Valhala International Gold M1 Sound Cards
David Mellor goes in search of inspiration, and finds it in three of Valhala's International Gold voice cards for the Korg M1.
Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, on a day marked in my diary as 'M' for music, I feel in the mood to get down to the musical basics and build something up from the rawest of raw material. I switch on my equipment rack and sequencer, then find a very simple musical sound, such as strings or electric piano, and doodle away until I have the bones of an idea. On other days I'll be in a 'discovering' sort of mood, where I want to find a sound in my collection that I haven't used before and see what I can make from it. Exploring the darkest recesses of my program and sample library, sooner or later I'll find a sound that sparks my imagination which will almost develop itself without conscious intervention into a finished piece of music.
There are many ways to make a piece of music, and I see no reason why we shouldn't use all the techniques that are available to create a variety of different musical styles — different working methods spark off creativity, and often when I work in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar equipment and programs, for instance in a studio other than my personal studio, I produce my best work.
Consequently, one way to produce good original music is to buy a new synthesizer which will come crammed to the brim with new sounds created by the factory programmers. Don't play with your new toy; get straight down to work because the inspiration those sounds will give you while they are new is invaluable. But eventually you will get to know very well all the sounds your instrument can produce. You will become bored with its familiar drum sounds, basses, pianos and other programs, and your creativity will ebb. Fortunately it's easy, and relatively inexpensive, to sharpen your keyboard's cutting edge again. Simply turn the pages of Sound On Sound until you find a company that sells voice cards for synths. For a few tens of pounds, if you choose wisely, you will buy yourself a whole new instrument.
As you know, Valhala is where all those old Norse gods live (and if you believe what Wagner had to say about them in his operatic Ring Cycle, where they continually squabbled amongst themselves). It seems appropriate that the home of the gods should be provided with a supply of quality synth voices.
The Korg M1 is my favourite synth all-rounder, an excellent instrument to buy as your first keyboard. (Of course there is now the more recent 01W/FD to consider too). The factory programs and combinations (which are layered programs) show excellent use of the basic sampled raw material. For composing or arranging from musical first principals, these voices are very good indeed, with acoustic and electric pianos, guitars and basses, choirs, synth sounds and so on, all very solid and 'straight'. There are a few factory programs in the M1, however, which are more adventurous, with longer envelopes and more interesting effects, which tend to evolve over a period of several seconds. These voices are hard to use if you you are trying to fit something into your existing partly finished arrangement. You have to take the voice as it stands, and then work out a composition around it.
The three Valhala voice cards I have here, from the International Gold series, fall into this category. The vast majority of the sounds have complex textures and may evolve in the way I explained above. If you want basic material then you should look elsewhere; if you want to be inspired to greater heights of musical ecstasy, look no further!
No, not the latest USAF bombers in the US air force. I don't know whether I missed out on some of the promotional or packaging material, but surely these cards deserve more meaningful names. One thing you might expect of an instrument which is based around sampled sounds is that any new programs will automatically sound very reminiscent of the factory programs because they use the same material. The amazing thing about these Valhala cards is that they sound completely different. There is hardly a voice, among the 300 programs and 300 combinations here, that would make you think, "Ah yes, that's a modification of program number...". Almost all the voices here really do sound new.
There's a little bit of the programmer in all of us. Usually we just tweak the factory sounds a little, or combine existing elements of programs in different ways. Listening to these Valhala cards, I am now assured that trying to do my own programming is a complete waste of time. To create anything like what we have here would take days and days of work, as it probably has, even with the aid of computer editing software. Time that could be better spent writing music, in my opinion. (Of course when more manufacturers take Roland's lead and bring the knobs and sliders back, then we'll be editing all the time).
I could try and describe some of the sounds on the cards, but why attempt the impossible? It's probably better to say what I think the voices are useful for. As I have said, there are only a few basic instruments like basses and piano sounds, so I doubt if many people would use the International Gold series cards for producing song backings. But if you want to write a film score (wouldn't we all like the chance) or a video soundtrack then these cards are ideal. For anything atmospheric, as opposed to rhythmic or melodic, there is a vast range of material that I am sure will fit almost any image. Just doodle a few notes and move onto the next cue!
You should have a good idea of what the International Gold series is all about by now, and you will be asking yourself which one you should buy first. Well of course if you are at all serious then you'll buy all three! But if your pennies won't stretch that far I would suggest B-101 or B-102. All the cards have a similar range of sounds, though I did marginally prefer the selection provided in the first two rather than those on B-103. Anyway, don't take my word for it — try them out yourself!
Valhala International Gold cards £50 each, inc VAT.
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Review by David Mellor
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