AF’s Weblog

May 3, 2012

How to Choose A Hardware Keyboard

Filed under: Electronic Instrument, Hardware, keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:40 am

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

By now, everyone was going to be loading soft synths into their laptops, and taking them to the gig instead of keyboards. Oh, and we were also supposed to travel around with personal jet packs and of course, flying cars.

Well, the future doesn’t always turn out as expected, does it? Hardware keyboards are actually having somewhat of a renaissance. Keyboards are a mature field, and there are a huge number of options that offer significant value, whether you’re looking for an inexpensive arranger keyboard like the Casio WK-7500, a full-blown workstation like Yamaha’s Motif XF series, something special-purpose like M-Audio’s Venom, or even a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art keyboard like the Korg Kronos or Roland Jupiter-80. Or, maybe you want a separate tone module and keyboard controller . . .

Casio WK-7500 (left) and Korg Kronos (right).

But all these options can be overwhelming—how do you choose the model  that’s right for your needs?  That’s what this article is all about, so  let’s get started.

let’s get to the heart of matter…

And Now, Our Main Feature(s)

A keyboard’s spec sheet contains a huge number of terms. Here are explanations of some of the most important ones.

On-board sequencer
A sequencer records your keypresses and controller motions, thus allowing you to record and play back compositions. For songwriting, this is great, and often gets ideas down faster than a conventional recording setup. The two most important characteristics are number of tracks (typically 8 to 32), and the number of events the sequencer can store. Note that an “event” can be a single note, so a figure like 10,000 events might seem like a lot. But moving a modulation wheel or lever from minimum to maximum might generate a hundred or more events. The more events a sequencer can store, the better.

Polyphony
This defines the number of voices that can sound simultaneously (the reason we don’t say “notes” is because technically, a voice may play back more than one note at a time, e.g., a parallel fifth). 64, 128, 256, and even more voices are common. This might seem strange—after all, you have only ten fingers. But with a piano sound, notes sustain in the background, which uses up voices. Also, if driven by a multitrack sequencer, more polyphony allows fuller arrangements by allowing more notes for each track.

Multi-timbral operation
This expresses the number of different sounds that a keyboard can generate simultaneously, and is an important spec for keyboards with on-board sequencers, or that you plan to drive with an external MIDI sequencer (e.g., a computer-based program). Most multi-timbral keyboards can do 16 different sounds simultaneously—one for each of the standard 16 MIDI channels.

Polyphony and multi-timbral operation are complementary: to play back lots of simultaneous sounds, you need lots of voices available for them.

Sample ROM
Sample-based synths store their samples in non-volatile ROM chips. Generally, more ROM capacity means either more sounds to choose from, or better quality versions of a lesser number of sounds. Back in the day, four-megabyte sound ROMs used to be considered big—compare that to the Motif XF, which has over 700MB of sounds.

Sample import
Several sample formats have evolved: the WAV file format for Windows, AIFF for the Mac, and sample formats specific to particular manufacturers (Akai’s format, while ancient, remains viable). The more formats a sampler (or synth with sample expansion) can recognize, the better but these days, most manufacturers are standardizing on WAV format files.

Real-time controls
Almost all synths have a pitch bend wheel and modulation wheel or lever (the latter might add vibrato, change tone, or other functions, depending on how the sound is programmed). To this basic roster others might add ribbon controllers (slide your finger along a ribbon strip to change a parameter value), data sliders, footpedal options, a joystick, etc. But many synthesizers take this concept one step further by including assignable faders, switches, and knobs that can (with suitable templates) control parameters in popular DAWs. Probably the best example is the integration between Yamaha synthesizers and Steinberg’s Cubase, as Steinberg is a division of Yamaha and there seems to be a lot of communication going on between the two divisions.

Storage
Options for storing sounds and sequences vary. Many synths now include USB ports so storage can be done to thumb drives, or even hard drives that connect to USB. Yamaha’s Motif XF series has the option to add up to 2GB of onboard, flash memory for storing your own sample sets in non-volatile memory.

Hard disk or RAM recording
If the keyboard has a hard drive, and can sample, sometimes you can record tracks of vocals, guitars, etc., just like a computer-based hard disk recording system. This is also possible with some synths that are RAM-based. Now we’re talking serious production – a keyboard like this blurs the line between musical instrument and recording studio.

Onboard effects
Most keyboards include at least rudimentary effects like delay and reverb, but some go much further, including multiple effects that can be used as insert, send, and master effects—just like a mixer.

