Korg 01/W Pro & 03R/W Synths
Synthesiser and Module
Korg's latest additions to their popular 0-series synth range include the professional flagship 01/W Pro-X keyboard and the more affordable 03/R rackmount. Simon Trask assesses their position in Korg's line and today's keyboard market.
While the 88-note 01/W Pro X keyboard oozes prestige, the 03R/W module - the first Korg instrument to incorporate General MIDI in its spec - espouses popular appeal.
Following the success of the M1, Korg built up a range of instruments based on the same technology and design concept. The M1R was a straightforward rack-mount counterpart, even taking the unusual step of retaining the synth's onboard sequencer. The M3R was a scaled-down module which marked the range's only excursion into the sub-£1000 price bracket. The 61-note T3, 76-note T2 and 88-note T1, meanwhile, were more sophisticated keyboards which took the range progressively upmarket.
Now Korg are following the same route with the M1's successor, the 01/W, bringing out the 01R/W, 03R/W, 01/W Pro and 01/W Pro X - respectively the M1R, M3R, T2 and T1 of the new range. The 01/W FD, which Korg released at the same time as the 01/W, fills the T3 role - sensibly enough, this time around Korg want to appeal simultaneously to musicians using computer-based sequencers (with the 01/W) and musicians preferring the stand-alone workstation approach (with the FD version). In this review we'll look at the two instruments at opposite ends of the range - the 01/W Pro X and the 03R/W, and concentrate on how they differ from the 01/W and 01/W FD.
Aside from the obvious physical differences, both the 01/W Pro X and the 01/W Pro differ from the 01/W FD (reviewed MT, November '91) only in their provision of 10Mb of sample ROM (an extra 4Mb which contains a second multisampled acoustic piano and ten more drum and percussion sounds), their ability to import and export sequences as Standard MIDI Files and their inclusion of a Solo function in the sequencer. No doubt FD owners wouldn't mind having the option of these extras as an upgrade to their instrument.
Clearly, Korg's primary intention in bringing out the 76-note Pro and 88-note Pro X - and it's a laudable one - is to cater for performers who feel constricted by the regulation 61 keys of the average synth. The Pro X has the same performer-friendly wooden weighted keyboard as the T1 and the company's SGX1D electronic piano, and matches the T1 in both size and weight - not the sort of instrument you'd want to move often, and then not by yourself. Despite its size, the Pro X has the same concise front-panel user interface as the other 01/W keyboards, which leaves plenty of flat top-panel space on which you can rest other bits of gear or spread out sheets of music or packets of garlic butter. As its keyboard and casing are the only features which distinguish the Pro X from the Pro, all discussion below of the new sounds and software features can be taken to refer to both instruments.
The new multisampled acoustic piano is a grand to the existing piano's upright, a more full-bodied sound with a touch more gravitas. But while it's a welcome addition, considering that most of the extra sample memory on the Pro X is dedicated to it, the loops come in surprisingly soon and aren't as timbrally rich as you might expect; the change on held notes is subtle but noticeable if you play close attention, rather than offputting.
Seven of the extra ten drum and percussion sounds - NewTom 1-4, BrsSnrOtap, BrsSnr Tap and BrsSnrSwsh - are jazz kit sounds (tight, bouncy toms, and snare drum played with brushes), while the other three - Guiro S, Guiro L and Quica - are Latin percussion sounds of the rasping and squeaking kind. Surprisingly, none of these extra sounds are included in the four onboard Drum Kits in the Pro X, which leaves you to discover them by accident rather than by design.
The Pro X's inclusion of Standard MIDI Files read/write capability means that sequences can be transferred via disk between its onboard sequencer and any other sequencer, whether computer-based, dedicated or workstation-based, which supports both the MIDI Files file format and the MS.DOS disk format. You must use 3.5" double-sided double density disks, as, unlike the T-series synths, the Pro X doesn't support high-density floppies. Also, when you're formatting a MIDI Files disk on the Pro X, you must do so using the Format function on the synth's Standard MIDI Files Save/Load software page, not the Format function on its 01/W-specific Program/Combi/Sequence Save/Load page. As you might guess, this is because it uses one disk format for 01/W-specific data and another (MS.DOS) for Standard MIDI Files data. You can save as many SMF files to disk as disk space allows. On the Pro X, an SMF file equates with a single 16-track Song. The synth supports both type 0 (one 16-channel track) and type 1 (separate tracks maintained) SMF file formats; most of the time it's the latter you'll want to use.
