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April 25, 2012

Korg Monotribe Review

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:13 am

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see: Korg Monotribe Review

Presented during the Musikmesse 2011, the Monotribe is the big brother of the Monotron. This standalone sound module includes one synth voice and three analog drum sounds and was conceived to change patterns while playing live. To write this review I decided to take it with me on my skiing vacations…

Korg Monotribe

You know, February is time for holidays in the mountains among friends. Usually when night falls, Paulo grabs his guitar and steals the hearts of the girls present… I mean women — time flies! Like every year, Paulo plays while the fire crackles inside the chalet covered with snow. But I have decided Paulo will have a serious competitor this year! While the mountains disappear behind the thick clouds, a wonderful Bang Bang Chack Bang Wiiiiizzzz will pierce the silence. This year our dear Paulo lost the competition (Sylvia won’t be waiting for him) — a small analog box took his throne. “But, what the heck is that box with a black ribbon keyboard and trashy loops?” .” Explanation…

Unpacking

Korg Monotribe

The Monotribe is a small drum machine that includes four different instrumental parts (one mono synth and three drum sounds) and a 16-step sequencer. Battery operation and the small integrated speaker ensure autonomy. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to take it with me to the mountains in spite of the very low temperatures. By the way, the announced battery life is 14 hours — enough to compete with Paulo the whole week. As for design, the Monotribe is a small black box (8.2″ x 5.7″ x 2.8″) made out of plastic and weights 1.6 lbs (without batteries). The product seems to be sturdy and well manufactured. The front panel provides quite a lot of action: five rotary controls, six slim trim pots, six three-way selectors, 17 push buttons, 15 LEDs, and a ribbon/keyboard controller.

Korg Monotribe

On the rear panel are all connections, which aren’t many! Besides the on/off switch and the power in for external 9V DC power supply (ref. KA-350, unfortunately not supplied!), you get only four minijacks and one 1/4″ jack: step sync input (impulse-type sync with adjustable polarity, for example the rim shot of a drum machine), sync out (delivers +/- 5V during 15ms for every step), phones out, audio in, and mono audio out (1/4″ jack). No CV/Gate or MIDI connections! This means you can program and sync the Monotribe but you can’t control it remotely… at least in the original version since some DIY fans have managed to create upgrade kits. The bottom side gives you access to the integrated speaker and the battery compartment for six standard AA batteries (this time, Korg does provide the batteries).

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

In the end, this small box can serve more purposes other that annoying Paulo when he’s sitting next to the fire. This mobile solution is made for people who prefer intuitive and spontaneous creativity rather than complex menus and multiple memories. It’s a pity that the hidden features accessible via button combinations are not printed on the device. The ribbon keyboard is really hard to use to use if you are looking for precise triggering. With the Monotribe, Korg reinforces the idea that live electro musicians can be unexperienced keyboard players or programmers. If you want to trigger real analog, MS-20-like loops in real time without spending a fortune or learning by heart the product manual, the Monotribe is probably your instrument of choice.

Advantages: 
  • Dirty, intuitive analog sound
  • Resonant low-pass filter inherited from the MS-20
  • Fast and versatile LFO
  • Clever features (gate, flux, …)
  • Independent number of steps for each part
  • Easy to use and fun
  • Good manufacturing quality
  • Mobile device with battery operation and integrated speaker
  • Hardware modifications possible
  • Very affordable price
Drawbacks:
  • Only for live applications
  • Ribbon doesn’t allow precise triggering
  • Only two user sequences possible
  • Playback only in one direction
  • Drum sounds not editable
  • Button combinations not printed on the unit
  • No CV/gate nor MIDI
  • Optional external KA-350 PSU

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see: Korg Monotribe Review

September 21, 2011

Korg Kronos Review

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 2:00 pm

Presented at the NAMM 2011 and already available since this summer, the Kronos represents a new step in the workstation market — a cruel world where every product becomes immediately obsolete as soon as the successor is launched. The Kronos is very innovative and comprehensive, but will it be able to break this fatal rule?

