There's a new synth in town, it's gunning for the competition and it aims to please.
Best known for their effects and studio gear, Alesis are now branching out into the synth market. Their eagerly-awaited QuadraSynth is the result...
Think of Alesis and the word 'Quadraverb' springs to mind, right? - the effects box that became almost an industry standard over the last few years and one of the first to allow up to four different effects to be combined and used simultaneously. Then there's the ADAT - the digital multitracker everyone was talking about last year - and didn't they produce a mixer some time back? Oh and what about that power amp they did?
The fact is, Alesis is no longer a name which is linked solely with effects processors. The company have brought their flair for innovation to a variety of products in recent years - the latest of which is the QuadraSynth, a new sample-based keyboard and the company's first incursion into this side of the market.
Rumours of the keyboard began well over two years ago and combined with a spec boasting 64-voice polyphony, on-board effects with four independent processors and 16Mb of sample ROM, have made this one of the most keenly-anticipated music products ever to be released.
So... high expectations. What of the reality?
From a visual perspective, the QuadraSynth definitely appears to have been designed from a clean sheet of paper. Indeed, with no previous models for it to be a progression from (and none of the constraints this usually imposes), Alesis appear to have had a field day designing this keyboard. The words sleek and ergonomic immediately spring to mind. There are no rubbery buttons here; instead you get solid, curved, oblong 'keys' with a pleasing, positive feel and a set of four small dials and one massive volume rotary (why so big?).
Rear panel hardware includes four individual outs (always a plus point on multitimbral synths), and a full complement of MIDI ports. There are also digital connectors (a sound move by Alesis, leaders in this field since the advent of ADAT) and a set of three footpedal sockets. Underneath, moulded into the body of the synth, there's a masterstroke of design... a carrying handle! No more hauling keyboards around under your arm and bashing off chunks of it. It may not be as portable as say a mini-keyboard but it will certainly make life easier for the player on the move.
Another notable plus point is the display screen - a big LCD affair which can be crammed full of information in a neat and informative way. During sound selection it is simply a case of stepping through each of the preset or user-programs using the first of the rotary dials, the value buttons or the numbered keys on the left for direct selection - a method to suit everyone it seems. But the screen really comes into its own when you press the edit button and start to create new programs. Many's the time that we have harped on about the endless pages of information on digital synths these days and the task faced by the user in trawling through them all. The QuadraSynth still has these pages of information but employs a staggeringly simple idea which makes finding your way around easier than reading a book.
Like many other synths, each of the preset programs can be assembled from up to four partials or voices. And like other synths, too, the more voices your program uses, the less polyphony you get. So if a program uses one voice you have 64-voice polyphony; if it uses two voices, you have 32 - and so on. But with a full 64 to start with only the very high-density sequence users among you should run into trouble.
The Edit4 button allows parameters from each of the four partials to be edited. There are 19 functions in total (each with a varying number of sub-pages) including the volume level of the partials, the effects selection and a range of sound editing functions. Each of the functions is displayed on the LCD. You flip through them using the relevant buttons and as you do, a small bar appears under the chosen function on screen, so you always know where you are - a simple idea, but very effective. A number of sub-pages can be accessed for each function which take you to the next level down for editing. Use the page buttons to go through these and again, a small bar tells you which page you are on.
It perhaps sounds a little complicated but, as they say, a picture paints a thousand words - and the screen shows you exactly which function you are editing as well as the page beneath the function you are in.
For use with a sequencer, the QuadraSynth has a special 'mix' mode which allows up to 16 of the programs to be given their own MIDI number to be triggered from the sequencer. Here, you can also set up keyboard splits where each sound has its own defined area across the keyboard, and Performances where several sounds can be combined together to create some massive sounds and effects.
As with the other editing features, whatever you require in this mode, it's simple to set up. There are MIDI buttons to select the channel; the rest of the controls are similar to those described above, with the the dials used for incrementing values such as keyboard ranges and sounds.
Finally for the editing section, there's a global button that accesses six global functions including keyboard sensitivity, MIDI and LCD contrast.