I was able to transfer sequences, including tempo track, successfully in both directions between the Pro X and Opcode's Mac-based Vision and EZ Vision sequencing packages, using Apple File Exchange software to convert files to and from MS-DOS within the Mac environment, and ResEdit software to change the file type (BINA) and file creator (mdos) of converted Pro X files to "Midi" and "MIDJ" respectively, so that Vision and EZ Vision can identify them as Standard MIDI Files. Although the Standard MIDI Files format is certainly a good thing, it's important to realise that an SMF file can only act as a "lowest common denominator" link between different sequencers. You can't expect an SMF file to transfer one sequencer's way of structuring sequences to another's. For instance, when the Pro X saves a Song as an SMF file it replaces any Pattern calls within the sequence tracks with the actual Pattern data, removing the Pro X-specific structuring but also increasing the size of the sequence in the process - something to bear in mind if you want to transfer Pro X sequences to another sequencer and then back into the Pro X. Equally, you can't transfer a sequence to a sequencer with fewer tracks and a lower timing resolution and expect it to remain unaffected. For instance, a 24-track sequence recorded in Vision becomes a 16-track sequence on the Pro X (tracks on the same MIDI channel are merged) while its 480ppqn timing resolution is scaled to the Pro X's 96ppqn.
"Korg's primary intention in bringing out the 88-note Pro X is to cater for performers who feel constricted by the 61 keys on the average synth."
The third additional feature on the Pro X, as mentioned earlier, is a Solo function in the onboard sequencer. To solo a track while the sequencer is in Play or Record or is Stopped, you position the cursor on the relevant Play/Mute track field of the Rec/Play software page, hold down whichever of the soft buttons A-H underneath the LCD screen is located below it, and press button 3 on the Pro X's numeric keypad. If you want to switch to another track, you hold down the relevant soft button and press button 3 again. To revert to playing all recorded tracks, you hold down any one of the soft buttons and press button 2 on the numeric keypad.
As on the 01/W and 01/W FD, you can mute and unmute individual tracks by using the Value Inc/Dec buttons to toggle between Play and Mute settings in the relevant track field. However, the Pro X adds an alternative method of track muting using the numeric keypad approach. In this instance, you hold down the relevant soft button for the track and press button 1 to mute the track, or button 0 to unmute it. Although the manual refers only to keypad buttons 0-3, buttons 4-6 and 7-9 also have mute one, play all, and solo functions. Individual track muting allows you to build up and break down a sequence one track at a time; however, the Pro X doesn't allow you to mute and unmute selected groups of tracks - if you hold down more than one soft button, it takes whichever of the buttons you pressed last.
Because there are 16 tracks but only eight soft buttons, you have to assign either tracks 1-8 or tracks 9-16 to the buttons. This entails using the Cursor Up/Down buttons to move the cursor between the upper and lower rows of tracks in the LCD page, with two button-presses being required in either direction. However, it strikes me that a faster, more reliable and more elegant method would have been to use the soft buttons in conjunction with keypad buttons 0-3 for tracks 1-8 and buttons 4-7 (duplicating the functions of buttons 0-3) for tracks 9-16.
When you mute a track, the Pro X initiates MIDI Note offs for all active notes and then disregards all further notes; this means that active notes will continue to sound for the duration of their envelope release stage. In practice, track muting and track soloing on the Pro X work very smoothly, though you do need to "unsolo" a track just before, rather than on, the beat in order for the muted tracks to come back in on the beat without a glitch in timing; in practice this is something you soon develop a feel for.
One thing you can't get around is the fact that mutes and solos aren't recordable as part of a Pro X Song. It's beyond me why, in this day and age, some manufacturers persist in seeing them only as live performance features, not as an integral part of the composing and recording process.
At the opposite end of the new range, the economies made on the 03R/W in the name of affordability are surprisingly few. Aside from the obvious ones, which are in the nature of the instrument (reduced size, reduced front-panel accessibility, and no onboard sequencer, disk drive or footpedal and footswitch inputs), the R/W loses 1Mb of sample ROM compared to the mid-range instruments (5Mb instead of 6Mb), together with one Program Bank, one Combi Bank, and the Waveshaping and Emphasis features found in all the other instruments of the range. But there are no compromises in sound quality, and, with the exception of Waveshaping and Emphasis, the Program and Combi architectures are the same (so, unlike the M3R, the R/W keeps the two oscillators per Program of its more expensive relatives), as is the effects processing and the audio output arrangement. There are also four onboard ROM Drum Kits in addition to two programmable Kits.
"With the 03R/W Korg have come up with a relatively affordable rack-mount version of the 01/W which manages not to lose out all that much on its sounds."
Although it's the baby of the 01/W family, the 03R/W does have one feature which the others don't, namely General MIDI compatibility. Korg have included a Bank of Programs which conforms to the GM Sound Set and a Drum Kit which conforms to the GM Percussion Map (Kit One of the four ROM Kits), all held in ROM and accessible via MIDI in a 16-channel Multi mode. I'll discuss this aspect of the R/W in more detail later on.
