The buyer's guide with a difference, with listings, prices, specifications, and comments from E&MM's reviewing team. Polysynths, expanders and controlling keyboards are this month's subject.
Checklist comes full circle this month with the return of polysynths, voice expanders and controlling keyboards to the no-holds-barred buyer's guide. The formula is the same as it was the last time this product area graced the CHECKLIST pages: a make-by-make rundown of each individual instrument and its typical retail price, accompanied by short-form specification details and the comments - for, against, and summing-up - of E&MM's reviewing team where possible.
But even in the three months that have passed since our initial foray, the polysynth market has altered significantly in several ways.
To begin with, a number of instruments (Sequential's MultiTrak is a prime example) have been the subject of price reductions to make them more competitive, while others (like the Roland JX3P and Yamaha's DX9) have more or less vacated dealers' shelves altogether now that the end of their production run is in the dim and distant past, and have therefore been removed from the listing.
Then there are the newcomers, surprisingly high in number. These can be divided into machines that have already been reviewed in the pages of E&MM (Casio CZ5000, Yamaha DX21) and those whose existence has been confirmed by manufacturers preparing to release them onto the market sometime over the coming months (these generally carry the comment 'To be reviewed').
Ideally, we'd have liked to have included more in the way of detail on these latter instruments, even if they've yet to come under review by the magazine - especially as some of them (like Roland's MKS7 voice module and Oberheim's Matrix 6 poly) look interesting even from the briefest specification outline. The reason we haven't been able to do so is simply that manufacturers are being a mite cautious about releasing too much product information in advance of the British Music Fair, which takes place at the start of August. With luck, E&MM September will carry the new details this edition of CHECKLIST omits.
Until then, compare the prices, study the comments, and use them to help you make your purchasing decision. There's no better way.
AX80 - £999 Eight-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 32 preset and 64 programmable onboard voice memories, five-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Three LFOs, chord memory, good keyboard, excellent bar graph system makes digital parameter access more user-friendly;
- Doesn't really possess any sonic character of its own;
= Recent price reduction makes Akai's first synth more attractive than it previously was. Yer pays yer money....
AX90 - £TBA Eight-voice polysynth, splittable keyboard,
- To be reviewed - further details unavailable at press-time.
CZ101 - £345 Four/eight-voice, two/one DCO per voice, Phase Distortion polysynth; 16 preset and 16 programmable voice memories, four-octave miniature keyboard.
+ Excellent range of both 'analogue' and 'digital' synth sounds, five-octave MIDI-compatible octave range, voice layering, comparatively easy to program, built-in ring modulator, 16-voice RAM cartridge storage, eight-stage transient envelopes, fine MIDI implementation:
- small, short keyboard, awkward bend wheel;
= revolutionary Phase Distortion principle offers value for money without sonic compromise - if you can stand the mini-keyboard.
CZ1000 - £495 Spec as for CZ101, but with full-size, four-octave keyboard.
= The professional's Casio: nothing around to beat it for versatility, ease of programming and MIDI features at this price level.
CZ5000 - £975 Eight/16-voice, two/one oscillator per voice Phase Distortion polysynth; 32 preset and 32 programmable voice memories, five-octave keyboard, built-in eight-track step-and real-time sequencer.
+ Twice the 101/1000's synth facilities means correspondingly greater sound potential, excellent multitrack sequencer is far more than just last-minute afterthought, useful multitimbral MIDI implementation;
- undynamic keyboard, no separate outputs for multitimbral voices;
= the last word in Phase Distortion synthesis, and it works a treat - so don't let the name put you off.
Bit One - £799 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 63 programmable voice memories, five-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Superb range of analogue sounds, both acoustic and electronic, plenty of keyboard performance options;
- no sequencing or arpeggiation features, suspect MIDI implementation;
= all in all, probably the best budget analogue poly, now available through wider range of retail outlets.
POLARIS - £1699 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 132 programmable voice memories, five-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Good, rich analogue sound, neat onboard sequencer, extensive interfacing facilities include wide range of MIDI options;
- complicated to use, overpriced, some design priorities now outdated;
= a synth with a lot of potential for those with enough patience to exploit it, but the competition is already too tough, and getting tougher all the time.
Synthex - £1399 Eight-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 40 preset and 40 programmable voice memories, five-octave keyboard.
