Friday, May 31, 2013
Reviews : Keyboard
Have you ever longed for the sound and style of a Mellotron without the impracticality, unreliability and team of men required to move it? If so, you need yearn no more — thanks to the Memotron...
The dream of a digital Mellotron has existed since the birth of digital sampling, and the promise of Mellotron chips for the 360 Systems Digital Keyboard had me on tenterhooks for years in the mid-1980s. Since then, there have been myriad PCM-based emulations and sample collections, including my own MkII library. I was therefore intrigued when the Memotron was announced, and have watched its progress since its first appearance at the NAMM show in January 2006.
Introducing The Memotron
It’s a beautiful instrument modelled on the classic, white Mellotron 400, and even players who don’t understand the appeal of the original can’t fail to be moved by its deep lacquer, the quality of the hardware, and the obvious care lavished on its construction and appearance.
Starting at the back, there are stereo outputs, a headphone output, an input for the optional volume (swell) pedal, and MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets. The only control on the rear panel is a contrast knob for the small LCD on the control panel.
Like the 400, the Memotron’s control panel has knobs for volume, tone (in this case, a passive 12dB/oct low-pass filter), pitch and sound selection, the last of which allows you to move seamlessly between the sounds loaded into its A, B and C slots. So if, for example, you want to combine a choir and a cathedral organ, you load the two sounds into adjacent slots (say, A and B) and then turn the selector to somewhere between the A and B positions to obtain the desired mix.
There are just three additional controls. The first of these is a half-speed switch. Inspired by an option installed on some original Mellotrons, this emulates the effect that you obtain by halving the speed of the tape transport. This not only has the effect of dropping the pitch by an octave, but also constrains the bandwidth, for the ominous, rumbling, God-on-a-bad-day sounds beloved of Mellotronists. The second and third controls are the data controller/selector and the Escape button, which work in conjunction with the screen to deliver the Memotron’s additional functions: independent volume, attack, release and pan for each of the three slots, plus effects and the MIDI setup for the instrument as a whole.
After switching on, you have to load the sounds that you want to play into memory, and this takes around 15 seconds per slot. You can then tailor these using the edit parameters. Panning two sounds hard right and hard left allows you to direct them down separate outputs, which is useful. The release setting is also interesting. If you release a key before eight seconds are up, the sound releases in the typical ‘synth’ fashion. However, if the keys are still depressed when eight seconds is reached, or the release is still tailing off, the sound stops dead, as it should.
If you wish to add effects, there are 15 algorithms available, including reverbs, delays, chorus, flanging and a rotary speaker effect. Unfortunately, control is almost non-existent: you can select the algorithm wanted, and determine the ‘send’ amount. Although I can see the reverbs and delays being used on stage, I can’t imagine that anybody would use the in-built effects in the studio.
The sounds themselves are provided on a library of (currently) five CDs (see the ‘Tape Sets’ box). You can load these via the discreet slot in the front of the Memotron but, much more conveniently, you can also store the whole library (with room to spare) on compact flash RAM cards, for which there’s a slot on the rear panel. Manikin kindly supplied me with a 4GB card onto which everything was already loaded and, once this was inserted, the whole library of Memotron sounds was available without me having to mess around.
Despite this simplicity, it’s a complete pain in the arse having to load the sounds you want and then set up the voicing parameters and effects every time you switch the Memotron on. Fortunately, this problem will vanish when the current v1.2 operating system is superseded by v1.3, hopefully by the time you read this. The new version introduces the concept of Frames, which are complete instrument setups that include all the information regarding which sounds are loaded, plus all the voicing, MIDI and effects parameters you have programmed. If you have the correct flash card or CD inserted, the Frame will then tell the Memotron which samples to load, and configure everything in a single operation. This will be a massive step forward in speed and usability. What’s more, a Frame will occupy just a few kilobytes (the sample data is not included in the Frame) so, with a suitable RAM card, you’ll be able to store thousands of setups.
So, what of the sounds? I asked Klaus Hoffmann, the man behind them, to reveal the whole story. He told me: “I started getting involved with the Mellotron when I purchased my first one in 1974. I then started searching for additional tape frames and, in the late 1970s, I found 10 still in their boxes at Macari’s Music in London. In 1981, I met Norman Bradley [of Streetly Electronics, manufacturers of the original Mellotrons] and his wife, along with the young John Bradley, at the Frankfurt MusikMesse. Because I speak English and German, and because I was such an enthusiast, they asked me if I would assist them at the following year’s Messe, which I did, learning even more about Mellotrons.
“The Mellotron lost its magic in the 1980s, and people were selling them — often in poor condition — for peanuts. I bought all that I could and restored them to the beautiful machines that they had once been. Soon I owned six M400s and had a collection of about 140 tape frames, including rare ones like Patrick Moraz’s stage tapes for Yes, as well as some of Tangerine Dream’s custom tapes. However, having a family to feed, I later sold them. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of interest in Mellotrons, so I started to help people to buy refurbished M300s, M400s and MkIIs from Streetly Electronics, who brought the instruments to my house and offered me the chance to record them digitally. I also undertook repair jobs for owners, many of whom gave me permission to record their rare — and sometimes custom — tapes. My library of Mellotron sounds grew, and now, with each set comprising the full duration of all 35 notes recorded in CD quality, I have more than 28 hours of recordings. It’s this library that forms the basis of the Memotron.”
Klaus also provided sounds for the G-Force M-Tron Pro, so there have been rumours that the Memotron is nothing more than a plug-in wearing sexy clothes. I have M-Tron Pro on the Mac on which I’m writing this, so I loaded it and chose two sounds that are present within both libraries: MkII Brass. It was immediately apparent that they are not the same. This is not merely different encoding or different D/A stages; some of the characteristic flaws (bumps and grinds that naturally occur when playing and recording a Mellotron) that are present within the Memotron’s samples are not present on M-Tron Pro’s, and vice versa. I tried another, the Cello. Again, the two were different in ways that could not be attributed to changes in EQ or other processing of the same recordings.
I queried this with Hoffman, and he explained that about 75 percent of the M-Tron Pro sounds are his, but confirmed that they are based upon different recordings from those he used for the Memotron. I also checked with the chaps at G-Force Software about the supposed cross-compatibility of the two libraries. They told me that the Memotron is compatible with the CPT sound file format used on the CD-ROMs for the original M-Tron. The M-Tron Pro sounds are stored in the newer CPT2 format, and are not compatible with the Memotron.
So what of the sounds themselves? These are not Hoffman’s “CD quality” recordings; they have been down-sampled to a sample rate of 32kHz, and an audio bandwidth of, therefore, around 14kHz. But lest you think that this is a problem, it’s not. The useful bandwidth of original Mellotrons (especially in their earliest incarnations) was lower than this, so only tape hiss would have existed above this range.
Secondly, let’s be clear that the Memotron does not use unadulterated Mellotron samples. Far from being a criticism, I think that this can be a good thing, and even the chaps at Streetly Electronics cleaned up their library before assembling the tapes for the Mellotron M4000. Wisely, though, Hoffman has kept processing to a minimum, avoiding normalisation, and using de-noising only when, as he puts it, “the background noise was unbearable by today’s standards”. He also removed some of the worst clicks and pops, and corrected some known tuning errors so that different sounds could be blended together. (This was impossible with certain combinations on early Mellotrons.) Obsessives may complain that the Memotron is not authentic, but I’m not too concerned by that. The Memotron is a modern instrument, and I think that it represents an appropriate compromise between the charm and authenticity that nostalgic players demand, and the sound quality that modern listeners demand.
Playing The Memotron
So does the Memotron feel like a Mellotron? No, it doesn’t. Let’s start with the obvious; the Memotron weighs around 12kg, so one person can carry it easily, and it doesn’t need to have a fan-heater shoved in the back to minimise condensation and ensure that it works on cold stages. What’s more, it doesn’t have keys that feel like old girders, nor tapes that tangle when the roadies load it into the van on its side, and the chances are that it will never need servicing. In other words, the Memotron is practical.
What’s more, while the Memotron’s A/B/C architecture is, in principle, identical to that of the M4000 (ie. you have immediate access to three sounds, but with a larger library in the background), the Memotron has the huge advantage of allowing you to mix between any three sounds at any time, whereas the real Mellotron only allows you to select between the three that lie on adjacent tracks on the tapes.
With regard to the playing experience, an original Mellotron has a hugely distinctive character, largely as a consequence of its keyboard and the technique that is needed to play it. But poorly serviced Mellotrons are also liable to respond badly, with artifacts such as wow, flutter or even drop-outs, so what people perceive as character today are faults that we oldies were desperate to remedy in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s no coincidence that Keith Emerson’s Mellotron ended up in an orchestra pit, Rick Wakeman’s was doused in petrol and immolated, and Tony Banks’ was ignominiously replaced by a Roland VP330.
