Wednesday, July 31, 2013
16-voice Analogue SynthReviews : Keyboard
If you're even vaguely interested in analogue synthesizers, you'll have encountered the hype surrounding the Andromeda. Indeed, the analogue-loving communities on the Internet have been buzzing about it non-stop for the year it has taken for the announcement to turn into reality. So here it is — the review of the first Alesis A6 Andromeda in the UK...
Let's get one thing out of the way before I begin. Despite Alesis' claims to the contrary, the Andromeda 16-Voice Real Analogue Synthesizer (as they call it) is not a real analogue synthesizer — at least, not completely. Huge chunks of its architecture are digital, and I'm not only referring to the digital effects, the microprocessor-controlled operating system, or even the memories. No... the controllers in the sound-generation system — the envelopes, the LFOs, and the Sample & Hold — are all digital, as is the oscillator tuning (although not the oscillators themselves). This makes the Andromeda a hybrid analogue/digital synth, much like, for example, the Sequential Prophet T8. However, the signal path is analogue. Alesis has even placed the digital effects section in a side chain. This means that, if you avoid these, the output from the Andromeda remains pure analogue, all the way from the oscillators to the outside world.
That dealt with, I'll start the review proper a few hours before the Andromeda reached my studio... in fact, I'll start with me trying to get it into my car. Since the boot was full, I had to put it in the front passenger seat. Well, either I'm getting old, or the thing in that box is one hell of a keyboard. At nearly 20kg, neither the Andromeda nor the remarkably sturdy box in which it arrives are for the faint (or weak)-hearted. For a synthesizer, it makes a pretty good Chieftain tank.
The military analogy doesn't stop there. Once on a stand, the Andromeda's silver-and-blue control panel assaults you. I've always liked blue synthesizers... my long-departed PPG 2.2 and the Supernova II will always have places in my heart. I like silver synths even more: the Korg Trinity, the Kawai K5000S, the Korg Z1... gorgeous! But what about a silver/blue hybrid? Unfortunately, my feeling is that the Andromeda's control panel was designed by a frustrated graphic artist who should get out of the house more often.
Getting the Andromeda up and running proved to be a doddle... simply a case of plugging the mains into the Andromeda's universal PSU, finding the Main outputs, and then trying a few patches. It sounds problem-free, and it was, but for the horrible noise that greeted me when I pressed a handful of notes. There's no doubt about it... the Andromeda is at heart an analogue synth, and this one was badly out of tune. Actually, the results were rather interesting, much like the Eastern tunings used by Wendy Carlos on Beauty In The Beast. But this was no time to be composing Indonesian music, so I pressed the Auto Tune button, and hoped that all would be well. Three and a half minutes later all was well. No glitches, no crashes, no nasty noises, no nothing... except for a perfectly tuned analogue polysynth.
The Andromeda offers a huge array of buttons and knobs, with a 640-by-240-pixel backlit LCD in the centre of the control panel. You can program sounds without referring to the screen, but you won't get far. This is because the physical controls call associated menus, and you then use the eight 'soft knobs' and 'soft buttons' located beneath the screen to edit the hundreds of parameters that comprise a patch. It sounds complex, but it isn't. For example, if you touch the Freq knob in the Filter 2 section, a screen appears. This displays six virtual faders and two selection menus controlled by the soft knobs, plus four 'page tabs' selected by the soft buttons. Turn a knob, and the associated virtual fader moves up and down, or the menu selection changes (as appropriate). Press a button, and a linked page within the Filter 2 section appears, complete with its virtual faders and menus.
In some situations, the screen appears jumpy, but this is a consequence of the sensitivity of the controls. Brush a knob lightly and the parameter value will jump to its current position, simultaneously updating the screen. You can get around this by placing the Andromeda in 'Pass Through' mode, which stops the knobs from sending a new value until you pass through the existing one.
As you delve deeper, you'll find that some programming sections have no top-panel knobs, and their buttons serve only to call the appropriate menus. To be honest, I never found this a problem because, like most players, I've become accustomed to this approach, where the most important parameters get a knob, and the rest live in menus. No problem.
The Analogue Bits — Oscillators & Filters
More than two years ago, Alesis decided to base the Andromeda's oscillators on the Moog 921b, as found in many Moog Modular synths from the '70s. They also looked to previous designs on which to base the Andromeda's filters — this time the the 12dB-per-octave Oberheim SEM multi-mode filter, and the 24dB-per-octave Moog 904a low-pass filter. Once they had identified these targets, Alesis' engineers built and tweaked their prototypes, and then passed the designs to the company's ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) designers who shrank the circuits down on to two chips, the ASO and the ASF.
The dual VCOs per Voice (there are 16 voices, remember, so there are 32 oscillators in all) are provided by eight ASO chips. These offer all the usual analogue waveforms, the expected coarse and fine-tuning options, and a sub-oscillator one octave below the selected pitch. As well as providing both soft and hard sync, each oscillator can be frequency-modulated by the other (simultaneously if desired) and there are parameters for pitch envelopes, pulse-width modulation, plus a range of user-defined modulation sources and destinations. Each Voice also offers noise (in white, pink and red varieties) and a ring modulator. Again, there are many ways that you can modulate these sound sources, or use them as modulation sources (see box, right).
Once you have determined the output created by each of the sound generators in a Voice, you mix them in the Pre-Filter Mixer. This allows you to balance the relative outputs of Osc1, Osc2, Osc1 (Sub), Osc2 (Sub), the noise source, and the ring modulator. However, you can also mix in a feedback loop taken from the post-filter signal. You might think that this would be asking for trouble, but it's nothing other than the old Minimoog trick of feeding one of the outputs back into the external signal input to fatten up the sound. Unfortunately, it doesn't have quite the same effect as on the Moog... results range from gentle tonal differences to buzzy overdrive. On occasion, the feedback even cancelled out some of the source. I think we should mark this 'shows potential'...
In contrast, I found the portamento particularly usable. It offers no fewer than nine different shapes, a legato mode (no portamento if you release the first key) and complementary staccato mode. This makes it capable of great expression, and it will imitate both the linear and exponential portamentos of various vintage synths.
Filter 1 is the two-pole resonant multi-mode filter that Alesis copied from the Oberheim SEM. It offers low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and band-reject modes. Filter 2 is the Moog-designed four-pole resonant low-pass filter, which will self-oscillate with the best of 'em, so you can use it as an extra audio source if you wish.
You can route the mixed oscillators' signals through these filters in four ways: through Filter 1 only, through Filter 2 only, through Filters 1 and 2 in series, and through Filters 1 & 2 in parallel. While less flexible than, say, the Waldorf Q's ability to send different oscillators down different routes, or its controllable and modulatable routings, the A6's architecture nonetheless offers a great deal of flexibility.
Thanks to Andromeda's comprehensive modulation matrix (of which more in a moment), you can modulate the filters themselves using a huge variety of sources. Things can get seriously weird if, for example, you modulate the cutoff frequency using the summed outputs of both oscillators as the source, then start adding envelopes, LFOs, and modulation depth controllers such as the Andromeda's mod wheels and ribbon controller.
