The Kawai K4 Synthesizer ROCKS!

Kawai K4 jimatwood.net

Today I found a used Kawai K4 in the local used music shop and I must say it absolutely ROCKS! Oh my, what a gem. I already have a Kawai K4r and that is basically the same thing as the keyboard version, however, the synth version has some very good features that are had to pass up. For $50 bucks, I couldn’t pass up this beauty.

The Kawai K4 can split up to 8 different sections at once. For live performance this is fantastic. In addition, you can have up to 8 different tone layers. There is also a “link” function which allows you to program a queue and change patches on the fly during a performance. This makes moving from one patch to another seamless. Plus there is velocity switching, so you can have different sounds play depending on how hard or soft you press the keys.

The Kawai K4 is a 61 key with attack, release velocity, and aftertouch pressure. It’s a digital powerhouse monster and frankly I couldn’t stop playing with it when I was testing it in the shop. It was so much fun to play and sonically, it beats the crap off a lot of good gear I have. Lots of reviews cite the Kawai K4 as a very good synth for Industrial, Synthpop, DnB, and Hardcore/Breakbeat/Chemical synth style music. I agree 100% and then some. I simply can’t believe nobody else either has or promotes this synth. I did hear that only a limited number of them were made, so perhaps that is one reason why. It is a “VERY” digital sounding machine, BUT it does have a very warm sound to it and with some patches it sounds very analog”ish” to me. Thus I could care less if it’s digital in that it simply rocks my socks off! This leads me to believe that with effective programming the Kawai K4 can improve even more which is hard to imagine because I already love it.

Without a doubt, I recommend the Kawai K4 over the K4r for one simple reason. The keyboard version is just so much fun to play live and peform with. You really need to have easy access to layer, split, and program the velocity switching on the fly so that you can really get the most out of this beast. MIDI implementation is exceptional and with my Kawai Q8 sequencer it should be a blast to program some good drums and sequences. It all integrates seamlessly even with the Kawai K4r. Along with the Kawai K4 I was able to snag a DC-16 Memory Card which was a huge bonus because I’ve heard these are near impossible to find. In addition, there is an effect processor in the Kawai K4 synth version which is actually quite nice. The effects on the Kawai K4 absolutely make a world of difference to the sound and edginess of the K4. The Kawai K4r does not have effects.

Seriously, if you ever find a Kawai K4 sitting on a shelf for a decent price, I wouldn’t hesitate one second to pick it up. In fact RUN, don’t walk! If you are a synth band who is looking for some unique synth sounds that will cut through almost any mix, the Kawai K4 will hold the job of “secret weapon” nicely. Even the guy at the music store thought the Kawai K4 sounded better than the other keyboards I played and/or purchased before. “Wow!” he said in Japanese, “That synth really has a lot of character! BOOM!” As soon as his eyes opened up to the capabilities of the Kawai K4, I new I had to wrap it up and get the heck out of there with it. It is a diamond in the rough for sure!

Note that the photo above was graciously borrowed from a gentleman on Flickr. If you click the photo it will take you to his photo stream where you can see other shots of the Kawai K4. The one I bought is equivalent in quality and condition. It’s practically in mint condition despite the age. Now back to some jamming fun on the Kawai K4!

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56 thoughts on “The Kawai K4 Synthesizer ROCKS!

  1. After spending a couple of hours with the Kawai K4, I’ve discovered some things that I should probably add to my “glowing” review above.

    First, for those into pianos, rhodes, and other eps, the Kawai K4 leaves much to be desired. In fact, other than some ok organs, the piano sounds pretty much suck. However, better “custom” programming may fix that problem. Right now I am combing through a ton of K4 patches that I have and may “hopefully” stumble upon some decent piano or rhodes sounds. I need something for splits to go along with the basses.

    Second, the wav forms in the Kawai K4 have really bad names for them. Much like other old synths, the names either don’t represent the sound well or they are a bit gimmicky. You really need to familiarize yourself with the wav forms themselves and figure out the best way to layer them to get the sound you desire. Guitar sounds for example often sound like basses. The EPs can also sound like bells, not tines, but bells…LOL.

    So far, I have been using Midi Quest XL to program and transfer sound banks to and from the Kawai K4. MQ seems to work very well and I don’t feel I need to make any changes there. I do have some K4 soundbanks in other formats than sysex so I may need to use other librarians for sound transfers.

