Saturday, June 29, 2013
PREVIEW: Virtual Analogue SynthesizerReviews : Keyboard
It's back! And it's deadlier than ever! SOS get a first look at the next-generation Virus...
The timing couldn't have been better. Paul White's Leader column last month called on hi-tech musical instrument manufacturers to work on hardware that integrates better with software. No sooner had we read that than we received a phone call from Access enquiring whether we'd like to take a look at some of their new hardware which, well, integrates better with software.
All pure coincidence, of course — or is it? In fact, this is a way of working that several manufacturers of hi-tech musical gear are exploring at the moment. If there could be said to be a trend in the industry at present, it's that there's currently something of a reaction to an idea that, broadly speaking, dominated from around 1999 to 2003. The wisdom was that all technology-orientated music-making could be, and indeed, was best done inside a computer, from sound generation to mixing and mastering. At around the turn of the Millennium, computers reached speeds where they could support software-based sound generation (virtual instruments) instead of merely managing sounds generated by external hardware. Many hi-tech musicians then began to ask themselves whether they needed to bother with this expensive hardware stuff at all, apart from a few bits and pieces like A-D converters and microphones for those troublesome analogue sound sources such as the human voice, which hadn't yet worked out how to evolve compatibility with the VST instrument specification. Whole companies, such as IK Multimedia and Native Instruments, sprang up to create software which took advantage of the new way of working. Musicians everywhere consigned their old-hat 'real' gear to the skip of history, sales of hardware slumped, and a number of companies dependent on the old ways of working wobbled (Akai) or fell over completely (Waldorf). Much of the hi-tech musical instrument industry, already close to computer manufacturers, got even cosier (like Apple and Emagic's amazing trick — where did the music software company go?).
Of course, this carelessly selective overview only conveys one side of the story. Not everyone likes mixing 40 tracks of music with a mouse. Some people actually prefer the sound of analogue instruments (and not just ones with lots of knobs on — acoustic guitars and yes, even that human voice thingy can sound pretty good sometimes, too). And, more prosaically, manufacturers and retailers, the underlying structure of the musical instrument industry, have found that software doesn't offer anything like the margin that hardware does, and is harder to sell and support — if you can sell it at all, that is. A lot of money that would have been appearing on the positive side of hi-tech musical instrument manufacturers and retailers' balance sheets a few years ago seems latterly to have been spent instead on laptops, cheap keyboard controllers and broadband connections to Kazaa. And so, as usually happens with any kind of revolution, the pendulum has started to swing back towards the centre, and the movers and shakers of the industry have begun to investigate ways of taking the best parts of the computer-based way of working, and the best aspects of hardware-based systems, and making them work together in a form that they can sell to make a decent profit. Yamaha, for example, have been exploring this with their 01X-based mLAN systems, and also more recently in the form of their Studio Connections initiative with Steinberg, both of which aim to create systems comprising hardware integrated with and completely controllable from software. They call this concept 'total integration'.
All of which brings me to Access' new Virus range, which also flags itself as a 'totally integrated' set of products (hence 'TI' — although Access's efforts are nothing to do with Yamaha's separate initiatives). As with the Virus C range, three different versions will be available: the standard desktop or rackmountable model, a 61-note keyboard version with the same controls as the module, and Pølar (right), a striking white 37-key model which replaces the Virus Indigo but which contains the same synth engine as the others.
This isn't just a Virus C with some extra computer interfacing built in, though; it's a completely new hardware synth with plenty of features beyond those concerned with computer integration. But more on that side of things in a moment. How exactly does a hardware synth 'totally integrate' itself with your computer?
Essentially, the Virus TI extends the concept of the version of the Virus which Access created for TC's Powercore DSP engine. A VST/Audio Units plug-in, Virus Remote, is included in the package; this runs under your sequencer of choice, and provides a completely computer-controllable and automatable front end for the hardware synth. But whereas the Virus plug-in for the Powercore did all the sound generation using TC's Powercore chips, in a Virus TI system, the sound is generated by the hardware synth. Communication between Virus Remote and the hardware Virus TI synth takes place via a USB 1.1 connection, and all changes made to the plug-in will be reflected in the settings of the hardware, and vice versa. Thanks to the USB connection, the audio I/O on the hardware synth will also be switchable to convert and route audio into and out of your computer system. And of course, the MIDI sockets on the Virus will act as a one-in, one-out MIDI interface for your sequencer. Naturally, this means the physical knobs on the Virus will also be useable as hardware MIDI controllers for computer-based instruments.
At least, that's the theory. At the time of writing (mid-October), not all of the TI aspects of the new Virus have been finalised. At the moment, for example, it's not clear whether you might be able to mix and match these capabilities in the final release version, using the synth's audio I/O in the standard way (rather than as an audio interface) while simultaneously controlling software via the USB connection, for example. If this turns out not to be the case, selecting the Virus TI as your MIDI interface or control surface may also commit you to using it as your audio I/O, although Access say that the synth's main outputs will remain hardwired to traditional duties even if the others are being used to send audio to and from your sequencer.
Beyond the features relating to the TI concept, the new Virus has undergone many changes in comparison to the Virus C; some cosmetic, others internal but highly significant, and others in the synth engine itself. There's even a completely new manual. The front panel has been reorganised, adding a larger, more user-friendly 128x32-pixel display, handy extras like the dedicated tempo LEDs for each of the three LFOs, and more dedicated knobs (such as the new one for the Tap Tempo function, and the three Quick Edit controls for altering parameters on the display). Further contributing to the light show is the rear-panel illuminated Access logo, which will eventually be capable of blinking in sync with MIDI or internal clock rates.
Round the back, the I/O is now on balanced +4dBu jacks, with 24-bit A-D converters, and stereo digital I/O via S/PDIF (at 44.1 or 48kHz) has been added. The circuit board for the inputs and outputs on the desktop version is separate from the main board, and can be rotated, Mackie-mixer-style, to provide connections on either the rear panel, for desktop work, or on the underside for when the Virus is rackmounted upright. Inside the synth, there are now two main DSPs, the main effect of which has been to increase total polyphony. Although this varies depending on what's active at any one time, Access are now claiming 'average' counts of over 80 stereo voices.
Aside from physical changes, the architecture of the new Virus's synth engine is very different, too. There's twice the memory capacity of the older Viruses, so Access have included 2048 ROM sounds and 512 RAM sounds. The beefed-up DSPs have also allowed them to offer delay and reverb on a truly multitimbral basis (ie. with one instance of either or both per synth part). What's more, the 16-part Multi mode memories can now be separate from the single sounds if you wish — so editing the patch data for one of the parts in a Multi no longer overwrites that preset in single mode, and vice versa. If this doesn't take your fancy, however, you can still work with the new Sequencer mode, which behaves in the same way as the old Multi mode did, with single sounds sharing their memories with the multitimbral parts.
The built-in arpeggiator is now user-programmable, and the modulation matrix has been extended and simplified; there are now six slots, all offering one source and three destinations, replacing the differently endowed slots on previous Viruses. But perhaps the greatest additions to the synth engine are in the oscillator section. The collapse of Waldorf has had one benefit — Access have been able to use some of the former company's expertise to create a working wavetable synthesis implementation, although details are sketchy at present. Last but not least, there are the Hypersaw oscillators, which offer something similar to the 'Doublesaw' wave generators on Novation's synths, or the seven-oscillator 'Supersaw' on Roland's JP8000 — except that Access's new implementation offers up to nine parallel sawtooth oscillators per voice (plus nine sub-oscillators per voice, apparently), all detuneable with respect to each other. Apparently, the number of oscillators can even be changed smoothly in real time while playing.
The Virus TI is an excellent concept and a brave step for Access; it has enough new features to appeal to fans of hardware while probably also offering enough in the way of integrated workflow and great sounds to appeal to computer-oriented musicians. Exactly how well it will appeal to the latter market, though, will depend on the precise nature of the connectivity between the hardware and the software in the final version, and the flexibility of this link.
Although such important details still had to be tied down as SOS was going to press, Access hope to have the Virus TI series out by the end of the year. International pricing has yet to be fixed, but a UK-based source close to the company thinks that they'll be able to bring it to market for less than 10 percent more than the existing Virus C models. We'll bring you a full review in SOS as soon as we can get our hands on them.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Modelled Analogue SynthesizerReviews : Keyboard
Less really is more — the 'smaller' name suggests a cut-down follow-up to 2003's Ion synth, but in fact the Micron includes most of the spec of its predecessor, and has added effects and a built-in sequencer too.
Original Photos: Mike Cameron
At the end of my 2003 review of Alesis's Ion, I said that if a rack version of this synth were to appear, I would find it hard to resist. However when Alesis forged ahead in their chosen direction, it was to re-cast the Ion not as a rack unit, but as a second, even smaller keyboard: the Micron.
In the trimming process, most of the Ion's expensive, high-resolution knobs have been lost, and its graphical screen has been replaced by a workmanlike two-line job. But that isn't the whole story. The Micron features a dedicated effects chip offering reverb and delay, plus a highly versatile multitimbral mode, a built-in sequencer and a rhythm programmer. These gains add up to an instrument with a unique personality. It would be wrong to dismiss the Micron as merely a budget Ion.
On unpacking the Micron, you are immediately struck by its size. Shaped rather like a packet of chewing gum, this thing is really small. In fact, if you are habitually saved from gear-buying frenzy due to lack of space, I'll just innocently mention that its dimensions are approximately 58 x 20 x 7cm.