The Digital Stuff — Envelopes, LFOs & Modulation
At this point, I can imagine some of you asking, 'Why did Alesis spend all this time developing an analogue mega-synth, only to ruin it with digital envelopes and LFOs?' Well, there's quite an assumption built into that question — that digital envelopes and LFOs are crap. This is a hangover from the early days of digitally controlled hybrid synths, whose over-stressed Z80s were incapable of generating fast envelopes while also calculating the LFOs and scanning the controls to see whether you had tweaked a knob. Today's processors are far more powerful, so the envelopes are faster, the LFOs are smoother, and the Andromeda feels and sounds far more 'analogue' than its predecessors. Indeed, the A6 updates all its digitally generated parameters every few hundred microseconds, and, despite smoothing transitions to remove quantisation noise, the fastest envelope response is still in the order of 1mS (one thousandth of a second). This is much faster than many other analogue synthesizers. It's also worth noting that the Andromeda's 16-bit parameter resolution allows you to be very precise in your choice of values. It's not unusual for there to be numerous stages between, say, 1.11 and 1.12 of a parameter, with a range of -100.00 to +100.00. This is a consequence of the fact that 16 bits offer 65536 possible values.
Now, let's get down to the digital nitty-gritty. It's not just that the Andromeda's three envelope generators offer seven stages, nor that they're displayed graphically on the screen, nor even that you can direct them to almost anywhere within the Andromeda... no, I love the Andromeda's envelopes because they offer a choice of nine selectable slopes per stage. You really have to play with this feature to realise how good it is, and also just how much of the character of a favourite old synth is determined by the responses of its envelopes. Biting attacks, smooth attacks, squelchy attacks, natural decays, aggressive decays... they're all there if you care to experiment. Furthermore, you can loop the envelopes using any stage as the start point, and any later stage as the end-point, and you can choose to smooth (or not) the contours thus generated. This is excellent for slow, evolving pads. Then there are the multiple keyboard trigger modes, the triggering capabilities provided by the modulation matrix, the interactions with the LFOs, sequencer and arpeggiator... far too much to cover here, I'm afraid.
The Andromeda offers three LFOs, plus sample and hold, per Voice. The LFOs offer six waveforms with waveshaping of the square wave and saw/triangle/ramp waveforms. There's a slewed Delay function (up to 131 seconds before full amplitude is reached!) and you can program the LFOs to run freely, sync them with key-presses, and even determine their start phases. The LFOs also offer variable offsets, so that you can use them as positive modulations (like a guitarist's vibrato), bi-polar modulations (the vintage synth approach), negative modulations, or anywhere in between. You can even ask them to clip at their extremes, and modulate all their major parameters using the modulation matrix. The only unexpected limitation is the maximum LFO speed. At just 25Hz, it's simply not fast enough for some applications. Alesis have undertaken to increase the maximum to 50Hz, but have also conceded that it may not be possible due to microprocessor limitations.
Now, having mentioned it numerous times already, it's time to explain the modulation matrix itself. This is a software matrix of 71 sources and 92 destinations. Some of the modulations — the ones you would expect to find hard-wired on any well-endowed vintage polysynth — have dedicated top-panel controls. If you touch one of these, an appropriate screen appears, and you can select a source and amount to control it. For the others, you enter a page that allows you to determine all the routings and modulation amplitudes. This is useful for finding (and turning off) stray modulations that creep in when editing sounds. Multiple sources can drive a single destination simultaneously (the sources are summed), and a single source can drive multiple destinations. What's more, if you want more modulation from any given source, you can use two routes and double the effect. Very nice.
I should also mention the Andromeda's 'Tracking Generator' (TGEN). This allows you to redefine the input and output relationships of the modulation sources. A simple example of this is the relationship between key velocity and signal amplitude. Instead of living with the normal 'double the velocity, double the gain' relationship, you can draw your own curves, even creating dips or peaks in the response if you wish. This is a superb but esoteric facility, and I can't see people using it much. Nevertheless, given the amount of talk that has focused on its analogue qualities, it's ironic that the Andromeda is at its most impressive when it's at its most digital.
Effects & Mix Mode
The Andromeda's effects are split into two camps: analogue distortion and twenty-eight digital algorithms and combinations (choruses, reverbs, delays and so on). Both of these are mixed with the source signal (if present) at the Main outputs.
The analogue distortion is created by a transistor circuit with four levels of drive: Easy, Light, Heavy, and Killer. There are three destinations: the Main outputs, 'Digital Effects (left)' and 'Digital Effects (right)'. I found it useful for adding grit and drive to some patches, but I'm old enough to be rather fond of valves, and I find transistor distortion harsh and edgy. Perhaps if Alesis had added a low-pass filter or an EQ to this buss it would be better, but without these, I think it sounds like a cheap stomp-box.
In contrast, the digital effects — based on a cut-down version of the Alesis Wedge — are first-class, with enough configurations and parameters to keep you busy for quite a while. My only reservation here is the so-called Lezlie effect (Alesis' spelling, not mine). I find this ghastly, and think it made the Andromeda useless at any form of Hammond imitation.
The maximum number of simultaneous digital effects is three (in series), but the configurations also include parallel pairs. With the effects blocks, routings and parameters displayed on the LCD, you'll be flying around this section in no time at all. I suppose it should be no surprise that Alesis can program an excellent digital effects section, but I find it ironic that — yet again — the Andromeda is at its best when it's at its most digital! However, here's the sucker punch...
An Andromeda 'Mix' is the same thing as a Korg Combi, a Kawai Multi or a Roland Performance. You use it to layer up to 16 Programs, create keyboard splits with up to 16 regions, or create 16-part multitimbral setups with (if you wish) a different Program responding to each incoming MIDI channel. You can even edit the contained Programs while in a Mix, because Mixes have a useful 16-Program buffer space that does not update or damage the original, saved patches. However... there is only one set of effects in the Andromeda, so you can not allocate different effects to the Programs in a Mix. This means that, unlike the Korg Trinity and Triton or the Novation Supernova, the Programs can not import their associated effects; you can only adjust their Send levels and pans. This might have been state of the art 10 years ago, but today it's most certainly not.
Ins & Outs
The back panel of the Andromeda is resplendent with inputs and outputs. Firstly, there are the Main stereo outputs. These carry the signal and any effects that you program into your sounds. If you want, you can remove the dry Program from these, so that you hear only the 'wet' signal, which can be useful for sound effects and such like. Alongside the main outs, you'll find the Auxiliary stereo outputs, which you can use as a second stereo pair (minus effects) or as two monophonic outputs.
The eight stereo sockets that comprise the 16 Individual Voice outputs are an impressive sight, but I'm not sure how useful they will be. I've long campaigned for individual Program/Buss outputs on workstations, but Alesis have instead chosen to give each Voice its own output. You can use 'Mono' mode to select which Voices will be used by any given Program, so, if you disable the Program on the Main and Aux outputs, you'll at least know which Individual Voice output(s) will carry the sound. But it's not quite what I wanted, because you then need to sub-mix these outputs before your main desk. Furthermore, the A6's limited effects structure means that you need a rackful of external processors if you want to treat each Program individually within the final mix. Compare this to (say) the truly multitimbral effects and output busses of the aforementioned Supernova II, and the Andromeda looks a little sad.