How effects interact with the program or sequencer varies. Usually, you can store a particular effect or set of effects with a particular program. But suppose you have a sequence with multiple instruments, or a multi-timbral setup. Insert effects process individual tracks. Some keyboards also have master effects, which alter any audio, from any source, that appears at the output. Tone controls are good candidates for a master effect so you can, for example, brighten up the high end a bit or make the bass rumble. Send effects (also called Aux effects) can add a particular effect to multiple channels of your choice, so they’re somewhere between insert and master effects in terms of how they process the sound.

Interactive algorithms
The most sophisticated implementation of this concept is called KARMA, and is available for Korg and now, Yamaha keyboards. It’s hard to explain, but basically, the keyboard analyzes your playing and adds enhancements where appropriate. For example, a bass line might acquire pitch bend and portamento in selected places, or acoustic guitar parts may have “strums” added in for a more realistic sound. Other keyboards, like the Jupiter-80, perform their own type of enhancements (Roland calls the technology “SuperNatural”) that are also intended to enhance expressiveness. This type of “artificial intelligence” makes a difference in how inspiring an instrument can be, as it becomes more of a partner in the music-making process.

Roland’s SuperNatural technology incorporated in their Jupiter-80 adds exceptional expressiveness.

Sample slicing
This feature is found mostly in groove boxes, but is also incorporated in some keyboards, such as the Motif. The goal is to allow digital audio to follow tempo if the sequencer tempo changes. This works by slicing samples into smaller pieces, typically at prominent attacks or percussive transients. The sequencer triggers these pieces individually, so if the tempo slows down, the triggers occur further apart and the slices play back further apart to follow the beat. Conversely, with faster tempos, the slices trigger closer together.

Arpeggiator
An arpeggiator triggers notes sequentially in a pattern (sometimes arpeggiators are polyphonic, and can trigger several parallel patterns). For example, suppose you’re holding down a C major chord with the notes C4-E4-G4-C5. In “up” mode, these might play as C4-E4-G4-C5-C4-E4-G4-C5 etc. In down mode, it would do the reverse, playing C5-G4-E4-C4-C5-G4-E4-C4 etc. Other modes might be up/down, random, or extended, where the notes you hold down repeat over several octaves.

Arpeggiators are used a lot in dance and “new age” music, and to add flourishes in just about any type of music.

Expandability
Given the dizzying rate of technological progress, expandability is key to preserving your investment. Here are some of the possibilities.

Expansion card slots. Sample-based synths have a fixed complement of sounds. Adding cards expands this palette. Cards are typically genre- or instrument-specific (e.g., dance music, ethnic instruments, hip-hop, pianos, etc.).

USB or FireWire port. With all recent Mac and Windows machines sporting USB ports, they’re used for everything from file transfers between keyboard and computer to providing all the functions of a stand-alone MIDI interface so a program running on the computer, such as a sequencer, can communicate directly with the keyboard. Sometimes these even provide audio interface functions, especially if the keyboard has an external input.

Expandable sample memory. More sample memory lets you store larger numbers of longer samples before you run out of room. Expansion usually consists of inserting common, relatively inexpensive memory chips used in desktop computers.

Audio input. This can be used for recording your own samples, or tracks into a sequencer, and can also provide signals that the synthesizer can process.

The Editor for Korg’s M3 makes it easy to create sounds, or use it as a plug-in within your DAW. Click to enlarge.

Companion software. To simplify creating your own sounds, some keyboards come with Editor software. This puts parameters on-screen and lets you edit them, which is often a faster and more direct approach than going through menu screens on the keyboard itself. What’s more, some software lets you treat the keyboard as a VST or AU plug-in within your DAW.

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

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 15, 2011

Winter NAMM 2011 Day 2 Highlights

And here are some video demo highlights from Day 2:

To see all news and videos visit: Winter NAMM 2011

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

September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

August 24, 2010

Dave Smith Instruments Tetra Review

The Tetra hosts four Mopho voices in an extremely compact housing, meaning you get an analog polyphonic, programmable and a very affordable synth. A closer look…

In 2002, Dave Smith decided to embark on a new hardware synth adventure in order to create instruments that would be pleasant to touch, program, play and hear… In those early days, he launched the Evolver: a small hybrid module that included digital waveforms from the Prophet-VS, as well as analog oscillators and low-pass filters. When it came out, nobody payed attention to a small integrated circuit in the unit: the DSI-120, which was developed together with Curtis — well-known for the VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, envelopes, and other integrated circuits he developed from the late 70’s to the late 80’s, and which glorified analog synths, transforming them into polyphonic and giving them more stability. It was this same DSI-120 that was used for every voice of the Prophet-08 in 2007, making “modern” analog polyphonic synths affordable back then. In 2008, the Mopho extended the already long career of the integrated circuit that provides no less than two DCOs, a low-pass VCF and a stereo VCA. By the end of 2009, DSI presented the Tetra — a Mopho on steroids including four DSI-120 circuits!