The 03R/W's front-panel user interface is logical and straightforward, but inevitably it's constricted by the rackmount format and rather fiddly and laborious in use. No doubt editing programs will appear for it, but if you like the more physical hands-on approach and have another £280 to spare, you can buy Korg's RE1 Remote Editor, originally introduced by the company in 1989 to fulfill the same function for the M3R.
Rack-mount units have their advantages, too, of course. One is that the format encourages manufacturers to put any card slots on the front panel, where they're readily accessible. This is exactly what Korg have done with the R/W's PCM and Program card slots. In contrast, the keyboards in the 01/W range have their card slots tucked away on the rear panel, with no legends inscribed on the front panel's rear edge to help you find their location.
Despite having one less megabyte of sample ROM than the 01/W, the 03R/W has the same number of Multisounds, multisamples and waveforms (255) and only five fewer Drum sounds (113 to the 01/W's 118). In fact, the R/W actually loses 46 of the 01/W's sounds (39 from the Multisound list, seven from the Drum Sound list). These are typically variations on other sounds which have been retained on the R/W, so the losses don't mean fewer sound categories covered. The expander also gains six new sounds, all of which have been added because they're required by General MIDI; Sitar, Shamisen, Koto and Shakuhachi appear in the R/W's Multisound list, Taiko Drum and Gt Scratch (guitar fret noise) in both the Multisound and Drum Sound lists.
But how can there be 40 fewer actual sounds when there are only five fewer sounds listed? The answer lies in the way the 03R/W (like the 01/W instruments and the M- and T-series before them) controls the assignment of samples to its Drum Kits. Where Roland synths, for instance, typically allow any of the available samples to be incorporated into a Kit, the 03R/W restricts its Drum Kits to the samples contained in the Drum Sound list. You can assign a Drum Kit to any R/W Program by first selecting Drums in the Osc Mode edit page, while for other instrumental sounds you select Single or Double and then assign sounds from the Multisounds list. But what if you want to include one or more Multisounds in a Kit, or pitch a Drum sound across the keyboard in a Single- or Double-oscillator Program? Korg provide a solution of sorts by including some of the Multisounds in the Drum Sound list and some of the Drum sounds in the Multisounds list - restricted choice, in other words. The number of Multisounds is made up to 255 by including 28 more sounds from the Drum Sound list (Taiko Drum and Gt Scratch among them) than the 01/W instruments do, and adding non-transposed versions of seven of these sounds (the idea being that you can use, say, HandClpsNT as a fixed-pitch percussive attack for another sound in a two-oscillator Program, the R/W not having an actual fixed-pitch setting among its oscillator parameters).
Although in absolute terms the 03R/W has fewer samples than the 01/W instruments, it also gives you sonic possibilities within the context of Single-and Double-oscillator Programs which the other instruments don't - sort of a swings-and-roundabouts situation. However, it does lose out sonically over the more expensive instruments in its omission of Waveshaping. This isn't a minor omission, as Waveshaping significantly expands the sonic vocabulary of the other instruments in the range, allowing you to create timbres which you couldn't get by playing around with filter settings. In particular, it's effective as a means of increasing not only the range of drum and percussion sounds at your disposal but also, effectively, the number of Drum Kits - because the same Kit used in two or more Programs can be made to sound very different, as Waveshaping settings are Program-specific.
The 03R/W is one of the first instruments to implement General MIDI. In case you've been hibernating for a while, General MIDI is a spec, agreed between the JMSC and the MMA, which defines a Sound Set of 128 Instruments covering 16 Instrument Groups consisting of eight sounds each, together with a single Percussion Map and performance parameters governing polyphony, multitimbral access and voice allocation.
"The 03R/W loses out in its omission of Waveshaping - a feature which significantly expands the sonic vocabulary of the other instruments in the range."
Although the actual sound source, the method of sound generation, the implementation of effects processing and the choice of effects are up to each individual manufacturer, you are at least assured that, to give a couple of examples, sending MIDI patch change #1 to a GM instrument will always call up a sound which is recognisable as an acoustic grand piano, or that sending patch change 56 will always call up an orchestral hit sound. Similarly, sequenced rhythm patterns will always trigger the same types of sound because all GM instruments use the same drum map. The GM spec also requires 16-channel MIDI multitimbral response, a minimum of 24 voices, dynamic voice allocation across the channels, and one Instrument to be assigned per channel (except for channel 10, which is reserved for the Percussion Map). Additionally, there are a couple of messages for turning GM mode on and off.
