Here In Black & White
Korg DW8000 Polysynth
Korg's flagship poly gets a touch-sensitive keyboard, a built-in DDL, and a lot more besides. Simon Trask concludes it’s what the DW6000 should have been all along.
...is Korg's latest flagship polysynth, the DW8000. It adds keyboard sensitivity, a bigger synth section and a built-in digital delay line to the spec of its predecessor, the 6000. And they make a big difference.
Your eyes do not deceive you. The new Korg DW8000 has its origins in the company's previous top-model polysynth, the DW6000. That machine was released to generally favourable reviews earlier this year (E&MM reviewed it in March '85), but at an initial asking price of £1099, its lack of a touch-sensitive keyboard meant that it came off badly in the face of immediate competition from Roland's JX8P and Yamaha's DX7.
Six months later, the 6000 has fallen to a more realistic price of around £700, and the 8000 has arisen to take its place at £1075. Not only is the DW8000 touch-sensitive (attack velocity and channel aftertouch), but it also replaces the 6000's built-in chorus with what must be a world first on a synth: a built-in digital delay line.
You may well have seen, or even have had a brief go on, the DW8000 at the British Music Fair. You may even have set eyes on a prototype voice expander, the EX8000, which packs all the new synth's sound circuitry (including a duplicate DDL) into a rackmounting MIDI box. What you may not know is that as soon as the Fair was over, the synth was whisked back to the land of Korg to have a better keyboard fitted, and a better set of sounds programmed into it. Which is why it's only now that we've been able to get our hands on one.
Now, you're not going to get a wooden weighted keyboard for this sort of money, but the new set of ivories(?) is pleasant enough to play, and have probably been worth the extra effort Korg have gone to. The sounds, meanwhile, have definitely been worth it.
In fact, touch-sensitivity and the built-in DDL are only the 8000's most obvious additions. Other developments over the 6000 are an increase to eight voices (hence the 8000: geddit?), the inclusion of 16 as opposed to eight digital waveforms, and the addition of an arpeggiator, a fourth key assign mode, a choice of waveforms for the modulation generator, and a new 'auto-bend' feature which allows an initial slur up or down to the main note(s) to be programmed for each oscillator. There are also, of course, extra voice-programmable parameters to handle the digital delay, aftertouch and velocity-sensitivity.
The back panel reveals the same selection of sockets and switches as on the 6000, ie. MIDI In, Out and Thru, left/mono and right stereo outputs, stereo headphone output, damper (hold), portamento and program up pedals, tape in/out mini-jacks, a tape enable/disable switch, and a write enable/disable switch (which allows or disallows storage of patches). Like the 6000, the 8000's external storage is to tape only, unless some bright spark comes along and writes some suitable patch-dump software that'll work via MIDI.
If you're not a fan of Korg's approach to front panel access (pioneered on the Poly 61, the first of Korg's polys to use digital access), then you're unlikely to be enamoured with the 8000 - it uses exactly the same system. Thus, there are two buttons for selecting programs and parameters, numeric keys for selecting program and parameter numbers, and a data slider and +/— buttons for selecting parameter values.
Thankfully, the visual layout of the 8000's parameter table is much improved over that of the 6000, while the clear layout of the various selector buttons is the same as before. Also retained is a very useful facility called Bank Hold. Summoned at the press of the button, this allows the left-hand digit of either the program or the parameter display (depending on which you select) to be 'held', enabling single-keypress changes to be made within a bank. This is particularly useful when you're editing parameters, where it can be handy to freeze the bank number while you're working within a bank (the DDL parameters, for instance, are parameter numbers 71-76). Personally, I don't find Korg's editing system as it's presented on the 8000 to be too bad — but it would still be handy if the company could come up with an 'analogue' programmer to serve the same function as Roland's PG800 does for their JX8P poly.
Like its predecessor, the DW8000 uses a sound-generation system of Korg's own devising, called the Digital Waveform Generator System. (So now you know where the 'DW' comes from as well; aren't these names wonderfully logical?) I won't go into the system in detail as it's already been covered in the aforementioned review of the DW6000. So suffice to say that it's based on digitally-encoded complex waveforms, created by additive synthesis and then stored on ROM chips. There are two digital oscillators for each of the 8000's voices, which allows different waveforms to be mixed together.
"Facilities - The arpeggio section is a half-hearted affair that's more a relic from the past than a useful facility for the present."
On top of this digital complexity, Korg have put an analogue noise generator, VCF and VCA (with independent six-stage envelopes for both), and an LFO (which, for some reason best known to themselves, Korg have always termed a Modulation Generator).
What all this gives the budding synth programmer is a system that's essentially familiar and therefore easy to use. It's capable of producing rich analogue-type sounds (including some very nice electric piano and string voices) as well as some typically electronic ones. But you can also coax it into producing a hard, metallic edge to its output that's as clear as the DXs' without being quite as strident. If you buy an 8000, it'll come to you complete with a cassette containing 128 different factory patches, 64 of which are not on the synth when you power it up.
As for the synth's new-found sensitivity in the keyboard department, you can set velocity-sensitivity to act on either amplitude or timbre (which means connecting it to the VCA or VCF respectively). Aftertouch can be applied in a similar direction, and also to the modulation generator's oscillator.
