The Boundary-Pushing History of Kawai Synths

Over the course of two decades, the Japanese piano company Kawai released a large number of synthesizers, from entry-level monophonic analogs to forward-thinking digital polys. They even had a hit in the late ‘80s, creating one of the most popular synths of the digital era. And yet, by the end of the ‘90s, the manufacturer had abandoned synthesizers altogether and now they focus almost exclusively on pianos. What happened?

The Birth of Kawai

The story began in Hamamatsu, Japan, a city now famous for musical instrument manufacturing. Koichi Kawai, the company’s founder and namesake (contrary to popular belief, the name does not mean "cute" in Japanese) started as an apprentice in the piano division at his neighbor’s company. That neighbor just happened to be Torukasu Yamaha, the man who started the now-giant corporation of the same name.

In 1927, Kawai opened a company of his own with a focus on what he knew best: pianos. By the late 1970s, Kawai would be manufacturing a different kind of keyboard instrument: synthesizers.

First, though, let’s rewind back to the late 1940s. The immediate post-war era saw a flurry of activity in manufacturing as Japan got back to work. Musical instruments were no exception. In 1948, a company called Teisco was formed, focusing on guitars, amplifiers, drums, and PA systems. Teisco instruments were also exported to the United States and other countries.

In 1967, Kawai purchased Teisco and added a number of new instruments to its piano lineup. Kawai continued to use the Teisco name overseas, including for its synthesizers, until 1984. However, naming conventions weren't always consistent—confusingly, it's just as common to find a Kawai-branded synth as it is a Teisco one from this era, even for the same model.

Over the next two decades, Kawai would release a number of synthesizers, some of which were rather innovative. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

The Analog Era

In 1977, Kawai released their first synthesizer, the Synthesizer 100F. A single VCO monosynth with 37 keys, the 100F came out at a time when Japan was experiencing somewhat of a homegrown monosynth boom.

While the affordable synth slotted in nicely among the other entries of the time—with the usual sawtooth, square, and noise oscillator options, lowpass filter, and ADSR envelope—it did have some unusual touches, like VCO modulation of the filter. While not the biggest synth debut of all time, it did help establish Kawai’s reputation of offering affordable and unique instruments.

Speaking of unique, you might not look twice at Kawai’s next release, 1979’s Synthesizer 100P. By its appearance alone, you might guess that this was yet another preset monosynth—and you’d be right. With its multi-colored selection tabs, it bore more than a passing resemblance to Roland's SH-1000 and Yamaha's SY-1. Under the hood, though, things got a little more interesting, with a spring reverb tank tucked away as well as an aftertouch with assignable control over pitch bend, filter, vibrato, and the aptly-named growl. Interestingly enough, the technology was licensed from ARP.

In this demo of the Kawai 100P, you can hear the ARP-licensed effects at work.

In 1980, Kawai/Teisco opened offices overseas and signaled a desire to expand their synthesizer sales beyond Japan. The first big push came with the dual release of the 60F and 110F, which were respectively monophonic and duophonic.

The 60F could be seen as an update of the 100F with some unusual functions, such as an LFO with continuous control going from sawtooth through square to pulse waves. The 110F added a second oscillator and made them both independently playable a la the ARP Odyssey. Unusually, it also had a fixed eight-band filter bank, recalling those on classic Moog modulars such as the 907 or 914. Throw in a pressure-sensitive keyboard, ring modulator, and oscillators that doubled as LFOs, and you had a capable and surprisingly unique instrument. As was expected from the brand, both were affordable at the time.

Things in the synthesizer industry were changing. Not to be left behind, Kawai released its first polyphonic synth in 1981, the fat—in both body and sound—four-voice Synthesizer SX-400. It was a big, old thing, like the 110F on steroids, and offered four voice modes: solo (which restricted play to a single oscillator), two-voice duophonic, four-oscillator stacked monophonic and four-voice polyphonic. Opinion on the instrument is divided: some sing its praises in message boards, while others really hate it.

Next came the SX-210 in 1983, an eight-voice polyphonic with a single DCO. It offered the same four voice modes as the SX-400—though this time with eight oscillators at play. Kawai must have known the trend was going to be all buttons and no knobs and sliders, as the SX-210 used an incremental dial to enter parameter changes. Interestingly, it also allowed for pattern names rather than numbers, with six characters that you entered by pressing corresponding keys.

This was followed the next year by the SX-240, which added MIDI capability and a second DCO. Neither of these sold very well, however, as it came up against the Yamaha DX7 in addition to Roland’s Juno triple threats: the 6, 60, and 106.