In contrast, the Memotron plays beautifully. Like its inspiration, it’s fully polyphonic, and it feels like I always imagined a perfectly adjusted Mellotron would, with just the right degree of weight, a slight thunk at the bottom of its travel, but with a slight spongy feeling when depressed that is appropriate for the instrument. Even the Mellotron’s instantly recognisable pitch-bends are perfectly recreated, with a smooth, analogue feel. Unfortunately, Manikin have not gone the extra mile and imitated the slight pressure-sensitivity of the original (you could slow the tapes a tad by pressing hard on the capstans, thus making manual vibrato possible), nor does it glitch when you play notes too quickly, nor does the pitch droop when you play a whole fistful of notes simultaneously. Are these omissions faults? To be honest, I would like to see the pressure-sensitivity restored, but otherwise the answer has to be ‘no’. While faults may be perceived as character in the bedroom or a museum, they are simply faults in the studio or on stage, and their absence makes the Memotron a much more reassuring instrument to play in any environment.
What’s more, the construction quality of the Memotron shines through when you start to use it in earnest. Unlike Keith’s Mellotron, I suspect that the Memotron might have survived its journey into the pit and — battered and bruised — been ready for the following night’s gig. Think of it like this... a 1915 Model T pickup truck might be a lovely artifact to own, but if your job entails driving a few hundred miles a week, you’re more likely to buy an Audi.
Perhaps because of misty-eyed nostalgia, or perhaps because they have never owned Mellotrons, a number of writers on synth forums have claimed that the Memotron sounds lifeless when compared to the original, and that it is nothing more than a plug-in wrapped up in a controller keyboard. This lacks insight; there’s no way that a controller, a PC and a plug-in will feel like the Memotron, which screams ‘play me’ at the top of its voice, although M-Tron Pro is wonderfully cost-effective. What’s more, the original Mellotron’s sharp yet mournful sound still defies perfect recreation via sampling technology, so there’s always going to be a place for the original instruments, as well as the new M4000s, which Streetly can’t build quickly enough to fulfil orders. Nonetheless, the Memotron comes close to the original, both in terms of sound and performance, and in the real world it is a very practical alternative to the real thing. While players will notice the differences, I very much doubt that listeners will and, if there’s one available, I won’t hesitate to take it on stage when I next need to use a Mellotron ‘live’
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Synthesizer & VocoderReviews : Keyboard
The hugely popular Microkorg — the world’s best-selling synth for the past few years, according to its makers — has gained what Korg describe as a ‘big brother’. Will it repeat the success of its sibling?
The latest keyboard from Korg is a fine example of a mysterious Eastern art-form known as “extracting maximum return from R&D”. With keen Japanese ingenuity, a generous portion of the R3, Korg’s vocoder-equipped, portable synth derived from the powerful Radias ‘module plus keyboard’ package, has been shoe-horned into petite, Microkorg dimensions. The resulting Microkorg XL, with its minimal, retro style resembles a scaled-down model of a classic electric piano — but its sound engine is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Radias. (See www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep07/articles/korgr3.htm and www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr06/articles/korgradias.htm for more on the Radias and the R3).
Weighing in at a mere 2kg, this is a keyboard to secure firmly when playing outdoors. If the goal was to make the smallest self-contained synth around, Korg have planted one firmly in the net. An external PSU is provided, but the XL can run quite happily from six AA batteries, further boosting its ‘take me out’ credentials. However, be careful when tossing it into your rucksack. I’m not confident the knobs — especially those big, wobbly ones for Genre and Category selection — would long endure rough treatment. Generally, I felt the moulded black-plastic body looked more classy on the screen or page than it does up close.
With any instrument of this size, producing a playable keyboard is going to be a challenge, and I was intrigued to see how the new ‘Natural Touch’ version performed. Its 37 miniature keys are chunky and square, with the black notes squeezed in slightly, donating a fraction of the available width to their white brethren. The keyboard action is very light — far lighter than the mini keys of my Yamaha CS01 synth, for example. But if you can adapt to this, you have three full octaves in a package just 55cm long. A sprung octave transpose switch further expands the range.
In common with the earlier Microkorg, there are no pedal inputs of any kind. OK, so you’re unlikely to attempt Grieg’s Piano Concerto on this keyboard, but a sustain pedal is valuable for so many other purposes, not least when combined with an arpeggiator. The remaining connections are pretty much as you’d expect, with all audio handled via quarter-inch jacks (that’s a stereo output pair, a headphone socket and an external input). Adjacent to the input is a switch to determine whether it or the included XLR mic will be the external source used. A USB socket is your means of direct computer interfacing (about which more later) and MIDI is catered for by just two sockets: Thru has been omitted.
Down To Business
The original Microkorg’s geeky panel text and cryptic characters have been superseded by the XL’s moody amber display. Commonly-used parameters are accessed via a simple matrix in which a six-way switch lines up a row of options for tweaking via three small knobs. The top row is for user-assignable functions. In the factory patches, these are typically to sweep filter cutoff, adjust filter envelope amount, or maybe boost an effect parameter, but there’s a wide array of choices available. The second row is dedicated to key filter parameters and a row for the amplitude envelope is next, followed by another for effects. The penultimate row contains three of the most commonly-used arpeggiator functions: type, latch and gate time.
If you’re thinking that this sounds simplistic, the sixth row takes a bellyflop into the deep end. Labelled ‘Full Edit’, this opens up every page, parameter and value. If you’re already a dab hand at keyhole surgery you’ll feel right at home, but for us lesser mortals there are a heck of a lot of options to plough through, including a multitude of synthesis pages, complete with virtual patch cords, arpeggiation, effects and EQ. It doesn’t end there either, because Full Edit is also the window to the MIDI and Global setup pages, utilities, controller remapping and more.
Ploughing through all of this with the XL’s small and not-terribly-precise knobs can severely test your patience. Fortunately, the Exit/Shift button, combined with the Octave transpose switch, generates single-value increments or decrements. This is loads of help and even though it doesn’t transform editing into a wholly joyful experience, it does give you the tools to get the job done. For live performance, the knobs have a ‘Catch’ mode, avoiding sudden jumps in value that would otherwise occur when you mess with a stored patch. I’m not sure how much messing the no-frills interface invites, though. Indeed, with space at a premium, a tempo knob for the arpeggiator felt less justifiable than, say, a button for arpeggiator latch.
Since the Microkorg XL’s closest relative is the Korg R3, it is with the R3 that I will draw the most comparisons. Architecturally, they are quite similar. Both feature eight voices of Radias-sourced synthesis driven by MMT (Multiple Modelling Technology) that can generate analogue, formant, VPM (Variable Phrase Modulation) or digital waves, as well as processing external audio. Patches consist of either one or two timbres, which may be layered (in which case the polyphony is halved) or divided into two separate keyboard zones. Alternatively, a patch can operate as a bi-timbral sound source via separate MIDI channels. This adds up to a very capable sound engine, and it’s probably a good idea to refer back to September 2007’s R3 review (see link at start of this review) for a full refresher. The physical differences between the two synths are evident, leaving us free to summarise the Microkorg XL in terms of its losses and, in some cases, gains.
As per the R3, two oscillators are processed via two filters, one being smoothly variable between low-, high- and band-pass modes. Korg’s filters sound silky smooth and can be configured for serial, parallel or individual oscillator processing. In common with the Radias and R3, oscillator one is the more feature-rich and contains the XL’s most significant addition: a new combined PCM/DWGS wave generator. The waves on offer include, amongst others, a sampled acoustic piano. I found it slightly weird to play piano via the diddy keys, but when rigged up to a larger keyboard, the piano, short and clunky though its samples are, cut through rather well. Other waves include strings, organ, guitar, electric piano and brass — a collection designed to give the XL considerable scope.
Modulation sources and routing follow the familiar path that Korg have trodden for some years. There are two LFOs and three envelopes, with a six-way modulation bus to govern how they hang together. For overdrive simulation, the adding of sub-octaves, decimation, and so on, Drive/Waveshaper continues to be a superb tool. Should you wish to waddle into the realm of the morbidly obese, Unison mode stacks and detunes up to four voices, rattling speakers and disturbing pacemakers in a way that seems somehow totally uncharacteristic of a keyboard this size.
Not every R3 delight has made it onboard unscathed. Sadly numbered amongst the missing are its modulation sequencer, comb filter and formant motion. Formant motion is a cool way to capture audio input and store its imprint for later use, while the R3’s modulation sequencer can really energise pads and arpeggios. The effects section has taken a bit of a battering, too — but we’ll come to that later. Before then, a final item of good news: the XL gains a selection of nine alternate scales, including one User Scale. These are ideal for those who like to stray away from the Western, well-tempered path.
It’s hard to imagine any user, new or old, getting lost on the Microkorg XL. There are 128 patches on board, selected by two large knobs: Program Genre and Category. These offer eight genres, including House/Disco, Jazz/Fusion, Drum & Bass/Breaks and Favorite (sic), while eight categories encompass Lead, Bass, Vocoder and so on. For the full range of patches, a bank A/B switch performs the necessary multiplication.
Looking directly downwards, it’s not always clear where the knobs are pointing to — but I guess a felt tip or dot of paint would soon put that right. I share Paul Ward’s reservations about the usefulness of fixed genres and categories (as expressed in the review of the original Microkorg, www.soundonsound.com/sos/Jan03/articles/microkorg.asp) but, as before, you are free to store any type of patch into any location.
I felt that 128 patches wasn’t wildly generous by today’s standards. If hardware synths are to retain their desirability, they surely can’t afford to be complacent in this area. Fortunately, the patches chosen are a good representation of what the XL is capable of. Expect to encounter deep and throaty basses, howling, trashy leads, parpy brass and smooth, mellow pads. And no Korg in recent years could be unleashed without ear-catching dance-oriented synths and cunningly programmed arpeggios. Bundle in a plethora of fine vocoders, organs and pianos (you won’t find an acoustic piano in the R3 — or even the Radias!) and I doubt anyone will find the Microkorg XL sonically underpowered.
