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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Gear Change: Kawai PHm

New gear to talk about, hopefully I'll get around to all of it.  First up is the Kawai PHm "Pop Synth Module", a small half-rack rompler module in the vein of the Casio CSM-1.  Where the CSM-1 was a midi module version of the massively popular MT-540/CT-460 home keyboard, the PHm is a module version of the less popular PH50 Pop Synth.  It's got two hundred patches which have been pulled from the Kawai K1, which itself was a sample & synthesis instrument based on the K5 additive synthesizer.  The K1 itself has been thoroughly documented by the Deep Synthesis site here, if you need a quick primer on its capabilities.  You can find a more general review of the PH50 at the always excellent TableHooters home keyboard review site, although the PH50 is slightly different in interface and the reviewer's interest is focused more towards the circuit bending end of things and the physical interface.  Since most of it's covered there, I'll just speak about the patches.

The PHm can be had for about $25 on ebay, although it goes for as much as $50 at times which seems to be a bit too much to me since you can get an actual K1 for a little more.  The PHm offers 200 patches, but really it's more along the lines of 50 patches with a few variations as was the usual practice at the time.  The patches are actually quite usable, in fact there are several which I believe I've heard on some classic tracks.  Tone 58, "arrangement," is a short, rather odd digital string progression which lasts for a moment or two.  When played as a chord, it strongly resembles a sound from the classic bleep track LFO - LFO.  There are an assortment of somewhat usable digital basses (110, "Round Bass" is straight out of a late 80s industrial rock record, and 111 "Kick Bass2" sounds like something from an amiga game soundtrack), some excellent string sounds, and a surprisingly good handful of Oberheim emulations for some reason.  Also included are some interesting sound effect-type pads which I would guess were largely created on the K5, such as 45-47 and 145-150 (the variations tend to show up every 100 patches, as discussed by TableHooters).  Other patches are clearly samples, and since the PHm was created in the era before sampling became regulated they include one or two samples clearly lifted from classic sources such as 154, which is straight from a kung fu movie, or the fairlight ahh sample which appears as number 85.

The PHm also features 4 part multi-timbrality plus a drum kit on channel 10, but also at least a dozen percussion patches among the 200 primary patches which are of varying usability.  Many of them play only one note across the keyboard, which is extremely frustrating because they're already rather low quality samples and frankly the bit noise added by transposing them would have only made them more interesting.  The FingerSnap patch, for example, sounds like the pop a speaker makes when you take the cable out while it's still powered on.  On the other hand, the BongoCowb split has a very 808-ish analog bongo/tom sound on one half of the keyboard, and a very un-808ish cowbell on the other.  The Tambourine patch is really rather awful, as pretty much every rompler tambourine patch tends to be, while the Single Hit patch is probably the best orchestra hit I've ever heard.

Not all patches are useful, in particular the guitars are about as awful as rompler guitar sounds ever sounded (was there ever a situation where these types of sounds didn't ruin anything they touched?  bleah) and the horns are invariably oozing with cheese.  If you want to do a patch-perfect '87 freestyle track, you could do a lot worse than 161 "Lotsahorns".  The pianos, the test of any rompler worth it's salt, are mostly disappointing and a bit thin, although perhaps passable in a certain style of piano house.  The built in rhythm patterns don't really provide anything of use, although the Echo pattern might actually find its way into a track of mine in the future.

Frankly, the PHm excels at certain things like sound effects and oddball digital synth sounds, but fails to hold up to anything even remotely approaching professional quality.  The price is extremely low, though, and with two hundred patches it's certainly worth having one around.  It's best suited to old school style dance music production or strange-life-esque soundtrack work.  If you're looking for a proper synthesizer, the K1 upon which this is based is available for between $50 and $100 and is fully programmable.  However, if you just want another set of classic rompler sounds and you'd rather not pay the $75 for, say, a U-220 or 05/rw then keep an eye out for the Kawai PHm, and don't bother if it costs more than $30.

Kawai is one of the best companies on earth when it comes to making their manuals available, and the long forgotten PHm is no exception.  You can get the user manual here and the patch list here.