+ Considerable (but largely ignored) sonic versatility, split and layering facilities using two MIDI channels, onboard sequencer, digital ring mod;
- some may find sound dated, possible servicing difficulties now that synth is out of production in Italy;
= good facilities for its (recently reduced) asking price: if this is your sound, go for it.
Poly 800 - £549 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 64 programmable voice memories, four-octave keyboard.
+ Competitive price, three six-stage envelopes, onboard sequencer and chorus unit, portability;
- only one filter for all six voices, short keyboard,
= the world's best-selling polysynth, in spite of its limitations: but there's competition looming.
DW6000 - £999 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice, digital waveform generation polysynth; 64 programmable onboard memories, five-octave keyboard.
+ First synth to combine clarity of digital voicing with easy access of analogue synth configuration, six-stage VCA & VCF envelopes, built-in chorus;
- keyboard has no velocity or aftertouch sensitivity, poor feel of performance control joystick;
= the polysynth world's biggest technological compromise - but it works.
DW8000 - £TBA Similar in spec to DW6000, but with pressure- and velocity-sensitive keyboard, built-in digital delay line. To be reviewed.
Matrix 6 - £TBA 'Affordable' Oberheim poly to be unveiled at British Music Fair; no details available at press time. To be reviewed.
Matrix 12 - £4599 Spec similar to that of two Xpanders controlled by XK keyboard - see relevant sections for details.
Voyetra 8 - £3999 Eight-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 100 programmable voice memories, velocity- and pressure-sensitive five-octave keyboard.
+ Excellent sonic potential in the American analogue tradition, built-in polyphonic sequencer and arpeggiator, comprehensive split and layering facilities;
- hideously involved system of parameter access makes editing a real chore, dollar-inflated price-tag;
= competent, professional synth system - at a price.
Synth Plus 60 - £899 Six-voice, one-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 128 programmable voice memories, five-octave keyboard, built-in amplification and twin speakers.
+ Ease of use, built-in chorus;
- beginning to sound a little dated, lacks arpeggiator;
= circuitry of deleted Juno 106 in a domestically acceptable format, unlikely to venture far outside the average living room.
JX8P - £1250 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 64 preset and 32 programmable onboard voice memories, five-octave pressure- and velocity-sensitive keyboard .
+ Another example of Roland squeezing new sounds out of old design techniques (the 8P competes with the best of the analogues), voltage controlled mixer section, RAM cartridge voice storage, good MIDI implementation;
- only eight memories hold aftertouch and performance data, requires optional PG800 programmer for sound editing to become really straightforward;
= lacks character, but ultimately a rewarding and versatile analogue poly that proves Roland aren't going to be left behind without a fight.
Jupiter 6 - £1299 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 48 programmable voice memories or 32 patch presets (for split programs), five-octave keyboard.
+ Inherently flexible and versatile programming system, excellent sonic potential, split-keyboard facilities, sophisticated - and syncable - arpeggiator;
- no velocity- or pressure-sensitivity, might just have too many facilities for its own good;
= excellent analogue synth that continues Jupiter tradition admirably, but complex control layout has meant shortage of takers, hence newly attractive price level.
SixTrak - £595 Six-voice, one-oscillator per voice multi-timbral analogue polysynth; 100 programmable sound memories, four-octave keyboard.
+ Unique (in this price range) multi-timbrality extends to built-in six-channel sequencer, 'stack' mode and MIDI implementation;
- awkward parameter adjustment, short keyboard, synth doesn't actually sound too impressive;
= in the process of being displaced by newer MAX and MultiTrak, therefore very cheap.
MAX - £625 Six-voice, one-oscillator per voice, multi-timbral analogue polysynth; 80 preset voice memories, four-octave keyboard.
+ As SixTrak;
- also as SixTrak, but not readily user-programmable without CBM64 and software;
= tries to be computer peripheral and voice expander in one, succeeds in being neither.
Split Eight - £TBA Eight-voice, one-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 64 preprogrammed sounds and user-programmable voice memories, five-octave keyboard, split/layer and unison performance modes. To be reviewed.
MultiTrak - £1199 Six-voice, one-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 100 programmable voice memories, five-octave, velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Adds 'professional' facilities to SixTrak spec;
- doesn't add anything better in the sound department;
= new low price, and the only choice if you value sequencing and MIDI facilities above sheer sonic potential.