A Snap Shot: A Mini-Review

Korg KronosKorg Kronos

 

Korg KronosKorg Kronos

Sample Reader HD-1

Korg Kronos

Named HD-1, the first sound-synthesis engine is dedicated to playing back PCM samples. The HD-1 is a polyphonic instrument with up to 140 voices. The Kronos uses three different PCM-memory types: ROM (permanent memory), EXs (library of pre-loadabable samples; not to be confused with the Exi, which are the additional synthesis engines), and RAM (for user sampling). The ROM memory includes 314 MB of samples. The EXs expansions dedicated to the HD-1 engine (that is to say without the EXs6 and EXs7 expansions that are dedicated to the SGX-1 engine) use 2.6 GB of memory in total: 274 MB for the EXs1 (ROM Expansion), 361 MB for the EXs2 (Concert Grand Piano), 714 MB for the EXs3 (Brass & Woodwinds), 157 MB for the EXs4 (Vintage Keyboards), 458 MB for the EXs5 (Rom Expansion 2), 170 MB for the EXs8 (Rock Ambience Drums), and 472 MB for the EXs9 (Jazz Ambience Drums). The Kronos distinguishes itself from competitors by its low data compression without quality loss for EXs loading. This 10% reduction cannot be compared with the 1:2 or 1:3 ratios usually used by similar products. Note that the SGX-1 streaming engines do not use RAM sampling. The PCM banks provided were taken from the Oasys and its expansions, which are clearly superior to the M3 in terms of versatility and quality. The stereo strings sound good and are sorted in several stereo sections, while the vector joystick allows you to mix them gradually within certain given combinations. Voices are well conceived and sound good. They are sorted in different versions (classic, pop, jazz, with different vowels or articulations). You’ll also find fairly good guitars and basses extending the possibilities offered by the STR-1 engine. The quality of brass ensembles is a bit lower in the preloaded bank because of a slight lack of brilliance and expressiveness. You’ll find more dedicated additional banks that are more advanced and better conceived. The quality of solo instruments (clarinet, flutes, sax, trumpet, trombone…) is pretty good. Once again, it is superior to the M3 (more memory) although we noticed an obvious relationship and a common sound color. The sound of acoustic drums and percussions is very accurate and expressive: punch, nice timbres, multi-layer control via velocity, high-quality sample recording, sound versatility… equally useful for pop, rock, jazz, latin, and world music. In short, it’s perfect! Electronic drums are on the same level and are greatly enhanced by the fantastic multi-effects.

Let’s take a look at other features…

Conclusion

To sum it up, these are the pluses and minuses as I see it:

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Incredible overall performance
  • Simultaneous multiple synthesis
  • Dynamic voice management
  • Well thought-out design
  • Inaudible transition between programs
  • Size of the internal memory
  • Samples streaming (SGX-1 piano banks)
  • Modulation possibility at every stage
  • Very powerful effects
  • USB audio/MIDI interface
  • Performance/money ratio
  • Possibility to patch some engines with others
  • Direct-to-disc 16-track audio sequencer
  • Karma mode, if you can manage it…

Drawbacks:

  • … because it turns too complex to be easy to use
  • Boot time should be shorter
  • No real hardware pads
  • The RAM of the sequencer and the limitation to 16 MIDI tracks
  • Some checkboxes are too small on the display
  • No streaming for user samples (yet)
  • No wind instruments (brass, woods) modeling (yet)

To read the full article with sound samples see: Korg Kronos Review

January 14, 2011

Winter NAMM 2011 Day 1 Highlights

So without further ado I present to you some video demos that were shot by our team down there in Anaheim:

To see more visit: Winter NAMM 2011 Videos and News

December 6, 2010

Korg PS60 Review

Filed under: keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 1:44 pm

While the market of low-budget synthesizers has never been so flourishing, Korg launches a performance synth conceived for live applications that require spontaneity and real-time options. Let’s step into the details…

3 pm on a gray autumn Saturday. Thick smoke fills the dark rehearsal studio when a hoarse voice raises from behind the drum kit…

“Hey, let me know when you are done turning knobs and playing with your touchscreen so you can finally give us some Rhodes and finish your synth solo!”