First Inspection

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

The Tetra is a bluish-gray compact module made out of rugged metal and fitted in the same housing as the Mopho. The housing is covered with a layer of Lexan (a printed, soft PVC sheet): the manufacturer says this solution is more expensive than standard silkscreen but adds features like higher printing definition, waterproof LCD and longer durability. The rotary controls have black “deluxe” knobs with chrome binding that remind us of the Prophet-5, but smaller. The Tetra features eight incremental encoders (pitch, attack, decay/release, select + four freely assignable encoders) as well as three potentiometers (volume, cutoff, resonance). All encoders have plastic axes, while all potentiometers are top quality and firmly mounted on the device. The choice of encoders or potentiometers for filter parameter control could certainly be discussed; some will prefer to edit signals accurately and without value drops or threshold effects, while others will prefer to get an immediate response over a short editing range. Dave Smith explains that customer feedback shows that most users choose the second option. Anyway, the potentiometers have three different responses: Jump (the edited parameter jumps to the value matching the physical position of the potentiometer as soon as you turn it), relative (the parameter changes smoothly according to the physical range still available) and passthru (the parameter changes only when the physical position of the potentiometer passes through the stored value). In the middle of the front panel you’ll find an easily readable, blue backlit LCD with 2 x 16 digits. The rest of the front panel is scattered with small selectors: playing mode, navigation (programs/banks), memory save, encoders’ assignment mode, editing layer, and note triggering (“Push It!” with activated LEDs when the Tetra plays back tones).

Handling

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Ergonomics were no highlight of the Mopho… and given the number of parameters of the Tetra, they didn’t really improve that much considering that editing possibilities are now fourfold! cTo edit a sound, you can use either the row of five encoders/pots with hard assignment or the four freely assignable encoders. To assign a parameter, press the “Assign” button and turn one of the four encoders until you reach the desired parameter. Afterwards, push the “Assign” button again to exit assignment mode and go back to sound editing. Luckily, the assignment is saved with each program! When a program has two layers, push the Edit B / Combo button to access the second layer. In Combo mode, editing can be quite exasperating: it is impossible to access the four sound layers because each assignable encoder is dedicated to one of the voices (so you don’t have direct access to the three other parameters anymore) and the other pots/encoders control all layers simultaneously. Some of the first users have already asked for an OS update. Until then, you’ll have to use Sound Tower’s editor for Mac/PC (either the free “lite” version or the commercial “pro” version)…

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now, let’s take a look at the rear connection panel: separate phones output, four unbalanced audio outputs (including one stereo pair), Midi in + out + polychain connector (to chain up to four Tetras, or two Tetras and a Prophet-08), USB2 port (Midi over USB but no audio), external power supply (standard power supply with auto voltage detection and exchangeable connector). And that’s it? Yes, that’s it! No on/off power switch and, most importantly, no audio input to process external signals! An excellent solution to protect the Mopho… The Tetra holds two small PCBs: an analog board (for the four voices) connected to the motherboard that includes the digital circuitry (processor) and connections. Several remarks: the layout of the surface mounted components (SMC) and the assembly quality of the product are impressive (see picture). From the connection design between the boards we can easily envision several possibilities in other configurations. To be continued…

Dave Smith Instruments - TetraDave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now let’s get in deeper into the machine…

Live Addiction

As a summary, the Tetra is a powerful polyphonic, multitimbral analog synth. Its price is very reasonable considering that this compact unit hosts a real sound synthesis monster with only a few direct controls. This, however, is also its main limitation because the design doesn’t allow direct and easy editing. Thus, the Sound Tower editor is indispensable. If you consider the Tetra’s outstanding sound quality and the lack of serious competitors, it ought to take you no time to understand that it is the perfect live instrument to complement digital synths and other cold-sounding workstations. So, when is the keyboard version coming out?