The Micron possesses the full synthesis power of the Ion (and is compatible with Ion patches), so I suggest now is a perfect time for a refresher courtesy of that Ion review (see SOS September 2003, or head for www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep03/articles/alesision.htm). Alternatively, check out the 'Micron Sound Engine' box opposite). If you're now suitably awed, we'll take the obligatory tour around the Micron's flat red/silver exterior. I'm pleased to report that the Ion's twin audio inputs have survived intact, although the audio outputs have (understandably) been reduced to a single stereo pair. Alongside the three MIDI ports are inputs for a sustain pedal and an assignable expression pedal. A headphone socket and the connector for the inevitable external power supply complete the tidy rear panel.
The Micron's three-octave keyboard feels light and springy, offering velocity and release velocity action, but sadly no aftertouch. Performance controls are limited to three assignable 360-degree knobs (labelled x, y, and z), a horizontal pitch-bender (complete with glowing backlighting) and two horizontal assignable sliders, labelled m1 and m2. The sideways action of the wheel and sliders takes a little getting used to, but I did warm to them, and they feel durable enough to withstand plenty of wiggling.
The opaque plastic Control knob is the Micron's focal point. Around it is a ring of tiny buttons that represent the five available modes. These are Programs, Setups, Config, Rhythms and Patterns. When selected, the buttons light up green, the colour changing to red when you enter Edit mode. Since the Config button is only used to edit various global settings, it is always red when selected.
You push the Control knob to enter Edit mode, initiate actions or to navigate to editable fields. Turning the knob can, according to mode, select patches, scroll through edit pages or perform value updates. In use — and you're going to use this knob constantly — it has a slight 'give' and its notched operation is ideal for fine value adjustments. My only misgiving was that in certain edit screens, it took way too long to increment values to their extremes. For example, adjusting a modulation matrix amount from 0 percent right up to 100 percent took more than 40 full spins, by which time I'd almost forgotten why I was doing it! You'll be glad to hear Alesis have promised to investigate a means of speeding things up for a future OS revision...
Generally, operation is made bearable thanks to a succession of shortcuts — and in probably the most useful of these, the keyboard itself is drafted in. Printed above the white keys are a series of red text labels, 12 of which serve to select program categories with a further 10 designed to drop you neatly into specific edit pages. It works like this: hold the Programs button plus one of the upper keys — let's say the top 'G' on the keyboard — and right away you're editing the envelope section. Choose the top 'A' instead to edit the LFOs, and so on. Repeatedly pressing the same note jumps quickly through the separate envelopes, LFOs, and so on.
Program selection using the shortcut technique is equally nifty. To select a program in (for example) the brass category, hold the Programs button and the lowest 'B' on the keyboard. Precise selection of all things brassy is then achieved by turning the Control knob. The keyboard is also employed in a number of other ways, for example when naming patches.
With just three assignable knobs on offer, they are going to be used extensively too. Fortunately, the assignment process is really simple: when in the Edit screen of a parameter you wish to assign, push down the Control knob whilst simultaneously turning the x, y or z knobs. That's it! You'll notice that not all parameters can be assigned; in particular, effects settings, such as phaser speed or delay feedback, are excluded. Once assigned, parameter values are transmitted as MIDI NRPNs (Non-Registered Parameter Numbers — see the Ion review for a full explanation) and when you touch any of the knobs (although not the sliders), a program edit is recognised and the Store button lights up. Edits remain even after selecting another program, until you begin a new edit.
The user interface is rounded off with seven additional buttons to the left of the display. Of these, Octave (select, with plus and minus buttons) Tap (tempo) and Store are easily understood. Latch does exactly what you'd expect, too — it simulates the holding of notes and is ideal for drones or for the permanent looping of arpeggios and bleepy patterns.
At this point, I must ask Ion owners not to be jealous, because as I move to describe the final two buttons — Phrase and Accomp — the moment has arrived to explore the Micron's secret identity.
Even with the subtle clues on the panel, you'd hardly expect to find a groovebox without a plethora of dedicated knobs, buttons and flashing lights, would you? Nevertheless, a scroll through some of the factory Setups (the Alesis term for multitimbral arrangements) suggests this is exactly the territory that the Micron occupies. You see, as well as an arpeggiator, the Micron features a built-in sequencer and rhythm programmer.
As an introduction to pattern creation, the aforementioned Phrase button offers a fast and intuitive means to record musical phrases on the keyboard. Simply hold it down and as soon as you start playing, your notes — including chords — are captured (up to a limit of four bars). If you use the m1 and m2 sliders or the pitch wheel, these movements too are recorded (although curiously, not those of the x, y or z knobs). To finish recording, you simply hit the button again. Now whenever you hit the button, your phrase loops can be transposed via the keyboard.
Should you wish to explore this feature further (and I'd be disappointed if you didn't), hitting the Patterns button lists all stored patterns including your newly created phrase (helpfully allocated the name '* Phrase'). At this point, a push of the Control knob allows you to select and then edit any of the several hundred factory patterns, alter their length, tweak individual notes, and so on. Each pattern contains a pointer to an associated patch so that when you create new patterns, these can be paired with the most appropriate sounds.
Pattern lengths range from a quarter of a bar to four bars and are optimised for 4/4 signatures. The pattern grid may be non-destructively changed from unquantised to quantised intervals ranging from eight steps per bar to 32 steps per bar with some quirky, shuffle-type intervals along the way. Although the selection of intervals isn't extensive, there is enough flexibility for most purposes. You can switch freely between arpeggiator and sequencer modes too, with the added bonus that any continuous controllers recorded are still transmitted in the new mode. Sadly there's no way to send only the controllers (without accompanying notes) but otherwise, the sequencer is hard to fault. Even with the two-line display, editing individual steps, deleting data and even dragging and dropping notes (or whole chords) is possible.
Rhythms are an alternative way to create (non-transposable) looping patterns consisting of up to 10 drums, referred to as A-J. Drums are selected using the rhythm button in conjunction with the keyboard. Each voice has its own level and pan setting, and there are handy shortcuts, including options to send the rhythm to an existing multitimbral setup or to start a new setup. A neat touch is that the looping rhythm can be auditioned at any time by playing any of the lower notes on the keyboard; the individual drums can be played or recorded into the rhythm using the upper keys. As each percussion voice is selectable from any category — not just drums — you can build up some pretty off-the-wall kits if you wish.
The rhythm grid and lengths are set in the same way as the sequencer, and you soon become familiar with the process of either playing along with the metronome in real-time, or entering notes grid-style via the display. The metronome is a stored pattern, so you can modify this too if you like. Sequences, rhythms and arpeggios are transmitted over MIDI, although you need to set the Micron to Local Off mode first.
The supplied manual describes over 500 Preset programs and 32 multitimbral Setups. This was clearly inaccurate from a quick trawl through the synth, so I had another look at the Alesis web site and found an updated manual that also addresses several other important omissions. In fact, the Micron offers dynamic memory allocation rather than a fixed set of program numbers. Each time you save a program or a rhythm, the display tells you how much space remains. In the case of the factory set, there are approximately 600 programs provided, with space for around 400 more. Similarly there are about 150 Setups, over 240 Patterns and 300 Rhythms included, although the space available for more of these is quoted as a percentage. If this seems a little confusing, actually it isn't so bad in reality. Put simply, you can store about 1000 Programs, and probably more Setups, Patterns and Rhythms than you'll ever keep track of.
The category system implemented for programs makes a lot of sense in terms of quick retrieval, especially if the sounds you create fall into the preset slots of 'bass', 'lead', 'pad', 'sfx', and so on. The 'All' category gathers together every program in alphabetical order and a special 'recent' category keeps track of patches you played recently, very much like your computer remembers recent documents. Most usefully, 'faves' is an ideal means to gather patches together for a live performance, or simply for quick access.
However, the way categories are implemented means you do not have conventional patch locations to refer to. So if you wish to call up specific patches in Cubase, Logic and the like, this could be an issue. There are underlying bank and program numbers, but these remain unknown until you manually press and hold the relevant Programs, Setups, Patterns or Rhythms button, at which point the display yields the relevant information. You could record the action of program selection into the sequencer, but in order to select sounds from a list, you'd need all this information in advance.
Sounds & Multitimbrality
It shouldn't be too surprising to discover that the factory programs are a varied collection encompassing all that was impressive about the Ion, especially in terms of analogue-type sounds. In fact my only complaint is not with the sounds themselves, but with the seemingly random definition of the x, y and z knobs in many programs. As knobs are at a premium on the Micron, it's frustrating that these are often defined to control parameters like FM or ring-modulation amount or noise level (filter panning is another common alternative). There's nothing for it but to plough through them and reassign each knob to perform more generally useful tasks. I tended to choose filter or envelope parameters, oscillator waveforms or detune, or portamento amount, for example. Actually, almost anything works better than the choices made for you...
If the Micron's sounds delight with warm pads, thick basses and biting percussion, it's when you put them all together in multitimbral Setups that a new character begins to emerge. Perhaps inevitably, this involves a nod in the direction of dance music, but there is also a cross-section of split keyboards, layers and so on. Much of the loop-based stuff is inspiring, and it's both fun and informative to deconstruct the complex patterns, rhythms and keyboard parts.
