Frontal Lobe & PCM Channel
Korg M1 Enhancement
Much talked about in the US but still unavailable in the UK, Cannon's Frontal Lobe promises a new lease of life for your Korg M1. Gordon Reid asks "does it deliver?"
The success of Korg's M1 now places it alongside the DX7 and D50 in terms of popularity. And like the DX7 and D50, the M1 could benefit from an enhancement system - like the Frontal Lobe.
Technology marches inexorably forward. The M1, which was the peak of synthesiser development in 1988, combining chic design with bright, modern sounds, drumkit, and sequencer, has been superseded by Korg's own T-series workstations, which feature larger PCM ROMs and much larger sequencer memories. So where does this leave the 'umble M1, with its huge following of enthusiastic users? Like the DX7 and the D50 before it, the M1 has formed the foundation of a whole "support" industry - M1 editors, librarians, voice and PCM cards. And as the DX and the D50 saw upgrades in the form of the E! and the MEX boards, the M1 could clearly benefit from a device that updates its voice and sequencing capabilities. But what's needed is something more than just another set of clever voices, or yet another editor/librarian. What's needed is a unit that addresses the real shortcomings of the M1 in 1990. Perhaps what's needed is the Frontal Lobe and PCM Channel from Cannon Research Corporation.
By today's standards, the M1's sequencer, with its 4,400- or 7,700-note capacity, doesn't give you many notes for your (pound) notes. It's limited by lack of memory, lack of tracks, and a sound to track assignment which doesn't match the flexibility of the M1 itself. Although this is mitigated to some extent by the pattern recording mode, and the flexibility of copying, bouncing, and looping, few users treat their M1 sequencer as much more than a scratchpad. The Frontal Lobe addresses one of the above limitations in full - the lack of memory - and also attempts to improve matters in the area of assigning and modifying sounds within tracks. However, the Lobe cannot improve the total number of tracks available because it isn't a true sequencer. It has no ability to record directly and no note editing capabilities. Let's think of it as a cross between a sequence librarian and a MIDI Disk Recorder.
THE FRONTAL LOBE is an add-on computer for the M1, based around a 12MHz processor, and featuring a 1.44Mb high-density 3.5" floppy disk drive, two MIDI ports, and an RS232 port. There are two versions - 64Kb or 256Kb of sequencer RAM, holding 13,000 or 62,000 events respectively. The PCM Channel contains a 20MHz processor and 512Kb RAM. Both devices are compatible with all M- and T-series synths as well as the S3 and WS instruments, and a number of Lobes can be connected together to further expand the synths. Power to both the Lobe and the Channel is provided by a single 12v external power supply.
Although the v1 Frontal Lobe has been available in the States for about a year, no UK distributor has yet been appointed (although Korg themselves are currently evaluating the unit). The latest update of the Lobe's disk-based operating system, and the one supplied for review, is v2 which, in addition to supporting the PCM Channel, offers improved Menu commands and File capabilities over the earlier version. If you've acquired a v1 Frontal Lobe from the US, updates are available directly from Cannon Research.
The devices come in two small cardboard boxes. These contain a small black box (the Frontal Lobe), a very small black box (the PCM Channel), a 90-page manual, and a demonstration disk. The manual seems clearly written and well laid out, but this is a false impression. The information is muddled, chapters and sub-sections are in the wrong order, and you have to skip forwards and backwards to make sense of things. The Lobe is a complex as well as a powerful device and requires more explanation, greater clarity, and much better tutorials. On a positive note, there is a full command chart and MIDI implementation at the back, along with a helpful set of menu flow-charts. But despite all this, the manual gets a firm thumbs-down, if only because it made this (experienced) user feel unwelcome and confused. Heaven help a novice.
The Frontal Lobe is a compact package about 4" x 6" x 2", which has been designed to sit on top of your M1 or M1R. Indeed, the specially-designed MIDI cable supplied doesn't allow more remote operation. The Lobe connects to the MIDI In and Out of the synth, and any previous MIDI Ins or Outs can be plugged into the extender sockets provided on the back of the Frontal Lobe cable. If you're connecting to an M1R or M3R module controlled by a master keyboard, the Lobe performs MIDI merging between its own data and incoming data over MIDI.
The demo disk contains four songs and a group of PCM/Program files. These demonstrate the following capabilities of the Lobe and PCM Channel: creation of a longer song than the M1 can hold on its own, the use of a cue list, real-time panning via embedded control commands, and the inclusion of new PCMs. Use of the Lobe may overwrite your M1 memory, so the disk also contains all the factory presets for the M- and T-series machines. Obviously, if your synth has been edited, you will need to back up your own programs before proceeding any further.
