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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rupert Neve Designs Portico II - NAMM 2012

Korg DW8000

Synthesizer (Retro)

Reviews : Keyboard


Paul Ward reintroduces an instrument now widely neglected on account of its 'digital' tag, and argues that it still has much to recommend it.

"The synthesizer that's more than digital." That was how Korg described their 1985 synth, the DW8000. Those were the days when all things digital were considered to be intrinsically good, whilst all things analogue were inherently outmoded. The irony in the case of the DW8000 is that the features that arguably make it "more than digital" are, in fact, analogue! Whilst that may have been considered something to gloss over in the mid-'80s, by today's standards it is something to crow about.

More Than Digital

The DW8000 made use of Korg's DWGS (Digital Waveform Generator System). What this amounted to was sampled waveforms stored in four 256Kbit ROM chips. At the time it was considered important for manufacturers to come up with proprietary acronyms for their synthesis technologies to give an air of wonderment to new synths, and Korg were very much on the bandwagon with DWGS. This has often been seen to backfire, and the DW8000 has generally been overlooked, being seen as little more than an S+S synth with a limited palette of waveforms.

Essentially, however, the DW8000 is an analogue synth, with digital waveforms piped in at one end, and a digital delay clamped across the other. The most important aspect of the machine, the filter, is most assuredly of the analogue persuasion. Polyphony is fairly restricted at eight voices, but since the DW8000 is a monotimbral synth, this is not really a problem in general use. The keyboard is both velocity- and pressure-sensitive, and the cutesy little Korg joystick is ever-present for pitch and filter modulation duties.

Patching Up

Editing is simple, if lacking in immediacy. Parameters are dialed up with the numeric keypad and the parameter value changed by use of the data slider, or up/down buttons. With a grand total of 53 adjustable parameters, this is a tolerable working method, but there are several computer editing options available as an alternative, including free examples on the Internet. Using the editing facility to make adjustments during performance is perfectly feasible and is one of the DW8000's little pieces of magic.

Two oscillators are provided, with the ability to adjust the relative levels and to detune oscillator 2 for a rich, chorused effect. Four parameters relate to the DW8000's 'autobend' feature, which sweeps the pitch of either, or both, oscillators up or down to its true note over a specified time and by a specified amount following the press of a key. Although this feature may not seem particularly exciting, it does have the capability to add interest to the attack of notes and imparts a certain 'weirdness' that is very appealing. Korg added a separately mixable noise generator, which was quite generous.

Simple Samples

The 16 sampled waveforms are interesting. Having cast off the limitations of the standard analogue synth's sawtooth, square and sine waveforms, Korg chose to push back the boundaries of sound by including such raw digital material as, well... sawtooth, square and sine waveforms! I'm being quite cruel here, as they also included more complex waves such as bells, clavinet, acoustic and electric pianos, organ, guitar and sax. A separate sample is used for each octave and the waveforms are recreated using additive harmonic synthesis. The result is a set of waveforms that, whilst more varied than its purely analogue predecessors, certainly lacks the breadth of tonality of a Roland D50, or Korg's later M1.

Not a particularly inspiring start, you may think, but the fun has only just begun. Both the VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) and VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) are just what they imply -- 'Voltage Controlled'. For those brought up on a digital diet, read 'analogue'. What this amounts to in practice is a smoothness and, in the case of the filter, a musical richness that more than makes up for the relatively limited range of waveforms. The VCF is fully resonant, giving a gorgeous whistle at high settings and purring beautifully over low-pitched notes -- quite Moog-like, in fact.

Keyboard velocity and aftertouch are routable to volume and filter cutoff. Aftertouch can also be programmed to introduce vibrato.

Typical of its time, the DW8000 has a selection of key assign modes. Normal polyphonic playing is obviously taken care of, with a further mode to make use of polyphonic portamento. The Unison modes stack all eight voices together for a much fatter (monophonic) sound. What a pity that the ability to detune the voices in unison mode was not included -- the results would have been fatter than a very fat thing indeed.

Delays and Arpeggios

The digital delay conceptually glued across the DW8000's outputs was quite a revolution for its time -- indeed, the first of its kind. Delay time (up to a maximum of half a second), feedback and level are all programmable for each patch, as is a modulation effect to create chorus or flanging effects.

An arpeggiator is a wunnerful thing, to my way of thinking, and the simpler they are to use the better I likes 'em. Five controls are about all I need when I'm looking for some instant inspiration. I switch the arpeggiator on; I tell it which direction to scan the keys and over how many octaves; I hit a fistful of notes; I latch them and then adjust the speed to taste. Yes, I know that today's arpeggiators are considerably more sophisticated, and I enjoy using them too, but this kind of immediacy is not to be sniffed at. The arpeggiator will happily clock to incoming MIDI clock data for synchronisation to your sequencer or drum machine.

As far as MIDI is concerned, the DW8000 is reasonably conversant. Parameter changes can be applied on the fly, and patch data can be dumped to external storage devices (much better than using the included tape interface -- ugh!).

On The Downside

So, are there any flies in the ointment? Well the non-programmable tuning is a bit of a pain. Catch the tuning slider during a live performance and you could lose a few friends. Quite why tuning is believed to warrant instant front-panel access at all times remains a mystery to me.
Buyers Take Note
If you set out to buy a DW8000 then look out for models with the optional MEX8000 expansion fitted which gives an extra four banks of 64 patch locations -- well worth a few quid extra. A particular Achilles' heel is the keyboard, which is prone to mis-triggering after periods of low usage due to the build up of dirt around the contacts. This is not hard to cure, and could prove a bargaining point if you are willing to take the risk that it's nothing more serious. The EX8000 is the rackmount alternative (see above), but is more difficult to find than its keyboard cousin.

The DW8000 has no patch names, which is frustrating, although I've created a name list in Cubase's Studio Module for my most oft-used patch banks. The stereo outputs are also problematical. The unwary would plug a pair of cables into them and assume that their machine was delivering glorious stereo sound. In reality, the only aspect of the sound that is in stereo is the digital delay. Fair enough, you may think. But I have to add that this is pseudo-stereo created by passing opposite phase signals down the left and right outputs. If you still haven't figured out why this is a problem then I hope you never hear your recordings played back in mono -- where the left and right delay signals will cancel each other out, leaving your DW8000 sounds bare and stark to the world! The answer is to make use of the mono output only to avoid any such problems.
My only other gripe is that the darn thing always starts up in Omni mode and promptly tries to play every other MIDI instrument's part! My solution is to include an Omni-off message in my default Cubase song and run it before I begin work.

The End Result

Given a well-programmed machine, what are the highlights that might be expected? Basses are probably one of the DW8000's strongest suits. The low end is generally thick and powerful and sits under a mix with confidence. Chunky mid-range sequence sounds are also particularly appealing, especially given a tweak of the data slider to modulate the filter as it plays. Lead patches are capable of both aggression and subtlety, as required. There are certain characteristically 'nasal' lead sounds that I have never managed to recreate on any other synth -- a kind of 'oboe on acid' for want of a better description. Autobend adds a certain slurring to note attacks that is inspiring to fool around with.

The DW8000 is very much a synth, not a sample playback device, so don't expect the acoustic piano waveform to render anything much like a Steinway! The waveforms are essentially raw material to be mangled by the synthesis engine. Pad sounds are thick and rich, but never seem to sit in a mix particularly well in my experience. String sounds are also warm and powerful, but just don't seem to cut it when other sounds are around. I mention these points not as damning aspects of the machine, but as a reminder that no synth will be all things to all players. Utilise a device to exploit its strengths, forgive it its weaknesses, and it will pay you back accordingly.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Moog Minitaur - NAMM 2012

Roland VK1 Drawbar

Organ (Retro)

Reviews : Keyboard
Sam Inglis roots around in the dustbin of history and fishes out one of the few Roland analogue instruments you can still afford without a second mortgage. Does it deserve to be rehabilitated?
The year is 1980. The raw guitar thrash of punk rock is beginning to give way to the quirkier, more oblique sounds of post-punk and the New Romantics. The charts are awash with electronic acts like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and Japan, while established artists like David Bowie and Neil Young dabble with increasingly experimental synthesizer sounds. A new generation of powerful analogue polysynths, led by the Prophet V and Oberheim OBX, offers hitherto unparalleled sonic power. Not the best time, you might think, to launch a faithful electronic recreation of the old-fashioned Hammond organ.