Setups are organised in alphabetical order with each containing up to 26 parts! Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, this does mean you can quickly exhaust the Micron's eight-note polyphony — especially if you are a layering enthusiast. But plan things carefully, divide up your programs into zones over the full MIDI range and you gain tremendous flexibility — although you'll be in regular contact with those transpose keys unless you use an external keyboard.
Parts are added only as you need them, so there's no scrolling through inactive, unneeded menus. Each Part refers to a program and optionally, if sequencing is required, a pattern. You can select from the whole range of patterns available or simply pick the one already associated with the Program. Similarly, each part may have a Beat, which is merely a (non-transposable) rhythm, complete with its own key range, level and effects mix.
Parts and Beats may be latched so that they continue to play after you release the keys, and the Accomp key mentioned earlier is provided to turn off all looping patterns and rhythms for the entire setup at a stroke. As you play each part, you can activate the Latch function independently.
MIDI channels within a Setup are allocated according to the base channel defined in the Config menu. The channel number is increased automatically as new parts are created. This means if your base channel is 1 and you exceed 16 parts — as you well might — only the first 16 will be capable of sending or receiving MIDI data. Each part can be set to respond (or not) to the various performance controllers, and each has its own effects mix for FX1 (chorus, flanger, and so on). There's also an overall balance control between FX1 and FX2 (reverb, delay).
As I write this review, the Micron leads the Ion in its ability to reproduce rhythms and sequences, but I'd say that it's a safe bet these will be added in a future Ion OS update. However, the Micron still has one trump card in its hand, provided courtesy of a dedicated DSP chip, which takes it beyond the scope of the Ion. Rejoice, because the Micron has 'proper' effects.
If you recall, the Ion included chorus, a flanger, a vocoder and drive effects, but on the Micron, these are supplemented by a second processor capable of a selection of three reverbs (hall, plate and room) or three delays — one mono and two stereo algorithms. The longest delay time is 680ms, which is halved in stereo operation. Although this is not over-generous, it's still very welcome. Delays can be synchronised to the current tempo or can be set absolutely.
The quality of these effects is fine, and although you can't access their parameters in the modulation matrix or assign them for knobby control, they add a polished sheen to the Micron right out of the box. Sure, you probably have a better reverb available in your studio, but for the gigging musician they could prove invaluable.
Summing up is easy. The Micron sounds fabulous; rich, lush, powerful, warm... everything you would hope for. Equally, it can be harsh, dirty or percussive. It is compact, solidly made and has more programming potential than anything this tiny has a right to. At the price, it's almost too good to be true.
By including effects and a surprisingly flexible sequencer/rhythm programmer, the Micron can perform backing-type duties currently beyond the scope of the Ion. Of course, what you lose compared to the Ion is obvious at a glance. The Micron's user interface has a whole range of ingenious shortcuts but these can't replace a bank of dedicated knobs, especially for lengthy programming sessions. With no software editor currently in the pipeline from Alesis, it's a comfort to know you can edit everything using the small display and available controls.
But then, perhaps you don't care about extensive editing — not everyone does. In this case, you could download a shed-load of ready-made Ion sounds from Alesis's web site, make a few tweaks and away you go.
Ultimately, it's a clear choice. At this end of the spectrum, the Novation K-Series is the most serious hardware competition. The Micron scores with its superior 'core' synthesis — ie. the quality of its analogue modelling, range of filters and modulation matrix. The Novations score in polyphony, effects, user interface and keyboard action. Actually, though, in some ways the Micron's biggest competition could come from the Ion itself. Once you test the sound quality of the Micron, coughing up the extra wonga for better access may become too tempting. For the time being, the Micron is tasty, almost as cheap as chips, and just as fattening!
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Sample-based SynthesizerReviews : Keyboard
Giving a modern instrument the same name as a line of vintage analogues that have an assured place in the synth hall of fame invites comparisons. So is the Juno-D the rightful heir to the Juno throne or more of a young pretender?
When you give a synthesizer a name rather than a number, it suddenly gains an intangible yet undeniable aura. If I think of Jupiters, Prophets, Wavestations and Viruses, I mentally group them together as a family — and with this association, inevitably, comes a degree of expectation. As the venerable Roland Juno range of synths holds a special place in my affections, I was interested to hear of a fresh addition to the fold — the Juno-D. Could this be a 'Juno-Digital', perhaps employing analogue modelling techniques? Or are Roland engaged in what I'll kindly call a 'marketing exercise'?
Let's cut to the chase: other than its name, the Juno-D has nothing in common with either the Juno or the Alpha Juno synths. Instead it has its roots in Roland's PCM-based range. This synth sounds like an RS and looks like an RS (see review of original RS9 in the May 2001 issue of Sound On Sound or at www.soundonsound.com/sos/may01/articles/rolandrs9.asp). Thus its slimline black panel is shy and somewhat anonymous, with real-time tweaking courtesy of just five knobs to control envelope and filter settings, plus modulation and tone balance. Performance controls include Roland's combined pitch bender and modulation lever, a D-Beam and two optional pedal inputs. The 61-note keyboard feels quite positive but is let down by its lack of aftertouch. I find it sad that, at the budget end of things, it's always this particular avenue for expression that goes first. Externally, there are no further significant revelations, but you won't be surprised to find that the synth has stereo outputs, a headphone socket, a warty 9V power supply and MIDI in and Out sockets (sadly, no Thru). At just 5kg, it's easily one of the lightest keyboards I've ever carried into my studio.
The Juno-D is a General MIDI 2 (GM2) compliant synth, so prepare to audition oodles of sounds, ranging from orchestral and ethnic instruments to dance basses and percussion, with an ample assortment of pianos, guitars, choirs and so on. There's even a decent mellotron flute (although the mellotron strings are rather lifeless) and the organs and pianos — especially the electric pianos — are all good enough for an aspiring band on a budget. There's a lot on offer, and I swear I came across Enya at one point, fulfilling an ambition of many years. And where would we be without squelchy 303-type basses, guaranteed to have you reaching for the filter cutoff and resonance knobs? While these particular sounds aren't the Juno-D's greatest strength, with a little overdrive and some gratuitous knob wiggling, they should prove good enough for live.
In total, there are 768 Patch locations (128 user-programmable), plus 22 Rhythm sets and 40 Performance memories. Of the preset patches, 384 are described as "Juno-D original" and 256 conform to the GM2 spec. With its maximum of 64 notes, Roland can't be accused of starving the Juno-D of polyphony. It wasn't so long ago that this figure was considered ground-breaking and it's an important factor in extracting the maximum mileage from this slender keyboard.
Each Patch consists of one or two 'Tones' — essentially Rolandspeak for complete PCM instrument samples — and if two are used they can be layered or split into separate keyboard zones. Editing of either Tone (or both simultaneously) is directly with the knobs (although several additional options are available at the push of the 'Param' button). Thus, turning knobs alters envelope attack, decay and release (the sustain level is fixed), varies filter cutoff and resonance, or sets the depth (and speed) of pitch or filter modulation. Other than add effects, there's not a great deal else you can do, so it's fortunate that 640 Tones are provided (in 32Mb of memory) as starting points.
Once you've made some edits, the Write button is on hand to store your creation in any of the 128 (initially empty) Patch locations. The Juno-D arranges its sounds into categories, 38 in all, grouped logically together beneath 10 top-level Category buttons. So, for a piano sound, select 'Piano' and then you can choose from a range of acoustic or electric pianos. Select 'Guitar' and you'll be presented with a selection of acoustic, electric or distorted guitars. It couldn't really be much simpler.
After naming a Patch of your own, you assign it to a category so that it appears in the list of your choice. Usefully, the Juno-D remembers the last sound you selected in each category. To select only your original sound creations, use Shift and the right arrow key to jump through the categories one at a time. The User Patches are found after the final one, 'Bass'. Should you need it, an Audition button is provided to play an appropriate riff for each patch you select. There's also a dedicated 'Demo' button, just to be sure you can impress your friends within seconds of switching on.
Not everything is so simplistic, though. Tucked away in the System menu is the slightly exotic 'scale selection', featuring well-tempered, pure major, pure minor (both C-scale) and Arabic. Unusually, each note in the scale is user-tweakable in 1/100th semitone steps. The Transpose function offers a little extra, too: if you use Shift and Transpose, transposition is in semitones, which is ideal for playing in difficult or unfamiliar keys.
Up to 16 Patches can be played simultaneously in a multitimbral Performance — of which there are 40 in total, 32 of them preset. Having just eight user Performances is definitely on the stingy side, since these offer a means of creating far more extravagant layers than is possible in a single Patch. I guess I've never really understood why you would need more than one preset Performance (just to guarantee accurate playback of General MIDI files).
You can edit Patches from within a Performance, although you should remember that if you edit a Patch referenced by a different Performance, the changes will affect that one too. Usefully, you can create a unique effects setup for the entire Performance or hijack the effects settings already used by any of the 16 Parts of it. Each Part has its own send level for reverb and delay, plus an on/off status for the multi-effects processor. When you're in Performance mode, Parts can be quickly selected using the 10 Category buttons. Just activate 'Part Select'. Parts 11-16 are selected using shift and the appropriate button.
There are 22 Rhythm Sets (drum kits to you and me), with two of those being user-editable. Editing is restricted to altering each drum's tuning, plus its level and pan, chorus and reverb send. You can't change the PCM samples allocated to each note, so you do need to select a factory kit that's as close to your requirements as possible. Filter settings affect the whole kit, offering you a cool opportunity to sweep the entire rhythm section with the cutoff knob.
