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Monday, October 21, 2013

Alesis QS6



Reviews : Keyboard

With new sounds, a new operating system and a lower price, the QS6 looks set to attract its fair share of admirers. ROB BRADY tickles them ivories...

Although the new Alesis QS6 is based on the same synth engine as the Quadrasynth, it features new packaging, new sounds, a new operating system and a lower price. Also included is a Mac/PC CD-ROM containing programs, demos, samples, MIDI files and, most importantly, the means to import your own sample waveforms.

The original Quadrasynth [reviewed SOS May 1994] sported a 6-octave keyboard, 16Mb of ROM samples, and combined a very clean sound with massive polyphony -- but, unfortunately, it lacked a strong sonic character. The QS6 is obviously an attempt to set right the shortcomings of the Quadrasynth without having to go right back to the drawing board.

Physically, the QS6 is smaller than the Quadrasynth and features anodised aluminium casework rather than plastic which makes it stronger, and presumably provides better RFI shielding in readiness for the new European regulations. On the deficit side, the keyboard has shrunk to five octaves, and gone are the four 'Quad knobs' and the ADAT digital interface. The large custom LCD has been replaced by a generic 2 x 16 character green backlit display, and though it is really too small to be ideal, this may not be a problem if you own an Apple Macintosh or an IBM PC clone, as included on the CD-ROM disk is a QS6 editor for MOTU's Unisyn editor/librarian software.

The pitch-bend and modulation wheels are placed above the first five notes of the keyboard, on the left side (as with the old Yamaha DX21 synth), but in reality this makes no difference at all to your playing comfort. A rubber coating gives the wheels a good tactile response, and the sensibly long volume and data sliders are positioned to the right of the modulation wheel. The rest of the top panel is dedicated to 32 rubber patch selection buttons and various edit keys. The patch select buttons double up for selecting the numerous editing pages, and usefully, all the keys have their functions discreetly printed next to them. Also, the sound types are broken down into logical groups such as strings, synths, effects and so on, each group being accessed via its own button.

The back panel contains most of the usual connections plus a switchable serial connection to a PC or Apple Mac, but there's only one pair of stereo outputs -- no digital audio interface and no MIDI Thru connector. The single stereo out limits the flexibility of the QS6 in a multitimbral studio setup to some extent, but the excellent internal effects system goes some way towards compensating for this. The computer interface makes it possible to use the machine alongside a computer sequencer without the need for a separate MIDI interface. Also on the back is a PCMCIA card slot, which takes standard Type I SRAM or Flash RAM cards. More on this later, as it really is important to understanding how powerful this synth can be.

The power supply for the QS6 is an external mains transformer, with a proprietary connector to the keyboard. While these are generally considered a nuisance, at least you can buy 110V and 240V versions if you travel to and from the States a lot.




The synth engine in the QS6 is basically the same as that in the Quadrasynth Plus Piano [reviewed SOS Nov 95]. However, the QS6 contains a completely new 8Mb of sample ROM and the sounds seem to possess much more character than their predecessors. Due to the limited memory space compared to the original Quadrasynth's 16Mb, the acoustic piano is not particularly convincing, but the QS6 will accept the same 8Mb piano card as the Quadrasynth.

The QS6 also shares the same two main modes as the Quadrasynth Plus Piano: Program mode and Mix mode. Program mode lets you stack up to four oscillators, each playing from the samples available (note I didn't say ROM), each passing through its own Sample+Synthesis stages. Here you can adjust the Start Delay Time, Pitch Envelope, Lowpass Filter, Filter Envelope, Amplitude Envelope, and finally send the signal through one of four effects busses. You still get a maximum of 64 voices of polyphony, but as with the Quadrasynth, there are no resonant filters. This might be a big limitation given the current popularity of analogue-style synth sounds.

With four oscillators going full tilt you still get 16-note polyphony, which means you can produce some very fat-sounding orchestrations without having to be too careful about how many notes you use. The QS6 offers more modulation routings than can be found on most modern synths, helping wring the maximum flexibility out of the sound generation system. There's also mono or (for the clinically insane) poly portamento available, plus a couple of novel parameters for conserving polyphony.

Drum sounds are managed in a special program mode, which lets individual samples be assigned to single or groups of keys; this is where the power of the QS6 becomes apparent. Unlike drum sounds on most keyboards, the QS6 lets you play with pitch envelopes, filters, mute groups, envelope decays, velocity mapping to both pitch, filter and decay, and effects routing. This all makes the drum generating capabilities of the QS6 second only to the likes of the Kurzweil K2000/2500 and other more expensive studio toys.




The Programs are stored internally in five banks: General MIDI, Preset 1, Preset 2, Preset 3, and User, each bank containing 128 sounds. This provides access to 512 presets plus one bank of 128 user Programs. Most of the QS6 sounds are not unique, but they are very playable and I felt more are likely to get used than on most other synths I've tried.