– I’m almost done, I just have to insert a program into the 2nd channel, edit a keyboard split and adjust the FX sends because I need an overdrive for the piano and a subtle delay for the solo part…

– What? A short delay? You’ve been setting your gadget there for hours. We’ve played only five songs and we still have 25 to go! We must pack our gear in two hours, drive 60 miles, mount again, make the soundcheck and start the show at 9 pm tonight…

– OK, I’m ready. Three, four, dzoiiiiiiing!!!

– What’s that chord you’re playing? Don’t you know “All by myself” is in A sharp?

– Darn, I forgot to transpose! I hate A sharp: too many black keys! Wait a minute guys, I just have to push the edit button, browse the transposition page… hm, wait, where is it? On the MkII, it was the 8th on the third-level to the right, but with the MkIII, it’s…

– I’m gonna kill you! I can’t stand your black and white keys, your cables hanging around, your twisted keyboard stands that keep on ripping my car’s leatherette seat covers…

 

Many keyboard players have experienced this when they still don’t master their brand new workstations yet, in spite of several weeks dedicated to getting to know their instrument. Complexity overcomes spontaneity! But what options do we have left, except for stacking several synths to have everything at our fingertips and edit splits and layers faster than Keith Emerson can play a fill over a five-octave keyboard or Jim Morrison can drink five bourbons… The Korg PS60 aims to be the answer: compact, quick, affordable, fully packed with ready-to-use sounds, and very editable. Let’s see if it holds true!

Double Six

Korg PS60

The PS60 is a very compact five-octave keyboard with the Korg-typical pitchbend/modulation joystick placed above the keys. Not very long nor heavy at all, due to the fact that it’s made out of plastic with a very nice and glossy finish. On the other hand, you’ll have to protect the device to take it on the road because it’s no tank… On the front panel there are many controls spread over a quite unusual layout. From left to right, you’ll find the joystick with a Hold key that allows you to hold the value corresponding to its position on the modulation axis, i.e. you can lock the return spring that brings the joystick back to the center position. You’ll also find a volume control and a key dedicated to Leslie simulations for organ sounds. But it has a fixed assignation… There’s also a row of keys for octave and half-tone transposition. Well done! Just above that, you’ll find a control section to store/recall performances pushing only one or two buttons. In the middle, a small 2×16 character, gray-blue LCD is placed above the selection keys for mode and performance selection.

But the most original section is clearly the control field’s right section. It allows you to select, turn on/off and mix on the fly two sets of six separate sound layers. In order to do that you get six rotary controls, 12 program-change keys, six channel on/off keys, a quick-edit selector for four parameters (volume, octave and two FX sends), and a split control section. You can quickly stack six program layers. When you activate the split key, you get two sets of six layers on both sides of the split point. The six parts are sorted by category: acoustic piano, electric piano, organ, strings, brass, and synth. Further on to the right, you’ll find nine controls and two keys that allow you to edit directly the two master effects and the global EQ to adapt the sound to the music. Once you are satisfied with the results you can save everything in no time. There’s no need to say that the handling is very easy and practical. But as you will see later on, the PS60 is not only a spontaneous stage keyboard but also a really comprehensive synth.

Korg PS60

Now, let’s take a quick look at the rather spartan rear panel: external PSU connector (normal for a low-budget product), on/off switch, stereo analog out, MIDI in/out, and a pair of multifunction foot controllers. Nothing revolutionary for today’s standards… The minijack 1/8″ headphones out is on the front panel. Nice! Let’s close this short overview by noting that the five-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive but it doesn’t support aftertouch, and it sports half-weighted keys with better quality than its competitors in the same price range.

Sound Set

Korg PS60

The PS60 uses a sound synthesis based on samples taken from the M3/M50 series in a compressed PCM ROM equivalent to 49 MB at 16 bits/48 kHz. You get 120 voices of polyphony and 12 simultaneous channels of multitimbrality. The unit always works in performance mode, which means that it always uses an arrangement of one or two sets with six sound layers. Each layer includes one of the 512 internal programs, including 440 factory-loaded ones. Each program includes a small demo to be chosen from 383 audition riffs which cannot be programmed. The sound samples provided with this review use these riffs to allow you to get a quick overview of the pop/rock oriented sound possibilities.