A feature I particularly like — and one that's missing from many modern multitimbral synths — is Voice Reserve, invaluable when you're gigging with just one keyboard, where perhaps your sequencer is playing several parts and you're playing others manually. Voice Reserve is a tool to prevent note stealing for key parts, so you won't inadvertently play a large chord and silence the bass or drums! Even with 64 notes of polyphony, this can happen (I speak from personal experience), so Roland are to be applauded for including it.
Beam Me Up
D-Beam controllers add a welcome extra dimension to performance, and the Juno-D's has three selectable functions: Solo Synth, Active Express and Assignable. The first of these, Solo Synth, is curious in that it works in combination with keys held on the keyboard. An example should make things clearer. Activate Solo Synth and play some keys — a simple C-Major triad, perhaps; you'll hear nothing. Now move your hand vertically over the D-Beam and the held notes are triggered at the speed of your hand movements. The notes are transposed in octaves within the working range of the beam and I initially found this rather difficult to control. Fortunately, the beam can be adjusted to give a narrower range, although the sensitivity is global for all Patches.
With practice, I was able to achieve a wide variety of effects, such as eerie theremin, elaborate harp strums and piano arpeggios so fast I could never play them manually. I occasionally generated a note inconsistent with the chord I was holding, but found if I moved my hand with reasonable precision, the D-Beam coped fine.
Next, I tried the Active Express setting, transforming the D-Beam into a volume control (or a balance control, if two Tones are used). The main problem with this mode became immediately obvious: as soon as I removed my hand from the beam, the volume dropped to zero. Fortunately, another global option is available to reverse the beam's polarity. When you make this change, moving your hand downwards makes the sound quieter, while taking it away restores the maximum level. I didn't actually find Active Express to be of great value, so I turned quickly to the Assignable button, which allows the D-Beam to control a wide array of parameters, such as duplicating the front-panel knob functionality or sending pitch-bend or aftertouch. You can also control effect sends and some of the parameters of the multi-effects. My only complaint is that the beam affects the entire range of whatever is chosen. So, for example, if you assign it to control filter cutoff and then take your hand away, the cutoff setting plummets to zero — as I've just explained in relation to Active Express mode. Again, reversing the beam's effect is a partial solution, but I then found I could freeze the D-Beam's level at any point by pushing the Assign button with the heel of my hand while setting the level with my fingers. It's fiddly, but it works.
The D-Beam is a feature that rewards the time you spend with it, although I get the feeling that if just a little more thought had gone into its implementation it would be a killer feature rather than simply a fun diversion.
For an instrument in this price range, the Juno-D's effects are impressive, offering three effects processors: reverb, chorus and multi-effects. Of these, there are eight reverbs (also including some delays) and eight chorus types (including flangers and short delays). Add to this no fewer than 47 multi-effect types — some of which are dual effects (for example, an overdrive and chorus in series) — and you have a comprehensive range of treatments at your fingertips. When you program dual-Tone Patches, you can select whether each Tone is to be processed by the multi-effect processor, and you can set individual send levels for reverb and chorus.
Within the multi-effects are pitch shifters, equalisers, rotary speaker simulations, phasers and distortion, as well as less commonly-encountered effects such as Slicer and Feedback Ripper (the latter being a kind of gated delay). In fact, the delays are particularly good, especially the quirky ones such as 'Tumbling Delay' with its fast initial repeat followed by a standard delay, and 'Time Control Delay', which is designed for real-time control, changing from one delay time to another with accompanying, rather off-the-wall, pitch shifts.
Over 20 years ago I got my first 'proper' polysynth. It just happened to be a Juno — a Juno 6 — and it still evokes fond memories today. The Juno-D doesn't have such a distinctive personality and it's hard to imagine that it will gain a comparable historical significance. But set aside the name (as Roland should have done) and what you're left with is a solid all-rounder whose synthesis is about as uncomplicated as anything you'll encounter. This makes it ideal for beginners or those in need of a no nonsense array of solid bread-and-butter sounds that involves them in the minimum of head-scratching and manual searching.
For young bands or club entertainers, the Juno-D is a pretty good bet. A light and portable workhorse, it has generous polyphony, a first-rate effects implementation, a versatile arpeggiator and a D-Beam to pose with. It should certainly earn its keep amongst gigging musicians on a budget.
88-note Piano-action Controller KeyboardReviews : Keyboard
No-one can doubt Fatar's long-established record for making quality MIDI controller keyboards, but that market has become highly competitive over the past couple of years. Can the new VMK188 hold its own against all the budget alternatives?
Photos: Mark Ewing
Fatar were one of the originators of the master keyboard concept, and are one of the remaining manufacturers who still make the actual keyboards which go into electronic musical instruments. Over the years, they have supplied the lion's share of keyboards in products by European and American synth manufacturers, and they have also always had their own line of master keyboards. My main memory of these was that whilst the keyboards were excellent, the cases were less good, and the OSs which allowed you to set up what the controller would do over MIDI were a little clunky.
But it seems that the chaps at Fatar have gone back to the drawing board of late. When I took the review VMK188 out of the box, I noted that the former square-ended, boxy look had been replaced by a sleek rounded case which clearly takes its inspiration from the lines of a grand piano itself. The curve up from the keys to the top control panel, in particular, gives the VMK188 a classic look, and drew exclamations of admiration from the rest of the band when I turned up with it at a recent gig (I always like to give master keyboards the baptism of fire while playing live, as this is one of their primary uses).
However, a product has to strike a balance between aesthetics and practicality, and one problem became apparent before we'd finished our soundcheck! One of the things which makes the keyboard appear so piano-like is the fact that it is not covered in white legends telling you the function of each button. Instead, Fatar have opted for embossed legending, using the mould of the control panel to make the legend for each knob and switch stand up from the control panel. I was reminded of Hotblack Desiato's spaceship in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy which featured black knobs with black legends on a black control panel. It may look pretty classy, but it's a devil to read — you have to move your head around until the light catches the embossed legend so that you can read it. This is difficult enough in my bright studio where I am finishing this review, but it's almost impossible on a dark stage or in a moodily lit control room, and could have unpleasant consequences for what comes out when you start to play (unless you're planning to join Disaster Area, of course, in which case it's unlikely to matter anyway).
On powering up the keyboard, the bright blue LED sprang to life, providing a stark contrast to the rest of the black-on-black keyboard. Unlike some recent controller keyboards, the VMK188 does not take its power from its USB connection to the computer — because it doesn't have a USB connector! Power comes from the supplied 'wall-wart' PSU, which is something of an irritation in the live context.
The VMK188 features nine sliders, like all recent master keyboards, so I wasn't surprised to see that the first program on the unit is called 'B4'. However, there was no preset for use with Emagic's EVB3 virtual instrument (my virtual Hammond of choice), so I set about creating one. Pressing the Edit button brought up the instruction 'Press Or Move Any Controls' which was clear enough. I grabbed the first slider that came to hand (the fifth one) and then looked in the display. It now said 'Edit Slider S4'. I double-checked and I was definitely moving the fifth slider. When I tried to move another one, the VMK188 ignored me. I eventually found that to select another slider (or any other knob or switch) I had to press Enter, and then the 'Press Or Move Any Controls' instruction would return.
But I was still confused. Why was the slider numbering wrong? I eventually picked the first one and found that the display now read 'Edit Slider V1'. In other words, the designers assume that you will use the first slider for volume (the rest are labelled from 'S1' to 'S8'). Trouble is, they forgot to tell the guy doing the front panel; there is not even an embossed bump to tell you. I suppose you might reassign it to something else, but the same is true of the controls at the bottom left of the front panel, which can be assigned to anything but are clearly designed to be used for transport functions — and they are labelled with standard transport symbols!
Once you have the right control selected, you use the Page Up and Down controls to cycle through the five available parameters: MIDI Channel, Control Change, minimum and maximum Values and Polarity. To control EVB3, I needed to reassign the Controller numbers that the sliders were transmitting. Stepping up one menu option to Control Change, it was a simple matter to use the data-entry knob on the right of the control panel to dial in the right controller number. However, I then found that I could not simply touch the next slider and dial in its value; I had to hit Enter, then touch the next slider. The display had then reset to show MIDI Channel again, so I had to Page Up once to get back to Control Change. I had to do that for each of the nine sliders, which meant 18 extra button-pushes. If I had wanted to edit the minimum fader value on each, that would have translated to a further nine, as I would also have needed to press Page Up again each time. This suggests to me that Fatar's OS designers are rarely in a hurry!
As I was starting from a preset designed for use with B4, the polarity of the drawbars was already correct, but this can be changed if desired. However, on the Fatar you can only do this by resetting the polarity of each slider individually, rather than with a single 'reverse polarity' button, as is possible on some recent controllers. This does mean you can mix and match fader polarities if you wish, albeit at the expense of the time you need to create or edit presets.
Knob programming features the same five parameters as the sliders, but when it comes to buttons, you have a slight variation. Instead of minimum and maximum values, you have Key Note (for transmitting MIDI note numbers) and Key Mode, which allows you to decide whether releasing the button sends the key off message ('Push' mode) or whether you need to press the button a second time to do this ('Switch' mode — 'toggle' might have been a clearer term). Together with the reassignable 'transport' buttons, you can set up 13 buttons for use with each preset.