There are two CV inputs, one for the oscillators, and one for the cutoff frequencies of the filters. CV-controllable attributes within the oscillator section include the frequency, the pulse width, and the amplitudes of the FM paths between the oscillators. I found these inputs extremely sensitive, far more so than 1 Volt-per-octave, so I couldn't play the Andromeda from my Analogue Systems Sorceror. It's also too sensitive for use with conventional analogue sequencers unless you scale the inputs (something else you can do in Mono mode). The positive side to this is that small voltages can make drastic changes to your sounds should you wish.
The three audio inputs allow you to process external audio through the Andromeda's filters, VCAs and effects units. Firstly, you can process audio through the signal paths of Voices 15 and 16, either as a stereo pair, or as two independent monophonic sources (this disables the oscillators for these voices). Alternatively, you can use the 'V 1-16' input, at which point the external audio replaces the internal noise source, and becomes available alongside the internal oscillators for all 16 Voices.
Seven further holes on the rear panel offer three pedal inputs (one for sustain, one for momentary switches, plus a continuous controller, all programmable within the modulation matrix), the ubiquitous MIDI In/Out/Thru and, finally, a stereo headphones output.
Sounds & Programming
I have to admit that I'm not a fan of the A6's factory sounds. With the exception of a few Programs in Preset Bank 2, I found every one of them big, fat, lumpy, and virtually unusable in a mix. As far as I can tell, they're designed to capture people's attention when they press one note in the middle of a music store. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this; it's important to turn heads when you're in a competitive market place. But it makes it harder for the passer-by to assess the true potential of the instrument in a short time... it might take weeks to create a balanced set of sounds that would make use of the Andromeda's full range.
Fortunately, Alesis are still creating factory sound sets. Furthermore, they plan to archive the new and existing banks on their web site, so you should have immediate access to this growing library. I, however, needed to put Andromeda to the test, so I settled down to some programming.
I started with my favourite ARP monophonic brass patch. Removing unwanted facilities such as the multi-stage envelopes and overly complex modulation routings, I set about recreating this simple sound. It was at this point that I realised how much I liked the control panel. OK, I still wasn't sure about the graphic design, but the functionality is first class; it didn't take long to get the sound I wanted (particularly helpful was the fact that if you press the 'Up' and 'Down' buttons simultaneously, you jump to the most useful value of any given parameter, and can tweak from there). Next, I opened the filter a little, reduced the envelope following, and obtained the result I anticipated — a monosynth flute. As I continued, I noticed something about the Andromeda. Much like a Minimoog, it's really easy to get good sounds out of it. Indeed, I found that many of these simpler sounds were the best. Forget the sub-oscillators and the ring mod, use one filter, program simple, snappy envelopes, and add just a hint of reverb... you'll hit pay-dirt nearly every time.
Alesis have admitted that their ASICs do not sound identical to the Moog oscillators, nor to the Moog and SEM filters that they copied. I'm not surprised... it would be remarkable if something crafted in micrograms and micrometers sounded the same as many square inches of vintage circuitry. Tonally, I found it to be more like an ARP than a Moog, but that's no criticism — I was using Odysseys for bass and Pro-Soloists for leads long before I bought my first Moog. In the past, some manufacturers have added powerful (but hidden) bass boosts to their digitally controlled analogue synths to 'warm up' the sounds, and if you're after Moog-y sounds, the Andromeda would benefit from this. But if I want to add EQ, there are better ways to do this, and without compromising the synthesizer itself.
The Andromeda has another neat trick up its sleeve, derived from the Yamaha CS-series of the mid-'70s to early '80s. In the Post-Filter Mixer you can add back the unfiltered sine waves generated by Osc1 and/or Osc2, and/or the output from the ring modulator. This allows you, for example, to reinforce the fundamentals of otherwise heavily filtered sounds.
Despite this (rare) Japanese influence, the Andromeda falls squarely into the 'American' synthesizer camp, and it excels at brass, strings, and huge pads. This shouldn't be surprising... those are the strengths of all the classic analogue polysynths from the Prophet 5, Oberheim OBX and Memorymoog onwards. The A6 is also well suited to recreating the complex, evolving sounds of the Matrix 12. But there are other areas where, for me, it doesn't shine at all. Most obvious of these are the organs. I'm no slouch at getting an organ out of a synth, but the Andromeda proved to be extremely reluctant (I'm being polite!). Also, the Andromeda refuses to go where no other analogue synth has gone before: acoustic pianos.
In contrast, it is first-class at Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and FM piano patches. It can be difficult to program these on some analogue synthesizers, but the Andromeda produced them with consummate ease. Ironically, once again it's the almost 'digital' clarity of its oscillators and filters and the speed of its envelopes that make this possible. Just use the programming principles of the classic Roland electric piano (oscillators sync'ed 21.5 semitones apart, with appropriate filter and envelope settings) and you'll hear what the JXs were trying to produce. OK... so it can sound like a Japanese synth, too!
The Clock Section — Arpeggiator & Sequencer
You'll find the Andromeda's arpeggiator, sequencer, and various sync capabilities grouped together in the Clock Section. There are three clocks available: MIDI Clock, the internal Master clock (which can itself be slaved to incoming MIDI), or the Local clock for the given sequence, arpeggio, or modulator.
The arpeggiator offers a very limited number of modes compared to most modern arpeggiators (just four!), and it lacks a Random mode. I also didn't find the arpeggiator control menus particularly intuitive, and I would have appreciated some physical controls on the top panel: buttons for mode, local rate, and latch would be a huge improvement.
The sequencer is more complex, but no harder to use. A set of pages represent the 16 steps, and this is where you enter the note values, note velocities, whether there are any rests... and so on. Sadly, you can only create these sequences by programming them, because there is no facility to play them into the system. But not all is gloomy... every Program has an associated sequence which is stored as part of the Program itself. In Mix mode, you can therefore have 16 different arpeggiated Programs playing 16 different, dedicated sequences, all sync'ed to a single Master clock. Furthermore, you can specify different relationships to the clock for each of these, creating some very complex effects indeed. It's a Teutonic dream. Alternatively, you can have each running at its own tempo, perhaps with no musical relationship to the others. Yurgh!
However, there's one important omission to mention: the Andromeda will synchronise to the absolute timing of external devices, but it has no idea about bar-lines. This means that your sequences can be in time, but out of musical synchronisation, with other instruments. This will be very frustrating for 'groove' DJs.
I'm well aware that some purchasers will use the Andromeda as a sophisticated source of sound effects, arpeggios and sequences, and rarely play it conventionally. But that's not my way... if something looks like a musical instrument and sounds like a musical instrument, I want to be able to play it like a musical instrument. So here's a disappointment... there is only one version of Andromeda, with just 61 keys. I'm a 76-note sort of bloke, and I would be keen to see a 'Pro' version sometime soon. On the bright side, the plastic, semi-weighted keyboard is pleasant and responsive. When the programmable sensitivity curves for velocity, release velocity, and channel aftertouch become available in a future OS revision, it will be even better.
Other features missing from the current OS include the Manual function (which resets the sound in the edit buffer to the positions of the knobs and buttons on the control panel) and the Chord memory function. At the time of writing, a new OS, with these functions enabled, is at the beta-test stage.
