360 Systems Keyboard
We hold a sample
Here is a new definition of the word 'impressive'. A quietly smiling demonstrator removes two screws from the lid of a keyboard and points to a circuit board groaning under the weight of 48 large scale chips.
"This," says the man, "is the voice board". What, that many chips for only 12 sounds? "No, of course not," replies the delicate grin, "that's just the piano."
360 Systems cannot be accused of thinking on a small scale, nor even, for that matter, on a big scale. The word doesn't seem to do them justice. In the area of sampling keyboards – those that digitally record a real, acoustic instrument then reproduce it at any desired pitch – it's detail that wins through.
The earliest samplers, like the first Emulators, would listen to one note on, say, a piano keyboard, then slow down or speed up the playback of the recording to cover a full four octaves, or more.
Though the results were initially startling, it wasn't long before people realised that a piano doesn't work that way. Each note is not simply a semitone higher than the last, it has a slightly different timbre caused by the individual resonances and harmonics of its own strings. And that's not to mention those introduced by all the other strings vibrating in sympathy.
Speeding up a recording will also shorten it. Two seconds of a piano note in the middle of an Emulator become one second at the top. If you run the 'tape' twice as fast, it's going to be across the 'heads' in half the time.
After a while the suspicious ear will notice that the quality has strangely altered and is beginning to sound nasal and artificial.
Sampling technicians realised that listening to one note was insufficient. You'd have to store three or four and give each octave of the digital keyboard a master of its own.
That was not enough for 360 Systems who sat around in their unlikely named home town of Tarzana, California and went, as they say in that part of the world 'the whole hog'. The grand piano voice board contains 24 samples, each one eight seconds long.
Before plunging more deeply into the bracken of sound comparison, it's worth outlining how and why the 360 is different from the Emulator, and the Emulator II (which now has an upgraded sampling time of 17 seconds maximum). Though they work on associated technology – the digital chip recording – the philosophies behind them are far apart.
The Emulator lets you point a microphone at any sound source, store it, and play it back. Falling planes, irritated Shetland ponies, you name it, in they go. The 360 offers NO D-I-Y sampling facility. It's purpose is to reproduce as accurately as possible, all the popular acoustic sounds. The present list runs from violins/violas, through flugelhorn to singer, soprano. There's about 60 at the moment with more to come.
Not all of them need 48 chips. 360 Systems claim to have analysed each instrument and decided how often it needs to be sampled, and for how long. The nylon strung guitar has a more realistic decay time of six seconds, for example, and there are six chips. Inside is stored a chromatic scale starting with low E. Each time you would change a string, the 360 changes a chip in order to preserve the different tonalities of the A string, D string and so on.
The review keyboard held two boards but can take two more, either to expand the number of sounds (a maximum of 32, each 8 note polyphonic), or provide some general purpose samples plus a couple of 48 chip recordings. Apparently the 18 violins/violas are stored in as rigorous a way as the grand.
Unlike the Emulator there is no looping facility – you can't produce indefinite sustain by selecting one section of the sample and feeding it back on itself. It's notable that only one of the advertised samples is not an instrument with a natural decay and that's the Hammond B3. Wonder how they get on with that?
The inhabitants of Tarzana also insist that their wind recordings bear the average lungs in mind. You won't find many flautists puffing for 60 seconds at a time, so the maximum the keyboard supplies is eight.
And the case for realism is cited again when it comes to range. Certain instrument voices only function over a portion of the keyboard – in real life it would be physically impossible for them to reach all the notes within the four octaves. 360 save you from making the mistake, though both arguments about duration and extent would make handy covers for economies on memory space. Cynical sods, aren't we.
It's a surprisingly compact keyboard, smaller than an Emulator and to be honest, somewhat unprepossessing to look at. The sides and front are hewn from solid, hand rubbed, oiled walnut and the top is vinyl clad steel (it says here). Blue is the colour as far as the slim, sloped front panel is concerned. The 24 tab switches along it are all black with integral LEDs, otherwise controls are kept to a minimum. Four knobs control output, balance, pedal mix and frequency.
The last one concerns the only editing which the 360 permits – a fairly effective if simple filter that softens the tone. It's possible to connect a footpedal to the back panel which will operate the filter and swell the volume – how strongly it affects each department is determined by the pedal mix. And yes it has MIDI.
Balance is self explanatory when you discover the 360 can overlay two sounds (stack) then becoming a four note polyphonic keyboard. It can also be split anywhere for different voices in each hand (again four notes per side) or simply doubled when a sound is stacked on top of itself.
All these functions are determined by the final row of six buttons to the far right of the panel. Included among them is swap which moves the left hand sound of a split to the right hand end of the keyboard and vice versa (hmm) and transpose which is much more useful. It lets you move the pitch of the sound up or down in relation to the keyboard to set up stacked intervals such as a fifth or a high octave. It's handy for full blown horn sections.
