Behold, the keyboard workstation! For those unfamiliar, workstations typically provide not only a huge number of sounds across a diverse range of genres but also the ability to layer many sounds together for creating new textures or complex ensembles. This is in addition to studio-quality effects and empowering performance features, and traditionally, onboard multitrack recording/sequencing.
For the past 10 or so years, this category has arguably been dominated by the KORG KRONOS, although Yamaha has recently been serving up some tough competition with their flagship MONTAGE, as well as the more affordable MODX. Price-wise, Nautilus sits right between MONTAGE and MODX, so we decided to line the three of them up and examine how they compare with each other. Is it simply a matter of ‘you get what you pay for’, or does one stand out as a clear workstation champion? Keep reading to find out, and be sure to check out our comparison video.
Side note: It could be argued (and in fact is) that MONTAGE and MODX are not workstations as much as ‘simply’ synthesisers given their lack of comprehensive onboard sequencing, They do however share so much in common with a traditional workstation keyboard from a general use perspective that we feel the terminology is valid and a comparison is warranted.
Check out the video for Mike’s brief look at each unit and discussion of some key differences, or read on for my impressions of each keyboard.
The areas we’ll be focusing on for this comparison are: build quality, sounds, user interface, and feature set.
Being a flagship model for Yamaha, MONTAGE has top notch build quality with an almost entirely metal body aside from plastic side-panels. Conversely, MODX’s chassis is entirely plastic, but this is to be expected at its price point. Whilst this makes MODX less durable than the other models here, it’s also substantially lighter at just 6.6kg for the 61 note model, compared to 15kg for the Montage 61, and 13kg for the Nautilus 61. The MODX8 (88 key version) undercuts them further at 13.8 kg compared to approximately 23kg and 29kg for the Nautilus 88 and MONTAGE8 respectively.
Despite its more affordable positioning, Nautilus is built like a flagship keyboard with its entirely metal construction, not to mention the interesting curved design. As with MONTAGE, this metal construction does add some weight which, combined with a curved shape, doesn’t make it any easier to carry around, but it’s hard to imagine a more solidly built keyboard.
Keybed quality is a similar story and generally consistent with each board’s price point. Keep in mind our video features only the smaller 61 key versions of each. The Nautilus is also available with 73 semi-weighted keys, or 88 fully weighted keys and the Yamaha models are also available with either 76 semi-weighted keys or 88 fully weighted keys.
Nautilus and MONTAGE both have responsive and reassuringly weighty keys (even the semi-weighted versions) and which one you prefer will come down to your personal preference. Unlike Nautilus, MONTAGE being a premium priced instrument does have the added benefit of aftertouch. Nautilus’ keybed is almost identical to the more expensive KRONOS, sans aftertouch. The MODX keybed is a noticeable step down from the other models here featuring a noticeably spongier, ultimately cheaper feeling action, with no aftertouch. This is again to be expected at its lower price.
Given the immense sonic scope of each of these keyboards, a comprehensive comparison is no easy feat. Long story short, they all sound fantastic and excel in all the expected areas. This may again come down to personal preference so be sure to watch our video for playing comparisons. That being said, there is a major difference between Yamaha and Korg as far as the method by which these sounds are generated, and how much control you have at your disposal.
Nautilus features a more traditional workstation structure with individual instrument patches known as Programs, up to 16 of which can be combined into Combis (as what Korg call Timbres). A Program can utilize up to two of the nine available sound engines. Think of sound engines as instrument plugins with not only unique interfaces and parameters but also independent polyphony and differing sound generation methods. There are dedicated engines for Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Drawbar Organ, String Modelling, Analog Modelling, FM and Sample Playback as well as emulations of their own MS-20 and PolySix analog synths similar to their desktop plugin counterparts.
Patch tweaking on Nautilus is for the most part very intuitive given the custom interface for each engine. MS-20’s patch panel for example functions just like the real hardware. Simply drag a virtual cable from mod source to destination (or double tap the source, then tap the destination).
A Program or Combi can be complemented by a drum part as well as utilizing several simultaneous arpeggiators, and there are plenty of varieties of each to choose from. Drum and arpeggiator patterns as well as MIDI channel assignments can be controlled in real-time using Arpeggiator Scenes. Each of the four Arpeggiator Scenes (per patch) offer plenty of customization with tempo synced triggering similar to clip launching in Ableton Live.
MONTAGE and MODX share almost identical sound generation capabilities with two separate sound engines: one for sample playback (AWM2) and one for FM (FM-X). While this doesn’t feel nearly as indulgent as Korg’s nine sound engines, it’s still extremely capable, especially the FM-X engine with an incredible 8 operators and 88 algorithms. Montage can handle 128 notes of polyphony per engine, whereas the FM engine on MODX is halved to 64.
