Elka EK22/EK44 Synthesizers
Italian-designed keyboards have received mixed success over the years. Elka's old Rhapsody string synth was a popular instrument in the seventies but their main polysynth, the Synthex, failed to set the world alight. That may well be about to change with the release of their impressive 9-voice, multi-timbral, DX7-soundalike, the EK44, and the 6-voice analogue EK22. Or is it? Mark Jenkins offers his views.
Mark Jenkins investigates the new generation of Elka synthesizers from Italy...
The Italians have had mixed success in the keyboard field over the years. Elka's Rhapsody was an early and massively popular string/harpsichord synth much used by Ultravox, and the polyphonic Synthex was/is popular with musicians from Geoff Downes to Keith Emerson, although not a huge seller. Many Elka organs have seen heavy stage and studio use, while organs and budget synths from SIEL (a company created by disaffected Elka employees) have had a certain amount of success too.
However, SIEL's need for complete re-styling to suit the American market (Sequential turned two of their polyphonic keyboards into the snazzy Prelude and Fugue models) was just one indication of a certain lack of enthusiasm about Italian design work. The Synthex, for instance, was beautifully made but bulky and expensive, and it has taken several years for Elka to come up with its successors.
The EK22 and EK44 are quite different from the Synthex, but look superficially similar to each other. This impression doesn't really last, since one is an analogue synth with a pretty familiar design, and one is a digital synth which owes a lot to the Yamaha DX7. Exactly how much we'll see shortly.
Let's deal with the digital EK44 polysynth first - it's the more expensive of the two at £1299.95 and by far the more interesting.
First some basics - it has a five-octave velocity and pressure sensitive keyboard, 64 presets, 32 programmable memories plus a cartridge option, 9-voice polyphony, split, layer and multi-split facilities, multi-timbral MIDI operation, and single performance wheel/button for pitch-bend and modulation. Sounds powerful? But there's more to come.
The EK44 has a single data entry slider in place of separate controls, so all the parameters available are listed on the left of the top panel. Each sound uses two Digital Control Generators (DCGs) numbered 1 and 2, and these allow you to create two elements of a sound at once, which can be mixed using two sliders on the right of the panel.
The synth operates in a similar manner to the Yamaha DX7, except that the central LCD display is a little more informative, although some information (the equivalent of the DX7's algorithm charts) is hidden from the user so you don't have to worry about it. Does that make you feel more or less confident? Well, hands up those who have carefully created a sound on the DX7 and then blindly whacked the algorithm selector about anyway, just to hear what happens...
So, when we go through the basic parameters, keep in mind that most of them are represented in the LCD display (which isn't lit but is still pretty visible from all directions) by an eight-section bar chart. Whether we're talking about oscillator volumes, frequencies, envelope levels or whatever, eight little columns in the display give you a good visual indication of the current state of affairs, while the first eight of the sixteen Performance Registration buttons directly beneath the display allow you to choose which of the available levels you're editing.
Let's start at the start with Relative Frequency which, as on the DX7, allows you to whack each oscillator from almost subsonic to almost hypersonic frequencies in one continuous sweep. Detune allows you to offset these pitches slightly to fatten the basic sound, while Envelope Attack is the first of several parameters which create movement in a sound - we'll come to the way in which the oscillators are actually interacting with each other shortly.
The EK44's Envelope is a five-stage job with Attack, Decay, Sustain Level, Sustain Rate, Release Rate and Scaling, and there's a similar Pitch Envelope further down. Whether the Level envelope applied to an oscillator makes much difference to a sound depends on the oscillator's position in relation to the other oscillators (is it audible, or just a modulation source?), so you may find the envelope settings, say for Oscillator 4, are entirely critical, or almost irrelevant, or totally irrelevant (if it's been switched off).
The Envelope Scaling function is explained by a diagram on the front panel which shows the various scaling options from flat to steeply curved; there's a similar diagram marked in dB for the Level Scaling function which allows you to sustain lower notes longer than higher ones. Level Scaling can be positive or negative and, again, can be applied individually to each oscillator, as can Key Velocity sensitivity.
Velocity and After-Touch Sensitivity on a synth is not so uncommon now that the internal electronics are becoming cheaper to manufacture using large-scale integration methods - but it's good to see such a flexible implementation as on Elka's EK44. Adding velocity or after-touch effects to your own programs takes a little effort since you have to find out by trial and error where they have the most effect. Again, this is because the nature of the Oscillator Combination parameter is hidden from the user. It's difficult to imagine how this could differ from Yamaha's FM synthesis algorithms, but presumably there is some difference, otherwise we might be in for a heavy court case brought by the main licensees of John Chowning's FM design.