The VMK188 has three pedal/foot controller inputs (more than some master keyboards at around this spec/price point) and these have the same five parameters as the sliders and knobs. Here the Polarity setting is particularly useful, and could be used to deliberately invert one pedal but not another. The inputs are all freely assignable; personally, I prefer to have one 'hard-wired' to sustain-pedal duties, but it doesn't take too long to program this into your patches.
Exiting Edit mode is also a time-consuming business. Firstly, the VMK188 feels it necessary to double-check, asking you if you're sure you want to do this, and then once you've confirmed that you do, it takes a good four seconds to return you to Preset Selection mode. In the comfort of your bedroom, this may not seem like a long time, but on stage, I rather suspect it would!
The VMK188 does have one control which I've sorely missed on recent controllers — the Panic button. It's a real friend, especially if you are triggering a recalcitrant keyboard from the '80s with a penchant for continuing to play notes long after your song has finished. Alongside the Panic button is a dedicated MIDI channel button for setting the keyboard's global MIDI channel (although remember that you can program individual controls to transmit on different MIDI channels). This can be set to 'Off', though, which mutes the keyboard completely, so beware!
The adjacent Bank Select and Program Change buttons are used to determine which sound you're calling up on your target instrument, and this is where the VMK188's lack of a numerical keypad really made itself felt. Dialling in values is more time-consuming and less accurate than typing them in, and of course if you're as much as one digit out with a Program or Bank Change number, you could access a completely incorrect sound.
I have never been a great fan of joysticks, preferring to keep my pitch-bend and modulation on two separate physical controls, but I found myself adapting very easily to using this one, possibly because it is positioned in the centre of the VMK188, within easy reach of all parts of the keyboard. I was surprised to discover that the joystick was 'hard-assigned' to control pitch-bend and modulation; you cannot reassign these functions. I would particularly have liked the option to reassign something else to the joystick in place of modulation.
Aside from the lack of numeric keypad, I noticed a couple of other omissions on the VMK188. There are no Octave Shift or Transpose controls, although I suppose the thinking is that with 88 keys you don't need to shift octaves. There are also no Split or Layer functions. These are becoming a thing of the past on master keyboards anyway, the idea being that you can set up any required splits and layers on your target devices. However, I do regret that you cannot quickly set up a patch to select different programs on two different instruments; the two MIDI Outs on the back of the unit merely duplicate the VMK188's single data stream.
Finally, checking through the factory presets, I was surprised to find templates for Cubase, B4 and Pro 53 only. It wouldn't have done any harm to put a few more of the most popular virtual instruments in, especially as it takes so long to adapt presets to your needs.
So far this review seems to have concentrated on what the VMK188 doesn't do. But you might be surprised to learn that my overall impression of it is pretty positive, and this is down to what it felt like to actually play it. I tried using it to trigger Ivory, the Synthogy virtual piano instrument I reviewed in last month's SOS, and the results were simply superb, so much so that the VMK188 is now my keyboard of choice for triggering Ivory. I might prefer other master keyboards with more developed and faster programming interfaces for triggering synths and samplers, but for use with piano sounds, I think it's hard to outdo the VMK188. And I suppose that this is what you might reasonably expect of a product from one of the world's premier manufacturers of keyboard mechanisms!
In producing the VMK188, Fatar have clearly looked at what the most recent arrivals in the MIDI controller market are offering end users, but to my mind not enough has been done to make the programming of new patches faster and more intuitive. Despite the new look, there is less programmability and in-depth usability here than is offered by other master controllers, and it takes too long to set up or make simple edits to patches compared to doing the same tasks on competing products — M Audio's Keystation range is one obvious point of reference. When you consider the higher price of the VMK188 against some of those competitors, you might think that a buying decision is an open-and-shut case. However, if you sit down and play a VKM188, I think you'll find the decision less straightforward. It's clear that Fatar still do what they always did best: they build playable keyboards that make performing a pleasure. If your priority is playing, rather than editing together a whole string of patches to control every last parameter of a virtual synth, then the VMK188 is probably the one for you.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
USB MIDI Controller KeyboardReviews : Keyboard
Korg's Microkontrol was a highly versatile, yet compact MIDI controller — but perhaps, with its three octaves of miniature keys, it was too compact. With its four-octave, full-size keyboard, the Kontrol 49 looks set to put that right...
Photos: Mike Cameron
These days we are blessed with a wide choice of brilliant, affordable music software whose power and versatility often puts far more creativity at our fingertips than the hardware which inspired it, and so, not surprisingly, most of us are becoming more software-centric in our music-making. Which is why we're seeing a growth industry in hardware control surfaces, and particularly those that are easily configurable to work with many different programs, often simultaneously.
Korg's new Kontrol 49 is intended as just such a 'universal' device and one particularly suited to the computer-based musician whose wallet and studio space are both relatively modest. Its grand title is 'USB/MIDI Studio Controller': in a nutshell, it's a controller keyboard equipped with a fair amount of knobularity plus a great deal of programmable MIDI intelligence enabling it to interface at the deepest level with any music software (or hardware) you can shake a MIDI parameter at.
If you think those sleek silvery looks are Korgishly familiar, then you're right. Look into my eyes, look into my eyes... and cast your mind back to the Korg Microkontrol reviewed by Paul White in SOS March 2004. Those with long memories (or with browsers pointing to www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar04/articles/korgmicrokontrol.htm) might recall the deal here: a neat velocity-sensitive keyboard married to eight sliders, eight rotary controls and a master control, 16 velocity-sensitive drum machine-like trigger pads (also doubling as data-entry buttons), plus a programmable vector-control joystick to handle such performance features as modulation and pitch-bend. There was also an array of colour-coded, eight-character LCD 'scribble strips' above the faders and rotary controls to display parameter names and also give instant feedback on changes to parameter values.
In terms of its flexibility and intuitive handling, the Microkontrol generally earned itself a big thumbs-up from Paul. However, it was precisely in the big thumbs department that it wouldn't score so highly, being equipped with mini keys, and only 37 of them at that. So Korg have administered a portion of Alice's 'Eat Me' cake, and created the more grown-up version you see here, sporting 49 or four octaves of full-size keys (which incidentally, can be transposed up or down to give you a range of C1 to C9).
The keyboard itself is of the non-weighted variety, and is velocity sensitive with eight programmable velocity curves to suit different styles. However, a true player will bemoan the fact that there's no aftertouch. As on a lot of keyboards/synths, pressure control has to be applied through either the programmable modulation or pitch-bend wheels — features which were missing on the Microkontrol. A Vector joystick is also present with separate control messages assignable to the X (up/down) and Y (left/right) axes. Compared to the rest of the package, which feels solid and well-built, this control does seem rather flimsy and lightweight to the touch.
If my maths is correct (and counting the keyboard as only one) the Kontrol 49 offers a total of around 40 different controllers, each of which is extensively programmable. The shorthand for a complete set of controller assignments is the word Scene, and like the Microkontrol, the Kontrol 49 can store up to 12 Scenes on board with the trigger pads providing the means to switch between them. As it comes out of the box, it's preloaded with a variety of sample Scenes primarily designed to show off its muscles controlling the various demo packages which are included on the installation CD-ROM. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg: the CD-ROM has an extensive collection of templates covering all mainstream packages from the major software houses, including Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, IK's Sampletank 2, most NI instruments, and the major sequencers.
Korg also include a brilliant scene-management software package (shown below), which in terms of functionality goes well beyond the original librarian software that was included with the Microkontrol. This software offers complete on-screen programming of the all Kontrol 49's assignment and functions, enabling you to very easily modify the presets or create custom Scenes of your own, assemble them into Scene sets and then upload them to the keyboard.
Using the editor I was quickly able to assemble the included templates into a custom Scene set, giving me control over my Cubase mixer and EQ screens, Steinberg's A1 software synth, Native Instruments' Battery, which I use as a VST instrument within Cubase, and also a Korg Electribe.
Of course, you can also use the Kontrol 49's front panel to edit patches or create your own from scratch, but to be perfectly honest, it really is a lot less hassle and kinder on the tips of your fingers just to fire up the editor and do it all via the big screen. Unfortunately, like the USB drivers, the editor software is only for users of Windows XP and Mac OS 10.2 and above. What's more, 12 scene memories is not that many, and if you need to control lots of different packages (or aspects of packages) then you will probably find yourself swapping between different Scene sets quite regularly.
USB & Kontrol 49
Like the Microkontrol, the Kontrol 49 is designed to interface with your computer through a USB connection, which also provides the necessary power to the keyboard. There's an included 9V wall-wart adaptor if you've got too many devices on your USB connection for this to work.
USB drivers are provided for Windows XP and Mac OS X (10.2 or later) and installation on to my shiny new iMac G5 was simple and straightforward. But my laptop runs Windows Professional, to which the Kontrol 49 is only any good as a MIDI keyboard connecting through its five-pin sockets.
One thing to get your head around when setting up the Kontrol 49 with your software is that although it is equipped with two physical MIDI Outs and one physical MIDI in, what the computer actually sees are five ports. Two of these are virtual routes through which the Kontrol 49 sends note and controller data to your software, and another is the virtual route by which computer transmits info (typically program dumps) back to the Kontrol 49. This means that you can use the unit both as a USB controller for your software and as a one-in/one-out MIDI interface between your computer and external hardware.
