Evolution Synthesis EVS1
Synthesiser Expander Module
Looking for a digital complement to analogue gear or another expander to take the pressure off the rest of your rack? Ian Waugh discovers sonic flexibility at a price you can afford.
Mix elements of FM, PD, additive and analogue synthesis in 1U of rackmount space and sell it for under £300, and you've created an implausibly powerful and attractive synth - the Evolution EVS1.
YOU'VE PROBABLY READ about the EVS1 in MT's news pages or heard about it on the grapevine already. It is, after all, pretty newsworthy: a 100-sound, 16-voice eight-part multitimbral expander with built-in sampled drum sounds and voice editing software for under 300 quid. And it's British - well, the concept and design are, although the technology comes from abroad.
So how have they done it? Have corners been cut? More importantly, should you rush out and buy one? Read on and all will be revealed.
The EVS1 is a 1U-high, 19" rackmount module, powered by an external power-supply-in-a-plug. The front panel has a three-digit LED to show program numbers and other numeric data values. There's a rotary master volume control to the right and a headphone socket to the right of that.
Nine functions and utilities are actually screened onto the panel (more about these in a moment) and selected with cursor buttons which light an LED beside them. There's almost none of the confusing multi-button syndrome and no tangled nests of menus and sub-menus. That's a new idea for starters.
EACH OF THE EVS1's eight parts is called a Bank (why not something singular like Voice, Part, Tone or just Sound?) and can be independently set to respond to a different MIDI channel. The arrangement allows two or more Banks to be assigned the same MIDI channel to produce layered sounds. When you've set up a few Banks of sounds, they can be stored as part of a Group (essentially a collection of eight Banks - with me?). You can create up to 20 Groups and Bank sounds within a Group, which may be changed via MIDI. Furthermore, there's a Program Change Table which lets you select either sounds within a Bank or any of the 20 Groups, so sound selection is pretty flexible.
On initial acquaintance, however, this caused me a little head-scratching, as Banks set to the same MIDI channel number will change to the same sound on receipt of a MIDI program change instruction. Changing the sound from the EVS1's front panel, however, will only change the sound of the current Bank and produce a layered sound if another Bank is set to receive on the same MIDI channel. So, changing programs via MIDI produces identical sounds, changing programs from the front panel may produce layered sounds. Obvious really. The moral is to read the manual. A Quick Start Guide recommends you read the manual, too, but leaves a lot unsaid.
The EVS1's sound generation system is digital, and generates 16-bit sounds with a 44.1kHz sampling rate. It includes 32 different stored waveforms which can be used in a number of ways.
Of the 100 onboard sounds, 80 are preset and 20 are user-programmable. What's particularly interesting is the fact that sounds can only be edited and loaded via software. The current software runs on the Atari ST, although software for the IBM PC should be available by the time you read this and a version for the Mac is being planned - nothing for the Amiga yet.
IN BANK MODE, the upper set of functions in the middle of the panel are operative. The first is simply called Sound, which is the normal voice (Bank) select mode. Next is Channel which sets the MIDI channel for the current sound. Volume lets you give it a volume level (0-99) and Pan lets you position it in the stereo image (15 steps, -7 to +7).
Modulation Control toggles various MIDI-controlled parameters on and off. These include velocity, mod wheel, aftertouch, pitchbend, LFO output and controllers (more about controllers in a moment). Things get just a little cryptic here, as the LED has to rely on one character to show which control has been selected - a "U" for velocity and an inverted "U" for mod wheel, for example. Zero is used to represent off and 1 represents on. You've probably realised, too, that the LED does not permit sounds to be named.
Next we have Transpose which is oddly limited to an octave up or down in semitone increments. Detune operates over 19 steps and is particularly effective with layered sounds.
Split lets you set upper and lower note limits for each Bank, allowing you to create separate or overlapping zones. It is especially useful for live work.
IN GROUP MODE, the nine utilities beneath the Bank options are operative. First are the Group select function and the Program Change Table which have already been mentioned.
Next comes Controller Change. This lets you assign any keyboard controller to the EVS1's Controller Modulation option in the Modulation Control section in Bank mode (a few paragraphs back). For example, selecting Controller #6 would enable you to use the data slider to control parameters such as envelope amplitude, vibrato depth and so on.
Data Dump lets you save sound and parameter data as System Exclusive dumps. You can save one Bank, all Banks, one Group or all Groups. Memory Protect will safeguard against the unwanted arrival of a SysEx dump, although the software lets you override this for remote operation from a computer.