T8 - £4700 Eight-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 128 programmable voice memories, six-and-a-half octave keyboard sensitive to pressure and velocity.
+ Excellent analogue sound capability, weighted-key action and individual aftertouch for each key, fine split and layering facilities, built-in sequencer;
- heavy on the hand and even heavier on the wallet;
= professional instrument at a professional price.
DK80 - £699 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 10 programmable and 40 preset voice memories, velocity-sensitive five-octave keyboard.
+ More facilities for the money than just about anything;
- 40 fixed memories, basic sound could be better;
= really astonishing value for money, though first impressions might not be all that favourable.
DK600 - £999 Six-voice, two-oscillator per voice analogue polysynth; 100 programmable voice memories, five-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Fine sound quality (especially brass and percussion presets), programmable dynamics, plenty of good software available;
- the odd operational idiosyncracy;
= competent but underrated analogue poly, neatly styled and well constructed.
MK1 - £TBA 16-voice polyphonic Fourier Synthesis polysynth; five-octave velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard. To be reviewed - available September.
DX21 - £699 Eight-voice, fully programmable FM digital polysynth; 128 factory preset sounds, 32 programmable voice memories, 32 performance memories, five-octave keyboard.
+ Broad selection of factory sounds that rival DX7's for quality, useful voice-specific performance memories, inclusion of split and dual modes, probably easier to program than first-generation DXs, almost laughably cheap;
- undynamic keyboard, no cartridge storage facilities, could still do with a better display;
= Yamaha's answer to the march of the budget polysynth, and a mightily, impressive one at that, shows company haven't been resting on DX7 laurels.
DX7 - £1250 16-voice, fully programmable FM digital polysynth; 32 voice memories, five-octave velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard.
+ Immense sonic and programming versatility still unmatched by any competing instrument, vast range of custom-designed hardware and software now available to accompany it from a variety of sources;
- a real pig to program, hence many preset sounds becoming cliched, still niggling doubts about ability to recreate fat, traditional analogue synth sounds;
= an industry standard like no synth before it, and justifiably so - if only it was as easy to edit as it is to listen to...
DX5 - £2999 FM digital polysynth, spec similar to two DX7s with additional performance memories; 76-note touch- and velocity-sensitive keyboard.
+ Excellent sound and facilities;
- beaten on price by Yamaha's own DX7/TX7 combination;
= now you've a choice between convenience and cost, though sizeable back orders for the DX5 indicate some people are wealthier than is good for them. (To be reviewed.)
DX1 - £8999 16-voice polyphonic, FM digital polysynth; 64 programmable voice memories, six-octave velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard.
+ Easier editing than cheaper DXs thanks to comprehensive control and display layout, marvellous weighted-action keyboard has individual aftertouch for each key;
- bulky, weighty and outrageously expensive;
= thoroughly desirable - the ultimate dedicated FM poly, but logic says it's outclassed by cheaper hardware from the same stable.
VX90 - £TBA Similar facilities to AX90 poly, but in 19" rack-mounting format. To be reviewed.
Bit 01 - £699 Similar in spec to Bit One poly, in rack-mounted casing and with improved MIDI implementation.
+ Puts excellent analogue sounds in a modular format well-suited to the needs of digital-polysynth owners, factory presets are sonically matched to corresponding Bit One voices, rack-mounting convenience;
- a little pricey next to Bit One, still the odd MIDI hiccup;
= like Bit One, stands out as being the most cost-effective analogue unit in its price bracket - more MIDI modules promised by Italian factory for release in near future.
EX800 - £449 Identical in spec to Poly 800: 64 programmable voice memories, built-in sequencer.
Xpander - £3945 12-voice polyphonic analogue/FM digital hybrid synthesiser; 31 LFOs, 30 EGs, 12 oscillators, 90 VCAs, 100 programmable voice memories, recognises MIDI pressure and velocity information.
+ Vast range of sounds both analogue and digital, easier to program than most digital access designs, matchless programming versatility;
- only the cost;
= brilliantly conceived and superbly built - if you can afford it, don't hesitate.
MKS7 - £TBA Rack-mounting MIDI voice module incorporating separate melody, chord, bass and rhythm units. To be reviewed.
MKS30 - £875 Same overall spec as JX3P poly, but 64 programmable voice memories, and fully responsive to velocity and pressure information.
