The 'Alternative' FM Expander
Ian Gilby looks around for an 'alternative' multitimbral FM expander and uncovers a wealth of features hidden inside Elka's versatile 19" rack-mounting companion to the underrated EK44 polysynth - the ER33.
Ian Gilby checks out this new addition to the underrated Elka Professional range of instruments - a 9-voice multitimbral FM expander.
To put things into historical perspective, dear readers, the reason for my involvement with synthesizers stemmed originally from a fascination for the unusual sounds they were able to generate. And over the years that factor has considerably influenced my own instrument purchases (and the contents of my record collection). I have been attracted to those machines which have allowed me the greatest freedom to create my own sounds - from the Sequential Pro-One to the DX7 and, most recently, the Emax sampler. To this end I have always kept an eye open for 'out of the ordinary' instruments, the type that you don't see quite so regularly on Top Of The Pops or hear so often on singles. That is certainly not the case for an awful lot of musicians, I know. In fact, the very opposite is true - they want to sound just like the successful musicians in the charts and, understandably, believe they can achieve that goal by buying the same synth or sampler as their musical hero (budget permitting, of course). I must admit that I too went through this phase, only with guitars - I would have killed for a sunburst finish Gibson 335 like the one Bill Nelson used to play with BeBop Deluxe!
Of course, the advent of onboard memories and ROM cartridges has made it generally so much easier for the guy in the street to sound like anyone else, especially since he'll probably find that his musical heroes can't programme their synths too well either and so resort to the sounds that come with the machine or the latest independent ROM cartridge. The name of the professional game as I see it seems to be to get hold of new instruments before anyone else, splatter your new single/album/CD with as many of the factory presets as you can, then release it fast. That way you sort of copyright the instrument's sounds as your own and anyone else found using them risks abuse for being 'unoriginal' and sounding 'just like so and so superstar'.
The ER33 from Italian manufacturer Elka falls into this category of 'out of the ordinary' product. It is essentially a nine-voice expander module, 19" rack-mounting, and is best described as half an Elka EK44 synthesizer [reviewed SOS November 1986]. If you've been attracted to the EK44 but have been waiting for a keyboardless version to emerge, it too is now available in the guise of the companion ER44.
For those unfamiliar with Elka synthesizers, the ER33 (like the ER44, EM44 and EK44) utilises a form of FM synthesis to create its sounds (like the DX7), although you will find no direct mention of this fact on the unit itself nor in the owner's manual. Sound-wise and facilities-wise the ER33 bears a close resemblance to Yamaha's TX81Z expander. It's primary sound source is one DCG (digitally controlled generator) which is capable of generating nine voices simultaneously, ie. it has nine-note polyphony. (The ER44 is more powerful with two DCGs.) However, you can dispel all thoughts of the ER33 sound being 'thin' just because it only has one DCG. That DCG is, in fact, made up of two programmable voice blocks - Sound 1 and 2 - each of which uses four sine wave oscillators (or 'operators' if you prefer to speak Japanese) which can be combined in eight different ways. Although you have independent control over the programming of individual parameters for each of the eight oscillators, Sounds 1 and 2 are always viewed as four paired oscillators (ie. 1/5, 2/6, 3/7, 4/8) when it comes to how they are combined to form what Yamaha would term an 'algorithm'. In other words, the ER33 is a dual four operator, eight algorithm FM digital synthesizer.
The unit comes with 96 sounds stored in battery-backed memory. You can temporarily modify or completely reprogram any of these presets but can only store your new creations in 32 of the 96 internal memory locations (memories 1-64 being reserved for the non-erasable factory presets). A RAM cartridge is necessary for longterm storage of more sounds but this can only hold 32 programs and 16 performance registrations (more about which later) - rather miserly in the light of what's available for other products don't you think. Plug-in ROM cartridges provide a further bank of 32 presets.
In keeping with most synthesizers these days, the factory presets do little to display the full sonic potential of the device, covering the usual range of pianos, strings, brass, etc, with a token effect ('Spatial') thrown in. For my money manufacturers place too much emphasis on providing synthetic imitations of natural instruments which, I appreciate, are intended to give everyone an inkling of what sounds their instrument can produce but, more often than not, they result in a poor first impression due to their mediocre nature. Why continue this trend when we have access to affordable sampling machines? Manufacturers ought to start putting more programming effort into producing unusual, innovative presets that exemplorise every facility of their machine. That way they stand a better chance of attracting a broader range of customers - 'something for everyone' I think the slogan is.