The MIDI Filter lets you filter out unwanted velocity, program change, controller, aftertouch, pitchbend and SysEx data. Master Tune lets you fine-tune the overall pitch of the instrument while Pitch Bend lets you set the sensitivity of the pitchbend range from zero up to one octave.
Finally, Key Mode determines what happens when incoming data exceeds 16 notes. You have a choice of last-note priority, which doesn't steal notes from other Banks; you can steal the most recent note from the current Bank; the oldest note from any Bank and the most recent note from any Bank. There's also a cascade function which shunts extra notes through the Out socket where, Evolution hope, they will be picked up by another EVS1.
EACH SOUND IS based on one of 28 internal algorithms. Now, if you've floundered in the deep waters of modulators and carriers before, you may be forgiven for breaking out into a cold sweat. But the EVS is actually not as frightening as you may think. Although there's not room enough here to examine all the algorithms in detail, I'll run through a few of them so you can get a flavour of the system.
"For total overkill, set all the EVS1's Banks to the same MIDI channel and select different sounds for each one - big is not the word."
The algorithms are based on various arrangements of the building blocks of the system - oscillators, waveforms, amplifiers and so on. The manual includes schematic diagrams of all the algorithms (these are shown in the software, too) so you can at least see who is doing what and to whom.
There are four FM algorithms in which oscillators modulate amplifiers in traditional FM style. There are also four Phase Modulation algorithms which follow a similar arrangement but which produce less extreme results when you tweak a control. There are also four FM/PM combinations (don't ask, just tweak).
One of the easiest algorithms to start experimenting with uses three oscillators in parallel (additive synthesis). When you've got the hang of that - shouldn't take too long - you can progress to one which has an FM arrangement feeding a two-oscillator combination. There is also an algorithm called Flutes which is simply four sine waves added together.
There are three Waveshapers whose effect is to modulate an oscillator with one of the waveforms. Two of the Waveshapers additionally add FM and PM to the algorithm. There is a Formant algorithm which introduces ring modulation, a couple of algorithms which feedback the output into the input of the oscillators and an algorithm which adds noise with a low-pass filter to a PM arrangement.
While the synth offers you a generous 28 algorithms to experiment with, the sonic variation they provide is less than you might expect. However, some offer you easier control of sounds than others (the software helps enormously), and some just require patient programming before the best use can be made of them.
THE ST SOFTWARE is not GEM-based and it rather puts me in mind of early Dr T's programs. It can be controlled completely from the computer's keyboard and although most operations can be performed with a mouse, some cannot. For example, the Zoom function in the Envelope page (coming up) has to be triggered from the keyboard. It also has the annoying habit of asking for confirmation of various operations with a keypress - what's wrong with a dialogue box?
A desktop accessory version is supplied but this is almost 100K long and will take quite a chunk out of even a 1040's memory with the more up-market sequencers. However, if it can co-exist with your sequencer you'll be able to create and edit sounds without changing programs - the ideal way of working.
The current disk includes 12 sound libraries (including the default one) so there are plenty of sounds to use and examine before you start creating your own.
The software layout is fairly straightforward and is divided into nine pages. The first is the Sound page which is used to select one of the 20 sounds and its major parameters such as the algorithm, waveforms, LFO parameters and modulation routing. The waveforms, however, appear as numbers (0-31) - so to identify them you have to turn to the manual where, incidentally, they are very nicely drawn, too. This is one area in which the software could have assisted the user.
The Envelope page gives you access to four six-stage envelopes. You enter the required number of stages in the End point and make one of the points a Sustain point if you want one. The stages each have 128-step rate and level settings and there's a helpful graphic display which shows the envelopes. There's no time calibration, however, so you don't know exactly how long they last. A very long envelope may move off the end of the graph but a zoom function will scale it and bring it back in.
You can't drag the nodes around the screen, which is a shame, although you can click on a node, move the mouse to a new position and click again to fix it. Envelopes can modulate two parameters such as oscillators, amplifiers, LFO speed or depth, waveforms and so on.
The Group page offers a simple method of setting up Groups and here the sounds are named - good. Everything is shown on one screen.
The Utility page contains the MIDI Filter section and Global controls such as System Channel, Master Tune, Key Mode and Memory Protect.
In the Library page you can copy, swap and exchange the 20 user sounds and the Dump page lets you load and save them to and from disk and the EVS1.
