I must admit that while I am a longtime reader of gearslutz, I don't actively participate a lot because I don't find I would add enough to the discussion. The Zarenbourg however is so uncommon that I feel as a user I should provide a review for those interested in this unit.
A short explanation of the shots I used for the article: There are more than enough shots of the Zarenbourg in a studio but I thought a real life concert shot might be more interesting for many of you.
Many reviews state many things as facts even though the perception of features and practicality depends heavily on how something is used. This is why I feel a short introduction to where I am coming from is in order.
Why I bought the Zarenbourg
I am a semiprofessional jazz keyboard player / pianist. I usually play around 15 payed gigs a year, additionally I host a jam session with my band which accounts for another 10 concerts. For the last ten years I used a Kawai 9500 as my main keyboard that I bought out of my civil service money I earned after high school. For the last few years I found the sounds out of the keyboard a bit long in tooth and was not happy with schlepping my laptop etc. to play via midi so I had been thinking about a substitute. In the mean time I had also gotten a acoustic piano, so I had another set of keys to practice on.
After checking the market I mainly focused on the Roland RD800, the Kurzweil Forte, the Nord Stage II and the Kawai MP11. I decided to go to the nearest music store and check those out.
While at the store (JustMusic in Berlin, worth a visit if you are there) I came upon the Zarenbourg and it quite simply spoke to me in so many ways that even though I came a few more times after that I couldn't go back to another keyboard.
The thing that stuck with me about the unit where the electric piano sounds, the absolutely clean cut interface and the fact that it is self contained including great speakers and reduced to the essentials you would need.
The Zarenbourg is a 76 key stage piano. It uses a Fatar TP 100 keybed and is made of birch multiplex with chrome legs. The legs are screwed into the chassis so no additional stand is needed. Loudspeakers are built into the chassis in a 2.1 system by EMES. Since the unit is fairly deep it can easily be used as a stand for another keyboard or synthesizer (a Moog Little Phatty in my case).
The user interface in the front is built into an aluminum plate and uses chickenhead knobs (built by Cosmo). It also features a standard size headphone jack.
The rear connection port features midi in/out/thru, a USB port for midi, spdif via chinch, continuous and sustain pedal access, a stereo line in and separate left/right symmetric line outs with a switchable ground lift.
The whole unit is pretty heavy and the depth makes it challenging to transport. It weighs around 30 kg without the legs attached and I use a custom fitted flight case with wheels made with plastic instead of wood that helps the transport use. This unit is probably not for you if you have to move it around all the time.
The unit switches on using the leftmost volume knob. There is a slight pop from the speakers when it starts, though this isn't overly loud. The main volume does not immediately start increasing, but has a noticeable dead spot in the lower levels before the volume ramps up. The sense of this is to be able to play external instruments via midi and not have the keyboard make any sounds if you don't want. To that effect the resistance before the unit shuts of when turning the knob is well noticeable.
Next to the main volume on/off knob there is another knob for external line in. This is fed by a stereo jack on the rear of the unit.
One logical use of this could be to attach a synth via midi and play it using the unit, here the dead spot in the main volume knob comes in handy to mute the keyboard while only playing external sources. By using the "Transpose" button the preamp level can be changed to accommodate different signal levels.
Another use that I actually prefer is connecting another synth that can be put on top of the unit. In my case I play a Little Phatty that I run through a looper and a chorus (for the additional benefit of creating a stereo signal).
The external signal is transferred to the line out of the keyboard, so you can connect the keyboard to a PA system with one set of cables and hear both the internal and external sounds.
Next is a tremolo control that can alternate between mono and stereo. It is off by default and is activated once a value is changed on the knob.
The sounds are divided into 7 main categories. Of these the first three are classical electric piano sounds and are generated using modeling synthesis. The acoustic piano section is sample based, as are the strings and clav. The FM piano is generated by a real internal FM piano.
For each sound there are three presets beside the vanilla sound.