In both the Microkontrol and the Kontrol 49, Korg have succeeded in producing a cost-effective way of providing flexible and relatively intuitive control over a typical collection of studio software. If you're the kind that knows your NRPNs from your RPNs and devours MIDI implementation charts in the way others do romantic novels, then the level of programmability you can achieve with the Kontrol 49 is impressive. But the good news is that if you're the sort who doesn't particularly want to get down and dirty with arcane MIDI parameters, then the included templates do seem to work straight out of the box.
Personally, I think it's actually the combination of the hardware with the editor/librarian that really makes this an appealing package, which makes the cheese very hard indeed if you're not running the right operating system.
The Microkontrol deserved its positive review, and with the benefit of its refined software and its bigger complement of full-sized keys, the Kontrol 49 is a welcome extension (if you'll pardon the pun) of the original offering.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Software SynthsReviews : Keyboard
Native Instruments' Xpress Keyboards features cut-down versions of their B4 tonewheel organ emulation, Pro 53 Prophet 5 copy and FM7 DX-alike. What's cut down is not the sound, but the amount of control available to the user. You can load presets and make tonal changes to them, but can't program your own sounds from scratch.
About 50 presets are available for each of the three instruments. Most of them are very usable, and deliver a good selection of classic Hammond, Prophet and DX7 sounds. In each case, six rotary controls provide reasonable room for manoeuvre when it comes to sonic tweaks.
B4 Xpress allows you to adjust the amount of overdrive, percussion and vibrato, and to switch the virtual Leslie on or off and between fast and slow settings. The obvious difference compared to the full-blown B4 is that there are no drawbars; tone controls are limited to Bass, Treble and Brilliance. This isn't too much of a problem, because the presets cover a decent range of drawbar settings, but you can't do those classic swells and fades, where you move the drawbars whilst holding notes.
The lack of control is more frustrating with Pro 53 Xpress. Anyone who's familiar with subtractive synthesis will find themselves thinking 'I'll just change that LFO speed and release time... oh.' The six parameters affect overall brightness, filter resonance, envelope attack and decay, 'Shape' and effects level, and don't offer enough control to be useful. A subtractive design like the Prophet 5 is pretty simple anyway, and there's not much to be gained by limiting the options in this way.
By contrast, the DX7 is notoriously difficult to program, and the way NI have boiled the controls down for FM7 Xpress works well. As well as envelope attack, decay and release times, you can adjust the overall brightess and the amount of harmonic content in the sound. There's an effects wet/dry mix knob (the effect in most presets is delay). Provided there's a preset that's in the right ballpark, these controls will probably be enough to get you where you want to go, and they'll certainly let you get there quicker than you would have done with a DX7!
Modelled Tonewheel Organ & Rotary Speaker SystemReviews : Keyboard
Hammond's New B3 was the best-ever digital emulation of an electromechanical organ, but at over 15 thousand pounds, it didn't come cheap. Fortunately, the XK3 puts the New B3's sound engine into a much more affordable package...
Two years ago, Hammond-Suzuki introduced the 'New B3' organ, which proved to offer the closest ever digital reproduction of the original Hammond B3 organ's sonic and performance characteristics (see my review in SOS July 2003, which can be read at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul03/articles/hammondb3.asp). Naturally, there is a lot of very clever digital technology involved in the New B3, but this is combined with some relatively crude mechanical switching techniques which were derived directly from the original Hammond keyboard design dating back nearly 80 years! This rather bizarre combination of old and new technologies was required because no other way could be found of replicating the unique multi-contact switching action and contact-click characteristics of the original. These factors have a profound effect on playing technique and are essential to reproducing the character of this fantastic keyboard instrument.
Photos: Mark Ewing
The New B3 has been a success, and was widely acclaimed on its release by B3 aficionados including the late Jimmy Smith. It achieved what many attempts — by Hammond themselves as well as other manufacturers — failed to do, which is to accurately recreate the original B3's characteristics. However, because of the way it has to be made, the New B3 is inherently a very expensive instrument — £15,000 pounds in the UK. So although every keyboard player needing that classic organ sound would undoubtedly want one, it is priced well beyond the means of many. It is also very large, and, although a lot lighter than the original B3 and its stablemates, still a bit of a beast to be lugging around to gigs in the back of a car.
Enter the new Hammond XK3, which was launched towards the end of last year. This is an all-new single-manual performance organ following on from the well-known XB-series keyboards, but the XK3 is particularly significant because it embodies all of the sophisticated digital tone-generating technology of the New B3. However, instead of the complex, expensive and bulky multi-contact keyboard design of the New B3, the XK3 controls the sound-generating electronics with a much simpler standard MIDI keyboard design, and the organ is housed in a more easily portable package. So if the playing characteristics have been compromised slightly from a purist's point of view, the result is a greatly reduced price and a far more convenient package for the gigging musician. However, from a sound point of view, this new keyboard has to be the best-sounding single-manual Hammond yet, and by quite some margin.
For the intricate details of the digital technology I would recommend reading the earlier review of the New B3, since the underlying VASE digital technology is identical. To briefly recap, though, the system digitally emulates two complete sets of 96 independent tonewheels (to provide independent upper and lower keyboard configurations), complete with controllable amounts of 'leakage' (crosstalk) and different settings for foldback (the duplicated notes at each end of the keyboard which play an important part in the characteristic Hammond sound).
Instead of switching the individual outputs through multi-contacts below each key, the XK3 employs a much cheaper digital switching arrangement, coupled to a sophisticated and configurable key-click generator to create something close to the multi-contact glitching of a real tonewheel organ. Furthermore, this 'standard' keyboard incorporates note velocity facilities to control external keyboards or sound generators via MIDI. The keyboard is a traditional 'waterfall' design with flat-fronted keys, and has the familiar reverse-coloured preset keys in the bottom octave — although these are not the heavy latching switches of traditional console Hammonds (or the New B3, for that matter).
While the New B3 was designed for use with the XB122 Leslie and its integral valve power amplifier, the XK3 has a clever valve preamp built in to provide genuine tube-amp overdrive and distortion effects. In fact, the valve preamp is configured as a dual-band affair to ensure the harmonic clarity and detail is retained even when being heavily overdriven.
The XK3 also employs the same DSP-based scanner-vibrato system as the New B3 organ to provide the complex chorus and vibrato effects unique to tonewheel Hammonds, but takes this signal processing a step further by also incorporating a DSP-based reverb and Leslie simulation as well. This can be disabled if you wish to use a genuine external Leslie (or similar) cabinet, but it does provide a very convincing and convenient built-in effect for live sound applications. A standard 11-pin interface is provided to couple the XK3 to modern Leslie systems such as the XB122 or the new portable 2121/2102 system, which although sold separately, was also supplied with the review XK3, and which I'll be discussing in detail towards the end of this review. In addition to the 11-pin Leslie output, there's a pair of unbalanced line outputs on quarter-inch sockets, which provide a stereo signal if the internal Leslie and/or reverb effects are used. Nor does the connectivity end there — in addition to a headphone jack, there's a mono insert point with separate send and return sockets operating at a nominal +4dBu (the return socket can be used as an external input as well, if required), plus further quarter-inch sockets to accept footswitch and standard volume pedal control inputs, and even a latching DIN socket for the dedicated Hammond EXP100 expression pedal which uses traditional opto-sensors.
While the New B3 only offered MIDI Out, the XK3 has a pair of MIDI In sockets in addition to MIDI Out. The multi-contact keyboard arrangement of the New B3 prohibited external MIDI control, but as the XK3 employs electronic note switching, MIDI control is available here, allowing the new organ to be controlled remotely from a sequencer, for example. The two MIDI In sockets are provided to allow separate external keyboards or controllers to access the lower manual and pedal sound-generating elements independently. The MIDI Out socket contains merged data from the external lower and pedal controllers (if in use) and allows other devices to be controlled from the keyboard. Up to three external zones can be configured through the menu system, specifying the keyboard note ranges which are sent to the required MIDI channels.
Like its big brother, the XK3 also has a socket for a Compact Flash memory card which can be used to store all of the keyboard's settings or to load new settings. Power is connected via the usual IEC inlet with an adjacent power rocker switch, but there is no provision to select the mains voltage — European models will only accept 230 to 240V.
While the XK3 is a single-manual keyboard, its sound engine offers two complete sets of digital tonewheels and consequently, there are two sets of real drawbars to allow the keyboard to be split for upper/lower configurations. There is also a separate bass pedal section derived from the lower keyboard tonewheel set. For many players, this ability to split the keyboard is perfectly sufficient to allow the traditional left-hand bass with right hand comping or solos, but with only 61 playing keys available, things can get pretty cramped sometimes. However, the second set of tonewheels and drawbars can be controlled independently from any external MIDI keyboard, and the bass-pedal section can be controlled from a suitable MIDI pedalboard such as Hammond's own 13-note XPK100, for example.
The ability to hook in an external MIDI keyboard is great, but it gets better! Hammond have produced an optional lower keyboard specifically for the XK3 called the XLK3. This is simply a second keyboard — identical to that of the XK3 and complete with reverse-coloured preset keys — housed in a matching wooden frame that sits neatly beneath the XK3 to form a composite dual-manual organ, as shown in the picture at the head of this article (the XK3 is also sold together as the XK33 Prolite package, which includes the XLK3 and the optional stand). The wooden side panels are styled to resemble a traditional console organ, and the whole thing makes a very portable and very playable dual-manual organ system.
