Korg 03R/W Synth Module
The sound of Korg's 01/W keyboard is now available in the compact frame of the 03R/W expander. Nigel Humberstone checks it out.
The 03R/W synth module is released amongst a veritable avalanche of new Korg products into the market. With architecture based on the AI2 synthesis of the 01/W keyboard, the 03R/W is one of the latest (and least expensive) additions to Korg's W-series, a range which builds upon the successful M1 derivatives and T-series synths. The various members of the W-series all have their own initials, numbers and suffixes which, whilst being logical and necessary for identification, can also be extremely confusing. So here's a brief resume of the range, beginning with the keyboard versions.
Big daddies of the family are the 01/W Pro (a 76-key version) and 01/W Pro-X (88-note weighted piano action), which both feature 48,000 note capacity sequencers, a PCM ROM capacity of 10MB and the ability to load Standard MIDI Files. The latter feature is not found on the standard 01/W and 01/W FD Workstations. Released alongside the new members of the keyboard range are two rackmount models; the 01R/W is a 1U version of the 01/W keyboard, and the 03R/W, which is the subject of this review.
The 03R/W has the same 32-voice polyphony as the 01/W, but unlike that module it does not include a sequencer, and has a marginally smaller 5MB of ROM samples. It also omits the Waveshaping section that is the major difference between the M1 and the 01/W in terms of voice architecture. One feature that sets the 03R/W apart from the crowd is that it is one of the new breed of units that supports General MIDI (more of which later), and announces the fact with a special logo on the front panel, in between the LCD display and LED MIDI indicator.
The unit, an extremely robust and solidly constructed 1U module, is supplied fitted with removable rackmount brackets and rubber feet, presumably to allow the unit to suit a consumer Desk Top Music environment as well as semi-pro and pro studios and keyboard rigs. From the left of the front panel are a master volume control, headphone jack, and a 16-LED MIDI indicator. These LED's, in two rows of eight, show either Timbre or Track activity in, respectively. Combination and Program modes, but beyond giving this visual display offer little in the way of MIDI analysis and troubleshooting.
To the right of the backlit 16 x 2 LCD are the unit's 10 keys. As on units such as Roland's D110, each key's function varies depending on what mode you are in — for example, once in Combination or Program Mode (confirmed by an LED), you simply hit the Edit key to enter Edit Combination Mode and scroll through the relevant pages with Page + or - keys, which themselves double in Prog and Comb modes as a switch between Bank G (ROM) and Banks C and D (Program Cards — if inserted). The fourth pair of keys move the cursor, and also allow you to flip between sub-pages. Finally there are the increment/decrement keys to alter parameter values.
As only an occasional user of Korg products, I found the key button layout on this particular unit very cramped and fiddly, a situation not helped at all by the actual button shape — it felt like I was pressing match heads. I also found that the keys quite often failed to respond to what seemed to me a more than adequate prod. Personal gripes aside, I feel the designers would have enhanced the units appeal by fitting more substantial key pads like those on the 01/W FD Workstation.
The 03R/W has two levels of sound: Programs, which start with one or two oscillators (OSC), followed by a filter (VDF) and amplifier (VDA); and Combinations, which are created from up to eight of the Programs. With a choice of 255 multi-sampled waveforms for the oscillators to play, the 03R/W offers 229 programs: 100 in internal RAM (Bank A 00-99), another 129 in ROM (Bank G 01-129), along with two Drum Kits. Up to 100 Combinations can be stored in a separate bank. A further 200 Programs, 200 Combinations and four Drum Kits can be accessed through Banks C and D, by way of a Prog Card (512k RAM card). There's also Multi mode, in which the 03R/W configures itself for 16-part multi-timbral operation, one Program per Track, ideal for use with a sequencer.
As you can see, this unit has an awful lot crammed into it, but the manual wastes no time in prompting you to create your own sounds by entering edit mode and swapping around either the oscillators within a Program or the Programs within a Combination. As expected, any changes revert to their prior settings upon exiting a mode, unless you write them into memory. There is Page Memory function (selectable in Global Mode), but this merely allows you to return to the last selected page, in preference to the first page.
The preset Program list includes plenty of variations on the theme of 'standard' expander sounds. Whilst Programs like 'Ephemeral', 'Tine Pad' and 'Jet Stream' are hardly likely to amaze you, they are part of a comprehensive range of sounds that are highly usable, and quite extensive when you include the GM Program set (Bank G), along with Korg's sound library (on the USC and UPC series of PCM cards).
Editing programs is fairly straightforward, with 15 pages of adjustable parameters including Oscillator Mode (single or double). Keyboard Tracking, VDF Modulation and After Touch control. The manual rather painstakingly runs through the function of each page and sub-page in great detail, and with countless tables, figures and diagrams which, though informative, are an immediate turn-off for the struggling learner.
"The 03R/W's two built-in stereo digital effect processors comprise one of its most appealing features. They can be used independently, or combined to provide up to four simultaneous effects."