    I should also point out that some people have complained about excess noise in the Kawai K4. I have heard ZERO noise with respect to hissing such as with the Yamaha DX7 mkI. The noise I mainly hear is the occasional glitch or static with some of the samples. With some sounds, yes, things can be noisy, but I actually think that adds to the character of the K4. Much like analogue that has a sense of motion in it, the K4 digital artifacts as I’ll call them give life and personality to the synth. One could argue that it gives the K4 a bit of a lo-fi sound. If you are a squeaky clean sound purist, then the K4 might not appeal to you. For rocking out on, the glitches and artifacts are indispensable!

    Finally, one read my review of the Kawai K4 above based on the “Synthesizer” aspect of the machine. If you are looking for realistic brass, pianos, and other instruments, there are far better synths out there for that. I prefer Yamaha for realism quite frankly.

    The Kawai K4 excels at pure synth sounds. The bass sounds are good along with the pads. I definitely was able to get analog sounding stuff out of the K4. There are a lot of fun and “different” synth sounds in the K4 There should be plenty enough stuff to get the creative juices flowing for sure.

    • Hi Jim,
      I own a K4 It was purchased second hand…it’s got a lot of brilliant sounds…but this one lacks a great fender rhodes type of sound, and any decent brass sound…is there a way of correcting this ?

      eg.Can you point me in the direction of upgrading some of the sounds..if I had a few brass sounds and a Rhodes piano sound,..thats all I need. Thanks. Martin

    • Hey, is it only me, or is the complete lower octave on that device total crap?
      With pretty much any sound (I’be now found some sysex files on the net that I managed to get on there with MIDI-OX), it’s that the lowest octave on the keyboard produces sounds which are clearly bereft of overtones, compared to the other octaves. It sounds undersampled, aliased, and totally weak. Completely useless.
      I really wanted to like this device, because I got some really nice d-50-ish sounds on it, but only for the upper octaves, that is…
      I mean, it’s so bad, that they as well might have omitted the whole lower octave on the keyboard and make the thing smaller and lighter, that would have been a benefit, lol.

      The effects seem somewhat nicer than on the el-cheapo version of D-50 that is the D-10, though.

  2. Well I’ve played with the Kawai K4 for quite a while today and I noticed a few more interesting things about it. I managed to acquire some MUCH better patches for it and can honestly say the digital “analog” feel is very good. I also have a Roland Juno 6 and 106 so I know what analog sounds like and I think the K4 does a pretty admirable job of getting a really nice analog”ish” sound despite that fact it’s digital. It has some really “in your face sounds” which is great.

    I also found some much better piano and EP sounds which are similar to that of the Yamaha DX7. I can now at least play some EP stuff and split with different basses. Honestly though, there are much better keyboards for that so I’ll probably focus on the synth sounds with the K4.

    Polyphony is low on the K4 at 16, so I noticed the best results are obviously in single mode. In multimode you can get dropouts if you pile on the layers. Having the Kawai K4r also, I can double the polyphony by linking the two together which is pretty cool. The sounds could even be fattened up more as well.

    The synth sweeps are simply stunning and there’s a lot of motion in the K4. It’s quite a unique synthesizer. I have yet to do some programming on it which I’ll probably do over the weekend. The Kawai K4 really has a bite though and that’s what I really like about it the most. It’s fun.

  3. A couple of software applications that have been working well for me with the Kawai K4 are (1) Steem Atari Kawai K4 Robot Editor and (2) Kawai K4 Editor for Windows. I am also currently testing (3) Kawai K4 Editor for Atari using Steem on Windows 7. Below are some screenshots of both applications that I have hooked up to the Kawai K4 Synthesizer. The Kawai K4 Robot Editor that mixes and creates new sounds works very well.

    Steem Atari Kawai K4 Robot Editor
    Kawai K4/K4r Soundroboter for Atari running on Steem.

    Kawai K4 Editor for Windows
    Kawai K4 Editor for Windows running on Windows 7

    Kawai K4 Editor Atari
    Kawai K4 Editor for Atari running on Steem.