You’ll find some multisample acoustic pianos in different stereo variations (with or without sustain pedal and different tempered tunings) and a piano from the M1: typical sounds of older Korg workstation generations that cannot come close to the level of multisamples used by modern workstations. The multisample electric pianos sound much better, especially two Fender and one Wurlitzer sampled with three velocity steps. The Clavinet sounds are ok, especially thanks to the FX section. You get eight electric organs, which cover most music styles from smoky jazz to spellbinding gospel and distorted rock.

Korg PS60

You’ll also find two strings sections from previous Korg workstations: a very wide stereo ensemble and a small, slightly aggressive section. Choirs are well represented with four pop and classic multisamples provided in three variations. Brass sounds do not have an homogeneous quality. On the one hand you have the very nice, stereo pop section, the trumpet, trombone, French horn, flute, and clarinet sounds, but you also have three miserable saxophones. Even though the guitar & bass category doesn’t belong to the six instrument families on the front panel, you’ll find acoustic/electric bass and guitar sounds all the same. Bass guitars sound pretty good but guitars are disappointing: dead attacks, short held notes, audible loop points. However, the excellent amp simulation effects save the day… You also get about 50 different waveforms in different variations (sawtooth, sinus, impulse and DWGS & VS waves) — tradition is not a meaningless word at Korg. On the other hand, you won’t find any drum kits; it’s a pity since they are sometimes very convenient…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The PS60 offers an interesting concept at a very affordable price. You get a rather good pop/rock sound selection that, honestly speaking, cannot compete with big workstations or high-class stage keyboards. The same applies to the sound synthesis parameter set that requires an external piece of software (which is provided, luckily). One thing that sets the PS60 apart from all those high-end, sophisticated products is that it is clearly superior when it comes to quickly stacking, splitting, mixing and editing different sound layers during live performances. This will appeal to nomad musicians who want to avoid damaging their budget and their back!

Advantages:

  • Short learning curve
  • Well though-out direct-access controls
  • Good sound quality
  • A real synth with multimode filters and modulation matrix
  • FX section with one insert per voice (except for strings)
  • Editor/library manager included
  • Quality standard dynamic keyboard
  • Very easily readable LCD
  • Compact size and light weight
  • Rewritable OS
  • Reasonable price

Drawbacks:

  • Limited direct access to some sound synthesis parameters
  • Rather annoying menu browsing
  • Only 20 performance memories
  • No sequencer nor arpeggiator
  • Keyboard without aftertouch
  • No drum sounds nor kits
  • Construction a bit fragile

To read the full detailed article see:  Korg PS60 Review

October 1, 2010

Korg MicroSampler Review

To everyone’s surprise, Korg has launched a small sampler keyboard. Let’s see what we can do with it and for what purpose…

The first all-in-one sampler keyboard saw the light of day almost 30 years ago. Born under the Californian sun in 1981, the Emulator provided four or eight voices, a four-octave keyboard and 128 KB of RAM that allowed the user to save four seconds of audio data at 8 bits/28 kHz. “Play a turkey” said the ads… you could even play eight turkeys if you paid $15,000! In those days, big Fairchild systems were the rulers and the Synclavier could not sample audio yet. The Ensoniq Mirage was the first to make this concept affordable in 1984. And the arms race began: memory, resolution, sample rate, polyphony, sound synthesis section, effects, sequencer… E-mu, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, Akaï, and Roland became the major players. And Korg joined in the adventure in 1986 with the DSS-1. With the advent of computers and their giant sample banks, the sampler keyboard market reduced to zero, nothing… until recently, when Korg surprised everybody by launching a feather light sampler keyboard called MicroSampler. For whom, for what and how?