If you've ever crossed swords with Korg's flimsy joystick performance controller in the past, you won't be overjoyed to learn that it's still present on the 8000. My own personal feeling is that though it does look tacky and is a bit on the insubstantial side, it nonetheless provides a handy degree of flexibility in combining performance effects. Pitchbend up/down, filter cutoff frequency, and modulation of the VCF and oscillators by the MG can all be controlled from the joystick, more or less at the same time - and that's something traditional pitch and mod wheels don't normally cope with.
Korg didn't put an arpeggiator on the 6000, and frankly, I don't really see why one has found its way onto the 8000. What it gives you is a Speed Change control, an Octave switch that allows you to decide whether you want your arpeggio reproduced over one, two or all available octaves (a feature that dates back to the Korg Polysix), up/down and assignable modes of operation (the latter reproduces the notes in the order you play them), and a Latch switch which allows your arpeggio to carry on playing once you've lifted fingers from keys (it's advisable to switch this on before you start playing).
OK, so you can produce some pretty patterns without really being able to play. But the 8000 can't remember your arpeggio once you exit the arpeggiator, and you can't play along with it on the synth itself - so you'll need another machine if you want to do any more than listen to your handiwork. The arpeggiator can be synced to a MIDI sequencer, but overall the section strikes me as a very half-hearted affair which is more a relic from the past than a useful facility for the present. Even the Poly 800's sequencer had more to offer.
Much more worthwhile is Korg's built-in DDL. This manifests itself as six voice-programmable parameters, so that each of the 8000's 64 patches can have its own DDL patch, too. Parameters are Delay Time (adjustable in a range of 2-512 milliseconds), Factor (which is a fine adjustment of the delay time, from X 0.5 to X 1.0), Feedback, Modulation Frequency (speed of the LFO output used to modulate the delay time), Modulation Intensity, and Effect Level (level of effect in relation to original sound). That's a more comprehensive array than you'll find on many a budget dedicated delay, and it's flexible enough for you to be able to set up a healthy quantity of different treatments, ranging from very dry, sparse effects to long, repeating echoes, with everything in between.
"MIDI - An interesting feature is the Device ID Request, which allows a computer to receive the 8000's MIDI ID number."
I approached the DW's delay line with scepticism because it looked like a gimmick. In reality, it turned out to be an intriguing and extremely useful addition to the synth's arsenal of programmable parameters. The only fault I can find with it is that, not being a MIDI-derived delay, its results are not communicable over MIDI. So if you had ideas of transferring repeat echoes from a sound on the DW8000 to another on another MIDI synth, you're in for a disappointment. Personally, all I'm waiting for now is the time when manufacturers get round to including digital reverb as a voice-programmable feature in synthesisers. Now that really will be something...
MIDI parameters available from the Korg's front panel are memorised, but are not voice-programmable. These parameters are MIDI channel number (same for send and receive), note data or all data send/receive (as on Yamaha's more recent synths, this allows for distinctly non-selective data filtering), Omni reception on/off (annoyingly, this is reset to On every time you power up), and internal/external clock (with three different note values) for syncing the arpeggiator to MIDI sequencers and drum machines. Not a particularly versatile set of facilities, especially when you consider that Roland's JX8P offers a much more thoughtful set of MIDI parameters, including more selective data filtering. Still, Korg have included a facility that lets you put the 8000 to rights very quickly if it starts playing up in a MIDI system: just press the front-panel Write button and the 8000's circuitry is automatically reset. A helpful, realistic thing to have around.
One area where Korg deserve a lot of praise is the MIDI documentation that's in the 8000's manual. Specifically, the pages house full details of the various System Exclusive send/receive messages necessary to establish communication with the outside world, together with the 8000's bit map and cross references to the parameters themselves. In short, there's everything an enterprising software house needs to come up with some sophisticated MIDI patch dump and editing software for the DW8000.
An interesting MIDI feature is the Device ID Request, which allows a computer to request and receive the 8000's MIDI ID number. Now, being able to identify which instrument is on the end of a particular MIDI channel opens up the possibility of detailed interrogation of a synth's capabilities — and that could mean one hell of an intelligent sequencing package in the not-too-distant future.
The new Korg's parameters can be edited in 'real time' over MIDI, and interestingly, the company's implementation of System Exclusive on the 8000 makes all data transfer and associated requests channel-specific, something that allows for sophisticated addressing of one or more DW8000s within a MIDI system.
The DW8000 is the instrument the 6000 should have been. Even though its built-in DDL is the only thing about the big Korg that stands out as being genuinely new, the synth performs and sounds well enough for it to stand up against the best of the competition from Roland, Yamaha and the rest.
Korg's proprietary Digital Waveform Generator System is never going to make the same size splash as Yamaha's FM did; when all is said and done, it's basically traditional analogue with some added advantages courtesy of digital manipulation and memory. Yet it does seem to be capable of producing a whole host of excellent sounds, now better-programmed by the factory, more responsive thanks to the addition of touch-sensitivity, and given greater potential by the inclusion of the DDL.
"Sounds - Korg's DWGS is never going to make as big a splash as FM did... but it's capable of producing a whole host of excellent voices."
On the performance front, the DW8000 doesn't have anything to compete with the new-fangled split and dual keyboards or Yamaha's performance memories, but as I've already mentioned, its joystick is more versatile — and more usable — than many, and its keyboard is one of the best Korg have fitted to a synth for some while.
In an ideal world, every synth player would have an analogue synth and a digital one. Failing that, the average musician would probably opt for an analogue instrument that could also have a bash at digital-type sounds without being knocked out in the first round. Which, as luck would have it, is exactly the sort of instrument the DW8000 is.
Review by Simon Trask
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