Brian Chatton on the Poly 800
Hot-foot from a mammoth UK tour as part of John Miles' backing-band, this well-respected keyboardist gives his own impressions of life on the road with Korg's latest MIDI-equipped polysynth.
The Korg Poly 800 has been on sale in the UK for only a month or two, but pro keyboardist Brian Chatton has already used one on an extensive nation-wide tour as part of John Miles' backing band. Here he reports on how his example stood up to life on the road.
Reviewing any new keyboard after just three weeks, two of them having been spent touring the UK with John Miles, is not exactly an easy task, but even in that time I've managed to collect together a number of observations - some of them a mite sketchy, I admit - that you'll find detailed below.
This is the process - rapidly becoming more and more readily accepted - by which the synth's various parameters are varied and the subsequent values stored in memory.
One advantage of this system over conventional analogue control is the degree of precision - using numbers rather than rotary pots - with which you can shape the sound you require. Having a series of numeric values to remember instead of a vague idea of control settings makes sound selection and adjustment a straightforward, instant process: with the Poly 800, as with other synthesisers that make use of this system, there's no margin of error whatsoever to worry about.
The other advantage is principally an economic one. With the elimination of mechanical knobs and switches, ninety per cent of accident-prone moving parts are also removed, which should cut potential repair and maintenance costs down to the bare minimum, as well as making the keyboard a lot cheaper to manufacture in the first place.
The Poly 800 makes use of a process known as 'additive square-wave synthesis', in which different combinations of square-wave harmonics produce various different waveshapes. If all you require is a straightforward square-wave, all you do is select a value of one for the waveform parameter. If, however, you desire something more complex such as a sawtooth, selecting value two will give you the opportunity of combining harmonics at different individual levels, enabling quite a wide variety of different timbres to be generated.
I've found the Korg to be particularly good at producing thick, raunchy foundation sounds that ensure whatever line I'm playing is heard above the rest of the band. John Miles isn't the easiest of guitarists to play with when it comes to trying to make keyboards heard, so being able to create a good basic 'forward' sound after only a few minutes or so's experimentation proved a godsend.
This particular sound was discovered initially by splitting the DCOs, giving one a sharp, 'plucked'-type envelope and the other a subtler cello-like timbre. Once each sound had been individually treated to the delights of the Poly 800's envelope generator (more on this later) and VCF, the synth is put in Doubling mode, effectively doubling the intensity of each note played (though at the same time limiting the polyphony to four notes at any one time). The Korg's excellent chorus unit can also then be added to taste. If I'm making something of a meal of this one sound, it's because it was the first sonic aspect of the Poly 800 that really fired my imagination: it goes without saying (I hope) that a considerable range of impressive sounds can be got from the Korg, again with the minimum of fuss, and there can't be many situations where it'll completely fail to deliver the sonic goods.
The Poly 800 has six-stage EGs, the two new stages (in addition to the traditional ADSR) being 'break-point' and 'slope'. These add either a second attack or a second delay respectively, and I've found in practice that combination of these two together can result in some interesting, complex filter-shaping the like of which is often not possible on synths costing upwards of four times what Korg are asking for the Poly 800.
There are two features of the 800 that I've found particularly useful during a live performance. The first is its compact size and consequent lower-than-average overall weight. I'm sure I'm not alone among keyboardists in often wishing I could free myself from having to stand behind my set-up in one corner of the stage, and now, with the Poly 800, I've got a polysynth I can wear around the shoulder for a fair amount of time without any real discomfort whatsoever. The keyboard is small (four octaves) for a polyphonic instrument, but, as this magazine's review (E&MM February) pointed out, there are very few occasions when the average keyboardist will find this insufficient.
The second practical advantage of the Korg is its 256-step sequencer. The fact that such a facility is available at all on an instrument of this price must be deserving of a mention in itself, and in a concert situation, being able to recall, say, a complete solo at the touch of a button enables you to layer synth-lines very quickly and easily. It also leaves you with the freedom to concentrate your attention on what's happening in the front-row of the audience, should you so desire...
Having exhausted just about all possible areas of praise for this new Korg, I think it's only right I inform you about one or two minor design deficiencies that have come to light during the time I've had the Poly 800. The first is the surprising ease with which the above-mentioned sequencer's memory can be totally erased, simply by leaving the back-panel switch on 'Enable'. This switch is in an extremely vulnerable position completely out of sight of the user in normal operation, and this is particularly dangerous on a dimly-lit stage. To ensure your sequences will be stored, it's best to get into the habit of always flicking the switch into 'Disable' or, for extra insurance, dumping the relevant data onto cassette.
The second, and potentially more hazardous design hiccup, has to be the danger of inadvertently wiping out all your program and sequence data, due to the lack of a failsafe long-term battery. Having given the user a DC battery pack that enables all the Korg's functions to be operated wherever and whenever required (and that's something that's pretty rare among 'professional' keyboards of any sort, even in these days of high-technology miniaturisation), it seems a shame the Poly 800's designers have not been able to get memory and instrument power running from the same source. Until our Oriental friends develop a solution to this (highly significant) problem, I think it would be a wise precaution for every Poly 800 user to carry an extra set of batteries with him at all times, or alternatively to use the built-in mains lead except in situations where using batteries is absolutely necessary.
More positively, although the Poly 800 is certainly no heavyweight in the construction stakes, in the few weeks I've been using it on tour there's been no hint whatsoever that it might go down on me. In fact, I'd say that such an event is about as likely as Derek and Clive appearing at The Royal Variety Performance, and that's something that can probably be said of most Korg keyboards, from the humble (and now, sadly, defunct) 800DV monosynth to the giant 3200 poly - a synth which, if it wasn't for its formidable size, I would probably still find capable of giving me just about any sound I required in any situation.
Review by Brian Chatton
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