The Microkorg XL has a two-band equaliser plus two master effects, each with up to 17 different Kaoss-pad derived algorithms. This is one area where the XL feels like the R3’s poorer relation, especially when you realise it doesn’t possess a reverb! Warm and airy reverberation has been a Korg trademark for so long it’s practically ubiquitous.
The effects include a variety of delays (including a decent tape-delay simulation), which can be coaxed into delivering some impressions of boingy reverb. Putting aside my reverb gripes, though, other effects you’d typically expect are present and serviceable. Alongside the phaser, flanger, distortion, filter and decimator, you’ll encounter old friends such as ring modulation and Grainshifter. The latter isn’t some large, hungry bovine creature, it’s a short sample and loop processor that’s ideal for when you’ve invited Dr Weird to tea.
Naturally, MIDI clock sync is implemented throughout, whether for delay time or within the various modulation effects.
I’ve long been a fan of Korg gear; the ESX1 Electribe and Radias are amongst my ‘desert island’ essentials, so I was surprised not to feel more love for the Microkorg XL. I think this was mostly due to the build quality and a keyboard action that never quite reconciled with an MSRP in excess of $700. I suppose the XL is small enough to be viewed as a desktop module that just happens to have a basic keyboard attached — for jamming around the house and programming — but personally, I’d consider stretching a little further for an R3 instead. However, if size and battery operability are deciding factors, the XL becomes much more attractive.
In the end, simplicity and portability are what it’s all about; the fact that the Microkorg XL also sounds rather good might see it matching the popularity of the previous Microkorg — who can tell? The vocoder is a major plus, and with a useable microphone included, you’re ready to produce highly intelligible or seriously twisted results right out of the box.
At times I found it genuinely perplexing that such a wide range of quality tones could be spurted from a keyboard this small and light. So even if, at the current price, the Microkorg XL doesn’t tick all the boxes, it’s definitely more of a synth than it appears.
We are a small band playing venues with capacities of around 150-250 people. My question is: should we mic up the drums when we play? If so, what microphones should we use?
Sam Taylor, via email
SOS contributor Jon Burton replies:
This is a question I’m often asked, but usually the other way round. At smaller shows, people will ask why I have put microphones on the drums as “surely they are loud enough already”! This can, indeed, be the case and deciding how to proceed always depends on the size of room you’re playing in, as well as the size of the PA system you have to use.
There are no hard and fast rules, but the first questions you ask should be “does the sound need it?” and, “can the sound system handle it?”. If the answer to either is no, your problem is solved! If, however, you have a PA system with any kind of separate subwoofer speaker, the sound can usually benefit from adding some drums to the mix. Extra weight from the bass drum and toms, and a bit of reverb on the snare, can add dimension and depth to the overall sound. I rarely worry about the cymbals, as they are usually picked up by any open vocal microphones on the stage.
How many microphones you put on the kit very much depends on the number of available mixer channels. If you can spare four, I would put one on the kick drum, one between the rack toms and one each on the floor tom and snare. As for choice, I would ideally choose dynamic microphones. They tend to be more rugged and better able to handle the peaks produced by drums. If this scheme takes up too many channels, just one mic in the kick drum will still help to bolster the live mix.
You can achieve surprisingly good results with most reasonable dynamic mics; in fact, many of the microphones that are now standards for use with the bass drum started as vocal microphones, including the AKG D12, Sennheiser MD421 and Beyer M88. The Shure SM91 was a boundary microphone more suited to lecterns and lecture tables before someone wondered what it would sound like in a kick drum! The answer is to experiment with what you have.
If you decide to invest in some dedicated drum microphones, most of the manufacturers now have great budget ranges featuring convenient built-in drum clips that save on mic stands and space. Remember, though, not to let your new-found enthusiasm for drums dominate. Your priority, in my opinion, should always be the words and melody!
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Reviews : Keyboard
‘Stage Vintage’ Keyboard
The brand new Korg SV1 rejoices in a collection of retro keyboard sounds and lovingly sampled acoustic pianos. Read all about it in our world exclusive review!
Combining pianos, electric pianos and a small selection of other instruments chosen for the non-synthesist who requires a range of mainstream sounds, the Korg SV1 ‘Stage Vintage’ is the latest contender in the now-congested field of stage pianos.
With its smart black and burgundy livery (88-note version) or burgundy and black livery (73-note version), it has no screen, no menus, and few hidden functions, but instead boasts a control panel that would grace a vintage keyboard, with knobs and buttons that — on the whole — perform single functions. Two of these are selectors for the six banks of six sounds (yes... just 36 in total), while eight large buttons store and recall favourite setups. The rest of the knobs and switches control the integrated effects units, and the only hint of anything deeper lies in four buttons marked Transpose, Local Off, Touch and Function. The last of these provides access to the tuning curves (equal temperament, five types of stretched tuning, and two user-defined curves that you can create in the supplied PC/Mac editor), the MIDI channel, and the level of the RX Noise layer (see the ‘RX Noise’ box).
At the back, things remain straightforward, with balanced and unbalanced stereo outputs, MIDI In and Out (no Thru), plus stereo inputs so that you can play along with your favourite something-or-other. There are also three pedal inputs. One is for the supplied damper pedal, the second accepts a footswitch, and the third accepts either a footswitch or an expression pedal. (Good news: you can configure these as a damper with half-pedalling, sostenuto and soft pedals of a real piano.) The only other hole is for a USB cable that also carries MIDI data and provides the means for connecting a Mac or PC running the bundled editor software There’s also a headphone socket but, sensibly, this is located at the front of the instrument.
The draft manual strongly implies that each of the 36 sound slots permanently houses a specific multisample. So, for example, it seems that Sound 1 in Bank 1 is always based upon the first of the Rhodes multisamples. But when exploring the editor, I dropped an EP200 sound from Bank 2 into Slot 1 in Bank 1... and the SV1 accepted it without a wibble! This has at least two consequences: one good, one bad. The good one is that the SV1 is more flexible than you might think, allowing you to create all manner of variations of favourite instruments and discarding instruments that are of less interest. The bad news is that, once you have discarded the only factory sound based upon a particular multisample, there’s no way of creating another one without hooking up the editor or by performing a factory reset (which destroys all the on-board sounds you’ve created).
Although the greater part of the SV1 is dedicated to electro-mechanical and electronic pianos, it is to the three acoustic pianos that many players will turn first.
The first is a Japanese grand piano, and it’s safe to assume that this is a Yamaha of some description. For the most part, the sampling is first-rate. There are no horrendous multisampling points across the keyboard, and the velocity zones are discrete at either end of the keyboard, although a bit more noticeable in the mid-range. The impression of the soundboard and sympathetic resonance is superb, and the velocity-sensitive RX Noise layer recreates the depression and release ‘thunk’ of the sustain pedal itself. This is excellent.
Next comes a German grand, most likely a Steinway. More ambient than the Yamaha, its multisampling is slightly more evident, but nonetheless I prefer this to the Japanese piano. The multisample underneath the Mono Grand sound is described as a monophonic version of the German grand, but I’ve yet to discover the piano that changes its tone and character when you remove a microphone from its vicinity. It’s not bad, but I don’t think I would find myself using it.
The Upright multisample is based upon another German piano, and I’ll admit that I’m pleasantly surprised by it. Far too often, manufacturers of digital pianos seem to think that uprights have no depth or character, but Korg’s sound conforms exactly to a description I have used many times — it’s like a grand piano, but a little less so. It has less ambience, and the soundfield it creates is more compact, but the tone is more than pleasing, and I suspect that this is the best digital emulation of an upright piano I’ve yet heard.
The final two acoustic piano multisamples are layered: the German grand plus strings that are bright and prominent in the upper range, and the same piano with a subdued sawtooth pad underneath. Both are pleasant, but the inability to control the relative volume of the string layer means that the first of these may be of limited use. For me, the second offers a nicer blend, and I would be happy to use it.
Electric Pianos & Clavinets
The four Fender Rhodes multisamples are of high quality, and I was particularly impressed with the clunky bottom end of the brightest of these. Although the multisample zones are clearly audible at times, I’ll remind myself that Rhodes pianos were never consistent across their keyboards. Likewise, while the transitions between velocity zones are a little abrupt at times, they are acceptable when playing normally, and overall these samples are a pleasure to play.
My favourite electro-mechanical piano is the Wurlitzer EP200, even though its ‘barking’ sound is notoriously difficult to synthesize, model or sample. Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when I caught another whiff of the multisample splits and velocity zones while listening to the SV1’s two EP200 multisamples. Nonetheless, an 88-note EP200 is a thing of joy, especially when the amplitude envelope and tone outside of the original range feel exactly right.
The Yamaha CP80 has for too long been the victim of bad samples and poor digital modelling. Happily, those days are now gone. The timbre of the SV1’s emulation is very good, and it has a much smoother velocity response and less obvious multisampling than the Rhodes and Wurlitzer multisamples. What’s more, its amplitude envelope is distinctly superior to emulations that I have reviewed on other instruments. I like this one a lot, and so should you.