The Program page contains the settings for the Program Change Table. The Remote page shows a duplicate of the EVS1 front panel which you can control by clicking on the switches.
Finally, there's a Help screen for each of the pages.
"Perhaps its most ideal application is as a partner to Cheetah's budget analogue expander, the MS6 - between them the two units offer a tremendous range of sounds."
Apart from being essential in allowing you to edit the sounds, the software is helpful in showing you what is going on inside the instrument. However, in order to hear the sounds you are creating, you either have to press the ST's Alt key together with a numeric key, or plug your ST and keyboard into a merge box. If you intend to invest in a Merge, be sure to get one which can handle SysEx data.
If you know nothing at all about synthesis, operation is going to be largely trial and error. There are Undo and Compare functions which are very useful, although a randomise function would have been handy as well as helpful for the newcomer.
SO WHAT OF the sounds? Are they as (r)evolutionary as the name may lead you to expect? Well, they certainly represent a useful cross between digital and analogue. If I had to put money on it, I would say they were closer, soundwise, to an analogue synth, although typical FM textures are easily obtained.
There are lots of immediately useable sounds here, including electric pianos, organs, gut guitars, analogue basses, chorus pads and just plain fat analogue brass, string and synth stuff. There's a fair smattering of sweeps, combination sounds and arpeggio effects with a few sound effects thrown in, along with several sounds which defy description.
Of course, you can create incredibly complex sounds by layering them. This can get really heavy. For total overkill, set all the Banks to the same MIDI channel and select different sounds for each. Big is not the word. But do it sensibly and you can more than double the range of textures available to you.
TWO OF THE presets call up drum kits which contain 61 sounds, each of which responds to a key in the range C1-C6. The two kits are similar except for the note allocation and the pan position of the sounds. One of the maps follows the setup used by Roland and the other is Evolution's own.
The drums deserve a special mention as they certainly compare well with the drum sounds inside other budget expanders (bearing in mind that there's not one quite so budget as this). They include a range of bass and snare drums, toms, hi-hats and cymbals as well as claves, agogos and tambourines.
Some noise is evident in certain sounds (toms, for example) but this could well be lost in a mix. I have to add that some noise is quite discernible in some of the main sounds, too.
In spite of the in-built waveforms, the EVS1's forte is not the recreation of realistic or acoustic sounds: it's strength lies in the synthesis of sounds. In a mix, the sum of the parts is definitely greater than the whole.
THE MANUAL IS not terribly long and crams both hardware and software instructions into 56 pages. It's not really enough, and some operations could be better explained. For example, it's unclear at first how to store Banks in Groups (although it is easy when you know how).
It's a shame the writers didn't heed the comments most reviewers make about manuals and put a little more effort into this one. Apart from the lack of any explanation about the various forms of synthesis used - which is, arguably, excusable on the grounds that other companies such as Yamaha and Roland, for example, don't include in-depth explanations of FM or LA synthesis in their manuals - a little more help, especially for the relative beginner would not go amiss. How about a tutorial section and some worked examples?
However, the system is reasonably easy to use once you get into it and anyone with a little experience of other synths shouldn't have too many problems.
YOU COULD BUY the EVS1 and use it as a 100-sound preset expander but that, I think, rather defeats the object of the exercise. To make full use of it you really need a computer.
Therefore, it would appear that the EVS1 is targeting itself specifically towards musicians who use a computer. It may also attract the home musician who wouldn't think of spending £400-600 - plus editing software - on an instrument but who just might consider £299 for an expander plus software specifically for his machine. It will be interesting indeed to see how it fares.
Of course everyone is going to say they would prefer to have 80 programmable sounds and 20 presets rather than the other way around and why not a full MIDI complement of 128 sounds? An LCD would have been nice, too, and there's no reverb either, which would have beefed up the sounds somewhat. Costs have to be kept down somewhere.
Don't expect to get a DX7, CZ1 and a Juno in one box - the EVS is its own synth. Certainly one of the best ways of assessing it is to consider it as a powerful digital addition to an analogue setup. Perhaps its most ideal application is as a partner to Cheetah's budget analogue expander, the MS6. Between them the two units offer a tremendous range of sounds for under £600.
In spite of the odd niggle, as a budget-priced package, the EVS1 will doubtless find a lot of eager buyers. If you like synths, you'll like this and if you enjoy programming or if you want an easy introduction to digital synthesis you'll like it even more.
Price £299 including VAT.
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Review by Ian Waugh
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