Advantages:

  • Value for money
  • Sound quality
  • Compact and rugged housing
  • Polyphony and multitimbrality
  • Modulation possibilities
  • Arpeggiators and sequencers
  • Separate outputs
  • USB2 interface

Drawbacks:

  • Editing ease
  • Limited Combo mode
  • No audio input
  • No on/off power switch
  • External power supply

To read the full detailed article with sound samples please see:  Tetra Review

August 5, 2010

Akai Miniak Review

After having repositioned Alesis on the market, Numark seems to have entrusted Akai with the fate of the synth/drum machine product range. The Miniak is the first Akai synth “in the modern era”.

Late after the extinction of analog dinosaurs, musicians started to rediscover and revere these fat monsters. Manufacturers, which were developing preset-based digital workstations, decided to digitally model the behavior of analog circuitries. The last step was to conceive ergonomic user interfaces that included direct controls for a more authentic playing feel (to make the illusion more real, say analog fundamentalists). Very few manufacturers started to develop real programmable, polyphonic analog synths… One of the exceptions was Alesis who, against all odds, launched ten years ago the most powerful analog synth in history: Andromeda. This was a masterly achievement but also their deathblow: Numark bought the manufacturer in 2001, drastically reduced the Andromeda market price and launched a very successful range of analog modeling synths.

In 2003, the Ion provided eight voices of pure happiness with three powerful oscillators, two full-featured filters and a front panel fully packed with control elements. More affordable versions came out pretty fast: born in 2004, the Micron used the same sound synthesis as the Ion and even added effects to the rig, but it was hosted in a compact housing with reduced space for controls — not very ergonomic. Numark bought Akai Professional the same year and immediately redeployed the MPC product range. Now, they have introduced the Miniak: a Micron synth repacked under the Akai brand. So, the key question is: do they need cash and have relied on a tried and tested technology already amortized, or is it a strategic move to try to reposition the two brands? Anyway, people under 20 will think the Miniak is the first Akai analog synth. With a bit of luck, the rest of us might remember that their first analog synth was the AX80. In 1985!

New Look

Akai Miniak

Repacking means getting a new outfit. With its strong black PVC housing mounted on a rugged metal bottom side, the Miniak is no exception to the rule. The unit is manufactured in Taiwan and has a remarkable construction quality. The impression of sturdiness is reinforced by the weight of the unit: 11 lb. are quite a lot for such a compact device. It’s actually a big difference in comparison to the Micron’s aluminum lightness! The finish is perfect, be it the silkscreen or the encoders that use a metal axis screwed on the housing for a longer life. The three XYZ encoders are absolute encoders: they can be assigned to sound synthesis parameters and they have 12-bit resolution, which translates into 4,096 possible values. The fourth encoder is labeled Data. This incremental control with push function allows you to switch between menus and parameter edition.

Akai Miniak

Besides the play mode, sequence triggering and volume controls, you’ll find three quality wheels (pitch plus two freely assignable modulation wheels) that light up orange. The 37 half-weighted keys are velocity and aftertouch but not pressure sensitive. The response of these standard sized keys is quite good and make playing easier. There is an XLR input for dynamic microphones, like the gooseneck mic included. All other connections — firmly screwed on the housing — are on the rear panel: a socket for the external power supply, power on/off switch, stereo inputs and outputs on balanced TRS connectors, phones out, two footswitch inputs, MIDI in/out/thru, and a connector for a notebook-type anti-theft device. Just like on the Micron, we miss a USB port on this synth…

Arduous Editing

Akai Miniak

Getting started is pretty straightforward: just look at the silkscreen and push, simultaneously, the “program” button and a key to select a bank; then simply browse the programs with the incremental knob. Now, you can play the keyboard, trigger rhythm patterns and arpeggios, depending on the note you play; adjust the tempo with the “Tap tempo” button; and edit three sound parameters using the assignable XYZ encoders or the three wheels. Dedicated buttons allow you to transpose the keyboard up to three octaves up and down, considering that the Miniak can handle all 128 MIDI notes. It’s ideal for live performances!