Apart from the pedal controller inputs, the Andromeda offers three major performance controls. To the left of the keyboard, you'll find the standard pitch-bend and modulation wheels, both of which you can assign to any destination within the modulation matrix. The third is the long and desirable ribbon controller whose function, again, you can assign within the mod matrix. Indeed, you can assign it to multiple destinations with differing amounts if you wish, and — because it is monitored from both ends simultaneously — you can even split it to offer two different functions in different positions. I understand that new ribbon modes are promised for the future — track and hold, relative, absolute — but, as always, don't bank on these appearing until they appear (if you see what I mean).
Before concluding this review, I would like to put a flea in Alesis' ear about a couple of other deficiencies. For example, it's far too easy to get the signal path to clip and distort. You need to reduce the levels in both the pre-filter mixer and post-filter mixer to avoid this, because it will otherwise ruin your sounds. I would also like to see more flexibility in Voice panning. A number of vintage synths — the Oberheim OB8, the Sequential Prophet VS, and others — allow you to position each voice within the stereo field. The only way to do this on the Andromeda is to use the individual outputs and 16 channels on your external mixer!
As for bugs? Oh heck... the ones I noticed were so minor that I'm not even going to mention them. But I do have one misgiving that I must share with you. Some cheaper Alesis products have stood the test of time poorly. The 1622 mixer is perhaps the most famous example of this, but the knobs and screens on some other products have also failed with disturbing regularity. As for the early ADATs... these represented a price/performance revolution, but the word 'reliability' did not seem to be in their specification. I think it's right to offer Alesis the benefit of the doubt, and not once did the Andromeda give me cause for concern — but I have been burned before. Let's face it, the Andromeda has a lot of knobs and buttons, so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.
That the Andromeda is a powerful, meaty synth is obvious. Indeed, I suspect that it's the closest thing there's ever been to an analogue workstation. But most people who love it will do so for its 'American' sound which can range from warm to harsh, fat to thin, squelchy to digital, as you desire. Alesis' ASIC technology has produced an instrument with its own character, and that's no bad thing at all.
In that light, the Andromeda earns a significant 'thumbs-up'. It's all-but complete, it didn't crash once, and it sounds great. On that basis, you should certainly try it. But a word of warning... don't base your views on the factory sounds. Delve deeper, and don't stop at a bit of gratuitous knob twiddling on the control panel. Get into those menus.
As you will have realised, I like the Andromeda a lot. This wasn't entirely the case at first, yet the more I experimented with it, the closer friends we became. But, ultimately, it's not for everyone. Its price alone determines this and, for me, arguments that it's equivalent to 16 monosynths for less than £200 each do not wash. Let's face it... the majority of players want digital workstations with all the facilities of the Andromeda — and more — but at a fraction of the price. So Alesis must be keeping their fingers crossed that the Andromeda will attract enough people to justify the time, effort and cost expended in its development. I hope that it does, because the company should be congratulated for stepping beyond the self-imposed boundaries of other synth manufacturers.
Published in SOS April 2001
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
64-voice SynthesizerReviews : Keyboard
Roland's S+S (sample and synthesis) sound-generation method has enjoyed much success in recent years -- notably starting with the JD800 and working its way through the alphabet via JV, XP and now XV prefixes. Recognising a market for instantly accessible, ready-made S+S sounds, Roland introduced the Sound Expansion M-series of 1U rackmount modules during the mid-'90s; units dedicated to specialised jobs (see SOS October 1995 or www.soundonsound.com/sos/1995_articles/oct95/rolandmodules.html).
These were effectively JV Sound
"It's All Soooo Déjà-Vu!"
Stand up please, lovely audience. Now, remain standing anybody who remembers the Roland JX1. OK -- stay standing if you can remember what it was. Well, for the benefit of our lovely viewers at home, I'll tell you. Despite its JX prefix, it was not related to the classic JX analogue DCO synths -- the JX3P, JX8P, and JX10 -- nor was it the forerunner to the JX305 Groove keyboard. The JX1 -- reviewed in lovely SOS back in August 1991 -- was a preset, 24-voice polyphonic synth with a 61-note keyboard, offering 64 sounds, which were generated using PCM sample waveforms. These sounds came pre-shaped with TVF and TVA envelopes, with the option to spice up the sounds with reverb, delay and chorus. Basic editing was provided in the form of envelope attack and release times, LFO rate and depth, and filter cutoff and resonance. Edited sounds could be stored into the 32 user memories provided. The concept was simple enough, and not dissimilar to digital pianos that offer a selection of additional 'useful' sounds; you just pressed any appropriately named patch button on the front panel and off you went, with a few basic sounds that would be frequently required in a live or studio situation.
Ten years down the line, Roland have merged the JX1 and U20 concepts, whilst at the same time bringing the spec considerably more in line with current expectations. Unlike the M-series modules' dedicated sonic musings, their new keyboard is an all-rounder, covering a wide variety of sound textures. It comes in the form of my next guest. No, it's not Zsa Zsa Gabor... it's the Roland RS9.
The first surprise on taking the RS9 from its box is how little it weighs for an 88-note keyboard -- 10.8 kilos, to be exact. You can tuck it comfortably under one arm and carry it upstairs without even raising your pulse rate. This is unusual for a
The RS9 continues the streamlined theme with its shallow but attractive brushed aluminium panel adorned with seven rotary knobs, a combined three-digit LED and 2 x 40 LCD display, and 39 large, friendly buttons. To the left of the keyboard is the standard Roland pitch/mod lever. The overall styling is akin to a hybrid of the JD800 and one of Kawai's K5000-series keyboards.
The rear panel is equipped with a set of basic, no-nonsense connections, power being provided by a floor-wart power supply. Stereo outputs alone are on offer here, together with a hold pedal jack and a continuous controller input. MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets complete the connections available, while at the centre of the rear panel, two holes are provided for mounting the included music stand, which is a useful bonus.
What You Get
The RS9 has been primarily designed as a live performance instrument, full of ready-to-go, JV/XV quality sounds. It is also a capable multitimbral sequencer-driven tool, with a set of GM/GM2 sounds thrown in, making it ideal for creating and playing bespoke music as well as standard MIDI files. However, unlike its more complex JV, XP and XV cousins, the waveform content is not expandable. What you get is... well, what you get.
Let's take a broader look at the RS9's features. The sound library comprises both Preset and User memories; firstly there are 512 preset tones, of which 256 are termed 'original' (JV/XV type). The other 256 are of the General MIDI 2 type. The Drum sets consist of 11 'original' and nine GM2 types. These presets are further organised into
Polyphony is a maximum of 64 voices (subject to the usual voice-layering caveats) and the whole instrument is multitimbral up to 16 MIDI channels/parts. As mentioned above, the RS9 is equipped with 256 GM2 tones, so GM-compatible MIDI files should play as originally intended. Indeed, my treasured collection of sci-fi theme tune MIDI files played as expected -- with subjectively greater sonic accuracy than on my JV2080.