Returning to the previously mentioned PCMCIA card slot, this allows you to store up to a further eight external banks of patches on a 512K card, giving potential access to over 1600 Programs at any one time! And if the thought of programming 1000 sounds fills you with dread, look no further than the supplied CD-ROM, which contains a vast selection to get you started.
Mix mode enables Programs to be layered or used multitimbrally to provide up to 16 separate parts on 16 different MIDI channels. Programs can also be assigned velocity and keygroups, allowing complex orchestral and synth setups to be generated easily. This makes the QS6 a powerful master keyboard, the only potential problem being that five octaves may not really be enough for some players.

In Multitimbral mode, care has to be taken over how you deploy the available effects. Some Programs may need individual effects (such as distortion) whereas others can make do with accessing a general effect, such as reverb. Multiple audio outputs would have helped get around any limitations that might arise in this area, but I appreciate that tough choices must be made when designing to a price.

Once again, Alesis have been more than generous with the amount of memory given to multitimbral setups; there are four preset banks, and one user bank, each containing 100 Mixes, and you can store a further 800 Mixes on the same 512K PCMCIA card that is already holding 1024 Programs! This gives potential access to almost 3000 sounds at any one time, exceeding even the mighty K2000's limit of 2000 Programs and Setups.

In Mix mode the QS6 also provides full General MIDI support (but not GS, Roland's GM variant). Playing some of the demo sequences provided with the CD-ROM on both the QS6 and a Roland SC55 Sound Canvas shows how much better the QS6 interprets some of the more demanding passages.




Overall the QS6 sounds are very good in their 'dry' (uneffected) state, but with the judicious use of the powerful onboard effects processor, they can be made to sound quite special. The samples are arranged into 17 distinct groups: Piano, String, Noise, Sound FX, Chromatic, Brass, Voice, Rhythm, Organ, Woodwind, Ethnic, Guitar, Synth, Drums, Percussion, Bass and Wave. Altogether there are 580 multisamples and the sound palette includes a generous selection of synthesizer sounds, a bank of very playable rhythmic loops, as well as the more obvious acoustic instruments such as strings, brass, guitars, basses, wind and so on.

Though it's hard to put your finger on exactly what an instrument sounds like, the overall feel of the QS6 is not unlike a Kurzweil K2000 crossed with an Emu Vintage Keys module. The sound quality is simply excellent, courtesy of the 48kHz sampling rate, and the noise floor is below that of most modern analogue mixing desks.

"Though it's hard to put your finger on exactly what an instrument sounds like, the overall feel of the QS6 is not unlike a Kurzweil K2000 crossed with an Emu Vintage Keys module. The sound quality is simply excellent..."

Assessing the samples as a whole, the dance genre of music is very well represented with classic TR909 and TR808 drum machine sounds as well as TB303 basses, along with a host of techno and industrial samples. The sound design team at Alesis have really done their homework this time -- apparently, they flew in dance producer Arnd Kiser from Germany, who influenced much of the direction of the QS6 and even programmed the first of its demo tracks. Consequently, the QS6 sounds very European (bizarre really, since the European sound is based heavily on Japanese gear!), and would not be out of place in any dance setup -- though I don't for a moment want to suggest that the instrument is limited in any way to purely dance styles of music; the QS6 can offer something for everyone.




The effects processor in the QS6 is very similar to the Quadraverb 2. The latter was designed by the same team of Marcus Ryle and Michel Doidic, who were also responsible for developing the Oberheim Matrix 12, the ADAT software, and the original Quadrasynth. The DSP chip is the same one used in both the Quadraverb 2 and the Quadrasynth Plus Piano.

The QS6 effects section receives four buss sends from the active Program or Mix, and provides up to 11 different effects running simultaneously in one of four configurations. Effects are not stored as parameters of a Program or Mix, but as separate entities. This enables you to re-use a favourite effects patch by simply selecting its patch change number from within the Program or Mix that you are working on. This can lead to problems though; for example, when you tweak an effects patch to make a particular patch sound better, you may wind up compromising another sound which utilises the same effects setting. The bonus is that a sound can have its effects changed via a MIDI program change command (sent from a sequencer, say), giving back some of the flexibility lost when you put everything in one box.

As you would expect from the Quadraverb 2 hardware, the effects themselves are very clean and punchy with first-rate reverb algorithms. The internal routing capabilities are totally mindboggling, and this is one area where the Unisyn computer editor really comes into its own, clearly showing what signal is routed where.

The effects processor also shines when it comes to real-time effects editing and control using the data controller. Many of the QS6's presets use either the controller or modulation wheel to change effects parameters, such as delay time and wet/dry mix. This can lead to some unwanted aural artifacts being generated as the DSP maxes out, but with careful use provides yet another interesting performance opportunity for the QS6 owner.