I feel I should preface that the electric piano sounds aren't 100% ultimately like the pianos they are based on. What I feel though are that they are superbly playable and in my opinion represent a great approximation of what is great about the different types of electric pianos and their basic sound.
What works perfectly toward the electric piano sound is the keyboard action that feels absolutely like you are sitting in front of the real deal.
Tines: Very much a mark I type, mellow electric piano sound.
Bars: Mark II (V) sound, a lot clearer attack.
Reeds: Wurlitzer here. In my personal opinion this sound is absolutely amazing. It goes all the way from a soft pianissimo to a loud crunchy fortissimo.
Grand: This is an absolute downside of the keyboard. I hate the grand piano sound. How they managed to put a 3,5 GB piano sample set on that sucks so much I can't imagine. This is just my opinion though, some folks seem to like it. Additionally there is an upright sampleset here that is quite nice and playable on preset 3.
Electric grand: I don't know who really likes CP80 these days but aside from any urge to play some Yellowjackets revival tunes I don't see any personal use for me.
FM: FM synthesized piano. Automatically layered with synth strings in Preset 1. Perfect to play "Last Christmas" when you are trying to clear the room after the concert.
Clavinet: What you would think. I find the sound decent but can't say that I am a heavy clavinet user. Preset 3 features acoustic strings with orchestra hits when played in forte.
The sounds can be layered together (two) using the "Adjust" setting on the effects knob. Additional effects can be added and then saved as presets by holding one of the three buttons. There are acoustic and synth string sounds that can be accessed here and layered with other sounds.
The effects section
Pretty standard fare. Something that I might mention is that the overdrive setting is more of a fuzz setting than a tube setting which would have been more fun for my taste.
The speaker system is pretty sweet. It produces a very clean sound that is quite usable in quiet to medium settings. On stage it's okay for quiet jazz gigs as a personal monitor but runs out of steam if you get into more fusion stuff. I personally use a Bose L1 compact for small to medium venues if I play background stuff. I have played with the keyboard speakers alone but the issue with that is that the sound is projected toward you which means that your bandmates only get the room reflection.
One more thing: The legendary editor
So supposedly there is a computer based editor for the Zarenbourg coming out last summer. This has been vaporware for ages and while I have written to Waldorf about it several times it remains MIA. It would be something great to tinker with and certainly interesting if they do actually release the rack version of the Zarenbourg they showed at Musikmesse last Summer.
Get your act together folks!
Conclusion and who it's for
So who is the unit for? I think it's for players that focus on electric piano type sounds, use another unit like a synth on top and like a complete package without any menu diving or anything. The streamlined aspect is something that you have to experience directly and it's something that i adore about the device. It's a unit that I feel you can put into your living room just as easily as you can put it on a stage.
The logical question of course is "Why not the real deal?". I'd answer that you have the choice of several electric piano sounds, even though as previously mentioned I can't swear you wouldn't be able to tell the difference to this unit even if the sounds sound superb on their own right. Also there is not maintenance, you don't need an amplifier but can use a PA and can route another source through the device and send a single mixed signal out of the keyboard. If you want to skip the DA stage you can grab a digital signal. If you want a different sound you can put your laptop on top and play via usb-midi and route that into the keyboard with the line in.
Who wouldn't get much out of this is anyone that uses extensive preset libraries and needs a lot of sounds (unless you want to use other sources through your laptop that you can put on the top of this). Also I don't think I would have used this if I was gigging every weekend or more.
So to sum it up the pro's and cons:
+ the electric piano sounds
+ great industrial design and user interface
+ integrated PA system
+ acts as a stand and input for another keyboard/synth
- I hate the acoustic piano sound
- Editor or the lack thereof. Seriously what's up Waldorf folks!?
Summing up I'd say that while I know on some level this keyboard may not be completely rational I can't imagine giving it away or wanting another one instead. The other players I have had use it in our jam session have been universally taken with the package as I have been.