+ It doesn't sound bad;
- requires optional PC200 programmer for conventional 'pot' control;
= module costs more than a JX3P!
MKS10 - £990 Sixteen-voice polyphonic piano-family voice module, fully velocity- and pressure-responsive, 16 preset voice memories.
+ Neatly styled, built-in chorus/flanger helps strengthen sound output;
- eight voices only accessible through mother keyboard, expensive for what it is;
= only really of value if you've got a keyboard - and a playing technique - that'll do it justice.
MKS80 - £1800 Similar spec to now-discontinued Jupiter 8: eight-voice polyphony, two oscillators per voice, 64 voice memories and 64 patch preset memories onboard, fully responsive to velocity and aftertouch information.
+ Wonderful range of analogue-type sounds, optional RAM packs can hold 128 voices or patch presets;
- again, requires optional programmer (this time the MPO80) for editing not to be a chore;
= an excellent package that's notable good value next to the other Roland modules, but price still puts it firmly in the professional league.
Expander 80 - £399 Similar in spec to DK80 poly, but only monotimbral.
+ Incredibly cheap, so lots of features for your money, cartridge storage facility unexpected on a machine of this price level;
- presets are identical to DK80's, hence more than a few sonic disappointments;
= currently the cheapest way into analogue MIDI synthesis, and a godsend to the impoverished - it's not brilliant, though.
TX7 - £649 Identical in spec to DX7, with addition of performance memories for each voice.
+ A logical upgrade for all DX7 owners;
- but not so much fun if your controlling synth is analogue;
= Yamaha's most economical route to FM duplication.
TX216 - £1899 Two DX7s (or one DX5) in rackmounted format, with facility for adding TF1 modules (one DX7's worth) at £449 each. For comments see TX816.
TX816 - £4299 Essentially eight DX7 voicing modules in one rack, each with its own MIDI connection.
+ Who could say no to eight DX7s?
- MIDI implementation could be better;
= the ultimate FM music synthesiser - no self-respecting studio should be without one.
MX76 - £TBA Six-and-a-half octave, velocity-and pressure-sensitive, weighted-action split-table keyboard; 96 voice selectors. To be reviewed.
RK100 - £475 Three-and-a-half octave portable keyboard with volume, pitchbend, modulation controllers, 64 voice selectors.
+ Price, spec includes thoughtful touches like lockable MIDI connectors;
- octave range sacrificed in the cause of portability, no dynamics;
= all things considered, the best-value 'poser's keyboard' currently available.
XK Remote Keyboard - £TBA New pressure- and velocity-sensitive five-octave keyboard for connection to up to six MIDI synth modules, incorporates three-way split/layer facilities and other performance features. To be reviewed.
Axis 1 - £999 Three-and-a-half octave portable keyboard with volume, pitchbend, modulation controllers, velocity- and pressure-sensitivity, 120 voice selectors. To be reviewed.
MKB200 - £TBA New 61-note version of MKB300. To be reviewed.
MKB300 - £999 76-note mother keyboard, velocity-sensitive, split and layering facilities, 128 voice selectors, volume, pitchbend, modulation controls.
+ Sturdy construction, looks;
- not sensitive to pressure, price;
= overshadowed, in most respects, by MKB1000.
MKB1000 - £1499 Velocity- and pressure-sensitive 88-note keyboard, overall volume, pitchbend, modulation controllers, 128 voice selectors, MIDI split and layering facilities.
+ Excellent action from weighted wooden keys, superlative construction;
- no individual level controls, lack of remote programming facilities, price;
= another professional people's product, though even they might find its acquisition hard to justify.
KX5 - £199 Identical in spec to KX1, but miniature keys. To be reviewed.
KX1 - £799 Three-and-a-half octave, velocity-and pressure-sensitive keyboard, volume, pitchbend, modulation controllers, 32 voice selectors. To be reviewed.
KX88 - £1399 88-note velocity- and pressure-sensitive weighted keyboard, 17 user-assignable performance controllers, split and layering facilities.
+ Vast range of performance options, onboard programming facilities coupled with user-assignable parameter control area, keyboard adds new dimension to many DX voices;
- keyboard has slightly spongey feel absent on DX1;
= more of what a master keyboard should be, but is a piano-type keyboard the best medium for applying aftertouch?
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