Those words on the packing list, 'Dual format computer CD-ROM containing software' is Alesis' way of saying 'absolutely everything required to make music straight out of the box'. And providing you have a Mac or PC, they mean it too: Cubase Lite (sequencer), Unisyn (graphic editor), Cool Edit (full PC editor) and Sound Forge demo (sample editors), 1000 additional patches plus 80Mb of extra samples, and that's not counting the sequences and countless other bits and pieces.

Cubase Lite has been on the market for some time now, and provides powerful, low cost sequencing in the same vein as its predecessors. If you have been using Cubase on an Atari ST, its files are directly compatible with both Mac and PC versions of Cubase Lite, making file transfer a breeze.

Alesis are justifiably proud that they managed to get Mark Of The Unicorn to write an editor for the QS6, since at a stroke it wipes away 99% of the concerns over the keyboard's small LCD. The Unisyn editor provides complete library storage and editing facilities for all modes of the QS6, and makes creating new patches a doddle.

Cool Edit is only available to PC users, and provides good sample editing and file conversion facilities. It is a shareware program, so if you use it you should send the author a small fee, and that usually keeps you informed of any updates. Sadly there's nothing similar supplied for Mac users, though there are many shareware and freeware editors available on the Internet and shareware CD-ROMs.

The sound team at Alesis have obviously been busy creating Programs and Mixes for the QS6; not only are there 640 of them inside the keyboard as soon as you turn it on, but there's an additional 1024 on the CD-ROM. If you buy a PCMCIA memory card, then the 80Mb of Northstar samples on the disk will be of interest to you. Contained in this small library are some excellent Hammond organs and shakuhachi samples just waiting to be loaded in via the included Soundbridge software.

Finally, there are several useful demo sequences plus bits and pieces of software kicking around on the rest of the CD-ROM, such as Twiddly Bits demos from Keyfax Software, Steinberg MIDI files from Heavenly Music, and a couple of Trantracks sequence files to show off the GM side of the QS6.




One of the most important features of the QS6 is that it is expandable, primarily through the use of PCMCIA cards which are available at reasonable cost. These cards not only allow you to store vast numbers of patches, they can also hold samples, and included on the CD-ROM is a small application called Soundbridge which lets you download AIFF sample files onto cards plugged into the back of your QS6. No expensive and cumbersome card blower is needed, just simple plug-and-play. What really makes Soundbridge neat is that it can download an entire SampleCell or SampleCell II 'Instrument', complete with loops and velocity splits, without need for conversion. This opens up the sonic palette of the QS6 to any Digidesign SampleCell format CD-ROM without any work on your part.

The AIFF file format is standard on the Macintosh, and for PC users there are numerous utilities (Cool Edit for one) to convert WAV files to AIFF files. With a Power Macintosh or AV Macintosh, you can use any number of utilities to create 16-bit samples from CD-ROM drives or the external sound input port. Unfortunately, if you own an IBM PC clone and you wish to make samples from external sources, then you need a SoundBlaster or similar sound card to perform the required AD conversion.

Downloading samples is very easy, though rather slow since the data is transmitted over the serial connection to the QS6. First of all, you compile a 'List' of samples and SampleCell Instruments that you wish to download to the QS6. Then each sample or Instrument is assigned a group, which you name, and you specify whether or not the sound is to be pitched (Chromatic) or unpitched (Drum). You can have as many groups and samples as your available RAM can accommodate. The next step is to click on the Compile button, and if you have a big (8Mb) card, go and make yourself a cup of coffee. When you come back, all your samples will be arranged in the card.

Although the QS6's native format is 48kHz, 16-bit samples, it will correctly replay 16-bit samples taken at any sample rate. So if you are trying to conserve memory space, and are prepared to sacrifice some bandwidth, then using 32kHz or lower sample rates will still yield usable results. Full marks again to Alesis for this feature.

There are some rough edges to the Soundbridge software; for example, you can only write to an entire card at once, overwriting everything that is already stored. You can't build up a sample card in sections, but with careful use of the Lists feature it soon becomes a doddle to make up sample cards. While not quite as immediate to use as a hardware sampler, the combination of a QS6 and a computer with editing software is infinitely more flexible and powerful.




The QS6 is a very logical 'next step' for Alesis and the CD-ROM is really the icing on an already excellent cake. The real killer for the competition is the price, £899 inc VAT, which buys you an awful lot of synth plus a working software sequencer, Unisyn QS6 editor, and (with the addition of a PCMCIA card) the ability to load up to 8Mb of samples in one go.
Of course, not everyone will be comfortable with a synth that has no resonant filters and only one stereo output [it didn't stop the Kawai K1 from becoming a bestseller - Ed], and although the basic sounds are excellent, the flexible modulation facilities and powerful internal effects do help you stretch the synth to its limit. I feel the QS6 operating system is a definite improvement over the original Quadrasynth, the sounds have more impact, and the only real weak spot is the acoustic piano.

At the price, the QS6 takes a lot of beating, and if you happen to be a Mac or PC user, then the bundled CD-ROM extras put this synth in a uniquely advantageous position.

Published in SOS January 1996

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