Nevertheless, that year saw the debut of no less than three such instruments: Korg's CX3 and BX3 and Roland's VK1. Though they were ostensibly rivals, both contemporary and more recent opinion has it that there was little real competition -- the Korg instruments simply won hands down. The CX3 and BX3 (basically single- and double-manual versions of the same instrument) mimicked not only the Hammond's drawbar setup and percussion, but also included built-in overdrive and Leslie speaker simulations which are still regarded as pretty authentic. Roland's design, on the other hand, lacked any means of replicating these latter features, which many people consider definitive of the classic Hammond sound. As a result, the VK1 disappeared from view fairly promptly, while the Korg products flourished, becoming the instruments to own if you couldn't afford, or lift, a real Hammond B3.

A consequence of their enduring reputation, however, is that the Korg organs still fetch substantial sums when they become available second-hand. A BX3 was recently offered in SOS small ads for £995 -- approaching the second-hand cost of a real Hammond, and only £400 cheaper than the original list price -- and you'd be lucky to see any change from £500 for a CX3 in half-decent condition. By contrast, I bought my VK1 in 1996 for £120, which was pretty much the going rate at the time.

The Thing In Itself

The VK1 was introduced as a cheaper, single-manual adaptation of Roland's existing 'flagship' organs, the VK6 and VK9, which were hefty two-manual beasts with equally hefty price tags. As we will see, the cut-down VK1 lost some of its big brothers' most important features; on the up side, it also shed some of their excessive weight. Even so, it's hardly compact -- some might say it's unnecessarily large, given that much of its depth is taken up with empty space. The whole thing is housed in a chunky chipboard case, covered on the top with black vinyl and on the bottom with rather impermanent black paint (or does it just pick up dirt?). Undoing about 15 screws allows you to lift up the hinged top panel for access to the murky depths within, should you wish it.

While the 61-note keyboard is not the quietest ever devised, it is robust both in construction and feel, with a satisfyingly springy action. Sophisticated single-keyboard Hammond clones often include keyboard split options, so that their one set of keys can be used to mimic simultaneous playing on a real Hammond's two sets and/or pedal bass. Unfortunately, the VK1 is not sophisticated: though its five-octave range is entirely adequate for most applications, you have to use the same sound for left and right hands.

Like most electronic organs, the VK1 has nine drawbars which are colour-coded to distinguish the
In addition to its presets and drawbars, the VK1 also features a Percussion section. As on original Hammonds, this term is used to refer not to any beatbox capability, but to an additional sound-generating mechanism which is used to emphasise note attack -- many classic 'cool' Hammond sounds feature prominent percussion against a rather muted sustained drawbar sound. Roland's intention was clearly to mimic this feature of original Hammonds, as was Korg's incorporation of percussion on the BX3 and CX3. What you get are five switches with LED indicators: three different types of percussion are available, second-, third- and fifth-harmonic, and these can be used individually or in any combination. The other switches select 'soft' volume, making the percussion more subtle, and 'fast' decay, which gives a more staccato effect. So far, so good. And if, the first time you set up your VK1, you were to try turning the percussion on and playing a single note, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear a rich, bell-like tone not dissimilar to that of an old electric piano. 'Aha,' you might think, 'not only do I now own a Hammond copy, it can also do Fender Rhodes impressions too!'
The warm feeling this thought might produce would, however, last only until you got around to pressing a second key -- and heard no percussion at all. For, like that of original Hammonds, the VK1's percussion is single-triggering, only sounding on a note if no other notes are already playing. This is a serious problem on a single-manual instrument. Play a solo phrase with one hand, and it sounds fine: try to play the same phrase with a few sustained bass notes as well, however, and you will hear very little. Given that Roland didn't bother to reproduce some of the most important positive features of the original Hammond sound, like key-click and overdrive, it's rather annoying that they should have copied one of its few drawbacks so faithfully!
different harmonics, and numbered in feet and inches to reflect the dimensions of the pipes to which they correspond on a pipe organ. These have a pleasing click-stopped action, and are also pretty reliable. If you're giving a VK1 (or any electric organ) the once-over, though, it's important to try moving each drawbar over the full extent of its travel while listening to the output. Pops and crackles may simply indicate dirty contacts, but could also be a sign of more serious problems.
The front panel features a number of old-style Roland LED buttons which are used to select the three preset tones and the drawbar/percussion mode, the style of percussion (see box) and the chorus/vibrato which is the VK1's one onboard effect. There are also Volume, Brilliance (tone) and Tuning pots, along with controls for Rate and Depth of the vibrato. The more upmarket VK6 had a 'Click Attack' control which was supposed to emulate the distinctive attack noise caused on real Hammonds by dirty key contacts; this, sadly, is missing from the VK1.

The VK1 is resolutely mono, and its single output is switchable between high, mid and low levels. Set to the 'high' position, it should put out a fairly healthy signal; weedy or distorted output is another sign of potential trouble. Apart from the headphone socket, that's it for the back panel. There's no MIDI, obviously, nor any means of connecting a footswitch. The VK1 also lost the CV/gate outs of the VK6 -- and, which is more serious, its dedicated Leslie output.

The Sound

Original Hammonds used notched metal tonewheels, rotating in a magnetic field, to generate sine waves which serve as electrical analogues of the sound produced by air resonating in a pipe. Portable Hammond copies like the VK1, by contrast, use simple integrated circuits to produce their sine wave tones. While this means that the VK1 is certainly lighter than a tonewheel organ, it also makes its tuning rather less stable. Of course, you can use the Tuning pot to adjust the pitch -- unless, as on my VK1, the tuning of the whole instrument goes only from sharp to painfully sharp! It may have drifted over the years, but it's also quite possible that Roland inflicted on the VK1 their eccentric belief that concert A should be 442Hz, as it is on other instruments of the time like the Jupiter 8.

I've had a couple of years of sterling service out of the Roland organ, and wouldn't part with it for the world. Nevertheless, I would be the first to admit that the sound you get out of the back bears only a passing resemblance to the raunchy, gritty swirl of a real Hammond B3 played through a Leslie amp and speaker.

Now that decent stand-alone Leslie simulators are available, it would no doubt be possible to achieve a reasonable approximation to 'the' Hammond sound with a VK1 and a little effort. But then, you could probably get a 'reasonable approximation' with a modern digital synth, and you'd get MIDI and a whole load of other sounds as well. So why bother with a cantankerous, badly-specified piece of kit that's rapidly approaching its 20th birthday?

The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is that while the sound of a Hammond B3 overdriving a Leslie is great and unique, it is certainly not the only great organ sound. I realise that in some musical quarters this view constitutes heresy of the worst order but, despite the howls of the purists, there are valid reasons why you might want to have an organ that doesn't sound like a Hammond B3.

For one thing, even if you only want to imitate classic organ sounds of history, you have to consider all those players -- Ray Manzarek, Jerry Harrison, Steve Nieve -- who achieved their distinctive sounds using Voxes, Farfisas, and the like. And in this respect, the VK1 doesn't fare badly, especially on the Farfisa front.

More importantly, however, the VK1 just has a nice sound of its own. In my experience, while it is possible to get a good sound out of most organs, it is not always very easy (indeed, getting any sound at all out of a real Hammond, other than the frustrated crash of boot on speaker cabinet, can be far from trivial). It is, however, hard to get a bad sound out of the VK1 -- provided you avoid its presets. Almost any random setting of the drawbars and chorus/vibrato yields a sound you want to use, from spooky dark basses and eerie sopranos, via delicate, pure tones to rich, churning solo sounds. It can sit pretty comfortably in a mix, either in the background or the foreground. And the drawbars, of course, give you real-time control possibilities that few synth organ patches can match.

Organ Value

If you want a cheap, portable drawbar organ for gigging or recording, your options these days are surprisingly limited. Roland recently re-entered the fray with their impressive physical modelling VK7 (reviewed in Sound On Sound July 1997), but this, like its competitors from Hammond-Suzuki and Oberheim, is hardly an impulse buy, retailing at well over £1000. Older instruments like the sample-based VK1000 and the Viscount D9 can be got second-hand for substantially less, but there are still few bargains to be had -- unless you get yourself a VK1. It's not a Hammond organ and it never will be, but it's functional, reliable and yields cool noises with minimal prodding.

I don't know how many VK1s Roland produced before they eventually cut their losses, but I would imagine the final figure is not enormous. Certainly, the instrument was not a resounding success on its introduction, and they don't seem to crop up that often in small ads or music shops -- though whether this is due to rarity or perceived undesirability is not clear. If you do come across one, though, it's well worth trying out. Given that it'll probably cost you between £100 and £200, depending on condition, you might agree that it represents something of a bargain.

Sonoma Wireworks Guitarjack - NAMM 2012

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Roland R Mix - NAMM 2012

Yamaha CS2X

Performance Synth

Reviews : Keyboard
Yamaha scored a big success with their famously blue, knob-endowed CS1x Performance synth, and now they seek to build on this with the silvery-grey CS2x -- but does the 1-digit increment and change of colour scheme constitute revolution or evolution? CS1x owner Nick Rowland finds out.
The CS1x Performance Synth (see review in SOS August '96) has been a big hit for Yamaha, and it's not hard to understand why. It looks cool, it's fun to play, cheap for a properly programmable synth (and easy to program, at that) -- all in all, it's a great entry-level product for the musician/programmer. Clearly keen to build on a winning formula, Yamaha now bring us the CS2x, which essentially continues along the road of the original concept.

