at any time in the synth game, and few have ever heard of it. What I learned online was that some refer to it as "the dirty one" because the way it went about its business introduced a bit of noise into the sound. It wasn't a deal-breaker, but when the question is "can I get away with using it instead of a real piano," the answer was a definite "no, you really can't".

Bu-uuut, sometimes a little noise in the signal is a good thing! And with this synth, it's everything. There are artifacts in the sounds that will sometimes suddenly shift the pitch of one note just ever-so-slightly. There is noise in the transitions from the attack phase of a sound (which is a sample) to the sustain phase of the sound (which is synthesized) which passes by very quickly, but which gives sounds tons of character. And you know folks, when it comes to character, it's the one thing that I find least attractive about synthesizers- most of them aint gots.

So... the internal battery was dead when I got this, but it turns out to be relatively easy to replace. I mean, you've got to take it apart to get to it, but hey, you'll only need to do this every ten years or so, and it's not soldered in like some of them internal batteries are. But the down side is that the poor thing forgot all but one of its sounds when the battery died.

Fortunately, there are "memory cards" that came with it, with like 64 different sounds on each one, so as-is I can use it. But I also have the option of re-loading sounds into the machine doing what is called a "MIDI dump". I don't know, it involves attaching the synth to a computer which is running a program which can send MIDI over to the synth and getting the two of them to talk to each other, which, as I recall, can be the hard part. Here is where I must start.


This is the part I hate, but oh well, it's a rainy day. I'll certainly be posting some sounds from "the dirty one" soon!