The Digital Era

Thanks to the runaway success of the digital DX7, the writing was on the wall for analog synthesis. Like other Japanese synthesizer manufacturers, Kawai also made the move to digital. This would prove to be the right choice, as the late ‘80s would be Kawai’s golden era, at least in terms of electronic instruments, with a variety of synthesizers, drum machines, hardware sequencers, effects processors and more all appearing in their catalog.

The first of Kawai’s new digital instruments was the six-voice K3 in 1986. It combined single-cycle digital waveforms with an analog VCA and SSM2044-based analog filters (the same found on the SX-240, as well as Korg's Polysix and Mono/Poly). Each of the two digital oscillators could play one of 32 eight-bit samples—both standard waveforms and acoustic instruments—or use additive synthesis to generate new harmonics.

Check out this demo of the the Kawai K3 to hear its digital oscillators and analog filters in action.

Additive synthesis is something that Kawai was especially keen on, coming back to it twice more over the next decade. The K3 was also released in rack format as the K3m, starting a trend that would continue throughout the rest of the company’s synth history.

If the K3 passed as digital in analog clothing, its follow-up, the K5, was completely and unapologetically digital. Returning to additive synthesis, the K5 (and its rackmount equivalent, the K5m), was a 16-voice multitimbral synthesizer with a digital filter, six-stage envelopes, and a powerful LFO. Sounds were created by combining up to 126 harmonic levels generated by sine waves, with detuning and pitch envelopes also available.

In a review from the time of its release in 1987, Sound On Sound magazine said, "The Kawai K5 is quite an achievement. It is the first polyphonic synth that makes additive synthesis quick to use, easy to understand and simple to program." Unfortunately, this was not enough to compete with Roland’s massively popular D-50 released the same year. It would take something different to wrestle market shares away from the D-50, and that 'something' was right around the corner.

Sometimes you don’t need to be the newest or the best—you just have to be the most affordable. In 1988, everyone wanted a Roland D-50 or a Korg M1; these two represented the cutting edge of PCM-related synthesis and had price tags to match. For a third of the price of an M1, however, you could get a Kawai K1, which still had samples of acoustic instruments, realistic strings, and breathy choral pads. This was enough to help move 50,000 units, making it one of the best-selling synths of the era.

This demonstration of the Kawai K1 showcases the synth’s signature samples.

It offered four PCM oscillators and 16 voices of polyphony (halved to eight when using all four oscillators), with 256 eight-bit PCM waveforms. There was no filter, but its vector joystick allowed for crossfading between waveforms, and came in three formats: the K1 with a keyboard, the K1m desktop module, and a joystickless rack version, the K1r. Kawai followed it up with the K1 II in 1989, adding effects and expanding multitimbrality.

In 1989 Kawai released the next of their PCM-based synths, the K4 (and K4r rack). Though the joystick was lost altogether, there were other improvements all around, including 16-bit samples, a very squelchy digital filter, and 32 patch combinations of effects. Also worth noting is the unusual XD-5, a rackmount-only drum synthesizer with percussion-focused waveforms.

Kawai would release a number of other PCM-based instruments in the early ‘90s, such as the Spectra KC-10 (1990) and K11 (1993), but it was their return to additive synthesis that would be their glorious synthesizer swan song.

In 1996, Kawai debuted their final set of synths, the K5000 series. The additive-based line included the K5000S workstation, which incorporated real-time controls via 16 knobs and 32 notes of polyphony, followed by the K5000W and its rackmount equivalent K5000R, both of which doubled the knobs and notes alongside an additional 32 PCM and General MIDI voices.

With 128 harmonics per oscillator, each with four-stage loopable harmonic envelopes and two filter types—lowpass and formant—these were seriously powerful instruments. Although the K5000 instruments were praised for their sound quality and synthesis and maintain a firm cult fanbase to this day, low sales caused their production to end in 1999.

Article continues after interview
The Insider Opinion

Why did Kawai decide to close up their synthesizer shop? To get some answers we reached out to synthesist Drew Schlesinger, who was involved as a contractor with Kawai starting in the late 1980s, creating internal presets for the K1 II, K4, and K5000 instruments.

Drew Schlesinger
Drew Schlesinger

Can you give us a "greatest hits" of your career, including some of the gear you’ve worked on?