The CS1x is affectionately known to its many supporters as Big Blue (on account of its colour), so I'll be interested to see what nickname the Mark Two version acquires [Similarly-Sized Silver? -- Spectral Ed]. As you can see, the CS2x shares the case design of its forebear, but it's been transformed by a silvery-grey paint job, with the only concessions to blueness lying in the front-panel graphics and the jelly-plastic knobs. Hmmm... I have to say the style jury's still out on whether or not this is an aesthetic improvement.

Skin Deeper

However, never judge a synth by the colour of its casing, as they say, because under the hood, the CS2x is different. First, the CS2x's waveform ROM has been upped to 16Mb (the CS1x had 4.5Mb), giving it a total of 779 sounds and 30 drum kits. Like those of its predecessor, all the CS2x's sounds are based on Yamaha's tried and trusted AWM2 technology -- essentially a form of sample and synthesis (S&S). The majority of the sounds come from Yamaha's standard XG soundset, but like the CS1x, the CS2x has separate banks of AWM2 samples which are used to make up the analogue-style, techno-ish, more contemporary sounds known as Performances. There are 256 Performances, which are organised into two preset banks of 128 sounds, then duplicated in two user banks. The user banks can be overwritten with your own variations and, as we'll see later, you can also load CS1x sounds in to them. To make the most of all this sonic potential, polyphony is now a very respectable 64 notes. The (already extensive) menu of arpeggiator patterns has been expanded and, best of all, the arpeggiator now outputs its information over MIDI. The effects section has also been upgraded both in size and quality to give a total of 88 effects, which are all fully editable. And last but not least, the CS2x offers more in the way of hands-on tweakability, having become the proud owner of a high-pass filter (like its virtual analogue cousin, the AN1x) which is combined with the original low-pass filter of four-pole, 24dB/oct design.
Expanded real-time control.
Arpeggios now sent over MIDI.
Excellent presets and effects.
Still good value, though facing increasing competition.
Still not convinced by the MIDI implementation.
No user-definable arpeggios.
No aftertouch on keyboard.
Silver paint job looks vulnerable to scratching.
Not quite the radical step forward it could have been, but this synth still packs enough punches to make it an excellent choice for a starter synthesizer. And CS1x fans will enjoy thinking of a new name for it.

This explains the gain in the knob department on the front panel (up two to 10 in total). Along with separate high- and low-pass filter controls, the envelope shaper has also been augmented, now sporting a knob for Decay as well as Attack and Release. As with the CS1x, the other two Control knobs can be programmed to do a range of different jobs, from controlling synth parameters to changing arpeggiator tempo or master volume. Incidentally, all data generated by these controls is transmitted via MIDI.

Otherwise, the CS2x retains the layout of the CS1x, both physically and in terms of how the sounds are organised and programmed (more on this in a moment). No surprise, then, that there are, um, no real surprises in the hole and socket department. Round the back, you'll find outputs for headphones, plus Left/Mono and Right outputs and inputs for Foot Volume, Foot Controller and Foot Switch. 

There's also a stereo audio input, although sadly this is just a way of mixing another instrument through the CS2x in case you're short of mixer channels, rather than, say, allowing you to route external signals to the CS2x's effects banks or through its filter. Interfacing duties are handled by MIDI In, Out and Thru, and there's also a useful To Host port for direct connection to a Mac or PC. Incidentally, drivers for this are free to download from the XG software page on the Yamaha web site. Power is via a 9V DC external transformer -- usual SOS gruntings about warty adaptors apply!

A final hardware-related point is that the 61-note velocity-sensitive keyboard actually feels much more responsive to play than my CS1x, though this could be just the difference between an instrument that has been much played and another that is fresh from the factory. Surprisingly, there's still no aftertouch (although the synth responds to it via MIDI); I would have thought Yamaha would take the opportunity to implement this.


Like the CS1x, the CS2x operates in two modes. These are officially labelled by Yamaha as Performance and Multi Play, though as a long-time CS1x user, I'd more accurately describe them as Interesting and Boring. In boring Multi Play mode, the CS2x acts like a straightforward multitimbral GM/XG (General MIDI/Extended General MIDI) synthesizer. So you'll find the usual suspects of pianos, guitars, strings and
When I'm Feeling Blue -- CS1x & CS2x Together
Probably the best news of all for the die-hard Big Blue fans is that the CS2x is fully SysEx compatible with the CS1x. This means that CS1x owners interested in 'upgrading' to the latest model (like me, in fact) can port all their favourite presets and their variations over to their new machine. Note, though, that some of the wave ROM data in the CS2x is not quite the same, so you might have to massage some of the sounds to get an exact replica of the CS1x version. But having tried it out with a couple of CS1x soundbanks, I can assure you that we're not talking radical differences here. Of course, the CS2x's backwards compatibility also means that new users can immediately benefit from the many CS1x sounds and utilities that are already kicking around the Internet, both from the Yamaha web site and third-party sites linked to it.
small birds exploding, all organised according to the universal GM/XG protocol. Of course, being Yamaha, the quality of the 584 XG sounds is very good, so if XG's your poison, you'll have no complaints here. Yamaha have also given the CS2x the ability to store up to nine Multi Part setups internally, which is incredibly useful when working in this mode. Storable parameters per part comprise Bank and Program numbers, Volume, Pan, Effects sends, Cutoff and Resonance settings and Poly/Mono. Incidentally, the CS2x comes supplied with a copy of XGworks, a fairly well-specified Windows-based MIDI sequencer-cum-XG editor and patch librarian, though it wasn't included with the review model. And finally, the CS2x also offers a TG300B mode, automatically recognising multitimbral music created for Yamaha TG300B-compatible tone generators from incoming MIDI data.
But as CS1x aficionados know, Performance mode is where the real fun begins. To recap slightly, a Performance is a configuration of up to four sounds (known as Layers) which can be stacked and/or split across the keyboard, plus all the associated arpeggiator, effects assignments/levels and other settings. It's in Performance mode where you get official access to the more exciting AWM2 waveforms along with the wherewithal for programming the synth engine. This is achieved via the easy-to-use front-panel matrix system of squidgy rubber 'rocker' buttons which are used to select and then increment/decrement the various parameters and functions. In Performance mode, too, you have access to all the on-the-fly sound shaping offered by the eight control knobs. As with the CS1x, you can take a snapshot of the knob settings (known as a Scene) and save up to two of them as part of the voice. The Scenes are then available for instant recall by hitting either of the two buttons just below the master Volume knob. Hit them both and you'll then be able to use the Modulation wheel or a foot controller to morph between them.

Sounding Grand

Of course, the first thing any potential CS2x owner is going to do is run through the Performance patches to see what it sounds like. And existing CS1x owners will no doubt also be interested to see what's old, what's new and what's been borrowed from Big Blue. In fact, apart from the drum kits and a couple of synth sounds, the CS2x Performance presets are completely different. They're not merely reprogrammed
Brief Spec
61-note velocity-sensitive
16Mb waveform ROM.
779 total voices (584 GM/XG
voices, plus 20 GM/XG drum
256 preset performances,
plus 256 user performance
Three 24-bit effects processors
(12 reverb, 14 chorus and 62
Arpeggiator with 40 styles
(ouput via MIDI).
Real-time sound control knobs
and two Scene memories.
64-note polyphony.
16-part multitimbrality in Multi
Mode, 13 part in Performance
Built-in PC/Mac computer
variations of the original -- they're based around an extended set of Performance waveforms which combine most of those found on the CS1x with a load of new ones.
I've lost track of what's supposed to be 'cutting-edge' these days, but if you're looking for big, bold and brassy synth voices you'll find plenty of them here. There are imitations of analogue-style sounds, including the ubiquitous TB303 emulations and Moog lead and bass sounds, coupled with organic, sweeping pad sounds that twist, turn and morph in interesting ways. There are also some good spiky digital-sounding synth patches too. Collectively, they show just how versatile this synth can be -- it's not just about instant gratification for groove merchants.

Interestingly, while the CS1x was noteworthy for its excellent imitations of analogue and digital synths, where the CS2x really surprises is in its imitation of acoustic instruments. For example, there are half-a-dozen brilliant piano patches, including the superb Concert and the atmospheric LoFI piano, the latter sounding like it's been recorded in the depths of a Chicago jazz club. Another favourite was the Mr Mute trumpet and Vibe-izm which combines a sparkling vibraphone sound and a jazz-style acoustic bass mixed with a ride cymbal sound. However, I was less impressed by patches like TechFX -- a collection of cliché rap vocals.