    • Hi Jim, I’m having trouble tracking down a good K4/K4r editor that works on Win 7. I’m running Steem and some editors with good results for several other synths but can’t find the full version of Soundroboter or the other two programs in your screenshots. Are you able to pass on you sources of these? Google isn’t being my friend at the moment! Cheers!

  4. Today I’ve been able to get some pretty decent electric piano sounds on the Kawai K4. None of them are what I call realistic emulations of the real thing, BUT if you like FM sounds such as the Yamaha DX7 or SY77, then the sounds you can get are similar. Actually they are quite fresh and different.

    My top 10 list of Kawai K4 EPs so far (in so specific order):

    GrittyRhds
    Piano Rhds
    FenderRhds
    Rhodes2
    Apham Rhds
    CondenserP
    Differhods
    E-Piano
    Fluid FM
    HardRhode2

    Stay tuned for future updates about my experience with the Kawai K4 series synthesizers.

  5. Just picked up some new Kawai K4 Sounds from Ebay called the Kawai K4 Synth Patches 7 bank set from Greytsounds. They were delivered via email despite the photo having floppies on it. A while back, floppies were often used to send data through the mail. Nowadays you can get the sysex data via email which is nice.

    I haven’t had a chance to sit down to go through all the sounds yet, but I’ll update this post with more info once I check them all out. For more info you can take a look at the following link which has descriptions of each set.

    http://www.greytsounds.com/gs/ssi/ssi-kawai2.html

    1) K401 – M1 Impressions
    2) K402 – D50 Impressions
    3) K403 – MASTERAM Colection, Volume 1
    4) K404 – MASTERAM Colection, Volume 2
    5) K405 – Stage and Studio
    6) K406 – Pop / R&B
    7) K407 – Radical Film Textures

    Kawai K4 Patches Greytsounds
    Kawai K4 Patches from Greytsounds.

  6. Today I checked out some of the Kawai K4/K4r patches from Greytsounds and I was pleasantly surprised at how good they were. These patches are much better than most of the others off the Internet that I have tried. I highly recommend them. I feel the Greytsounds Kawai K4 patches make better use of the effects and layers. They really sound professional. Note that I am not affiliated in any way with Greytsounds.

    Below is a screenshot of the Kawai K4 Editor from Midi Quest which I find to be the best so far when programming or transferring patches to and from the Kawai K4/K4r synthesizer. In case someone wonders, the list of patches is from the K401 – M1 Impressions sound set from Greytsounds.

    Kawai K4 Midiquest Editor
    Kawai K4 Midiquest Editor.

  7. I just noticed that there is a Kawai K4/K4r Rom version 1.4 update available, but I’m not sure from where. To check what version you have you must do the following:

    Hold the SYSTEM button while you turn the unit on.

    My Kawai K4 has has a 1.3 version Rom while my Kawai K4r at version 1.2 which is quite old.

    I think the only change with the ROM upgrade is the reduction of static and clicks with the sound. I noticed this a little but, but found the noise could be reduced with some fine editing. The update also helps to speed up the OS and lower distortions in double mode patches. The K4 and K4r ROMs remove a lot, if not all the lag when playing many notes simultaneously as well.

    Note that I am currently awaiting a reply from a gentleman at DMSAudio who apparently burns Kawai version 1.4 ROMs for the K4/K4r. I am hoping he has some still available or can burn a couple of new ones. We’ll see.

  8. Hi, I own a K4r and Midiquest 10XL. How is your editor set up? After some frustration I tried to keep it simple by just loading the patch bank and patch parameters. Despite this, I still get weird behavior from the synth. When I double click on a patch from the patch bank, the editor pops up, which is fine, but when I mess with anything in the Global frame, the synth changes to a multi and a different sound is heard. The K4r’s version is 1.1. I had a K4R with a later version a while ago which behaved the same way. Is something not set right on the K4R? Seems to work fine using Sounddiver.