The multisample that forms the basis of the ElectroPno patch might sound exactly like a Hohner Electropiano, but I have no basis on which to judge this and, given the rarity of the originals, the chances are that you won’t either. Think of it as a large Pianet and you won’t go far wrong. It has the same, bell-like quality and, with RX Noise applied, it rattles just as it should. You can even hear the little pads pull away from the tines, as well as the glitch that occurs when you release a key. I used a Pianet for more than a decade, and it demands that you develop a specific technique for getting the best from it. Played correctly, the SV1’s emulation sounds great although, again, some of the multisample points are a little audible. In the 1970s I would have killed for a Pianet with sustain, and the SV1 delivers splendidly.
The RMI multisample seems to be based on a mix of the Lute and Harpsi tabs of a 360, 368 or 368X Electrapiano with the Accentor and Organ Mode switched off. Its sustain is somewhat shorter than that of my RMI 368, and it lacks the heavy ‘thunk’ at the start of each note. But the sampling is excellent, and it’s another great sound that hints at what might have been possible had Korg taken the Electrapiano a bit more seriously, sampling all the tabs and providing a sustained mode. Maybe in the future... please?
The Clavinet multisamples are the four pickup combinations — AC, BC, BD and AD — of a Hohner Clavinet D6. This is another monstrously difficult instrument to sample, so I’m not surprised that I can hear the splits and velocity layers. Nonetheless, the sound quality is high, the character is authentic, and I love the jangly rattle and key release provided by the RX Noise function. Unfortunately, there are no variations to emulate the Soft, Medium, Treble or Brilliant switches on the original, although the on-board EQ does a passable job of providing a range of tone colours.
In addition to the vintage piano sounds, the SV1 offers four multisamples from a more recent era. Two are sampled from an FM synth. The first is bright and, because its tonal variation is so great between the softest and the hardest notes, its velocity zones are rather apparent. The second is rounder and warmer. Nevertheless, the response across the keyboard is very even for both, and when used with effects, as Korg intended, the results are perfectly acceptable.
Then there are multisamples of two further digital pianos, the Korg SG1D and the Roland RD1000. The first of these sounds as it should: useable, in a ghastly 1980s sort of way. The second is much more pleasant, and genuinely evocative of the original and its myriad siblings. Finally (as far as the pianos are concerned) there’s a multisample that appears to combine the Roland with a string ensemble, perfect for all your AOR ballads.
The Other Sounds
There are six excellently captured organ multisamples in the SV1 but, with no drawbars or tabs to adjust them, these are essentially presets; you’ll either find them useful, or you won’t.
The first sounds as if it’s based upon the Hammond registration 888000000 with third-harmonic percussion and a massive wodge of key-click. Played through a nice, growling rotary-speaker effect, the results can be fabulous. The second sounds as if it’s based upon the 16-, 5 2/3- and one-inch drawbars, while the third sounds like the once-derided registration 888888888. With leakage available via RX Noise, all of these can sound highly authentic.
The provenance of the next multisample is less obvious. The factory sound based on it is called Console Organ, and I suspect that it’s a Lowrey of some description. Not having one to hand, I can’t comment upon the accuracy of the SV1’s rendition, but the raw multisample exhibits the brash quality that is sometimes associated with the brand, and it has oodles of character. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this and, given that Korg’s engineers can produce a preset of this quality, I wonder if they would consider creating a fully-featured Lowrey emulator, if only in software. It could sound fabulous.
The next multisample is obviously a Farfisa Compact. Again, it’s one registration, but with a little EQ, vibrato, slow Leslie and tape delay, it’s instant late-’60s psychedelia. The last of the organs is sampled from a Vox Continental. The sound is instantly recognisable but, again, it only hints at what might have been possible had Korg provided a fully featured organ emulator rather than a handful of presets.
The remaining multisamples comprise a strange bunch of bedfellows. There’s a nicely captured string ensemble but, strangely, this is highly reverberant, which seems odd given that the SV1 incorporates a digital reverb unit. More interesting is the multisample of the Mellotron violins. The basic sound is pleasing but, instead of exhibiting a sharp attack and cutting off instantly when you release a key, each note has a soft attack and a slow release. Furthermore, the samples sustain indefinitely. The Mellotron used tape strips in preference to loops, so that the attacks of the recorded notes were replayed correctly. I suppose that, since the attacks have been rounded off, you may as well have infinite sustain, but it feels wrong.
The next multisample is clearly a Solina String Ensemble. Unlike the original, this is truly polyphonic, with individual envelopes for each note. But the most obvious difference is that each note in the SV1 has already passed through the trademark ensemble effect, so playing multiple notes creates an ensemble of ensembles. It’s rather nice!
The choral multisample is a strange one, because there’s a synthesized pad accompanying the vocal sound. This adds attack and body, but sounds based on the multisample therefore fall into the category ‘synth-choir’ rather than choir. Finally, we come to the two polysynth multisamples provided. The first screams early 1980s, while the second is a blatant homage to the Oberheim patch used on Van Halen’s ‘Jump’. I’m at a loss to understand why Korg included these. It’s unlikely that they’ll be exactly what you want and, since you can’t edit them, it’s pot-luck whether they’ll be of any use.
Although you can’t edit the multisamples, nor even select one directly as part of the sound-creation process, the SV1 is packed to the gunnels with programmable effects. First in the chain lies an effective three-band EQ. There are no controls on the front panel for centre frequency, ‘Q’ or slope, although the editor allows you to sweep the frequency of the mid-band. Next comes a selection of Pre FX units, ones that traditionally lie before a preamplifier. These are compression, boost, U-Vibe (Uni-Vibe), Hammond chorus/vibrato, tremolo, and a Vox wah-wah that you can leave in ‘auto’ mode or control via a footpedal. You can only select one effect at a time, and the names of the knobs on the control panel are often inappropriate, but they do their jobs well.
Third in line lies the vintage amp modeller. Although this appears basic and can generate an unpleasant amount of noise if controlled only from the front panel, it’s more sophisticated than it appears, because the editor allows you to cross-combine the six models shown with any of 10 speaker cabinets, and provides a full range of ‘head’ controls, including noise reduction. There’s also one of those glowing glass bottle thingies that guitarists love, bathed in a fake orange glow provided by a small lamp hidden behind it, and coupled to a dummy output transformer and speaker load. This lies between the amp and speaker models and should help to create a ‘miked up’ sound, even when the SV1 is connected directly to a mixer or the inputs of a recorder.
Next come the Modulation effects, with two choruses, two phasers, a flanger and Korg’s unsurpassed rotary speaker emulation. Two of the effects are instantly recognisable. Chorus 1 is a Boss CE1, while Phaser 2 is a reasonable recreation of the popular Small Stone phaser. I suspect that there’s at least one MXR in there, too. However, you’ll have to hook the SV1 to a computer to get the best from these, because many of their parameters are only available using the editor.
Moving on, we come to a reverb/delay that offers room, plate, hall and spring reverbs, plus an emulation of a tape echo unit and a basic recreation of Korg’s DL8000R stereo delay. Again, the editor gives access to a wider range of controls than is available on the SV1 itself, with extras such as pre-delay and damping for the reverbs, and feedback for the delays.
Finally, there are two types of limiter that are invisible without the editor. A studio engineer would probably ask you to defeat these, but they’re there if you want them.
Despite using the exceptional RH3 keybed found on Korg’s dedicated pianos and the M3 88, the SV1 supplied for review is lighter and smaller than you might imagine. There’s also a 73-note version that’s heavier than you might imagine because, unlike most six-octave keyboards, it uses a truncated version of the RH3 in preference to a semi-weighted keybed.
Both instruments are a pleasure to play, with an action that works extremely well for the acoustic, Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos. Of course, they are totally unlike the shallow actions and lightweight keys of an RMI, Pianet or Clavinet, but I didn’t find this to be a problem. Reducing the velocity sensitivity (there are eight curves available) to a suitable level for the Clavinet sounds and switching it off for the RMI and Solina sounds (the organs are already invariant to velocity) made things feel even better, especially since the keyboard response settings can be saved independently for each sound, rather than as a global setting.
The user interface is also good, with the most important parameters falling easily to hand, and clear, illuminated indications of settings. The lack of a screen and menus is not a problem, largely because Korg haven’t tried to squeeze an overly complex operating system into an interface that’s not designed to support it. But that then brings you back to the need to use the editor. Ho hum!
As for the sounds themselves, I have described the multisamples that lie at their cores, but I haven’t said much about the factory sounds, nor those that you can program for yourself. In short, these can be superb. Yes, I’ve commented on the velocity layers and multisample splits, but — while these are sometimes apparent — they are superior to the many digital pianos that exhibit horrible inconsistencies across their keyboards and abrupt transitions from soft to loud playing. As for authenticity, there are differences between, say, the factory ‘Dyno EP’ patch and a genuine ‘Dyno-My-Piano’ Rhodes, just as there are differences between the EP200 patches and my EP200, and so on, but I would be happy to live with these for the pleasure of playing such well-behaved versions of these sounds on such a good keyboard. Let’s face it, most experienced electric piano players have torn their fingertips or nails on the ghastly keyboards that their instruments boasted, and almost as many have suffered from broken tines or reeds, dodgy pickups, sticky pads that are no longer sticky, and other failures. The SV1 cures all of these ills, and it would be a canny listener who could tell the difference in a mix between the Korg and the original pianos.