My impression is that overall the CS2x sounds much cleaner and brighter than my CS1x -- a view which was shared by another CS1x user who dropped in to try out the new version. This may be explained by the fact that some of the sounds are derived from Yamaha's flagship EX5 series (see review in SOS May '98). It may also be connected to the fact that the CS2x's effects section has been uprated to 24-bit. Which brings me neatly to...

Internal Effects

There are three effects blocks: Reverb with 12 variations, Chorus with 14 and Variation with 42. Reverb and Chorus are always system effects, which means the same one has to be used for all the sounds, globally if you like. But Variation can be designated as an insert effect, which allows you to dedicate it to just one part. When using the CS2x multitimbrally in Performance mode, this means you can apply a variation to one or more of the four layers of a Performance, while Reverb and Chorus are applied to other tracks.

The augmented line-up of variation effects provides a lot of scope for creative sound manipulation. New on the (effects) block are various wah-wah-based effects, two pitch-shifters, a harmonic enhancer, compressor (with or without distortion), noise gate and voice canceller.

As I mentioned earlier, the already excellent arpeggiator section has been expanded, though some might still wish that you could create and record your own arpeggio patterns. New additions include Hardcore, a gritty monophonic acid-style pattern which sounds great with analogue-style basses, and X-Sweep, a duophonic pattern which has two arpeggios moving in opposite directions. Tempos can be set between 1 and 240bpm or sync'ed to MIDI, and there are nine different time divisions ranging from dotted quarter notes (3/8) to 32nd notes. The arpeggiator can also have its active range set to cover the entire keyboard or
MIDI & Multitimbrality
The CS2x retains the slightly quirky approach to MIDI and multitimbral mode of its predecessor. Basically, the Performance voices take up the first four MIDI channels (though you only use one of these to actually access the performance voice) while channels 5 to 16 are used for XG voices. Hence, if you want to use a Performance patch, the maximum multitimbrality on offer is 13 parts. It was always disappointing that you could only access one Performance sound at once and I was hoping that Yamaha might have fixed this with the CS2x, perhaps by giving us the ability to use up to four performance voices at a time (allowing, say, four MIDI channels for each).
This is sadly not the case, although you can use a sequencer and a bit of MIDI trickery to access the Performance waveforms in place of the standard XG voices on channels 5 to 16. It doesn't give much away in the manual, but the references to XGworks indicate that it might be covered in the manual for that product. Naturally, because the tones on channels 5-16 are treated as XG voices, you lose the ability to program them in any great detail from the CS2x itself.
just up to C3, allowing you to, say, play a lead line over an arpeggiated riff. And while you still can't use the arpeggiator with the XG voices in Multi Play mode, at least you can now get round it by recording arpeggios out over MIDI to a sequencer and then playing them back in Multi Play mode.


As you've probably gathered, the CS2x is an exercise in evolution, not revolution. The message to current owners is: if you like the CS1x, then you'll certainly appreciate what the CS2x now has to offer by way of extra features. Firstly, it sounds much better (and the keyboard also feels much better to play too). And with the expanded control section you can do more to shape the voices in real time. This was always a strength of the CS1x, and it's even better here. The fact that you can load in the CS1x sounds (see the 'Feeling Blue' box) is also a real boon. Of course, Yamaha might have gone even further -- aftertouch is still lacking, and the synth could also have benefited from a proper Performance multitimbral mode that allowed you to use several Performances at once, even if this meant limiting the number of parts to (say) four.
When the CS1x was launched, there was simply nothing to touch it at the price, particularly if you wanted to get into analogue sounds on a budget. 

Three years on, the CS2x has been born into a much more competitive world, thanks to the plethora of dance and groove-style products aimed (allegedly) at DJs and other 'non-musicians'. Compared to some of these products, potential purchasers might feel the CS2x doesn't really cut it. For example, there are no onboard rhythm loops or funky features like sampling, D-beams and vocoding. I suspect those looking for instant groove-ification will be tempted elsewhere.

But despite Yamaha's own description of the CS2x (and I quote -- "this dauntless DJ device", "the ideal choice for dance DJs, rhythm and rhyme MCs...") it's not actually in the same camp. The CS2x is more suited to musicians/programmers -- hey, even people who play in bands -- than would-be DJs. It remains an excellent choice for someone who needs instantly usable sounds that can be quickly customised through real-time controllers (knobs to you, mate), but which can also be programmed in greater depth. And with the new sounds, it's a much more versatile instrument for different types of music than its predecessor. 

Published in SOS March 1999

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sound On Sound Magazine - iPad edition

Sequential Circuits

Prophet Synthesizers 5 & 10 (Retro)

Reviews : Keyboard
In which Gordon Reid meets a long-time hero and takes a step through the time tunnel to an era when polyphonic synths were still a wish, not a promise.
I met synth designer Dave Smith for the first time a few months ago as he was walking around the San Francisco AES Convention. I glimpsed his name badge while I was talking to one of his associates. "Is that the Dave Smith?" I asked. "Certainly", he said, "Would you like to be introduced?"

Dave Smith is up there for me alongside Keith Emerson and a handful of other pioneers whom I've respected since I was a teenager. As a result, I found myself feeling like a gawky kid as we started talking. But why should a 'mere' designer of sequencers and polyphonic synthesizers (which are, when all's said and done, just specialised computers) evoke such a response from someone old enough and ugly enough to know better? To find out, let's jump in the SOS synthesizer time-machine, and leap back 22 years...


... to a year in which neither of the American keyboard giants of the day offered a true polyphonic synthesizer. Moog had designed the Polymoog around octave-dividing organ technology, and ARP was still playing with various incarnations of 'string' synthesis. Yamaha's CS80 was the successor to the mighty GX1 and as such was the heir to the polyphonic kingdom. But whereas the CS80 had several presets, and allowed you to store four partials in its fledgling memories, it shared a fundamental failing with its only competitor, the Oberheim Four Voice -- it couldn't store all the parameters that defined a patch. Indeed, in 1977, no polysynth could store all the parameters that defined a patch. So it was into this immature market that Sequential Circuits Incorporated (a company that, like Apple Computer, had started out in its founder's garage in California) launched its first keyboard instrument.

Dave Smith and his partner John Bowen had conceived this synth while designing and building a Minimoog programmer and an early digital sequencer. And, by luck or craft, they hit upon a specification that every keyboard player would soon crave -- a five-octave keyboard, genuine polyphony, a powerful polyphonic modulation section, memories that stored every parameter, and a punchy sound reminiscent of the Minimoog itself. 

And The Prophet Shall Speak MIDI
Sequential released the last major revision of the Prophet 5 -- Rev 3.30 -- in 1982, but by 1984 there were rumours about a mythical Rev 3.31 that offered MIDI as standard. These reports exist to this day, but it's more likely that all MIDI'd Prophet 5s have been retrofitted. Maybe one of the reasons for the rumour was the Prophet Remote, a 4-octave sling-on keyboard with a poseurs' neck offering pitch-bend, modulation, volume and filter cutoff controls. You connected this to the synth using a somewhat unwieldy cable that carried serial data -- much as MIDI does today. But the Remote was not a MIDI device, and neither was the Prophet to which you connected it. Sequential produced a MIDI interface that could be retrofitted to Rev 3.2s and Rev 3.3s, although they didn't cater for any instruments earlier than these. If you're desperate for a MIDI'd Prophet, you would be much better off with an upgrade from UK retrofit specialists Kenton Electronics. They will add MIDI to any Prophet 5 from Rev 2.0 onwards, or any Prophet 10, and their board will control many more synthesis functions than does the original Sequential upgrade. Most importantly, it also adds velocity- and aftertouch- sensitivity that can be routed to both the VCF and the VCA.
Kenton Electronics:
+44 (0)181 337 0333.

This synth was the Prophet 10. This looked and sounded exactly like the instrument we now call a Rev 1 Prophet 5, the only difference being that you could play 10 notes simultaneously. Unfortunately, it was hopelessly unreliable, and the build up of heat within the case meant that it was never in tune for more than a few minutes. Apparently, the only solution was a radical one. Smith and Bowen dumped half the electronics, and -- voilà -- the Prophet 10 became the Prophet 5.

Ahh... the Prophet 5. No other name rolls off the tongue as smoothly, nor excites the younger generation of analogue anoraks as much. Indeed, we wrinklies remember when Sequential first burst upon the music scene, redolent with the promise of five programmable Minimoogs in a single polyphonic keyboard. Oh, how we lusted when we glimpsed its beautiful koa wood case, expensive-looking hardware, and well-designed control surface. (Get a grip, man -- Ed.)

