360 Systems Digital Keyboard
First reviewed in prototype form over a year ago, the 360 has been the subject of some significant hardware modifications since then, and Paul White reports on a more recent production sample.
E&MM first looked at this American sampled-sound keyboard in prototype form in August 1983, but several modifications have turned the 360 into an altogether more impressive instrument. Paul White
To re-cap, the 360 Systems is a four-octave digital keyboard which can reproduce the sounds of real instruments stored in banks of EPROMs within its circuitry. Up to 32 different voices may be installed in the instrument at any one time, and the keyboard may be split so that two voices can be played simultaneously. The system is eight-note polyphonic, and Moog-style performance wheels allow some degree of expression to be imparted to appropriate voices. Likewise, these controls allow you to do outlandish things such as pitch-bending a grand piano, an effect that is normally impossible without hydraulic jacks and a sympathetic insurance company.
The 360 is an unremarkable looking machine, having a simple wooden case and a row of rather unimpressive controls. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and the inside reveals a veritable sea of chips.
When we looked at the original - prototype - 360 last year, the circuitry ran rather hot, and a cooling fan has now been fitted to alleviate this situation. A lot of the internal space is taken up by voice cards, and the most impressive of these contains the piano samples, amounting to about 50 EPROMs in all. The reason for using so many memory chips is that each voice is built up from several samples, so that no note is transposed by more than a tone either way from its original pitch.
Output of the 360 is in stereo and, where appropriate for a particular instrument, the sampled sounds are split where the original instrument has a natural range less than the keyboard span. A good example of this is the saxophone setting which has baritone, alto and tenor samples to cover a four-octave range.
The bass guitar sound uses a similar trick, whereby pulled notes are available to the right of the keyboard and slapped notes are to the left, and in the hands of a sympathetic player, the 360 can make an excellent impersonation of a funk bassist.
On the rear panel there is provision to connect a sustain pedal, a foot pedal for control of dynamics or brightness, and of course the stereo output.
The 360 weighs 43 lbs and measures 5¼" x 32" x 22".
The row of instrument selectors allows any voice to be placed instantly under keyboard control, and the split point may be set wherever the user wishes for dual voice operation, a Swap button changing the voices to opposite sides of the keyboard when needed. In addition, a stack switch lets you play two voices together for a fatter sound - though this limits the system to four-note polyphony - and the transpose facility lets you set any interval between sounds within the limits of the individual voice capacities. The two voices may be mixed by means of the balance control, while a filter circuit permits independent tonal modifications to be made to each voice. Lastly, notes may be set to last their full duration once keyed, or to end as soon as the key is released.
The only real limitations imposed by the 360 are its four-octave keyboard and lack of touch-sensitivity. As with any synth that attempts to replicate a traditional instrumental sound, the 360 must be played in something approximating the manner of the instrument being imitated in order to be convincing.
All the samples are beautifully recorded, and some of them last up to eight seconds so that the full natural decay of the original instrument can be reproduced. The acoustic guitar sample is particularly impressive, and once you've heard the string sound produced by the 360, conventional synths or string machines become more than a little artificial. The sound requiring the most memory is the grand piano, and as a result of this the piano voice card costs around £700. Mind you, it is superb.
"Once you've heard the string sound produced by the 360, conventional synths or string machines become more than a little artificial."
All the voicings are good (some are exceptional) and unlike our August '83 reviewer, I could detect no quantisation noise or other nasties in the final output, which was monitored at quite a high level via a pair of Tannoy studio monitors.
There is of course some compromise caused by the 360's lack of touch-sensitivity but, in any event, this probably wouldn't sound right even if it was fitted since the timbre of a conventional instrument changes with playing intensity, and this effect would be difficult to duplicate authentically by purely electronic means. Another point worth considering is that when a musician records a touch-sensitive instrument, there's more often than not some wretched engineer compressing it flat again just to keep the VU meters happy.
Although the review model's MIDI sockets were unsupported internally, it appears that all new production instruments have their MIDI sockets fully functional, with all the usual features. As already mentioned, the keyboard is not velocity sensitive but the voices will apparently receive the relevant MIDI data from a controlling velocity-sensitive MIDI synth, thereby eliminating one of its weaknesses.
The 360 is what a Mellotron always wanted to be but could never quite manage. There's no user-sampling capability and little that can be done to vary the factory sounds, but there is a good choice of instruments and all of these are superbly sampled.
The samples sound natural because no looping or other memory-saving tricks are used, and the maximum note length is around eight seconds, depending on the voicing being played.
The greatest setback is the high price of the instrument which unfortunately puts it in the professional-only bracket. It will probably be used extensively in studios where instant access to a selection of good sounds is a distinct advantage, the cost being justified by the amount of studio time saved.
The 360 points the way for future developments, and since technology has a way of percolating down through price barriers in a relatively short space of time, maybe this quality of instrument will eventually be accessible to the semi-professional musician.
For now, the 360 is probably the most sophisticated instrument of its kind, capable - in the right hands - of performing musical miracles.
The 360 Systems basic keyboard (without any voice cards) is available at an RRP of £3200 excluding VAT. A wide selection of voices are available at varying prices (eg. the 12-voice Pop Collection at £917.00 excluding VAT).
Review by Paul White
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