So is there anything I don’t like about the SV1? Sure there is. The fact that you need to use the editor to access a number of valuable effects parameters, as well as to place multisamples in alternative memory locations, is annoying. More seriously, the lack of any split points or layers will render the SV1 unusable for some players who would otherwise be tempted, and the lack of multitimbrality or any master keyboard functions will deter still more. But at least these are nice, clear-cut issues. Either the SV1 is for you, or it isn’t.
Perhaps because we are so accustomed to affordable workstations delivering such an amazing breadth of sounds and features, the current rule seems to be ‘more is better, so lots must be best’. In contrast, the SV1 is not feature laden and it’s not designed to be all things to all players. Nor is it designed to be many things to many players. It’s designed to do just a handful of things, but to do them extremely well.
In this, it succeeds admirably. Apart from a few audible transitions between velocity layers, there’s almost nothing to criticise about its pianos, whether based on acoustic, electro-mechanical or electronic originals. Indeed, with no audible aliasing, and with RX-Noise to make everything sound as realistic as possible, the SV1 is outstanding in this area. That’s not to say that the opposition is poor — far from it — but if you’re after a keyboard that can be a convincing Rhodes one minute, an EP200 another, a Pianet another, and a full-blooded Steinway grand the next, it delivers splendidly. OK... I have in the past expressed misgivings about stretching e-piano sounds beyond their historical limits, but given the success with which this has been achieved on the SV1, I’m ready to overlook my reservations and even embrace the extended ranges.
It’s only when you introduce the organs, strings and polysynth sounds into the discussion that things start to go a little awry because, in this area, the SV1 can’t compete with the competition. There’s nothing wrong with having a handful of such sounds at your disposal, however, and, given their quality, it would be churlish to complain about their inclusion. But it’s as a piano emulator that the SV1 will score and, if I’m honest, I think that the non-piano sounds confuse the issue. If I had been Korg’s design team, I would have ditched the extra sounds and used the freed memory to include a greater range of Clavinets and Pianets, as well as the rest of the RMI’s registrations. I would then have called it the SVP1 ‘Stage Vintage Piano’ rather than the SV1, and marketed it as the best acoustic and electric piano emulator on the planet. Which, in all likelihood, it already is.
Reviews : Keyboard
Analogue Modelling Synthesizer
This versatile compact synth takes the essence of its close cousin, the Alesis Micron, and adds a twist...
In 2003, Alesis unleashed the Ion, an eight0voice synthesizer that injected artery-clogging fatness into the world of analogue modelling. Rather than releasing a rack version, Alesis followed up with a petite and curious spin-off called the Micron. Despite almost entirely lacking controls, the Micron trumped its knobbier brother with desirable extras that included delay and reverb effects, a sequencer and a drum machine.
If you’re wondering how this is relevant to the review of an Akai synth, it’s because both Akai and Alesis are owned by Numark, a company that actively encourages cross-pollination. Or, indeed, wholesale plundering, as is the case here. For at its software heart, the Akai Miniak is an Alesis Micron, with an updated design and a bundled microphone. It is testament to Alesis’ programming skills that their work has received a new lease of life in 2010, presumably on the back of the success of Korg’s Microkorg XL. The Korg has a broadly similar spec, and Akai invite closer comparisons with the addition of a gooseneck microphone. Thrusting proudly from the panel, this mic is aided and abetted by a sticker pointing out how to operate the vocoder. As to why it’s Akai rather than Alesis on the box, it seems that with the passing of the mighty Andromeda, Alesis aren’t currently associated with keyboards, so the role falls to Akai.
Wheel Meet Again
With such a close relationship between the Miniak and the Alesis Micron, it makes more sense to revisit the latter synth’s review in the January 2005 issue of Sound On Sound. Here we’ll recap briefly, focusing on any significant differences encountered.
At 5.4kg, the Miniak is heavier and more substantial than the Micron, and its main encoder inspires a little more confidence too. I’m not madly keen on the blue backlit display, though; its background glow almost overwhelms the text in spite of every contrast adjustment. It’s readable, certainly, but not as clear from a distance as the Micron’s plain but serviceable green display.
Having a larger torso enables the Miniak to accommodate full-sized keys and three wheels, placed above the keyboard. They consist of a traditional sprung pitch-bender and two assignable modulation wheels. Backlit in a rather fetching amber, these feel instantly more familiar than the sideways sliders of the Micron, although I rather liked the Micron’s pitch-bender. The light, three-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive but, as expected, lacks aftertouch. It has a total transpose range of eight octaves, with brief on-screen graphics popping up at each transposition. In a further show of friendliness, the transpose buttons increase in brightness for each octave shift.
There’s a choice of four possible operating modes — Multi, Sequences, Rhythms or Programs — selected from a row of buttons inexplicably labelled ‘Program Controls’. Single patches (Programs) are dialled up alphabetically, or from a pool of stored favourites, or according to category (known as Sound Bank on the panel). The categories include the usual Bass, Lead, Pad, String and so on, accessed via a combination of the Program button and a white key from the lower half of the keyboard. A spin of the main encoder whizzes through the available patches. It’s not a bad system, and has some quirky advantages, such as the ‘Recent’ category, which is automatically populated with the last 10 patches played.
The six buttons known as ‘Performance Controls’ include the Phrase arpeggiator — the gateway to prepared riffs — and ‘Pattern Play’, a button whose job is to start and stop all sequences, rhythms and arpeggios in a Multi. All rhythmic shenanigans are subject to the tap-tempo button. Tapping in tempo is brilliant when working with a live band, but it can be preferable to dial up a BPM in absolute terms. This is simple, too: hold the button and twist the main encoder. Finally, three encoders enigmatically labelled ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ are actually performance controls, their function assignable in each patch.
There are no textual enigmas on the rear panel; instead we find balanced 24-bit stereo outputs and inputs. There’s not a great deal to say, other than that connecting a jack to the left input disables the included XLR microphone. Sadly, Akai’s revamp hasn’t opened up a place for USB connectivity. In this respect the Miniak shows its age as if sporting a wrinkly neck and liver spots. At least MIDI sockets are in full attendance, though. Power is via a line-lump adaptor, and completing the rear view are three additional jacks: a headphone socket and inputs for a sustain pedal and an assignable expression pedal.
You Spin Me Right Round
All edit functions fall under the jurisdiction of the main encoder, which has push functionality, so it can double as an Enter key. One push and you’re in edit territory. As a visual reminder, the button for the mode you’re in changes from yellow to red. Throughout the review period, the only real downer involved the amount of time spent glued to this one encoder.
This is a deep and intricate synthesizer brimming with potential. But at just one option per page you sometimes struggle to see it. Thus, you turn the encoder to select a page. Then push it to switch into data-entry mode. You then adjust the parameter and push the encoder once again so you’re ready to select a new page. If I tell you that the Miniak’s envelopes require almost 40 separate menu pages, you can imagine how long it takes to program an entire patch! Despite the keyboard being drafted in to provide quick entry points to several important pages, I feel an opportunity to massively improve on the Micron has been missed.
As should now be obvious, the Miniak is a virtual analogue synthesizer. It offers three oscillators per voice and eight notes of polyphony in total, and in its creation, priority was given to the quality of analogue modelling rather than the number of playable notes. In that respect, I think Alesis (and now Akai) have got the balance about right. With continuously variable waveshapes, FM, sizzling oscillator sync and spooky ring modulation, the Miniak’s sonic building blocks ably divert you from their digital origins. The filter implementation is particularly impressive too. Each voice has two multi-mode filters, with a choice of 20 different types. There are low-pass filters modelled on Roland, ARP, Moog and Oberheim synths, plus vocal filters, phase warp filters, comb filters and more. Throw in two LFOs, a separate sample & hold and a modulation matrix to captivate the geekiest modular enthusiast... Oh, and there are three of the most flexible envelopes I’ve ever encountered. They have variable curves for each envelope stage, are loopable and possess the ‘Freerun’ mode, which is so perfect for pads and drones that I don’t know why it isn’t found on every synth. To sum up: the Miniak kicks ass. And with on-board storage for 1000 patches, you could cram most flavours of analogue — poly or mono synths — into this one machine.
As shipped, there are nearly 700 single patches, over 100 multis, and more than 600 sequences and rhythms ready to go. The standard of programming is generally high, especially if you’re into prog-type solos and Moogish basses. I would have killed for sounds as fat as these when I was a teenager only able to afford weedy Japanese monosynths. Other highlights include thick analogue pads and strings, plus brass patches that subconsciously urge you to play ‘Jump’. Sound effects and drums aren’t neglected, either, and although the percussion programs in isolation won’t blow you away, when heard in the context of the factory rhythms, they aren’t half bad.
Rhythms are organised so that you can trigger the looping pattern from the lower half of the keyboard and play individual drum hits on the higher notes. If you like your beats synthetic, you’re going to love this lot. Each kit can have up to 10 drums, and programming the patterns in real or step time is surprisingly easy — given the size of the display and lack of controls. The phrase sequencer/arpeggiator is just as neatly implemented. It can serve as a quick notepad for use whenever a tune pops into your head, but becomes even more powerful when used multitimbrally.