A Strange Package

Korg MicroSampler

With almost 4.4 lb., the MicroSampler is no tank! The front panel is made out of gray cheap-looking plastic. All controls are recessed into the housing; this design protects the controls during transportation indeed but it also makes access harder. It is specially troublesome for the “Tap Tempo” and “Sampling” buttons given that we would like to push them more easily! The unit is equipped with six encoders, that recall the program selectors of a washing machine, and 16 switches. The front panel is divided into four main sections: keyboard (that allows sample selection and assignation), pattern sequencer, sampling, and browsing. The latter consists in a backlit LCD, browsing keys and two encoders: the first one allows you to browse the parameters and the other one to edit them. The keyboard offers 37 velocity sensitive keys in small format. The MicroSampler is definitely made for skillful people when it comes to editing and playing, even if the black keys are a bit larger than on most compact keyboards… Right above the keyboard, you’ll find a 37-LED display inserted in a metal bar, which indicates the sample(s) being currently played or edited. By the way, the unit has no joystick nor wheels! On the other hand, it has two slots for a cell phone, a pack of cards, chewing-gums, or money…

Korg MicroSampler

On the front panel you can also find an XLR connector for the gooseneck dynamic mic included. All other connections are on the rear panel: headphones out, stereo audio output and input on 1/4″ jacks, Midi in/out, type-D USP port, power in, and on/off switch. The USB port allows you to connect the keyboard to a computer to transfer samples and Midi data (see gray box). Under the hood, there’s a closed compartment for six AA batteries that allow you to play for about four hours (battery indication with visual alert on the display), which is ideal to sample sounds on the beach or in the rain forest… Handling is rather easy and most controls are easily accessible since the unit is very slim. By pushing the “Edit” button and a key you’ll access the edit page directly above it. The only issue arises with the “Value” encoder, which is not absolutely precise for parameter editing. We would have preferred increment/decrement buttons.

Memory and Sound

Korg MicroSampler

The MicroSampler is stereo and has 16 bit/48 kHz resolution, like all Korg products since the Trinity… Its permanent memory allows you to save eight banks of 36 user samples each (160 sec. per bank and only half that in stereo). You can use only one bank at a time after having loaded it into the internal temp memory. We don’t know if audio data is compressed but 15 MB of internal temp memory correspond to 116 MB flash memory, in linear format. The polyphony provides 14 voices but samples that use time stretching require twice as much voices.

The MicroSampler is provided with a sound bank stored in the internal ROM. It includes 36 samples and 16 patterns, some of which you can listen to here (drums, pitched, looped): Not very generous and poor quality… In “sample” mode, you can access the 36 samples dispatched over the whole keyboard in their original pitch, except the higher C key dedicated to the stereo audio input. In “keyboard” mode, the current sample is applied to all 37 keys; the second C from the left corresponds to the original pitch. You can transpose beyond this pitch range, even with an external master keyboard! If other samples are looped while you switch to this mode, they will continue playing back. On the contrary, you have to release the notes to change the sample.

Now let’s take an even closer look…

Conclusion

The MicroSampler revisits a 30-year old concept with modern technologies. The results? Extremely light weight, mobility, permanent memory, real-time sampling, integrated effects, basic sequencer, and connection to a computer. With its small keyboard, basic editing, integrated mic and standalone capability, it will be best used for mobile or live applications; it cannot compete with software solutions in a studio. The ergonomics could be better considering the target users: better access to the controls, remote sampling start, standard-size keys, more banks… Finally, the MicroSampler is a nice compact tool which is less a toy than it seems, and it is just waiting for you to take it for a ride somewhere.

Advantages:

  • Very compact size
  • Easy to use
  • Real-time capability
  • Real-time time stretching
  • Flash memory
  • Comprehensive effects section
  • Memory exchange with a computer
  • Downloadable PC/Mac editor software
  • Wav/Aiff import via editor

Drawbacks:

  • Recessed controls
  • Limited sound synthesis possibilities
  • Proprietary sample format
  • Not conceived for multisamples
  • Playing limited to 37 keys
  • Only one bank in the RAM
  • Limited number of internal banks
  • Limited number of samples per bank
  • No save function for a USB key or a card
  • Almost no pattern editing possibilities

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Korg MicroSampler Review

January 29, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demp Micro Korg XL

Filed under: keyboards, namm 2009, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 2:45 pm

Rich Formidoni from Korg USA presents us the new micro Korg XL.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

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