      • Hi, What ended up working was turning off program change on the k4r. Now It works great! My K4r is version 1.1 and I do get that clicking attack sound. I may upgrade, not sure. Wish I had room in my studio for the keyboard version to hear the difference. -Frank

  9. Hi there, I just stumbled across your k4 blog here, I also have a K4R lying around which I used to use a lot 10 years ago and loved its surprising versatility. Nowadays I am more into using ableton and plugins. But.. today I got up early, went to my local flea market looking for tools and stumbled across a K4 keyboard, the guy had no idea what it is and its quite dusty. I bought it for… 5 euros! Bought it home got out my k4r power supply and wham, it works like a charm. It even came with a Lars Wagner sound card still in the back with even more amazing sounds. I am ridiculously amazed again, but this time with the effects as an extra. And you’re right, the keyboard just blows the hatch and gives it more playability. Its a 2nd rebirth and after cleaning it out I will integrate it into my music just like the good old days. PS: Did you manage to achieve anything concerning the rom update, would appreciate any infos.. greetings Ajay

  10. Hello Ajay! Great news on picking up a Kawai K4 Synthesizer. Although Rack Modules can take up less space and sometimes have more features, I really like having the keys version of the K4. Looks like you a found a nice gem.

    I still haven’t heard back at all from Antoine who does the Rom burning. I wanted a Kawai K4/K4r Rom 1.4 version for both the K4 and K4r. Including all fees, he quoted me an amount of $25 CAD for two ROMs shipped to Japan. I thought this was pretty good. However, Antoine has yet to reply since his last email dated March 4th. I’ll send another note and see if anyone’s still home. Keep you posted.

    Jim

  11. Hi

    I want ROM 1.4 for my K4 too ! :-)

    It nice to see that someone else than mee still can see the potentail in this synth, I found my K4 in the garbage, someone had thrown it away, nothing was wrong with it ! – BASTARDS ! >:( , ;-)

    I have found some great analogue sound banks
    for it ! :-)

  12. Another post, sorry!

    I should mention that 1.4 doesn’t completely cure the clicking issue but it seems slightly better.

  13. Argh, another one! Jim you might want to condense these to one post!

    When I put the new EPROM in I I think had to remove the memory battery to reset the synth.

    • Thanks very much Rockmanrock for the Kawai K4/R Rom info. I very much appreciate it and will definitely check it out.

      I’m curious if you would go through the trouble and upgrade the Rom again knowing it didn’t really fix the clicking issue. Did you gain any other features or performance enhancements? All in all, do you really think it’s work upgrading? Thanks very much.

      Jim

      • Hi Jim,

        I had a K4 keyboard years ago (1990!) and the MIDI response was quite sloppy on it. I’ve since read the EPROM upgrade improves that so I would say it is worth doing. I think the filters are still pretty click and pop happy, you just have to program around it – the factory and other Kawai banks show it’s possible. I’ve got lots of other synths for snappy basses etc so the K4r plays to its strengths with pads. Another thing I’ve learnt is it’s worth having some sort of compressor or limiter on the output to catch the loud filter peaks and smooth things out. Some patches end up quite low in volume to avoid the filter getting overloaded so a compressor does help there. Listening back to recordings I’ve made, I’m glad I bought it again, it’s certainly got character and the filters are pretty good for a digital when they’re under control.

  14. I’ve got a K4, too, with great sounds, but the keys are extremely noisy when you release them. Does anyone have the same experience or know what the problem (+solution) is?

  15. Yes they are VERY noisy, very annoying :(, great synt otherwise though. I will open mine up
    to see what can be done, I´ll get back asap…

    Cheers ! :)

    Svenn The LEmm

  16. Hi.
    Just picked up the K4 on ebay. Brings back the good old days when I first bought one (1990). Question: are the cards out there to be bought?
    Thanks,
    Chic

  17. You can easily buy an EPROM burner at ebay for about $30. I used one to upgrade EPROMS in many of my synthesizers.
    I didn’t notice any difference between v1.3 and v1.4 but I had v1.0 in the beginning and the difference then was HUGE ;)

  18. Has anyone tried to get a pseudo-stereosound by defining 7 or 8 different (non-overlapping) keyzones in a multipatch, then set the same single-patch for each, but define a different submix channel for each with a different pan position? I did, and it seems,,the k4 cuts voices, which doesn’t make much sense to me, since it should not use more oszillators than the single-patch alone?

  19. Hi Jim, Great blog!
    I’m using my Kawai k4 as a master to my dopfer dark energy. I was wondering if you could enlighten me as to how I perform midi program changes on the k4? I an VERY new to midi and need to send program change data to the dopfer in order to activate it’s internal arpeggiator and am absolutely stuck! The k4 manual has done little but confuse me!