OK, so the earliest 5s were stripped-out versions of the failed 10s, and they remained incredibly unreliable, requiring further modifications to make them usable. Nevertheless, they were beautiful instruments that felt and sounded absolutely 'right'. But let's get one thing clear. The Prophet was not a polyphonic Minimoog, and its voice architecture was much more closely related to that of the ARP Odyssey than it was to any Moog of the time. The twin oscillators per voice, dedicated LFO, pulse-width modulation, cross modulation, oscillator sync, ADSR envelope generators, and conventional CV and Gate interfaces (which controlled the fifth voice only) were all features found on the Odyssey, but not on the Minimoog. Nevertheless, the Prophet sounded much warmer and fatter than the ARP, so the myth flourished.


Sequential only built 182 Rev 1s, and few of these have survived 21 years. Hand-assembled, and then rushed out the door to generate desperately needed cashflow, they proved too fragile for life in the fast 

The Emu Prophet 5?
Much of the credit for the early Prophets' sound -- which is instantly recognisable, even today -- lies with the SSM oscillators used. These were developed for Solid State Microtechnologies by Emu which, at the time, was known only as a manufacturer of obscure and esoteric modular synthesizers. But Emu's founders and engineers, Dave Rossum and Scott Wedge, were far from locked into the analogue world. Indeed, as early as 1973 they had developed a digitally-scanned keyboard architecture, and it was this, together with the SSM chips, that helped make the Prophet possible. Later, Rossum and Wedge were to launch the Emulator I, the world's first 'affordable' sampler. The rest, as they say, is history.
lane. So the next incarnation, the unsurprisingly named Rev 2, was by necessity a more robust beast.
Sequential substantially redesigned the Rev 2, made a few cosmetic changes, and added cassette storage for its patch memories. Unfortunately, they also replaced the beautiful koa case with a less attractive walnut one. Eventually, there were to be three sub-revisions of the model (2.0, 2.1, and 2.2), and Sequential built more than 1,000 of these. For many aficionados these are the ones to have, being somewhat more reliable, yet retaining most of the qualities of the earliest models. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Rev 3s.

In 1980, the Prophet 5 was undoubtedly the synth to own. Sequential's name and reputation were unassailable, but their instruments were still unstable and, with fewer than 1300 yet shipped, hard to obtain. The reason for the Prophet's sonic instabilities was, to some extent, explained by the inherent deficiencies of the SSM oscillators used. And the reason for its rarity was, to a very great extent, explained by the inherent deficiencies of the manufacturer of those SSM oscillators. So Sequential decided to jump ship and switch to Curtis (CEM) chips. This entailed another, much more thorough, redesign that included the power supply, envelopes, DACs and VCAs, so it is perhaps a compliment to the company that the sound of the instrument escaped almost unscathed.

Unfortunately, the 'almost' is important. While the quirkiness of the SSMs undoubtedly contributed to the richness of the sound, some decidedly dodgy engineering in other areas contributed to the highly 'organic' nature of the early Prophets. On Rev 3s, some of the bite had gone, leaving an instrument that remained impressive and pleasant to play, but was slightly cold and featureless by comparison to earlier models.


Meanwhile, reports had been leaking out that Sequential Circuits was designing a touch-sensitive synthesizer. This created a great deal of interest because, except for the ghastly Polymoog, Yamaha's unwieldy CS80, and hyper-expensive rarities like Yamaha's GX1, there were no polyphonic synthesizers that you could play expressively like a piano or a pressure-sensitive monosynth. Yet, when Sequential unveiled their new baby, it proved to be the monstrous twin-manual -- and completely insensitive -- Prophet 10.

Sequential built three prototypes of the larger Prophet 10 using SSM chips, but before production began the jinx struck again, and the company had to change everything to its newer Curtis-based architecture. So, contrary to some rumours, all the Prophet 10s shipped to customers were CEM-based, and offered the slightly less gritty sound of the Rev 3 Prophet 5s.

Despite that, the 10 was special. More than simply two Prophet 5s in a box, it was a sonic monster that could allocate its 10 voices in several modes ranging from a two-oscillator-per-note 10-voice synth, to a monosynth with 20 analogue oscillators under a single key. It was easy to program powerful analogue pads and luscious, deep strings, and if you wanted screaming leads, chunky bass patches, distorted filters, tortured resonance, and a doubled unison mode that made speakers spontaneously ignite, a Prophet 10 stood head and shoulders above almost every other synthesizer. You could also use the 10 as two entirely independent synthesizers playing, for example, a unison lead on the upper manual, with a powerful polyphonic accompaniment on the lower. OK, so the ability to perform multiple duties is meat and drink to modern multitimbral instruments, but the 10 still scores in the depth and the power that it can create.

But not everything in the Prophet 10's garden was rosy. The first batch of 10s (of which there were only 300 or so, curiously called Rev 0s) incorporated a 'wafer' drive for backing up patches and storing any data recorded on the synth's internal six-track sequencer. These drives, made by Exatron, were plagued by failures and, even when they worked, the backups were frequently incompatible from machine to machine. So, when Exatron was taken over in 1982, Sequential swapped to a Braemer micro-cassette drive. This was far more reliable, and stored 10,200 sequencer events compared to the earlier unit's 2500. Sadly, the Exatron and Braemer drives were completely incompatible, so there was no way to transfer information from older synths to newer ones. Oops!

Rev 0s also suffered from memory problems, and most were recalled to the factory for a modification 

Which Prophet?
A pristine Prophet 5 will set you back anything from £500 to £1200 depending upon the revision, and a mint Prophet 10 will cost up to £2000. These prices are crazy, if only because, contrary to anorak mythology, the sound of a Prophet can be emulated by any number of modern instruments. But the craze for analogue synths sets its own prices, and the reverence in which the Prophets are held far outstrips their tangible values. If you absolutely must have one, remember the following. The best sound undoubtedly comes from Rev 1 Prophet 5s. But these are excruciatingly rare, hopelessly unreliable, and almost nobody will fix one if it goes wrong.
Rev 2s sound almost as good, are slightly more reliable, and can be MIDI'd. Unfortunately, few service centres will repair them, and many parts are now unobtainable. Don't pay too much for a Rev 2. The sound is worth it, but the risk isn't.
If you're after reliability and the reassurance that somebody will at least try to repair it if it goes wrong, your only option is a Rev 3 Prophet 5, preferably a 3.3 because of the extra 80 memories. But beware the slightly less engaging sound. Pay no more than £700 for the 40 memories of a 3.1 or 3.2, but be prepared to cough up about £1,000 for a perfect 3.3 with MIDI.
Alternatively, you can dig deep for a twin-manual Prophet 10 -- allocate all 20 oscillators to a single note, then you'll be able to get rid of your neighbours, no problem.
Under no circumstances should you be tempted to buy one of the few remaining single-manual Prophet 10s. Unless you're in business as a synth museum, that is!
(the so-called 'ugly' mod) that stopped them from dumping all your laboriously perfected patches into the synthesizer ether. But once everything was sorted out, the Rev 1 Prophet 10 was probably the synth that Sequential had always hoped it would be.
Unfortunately, 1982 was four years too late to launch another analogue behemoth and, at around £6000, the 10 was far too expensive, particularly since it offered neither velocity nor aftertouch sensitivity, and boasted a mere 64 patch memories. In contrast, the Prophet 5's reputation swept all before it and, with a production run of nearly 6000 units, the CEM-based Rev 3s were to become the most successful synths ever produced by Sequential. Let's be fair, Rev 3s had their good points. Perhaps the most useful of these was the instant editing feature introduced on Rev 3.1. This meant if you turned a knob it immediately became active at its visible value. (On earlier versions you had to press an Edit button, and then add to or subtract from the value in memory.) Another benefit was micro-tuning which, while common today, was exceedingly rare in 1982. And yet another considerable bonus was, on Rev 3.3s, a leap in memory capacity from 40 to 120 patches.


Although the Prophet 5s and Prophet 10s incorporated Z80 microprocessors, they are nevertheless regarded as 'true' analogue synths. This is because their microprocessors were limited to housekeeping duties such as scanning the keyboard(s) and storing patches. But Sequential's next roll of the dice was a synth that used both analogue and digital circuitry (an analogue/digital hybrid) to produce its sound. This was the Prophet 600.