Some of the factory multis hint at how much one Miniak can do in terms of interactive sequenced playback. I started to get all nostalgic for ’80s disco, something that doesn’t happen very often. I was inspired to start laying down overdubs on the top of existing rhythm patterns and, using the arpeggiator and real-time phrases, I came perilously close to creating a full song. For live work, your Multis could be organised by placing related patterns on adjacent keys. If you use up all eight parts that are available, Multi mode can easily consume those eight notes of polyphony. But with careful programming and judicious use of effects, it offers the kind of one-box flexibility that no small synth in this price range can touch.
Each multitimbral part has access to two common effects: FX1 (chorus, flanger, phaser, vocoder) and FX2 (delay, reverb). Individual patches have additional drive effects, such as distortion, tube amp, overdrive and fuzz pedal. Delays and reverbs will be very much appreciated — especially by the gigging musician — but it’s the emphasis on vocoding that really sets the Miniak apart from the Micron.
The Micron does have a vocoder. I didn’t give it a great deal of space in the previous review, because it didn’t make a huge impression. On paper, it should have, since it has 40 bands, which would typically indicate quality. But when I came to check out the Miniak’s 11 vocoder patches (identifiable by their prefix of a ‘#’ character), the results still didn’t quite convince. The supplied microphone is of good quality and performed well in its role of processing vocals (and other external signals). However, I found it strange that it had no dedicated gain control. You set the input level when programming a patch, but a physical knob — even a small one — would have been a big improvement. An orange label under the microphone proclaims ‘Vocoder’, which set me briefly wondering if the panel had been designed by another division of Numark entirely. I did persevere, and produced several vocoder patches I’d call ‘interesting’, if not quite ‘Kraftwerk’.
With the Miniak, Akai have put the Mic into Micron. As the latter is still available, you can choose easily whether the newcomer’s extras tip the balance. It could be that traditional mod wheels and a free microphone are exactly the temptations that will convert the wavering Micron-curious into full-blown Maniaks — sorry, Miniak owners. The new knobs suggest greater durability, especially the main encoder, which is so extensively used. I’m probably just less tolerant of time-wasting these days, but this single-encoder editing technique seems long overdue for retirement. However, with no bundled editor software, you have to live with it.
Although the vocoder takes centre stage, it never quite won me over. There’s nothing especially bad (or good) about it, but I doubt any of the factory vocoder patches would win a music store head-to-head against the Microkorg XL. Fortunately, the included mic can take another role — that of warping vocals using the various filters and effects — and at this it fares better.
Leaving the vocoder aside, the Miniak has a lot going for it — multitimbrality, a sequencer, a drum machine and effects — but most of all, it has a potent incarnation of analogue modelling. Even though we’re contemplating a synth with just eight notes of polyphony, produced by a technology we first met seven years ago, the Miniak holds up surprisingly well against today’s competition. If Akai could rustle up an editor, there might be nothing to hold it back.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
I could really use some advice! I’ve got a Shure SM7b mic, a Golden Age Project Pre 73 MkII preamp and an M-Audio Fast Track Pro interface that I use when recording vocals. The preamp has two different knobs: one is gain (labelled ‘mic/line’), the other is output. Then this signal goes to the interface, which also has a signal level knob. I know that different settings will change the sound on the preamp, but I was wondering how I should set the interface to get as good and balanced a sound as possible. Can you give me any advice?
Via SOS Facebook page
SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies:
The Shure mic and GAP Pre 73 should be a good match, given the Neve 1073-style high-impedance input on the preamp, which should get the best out of a dynamic mic such as this, so I’d stick with that combo. The harder you drive the gain knob on the preamp, the more ‘colour’ you’ll get from the transformers. So, while aiming for the same overall level coming out of the preamp, a low gain setting combined with a high-output level setting will sound more neutral, whereas a high gain with a lower output will sound a bit more rich/distorted (and even more so if the input signal is very ‘hot’). Then feed the line-level output of the preamp to one of the Fast Track Pro’s inputs, making sure that the input is set to ‘line’. You should set the gain control on the interface as low as possible, while still making sure that you’re seeing the right sort of level on the meters in your DAW software or your audio interface (and without the M-Audio’s clip light showing!). If you’re recording at 24-bit, the noise floor will be low enough that you don’t need your meters going anywhere near to red; you can safely raise the level later on without noise being an issue. If you’re recording at 16-bit (try not to, but you may have good reason!), you’re looking for as high a level as you can get without clipping, which is trickier to set up, but should give perfectly good results too.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Reviews : Keyboard
Yamaha’s new flagship stage piano is unashamedly specialist and expensive. How does it rank alongside the best sampled and modelled alternatives, or indeed the original instruments it strives to emulate?
The introduction of Roland’s V-Piano last year redefined just how much could be spent on a stage piano, and Yamaha’s new CP1 slots right into that same big-money market. With its 88-note ‘NW-STAGE’ hammer-action wooden keyboard and chunky 42cm depth, it’s certainly imposing and, at around 28kg, quite a struggle for one person to handle. The construction is top class, and the main front-panel controls — 40 shallow push-buttons plus a centrally mounted 2 x 55 character fluorescent display and six accompanying ‘soft’ knobs — ooze cool, confident style. It comes with a chunky three-pedal floor unit, manuals and a software DVD including the Cubase AI DAW application.
At the back of the CP1 are all the usual suspects: a three-pin IEC mains connector, power switch, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and a type-B USB socket for easy connection to a computer. There are no less than six pedal inputs, of which three are meant to accommodate plugs from the supplied pedal unit. Audio emerges on pairs of quarter-inch jack and male XLR sockets, to allow for balanced and unbalanced operation. One more tiny switch, quite tricky to find, switches on illumination of the back panel’s big Yamaha logo — very bling!
The CP1’s sounds come courtesy of Yamaha’s SCM (Spectral Component Modelling) system, and a list of them can be found in the ‘A Lizst Or Two’ box over the page.
The CP1 ships with 48 preset ‘Performances’, effectively patches that showcase nicely all the instrument has to offer. You call these up with 16 dedicated number buttons and three bank buttons, and a further 48 of your own performances go in a dedicated User area. If you need more, so-called ‘External’ groups of 48 Performances can be saved to and loaded from a memory stick plugged into the front-panel socket.
To understand what makes up a Performance, we need to look at the CP1’s architecture. Two separate but concurrent ‘Parts’ each consist of four blocks: piano, preamplifier, modulation effect and power-amplifier/compressor. The two parts then pass through a single shared reverb and the master equaliser. Front-panel buttons, to the left of the central display, allow you to turn individual blocks on and off, and if you hold them down for a second any associated parameters are called up on the central display. A further two parts, not directly accessible from the front panel, are dedicated to controlling external MIDI devices, and all four parts can be combined through layering, keyboard splits or by being assigned specific key ranges. Playback pitch, pitch-bend range, velocity response, real-time controller assignments and other settings can be made on a per-part basis.
So far I’ve stuck mostly to the facts, but stage pianos are (or should be) about feel, response and vibe, so here’s my take on the CP1, speaking as a player. I appreciate that piano touch and sound is a decidedly subjective business, so I’ve tried to be as balanced and philosophical as I can be. Still, I’d urge you to take the following comments as a guide only, and to try out the CP1 for yourself.
The NW-STAGE undoubtedly has a good keyboard action. The key tops are very slightly textured, and the weight and speed are well judged for stage use. I feel it’s best suited to rock and pop-oriented playing, and works great with the electric pianos. For classical repertoire, it seems too light, and lacks that sense of long-key ‘swing’. By comparison, my own Yamaha U30A upright’s action is still markedly more tactile and communicative, and a modern acoustic grand would obviously represent a further step up. Significantly, NW-STAGE has no obvious escapement ‘notch’ on the downstroke, and as I investigated this I was surprised to find that no matter how slowly you push down a key, a sound is still triggered, albeit very quietly. Some players might find this a good thing; I thought it was an unconvincing departure from reality.
But what about the sound? Diving in with the two acoustic models was initially a really positive and enjoyable experience. Both the CFIIIS and S6B have plenty of colour and life, the former classy and respectable and the latter more ballsy and suited to jazz and pop. Yamaha have got the top end of the dynamic response spot on, so that even when you’re already playing loud, laying in with more energy results in a convincing, natural surge in tone quality and dynamic that seems to go on and on. The way the sound builds smoothly and naturally is really impressive, and is thanks, no doubt, to the modelling-based approach. However, I liked the bottom end of the touch range nowhere near as much. Quiet playing resulted in the sound seeming to become anaemic and puny, rather than silky but still very present, as with a real acoustic piano. Also, I don’t rate the quality of the decay phase, for either acoustic model. Play a chord at a medium to loud dynamic level, and the first second or so is perfectly believable. Wait longer, though, and the sound becomes rather static and plasticky, a touch too reminiscent of memory-starved workstation keyboard pianos. I also found pedal resonance unrealistic — at least there is a difference when you play a note or chord with the pedal down, but to me it sounds for all the world like it’s going through a cheap reverb unit, having a kind of rhythmic, ringing character.
Moving to the electric pianos, I felt the CP1 came into its own. The Wurlitzers and CP80/88 are fantastic, but the various Rhodes models are even better. With these, the CP1 offers a level of involvement that I’ve rarely experienced in any other electronic instrument, and many Performances that include suitable effects and amp/speaker emulation are totally convincing, in the way that a good real instrument is — you just get on and play it, exploring its musical capabilities, rather than thinking about how it might be improved with a parameter tweak. Every Rhodes model is enjoyable in its own right, ranging from the 71RdI’s thick warmth to the 78RdII’s willing bark.