    Thankyou!

    C.

  20. Hello Jim,
    I follow your blog and damn you are able to get some really good hardware for very little money in Japan compared with the used market prices here in Sweden.

    The ebay patches below, and as stated in the ad “These are original banks … Direct from the manufacturer! … ”
    Are these the same (or partly) as the free kawaius download named K4.zip (syx files 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, 401, 401, 402 and K4int) ? I suppose not, but do you know for sure ? The gretsounds site is down.

    1) K401 – M1 Impressions
    2) K402 – D50 Impressions
    3) K403 – MASTERAM Colection, Volume 1
    4) K404 – MASTERAM Colection, Volume 2
    5) K405 – Stage and Studio
    6) K406 – Pop / R&B
    7) K407 – Radical Film Textures

  21. Hi Jim,
    I’ve got a Kawai K4, been using in my garage for couple years of songwriting / recording experiments, suddenly, when I hit the power button, it doesn’t come on . . . what could that be all about?! What might be a method to fix it? I hate the just throw the thing out (if my wife get’s her way, I might have to)

    • Still got it?
      Just got a Kawai K4 from ebay, and it had the symptoms: just no go.
      Well, two things were bad: The power supply did not ouput the 12V it’s supposed to, and, the on/off switch was broken, i.e. it would not let current pass through when switched on.
      Measure that, if it’s bad, get a 12V, at least 500mA power supply, with (-) at the tip and (+) at the sleeve of the connector (unusual totday).
      If it still doesn’t work, you’ll have to unscrew a lot of screws on the back… take off the cover, then unscrew more screws to remove the shielding from the PCB, rest of the screws on it and the one outside the case around the MIDI connectors. Take the board off, the FUSE is close to the switch:
      If it’s broken, replace.
      If still no go, perhaps the switch. Luckily, it’s a two-way switch, and the 2nd half is not used, so I soldered a wire from the unused outer pin to the used outer pin, and cut the dead pin from the switch, to rpevent that the thing will be always on in case the switch revives…
      Now, the switch works in reverse to before, but I didn’t need a new one.

    • You don’t need a card at all.
      You can also send them via midi to your computer, which runs a program containing midi or send them to a sequencer like the Q-80.

  22. Hi Jim,
    I got my Kawai K4 working again — it just needed a new widget that makes it turn on . . . so I hooked it up so my kids could noodle on it, in the garage . . . was working terrifically.
    Then my son announced, couple of the keys aren’t working (!)
    I checked and sure enough . . . but it depends on the voice you select — so now I’m thinking maybe the kids, in their flurry of button pushing, may have hit some setting that makes a bunch of keys go silent —- OY! and I wanted them to be able to noodle around.

    Is there anyway to hit RESET and make all the voices factory fresh again?
    I don’t know what SINGLE and MULTI do, but they might have something to do with it,
    I’ve tried and tried to get GRAND PIANO back with just all the keys in place, but middle C is silent and another key up the scale does a weird thing where it plays like a whole sequence . . . HELP! I need somebody, HELP, not just anybody!!!!

    • You can download the factory sounds from kawai. Look for k4.zip . Just upload them then via midi.

      Choose a single sound. If 1 key is not working then, maybe there’s dirt on the contacts?

  23. Hi this sounds like a newbie question but I want to use mine as a midi controller
    Is there an octave up and down button to access the whole range?

    Thanks

    • I think the transpose setting only works on a sound, but not for the sending midi? So I guess you have to adjust this on the receiving device AFAIK.

      • So I would have to figure that out in the daw I am using essential orchestra and when I try clicking the octaves lower on the mouse it doesn’t work, would I have to map it to the keyboard?

  24. Just got a K4 myself. Very nice, “warm” digital. I found the K5000S too digital, too spikey, too sharp.
    Mine must have been an early one as the ROM version is 1.0 !! I’ve got the means to program new ROMs so when I get round to servicing it I’ll give the 1.4 upgrade.
    Also, is it me or is the volume control a bit sensitive? I found an online parts vendor and it looks like the fader is the linear taper, when it should be the log/audio taper. It would explain why all the volume action is in the bottom 10% of the fader movement.

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