That brings us to the end of the Oscillator Controls (remember everything can be applied to each of the eight oscillators), and so we move on to the Sound Controls, most of which are self-explanatory. They are:
21 Osc Combination (the mysterious hidden factor!).
22 Feedback - another DX7-like parameter.
23 Octave - for each DCG.
24 Semitone Transpose - for each DCG.
26 Pitch Envelope Attack.
27 Pitch Envelope Decay.
28 Pitch Envelope Level.
29 Pitch Envelope Type.
30 Vibrato (Sine, Saw, Square, Random).
31 Vibrato Speed.
32 Vibrato Depth.
33 Vibrato Delay.
34 Vibrato from Modulation button.
35 Repeat - envelope repeat with a choice of seven different speeds.
36 Chorus - off or on, with two alternative depths.
37 Overall Level.
Editing these overall parameters completes one sound, which you can then store in an internal memory or RAM cartridge (ROM's will also be available apparently). The method of calling up sounds is a little odd - as on the SIEL synths, you have to punch up two numbers and then Enter, which can be a little slow, but at least means you can hold a sound ready to change and then call it up with a single stroke.
The EK44's keyboard modes are many and varied. You can play DCG1 or DCG2 sounds in Normal mode, mixing them separately, or hit both buttons for Dual mode playing which layers the two together. Hit Split and you'll get nine note polyphony on either side of the split, and make the two sounds emerge from the left and right audio outputs as appropriate.
Hit all three buttons (DCG1, 2 and Split) and you'll enter Multi-Split mode, which uses seven split points for a total of eight different sounds which can operate on different MIDI channels. Polyphonic allocation is completely dynamic, so you can play eight notes in one 'zone' at one moment, and in another zone the next. Obviously this is a fantastically powerful option both for live performance and for composition using a MIDI sequencer - an octave of bass, one of strings, some brass, a lead sound and a couple of effects would be a good combination.
Moving over to the right of the synth and the utility Function options, you'll find Vibrato, Level and Pitch-Bend settings for the single performance control - a Roland-style left to right bender which pushes forward to bring in modulation. This type of control may not satisfy all tastes, but since we are talking about a two-handed polyphonic keyboard, it's likely that you'll be using the touch-sensitivity options much of the time anyway. In fact, this performance control is quite versatile - you can programme it 'upside down' so that a push forward gives an upwards pitch shift, and bending to left or right brings in modulation. Could be useful...
Portamento is available, with even the shortest rate being set much too long on the review instrument. Presumably this will be tweaked upon production versions. DCG 1/2 Detune and Pitch-Bend Range follow, then Master Tune, Fine Tune, and Arabian Scale, which could be fun to play with (Terry Riley fans queue here) but which wasn't actually implemented on the review model.
Edit Recall allows you to compare changes you've made with the original sound, Initialise resets a sound to its basic sine wave components for 'start from scratch' editing, and Program Sequence allows you to store a series of patches and call them up with a footswitch in live performance.
The Split/MIDI section allows you to set keyboard split points on the LCD (the little bar displays are too small to see exactly what key number you've reached, so the key name is indicated in letters as well) and assign a different Transpose value, MIDI channel, and After-touch Vibrato, After-touch Level, Pedal Sustain and Portamento mode to each section of the split.
In the MIDI section you'll find Omni Mode, Modulation Transmit/Receive, System Exclusive (for data dumps to other EK44's) and Program Change Transmit on/off. The final section of the EK44 holds the 16 Performance buttons; these call up a complete single or split sound, with the first two buttons doubling as DCG1/DCG2 selectors for the various editing functions. The first eight also double as Oscillator selectors, the last eight double as Oscillator on/off switches; all 16 double as MIDI channel selectors, whilst Record doubles as Copy, and MIDI doubles as Help (this isn't as complex as it sounds!). The Help display is fascinating - every edit mode has a couple of lines explaining where you are, what you can do next and how to get out of it, which flash across the LCD from right to left if needed.
The EK44 has eight multi-split memories and various charts above the LCD show how these are displayed in the LCD - you can scroll through the contents of a multi-split to review or change it using the '+' and '-' buttons. Most of the time the bar display in the LCD is very helpful - there are just two parameters (such as multi-split Pedal Sustain On/Off) for which it's a little obscure, creating small blobs in the middle of the display which could mean either On or Off. In many cases I found the bar chart working in the opposite way from what you'd expect - surely a tall bar should mean long decay, not short?
In the Multi-Split mode you'll find the DCG1/DCG2 volume mixing sliders inoperative, but it is possible to preset volume levels for each sound in the split. On the rear panel you'll find jack sockets for Left and Right Audio Out, Headphone, MIDI In/Out/Thru, Portamento and Sustain footswitches and Program Sequence Advance, and overall the styling of the synth is solid but pretty unattractive with a stodgy colour scheme and an initially pretty obscure front panel layout.