The 256 Preset tones are derived from waveforms and patches from the existing range of JV/XV synths, as well as a selection from the various JV expansion boards currently available. I recognised material from several boards, including the Vintage Synth, Keyboards of the 60s & 70s, Session, Orchestra II and Vocals boards, to name just a few.
So, having sat yourself at the RS9, how best to navigate one's way through the 512 presets to the one you want? Help is at hand thanks to Roland's Tone Category system, now commonly used on such units as the JV2080, XV3080 and XV5080 synths. The primary 10 categories are represented by 10 named and numbered buttons to the right of the RS9 panel. These are: Piano, Key & Org, Guitar, Bass, Orch, Brass, Synth, Vocal & Pad, Ethnic, Rhy [ie. Rhythm] & SFX. To search for a sound, you first put the RS9 into Tone mode, then press the button labelled Tone Category, followed by one of the 10 category buttons. This takes you to the first sound of that type in the preset list, and you can scroll through the various sounds in that category using the +/- Value buttons. Each sound category also has a number of sub-categories. To reach the sub-categories, you press the Category button repeatedly and it will cycle you through the various options. For example, repeated toggling of the Guitar button will cycle through Acoustic, Electric and Distorted guitar. The category titles are shown as three-digit abbreviations, but the full names can be displayed by pressing and holding the Tone Category button, then cycling round the options on any of the 10 Category buttons. When you've found the category you want, press Tone Category again and then use the Value buttons to further zoom in on your target sound. The Phrase Preview button can also be used to play a test phrase to check out the sound. This is a useful feature on a module which may be some distance from its controlling keyboard, but it's a curious option on a keyboard you'll have in front of you most of the time?
At this point in the proceedings, it would be a good idea to explain the difference between the Tone and Performance modes. Essentially, the RS9 is in permanent Performance (multitimbral) mode -- in other words, all 16 parts have a tone assigned to them, and will respond to incoming MIDI messages on their respective MIDI channels. As long as the Performance does not use Split or Layer assignments, then any one of the 16 parts can be played from the keyboard simply by selecting a different Part number using the Part buttons. If Split or Layer is active, then two Parts are 'linked' together as Upper and Lower Parts and will play from the keyboard simultaneously. The two Parts, their Tones, Split points (if in Split mode) and their respective MIDI channels can all be set as required and saved into a User Performance. Note that in Split or Layer mode, only the two linked Parts can be played from the keyboard, although the other 14 Parts are still accessible via the MIDI In socket.
Tone mode, on the other hand, is used to select the actual Tone that will be used within any Part, and to access the Tone editing parameters. The RS9 still responds multitimbrally regardless of the mode it is in, making it easy to make adjustments on the fly while playing a sequence into the RS9.
Tone Structure & Editing
Those of you familiar with the JV synth architecture will be aware of the complexity to which a JV patch can aspire, and the fine detail with which they can be edited. In contrast, RS9 Tones can be edited using a limited but nevertheless useful range of parameters. Firstly, let's define the terminology: a JV Patch is equivalent to an RS Tone. A JV Tone I will refer to as an RS Voice. A JV Patch can employ up to four layered Tones, each one representing one voice of polyphony. Similarly, each RS9 Tone can be constructed of between one and four Voices. This brings me back to my earlier comment on the caveats surrounding polyphony. The voice structure of an RS9 Tone is invisible to the user, so you have to refer to the Tone List in the user manual to determine the number of voices employed by any Tone. Polyphony is not such an issue when playing one sound from the keyboard, but could lead to problems in a multitimbral performance. It is possible to set a voice reserve for each part, but without information concerning the Voices that make up the Tone on the RS9, this can only be guesswork.
So what aspects of an RS9 Tone can be edited? Before going into detail, it should be pointed out that the filter-related parameters are pre-routed to modify specific Voices that make up the Tone. For example, 'Talking Box' (Preset 240) Is made up of three Voices: one has a cyclic LFO applied to what sounds like a band-pass filter, and is unaffected by the filter cutoff. The other Voices have no LFO applied, and are the ones that the filter cutoff actually has control over.
LFO rate, depth and delay time are first in the parameter list, and globally affect the whole Tone. The next parameter gives us the option to have the LFO operate on the pitch or the filter. Although there is only the one global LFO, it's a shame that it cannot be assigned to both pitch and filter. Next up are filter cutoff and resonance. As mentioned above, these will modify only those voice elements that have been pre-assigned in the Tone. Following on, we have envelope parameters for attack, decay and release. These, like the other parameters, have negative as well as positive values. This is because all your editing is done on existing Tones that already have values set for these parameters. So, if you want to edit a string sound with a slow attack so that it speaks faster, you will have to set the attack time to a negative value -- ie. subtract from the value already present. And that completes the Tone editing list. It's short, but keeps things simple while still giving some degree of customisation.
Drum Sets are also editable to a degree, although sadly you cannot re-assign drums to the notes of your choice. The options available are pitch, level, pan and reverb depth for each individual drum.
A note about navigating around the RS9 -- for an uncomplicated instrument it can be very button-intensive to get around. Some menus are quite long and require a lot of furious buttoning to cycle through. This means you often miss the parameter you wanted and have to cycle all the way round again! A Back button would have been welcome here, as would a value slider or alpha dial.
Control Knobs & Effects
The front-panel control knobs and buttons to the left of the display duplicate all of the Tone editing parameters (except envelope decay) allowing fast, on-the-fly changes to be made. They can also be used for editing and, as you'd expect, they transmit these changes over MIDI, so filter sweeps and the like can be recorded into a
The RS9 has three effects sections, which should be familiar to JV users by now; Reverb/Delay (six reverb types, two delays), Chorus (three types), and MFX (multi-effects -- 42 types). These apply globally to an entire Performance, and while the Reverb and Chorus sends can be set individually for each Part, the MFX has rather more restrictions. There are three routing options for MFX -- Performance, Upper and Lower. When the Performance routing is selected, all the Parts pass through the MFX, so if you've chosen Distortion as your MFX, your entire Performance (all 16 Parts) will sound a little... er... rough. This is fine if your Performance is a Split or Layered sound for live playing, and you actually want the whole lot to be mangled in that fashion. However, for multitimbral applications this routing would only make sense if you wanted to use the MFX to apply some overall stereo EQ to the mix, for example. Otherwise, you are restricted to having MFX on one Part only in a multitimbral performance, and that Part will be whichever one is currently showing in the display.
Although aimed at the entry-level market, the versatile, plug-in-and-go concept of the RS9 is one that many players should find appealing, especially those who play live and need fast access to a versatile selection of high quality sounds. The 88-note semi-weighted keyboard will be a bonus to synth aficionados, as well as those with less robust spinal columns. It could therefore find favour with multimedia music creators, stage and studio musicians alike.
Pricewise, the RS9 is perhaps a tad on the high side for an entry-level keyboard. In matters of petrol, wine and real estate, we Brits must be prepared to dig deeper into our wallets than many others -- and this has also traditionally been the case regarding music technology. However, the UK asking price of £899 compares unusually favourably with the US dollar price of $1295 (£901.94 at last check). For those on a tighter budget there is also a 61-note version in the form of the RS5 (£599), which is otherwise identical (except that the Piano button is missing -- hardly a drastic loss). In the case of both the RS5 and RS9, the sounds are of the generally high quality one would expect of an instrument from the industry-standard JV/XV stable, though a larger selection of presets would have been welcome bearing in mind the comparatively more generous offerings of the JV1010. Looking at the RS9 as a modern-day revival of the earlier JX1 and U20 concepts, it provides significant improvements, not least of which are the range and quality of the sounds available.