The 600 was a clear descendent of the Prophet 5 because, although Sequential used cheaper knobs and switches, the newcomer retained the general layout of its predecessor. The 600 was also the world's first MIDI synthesizer and, as such, was to help change music composition and performance for ever. But there was a downside. The 600's digitally generated envelopes were slower and less punchy than the analogue circuits of the 5 and 10, and its controls -- under certain conditions -- were audibly quantised. Furthermore, at £1650, the 600 was almost as expensive as a 5, and significantly more expensive than the new, all-conquering, Japanese wondersynth, the Yamaha DX7. As a final nail in its coffin, Prophet 600s proved to be unreliable. Changes in temperature and humidity, or indeed rises in the price of beer, were likely to send a 600 off into the further reaches of Eastern atonal music, If one got really excited it could even jump out of its patch altogether. All would be returned to normal by pressing the 'Preset' button a couple of times -- but if you didn't have a hand free, things could get decidedly embarrassing up on stage!

Later in 1983, Sequential released another analogue/digital hybrid, the Prophet T8. Internally, this was a close relative of the 600, but externally it looked far more akin to Sequential's earlier instruments. And, if one ignored the instrument's extra features, it sounded somewhat like a Prophet 10. However, unlike its predecessors, the T8 boasted a piano-weighted keyboard that offered velocity sensitivity, release velocity sensitivity, and polyphonic aftertouch. With two optical sensors to determine key velocity, and individual pressure sensors for each key, this was a masterpiece of engineering that allowed you to control your sounds in ways no other synth could emulate. (Indeed, when New England Digital decided to upgrade their £20,000 Synclavier to offer touch sensitivity, it was to the T8's keyboard that they turned.) In addition to this, the T8's MIDI spec was outstanding, with full control over polyphonic aftertouch and micro-tuning. Remarkable in 1983, some of the T8's features would be welcome on synthesizers in 1999.

How Much?
Below is a list of the most influential VCO-based synths of the late'70s and early '80s. Like the Prophet 5 and Prophet 10, each offers two or three oscillators per voice, but none has velocity- or aftertouch-sensitivity.
Model Polyphony Original Price 2nd-hand Price 2nd-hand rip-off
Moog Memorymoog
/Memorymoog +
6 £3100 £600 £1200
Oberheim OBX * 4, 6 or 8 £2595 £300 £600
Oberheim OBXa * 4, 6 or 8 £3495 £400 £800
Oberheim OB8 8 £2,995 £500 £1000
Roland Jupiter 8/
Jupiter 8A
8 £3995 £400 £1000
SCI Prophet 5 5 £3395 £500 £1000
SCI Prophet 10 10 £5600 £750 £2000
* Price shown for eight-voice versions.


By the end of 1983, Sequential boasted the most impressive line up of analogue synthesizers in the world. The Prophet 5 was still in demand, and the 10 was, if not a commercial success, an impressive flagship for the range. OK, the 600 was a bit dodgy, but the impressive T8 offered facilities that you couldn't get anywhere else. So Sequential started to make buckets of money and became one of the biggest music
"...if you wanted screaming leads, chunky bass patches, distorted filters, tortured resonance, and a doubled unison mode that made speakers spontaneously ignite, a Prophet 10 stood head and shoulders above almost every other synthesizer."
corporations in the world. Right? Well, no. Within a few months, all four instruments were regarded as over-priced, and designed around desperately unfashionable technology. As a result, few people noticed when, in 1984 Sequential ceased production of the Prophet 5 and the Prophet 10. The Prophet 600 was buried the following year, and the T8 followed in 1986. 

The company never regained the market leadership it had enjoyed from 1978 to 1982. Perhaps it should have ditched the 10 after its abortive first incarnation. Perhaps it should have concentrated on the technical innovations that would continue to keep it at the forefront of music technology. But then again, the world's first multitimbral synth, the Sequential SixTrak, was no great hit, and addressing the home computer market during its slump in 1985 was a big mistake, so the MultiTrak and the Max also bombed. When the company entered the world of sampling in 1985, it was already in trouble. The 12-bit Prophet 2000 and its modular sibling the 2002 were well received, but the functionally similar and much cheaper Korg DSS1 synth/sampler seriously dented their sales.

So maybe Sequential was always doomed to follow Moog and ARP into oblivion. Breathing space appeared in 1986 with the excellent Prophet VS, an instrument that yet again introduced a new concept and a new sound generation system -- Vector Synthesis -- to the keyboard world. But it was too little, too late. The company's final products, the Studio 440 and the 16-bit Prophet 3000 sampler, barely made it into production, and SCI closed its doors late in 1987. It was the end of a dynasty.

Tony Banks On Prophets Large And Small
I interviewed Tony Banks of Genesis in 1994, and we spent a considerable amount of time discussing Prophets. "The Prophet 5 had a real roundness to its sound and was, as far as I was concerned, the first polysynth that sounded really musical. So I used one for recording our album Abacab in 1981. The Prophet 10 was just an extension of that. For example, the track 'Man on the Corner' has two tracks of Prophet 5 that were recorded separately in the studio. These were factory voices, simply because Phil [collins] wrote the track on an un-reprogrammed Prophet 5, and I was able to reproduce it live using the Prophet 10 by allocating the different patches to the two keyboards.
"At the time, my live setup was limited to just four keyboards. The Prophet 10 was used for synthesizer and organ voices, while the solos were played on an ARP Quadra which had replaced my earlier ARP 2600 monosynth. I also used a Yamaha CP70B electric grand piano and a Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus that had been introduced to recreate the choral and strings voices of my Mellotron. Actually, there was a fifth instrument -- a Prophet 5 -- on the other side of the stage, and I used this for playing 'Who Done It'. This was a tune written around torturing the Prophet by stepping through the programs while playing the riff to the song. This did some very strange things, producing some unpleasant sounds and even changing key, but I liked it. Furthermore, it was consistent, so I could reproduce the effect live. It sounded like I was playing many more instruments than just the single Prophet 5.
"My favourite use for the Prophet 10 was to produce big organ sounds. Allocating four oscillators to each key meant that I could imitate four drawbars to build genuine organ sounds. It was the first time that I successfully got rid of my Hammond for live work. I even found the 10 to be reliable except for the tape-based voice storage. Consequently, I occasionally had to reprogram it, and we carried a spare machine for emergencies. Unfortunately, this didn't sound the same as my first-choice instrument. In particular, the tuning was different, and this was critical on, for example, 'Dodo' which sounded quite different on the spare synth.
"The best sounds on our next album, Genesis (1983) were also from the Prophet 10. The big chords -- organ-like but with 'stringiness' -- on 'Mama' were Prophet sounds, as was the low drone that was created using Unison mode. At that time I also had a Yamaha CS80 and a touch-sensitive Prophet T8, but by then other sounds and types of synthesis were coming along, and as far as I was concerned, the emergence of digital synthesis and sampling on the Emulator I ended the era of the big analogue polysynth.
"Nevertheless, I liked the Prophet era of instruments because you could home in and tweak the sounds so easily. In fact, as soon as I received my Prophet 10, I dumped the factory sounds and started programming the instrument again. I miss this immediacy with modern sample-based instruments such as the Roland JD800 which I used on We Can't Dance (1992). On these you have to choose the partial you want to edit, adjust that, then choose another. The D50 also suffered from this, and the Yamaha DX7 was the worst. Sometimes this isn't too much of a problem. For example, the Korg Wavestation has some great factory sounds (such as the one I used on 'Fading Lights'), but I would still love modern instruments to have arrays of knobs like the Prophets.
"I suppose that the Prophet 10 was the peak of pre-digital big analogue synthesis. But keyboards tend to improve and, unlike guitars, where a 1950s instrument can be superior to a 1990s model, you don't lose too much if you move on."


In 1988, Yamaha bought the rights and assets of SCI, and these rights included the employment contracts of many of the company's development team, including Dave Smith himself. It wasn't a happy marriage, and they worked together for less than year, but in that time Yamaha developed the SY22, a vector synthesizer that proved to be a direct descendent of the Prophet VS.

Then, in 1989, the team moved to Korg, where they designed the now-classic Wavestations. These were also vector-synthesis instruments and, despite an arcane programming system, were far more powerful than the SY22, and sounded significantly better. But despite Smith's achievements in the late '80s and early '90s, many people believe that he never surpassed the Prophet 5 and the Prophet 10.


Which brings me back to last year's AES Convention. When I met Dave Smith at the AES, he wanted to talk about his latest developments and his recent audio software projects. I, on the other hand, wanted to chat about stuff he did nearly 20 years ago. Indeed, I childishly tried to impress by telling him that I had just bought a second Prophet 10. He seemed a bit surprised, until I joked that, since the serial numbers were different, I felt that I ought to have both. Then he smiled. If you ever have the chance to own one, so will you.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ensoniq Fizmo

Real-time Transwave Synth

Reviews : Keyboard

Ensoniq were at the forefront of workstation and sampling technology in the '80s, but their recent synth offerings have not kept up with the fashion for controller-festooned techno boxes. The Fizmo, however, updates their take on wavetable synthesis with extensive real-time control. Derek Johnson explores further...
We've had Swedish, German, Japanese and even British companies doing it -- releasing backward-looking synths using MIDI-driven new technology. However, few American companies have entered the fray. A handful of dedicated developers are producing limited-run modular synths as if the '80s had never happened, and Bob Moog is testing the water with his Moogerfooger range of synth pedals, but it's a surprise to see the first new synth in a while from Ensoniq covered in retro knobs, bedecked with funky colours, and rejoicing in a name that could be described as jazzy, and a sound that could be described as '80s retro.