A large part of playing the Hammond is, well, how you play the Hammond — by which I mean the tactile way the player manipulates the controls, especially the drawbars and Leslie controls. The XK3 is set up in a very similar way to a traditional console Hammond organ, and most of the functionality will be immediately familiar to Hammond players, but there are also some significant departures to enable a range of additional features and facilities more appropriate to this kind of live-performance keyboard.
To the left-hand side are three rotary controls to adjust the master volume, tone and valve overdrive. There is also a backlit LCD screen with four 'soft' keys and a pair of page up/down buttons to navigate the various configuration menus, plus a data input knob. By default, the display shows the current drawbar settings, either as graphical bar-graphs or as slider numbers, along with the preset key and name, and the current tone control value. Below the LCD panel are seven more push buttons to access the menu system, store or recall presets, and to select various functions such as the tube distortion or the frequency band affected by the single tone control knob. Since the reverse-coloured preset keys don't latch down, LEDs above each key are used to identify which preset is currently in use, and when separate upper and lower presets are in use, the upper preset is shown by a steady light, and the lower by a blinking light.
To the right of this control section is the start of the more traditional-looking controls: the rotary vibrato/chorus selector is accompanied by a single on/off button, and two sets of nine drawbars are separated by a pair of pedal drawbars. These two sets of nine can be switched to operate either as the A# and B preset's live drawbars operating on a single manual, or as separate upper and lower live drawbar sets when using the split-manual mode or when using an external MIDI manual or the XLK3.
At the right-hand side of the XK3 are eight more buttons, each with an integral LED. The first four control the percussion effect: second and third harmonics, fast decay and soft modes. Traditional console organs offered the choice of second- or third-harmonic percussion. However, the XK3 allows both at the same time, and although this confused me at first it allows for a more interesting tone combination.
The next two buttons configure the keyboard to allow the bass pedal section to be played from the bottom end of the keyboard, and to engage the split keyboard mode with separate upper/lower drawbar settings. The last two buttons select the built-in digital reverb and activate the Demo song playback mode — although this last button can (sensibly) be reprogrammed for a variety of other functions including activating an external MIDI zone, switching the vibrato/chorus on/off, or switching the Leslie speed. The last two are very handy options as they allow these features to be controlled with the right hand (even while holding down the keys, at a stretch), instead of the left, which can make it easier to add effects without breaking the rhythm or flow of a left-hand bass, for example.
To the left of the keyboard, where you'd find them on a conventional synth, there's a pair of wheels for pitch-bend and modulation. These aren't usual tools on a Hammond, but they're useful for controlling other keyboards, and can be assigned to control the actual pitch or virtual tonewheel motor speeds and the Leslie speeds, respectively, if required. The Leslie Brake, On and Fast controls can be found on the side cheek too — although if you prefer the traditional half-moon Fender switch screwed to the front rail, you can apparently order this as a custom option from Hammond instead.
The reverse-coloured presets provide a significantly greater range of control than on a traditional Hammond. Not only can you select different preconfigured drawbar settings by pressing the different keys, but each preset also stores a range of other keyboard parameters including vibrato/chorus settings, Leslie parameters, distortion characteristics, tone controls and so on. So selecting a different preset can completely change the sound of the instrument in a way which the vintage console organs could never do. Furthermore, there aren't just the nine preset keys to play with (C normally being a cancel mode and A#/B being live drawbar selectors). Every preset key can store a different configuration, and can also access a different memory bank — so by my reckoning there are 132 different preset memories available, which should cover every possible eventuality, no matter how complex your gig is or how diverse your playing style!
Configuring the instrument is a relatively painless process once you have become familiar with the LCD menu system. Pressing the menu key accesses the last-used menu screen (there are five in all), showing up to four sub-pages. The different menu pages are called up using the Page up/down buttons to the left and the sub-menus are accessed by pressing the appropriately numbered soft key. Each sub-menu page then shows four parameters and additional parameters are found by pressing the Page up/down keys again. Pressing the relevant soft key for each of the four displayed parameters assigns the data knob to that function so that it can be changed.
This process involves a lot of button pushing, accompanied in my case by quite a lot of cursing as I accidentally navigated away from the thing I was trying to change! Clearly, it's not something you would want to try to do live on stage, but with 132 presets available, there is no reason why you should ever need to. However, within these menus are the facilities to tweak and fine-tune pretty much every possible facet of the instrument. Highlights include changing the tonewheel type from a traditional early console organ to the more mellow last-generation types, or the transistorised X5 type of sound, along with individual levels, resonances, leakage noise and distortion artefacts. The key click can be controlled precisely in terms of attack and release levels, rates and brightness, the overdrive distortion can be made constant or to respond to the expression pedal, and the vibrato/chorus rate can be changed. The foldback at each end of the keyboard can be selected from individual notes, the sound generation for the bass pedals can be selected between a traditional console organ sound, the simpler X5 sound, or a preset synth bass, and there are various options for sustain, polyphony and even note velocity. What's more, every conceivable attribute of the DSP Leslie system can be configured, including cabinet and horn resonances, bass and horn rotor speeds and levels, rise and fall times, the virtual mic positioning, and so on.
Many of these menu configurations allow the instrument to be honed to reflect specific characteristics of traditional Hammond console organs, but many others allow the XK3 to do things no vintage instrument ever could. Two of the more useful examples are that the percussion volume can respond to the note velocity, and the envelope can be retriggered with every note even when playing legato.
Anyone who knows anything about the Hammond organ sound knows that a very large part is down to the Leslie rotary speaker. The original mechanical designs have (arguably) never been bettered, and employ contra-rotating horn and baffle arrangements to distribute the organ sound in different directions and at different speeds. This produces a very complex and constantly changing combination of direct and reflected sounds, with both amplitude and frequency modulated components. Modern DSP-based simulations are pretty good these days, especially for live applications, but in a recording situation — and for the top-flight live performers — it is hard to beat the real acoustic impact of the sound being splashed around a room by a rotating horn.
Hammond-Suzuki acquired the rights to the Leslie name a long time ago, and have been making a small range of Leslie models to accompany their organs ever since. The portable system reviewed here, which was supplied with the XK3 for review, comprises the 2101 rotary treble horn unit and its matching 2121 stationary/bass unit. Both were intended for live performance rather than home installation. Although designed to complement compatible Hammond organs and sound modules, these units can also be used with a broad range of instruments including other keyboards and synths, guitars, and even vocals.
The larger of the two Leslie units is also the simplest — the floor-standing 2121 stationary speaker. This self-powered, two-way reflex design incorporates a static 15-inch woofer and a compression treble driver which is coupled to a wide dispersion fixed horn — much like a standard compact PA speaker (you can see a picture of it with the 2101 at the top right of the web page at www.hammondorgan.co.uk/leslie.htm). The frequency range is quoted as 40Hz to 15kHz, crossing over between the two drivers at a nominal 700Hz, and the system is capable of a substantial 121dB SPL at a distance of one metre thanks to its internal solid-state 150W bass amp and 50W treble amp.
The vinyl-covered wooden cabinet measures 506 x763 x 506mm (whd) and weighs 39kg, so the wheels and chunky side handles make moving it around a little easier. Although the review model was black, there are also silver and walnut cabinet versions available, identified as the 2122 and 2123 respectively.
The rear panel caters for three input channels (the first with a insert point), two-band equalisation, master volume, and a line output (to feed a second self-powered cabinet or front-of-house desk). The first input channel is equipped with a rotary level control, an XLR combi-jack socket, and a switch to select the unbalanced line (jack) or balanced mic (XLR) inputs.
The mic mode has a nominal sensitivity of -40dBu, while line is -20dBu, and there is a slide switch to activate a 24V phantom power supply for the XLR input. It has to be said that the mic input circuitry seems to be an odd design. Not only does it provide an unusual phantom voltage which limits the range of condenser mics that can be used, but it also presents an unusually low input impedance of 600(omega).
When switched to line input, the impedance is relatively high at 50K(omega), and I presume this is intended to serve as a guitar input. Only the first channel benefits from an insert point, and is the usual unbalanced arrangement using tip and ring contacts on a three-pole quarter-inch socket, operating at a nominal -6dBu signal level.
The second and third input channels are unbalanced line inputs on quarter-inch jacks, with a nominal level of -15dBu and 10K(omega) input impedances. Each input has a rotary level control and all three inputs are mixed together and made available as an unbalanced line output at a nominal 0dBu — useful for providing a DI feed to the front-of-house desk or for driving a second powered speaker.
This mixed input signal is also routed through a simple bass and treble tone control arrangement, and then to a master volume control feeding the internal amplifiers. A small trim control allows the treble amp gain to be adjusted over a ±5dB range to fine tune the spectral balance of the system independently of the tone controls.
Beside the usual IEC mains inlet connector and rocker-style on-off switch is a co-axial DC socket labelled 'Remote'. This accepts a control signal from the 2101 unit (see overleaf) to switch the speaker's mains power on automatically when the 2101 is powered on and off, which is a nice idea.
Sadly, the amplifier chassis is cooled by a small, high-speed fan mounted on the rear panel. On the review model — which, to be fair, had already suffered from a hard gigging life — this fan was incredibly noisy. I am told that the fan was in need of replacement and the noise it made is not representative of the model in general, but this may be something to watch out for, nonetheless.
The 2101 treble unit, although rather more compact than the 2121, is by far the more complex product of the two, and acts as the control and signal processing hub for the complete system. Like the stationary speaker, the 2101 is a self-contained, self-powered design, incorporating three separate channels.