Reviews : Keyboard
Korg's new music workstation combines the synthesis, multi-effects and sequencing capabilities of the Triton with a new performance-based interactive music generation system — one that goes way beyond traditional arpeggiators and auto-accompaniment sections for sophistication and versatility. Simon Trask is
SOS's KARMA policeman...
With the release of their M1 in 1988, Korg established the workstation format as a fixture of the hi-tech music keyboard landscape. Over a decade later, when you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the music workstation had nothing truly new to offer, along come Korg again to drive the format forward with the KARMA. While in many respects the company's latest workstation is a Triton with a different name and a redesigned case, it also offers something that you won't find on the Triton — or any other instrument, for that matter. The clue is in the name. For while KARMA fits nicely into the recent vogue for synths with evocative names, the word is also an acronym for Kay Algorithmic Real-time Music Architecture — named after the inventor of the KARMA technology, Stephen Kay, who you may already have heard of through his demos for many Korg keyboards. If you break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the word 'algorithmic', don't be too concerned, for while the KARMA technology may not be a snap to grapple with, neither does it require you to don a white coat and head for the computer lab.
The simplest way to think of the KARMA technology is that it's a cross between a supercharged arpeggiator and a dynamically morphing auto-accompaniment section. Like both these note generators, KARMA works from trigger notes on the keyboard. But don't let your imagination be constrained by your understanding of what an arpeggiator or an auto-acompaniment keyboard does, because the KARMA is far more versatile and offers so much more flexibility and functionality.
What It Is...
Although you wouldn't think so to look at it, the KARMA is the latest incarnation of Korg's Triton technology. Inside its black and maroon metallic casing are the very same synthesis, multi-effects and sequencing capabilities and parameters that you'll find in the Triton. To give you an idea of the nuts-and-bolts spec, it's a 62-note polyphonic, 16-part multitimbral digital synth workstation with an onboard 16-track sequencer and built-in dynamically controllable multi-effects, with an effects architecture consisting of five Insert and two Master effects, and a Master EQ. Like the Triton, Korg's new workstation uses HI (Hyper Integrated) synthesis, the company's most sophisticated and powerful sample-based subtractive synthesis engine and architecture. You can also add physical modelling synthesis to KARMA's sound palette by fitting the EXB MOSS expansion board.
Fully programmable, and with sophisticated modulation routing, the HI synthesis architecture used by each KARMA Program consists of two oscillators, a resonant filter section (which can be set to one 24dB/octave low-pass filter or to one 12dB/octave low-pass and one 12dB/octave high-pass filter in series), and an amplifier section, together with five-stage Pitch, Filter and Amplifier EGs and two freely assignable LFOs. The oscillators are assigned PCM samples from the onboard waveform ROM or the EXB PCM expansion board ROMs. You can select Single or Double oscillator modes, and assign Low and High samples to each oscillator for velocity switching, or select Drum mode, in which case a selected global Drum Kit can be assigned to the Program.
Each Program can also be assigned one KARMA Generated Effect, which has up to 16 parameters that can be assigned values for that individual Program to uniquely shape the effect. It's the Generated Effects that enable the real-time generation of grooves, phrases and patterns that are infinitely variable and randomised (but, to borrow a phrase from Korg's Steve McNally, not "stupid random"!). More on GEs later in this review, as they play a central role in KARMA.
As on the Triton and many earlier Korg workstation synths, the KARMA also has a Combination mode which allows multiple (up to eight) Programs to be assigned to the keyboard in note and velocity split/layer configurations. Each Combination can have up to four Generated Effects running simultaneously.
Finally, completing this overview, the KARMA's multitrack sequencer section includes user-recordable patterns and a real-time pattern play/record feature which lets you trigger loops and phrases live from the keyboard; in addition, GM song files can be loaded, saved, and played back in both Sequencer and Song Play modes.
... And What It's Not
Not unreasonably, the KARMA isn't wholly a Triton with GE capabilities bolted on. Korg have made sacrifices from the Triton spec in order to bring KARMA in at a reasonable price point (which they have; in the UK, KARMA retails at about 80 percent of the price of the basic Triton). The most significant of these is probably the loss of the Triton's sampling functions and onboard sample RAM, but the associated rear-panel audio input sockets and SCSI expansion option have also gone. The Triton's large graphical touchscreen display has been replaced on the KARMA by a smaller, more traditional backlit LCD window, with a row of F1-F8 function buttons below the window for page selection and adjacent cursor up/down/left/right buttons for parameter selection within the pages. This difference contributes to the slightly smaller dimensions of the KARMA compared to the Triton; while its width and height are virtually the same, KARMA's casing is just under three centimetres less deep than the Triton's. A bigger difference (which will be appreciated by anyone who has to carry the KARMA around) is that it's a little over four kilos lighter than the Triton.
Also missing in action are the Triton's ribbon controller, its rear-panel To Host socket (which provides direct connection to a PC's serial port), and two of the Triton's four Individual audio output jacks. The To Host socket, more commonly found on budget GM/GS/XG desktop modules, has always seemed out of place on the Triton anyway. More of a loss is the ribbon controller, which could surely have been put to good use for live manipulation of KARMA's Generated Effects. And the loss of individual outs on a multitimbral synth is always a shame. The dual polyphonic arpeggiators of the Triton have been dropped as well, but then the Generated Effects functionality of the KARMA more than makes up for these.
There has also been some moderate rejigging of the front panel layout, basically to take account of the KARMA's added knob and button controllers and the aforementioned absence of the Triton's dual polyphonic arpeggiators. To make way for, and give pride of place to, the KARMA controllers, the four real-time (synth and effect parameter) Control knobs and associated A/B select button that are above the left-hand end of the Triton's keyboard have been moved to a position above the joystick controller on the KARMA.
Talking of the front panel, there's another difference between the two instruments; how you access the EXB PCM ROM expansion board slots. While both the KARMA and the Triton can be fitted with two EXB PCM boards, the KARMA has a lockable cover in the top left corner of its front panel (see right), whereas on the Triton you have to unscrew a plate on the underside of the instrument (mind you, you still have to install the MOSS board on KARMA via the underside). This means you can more easily swap EXB PCM boards on the KARMA than you can on the Triton (or the Triton Rack, for that matter). But this easy access brings with it inherent dangers, namely that you could be more inclined to try and remove a board without first switching off the machine, while the cover could accidentally open and be snapped off. Still, Korg have sought to lessen these dangers with the locking mechanism and by printing, in clearly visible large white lettering on the circuit board, the helpful words 'Caution! Turn the power off! No statics!'.