Let's Get Fizzical

The paint-job will be the first thing you notice about the Fizmo if you take a test drive, and it caused one or two jaws to drop around here when it was first removed from its box. According to Emu-Ensoniq, opinion is divided 50/50 between those who love it and those who... don't. With some modern synths, you have to wonder how long it will be before they look dated. With the Fizmo, there's none of that kind of worry; it looks dated already, courtesy of a weird '80s graphic-design airbrush effect on its purple-and-blue top panel. In a low light or from a slight distance the artistic effect is actually very good -- a bit like a Monet!
Sounds fantastic.
Basic but decent vocoder.
Excellent arpeggiator.
Comprehensive knob control.
Tiny display.
A bit pricey.
Polyphony may be limited for some users.
Current manual in severe need of forthcoming update.
The Fizmo is a breath of fresh air in the current market, and one of the most distinctive and usable synths I've heard in recent years.

Aside from the technicolour flash, Fizmo's package is quite conventional, in a 'modern synth' kind of way. Its springy 61-note synth-action keyboard is velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive, and has attendant pitch-bend and modulation wheels. The central area of the top panel is where the knobby action is, with 34 buttons and 23 knobs promising quite a lot in the way of hands-on tweakability. The domed oval buttons, especially, are very attractive, with many featuring an off-centre integral LED, so that the effect when they're active is of many little eyes glancing sideways! Some of the buttons have another neat attribute: they can be double-clicked, like a mouse button, or even triple-clicked, to access different modes or speed up parameter changes.

If the Fizmo is generous on the button and knob front, it's not quite so bounteous when it comes to displaying data: the LED window is very small, consisting of a mere four 7-element LED characters. Staying with small for a moment, the knobs are also surrounded by some of the tiniest lettering known to synthkind! There are nice touches elsewhere though: for example, the stereo audio outputs and single audio in, dual footswitch socket and MIDI In, Out and Thru are located under a sort of protective overhang at the rear, which is good news for live users. However, the PSU is an external brick (albeit not a huge one), which is not so handy for live use, and the synth lacks a volume-pedal socket.

Trans-Vision Synth

The Fizmo's knob-laden appearance might make you wonder whether it's going to try to be some kind of virtual analogue or groove machine. Well, it's not -- although, to bring it more into line with current market trends, Ensoniq have provided it with an arpeggiator, a vocoder and a set of real-time control knobs. The Fizmo is actually a 'Real-time Transwave Synth', based on a development of digital technology that was first introduced by Ensoniq in the late-'80s VFX. It's not imitative, and it won't recreate an orchestra or jazz band in your back room. It's a synthesizer, pure and simple, designed for the creation of sounds you can't get anywhere else. And despite what your imagination may be doing with that name, the Fizmo is not physically modelled!

In keeping with the 'traditional synth' feel, the Fizmo's multitimbrality is rather limited compared to what we're used to these days at just four parts, though polyphony is more up to date, at 48 voices. Neither figure tells the full story, however: many Fizmo sounds are made to be stacked or split across the keyboard, like traditional megasynths of old such as the Roland Jupiter 8, so being able to address four sounds on separate MIDI channels is a bit of a bonus, if you like. Stacking timbres also cuts right down on that 48-voice polyphony, but for the kind of powerful, movement-filled sounds that result from stacking you often don't need that many notes going at the same time.
Soft Sell
A free Emagic Sound Diver editor for the Fizmo is being developed as this review is being written. It will provide access to a much wider range of parameters, allowing much more precise control over Fizmo Presets. For example, what appears from the front-panel to be a 4-stage envelope generator will be revealed with the help of the editor as a 5-stage EG with five time and four level settings. Effects and arpeggiator patterns will also be fully editable using the software. At present, the software isn't shipped with the synth, but you do get a coupon to return to Emu-Ensoniq (with your warranty card), on receipt of which they will send you a copy of the program.

Effects are just the icing on the transwave cake: two processors are provided, but without a computer editing package they're rather basic.

Wave Hello

Transwaves are essentially wavetables made up of multiple short samples (or Frames; the terminology derives from celluloid film, where 24 snapshot frames per second make up the semblance of a moving image). The frames may be sonically related to each other or completely unrelated, and although the order of frames in a Fizmo wavetable is fixed, the user can introduce further sonic variety by changing the start point of a transwave, or modulating it. Each Transwave constitutes a Fizmo 'oscillator', and as with the output from oscillators in analogue or other sample-based synths, the Transwaves may be processed by a collection of traditional synth parameters (envelopes, filters, effects, and so on). The arrangement of two oscillators and their attendant synth parameters is called a Sound. The sonic upshot of this architecture is a synth with more timbral depth, movement and variety than the average sample-based instrument. Though the transwaves are composed of samples, the way the technology is used means that the Fizmo almost never betrays its sampled provenance through dead loops or obvious multisample crossover points. Certain transwaves have a human quality, and with names such as 'Vowels', 'Syllables' and 'Transwave OO', it's immediately clear what some of them are going to sound like.

Superficially, the Fizmo even has one or two points in common with Yamaha's FS1R (see review in SOS December '98) -- especially in the case of the vocal-like Transwaves, which can feel rather like simple formants. And the FS1R similarity doesn't stop there; Fizmo users interface with the Fizmo's synth engine through the so-called Preset (analogous to an FS1R Performance), which is composed of up to four Sounds (like the four Voices on the FS1R), layered or key-split across the 61-note keyboard.

Of the 58 raw waveforms at the heart of the Fizmo, 55 are transwaves; the remaining three are sawtooth and square waves, for straight-ahead analogue synth emulation, and a simple electronic drum kit multisample (dubbed FIZDrums).

Close To The Edit

Straight out of the box, the Fizmo has 64 Presets, arranged in two banks; as explained a moment ago, each Preset is composed of four 2-oscillator Sounds (a total of 256 Sounds). Programming is 'from the top down': start with a Preset, select the four Sounds of your choice (these can be nicked from any other Preset), layer them or split them across the keyboard, choose an effect -- and at its simplest, that's it. There are no empty user Sound or Preset memories: you have to save edited versions over the factory patches (although forthcoming free editing software will allow user sound libraries to be easily built up and stored via computer).

The next level of sound-tweaking involves the F I Z M O knobs. These are five lettered real-time control knobs which can be used to make instant changes to all the Sounds in a Preset at the same time -- and changes made in this way can also be saved. Three of these knobs are generally fixed in their function, and two are are user-definable to a certain degree, though both are ready-assigned in the factory Presets. None of their functions relate in any way to the letters next to them, and some might say that rather more mundane labelling that actually told you what the knobs do would be preferable. As near as I can tell (the manual being pretty awful and much of this material having been deduced from experimentation), the FIZMO knobs do the following:

  • F: Effect modulation.
  • I: Wave modulation.
  • Z: Filter cutoff.
  • M: Oscillator detuning.
  • O: Varies from Preset to Preset.

If you're one of those perverse people who prefer to get something really original out of the synth you've just spent five pounds short of a grand on, you can go further with Sound edit (this mode is entered as soon as any knob or button is touched).

A Sound's signal path is roughly mirrored in the knob layout on the front panel, and approximately follows that offered by a familiar, traditional analogue synth. After you've selected a Sound from the current Preset for editing (using one of the small 1-4 nu
What's In A Name?
According to Eric Montgomery, of Emu-Ensoniq's tech-support team, the story of the Fizmo's name goes like this: "When companies develop products in house, they are assigned a code name so you don't have to discuss it by saying, 'you know, that new keyboard we're working on'. It was a code name that we felt reflected what the product was like -- it's something vintage and futuristic at the same time." Now, isn't that better than a tongue-twisting alphanumeric? The word may be essentially meaningless, but like all the classic instruments of old, it's something you can latch on to. Minimoog, Prophet 5, Jupiter 8, Synclavier... Fizmo. It works!
mbered buttons next to the display), it's then necessary to select one of the Sound's two oscillators (ie. Transwaves) for editing, using one of the two OSC buttons. Once the oscillator is activated, all the knobs to the right of the OSC buttons work on that oscillator -- though if both OSC buttons are depressed simultaneously, the knobs can edit both oscillators.
The different sound-modifying sections are divided by screened vertical lines. In the Wave section, a transwave can be chosen for the oscillator being edited, and a modulation source and amount can be set: as mentioned earlier, modulation in this context has the effect of starting playback of a transwave at some point other than its beginning. The Pitch section offsets oscillator tuning by +/-24 semitones, the Glide section sets Portamento, and the Envelope Generator section has dedicated Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release controls, as you'd expect. There are actually three EGs on offer (pitch, filter and amplitude), with a switch to swap between them.