The instrument selections are in four banks of four. Access to the second 16 (if you've got cards for them) is by pressing any voice button for more than half a second. The integral LED will dim, and you know you're into what the Californians call Page Two.
The 360 is an intelligent machine. No matter how many voice cards you drop into place, it keeps track of all of them and never becomes confused as to their order. The review sample had the Pop Music Collection – flute, nylon guitar, funk bass, slapped bass, lead guitar, electric piano (Rhodes), clavinet, sax, french horn, trombone, trumpet, and piccolo trumpet plus the piano... 13 in all, and that's what the front panel lets you do. Any switches above 13 have no effect.
Two more points before moving onto the sounds themselves. Pitch and modulation wheels are to the left of the keys with controls for overall tune and vibrato speed. With the keyboard itself, 360 are going against the current trend – it's neither touch sensitive, nor has a second touch capability.
The practical problems of realistic touch response are massive. Consider if you hit a key on a Bechstein harder than normal – the sound becomes brighter, louder, tougher, more percussive... how do you communicate all those requirements to a straightforward digital recording. It would be like asking an LP to rethink some of the songs.
Synths such as the Yamaha DX7 can do this because the sounds are imitated and created by the interaction of many electronic elements all of which can be controlled independently. If needs be, that control can be supplied by the viciousness of your attack on the keys.
Even so, simple dynamic effects such as extra volume, extra brightness, etc could have been dealt with. Why weren't they? Well, cost again, or perhaps 360's rigorously held belief that if it isn't real, it don't go down in the chips.
At last – noises. Though the canny demonstrator held the grand piano until last, it's where the reviewer will start because it captures what the 360 is really about... incredible detail.
Pressing a key gives you the hammer striking the string, the initial decay, the changing harmonics as the notes die, the interaction of the remaining strings, the liveness of the room – it simply is a Bechstein, a bright, commanding and compelling grand. It's recorded at full bandwidth (20Hz to 20kHz), is as realistic on the bottom C as it is on the top one, and like the rest of the voices, is reproduced in true stereo.
Because the grand is so impressive, it's tempting to mark down the remaining voices as underpar when in fact they stand above the average sample. Noise is low, quality is high and the 360 warnings are dire. Their owner's manual stresses in bold letters that no matter how accurate the digital recording may be, you can wreck the results if you don't play in the manner of the genuine instrument.
So the nylon guitar is passable on a close, five part chord, but immaculate if you put in a single bass note, play arpeggios spread widely across the middle range of the keyboard then trace out a melody line on what would be the B or E strings. It's sweet and very "Deerhunter."
The 'Les Paul Gold Top and Fender Twin Reverb' has all the blossoming body of Gibson's finest if you go for the high lead lines and bend that E string... alright then, give the pitch wheel a firm tweak.
Stacked together with the bass (a Fender Precision, apparently), and you're into doubled rock riffs – favourite at the Atlantex headquarters is the opening bar's to old blaze bonce's 'Beat It.'
Slap and pop bass is a different animal. The bottom half of the keyboard represents the thumbed, lower octaves of your Fender while the top half has all the plucked percussive notes. Best results are from jumping between the two, but snappy though the popped parts may be, this is one area where the dynamic keyboard would have helped by lifting the volume on the accented notes.
Brass is perhaps the most difficult area for any sampling machine to handle. The sound of a horn section or solo trumpet is so strongly allied to technique – slurring, muting, passing notes etc – that one plain sustained sound locked into a chip can be disappointingly pedestrian. Again the 360 has the authenticity of tone, but it requires a carefully studied performance for the brass and flute voices to come to life.
Live, you've got the option of a Precision in the left hand, a flugelhorn in the right – try thinking your way around that one. Quite often it's the combinations that sound the most convincing because each instrument is being subdued in the mix by the presence of its partner... nylon guitar and flute is a corker either stacked or split, and I've already mentioned the idea of setting the horn voices apart by certain intervals to reinforce the impact of a 'section.'
I can only talk in a guarded way about the all important string section since that mega board hasn't yet arrived in Britain. The demonstration was via a cassette from 360 Systems introduced by what appeared to be a sampled tortoise but is in truth a very laid back Californian. The 18 violins/violas are hard and attacking, with plenty of aggressive bowing at the 'front' of the note – many elbows zipping in and out when this one was sampled.
No one is suggesting the 360 is going to shift off the shelves in vast numbers. It's a not insubstantial quantity of cash, and it's very specific – you play what the Californians record, and for many Emulator owners, the greatest joy of the machine is being able to load their own ludicrous noises into the back and turn out a chord's worth of cat farts. But that's not the market for which this keyboard has been designed.
The final argument has to be one of sound quality, and here the 360 is at present without rival. Sure there are computer based prototypes that boast the same standard but the important point is that none of them are working properly just yet. The 360 is.
360 SYSTEMS KEYBOARD: £3680
POP VOICE BOARD: £1054
GRAND PIANO VOICE BOARD: £833
Review by Paul Colbert
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