The DX sounds are also absolutely authentic, and noodling with them is testament to their ability to recall the excesses of early ’80s pop! Still, they’ll be a useful inclusion for players working in some genres.
The modulation effects — phasers, flangers, chorus and wah — are all fit for purpose, and work a treat on the electric piano sounds. You can only have one per part, though, and both the ‘SmallPha’ and ‘Max90’ phasers cause the acoustic pianos (the CP1’s only truly stereo pianos) to go mono. Amp and speaker modelling gives useful character and coherence to the electric pianos, but you can’t achieve a really thick overdrive and, annoyingly, it can’t be used at all with the acoustics.
Further inconsistencies revolve around the electric pianos’ preamp block. What Yamaha call ‘vibrato’ is actually a square-wave type auto-pan for the Rhodes models, and for the Wurlitzers a tremolo, which is fair enough. However, these characteristics are absolutely fixed — you can’t get auto-pan on a Wurlitzer, for example — and what’s worse is that the tremolo speed is fixed. All far too restrictive. Worse still, the CP1’s sound output is disrupted momentarily by adjusting various parameters, such as the tone controls for the CP80/88, 78RdII and Dyno, or by switching some Performance blocks on or off. That’s bad enough, but it’s downright perverse that you can assign expression pedal control to some of the same parameters. That just allows you to have messed-up audio under pedal control!
The three ‘Rich’ reverb algorithms are distinctly average, and MIDI control features are disappointing in practice. The two external MIDI ‘parts’, whose parameters are hidden away in the programming system, are hard-wired to transmit on channels three and four, and it’s an either/or situation as to whether you use USB MIDI or the five-pin DIN sockets — you can’t have both. With virtually no front-panel controls dedicated to MIDI use, the CP1 feels basic in a master keyboard role, despite a fair degree of programmability if you have the time and inclination.
I was excited to get my hands on the CP1, and I tried hard to like it. It certainly looks the part, and it must be said that it can feel and sound it too. Ultimately, though, I came away less impressed than I thought I’d be.
It boils down, I think, to what you might call price/performance ratio. There’s no question that the electric piano sounds are fabulous. Despite my specific reservations about them, the acoustics are also very playable and usable, and will sound excellent on stage or in a mix. But this thing has a price of $6000, and the problem is that fabulous electric pianos and stage-worthy acoustics can be had for much less money (the ‘Alternatives’ box singles out some serious contenders that are around half the price). Deep, V-Piano-like editability could have sweetened the pill, but it isn’t there. Nor are a wide range of sounds that arguably would have been more useful than the DX pianos — clavinet, harpsichord, vibes, an upright or two, a good honky-tonk, dedicated mono piano sounds... the list goes on. A smattering of string, pad and bass sounds would have added so much, and made much more sense of the split/layer Performance architecture. As it stands, that feels somewhat redundant. The irony is that the CP1’s cheaper sibling, the CP5, retains all the key SCM pianos, has the NW-STAGE keyboard, includes a big sampled sound set and a sequencer, and has arguably more useful front-panel controls. You get far more for about half the money, which makes me think something fishy is going on. Perhaps the CP1 was (or is) destined for greater things, but there’s no sign of that currently.
Reviews : Keyboard
The Story Of The Polivoks
The fall of the Iron Curtain revealed a surprise for Western musicians: a flourishing Soviet synthesizer industry. Its flagship instrument was crude, cheaply made, horrible to play — and sounded like nothing else...
I saw my first Russian synthesiser in July 1994, at the opening of Martin Newcombe’s now defunct Museum of Synthesizer Technology. I was intrigued by it. Many of the guests were twiddling away on large Moogs and ARP 2500s, but I didn’t even know that there was (or had been) a Russian synthesizer industry, so I asked Martin whether I could try the thing with the strange Cyrillic name. Crushingly, the answer was “no”, because it didn’t work. Nevertheless, it looked gorgeous: black, chunky, and about as sleek as a Soviet tank.
The instrument in question was a Polivoks and, at the time, the museum’s was perhaps the only one in the UK. But Martin had unwittingly started something and, fuelled by rumours that Russian synths had a raw, aggressive sound, interest in them rocketed. Happily, the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years earlier, so the time was ripe for all manner of Russian and East German synths to enter the western consciousness. The problem was that nobody knew where to find them, so by 1995, they were already well on their way to acquiring mythical status.
The Birth Of The Polivoks
The Polivoks is a duophonic synthesizer designed by Vladimir Kuzmin, an electronics engineer who had been the bass player and sound engineer in his student band. Having graduated in 1976, he was inspired to apply for work at the Urals Vector Company by the inventor of the FAEMI, the first commercially successful Russian electronic keyboard. That man was Vladimir Lugovetz, the Director of the bureau that controlled development of electronic instruments at the Vector company, and the father of Kuzmin’s future wife.
The company comprised two plants: one in Ekaterinburg and one in Katchkanar. The plant in Ekaterinburg was the older of the two, and its history reached back to World War II, but the one in Katchkanar, named ‘Formanta’, had been built in the early ’70s. Given that this plant produced musical equipment such as organs, amplifiers and speakers, it’s no surprise that Kuzmin accepted an offer of employment, and one of his first jobs was to work on the final design of the FAEMI-M, a polyphonic version of the FAEMI. Interviewed by Polish synthesizer enthusiast and supplier Maciej Polak, in 2003, Kuzmin explained: “My first task was to design the spring reverberator, but I also tried to improve the design of FAEMI-M in order to obtain some modern effects such as portamento and filtering. This led me to study the literature, patents, promotional materials and, of course, samples of Western gear. Occasionally, bands visited our city, and some of these carried organs manufactured by Crumar, Farfisa and Weltmeister, and, later, synthesizers from Moog, Roland and Korg. I would ask them to lend me their synths for one night, which was long enough for me to find out how they worked. It was great experience.”
Five years later, when the powers that be decided to extend the Formanta range to include the first voltage-controlled analogue synth manufactured in the USSR, Kuzmin was asked to head a small team of engineers to design it. He accepted, and set to work with his wife, Olimpiada Kuzmina, who was responsible for the physical design and panel graphics, and hardware engineer Yuri Pheophilov.
Kuzmin picks up the story: “Soviet musicians wanted to own synthesizers, but there was no musical industry in Russia, simply plants manufacturing equipment as part of a programme to increase the overall volume of goods produced for the people. The best engineers worked at those plants, and it was considered economically advantageous for these military and semi-military factories to manufacture non-military products — TVs and radios, tape recorders and so on. You must understand that the socialist economic system was based on a simple principle: statisticians monitored how many families owned, for example, TV sets, and the Party would then decide to increase this number by, say, 20 percent in the next five-year plan. Then, the Ministry of Planning would formulate plans for the manufacturing plants. But there were too many factories, so the planners had to look for additional products. This explains why Russia produced so many electronic musical instruments; they were products proposed by enthusiasts to keep the plants busy.”
Divide & Conquer
Kuzmin decided to adopt a modular approach to the Polivoks: each of its sound-generating sections would exist on its own circuit board, and these boards could then be inserted into a backplane, much like the configurable minicomputers of the era. This would allow boards to be changed and updated, as well as making it possible to use them in other products. To facilitate this, Olimpiada spaced the controls widely to accommodate the modules beneath, which had additional benefits in manufacturing and servicing. On the other hand, the Polivoks could have been significantly smaller had an integrated approach been adopted throughout.
Other Russian synths were not always developed with such attention to innovation. For example, the Estradin 230 was famously ‘inspired’ by the Minimoog, and it not only copied the architecture of the Moog, but its control layout and, as closely as possible, its sound. Kuzmin is not entirely dismissive of this approach, and has been quoted as saying that Russian musicians (who had no access to Western instruments) wanted synths that imitated the Minimoog. Consequently, many Russian synths were ‘Moog-like’ and based on existing concepts of sound generation and signal flow. On the other hand, Kuzmin also told Polak: “The level of knowledge of our engineers was different; for some of the others, copying something was the best way to achieve the goal.”
However you interpret these conflicting views, it’s clear that the Polivoks is not a copy of any existing synth, although it utilises well-understood building blocks and you’re unlikely to be flummoxed by one even if you’re unable to read Russian.
The Front Panel
The centre of its panel is dominated by two audio-frequency oscillators.
VCO1 offers five octaves from 32’ to 2’, five waveforms, and controls for LFO modulation level plus Osc 2 cross-modulation for monophonic FM synthesis. VCO2 offers the same selection of footages and waveforms, an independent control for modulation depth, plus fine-tuning. Underneath these lies the mixer, which offers level controls for the two oscillators, the noise generator, and for audio injected into the external signal input. Yes the Polivoks could be used as a signal processor, long before this became fashionable.