Akai Miniak

On the other hand, editing possibilities are very frustrating because, excluding the three assignable encoders, all other settings must be made via menu pages. Once again, push the “Programs” button and a key to access the section you wish to edit (oscillators, pre-mix, filters, outputs, envelopes, etc.). Afterwards, you’ll have to browse the menu pages using the “Data” selector: push it to edit a parameter and push it again to toggle back to navigation mode… Considering the large number of editable parameters, you’ll beg for a dedicated editor. But it’s no use: Akai doesn’t provide anything! However, you’ll find a VST/standalone editor for Windows from HyperSynth: http://www.hypersynth.com/miniak-editor.html (which we haven’t tried out). By the way, we would also like to criticize something else: the backlit LCD display has only 2×16 digits and is much too small to manage the countless parameters. It is hardly readable in spite of its adjustable contrast (blue characters on blue background) and it is too recessed into the panel (the readability decreases when you don’t stand directly above the display).

Now let’s dig into the sound!….

Born to Run

Finally, the Miniak is a very compact, rugged and clever instrument that produces vintage synth emulations as well as modern techno sounds. Compared with the Micron, the biggest change is only aesthetic. However, the Miniak does bring some improvements in the control layout, which enhances operation. The Miniak is a stage monster conceived to be transported all over the world to play live on stage. On the other hand, it is not so powerful for direct editing. That’s the other side of the coin: with such a small size and price, it offers a very limited number of direct controls. This is when we start dreaming about a Maxiak fully packed with knobs and buttons!

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Powerful sound synthesis
  • Control resolution
  • Construction quality
  • Compact and easily transportable
  • Integrated effects
  • Included gooseneck mic
  • Pattern generator
  • Real dynamic keyboard

Drawbacks:

  • Complex direct editing
  • No USB port
  • No dedicated editor
  • Vocoder’s intelligibility

To read the full (this is just the beginning) detailed article with sound samples see:  Akai Miniak Review

March 31, 2010

Best of Musikmesse 2010: The Top 11

They came to Frankfurt, Germany, showed their stuff, we looked, touched and video taped. Now with everybody back home, it’s time to make sense of the best gear presented at Musikmesse 2010.

Wrapping up a trade show like Musikmesse is no easy feat.  The editorial purpose here is not to declare that such and such product is the best, because as we all know it’s comparing apples to oranges in most cases.  For us here at Audiofanzine is it an opportunity to give a congratulatory nod to the products that we felt stood out in the crowd and did something for us.

Audiofanzine’s Top 11 picks from Musikmesse 2010 is presented in no particular order.

1.  RME Babyface:

Equipped with 192 kHz AD- and DA-converters and two microphone preamps the bus-powered Babyface uses the USB 2.0 high-speed bus and has been optimized under Windows and Mac OS. The Babyface combines analog circuit design with AD/DA converter chips of the latest generation. On top RME’s SteadyClock is designed to ensure an AD- and DA-conversion. Both digitally controlled preamps provide individually switchable 48V phantom power.  The Interface allows to record multiple channels and it’s still very simple setup. It is very small and actually fits in a laptop bag. Most other small interfaces are a lot bigger…

2.  Line 6 Variax James Tyler:

james tylerThis new line of guitars is designed to ”deliver the feel of the finest boutique instruments and the optimal tonal performance of Line 6 guitar modeling technology,” the company says.

Variax guitars are designed to reproduce the sounds of a collection of 25 vintage electric and acoustic instruments, and a dozen custom tunings. The modeled instruments include solid-body, semi-hollow guitars and hollow-body electrics with a variety of pickup configurations, six- and twelve-string acoustics, and other guitar-related instruments including a resonator, banjo, and an electric sitar.  This new line of guitars will be available in three styles, said to reflect the designs of James Tyler in each curve, component and control.

3.  Roland GAIA SH-01:

roland gaiaThe triple-stacked engine of this synthesizer features a “fun, friendly and inviting” designed to attract first-timers, according to Roland. The signal flow is said to be simple to grasp, with logically arranged knobs, sliders, and buttons.

This instrument is designed for music students, songwriters, session players, and live performers of all styles and skill levels and features, among others:

  • Three virtual analog engines onboard, each with a dedicated oscillator, filter, amplifier, envelope, and LFO
  • Layer up to five simultaneous effects, including distortion, flanger, delay, reverb, low boost, and more
  • 64-voice polyphony for massive sounds without note drop-out

To see the rest of the Top 11 from Musikmesse please see: Best of Musikmesse 2010

May 22, 2009

LL Electronics – Oddulator

LL Electronics introduces the Oddulator, a scaled down version of their Rozzbox.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

April 29, 2009

Video Demo: Modules for Doepfer A-100

An overview of different modules compatible with Doepfer’s A-100 modular system.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

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