by Sergey Samarin
02/10/2004 | 10:05 PM
The idea of crossing an ordinary PC keyboard with a musical one seems to be obvious, but manufacturers wouldn’t give it much attention. That’s why the first All-in-One Prodikeys keyboard from Creative (37 MIDI and 104 standard keys) immediately caught the spotlight and was later awarded “Best of CES” at the Consumer Electronic Show 2003.
Creative was reservedly examining the demand and feedback, shipping the product in limited quantities (for example, they didn’t offer this gadget in the East European market).
A year has passed and now Creative offers a sequel to the original Prodikeys. It is called Creative Prodikeys DM and features additional keys, different ergonomics and revised software. The new product was announced in late 2003, and now we have received a sample for our tests.
With the combo keyboard, Creative enters a new market (the market of MIDI keyboards) and also hopes to increase the sales of Sound Blaster audio cards. They are planning to release special kits with the keyboard and audio card bundled together.
As you know, MIDI keyboards have always constituted an independent class of peripheral musical devices that connected to the computer via MIDI or USB interfaces. Professional creation of music is rather a narrow activity, and the average price of such products is somewhere around $250 as they sell in small quantities. Creative Prodikeys DM breaks this rule somewhat: it is connected to the PS/2 port as a standard keyboard and comes at a price of just $90. I think the price is really alluring, so people will buy it readily. But who’s going to buy it? Is it just a toy for children (and grownups) or professionals can find it useful, too? Creative anticipated such questions from the potential customers by publishing a voluminous FAQ at their website. So that’s what they say about the purpose of Prodikeys DM:
Q: Is Creative Prodikeys DM a music keyboard for children and amateurs only?
A: No, Creative Prodikeys DM is for anyone! All the features are designed to let anyone who wants to have fun playing, learning or creating music easily, anytime at his PC. If you were already a musician, you would appreciate the convenience of having Creative Prodikeys DM right in front of your PC so that you can try out a new tune or simply experiment with sound and music.
Well, that’s rather tricky. In other words, the company sounds like “Of course, Prodikeys DM is a toy for children and for anyone who feels like punching the keys and hearing some sound! But is there anyone who’s not a child deep in his soul and who’s not a music-lover? Just buy it and that’s all!” The company surely views children as the largest category of potential users of the combo keyboard. To make the product popular, Creative goes around schools offering the keyboard at a special price. After using Prodikeys DM for some time, I’ve come to my personal opinion that this keyboard would make an excellent gift to your child, especially if the child practices music. It would also be good if you try to make your child interested in music.
There remains the other part of the question: whether the keyboard can suit a professional musician? I suppose Creative hasn’t found any hitch to excite a professional. Otherwise, this feature would be advertised hard and loud.
So, assuming Prodikeys DM is intended for all user groups, then it doesn’t matter if you have any special musical education or not, does it? The company’s got a cunning answer to this question:
Q: Do I need to have any music knowledge to be able to play music on Creative Prodikeys DM?
A: No, the Creative Prodikeys DM is designed to let anybody start playing music on the Creative Prodikeys DM – even without any music training or background.
So, they stress the fact that you don’t have to have any special training to use Prodikeys. Well, there is nothing wrong in these words, but I think some skills at playing the piano and some knowledge of the musical notation would be welcome for you to get the maximum pleasure from the purchase. Of course, Creative touts its keyboard as a “product for everyone”, but without those skills and knowledge you will hardly use the potential of Prodikeys to the full extent. That’s my warning to you.
Don’t only think I’m trying to blemish the reviewed keyboard and assure you of its uselessness. None of that. The keyboard is darn good, I am only left to praise its infinite advantages.
Before continuing with the review, I’d like to tell you breifly about the basic technical characteristics of the Prodikeys DM keyboard and the software it comes with:
Basic technical characteristics:
The Creative Prodikeys DM keyboard boasts the widest functionality, just don’t get confused. So let’s open up the big and colorful box to test the product in practice.
The package includes:
I should admit that Creative Prodikeys DM is quite comfortable as PC keyboards go. The keys are very soft; there are hot keys for the Internet and a bunch of programmable hot keys. The thing comes in two colors: black or beige.
The active MIDI keyboard has three levels of tactile sensitivity. In other words, the musical keys react differently to Hard, Soft and Normal strokes. You set up the sensitivity in the software.
The installation process is easy: plug the keyboard into the appropriate PS/2 port and install the driver and the exclusive software pack from the CD included with the keyboard.
After reboot, you will see a “Creative Prodikeys” entry in the Keyboards section of the Device Manager. Note that if you want to return to your standard PC keyboard, you roll back the Prodikeys DM driver first, otherwise the ordinary keyboard would refuse to work.
Now we have to discuss another aspect of Prodikeys DM: the software bundle accompanying it. Running a little ahead, I should say that the software guys from Creative were very scrupulous in their work.
You activate the exclusive software by pressing the Music (Fun) button on your Prodikeys DM (it is the one marked with a note icon).
Select a device for MIDI playback
When you click the Device button in the lower right corner in each section, a menu appears where you select your MIDI playback device.
The PentaTunes tab comes first. This section is intended for the most inexperienced user: whatever keys you punch, you get some music. You can play a melody using a five-tone, diatonic, jazz or chromatic scale, also with rhythm effects and various fill-ins.
