There’s no real story behind this synth – I was bored one evening and bought the cheapest synth I could find. At he time I didn’t know much about Kawai or the K4r. I subscribe to the school of thought that there are no bad synths, and since it was less than £100 I took the gamble.
The Kawai K4r is the rack mount version of the K4, a small hobby style keyboards by a little Japanese (wait, American?) company. I can’t find much information about them, to the extent where i’m not sure if they are still in business or not. They seemingly never made anything iconic or noteworthy as I never hear them mentioned in the same context as ‘the usual suspects’. Sure, there are a few pages on Vintage Synth Explorer and GearSlutz but no real authority has emerged, and the topics posted are all inquiries as to ”
Does anyone in the world still use Kawai?”
The K4r is not a very glamorous looking thing, resembling a bargain basement VCR from the early ’90s. Cheap plastic fascia with tiny, awful feelings and buttons. It has a volume slider on the front and a ‘value’ slider that allows you to quickly select number rather than type them in. Unfortunately the resolution of the slider is so high, and it’s throw so short that actually finding a number takes a bit of finesse and a lot of luck. These are controls that I don’t suggest adjusting on the fly. Oddly other functions (such as resonance) have the opposite issue as the range is only from 0-7, so there is an audible ‘jump’ when changing some parameters. Combine that with a tiny 16 x 2 line LCD, and it can feel quite challenging to program. The rack mount version features and addition six individual outputs, giving it a little more versatility in the studio than the full size keyboard version.
That’s not a major issue as there isn’t a huge amount of programming that can be done. You see, the K4r is a sample based synthesizer – it’s really an evolution of the old original ROMplers from the 80’s (70’s?). It has two ‘oscillators’ or sample engines that can be combined in various ways to create the sound. It has rudimentary control over each sample – things like pitch, filter, envelope. You’ll find yourself sweeping through combinations of samples rather than heavily modifying much of the parameters.
There is also the option of changing some of these parameters through Sysex messages. This seems to work quite well and has eased the burden of trying to get interesting sounds out of it (I built myself a little custom controller to do this). There’s is nothing that cannot be adjusted using the from panel, but it’s so un ergonomic that I found the custom controller essential to enjoying and using this machine.
The K4r does have memory expansion for additional samples and ‘presets’ some of which I have found quite interesting and unique. I like to pickup the expansion cards when I see them for cheap on eBay. There’s a nice novelty about having a basic synth, fully loaded with all the expansion and since it’s not had a lot of exposure, it doesn’t ever really sound over used or cliche at any point. Also a lot of the sounds it produces sit very well in a mix, and have a quite unnatural ‘plastic’ sound to them. The filter is really nice – it fixed at -12dB per octave, but can do really sharp, squelchy resonance style things.
On occasion I’ve used for keys, but where it really found it’s place was with drums. It comes pre loaded with 128 different little percussion samples that can be manipulated and twisted, as well as combined. This can make for some interesting and unique little drums sounds. They don’t mimic any of the well known machines, and they also don’t try to give the illusion of being acoustic. I tend to pitch them down quite a bit in order to get that grungy, hard Nyquist sound. Most of the drums in the vinyl we released recently came from the K4r. Not the kick drum, granted, but everything else was straight from this little unit. I think they sounded great.
The output from the unit is very strong, free from noise or other artifacts. Even using all six of the sub outs results in perfect silence. I upgraded the internal OS to 1.4 (the last version developed), £10 and 15 minutes of time. Build quality is not great from a materials stand point, but it’s so basic that it should last forever. Owned this for about 4 years and experienced no issues what so ever.
For the money, I don’t think it can be faulted. It’s not an essential addition to any studio, but I’ve certainly found it to be useful on occasion, and frequently dig through it for drums. The good thing about buying a cheap synth is you never feel guilty about it sitting there not doing anything. With some of the more expensive gear I really do feel it need to earn it’s keep, by having an impact on most recordings. Buying one of these for peanuts really frees you from that. Best yet, you can get a real synthesizer for less money than some people pay for VSTi emulations.