A 50W solid-state amp drives a compression driver coupled to the rotating horn, while a further pair of 50W amps drive two fixed speaker channels — effectively a stereo replay system built into the one cabinet — and each channel comprises a five-inch 'woofer' and a two-inch tweeter. The black vinyl-covered cabinet measures 510 x 520 x 330mm (whd) and weighs 23kg, with strap handles on both sides.
The signal flow within the unit is quite complex but fundamental to the way the unit operates, both alone and with the 2121 stationary unit. The system accepts four inputs: two for the rotary horn, and two for the stationary stereo speakers. The first of these is a line input via a quarter-inch jack to feed the rotary channel. The other three are all provided via the standard 11-pin Leslie connector.
There are also four outputs, all on unbalanced quarter-inch sockets. The two stationary channels are made available directly at the 'Stationary and Bass' line outputs, and incorporate the very low-frequency element of the rotary input channel as well. The remaining two outputs carry a stereo digital Leslie simulation for the low and mid-range frequencies of the rotary inputs.
The two rotary feeds from the direct line input and Leslie connector are combined together and fed to a three-band crossover. High-frequency signals above about 800Hz are routed directly to the rotary horn amplifier and on to the horn itself, while very low-frequency signals below 125Hz are separated and passed directly to the left and right stationary amplifier channels, unprocessed in any further way. Although it seems a little odd, this is actually a standard feature of most modern Leslie speakers (ie. those with 11-pin interfaces) — although the notable exceptions include the 705, 720 and 122XB models. This very low-frequency component is also made available at the 'stationary and bass' line outputs as mentioned above.
The rotary signal between 125 and about 800Hz is processed with a digital rotary speaker simulation, emulating the relatively straightforward characteristics of the bass rotor in a conventional Leslie. The stereo output of this DSP simulator is passed to the internal left and right stationary channels, as well as to the stereo 'low-rotary' channel line outputs, as already mentioned above.
So, to summarise, the high-frequency part of the rotary channel signal is handled by the horn rotor, the mid-frequency part is processed digitally with a Leslie simulator and reproduced in stereo from the fixed speaker channels, and the low-frequency part is left unmolested and reproduced by the fixed channels (in mono).
With this level of signal-flow complexity, it will come as no surprise that the rear control panel is equally complicated. On the left-hand side is a rocker switch to power the unit, an 11-pin Leslie connector, and IEC mains inlet, and a co-axial remote control socket. The last is provided for linking with the 2121 stationary speaker to switch that unit on automatically when the 2101 is powered. It is also worth noting that the 2101 is itself switched on remotely when a control signal is received via the 11-pin Leslie connector (something which is provided automatically when a suitably equipped organ is switched on). Besides the ability to transfer the mono rotary channel and stereo stationary channel, the 11-pin Leslie connector also conveys the speed-switching control signals.
A separate eight-pin DIN socket is provided to accept the signal outputs from older digital Hammond products like the XB1 keyboard and XM1 sound module, and is, in effect, a miniaturised and simplified version of the 11-pin Leslie connector. The separate mono line input quarter-inch socket allows other instruments to access the rotary channel, but there is no provision for external inputs to the stereo stationary channels. Two more quarter-inch sockets accept footswitch connections to control the rotor speed and to switch between two DSP configuration presets. MIDI In and Out are catered for, the former to enable remote control and adjustment of various DSP parameters in the 2101, and the latter to allow a second 2101 to be controlled remotely (and for data dumps).
The operational controls consist of three level controls (left and right stationary channels plus the rotary channel), and there are recessed trimmers to adjust the bass (under 125Hz) and horn (above 800Hz) levels relative to the mid range. A fourth rotary control sets the amount of amplifier overdrive affecting the rotary channel, and a recessed slide switch reconfigures the stereo stationary channels to operate in mono, or mutes them completely. This last mode is employed when the 2101 is used in conjunction with the 2121 stationary bass unit, which can handle far higher replay levels than the 2101 alone. There's also a small group of controls to adjust various aspects of the system, comprising a rotary selector, a data wheel, two touch buttons and a numeric LED display.
When the 2121 and 2101 are used together, the organ signal is connected to the 2101 via the 11-pin socket and three connections are made from it to the 2121 bass unit. The left channel of the Stationary/Bass output is hooked up to input two of the 2121, the left channel of the low rotary channel is linked across to input three, and the power-switching remote lead is plugged in so that everything comes on together. If a second 2121 is available, then the right stationary/bass and low rotary channels can be patched in to give a wider stereo effect (as well as more volume). It's all very quick and simple to rig up.
The complete system is capable of serious volume — enough to keep up with the most efficient guitar amps or the loudest drum kit — and provides great Leslie sound. The horn is clearly the key to this, but the DSP system makes a very convincing job of simulating the lower rotor of conventional Leslie cabinets too. Of course, everyone has a slightly different idea of what makes the ideal Leslie, and history documents dozens of different tweaks that the professionals have made over the years to their classic 122 and 147 Leslies. To that end, the 2101 can also be customised in a variety of ways to tailor the sound precisely as required. For example, the fast and slow running speeds of the mechanical rotor and the DSP bass-rotor simulation can be adjusted independently and with considerable precision to simulate different pulley sizes and motor speeds. Similarly, the time taken for each element to speed up, slow down, or come to a complete stop can be changed to simulate belt condition, type of rotors, and so on. The rotor speed can also be controlled directly using a modulation wheel on a suitably equipped keyboard, or by an expression (volume) pedal, if desired. If controlled via a simple footswitch, the system can be configured for latching or momentary actions.
The direction of the horn rotor can be reversed (useful when more than one 2101 is used) and its resonant character can be altered to simulate horns without baffles or different drivers. The crossover frequency between bass rotor and horn, and the low-frequency cabinet resonance can also be adjusted to simulate different traditional Leslie systems, and the virtual microphone angle and stereo spacing can be adjusted to change the character of the DSP low-rotor simulation.
Facilities are also provided to assign the MIDI control channel (for remote parameter changes) and program change channel (for recalling one of the two preset settings). Once set up, any combination of settings can be programmed as one of two Presets, allowing two different sound and operating characters to be stored for instant recall.
On its own, the 2101 lacks the power and weight to deliver a convincing low end for on-stage levels, and partnering it with at least one 2121 makes a lot of sense. However, in situations where a full PA and powerful foldback is being used, the 2101 would suffice on its own, with DI's being taken for the low end and mid range, and a couple of mics being used for the horn rotor. This Leslie system is very compact, and because it comes in two parts, it's far more easily transported than a full-size 122 cabinet, for example, or even a 147. Indeed, the complete Leslie system with XK3 organ, stand, pedalboard and accessories all slotted into the back of a modest estate car without any problem whatever. The Leslie sound is very good indeed, especially if a little care is taken to fine-tune the frequency balance and optimise the speed parameters to personal tastes. The idea of combining mono bass, synthesized rotary mid-range and a real rotating horn sounds too complex to work, but work it does, and very impressively.
In 2003, I was mightily impressed with the New B3, because it was such a remarkably faithful recreation of the real thing, physically and sonically, and yet still provided a lot of facilities to modify and tweak the sound to suit personal preferences. However, its appeal to the typical gigging musician in a band was limited because of its vast cost and size.
Hammond's XB series of digital portable organ keyboards have generally been well received over the years, but have never quite reached the holy grail of the vintage sound so many have aspired to. The new XK3 is where the two conflicting requirements meet, offering the sonic quality and flexibility of the New B3's VASE engine combined with the practical convenience and usability of the XB-style single-manual keyboards.
I'm confident that the absence of the multi-contact switching will go completely unnoticed by the vast majority of players, and the bonus of external MIDI control will more than make up for it for most people. The key-click generation is very controllable to suit personal preferences, and although it doesn't have quite the tactile response of the multi-contact arrangement, it certainly exudes the right sound character. Indeed, the quality of the organ sound is exemplary, and I can think of no similarly priced equals. Only the New B3 and arguably the best of the recent software emulations match or better it — and the latter obviously lack the physical and tactile control elements necessary for a live performance keyboard. The XK3's internal DSP Leslie simulation is also among the best I've heard, although there is still nothing quite like a real rotating horn. However, that's what Hammond's various current Leslie options are for, such as the impressive 2101/2121 system supplied with the XK3 for this review.
The optional and removable XLK3 lower manual is a nice idea, allowing you to expand the XK3 to a dual-manual and pedal combo if required. I think this will appeal to the jazz trio set, although multi-keyboard players can gain much the same practical playing benefits with any MIDI keyboard, of course. The fact that it is a separate unit not only makes transportation easier, but also enables the organ to be expanded later, as funds and playing requirements allow.
However, one thought that struck me about the two-manual combo version is the potential limitation of its 61-note keyboard. For example, you might want to control a piano or string sound from the lower keyboard during a gig. If you were playing with two hands on the same keyboard, it would be really useful if the lowest reversed-colour octave could be allowed to send MIDI note data with the rest of the keyboard to give a six-octave span instead of five. Although not possible with the current operating system software, this is apparently something that Hammond are considering for a future update.
If Hammond sounds feature large in your compositions or live keyboard repertoire, then the XK3 should be at the top of your wish lists, because it represents the absolute pinnacle of this kind of live performance keyboard. The sound is absolutely authentic, the design and ergonomics of the performance controls make playing the instrument a dream, and the extensive configurability of the instrument caters for a wide range of personal preferences, playing styles, and external control options. What more could anyone ask?