Choose your style
You can select the arrangement style from nine basic categories: Hip Hop, Jazz, Latin, New age, Oriental, Pop Dance, Pop, Rock and Shuffle. There are several styles available for each of the categories, which determine the special effects preset.
As you see in the screenshot, the three octaves of the MIDI keyboard in the PentaTunes mode include accompaniment effects. The first octave is the rhythm section, the second enables effects, and the third is responsible for filling-in instruments.
The FunTunes section is just for fun, like the PentaTunes one. You can see it in the screenshot that the keys with assigned effects are marked with multicolored balls (other keys don’t work here). The effects themselves are split into five categories, each assigned a certain color: Drum, Bass, Accompaniment, Phrase and Effect. The game implies that you hit several keys at once trying to create some musical picture (hopefully, pleasant to your ears). Like with PentaTunes, you can select the arrangement style and the musical category. Some styles don’t allow using the full set of effects.
The Intelligent tab is the first more or less serious one. As you see, the main area has the layout of a keyboard where each horizontal row of keys is assigned a certain functional purpose. You select a key either with your mouse, or by pressing the key on the keyboard, which is very convenient. The first and third rows (“123..0” and “ASD..;”) determine the desired musical style, and the second row (“QWE..P”) offers you the selection of instruments you are going to play. The fourth row (“ZXC../”) sets up the tempo. You may have noted that Ins, Home and Page Up keys in the upper right corner are singled out. They set up the musical coloring of the composition. For example, if you are set to play something tearful, enable the Sad mode. Do likewise for playing Neutral and Happy melodies. The software will automatically select an appropriate accompaniment.
Select your genre
The choice of musical genres is not limited with one preset only, it would be too primitive. Just press the Voice Set button to enter the extended menu. For example, if you choose the 06_Waltz preset, the first and third rows of keys will only be for playing waltzes (so we’ve got 20 types of accompaniment!) Note that each selected composition starts out with its unique introduction and also has a beautiful ending (when you are tired of playing the melody, press the Space button for the composition to end up “logically”).
By the way, all tabs contain a “How to Play” button. Floating hints will explain you the meaning of each interface element. And one more thing: you can always save your melody in a file.
The FixedChord tab allows you to improvise to the orchestral accompaniment or… simply play your music!
The Learn section may be interesting for both novices and professionals. At least, you can learn how to play notes here.
Choose and load your melody
In the Learn section you can select a melody from a list split into three levels of difficulty (Easy, Normal and Difficult). Besides that, you can load up your own SEQ- and MIDI-files. The program will generate the notes for each selected melody. After each lesson, you get your score. The available samples can be complemented by the new melodies you download from the Internet (in the MIDI format or in the native format of the program). You can download additional or updated content from the Prodikeys website.
The marketing department of Creative was unsuccessful in finding a professional application for the keyboard. It may have happened because they considered the Learn section as just a playing ground for beginners. However, the note area should be highly interesting to a professional in the first hand. Those three octaves of the MIDI keyboard are quite enough for a pro (there are numerous two-octave models in the market still). With the previous model of Creative Prodikeys you shifted the playing range by an octave using the arrow keys, while Creative Prodikeys DM is equipped with special Octave Shift keys for this purpose (the manufacturer realized that some sequencer programs already have certain functions like transition to the previous/next note assigned to the arrow keys, so there would be a conflict if those keys were assigned one more function).
As for compatibility with third-party software, Creative Prodikeys DM supports the General MIDI standard and won’t refuse to cooperate with “advanced” sequencer programs like Cakewalk or Cubase.
Alternative notation – Jianpu
If you prefer the Chinese notation, you may find the Jianpu mode useful. Notes are represented by numbers: C is 1, D is 2, E is 3 and so on. You switch between the notations using the Display button.
The Perform tab is nearly identical to Intelligent, only the musical coloring is different. Three keys (Happy, Normal and Sad) are responsible for that in the Intelligent mode, while the Perform mode has musical accords distributed among the functional keys. Thus, the Perform section is somewhat more advanced than Intelligent.
Select a category of instruments
You choose an additional musical instrument from the appropriate menu. The right part of the menu contains categories and the left part – instruments included into a category. It’s possible to assign an instrument to any key and save this change for the future needs.
Independent volume setup
You can control the general volume using a big and handy wheel on the keyboard. To adjust the volumes of Solo, Accompaniment, Bass and Drum parts independently, you enter this menu. It is required when the musical composition is unbalanced in volumes, or when the solo is too quiet.
I think Creative Prodikeys DM will become very popular. If you can’t make up your mind, just download videos in which Keith Washo demonstrates the capabilities of the keyboard. And here are demos of some musical instruments:
Besides that, the same website contains samples of MP3 files recorded using Prodikeys DM: “DJ Mix” and “Orchestra”.
Creative has started plowing the market of MIDI keyboards by offering its Prodikeys DM at a very appealing price. You don’t have to be a market researcher to see imminent price cuts for entry-level MIDI keyboards from other manufacturers, too. For example, there is already the cheapest three-octave MIDI keyboard from M-Audio, the eKeys 37, which is selling at $60. However, Prodikeys DM seems preferable due to its standard QWERTY layout, a handful of additional keys and wheels to control the tone and volume.
Overall, I was much pleased with the keyboard. It is a source of a lot of pure fun (I was laughing hard at some special effects). At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend it to every user, irrespective of his/her musical training. You do need some knowledge of music to get the most from Prodikeys DM.