Having covered the differences between the Triton and KARMA, I'm not going to rehash a review of the majority aspects that the two workstations have in common, but will focus instead on the new, KARMA-specific features. The 'Workstation Specification', and 'KARMA Generated Effect Specification' boxes elsewhere in this article give you a good overview of what KARMA has to offer. You can also read the detailed reviews of the Triton, Triton Rack and all five EXB PCM expansion boards from previous issues of SOS, either in back issues or on the SOS web site (see the links in the 'Previously in SOS...' box at the end of this article).
At the heart of the KARMA is the Generated Effect, which is what generates all its interactive phrases, patterns and effects. It's this aspect of the KARMA which has generated all the buzz around it, and of course given it both its name and its reason to exist. As Steve McNally puts it in his interview elsewhere in this article, Korg could have brought out a 'Triton Junior' without any of the Generated Effect functionality. But along with needing a different name, it probably wouldn't have made much impact, despite the cheaper price tag. The algorithmic technology that puts the first A in KARMA enables Korg's new workstation to move out of the Triton's shadow by giving it its own identity and focus, not to mention uniqueness.
You can think of the GE as 'sitting on top of' a Program, which is itself complete in the Triton sense of being a sample-based subtractive synthesis patch or a global Drum Kit of drum and percussion sounds spread across the keyboard. What the GE aspect of the KARMA does is add movement to the sound or kit, whether that be a purely textural kind of 'inner movement', a rhythmic gated effect imposed on a sustained note or chord, or a drum and percussion rhythm with built-in random spontaneity. In Combi mode, the effect of the multiple GEs can be more like a traditional multi-instrument auto-accompaniment section that responds to chord changes, or gives you guitar chording with a realistic strumming effect, or arpeggiated guitar chords with live and spontaneous tempo fluctuations. Hopefully, you get the idea: the GE functionality of the KARMA is versatile! There are more examples of what GEs can do later in this article.
GE-generated data is based on note data from the keyboard or from an external MIDI device. For each Program you get to select one of 1190 preset GEs. These are grouped into 16 categories which reflect the type of instrumental sound or type of effect that they've been designed for (see the 'KARMA GE Specification' box-out). A really neat idea here is that the name of each GE is suffixed with, as appropriate, the factory pre-load Program (Bank and Number), the arpeggio direction(s), or the factory pre-load Drum Kit with which it was originally created. So, as long as you don't change the factory pre-load assignments, you can easily listen to a GE in its original context.
The many parameters that underlie each GE have been pre-programmed by Korg to shape the particular generative choices of that GE. However, for each GE you are given access to up to 16 of those parameters — though the choice of which 16 is preset by Korg. However, you do get to assign up to all 16 of those parameters to the eight knobs and two buttons of KARMA's front-panel Real-time Controls section (or KRTC, as Korg call it). You can also assign the parameters to four Dynamic MIDI controllers, which include the joystick, velocity, aftertouch, the sustain pedal and the assignable footswitch and footpedal. You can control more than one parameter at a time from a controller, and set the polarity of each parameter.
This controller assignability enables you to store edited values for the 16 parameters as part of a Program, or manipulate the parameters on the fly to create real-time changes in the way that note and CC (Continuous Controller) data is generated from the keyboard or MIDI source notes, and hence create changes in the results of those generative processes.
There are four types of Generated Effect: Real-Time, Drum, Gated, and Riff, and they merit closer inspection.
• Real-Time GEs take the notes played and apply time-based effects to them such as Melodic Repeat (a sophisticated 'MIDI delay') and Auto-Bending.
• Drum GEs use patterns of preset pitches as the basis of their processing. These patterns can be used to trigger drum and percussion sounds to generate rhythms, or to create pitched instrumental textures. Up to three Drum or Melodic Patterns can be looped together or played and looped consecutively, and each Drum Pattern can consist of up to seven Drum sounds or notes. The Patterns can be of different lengths, can loop independently, and various parameters can be applied to shape them. Perhaps most significantly, you can introduce and give various weightings to randomness factors which affect durations and choice of drum sounds or notes. The effect of this is to generate rhythm tracks which have something of the rhythmic flexibility and spontaneity of a real musician playing.
• Gated GEs apply rhythmic gated effects to the actual notes played, using MIDI CCs to create the effects. So, for instance, expression or volume CCs with values alternating between 0 and 127 can be used to 'chop up' a sustained sound; another option would be to use a CC to control filter cutoff frequency. This particular technique can be very effective when applied to rhythm patterns.
• Generated Riff GEs are perhaps the most powerful and flexible of the four GE types. Basically, a processed Note Series is generated from the notes that you play on the keyboard (or via the MIDI In) in accordance with various parameters which 'twist' the notes and the note order, shift chords, or filter notes. The GE then works on various attributes of the resulting note series, such as rhythm, duration and velocity, applying parameters to them which shape how these attributes affect the Note Series.
A Generated Effect also has two Phases, which are basically two different collections of values for the parameters belonging to some of the Parameter Groups (eg. Rhythm, Duration, Velocity), and these Phases are in turn organised into Phase Patterns of up to 16 steps, with one or other Phase assigned to each step. This Phase Pattern can loop, and there are various options for determining when a Phase Change (ie. movement from one step to the next) will occur, including Time Signature, which can be assigned independently to each Phase (as can a Transpose value).
Finally, you can of course record a KARMA performance, complete with all the generated note and CC data into the onboard sequencer, or into an external MIDI sequencer, playing Programs or Combinations. The latter option, allowing you to have up to four GEs running at once, opens up all sorts of textural and multi-instrument possibilities which go beyond using single Programs.
The KARMA offers a wealth of ways to manipulate a Generated Effect from its front panel. First of all, the On/Off button in the KARMA Variable Performance Modeller section of the panel lets you smoothly drop the KARMA GE in and out. So one moment you can be playing a Program or Combination 'straight', the next moment you can have all the GE-generated stuff happening — or vice versa. The On/Off facility is also more than a merely utilitarian feature. By allowing you to switch in this way between 'straight' and 'GE'd' versions of a Program or Combination, it becomes a performance feature. In effect, it allows you to drop GE-generated parts in and out in real time; for hands-free switching, you can assign the On/Off function to the KARMA's assignable footswitch. While switching the KARMA/GE mode off drops out the GE-generated parts and leaves any sustained keyboard notes playing, to 'drop in' GE parts you need to (re)play the trigger notes on the keyboard — after switching the mode On in advance, of course.
A feature that will be very familiar to arpeggiator and auto-accompaniment users alike is Latch on/off, which is also accessible from its own front-panel button and assignable to the footswitch (in place of GE mode on/off). Simply, with Latching on, the GE parts will continue to play when you lift your fingers off the keyboard, while with Latching off they will stop playing (along with the keyboard trigger notes, of course).
Each of the four Chord Trigger buttons on the front panel can store from one to eight notes which can be triggered by tapping or by pressing and holding the button. This has the same effect as if you'd played them; so if GE On/Off is set to Off, you'll just get the straight notes. If it's On then you'll get the GE-generated parts as well, providing that one or more of the stored notes is in the section of the keyboard that has been assigned as the GE trigger area. The result will also vary according to how the Program's GE parts are set to respond to new keyboard trigger notes, and according to whether Latch mode is on or off. You can quickly assign a new set of notes to a button by turning on the Assign button, playing the note(s) on the keyboard, then pressing the Chord Trigger button that you want the note(s) to be assigned to. You can enter a wide spread of notes by holding down the first note with one hand and then playing the other notes successively with the other hand; a single velocity is then assigned to all the notes, set by the velocity of the last note you play.