Each of the four sounds making up a program on the QuadraSynth are derived from a source sound (from the 16Mb of raw samples) which passes through a low-pass filter and amplifier. The voice, filter and amplifier sections each have modifiers (LFOs and envelopes) where the sound editing can take place (see above). With one set of these sections per voice, the QuadraSynth offers a high level of flexibility for sound creation. So what about the sounds supplied?
Well, there are 128 presets and 128 user locations, plus a further 100 Performances for keyboard splits and combinations. The QuadraSynth's sounds are not assembled in General MIDI order which may or may not come as welcome news. As for the sounds themselves, these vary enormously with no particular emphasis given to any type or style (just check out the demo for proof).
On the more traditional side, there are several pianos to get your teeth into, and some quite stunning flute presets like StrwbryFlt and JazzFlt. The guitar sounds also acquit themselves well, but some of the brass sounds (notably, BrassStab) fail to hit the mark and become rather unrealistic in their extreme ranges. Similarly, there are one or two great sax sounds - such as SteamySax - but the soprano sax disappoints. The strings too are a mixed bag and occasionally sound a little strained - though Lush String is, well, er... lush.
By contrast, the Hammond and pipe organs are uniformly excellent, making full use of the onboard effects for added realism. Bass sounds are very well represented too, the best of the bunch being the crystal clear Zapp and the nicely squelchy Trance.
The synth effects are scattered around the two banks (preset and user) with slightly more in the latter. With such a sophisticated effects section (see later) it is a shame there aren't more, but for a demonstration of the QuadraSynth's potential just check out Pacifica, OoohTron, AirSpace, Twighlights, BlueAurora or ZeusSpoke for a wild panning, fading, mystifying and any-other-ing experience. Don't, however, try Rare T-bone unless you like your sounds to grate.
In summary, the QuadraSynth includes a generally excellent set of sounds with only a few exceptions, but you do get the impression that with so much potential (and that really is the key word here), more would be possible - in the right hands.
Alesis themselves, in their effort to provide variety, have scattered programs around both banks. Personally, I would have preferred to have sounds from each category kept together. As it is, a quick scan through the presets on the shop floor by a potential buyer may not reveal just what the machine is capable of. Only with a more considered, in-depth look do you realise that this is very much a musician's keyboard and one who's sounds will maintain their appeal long after the novelty of certain other synths wears off. More to the point, it breaks the Japanese mould of standardisation and ultimate banality. And with such easy programming that word 'potential' crops up again...
As you might expect from Alesis, there is a very sophisticated effects section on the QuadraSynth. In fact the onboard effect processing is similar to that on the Quadraverb. This means that processing is possible using several effects at the same time. More importantly, there are four input busses with a flexible routing system which allows you to add different effects to either the sounds within a single program or to the programs within the multitimbral mix.
In a mix, for example, you may have four sounds, each going to a different output and each with a different effect. In a program, you could send each of the constituent parts to a different effect. It's one of the (if not the) most flexible and easy to implement effects processing systems available on a synth and should signal the end of the days of dull, scrunched-up multitimbral mixes.
As for the effects themselves, there are 128 preset and 128 programmable. They comprise delay, reverb and pitch effects, each with several types, so for example, pitch includes flange and chorus. As you might anticipate, the effects are of the highest quality; clean, noise free and immensely usable. Worth a special mention are Pno Plate 1 (excellent for great ethereal washes), Lezlie 4 (for the classic Hammond sound) and WetslapRm for percussive effects. Panning presets include Pong Plate 2 and 3 and the chorusy Broken Code.
If none of these are up your street (doubtful), then enter Effects Edit mode and create your own - with the screen as described above, it's easy.
The final verdict? Well, as I've said, good as the basic sounds are, the potential of the QuadraSynth will only be truly realised when other people get to work and start programming it. Putting aside all the hype and rumours that have surrounded the QuadraSynth since its announcement, Alesis have still managed to come up with a product that may well come to represent a milestone in keyboard history. A digital synth that's easy to program - no less.
|Ease of use||Finally, a digital synth that's easy to program.|
|Originality||Just look at that design.|
|Value for money||Definitely one of its strong points.|
|Star Quality||It's going to be the synth to be seen with.|
|More from||Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details)|
Review by Andrew Jones
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