Well, if you can look beyond the presets, the Elka ER33 certainly has something for everyone but its major role is likely to be as a sound source for a sequencing set-up of some sort. That's certainly how I would use it. For the purposes of the review I connected it to an Elka EK44 which I employed as my master keyboard; but I mainly used it as an eight instrument polyphonic expander unit under the control of Voyetra Technologies' marvellous Sequencer Plus program that I run on my Amstrad PC clone. In this capacity the ER33 proved tremendously powerful for it both recognises and transmits key velocity and aftertouch (key pressure) information via MIDI and operates in a true multitimbral capacity.
When it was released last Autumn, Elka's EK44 keyboard quickly garnered a reputation for being the 'friendly' face of FM synthesis and, as you might expect, the ER33 upholds that tradition. In fact, having just the one DCG makes it marginally easier to programme than the EK44/ER44. The front panel layout benefits from its 2U height and veritably bristles with pushbuttons (37 to be precise). A rotary pot doubles as the on/off power switch and master volume control, leaving the ubiquitous vertical slider and associated Yes/+/On/Scroll Up, No/-/Off/Scroll Down buttons to control the input and adjustment of parameter values.
The central 11 buttons are arranged as a keypad which act as the preset/parameter selector. You punch up the number of (say) the preset you want then press Enter to activate it. Visual confirmation of your selection is given in the 32-character LCD display. Although this is clear and easy to read, it would benefit from being backlit (the ER44 display is, I am told). Still, the display is one of the major reasons why this unit is easy to use. If you get stuck, you just press the Help button on the far left and the ER33 is ready and willing to assist you. It interprets what function you are trying to select and displays a few handy explanations of what buttons you must push to do so. It supplies these in the form of sentences which scroll across the LCD at an easily read pace, from right-to-left.
The other major factor which contributes to the ease of use of this device are the left-hand pushbuttons, arranged in two rows of eight. These play several important roles depending on what function you have selected: firstly, they act as selectors for the 16 performance registrations which can each store the necessary information concerning what preset (or presets, if using the multitimbral Multisplit mode) you have assigned, as well as the split positions, MIDI channels, modulation sources and relative volume of individual presets within the split (set by the Value slider, incidentally).
Secondly, the top row act as selectors for oscillators 1-8 while the bottom row switch the oscillators on or off. This helps when programming because you can effectively cancel one or more oscillators to see how they contribute to the overall sound.
Thirdly, they perform the same operation for the selection of keyboard splits.
When linked to a keyboard, the ER33's versatile Multisplit option enables you to split the keyboard span into a maximum of eight sections and to allocate a different preset (or user-created program) and MIDI channel to each split. You can also transpose all the notes in any (or all) split region(s) up or down in octave steps by a maximum of six octaves (MIDI note range permitting) to arrange the most convenient register for the sound you are playing. This gives you a tremendously flexible multitimbral capability that very few competing devices can match. You can never play more than nine notes at any one time though, but I seriously doubt this will ever be a limitation because the ER33 employs 'dynamic polyphony assignment' across the split sections. In other words, if you were holding a three-note chord with your left hand you could still play up to six more notes across any of the splits with your right hand.
The first two oscillator selector buttons have a fourth function; they serve as the master Sound 1 and Sound 2 selectors when programming. (Remember: the ER33 divides its eight oscillators into two groups of four - Sound 1 and 2.) The remaining front panel buttons are used to select either the Internal or Cartridge voice banks (the cartridge slot lies below the LCD), to activate the Multisplit function, to Save the programs, and to access the Function and Edit program parameters used when programming or modifying sounds. All six buttons incorporate red status LEDs so you always know which functions are active.
The Elka ER33 adopts the old Yamaha trait of dividing sounds into separate Edit and Function parameters. The latter incorporate such things as portamento time and modulation settings (vibrato, level and pitch bend) which really ought to be considered an inherent part of the voice data because, as it stands, the ER33 does not store these settings as part of the general program memories, so you have to set them up anew each time you change programs. The only way to ensure they are remembered (and thus recalled along with the program) is to store them internally in one of the 16 non-volatile performance registration memories or in the RAM cartridge equivalent.
Talking of the performance registrations, by calling up Function parameter 12 you access the ER33's program sequence recorder. This is not a note sequencer but a way of chaining together up to 32 performance registration memories which you can then step through using a footswitch connected to the ER33 rear panel jack socket. Ideal for quickly calling up new sounds during live performance.
Most of the Edit parameters will be familiar to any DX user as they control such matters as the relative frequency of the oscillator, the amount of detune, the four-stage ADSR volume envelope (there's a separate AD type pitch envelope with a choice of positive or negative curves also), envelope scaling and level scaling, amount of velocity sensitivity, (LFO) vibrato speed/depth and waveshape (sine, sawtooth, square or random), vibrato delay time and maximum modulation depth, repeat speed (for auto-retriggering of notes), and a handy chorus function (off/slow/fast).