The Super Knob is a crucial part of MONTAGE and MODX’s sound and design. It behaves like a macro letting you tweak multiple parameters simultaneously (albeit with independent curves, min/max values etc.) and the factory presets do a great job of sonically and visually demonstrating its monstrous potential for transformation. How far you take this feature is up to you and your ingenuity, and maybe your patience.
Yamaha’s sound structure it quite different to Nautilus with Performances being the primary patch format, as well as the highest point in the architectural hierarchy. Performances consist of up to 16 Parts, each of which are built from up to 8 Elements.
Despite being structurally similar on paper, you will likely end up interacting primarily with Performances on MONTAGE/MODX, and Programs (as opposed to Combis) on Nautilus, depending on how you prefer to work. Regardless, a Nautilus Program represents a complete instrument, whilst a Part from a Yamaha Performance is often just that, part of a sound e.g. the lower velocity sample layers of a piano. It’s often not until you reach the Performance level that you experience the instrument patch in its entirety.
Given that each of Yamaha’s Parts is comprised of up to 8 Elements, editing 8 operator FM patches feels intuitive enough with clearly laid out tabs for each Part. Sample based patches however can be a little trickier. If for example, you want to use more than 8 samples in a performance, you’ll need to stretch the instrument across several Parts. Nautilus’ SGX-2 piano engine, by comparison, allows for up to 12 velocity layers of samples per key, as well as dedicated soft pedal samples and string resonance, all part of a single program.
Our experience using MONTAGE and MODX was great for the FM side, and good if not amazing for everything else. Despite being comparatively limited, each AWM2 Part houses a lot of power and plenty of scope for creative sample experimentation that we sadly don’t have time to get into here.
A Performance also contains up to 8 scenes that act as parameter variations or snapshots, and this is a great way to alter the sound without changing the patch. We’d love to see Korg incorporate this feature as a way to (amongst other things) switch between organ drawbar presets in lieu of physical faders, however, there are certainly workarounds such as saving variations as Programs and recalling them via the Set List mode or juggling MIDI channels inside of Combis using Arpeggiator Scenes, but more on that later.
While all three keyboards sound superb across all instrument categories, we do prefer Nautilus’ instrument specific interfaces via its multitude of sound engines. Not only does the sound quality benefit from the variety of synthesis methods, but the intuitive instrument tweaking capability adds an extra layer of realism to the experience.
Nautilus’ front panel appears surprisingly bare consisting of a large colour touch screen plus a handful of knobs and buttons. The ability to tuck the knobs into the body is nifty however the lack of faders does make playing drawbar organs or tweaking combi levels less than ideal. You do have the option of connecting a compatible controller such as the Korg nanoKONTROL, or nanoPAD directly via USB to add additional functionality which is a nice touch.
Both Yamaha boards are equipped with the typical workstation assortment of knobs and faders as well as the eye-catching yet borderline obnoxious Super Knob. The MODX has just four knobs and faders compared to the Montage’s 8 (excluding master volume and Super Knob) and misses the Montage’s ribbon controller, but it’s still an impressive amount of control for the price.
Ease of use and navigation is where things get more complicated. They all use a large colour touch screen as their primary user interface however the experience isn’t entirely consistent. We found Nautilus’ menu structure easy and logical to navigate, although the programmable navigation buttons labelled A through F to the right of the screen do mean you need to remember what they are all assigned to e.g. Set List, Program, Combi, Global etc.
This was less of an issue for live performance as Korg’s Set List mode has been significantly revised compared to its already impressive implementation in the KRONOS. As well as a global EQ, it now features several tabs for fast access to patch parameters so you may never need to leave Set List mode during a gig
The touch screens being used here (on all 3 keyboards) don’t exactly represent the bleeding edge of consumer technology. Don’t expect multi-touch gestures or the kind of responsiveness you’d get from a modern smartphone or tablet. They are visually nice and clear and generally work fine for tasks such as choosing patches and selecting pages/tabs, however more precise or nimble adjustments can be a hit and a miss and are more reliably executed using the physical front panel controls. Nautilus’ value dial for example automatically maps to the currently selected on-screen parameter, and the knobs can be cycled through a variety of assignments.
MONTAGE and MODX have similarly functional if a little dated touch screens, but MONTAGE also has plenty of Shortcut buttons on the right hand side which usually make it easy and quick to get to the right page.
All up it’s hard to beat the MONTAGE in this category with its abundance of physical controls, however, both MONTAGE and MODX fall behind Nautilus when it comes to menu navigation thanks to a logical layout and the familiar ‘plugin style’ appearance of its nine engines.