All aspects of the operation of the Frontal Lobe centre around its 16 x 1 backlit LCD screen and the eight buttons, which are all the controls available to you. These are split into two groups; the three Mode buttons (which start and stop the sequencer, control loops and song sections), and five Edit buttons which move you from screen to screen, increment and decrement values, and execute commands. In addition to the Play screen (the uppermost level of the operating system) there are five master menus which give access to the other functions of the Lobe. These are Load, Dump, Global Command, Global Edit, and Disk Command. The menu system is hierarchical, and moving between menus is trivial. All in all, the principles (if not the practicalities) of operation of the Lobe are a doddle.
BECAUSE THE FRONTAL Lobe has no actual sequencing capabilities, songs are still created in the normal fashion within the M1 and, following that, dumped to the Lobe. If a composition is longer than the M1 memory can hold (that is, after all, what the Frontal Lobe is about) the piece is recorded in sections and then downloaded to disk a bit at a time. A new song file must be created for each section that is saved but, if the file number is incremented by one each time, the Lobe will automatically chain the files together on replay. If a song is particularly long, and has repeated sections (verse and chorus) you can specify a cue list which, on playback, recalls a given section from disk, plays it the desired number of times, loads another, plays, returns to the original, goes somewhere else, back to the beginning, and so on. This is also an efficient way of managing memory. In addition, Auto File Load enables you to create a list of up to 100 songs which will load from disk one at a time, play, and then move on to the next in the list. A single disk will hold up to 127 files (each of which can have an exclusive ten-character name) and total disk capacity (if used for sequence data only) is 300,000 events.
"The PCM Channel enables 8.3 seconds of 16-bit sounds to be loaded into the M1 from library disks, and enables you to play your own PCMs from 16-bit or 12-bit sample data."
Playing Frontal Lobe sequences places the M1 in Combination mode. There are a number of ways to select the right combination for the right song, but the simplest works as follows: change the M1's Next parameter to C8 and, on starting the sequence, the Lobe will select the M1 combination that matches the Frontal Lobe song number. Of course, the appropriate combination must already exist within the synth, but the method has the advantage of real simplicity of use. If the synth's internal memory is unprotected, combinations created within the Lobe can also be downloaded into the M1 along with the sequence data. Since the Frontal Lobe plays the M1 in Combination mode, entering Combination Edit allows you to experiment with different voices, volumes, pannings, transpositions, and effect parameters while the sequence is running. These changes can then be incorporated into the sequence. Usefully, song sections can be looped while you experiment with individual patch parameters. Sequences can also contain control events which may, for example, be used to modify combination or program parameters, vary EQs and effects, or make tempo changes. MIDI SysEx messages may also be embedded as such events. You can, as expected, play in real time over the sequence if there are voices available to do so. However, the M1 has no voice reserve feature, so you could find yourself out of voices at embarrassing moments.
The Frontal Lobe works almost faultlessly as a sequence expander, but some event edits send an All Notes Off to the voices. In practice this means that you have to place a pause in the music if you want to embed certain commands, and this is certainly not something that you want to have to contend with in serious composition. Another problem concerns speed, or rather, the lack of it. Selecting a track from disk and starting to play it can take as much as a minute - not really quick enough for many applications. However, on a positive note, you can create a complete live set of songs on an M1 using the Frontal Lobe. In addition, sequence data from the Frontal Lobe also appears at the MIDI Thru on the M1 and can therefore be used on a whole MIDI instrument stack.
THE MOST EXCITING option offered by the Frontal Lobe is the PCM Channel. This small box (3" x 2" x 1/2") plugs directly into the PCM slot on the M1 and M1R (fouling the M1R volume control in the process) and connects to the Lobe via a Telecom-style cable. The PCM Channel fulfils two powerful functions. Firstly, it enables 8.3 seconds of 16-bit sounds to be loaded into the M1 from library disks and, secondly, it enables you to play your own PCMs from 16-bit or 12-bit sample data which is downloaded to the Lobe using MIDI Sample Dump Standard (SDS).
Unfortunately, Cannon treat the use of the PCM Channel as an aside. They appear to have completely overlooked the fact that the facility to create PCMs is unique to them. Their documentation gives no real clue to the power of the Channel and information about it is included only as a sub-section of the chapter on disk utilities. Fortunately, the procedure for creating PCMs and patches is fairly simple and bears close comparison to the manipulation of multisampled patches on a sampler.
Firstly, an empty PCM file must be created on disk. This will accept the waveform dumped to the Lobe via MIDI SDS. If you cannot initiate a transfer directly from your sampler the Lobe will issue a sample dump request, and then accept a dump of 20,000 samples.
If the waveform exceeds this length, the Lobe issues a wait command, writes the data to disk, and then prepares to receive the next block. Consequently, if your sampler doesn't respond to the SDS Wait command, the Lobe will not be able to handle files greater than 20,000 samples. Having loaded the PCM file(s) you can proceed to build your patches. Original pitch(es) can be defined, samples can be tuned, and initial levels, cutoff frequencies, and decay rates may be adjusted for each PCM within a patch. Drum samples are easier to create because they are one-shot and have no transposition or tuning parameters.