Left out of the above rundown are those parameters concerned with the oscillator combination (algorithm), feedback, octave, and semitone transpose. These constitute the very heart of the sound creation system. Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the start, Elka have been a bit obscure and have not included diagrams of the eight possible ways that the oscillators may be combined on the unit itself. They are not screen-printed on the top panel (as are the Edit/Function parameter lists and Envelope/Level scaling curves) nor do they appear in the LCD. Most parameter settings are otherwise graphically displayed in the form of an eight-segment bar chart (see accompanying diagrams), so why leave out the all-important oscillator combinations? These are only available on page 43 of the owner's manual.
Lose that and you'll give yourself one heck of a headache trying to work out which oscillator is modulating which 11 had a go but gave up after I ran out of paracetamol. A silly omission on Elka's part.
Programming is made easier thanks to two major points: (1) Elka have restricted the application of feedback (which increases the harmonic content of the sine waves thus creating different waveforms or white noise) to oscillators 1 and 5 (not 1 to 5 as erroneously stated in the manual); (2) the Edit/Compare and Copy functions allow you to temporarily compare the same parameters on any preset or program of your choice, with the one you are currently creating or modifying, and to copy them (either from Sound to Sound or from oscillator to oscillator) to your current edit program instead of having to painstakingly enter values for each parameter separately. This standardisation goes some way to helping familiarise yourself with the ER33's method of sound generation but FM, in any shape or form, is difficult to get to grips with. Fortunately, with the ER33, more so than on a DX, you can rely more on the fact that empirical methods of programming will produce more musically useful end results, without incurring too many simulations of a radio drifting from station to station along the way!
When used in Multisplit mode under the control of a MIDI sequencer, the ER33 really comes to life. You are no longer restricted to the note ranges determined by how the eight possible splits have been positioned on the keyboard. By allocating each split a different MIDI channel of its own (in any channel order - you are not confined to successive MIDI channels as with the Casio CZ range) each split is then free to use the full span of MIDI note numbers recognised by the instrument - 12 to 108 (eight octaves) in the case of the ER33.
The multitimbral aspect comes into play because you can also assign any sound you like to any combination of MIDI channels you like. This obviously means you can effectively have up to eight different 'instruments' playing at the same time. The only restriction is that you can't have more than nine notes sounding simultaneously because the ER33 is only a nine-note polyphonic instrument. The DX7, in comparison, offers 16-note polyphony. I didn't find this restricting in the least, to tell you the truth, though you might - it will obviously depend on the complexity of the music you tend to perform/compose.
Whilst using the ER33 and unearthing some of its more esoteric features I kept on asking myself why I hadn't discovered the delights of the Elka synth range sooner. Much has been said about the DX7 Mk II's microtonal capabilities but did you know, for instance, that the Elka EK44 keyboard (and now the ER33) allows you to programme any Arabian musical scale across the keyboard, providing access to quarter-tone scales, and was available six months at least before the DX7 MkII? Did you also know that it is highly configurable from a MIDI point of view, allowing you to control pitch bend and modulation characteristics from a choice of controllers?
You probably didn't and neither did I. There are many reasons for this but the most significant ones concern Elka's 'image' and 'profile' in the musical market place. Unfortunately for them, in this country at least, Elka have the stigma of their reputation as organ manufacturers to contend with. Most musicians don't like to associate themselves with anything related to what they see as the fuddy-duddy world of the organist - the same goes for home keyboards. Kawai, Technics, Hohner and perhaps even Casio all suffer from this snobbish attitude.
Now if Elka were to be sneaky and start releasing future products of this quality under a different name (what about 'Lake', perhaps?), I feel sure more musicians (and dealers) would sit up and take notice. As to 'profile', that's always going to be an up-hill struggle when you are competing with the financial resources of the mighty Yamaha's and Roland's of this world.
It's a pity really because the ER33, like the EK44 keyboard, makes very good use of existing FM technology. What it does, it does very well. It's multitimbral capabilities raise it above the crowd and the extra four oscillators, for me, give it a slight sonic edge over the Yamaha TX81Z. Both the ER33 and TX81Z offer features the other doesn't have and only you can decide which are the most important, of course. The ER33 is without doubt the easier of the two to programme, thanks to its (old-fashioned?) reliance on pushbuttons. But, sadly, the TX81Z holds the trump card when it comes to price: the Elka ER33 retails at £599, the TX at £449. If money is that tight then you know which one to go for; if it isn't then do yourself a favour and investigate the ER33. It will surprise you.
Price £599 inc VAT.
Distributed by Elka-Orla (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby