My first mistake: judging the Korg Pa800 Arranger by its looks. With built-in speakers on top, it could easily be taken for a child’s first keyboard-like a cheap Casio. The Pa800 is far from it.
With the Pa800, Korg delivers a powerful, versatile keyboard with an immense cadre of authentic-sounding presets and a fairly user-friendly interface. And, at a sale price of $2,700, studio musicians will not have to shell out an exorbitant sum to compose and arrange complex high-quality pieces.
Korg made the Pa800 pretty easy to plug and play. The headphone jack and one of the two USB ports are in the front of the instrument. Four audio outputs, a MIDI in/out/thru and two mic line inputs are in back. Those built-in twin bass speakers and tweeters have more than a little oomph, and provide a considerably large, rich soundscape given their size. A color touch screen with a detailed resolution sits between the speakers and makes you wonder how you ever worked a keyboard with buttons alone. It would have been nice if the touch screen was a little bigger, though, because some of the icons you have to push are small and can be hard to hit on the first try.
The Pa800 has 61 keys, multiple octaves and whopping 120-note polyphony, which means you won’t run out of room easily. The keys are touch-sensitive-the harder you hit them, the more the keyboard responds. There are 320 performance settings, as well as a jukebox complete with lyrics. The settings can either play out while you riff a lead or act as skeletons for you to build on. And the backing instrumentation on the performance settings can be set to follow your lead and change chords and fills in an instant. They range from convincing acoustic ballads that could be the framework for Al Di Meola tracks to sleazy rock numbers, electronica or a Nintendo score.
You can essentially be your own DJ with the Pa800, seamlessly cross-fading one track into the next. The hard drive can hold 64 megabytes of imported samples, and you can assign instrumentation to programmable fills and variations. Or, you could be your own vocalist. Plug in a microphone and you can add effects, including three-part harmonization.
If you’re not familiar with arranger keyboards of this sort, the first thing you’ll want to do is set the Pa800 to Easy mode, which makes it more accessible and graphic-oriented for first-time users. You can still compose and arrange music in Easy mode, just without some of the intricacies available in Expert mode.
Learning all the ins and outs of the Pa800 takes time. The instruction manual is a hefty 323 pages thick, and yes, you’re probably going to have to read most of it to fully understand the keyboard’s capabilities. Otherwise, you’ll spend an hour trying to figure out how to properly program guitar chords for recording. One helpful bonus: A good chunk of the manual is copied into the keyboard itself. Manuals have a tendency to disappear in piles of studio clutter, and can be hard to locate when you need them. With the PA800, you can push the Help button and instructions automatically pop up on the screen.
My second mistake: Assuming that since the Pa800 has nearly one thousand pre-programmed sounds, none would sound that convincing. Instead, most of the Pa800’s emulations are pretty masterful re-creations of real instruments.
The majority of the orchestral string settings have built-in vibrato that kicks in if you hold down a note long enough, made to sound just like a violinist’s wrist gently rocking the strings. When you have it set to one of the acoustic guitar modules, if you hit the key hard enough, the string will pop, mimicking how the real instrument handles. The accordion settings are sharp and reedy, and the upright bass warm and plucky. Close your eyes and it’s hard to believe some of these sounds are coming from a keyboard.
But the Pa800’s pre-programmed instrument settings aren’t all pristine. None of the electric piano modules hold a candle to a vintage Rhodes, which comes as no surprise. Few keyboards can accurately replicate those tones. Instead, the effects you get are tones an artist like Boney James would use as backing fills. Same goes for almost all of the brass settings, which sound frighteningly like Muzak versions of smooth-jazz songs. They drip with cheese.
However, the Pa800 is a smart buy for a studio musician looking for an all-purpose keyboard/arranger package at a reasonable price. A studio cat who already has digital mixing boards might still be interested in some of the instruments it can recreate. Either way, the Pa800 deserves attention.