When in use, PCMs are held within the PCM Channel. This is fine while the power is switched on, but pray that there are no power cuts or surges during the gig/session because, each time that the gear is switched off, the data must be re-loaded from disk and dumped to the Channel. Given the slow loading speed, this is almost enough to send you diving for your library of PCM ROM cards.
"The Lobe will not only save all the song in your live set, but control your synths, drum machines and effects, modify the mix and control your lighting rig."
ONCE YOUR SYNTH'S internal memories are filled there are two ways to store patches - ROM/RAM cards and computer librarians. The first of these options is expensive, the second clumsy (especially if you need to move your gear around). Korg voice cards cost up to £100, and hold a fraction of the data of a single floppy disk. Consequently, a number of companies (such as Prosonus and Technosis) are now producing patch libraries on Frontal Lobe disks. Sounds already available include pianos, strings, orchestral percussion, sound effects, vocal samples, classic synth timbres, drum machines, guitars and brass. In the States these disks retail for $49, and at that price you don't need to buy many disks to cover the cost of the Frontal Lobe and PCM Channel just from the price differential between disks and ROM cards. Having said that, many patch libraries are now available on self-loading disks as well as on cards, and these disks can cost as little as £10. On reflection, the librarian aspect of the Lobe (bearing in mind that it has no ability to arrange patches into banks or libraries) is an added bonus, not a raison d'etre.
THE FRONTAL LOBE drive not only stores songs, programs, and combinations, but also SysEx dumps consisting of patch, timbre, sample, or system data from any devices hooked into your MIDI rig. Rather than read the SysEx data into RAM and then use a disk utility to store it, the Lobe captures dumps without buffering. Consequently, the dump size is limited only by the disk capacity (1.3Mb formatted), not by the RAM size - a facility that the Frontal Lobe shares with dedicated filers such as the Elka CR99. Therefore, the Lobe will not only save all the songs in your set, but also control your synths, drum machines and effects, modify the mix and control your lighting rig - all without the need for cards, computers, or sweaty roadies. MIDI SysEx dumps can be named and also chained together, and may be accessed from the M1 MIDI Thru port as well as directly from the Lobe itself. Unfortunately there are no MIDI filtering capabilities, so disk space will often be consumed more quickly than is absolutely necessary.
DESPITE TWO YEARS of T-series and WS development from Korg, and in the face of fierce competition from Roland, Yamaha, and Ensoniq, the M1 is still the most sought-after synth in its price bracket. Nevertheless, it has shortcomings. These are, to a great extent, addressed by the Frontal Lobe and PCM Channel, so why are they so unconvincing? After all, they have many positive features, and are certainly more mobile than an Atari or Macintosh.
Consider the shortcomings: if you're looking for a dedicated sequencer, you must compare the Frontal Lobe to the Roland MC500 II, or the eminently affordable Alesis MMT8 (£200-ish), and Korg SQD8 (£299). These are no more awkward to connect, and offer advanced features at a fraction of the cost. Although the Lobe and PCM Channel are more convenient than a computer, they still clutter your rig with extra boxes and trailing cables. They can't be mounted inside the M1 because you have to be able to access the disk drive, but because of their shapes you can't fix them to the side or top of the instrument either. In truth, the only genuine advantage in using a Frontal Lobe as a sequencer is to avoid learning a different operating system - perhaps that will be enough for some people.
Other gripes? The Lobe doesn't automatically detect a change of disk and is liable to trash your data if you change without using one of the Insert Disk commands; the PCM Channel fouls the M1R volume control; the Lobe can't be used remotely without having to buy a special extension cable from Cannon; the song loading time is poor, and the manual dreadful.
However, even these criticisms are pale when you consider the likely U.K price of the Lobe: £800 is more than enough to purchase an Atari 1040ST plus a powerful software sequencer - and have enough change left to buy the whole band a decent dinner. Add the prospective cost of the PCM Channel (£400), and the whole idea of the Lobe and Channel breaks down. After all, you could pick up a secondhand S900 as well for that sort of money. Korg UK have also expressed serious misgivings about the pricing and have indicated that, as a consequence, they may turn down the distribution in the UK.
So where does that leave us? The Frontal Lobe and the PCM Channel together occupy a niche not addressed by any other units. They have their faults, and some omissions, but they expand the sequencing and data filing options of the M1 and offer the unique (but under-exploited) PCM creation capability. But the prospective cost must price them out of most buyers' reach. Almost every facility offered can be obtained elsewhere - cheaper sequencers, cheaper data filers, even cheaper T-series synths (!). Only the most dedicated users who have already invested considerable time and effort perfecting their M1 technique will be tempted by the Frontal Lobe and PCM Channel. Then, and only then, will £1200 cease to be an obstacle. If the price was lower, and some of the more serious flaws overcome - well, that could be another story, another review...
Price Frontal Lobe 64kB, $799; PCM Channel, $399.
More From Cannon Research Corporation, (Contact Details).