Everything started with the Casio CZ-101 and the three patch cartridges I did for the CZ series starting back in 1986, along with the book The Insiders Guide to Casio CZ Synthesizers. That lead to a career doing sound design and presets that have been included in over 200 synth and effects devices.

I'd say the three most notable patches/programs I've done are "Crystal Echoes" for the Eventide H-3000, which is now known as "Shimmer," as well as the "Black Hole" reverb algorithm and patch originally for the Eventide DSP-4000, which took on a life of its own. The other one is the initial preset in the Korg Prophecy called "Prophetic Steps." People ask me what sounds I did, but I think there were literally thousands so it's hard to remember, unfortunately.

How did you start working with Kawai?

After working with Casio on the CZ I was looking for another reasonably priced synth that I could develop patches for and sell.

The Kawai K1 was inexpensive, powerful, had a RAM card slot, and the cards could be purchased at a reasonable cost. So I created the two MASTERAM 64 patch cards for the K1, and in doing so met the product leads, Danny Sofer and Malcolm Doak. They helped distribute them and we established a great collaboration.

Kawai's K1 and MASTERAM-64 Cards
Kawai's K1 and MASTERAM-64 Cards

What was different or special about Kawai instruments?

They were really well designed, sounded great and were reasonably priced. The K4 was such a great synth, with digital filters, effects, and a small footprint and cost. The K5000 as well was just amazing. Their technology and industrial design were top-notch.

What’s your favorite Kawai synth?

The K5000 is likely my favorite. They made additive synthesis accessible and it was such a beautifully designed instrument that sounded awesome and was really unique. It still stands out today as a sleeper and those that know it love it. There's a real fan base out there.

Do you have any stories about working with Kawai or memories from that time that you’d like to share?

They were a really open-minded and forward-looking company with a wonderful team in the synth division. They were creating inspiring devices that were a pleasure to program so working with them was wonderful.

As the synth division was small, it was cool to have a closer relationship to the folks that were making things happen there.

How was Kawai different from other synth companies you worked with?

They were mostly a piano company, not a synthesizer company like Roland or Korg, but had decided to expand into synths. That took a lot of effort, as they had to convince players that they were "legit." The fact is they made some great products that were well-reviewed and are still highly regarded to this day, which is pretty incredible.

Kawai made a number of interesting synths in the 1990s and then stopped, and now they primarily make pianos.

As mentioned before, pianos were the bread and butter—so the synth effort was an offshoot of the primary products, which they still of course make today. Excellent pianos they are, too.

Do you know why they stopped?

I wasn't privy to the business discussions but in most cases like this the cost benefit was likely not as good as hoped, but that's conjecture. It takes tremendous effort and resources to start building electronic devices, especially back then. Not like today where there's so many options and outsourced companies. I'd venture to guess it was not profitable and they decided to focus on the core business.

It's unfortunate they stopped as they had great design sense and a follow-on to the K5000 would likely have been great. As mentioned they were a great company to work with and I have immense respect and gratitude to Danny and Malcom for their support and involving me in the projects.

What are you involved with now?

I retired from sound design around 2001 but never stopped following the industry. One company that I've continued to work closely with since the 1990s is Soundtoys, who make some of the best effects plugins ever, in my opinion. I recently did some presets for the GForce Oberheim OB-E and M-Tron MKII—another company that makes killer soft synths that I've known since way back.

I've also started releasing music that's been sitting around for 40 years going back to 1978 on Bandcamp so that's kind of exciting as well and doing some posting on Instagram about great synthesists and electronic music. Things have changed so dramatically over the years.

The End Of The Line

Flyer for the unreleased K5000X
Flyer for the unreleased K5000X

It’s difficult to find hard and fast answers as to why Kawai stopped making synthesizers. As Drew alluded to, there were likely plans for a follow-up to the K5000—an image appeared on a Yahoo group dedicated to the synth showing what it would look like. Called the K5000X, it would have what Kawai was calling Advanced Additive synthesis, a 76-note keyboard, 3.5" disk drive, 37 different types of effects, as well as a seven-band graphic equalizer, a sequencer, and hands-on controls. This was shelved in the late ‘90s and soon after, Kawai stopped making synthesizers altogether.

Looking at the company’s current lineup of pianos, both acoustic and digital, it’s clear that Kawai is still going strong, with a thriving sample-based stage piano business. Perhaps Kawai gave it their all but decided to cut their losses, take what they needed from the synthesizer research and development department, apply it to their main business of pianos, and move on. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t keep it going because for a time there, Kawai were really trying some new things. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get enough customers to come along for the ride.

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