An Amplitude section, next, hosts controls for oscillator level and pan position, and a Filter section features cutoff frequency and resonance controls for the low-pass 4-pole filter, plus a variable keyboard tracking control which varies cutoff value depending on keyboard position, for a brighter or duller sound.

The last area of the panel relating to synthesis is the LFO, which offers a variety of wave-shapes (triangle, rounded triangle, sine, rising triangle, rising sine, sawtooth, square and positive ramp, plus noise) and variable speed -- though LFO speed can also be sync'ed to the FIZMO's master clock or incoming MIDI clock. You'd normally expect to find a depth control with an LFO, but this function is covered by modulation amount knobs in several of the other sections.

Once an oscillator has been passed through the synthesis sections, all that remains is to assign it an effect.

A Flock Of Treatments
Two effects processors are available, one offering global reverb, which can be applied in one of three preset 'amounts', and one providing an 'insert' effect (the selection includes parametric EQ, chorus, flange, delays, distortion, and combinations of effects). Their quality is fine, but there's not a lot of variety: just eight reverb variations, and 41 insert effects, each of which also has variations. Aside from selecting a variation, the user only has control over the wet/dry mix, though the 'F' real-time controller knob is generally preset to modulate effects parameters in some way. More effects flexibility is provided with a computer editor -- preset effect amounts, for example, should become fully variable (see the 'Soft Sell' box for more details).

One insert effect that's worth mentioning separately is the vocoder: the audio input at the rear can be routed to this, allowing the Fizmo user to impose vocal characteristics, articulation and speech on synth sounds played from the keyboard. Vocoders pass through cycles of popularity, and are currently on a high (look back at SOS January, 1994 for a feature on the use and abuse of vocoders). In addition, the audio input can be routed to any other insert effect, meaning that a voice or any other instrument can be treated to what the Fizmo's effects have to offer.

FIZMO Specifications
61-note velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard.
Four programmable keyranges, and four possible zones.
48-voice polyphony.
Two effects processors.
44.1kHz sample playback rate.
20-bit D/A conversion with 100dB dynamic range.
97dB signal-to-noise ratio.
2Hz-20kHz frequency range.
Left/right quarter-inch outputs.
Stereo headphone output.
Audio input (quarter-inch jack).
Single/dual footswitch input.
MIDI In/Out/Thru.
64 Presets, 256 Sounds.
24 knobs, 32 buttons.
4Mb of 16-bit internal wave ROM (featuring Ensoniq 2nd-generation Transwaves, created through digital synthesis and resynthesis).

Upside Down

As well as up to four Sounds and two effects, a Preset can also carry with it an arpeggiator type and setting. No fewer than 118 arpeggiator patterns are available, and if you only go by the manual you will have no idea what any of them are supposed to do, since they are not listed there! Discovered on the Ensoniq web site, however, and apparently due to be included in a manual update, is a list of all pattern names. Yippeeee...

A variety of up/down note combinations is provided, and there are also "riffs". Some arpeggiations even alter pan and modulation rather than notes, which is nifty. Note resolution can be set by the user, as an abstract value or an exact note value (whole note to 32nd note, with many triplet options), and the arpeggiator is sync'able to Fizmo's master tempo or incoming MIDI clock. Parameters are also provided for key range, note duration and 'feel', and you can choose to have minor and major thirds, fourths, fifths and octaves added to the arpeggiated notes. The last option is capable of creating some excellent effects.

Lay Your Hands On Me

The Fizmo is a very nice synth to use, and its architecture is comprehensible and approachable. Obviously, it's great to have all the knobs, and the real-time FIZMO knobs are OK as far as they go, but with their factory preset parameters they don't seem to do anything really drastic. Of course, the F and the O knobs can be assigned parameters of your choice, which could make a big difference. The small display is just about functional, when you get used to the cryptic abbreviations, and you don't really miss an LCD once you get going (keep the manual handy, though).

Initially, editing can be confusing, since many of the buttons behave differently depending on whether they're pressed once, double-clicked or triple-clicked. If in doubt about what you're editing, just remember that the button corresponding to the Sound or oscillator being edited has a solidly lit LED. With a bit of familiarity, new sound creation is fast and quite easy, but the small size of the front-panel legending could eventually engender curvature of the spine, especially in dim lighting conditions.

I was a little disappointed by the basic and largely preset nature of the effects, which leaves the user without much control over what could be one of the most important aspects of sound tailoring. The forthcoming computer editor should help a lot, but if you don't have a computer it won't help at all!

In line with a new tradition I've just created, of saving the worst until last, the manual deserves special mention: apart from the fact that there's no MIDI spec (though Fizmo owners will be able to request it), it's confusing, badly organised and missing important information -- such as what the variations on the Insert effects are, for example. I understand that the manual is being reprinted, though, and that big changes are being made in the process.

Sound (Not) Of The Crowd

There's not an imitative sound anywhere in the Fizmo, and that's great as far as I'm concerned. Instead it's stuffed with lush and sparkly pads, melting, eerie and epic atmospheres, and impressive analogue-style leads and basses. General MIDI? The Fizmo's never even come within shouting distance of it.

MIDI Control
The Fizmo's front-panel editing knobs and real-time controllers allow the user plenty of opportunity to to manipulate the synth. However, there will be times when it needs to be controlled remotely, and to this end, Ensoniq have provided a useful MIDI spec (though this is not printed in the manual). First of all, four incoming MIDI Controllers can be designated as so-called System Controllers, which can, along with mod wheel, pitch-bend and aftertouch, be assigned as modulation sources when editing the Fizmo. In addition, Fizmo can be set to transmit NRPNs -- non-registered parameter numbers -- over MIDI to an external sequencer. Without going into too much detail, NRPN's are generated by all of the Fizmo's editable parameters; once recorded into a sequencer, tweaked parameter changes will play back exactly every time the sequence is played. The multitimbral side of the Fizmo is quite straightforward: the user selects a base MIDI channel, which plays the currently select Preset, and referenced to this are the arpeggiator control channel (base + 1), and the MIDI channels which will play the four Sounds individually (base + 2, +3 and +4). Interestingly, Sounds within a Preset can also be changed remotely, using Bank Select commands. A detailed list of Sound to Bank Select/Program Change numbers can be found on the Ensoniq web site.

The Fizmo's sound quality actually reminds me of several monosynths I've had in the past -- it had me rushing to old demos to check if I was hearing correctly. I was: there were certain sounds and effects I used to get out of Yamaha's CS40M and Korg's Mono/Poly that were jumping out of the Fizmo. Uncanny. But a real '80s digital feel also creeps in, with some patches you could swear just fell off a Thompson Twins or Van Halen record. If there's a downside, it's that the factory pads become a bit 'samey' when you're getting towards the end of listening through the whole factory set. Yet the vast majority are still enormously usable. Many of the Preset sound splits, which often place a bass (sometimes with arpeggiator setting) on the left hand and a monosynth-type lead or rhythmic pad on the right, are instantly playable and invite composition. Personal favourites include P17 Rhythm Pad Split, which is so evocative; P03, Bass & Lead, which couples a fizzy, faintly Minimoog-like lead with doubled octave effect and a tight, chugging, functional bass doing 16-note arpeggiation; and P06 Analogue String Pad, a standard (but very nice) old-fashioned Juno/Jupiter-style brassy string pad. I could go on for quite a while here, but sadly space forbids.

Ensoniq's web site, by the way, already has new Fizmo sound sets, and at least one has been programmed specifically for the dance market. Personally, I think I might have had enough of the dance market!

Don't You Want Me?

Fizmo is a playable instant atmosphere machine before you even start to program it, and there's enough depth in its synthesis system to keep you interested for ages. At the same time, it's quite easy to program, with the hands-on control offered by the knobs being most welcome. The only slight sticking point could be the price: £995 might be seen by some people as a lot to pay for a machine that won't produce entire orchestral arrangements (though I hear from the LA NAMM show that a 5U module version, which will be a little cheaper, is on the way). That said, I can imagine buying a Fizmo, keeping it for a long, long time, and getting very good value for money out of it, because I'd probably use it on almost everything. It's that kind of synth.

Do go and have a listen. If you've liked Ensoniq's older synths, such as the VFX family, you're almost certain to be impressed with the Fizmo. If you're relatively new to synthesis and you've never heard Ensoniq's synths, it's about time you did. 

Published in SOS March 1999