Every couple years, I take a look at the state of affordable keyboards, and lament that there's so little available. Well, not much has changed in that regard over the past couple of years. There was a brief glimmer of hope back in 2012, but since then, the field has all but depleted. Korg have discontinued both the X-50 and the PS-60, and Yamaha dropped the MM-6 and replaced it with the more expensive MX61. Casio's entries are still around, and Korg have replaced the PS-60 with something called Kross (61-key model). From what I can see and hear, the Kross is largely a re-hash of the PS-60, but with a less user-friendly front panel. Gone are the easy-to-use live performance modes (two-touch layers and splits, quick mixes of combi voices, etc.), replaced by Korg's typically cryptic sequencer, moving it further into the realm of the "music workstation.," and further from a synth designed for live performance. By the way, if you are in the market for a well-priced music workstation that can go anywhere, I think this is a good choice, despite the cryptic sequencer and weak horn sounds.
Casio's XW-P1 looked great on the surface (and it's a big surface) and the sounds are quite good. But as I investigated further, I again found that cutting costs have made for an instrument with some difficulties. The process of accessing many of the sounds is the same as on my Casio CTK-6000 -- press a category button and spin the dial to dig through a list of related sounds. And, I'm less than impressed with the build quality -- the instrument certainly does not feel very robust. And while I do take the CTK-6000 to practices and the occasional gig, I tend to wonder how long it will be before something on it breaks.
Yamaha's MX61 is still a great-sounding keyboard, with a plethora of sounds from Yamaha's most excellent Motif sound engine. The keyboard has a good feel, and the controls for modifying sounds in realtime and creating splits and layers do fall conveniently to hand. But getting around, choosing sounds, etc., is a real pain for live performance.
So, I may be slow, but I am beginning to notice a trend: low-priced keyboards properly designed and built for live performance really just don't exist.
So what happens if the "price ceiling" is raised to, say, $900?
Not a whole lot, really, except that one more performance synth pops up on the list of options -- Roland's V-Combo VR-09. And that's a kind of exciting thing, I think.
The V-Combo VR-09 is the little cousin to the VR-700 and VR-760, which were absolute performance beasts. Roland appear to have done a bang-up job of condensing the V-Combo down to a lightweight 61-key instrument that is bred for performance.
The top panel is arranged into a half-dozen zones, three of which dedicated to the different groups of sounds, labelled organ, piano, and synth. Additionally, there is a real-time effects section, a drum/percussion section, and the data-entry/editing section.
Of particular note (no pun intended) is the organ section. There are modeled emulations of three different types of organs: "Jazz," "Rock," and "Transistor." The jazz and rock organs sound very much like Hammond tone wheels, while the transistor organ is very reminiscent of the Vox Continental. Customization of the tone wheel organs is really deep, and includes settings I've never seen on any emulator in the past. If you want to exactly imitate the sound of John Lord's B3 on Smoke on the Water, as recorded for the Live in Japan album, you could probably do it. One particularly interesting feature of the organ emulation is that, when in organ mode, the response of the keyboard is altered such that notes are triggered and released at the top of the key stroke, much like a real Hammond, whereas the other modes have a more familiar synth action. That's very cool for people who want to truly replicate organ playing, but are frustrated with other keyboards.
Favorite combinations of sounds, effects, and other settings (including layers and splits) can be stored in one of 100 "registrations" for easy recall, which makes the now ubiquitous "peck and spin" tone selection much more bearable. From what I can tell, the lack of direct-entry for tone selection is the only real shortcoming of this synth.
For those who want to dive into sound editing, there is a nifty iPad application that allows access to every parameter of the synth. In organ mode, the screen switches to a representation of the control panels on a tone wheel organ.
I've spent a few hours listening to demos of the VR-09 (not just Roland or dealer demo recordings -- I wanted to hear it in the hands of "real" users). The sounds are mostly amazing, and run the gamut from the aforementioned modeled organs to multi-sampled pianos, electric pianos, and class to Roland's lush strings and brilliant horns. Everything a gigging keyboardist could want ... and more.
There are many more beneficial features of the VR-09, and lots of great videos describing most of them on Roland's web site. Here's the direct link to the VR-09 on the Roland web site.