But what does it sound like? Hearing the brass patch from outside the demo room, I could have sworn there was a DX7 in there somewhere, and in fact many of the EK44's sounds (and their names) are conspicuously DX-like - Koto, Evolution, Marimba, Glockenspiel and many others. But the versatility of the EK44 is well demonstrated by, for instance, the first two string patches, of which one is as smooth and swirly as the old Solina string synth, and the other as precise and cold as a DX7.
There are several good organ sounds, a flute suffering from a little too much white noise, some excellent basses (slap, pluck and synth), and just one special effect (Spatial) which shows the possibilities of multiple cross-modulated oscillators - and lots of them! Overall, the sound of the EK44 is good - thick yet precise, helped by the chorus unit but very complex of itself. It's not especially easy to make up new sounds, particularly since the Oscillator Combination details (algorithms) are hidden, but it's really no more difficult than on the DX7. The multi-split function is wonderful though, and should you think of the EK44 as a multi-timbral DX7, you wouldn't be too far from the mark.
On to the EK22 now which, as we've mentioned, has similar styling to the EK44. The differences are that it has analogue oscillators, 6-voice polyphonic playing with a 1/5 or 5/1 key split, and no multi-timbral capability.
The EK22's sounds are very predictable - some ordinary pianos, then detuned pianos, a SynClav with random filtering, a wet slap bass, some reasonable strings, a JX8P-like Sync lead sound, low and high brass voices, a couple of synthy sounds like Waveaura (that name seems to ring a bell) and so on. All this is terribly obvious, and shows little of the imagination of companies such as Oberheim whose new synths are always full of complex, interesting sounds like 'Sticky Wet Ones', 'Whoops, Look Out' and so on. Comparing the EK44 Timpani and Flute to the EK22 Timpani and Flute really shows up the difference in the degree of complexity between the voices of the two synths.
Like the EK44,the EK22 has 64 preset sounds and 32 programmable memories, velocity and pressure response, ROM and RAM facilities, and stereo outputs with a headphone socket. You can use different MIDI channels for the left and right-hand side of the keyboard split and switch (on or off) the Program Change, System Exclusive, After-touch, Wheel and Pedal transmission facilities. Again, there's a Program Sequence Recorder for live patch storage, an Edit/Compare function, and this time a Self Test option which tunes up all the oscillators and filters in around a minute.
The EK22 has a similar bend/mod wheel to the EK44, although on the review model it was very sticky, and the routings of the after-touch facility (to the filter, amplifiers or vibrato) make the synth quite expressive. In fact, there are a couple of unusual facets of the voice design which should allow the EK22 to generate unusual sounds - Oscillator 1, for example, can produce a Pulse wave at the same time as a Saw, Triangle or Sine; and Oscillator 2 can produce Noise as well as these waves.
There's a Cut-off Cross Modulation function which modulates the filter with the oscillator frequency to create clangy FM-like effects, but these effects aren't well represented in the preset sounds.
The EK22 in Split mode is quite expressive, and being able to call up two sounds and a split point with the Performance Registration buttons is invaluable for stage work. A pity there's only a 1/5 and 5/1 split though - surely 2/4 or 3/3, or better still a dynamically assigned split, could also have been offered as options? At least the Monophonic sound option has last note priority, so it plays quite fluidly.
Elka have price-tagged the EK22 at £899.95, which is quite steep (in view of the competition) despite its expressive keyboard. For £699.95 you can get hold of the EM22, the keyboardless expander version, and for £999.95 the EM44, the expander version of the EK44. Both are capable of editing their own sounds, although they don't have the parameter lists screen-printed on them so you'll probably have to refer to the manual a lot.
Overall conclusions about the new Elka synths are difficult to reach. It's not unfair to regard the EK44 as a multi-timbral DX7,so it's worth ignoring its very pedestrian styling and penetrating its programming method to get at its wonderful multi-split capability. Of course, at £1300 it is in direct competition with the Ensoniq ESQ-1 which, in addition to similar multi-split capabilities via MIDI, has a massive onboard sequencer and pseudo-sampled sounds.
The analogue Elka EK22 I'm sorry to say has less going for it than the digital EK44. Two years ago, its velocity and after-touch features would have been unusual, but now we have the Roland Alpha Juno 2, the Ensoniq, and many other synths close to its price range. The expander versions could be good value, although it's odd that they aren't 19-inch rack-mounting.
Let's give the Italians the benefit of the doubt though. I'd certainly welcome the opportunity to use the EK44 in a studio context, and know many entry level (and more experienced) keyboardists who could make good use of an EK22. It's a shame about the bland styling of these new Elkas - get beneath the surface and you may find something very much to your liking.
EK22 £899.95, EK44 £1299.95 (both inc VAT).
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Review by Mark Jenkins
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