Each of these keyboards packs a huge list of features and we’re not going to go through all of them. Instead, we’ll focus on prominent/unique features that help each keyboard stand out from one another.
Aside from the previously mentioned sound engines, Nautilus’ biggest point of difference has to be its sequencer with 16 tracks of MIDI and 16 tracks of audio for recording and playback. Multitrack sequencing has historically been a staple feature of Workstation keyboards although Yamaha appears to have moved on from this mindset. To be fair, Yamaha doesn’t label MONTAGE or MODX as workstations at all but as we mentioned, the comparison is inevitable which makes the lack of sequencing/recording a noteworthy omission. Sure, people are generally most comfortable recording to a computer based DAW, however, there are a large number of professional players who rely heavily on having a full featured onboard sequencer. If this is an important feature to you, Nautilus should really be at the top of your list as no other keyboard aside from Korg’s own KRONOS offers this kind of onboard multitrack recording capability.
That being said, Nautilus’ biggest drawcard really is its nine sound engines. From comprehensive MS-20 and PolySix emulations to the SGX-2 piano engine to the enormous HD-1 sample libraries, there’s really nothing else like it in a standalone keyboard, again aside from the more expensive KRONOS.
Montage and MODX have a remarkably similar feature set given the enormous price difference. The most visually obvious of these is the Super Knob but other unique features include motion sequencing for complex tempo-synced modulation, and the envelope follower which lets you modulate any parameter from any audio source, including the audio input. These features will feel familiar to users of software synths such as NI’s Massive and it’s impressive to see them baked into a hardware synth so effectively.
Being the oldest of the three, MONTAGE has grown and matured steadily with each software update. OS version 3.0 for example added a sequencer of sorts for the first time. Despite being a pattern sequencer unlike Nautilus’ fully blown Audio/MIDI sequencer, it’s practical and fun to use as a performance looper. Following this, MONTAGE OS version 3.5 (and MODX version 2.5) added Smart Morph with uses A.I to morph FM sounds via a colour coded visual map.
Then there are features that all three keyboards share, with notable differences. Set List Mode (Korg) and Live Set Mode (Yamaha) work similarly as methods to quickly access a curated collection of patches. Nautilus however goes a little further with tabs to let you quickly shift gears into parameter control view, then jump back to the Set List. Another nice touch is the written information about each patch at the top of the Set List, which is great for learning about the factory presets and exploring the controller assignments. Or you can add your own text for custom patches either using the touchscreen or an attached QWERTY keyboard.
Then there’s Smooth Sound Transition or SST (Korg), and Seamless Sound Switching or SSS (Yamaha). This is an invaluable live performance feature that lets you change the patch without abruptly cutting off the tail of the last patch. Once you’ve used this feature, it’s very difficult to go back to using a keyboard without it. Nautilus inherits this directly from the KRONOS and it works flawlessly for changing between any two patches no matter the size, even Combi to Combi. Yamaha however place limits on how large either patch can be to accommodate Seamless Sound Switching. In the case of Montage, each patch can be no larger than 8 parts, and for the MODX the limit is 4 parts.
All models feature USB Audio and MIDI, however, Nautilus is limited to just stereo in and out. MONTAGE provides an impressive 16 channels of audio out to your computer, and 3 audio channels back into the keyboard. The MODX provides 10 audio channels out and 4 channels in. Again, very impressive for the price. Both MONTAGE and MODX can also act as a DAW control surface thanks to a recent software update, which is something the Nautilus cannot currently do.
To be clear, these are all very good keyboards, between which you will find many similarities, differences, pros and cons. Your decision of which to choose may be guided by a variety of factors such as budget, or certain functional requirements, but here’s our 2 cents:
For the price, MODX is hard to fault, but don’t expect top tier build or keybed quality and keep in mind the less obvious limitations in areas like SSS and FM-X polyphony.
Montage is more difficult to recommend given how much of its functionality is present in the far cheaper MODX. But if you’re a touring player who needs a roadworthy keyboard and you like the Yamaha sound and workflow, it could be good choice.
If we had to choose just one, it would be Korg’s Nautilus. The build and keybed quality exceed its price point, as does its impressive feature set. The sequencer alone probably won’t be enough to sway most people, but packing in all the sonic prowess of the more expensive KRONOS (in some ways even improving on it) makes it a very attractive keyboard for a huge range of uses. At the time of writing it’s still very fresh having been announced in January 2021, so it will be interesting to see if Korg can follow Yamaha’s impressive history of feature packed software updates to further improve it.