On power-up and whenever it receives a GM On message via MIDI, the R/W automatically sets default values on all 16 channels in Multi mode for level, pan position, transpose amount, detune amount, pitchbend range and MIDI patch change filter, and assigns Program G01 to MIDI channels 1-9 and 11-16 and the GM Percussion Map (referred to by Korg as Program 129) to channel 10. However, this doesn't mean that you're confined to using just GM Programs in Multi mode - GM and non-GM Programs can be freely mixed, or you can use just non-GM Programs if you want.
Equally, GM Programs aren't confined to Multi mode, but can be played individually in Program mode (where, incidentally, they adopt their own individual programmed effects settings rather than the global effects settings of Multi mode) and as part of a split/layer texture in Combi mode. In Prog Play mode, you can quickly switch between the R/W's GM and non-GM Program Banks by pressing the front-panel button labelled, not surprisingly, Bank. Also, although they're stored in ROM, GM Programs can be edited and the results stored in the R/W's RAM Program Bank.
The overall result is a very smooth integration of General MIDI and GM Programs into the broader, 01/W-based environment of the 03R/W. However, there are some problems with Korg's implementation of GM. For one thing, the R/W's sample ROM doesn't provide four of the sounds required by the GM Percussion Map, namely short and long guiro and mute and open cuica. Their places in the Map are taken by, respectively, short and long shaker and high and low scratch, sounds which are carried over from the 01/W's sample ROM - suggesting that Korg are more interested in preserving compatibility with the 01/W than with General MIDI. It's a small point, perhaps, but in the context of a rhythm pattern these are different sounds which create a different effect - a fact I can attest to, having tried out the same rhythm pattern on the R/W and Roland's JV30, which has the correct sounds. Still, if you wanted to be clever you could argue, with some justification, that, even where two GM instruments both conform to the spec, they're still using different samples, and therefore different sounds, which have a different effect.
Given the large number of samples which Korg were able to use for their GM Programs on the 03R/W, it's perhaps not surprising that many of these Programs use two oscillators. After all, it's natural that a manufacturer should want to make their instrument sound as good as possible, and if a combination of two sounds can do the job better than one sound, then two oscillators it will be. At the same time, fewer GM-specific samples will be needed if a GM sound can be created out of two other sounds; for example, Jazz Guitar (G27) on the R/W has been created - very effectively - from an acoustic bass sample and one of the expander's VS waveforms. All in all, 75 of the R/W's GM Programs use two oscillators.
So what's the problem? Well, here we come to a contentious issue which, in all fairness, goes beyond the 03R/W. The GM spec specifies that there should be a minimum of 24 voices available simultaneously, but doesn't define what it means by "voice". Consequently, whether or not a GM instrument can use two-oscillator Programs and still be GM-legitimate hinges on whether you interpret voice to mean "oscillator" or "note". Ironically, Korg implicitly rule against themselves by stating the following on page 128 of the R/W's manual: "Tone generator: 32 voices, 32 oscillators (single mode); 16 voices, 32 oscillators (double mode)". To Korg, voice means note.
What it comes down to is that the GM spec as it stands doesn't guarantee that a GM instrument will be able to play at least 24 notes. Consequently, anyone producing MIDI sequences specifically to run on any GM instrument (a market in the making, especially now that multimedia is opening up possibilities for composers) is presented with a problem: how many notes can they use at once in a sequence without running the risk that notes will be dropped out by one or another GM instrument? On the 03R/W it would have to be 16 rather than 24, on another GM instrument it might be more or it might be less. And it's no good thinking that this problem will go away once we have 64-oscillator synths, because manufacturers of GM instruments will then be tempted to provide three-oscillator and four-oscillator GM sounds.
The main reason for wanting to buy an 01/W Pro X as opposed to one of the cheaper instruments in the 01/W range - indeed, the main reason for its existence - has to be its 88-note wooden weighted keyboard. This and the solid, imposing casing make an already classy synth even classier and are bound to appeal to performers. The software additions are worthwhile, and help to enhance the overall flexibility of the instrument.
With the 03R/W Korg have come up with a relatively affordable rack-mount version of the 01/W, minus sequencer, which manages not to lose out all that much on its sounds. If money's not too tight to mention, and you're trying to decide between an 03R/W and an 01R/W, the choice is essentially between the extra sonic flexibility provided by Waveshaping on the 01R/W and the more general musical advantages of General MIDI on the 03R/W.
Prices 03R/W, £999; 01R/W, £1499; 01/W Pro, £2450; 01/W Pro X, £2999; RE1 Remote Editor for 03R/W, £280; SRC512 RAM card, £89; XSC and USC PCM/Performance card pairs, £145 per pair; XPC and UPC Performance cards, £39 each. All prices include VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask
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