To the right of these, you’ll find the filter, and this is where the Polivoks starts to become interesting. Eschewing conventional designs, Kuzmin decided to develop his own filter topology, and after a year’s research he chose a simple 12dB/octave device with just eight components: two op-amp ICs and six resistors. This circuit — which offers both low-pass and band-pass responses — flies in the face of conventional wisdom which states that analogue filters must include capacitors to function. But Kuzmin had taken advantage of the capacitance within the op-amps themselves, and the result was a unique device with a harsh and heavily distorted character that bore no resemblance to the 24dB/octave filters in the Minimoog. In retrospect, this decision seems strange, since it has been documented elsewhere that Kuzmin’s instructions were to build a synthesizer that could emulate existing American instruments. To be fair, an update in 1985 or thereabouts eliminated a little of the nastiness but, to most ears, later models sound little different from earlier ones, and nothing like an American synth, Moog or otherwise.
As well as responding to the LFO and a control-pedal input, the filter has a dedicated contour generator with two modes: a standard ADSR envelope, and a repeating mode that generates a triangular waveform determined by the Attack and Decay settings. The same architecture is provided for the audio VCA on the far right of the panel, but there’s an extra switch here that has been described on the web as both a VCA envelope ‘defeat’ and a key-follow on/off. It’s neither. It’s a Gate On switch, which allows you to use the Polivoks’ filter as a signal processor and to create rhythmic sounds using the two envelopes in repeat mode without the need to press a key.
Indeed, this is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Polivoks, because you can set up the attacks and decays of the two contour generators in such a way that you obtain regular, repeating polyrhythms. You can even spice these up further using the sample & hold setting in the LFO to create pitch and filter changes that stay in time (or not) with the repeating patterns from the contour generators.
Ah yes the LFO. To the left of the instrument there’s a modulation section and a master control section. The former comprises the dedicated LFO, which offers four waveforms, including noise, and a stepped function for sample & hold effects. The latter includes the master tune, master volume, master output on/off switch, a volume control for the headphone output (labelled ‘telefon’), and the glide control, which only affects VCO1 and is therefore capable of some novel effects.
The final control on the front panel switches between monophonic and duophonic operation.
As on most other duophonic synths, this allows you to play the oscillators separately, but there is only one signal path, so it’s not possible to shape notes independently. Also, as on the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, the upper note drops to the lower if the second note is released, which makes it difficult to use the Polivoks to play two lines simultaneously.
Owning A Polivoks
Having had my interest piqued by Martin’s dead synth, the first two Polivokses I saw for sale were advertised on a synth forums in July 1997 by a gentleman named Vlad. He was asking $350 for each (a bargain by current standards) and he sold both to a chap in the USA named Tom Moravansky.
I didn’t see any others advertised until 2000, about the time that I first made contact with Maciej Polak, who would eventually sell me my own Polivoks. However, the first synth that he sold me was not a Polivoks but an East German monosynth. As you can imagine, I was nervous about buying blind from an unseen presence on the ’net, but I transferred my money, and in due course the synth arrived, exactly as described. Score one for the good guys!
A year later, Polak contacted me to say that he had uncovered a Polivoks in excellent condition, complete with its original power lead, its unusual five-pin audio cables, and its expression pedal, and to ask me whether I would be interested in it. Admittedly, the cost had rocketed since Vlad had sold his, but only to (what I considered to be) a fair price, so I went ahead
My first impression was of a brute of a synth that might have survived a direct strike from a Minuteman missile. It came in a metal case (rather than the tolex-covered chipboard of American and Japanese instruments) and Olimpiada Kuzmina had intentionally made it look chunky to emphasise its quasi-military background. Unfortunately, I soon found that appearances can be misleading. The case is quite flimsy and its clips break too easily. Furthermore, the plastic end-pieces of the synth hold the whole thing together, and if these crack where they bolt to the lower part of the case, the bottom of the synth drops off!
Of course, Russian products have a reputation for unreliability, sometimes caused by poor design, sometimes by poor manufacturing, and sometimes by component failure, or any combination simultaneously. On the subject of poor manufacturing, Kuzmin told Polak, “We had skilled workers, progressive technology, and modern working places. We wrote good manuals for the workers, and every new model was tested and tuned. But the Formanta plant... caused real problems.” Regarding component failures, he admitted that “The reliability of any electronic products made for the people was a problem. This was not specific to the Formanta plant; the military always obtained the best components. As a result, poor components were sometimes used, and these didn’t always reveal themselves when we tested the synths. Sometimes the problems occurred after the products were sold to the customers.”
Nonetheless, unlike Martin’s, my Polivoks worked and, despite the scare stories above, it has developed only one fault in the years that I’ve owned it: a single dead key. On most monosynths, this would indicate a dirty or broken contact, but not on the Polivoks, which uses magnets glued under each key and magnetic reed switches as key contacts. On mine, one of these switches had failed, but I found a modern equivalent that fitted perfectly. Similarly, when I had a somewhat more sickly Polivoks repaired professionally, David Croft at the Synthesizer Service Centre was able to use modern components to fix faults in its filter and filter envelope generator. Indeed, I have yet to hear of an irreparable Polivoks and, given its discrete architecture, it will probably be possible to repair them long after a lack of dedicated chips has rendered many modern workstations obsolete.
When I switched on my Polivoks for the first time, I was uncertain what I should expect from it: would it be useable as a melodic instrument? Happily, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Sure, it’s highly unstable at times, and its wobbly and scratchy pots mean that it will sometimes wibble off into its own sonic territory. Furthermore, it’s never going to produce the superb brass or flute sounds of an ARP, nor the creamy leads of a Minimoog, nor even the thinner and more compliant sounds of early Rolands and Korgs. But when it comes to wicked screams and aggressive bass patches, the Polivoks is unsurpassed. Turn the oscillators’ output levels to maximum to overdrive the filter input and crank up the resonance, and every sound becomes abrasive and distorted. Played this way, a Polivoks will produce raw sounds that you’ll not obtain from any American, Western European or Japanese monosynth of the era.
This character accounts for the synth’s rise in popularity throughout the ’90s. In the era of hard techno and Berlin-school industrial, the harshness of the Polivoks was what some musicians craved. Mind you, it was not universally liked, and Kuzmin admits that some of the comments made while it was in production were less than complimentary. If there is one area in which this criticism was deserved, it’s regarding the Polivoks’ 48-note F-E keyboard. While it seems that this was designed to a Russian standard that determined the appropriate length of travel and the amount of force needed to play it, the keys feel horrible, their travel is remarkably shallow, and they clatter unpleasantly. In fact, the Polivoks has the worst keyboard I’ve ever played, and its yellowed keys look like they’ve been smoking three packets of Woodbines a day for the past 20 years. Oh, and while I’m complaining, I have to mention the lack of a modulation wheel or joystick. Given that Kuzmin was attempting to design an alternative to the likes of the Minimoog, this was a shocking oversight.
In the ’80s, the Soviet government did not permit the importation of Western electronics, so few Moogs, ARPs, Rolands or Korgs made it behind the Iron Curtain. Some were sold by visiting musicians to their Russian counterparts, some appeared on the black market, and a handful were legitimately imported by the Ministry of Culture for institutions such as state orchestras and the Party’s favoured bands and singers, but Formanta’s main competition — brands such as Aelita, Alisa, Electronika, Estradin, Junost, Lell, RITM and RMIF — came from plants in Russia and the occupied Baltic countries. Given the size of the Soviet market, it would therefore seem reasonable to expect that a lot of Polivokses were built. Kuzmin again: “It took us a year to design the Polivoks, and the first units were sold in 1982. It was in production until 1990, and in the middle of this period we were selling between 20,000 and 25,000 per year, all to the inner market of the Soviet Union. The designs were patented, so we could have exported them to other Soviet countries and to Africa and Latin America where the USSR exported arms, but there was no place for our products among other brands. As for the Western world, it was only after 1991 that anyone could buy freely in Russia and export products out of the country.”
(Whether we can believe these figures is not clear. In an earlier interview, Kuzmin suggested that, at 920 Roubles — a large sum in Soviet Russia — the Polivoks was too expensive for the majority of musicians, and that many were sold to ‘cultural organisations’ rather than individuals, with a total number in the range of 20,000-30,000 units produced.)
Having designed the Polivoks, Kuzmin and the Katchkanar team worked on numerous other instruments (see ‘Other Katchkanar Synthesizers’ box), but none of these became classics; that accolade belongs solely to the Polivoks, which now enjoys an enviable reputation worldwide. Recently, Polak asked Kuzmin, who is now Director of the Urals Centre For Music Technology, how it felt to be the father of a legend. Kuzmin replied: “From 1991 until 2002 I didn’t hear anything about the Polivoks at all. I had access to the Internet from 1998 onward, but it didn’t occur to me to search for it. Then a musician who had known me for three or four years discovered that I was the inventor of the Polivoks. He told me that it had become popular, and that there was a kind of Polivoks-mania on the Internet. At first, I didn’t believe him, so you can imagine my feelings when I saw the number of sites devoted to it. Olimpiada and I never dreamed that our Polivoks would be ranked alongside the classic Moogs!”
So that’s the Polivoks; a bit dodgy, a bit unpredictable, offering a psychotic filter and suffering from horrendous distortion in the signal path. But before I go, I would like to offer the last word to Polak, who recently wrote: “I have come to realise that everything is shite about it. It’s clanky. It’s squeaky. The plastic looks sturdy but is actually very brittle. Uncleaned knobs (ie. the ones you buy it with) crackle devastatingly, and the keyboard feels terrible. I love it! It’s my favourite synth. It’s sexy as hell, too.”
What more could I possibly add?