The Chord Trigger buttons can be useful simply as an easy way to play a chord sequence, but they're also a useful creative performance tool in their own right. Another real-time feature is the GE Tempo knob, which lets you adjust the overall tempo of the GE phrases, patterns and effects between 40 and 240bpm (handy if you spontaneously decide that you want to ramp up the tempo on the dancefloor). The stored tempo value is the one selected at the time you save the Program (the same applies to the GE and Latch on/off and Chord Trigger button settings).
But the centrepiece of the real-time control of Generated Effects is undoubtedly the eight KRTC knobs and two buttons, together with the Scene 1/2 button, which lets you switch live between two sets of parameter value assignments for the knobs and buttons. These knobs and buttons give you real-time control over various aspects of a Program's Generated Effect; the two buttons let you switch their assigned features on or off, while the knobs let you move through a continuum of parameter value ranges (though you can also set them individually to function as on/off switches). This is the KARMA GE equivalent of making real-time changes to synthesis parameters by twiddling knobs. In this case, you're making changes to parameters which affect the generated notes and effects rather than the timbre parameters of the sound(s) that they play, although the overall sound of what you're hearing can still be changed significantly.
Once you twiddle a knob or press a button, the relevant Scene LED starts blinking, and if you've selected the KRTC page in the LCD (which is a useful thing to do, as this lists the GE feature assigned to each knob and button) the graphical representation of each knob and button darkens. These visual indicators provide a quick way of seeing that one or more parameter values have been changed from their stored settings. You can restore the entire Program to its stored values by pressing the Compare button.
Alternatively, you can reset an individual Scene by holding down the Enter button and pressing the Scene button, or reset just an individual parameter by holding down Enter and pressing the relevant button or twiddling the relevant knob. These are more than just utilitarian 'recovery' features, however. Valuable as it is to be able to reset some or all values if you make a pig's ear of editing, resetting values is also a useful performance feature with many of the Programs and Combis. For example, with Program A004, 'Tricky Kit!', you can make all sorts of live edits to the KARMA GE drum pattern, altering rhythm complexity, rhythm swing, the choice of kick or snare sound, and the levels of kick/snare, hi-hat/cymbal and percussion sounds (see the GE examples below for more on this). The method used works OK if you're not actually playing any notes on the keyboard, because the physical separation of the Enter button from the KRTC knobs and controllers requires that you use both hands to reset values. However, I found myself wanting to be able to reset selected changes for performance reasons while playing chords or phrases with one hand, and the KARMA just doesn't allow you to do this. In all fairness, there isn't a button next to the real-time controllers that could be used. Perhaps this controller and Scene reset feature could have been better served by a dedicated latchable Reset on/off button adjacent to the controllers.
Some GE Examples
In describing the various forms of Generated Effect, I've hardly touched on the full range of parameters available, or all the types of manipulation options. The KARMA comes with a GE Guide book over just over 50 pages long which goes through all the GE parameters, and you'll likely have a headache if you try to absorb it all! More to the point, covering anything like the full breadth and variety of the practical application of KARMA's GEs here would require at least another SOS article. But if this is making you think that using KARMA and GEs is forbiddingly complex, think again. Bear in mind that all the GE types and parameters I've described are largely invisible to you as a KARMA user, and all the choices of settings have been made by Korg in the 1190 preset GEs that you can select from. You don't need to understand all the innards and complexities of the GEs in order to make use of the KARMA's GE functionality — which is fortunate, as this stuff can be deep! In fact, Korg have deliberately set out to shield users from all the brain-numbing algorithmic stuff. However, it does help to have some awareness of what's going on under the bonnet.
To help drive home all the theory, here are a couple of examples of GEs in action. Finding 'representative' examples isn't easy, precisely because GEs are capable of such a wide range of results. Nevertheless, I hope that the couple of Programs and the Combi I've detailed here will give you a flavour of what using KARMA can be like, and what the GE functionality can add to them.
• PROGRAM A004, 'TRICKY KIT!'
Factory pre-load Global Drum Kit 'Tricky Kit' is assigned to the keyboard. With the KARMA function Off, you can play the drum and percussion sounds on the keyboard. When you enable the KARMA function and play any key, GE1060 ('HipShuffle', a Generated Drum GE) is triggered. This is a drum and percussion rhythm — or, more accurately, it's one of 192 available Drum Pattern Templates which has been preassigned by Korg to this GE. Using the KRTCs, you can then alter the rhythm and some sounds by adjusting the complexity setting of the rhythm, the amount of swing timing (or set it to none), the levels of the kick/snare, hi-hats/cymbal and percussion parts, the choice of kick and snare sounds, and the number of note repetitions, and turn the percussion pattern and/or the pitch-bend shape on/off.
• PROGRAM A024, 'DIGI ICE PAD'
This is a smooth, glassy pad sound which applies subtle timbral changes from the synth section on sustained notes. The KARMA functionality adds a Generated Riff GE (GE0817, 'Digi Ice Pad' to be precise), which gives a beautiful, spacy, floating 'inner movement' to the sound — the sort of effect that was a characteristic and much-loved feature of Korg's classic Wavestation synth. The KARMA achieves this through the note sequences that the GE generates from the notes you play on the keyboard.
You can either play sustained chords and have the generated notes shimmer around the 'chorded' sound, or play short keyboard 'trigger' chords and let the generated note sequences run on their own; the sequences loop, but can be set to randomise note patterns. Using the KRTCs, you can make changes to such settings as rhythm complexity, swing amount, velocity accents, note duration amount, time signature, and note voicing.
• COMBINATION B039, '3 ZONE GROOVE'
This patch provides a good example of how Combination mode's ability to run up to four GEs at once enables the creation of 'backing bands'. Specifically, B039 'un-KARMA'd' is a three-way bass/organ/synth keyboard split. But with its four GEs running, it puts together bass, drums, rhythm guitar and marimba in a driving rock-funk groove, and provides the auto-accompaniment-style functionality of changing the notes played by the 'backing band' in accordance with the chords you play in the lower two octaves of the keyboard. The organ functions as a lead sound in the next two octaves, as well as triggering marimba chord changes if more than two notes are played at once, while the top octave has the synth lead. The KRTCs allow you to make changes to various aspects of the backing parts, such as drum complexity and improvisation, bass complexity and bell complexity, as well as overall changes, such as swing amount and velocity accent.
The KARMA is a very impressive instrument, and quite unique. You have all the sonic excellence, breadth and versatility of the Triton, of course, but the Generated Effects functionality takes the KARMA to a whole new level of sonic and rhythmic sophistication and power. The results that can be achieved with it are diverse enough that the workstation will appeal to a wide variety of musicians, from the straight pop and rock composer/arranger to the most 'out there' dance musician.
Inevitably, KARMA's generative algorithmic capabilities and complexities won't appeal to everyone. However, if you're prepared to grasp the GE nettle and learn how to use the KARMA as a creative tool, you'll be richly and uniquely rewarded.
Published in SOS May 2001