Considering that each Combination can contain up to eight Programs, it's not surprising that the 03R/W can produce some fairly complex and interesting textural collages of sound. One of my immediate favourites, despite its awful name, was 'Whammy & Pad', which incorporates a split keyboard setting consisting of an analogue string pad and a heavily processed and distorted electric guitar, something at which the sound programmers at Korg seem to be very adept. The mixture of a guitar sample and a sine wave, passed through a distortion effect and then via a parallel chorus and delay algorithm creates a genuinely expressive timbre. Low velocity gives restrained muting, whilst at higher velocities the sound lets rip with screaching sustain and soaring feedback.
Another interesting composite was 'Bass & EP 1', which creates a very responsive slap bass with reactive effects achieved via use of the unit's VDA EG (Variable Digital Amplifier envelope) as a control source for Dynamic Modulation of effects.
When it comes to creating your own Combinations, for each of the eight Timbres you can choose a Program, set its level, MIDI channel, keyboard range, velocity value, transposition, program changes, aftertouch and panning. The majority of Program parameters are 'carried over' into Combinations, with the exception of effects settings. Program effects parameters are ignored, and the overall Combination effect settings enabled.
Both the Program sounds and Combinations are showcased quite spectacularly in the unit's three demo songs. At first listen I considered them rather crass, but when played back through a professional sound system they cannot be overlooked for their impressive delivery and programming, even if they are overtly 'muso'.
Global functions let you determine such things as overall tuning and scales, velocity and aftertouch curves, and global MIDI control. There are also the facilities for editing the Drum Kits, each of which can include up to 60 drum sounds. As described above, there are two kits in Bank A and four in ROM. Obviously you can only edit a ROM kit by first copying it into RAM. Parameters for each sound within a kit include tuning, level, decay and panning. Through the use of panning and careful output assignment, you can choose which drum sounds are affected by the on-board effects.
Unfortunately I did not have access to the 03R/W's optional remote editor, but from reading through its specifications and operations it would appear to be indispensable if you want to get the most out of the module's editing and programming capabilities. Connected and powered via a rear panel 8-pin DIN remote jack, the RE1 editor features a longer (32 x 2) LCD than the 03R/W, which practically halves the amount of scrolling between sub-pages. In addition there are eight sliders and keys (A to H), six function buttons (F1-F6), paired page and increment buttons, and a numerical keypad. The manual notes that whilst the RE1 is connected, the 03R/W display will read "Remote Control", and none of its keys will function.
General MIDI (GM), as many of you will already be aware, is a new addition to the MIDI specifications, agreed by the Japan MIDI Standard Conference (JMSC) and the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). It aims to facilitate the universal playback of MIDI performance data on any GM compatible tone generator by specifying a uniform response.
General MIDI insists on a certain standard set of sounds and memory locations for those sounds, and also calls for 28-note polyphony dynamically assigned over 16 MIDI channels. As part of its GM support, the 03R/W has an area within ROM which provides 128 GM sounds, and a drum set allocated to MIDI channel 10, as designated by GM for all key-mapped percussion. Of the 128 sounds, 74 utilise Double Mode, which cuts the polyphony to half of its normal 32 notes.
"For many semi and fully professional musicians, the unit's GM side will be of minor interest, and the 03R/W's main role as a compact and powerful version of the 01/W Workstation will win it many admirers."
Although Korg have shown a commitment to GM in the 03R/W, there's precious little attempt to inform and entice first time users in new multimedia areas. The owner's manual devotes very little space to explaining the numerous applications of GM, and does not even define what 'MIDI' is, although a basic outline of the standard is given in the Quick Guide section. This leads me to think that in the case of the 03R/W, GM is more of an added bonus than particular selling point.
The 03R/W's two built-in stereo digital effect processors comprise one of its most appealing features. They can be used independently, or combined to provide up to four simultaneous effects. Each unit can produce a wide range of high quality effects such as reverb, delay, various types of chorus including quadrature (out of phase), crossover and harmonic, flanger, phase shifter and distortion, alongside less common ones such as exciter, enhancer, rotary speaker simulation, and 3-band parametric EQ. Korg obviously attach a great deal of importance to their effects, devoting 34 of the manual's 132 pages to guiding the user through the detailed adjustments, settings and routings.
The effect section has four inputs (A, B, C, D), and four outputs (1/L, 2/R, 3, 4), through which the effects can be placed in serial or parallel configurations. (Modulating, with continuous controller 10, the pan of a Track in Multi mode actually gives you quite sophisticated effects send control, as you can send to any 'pan position' between inputs A and B, ditto any balance between B and C, or to all effects inputs.) During this process all signals remain within the digital domain, ensuring high quality end results. However, on the downside, if you choose not to apply any effects you are faced with the inconvenience of scrolling through 10 pages (18 pages in Program mode) in order to turn off both processors — this is where the Page Memory function comes in very handy. A global bypass facility would have been useful, especially when editing sounds.
You can apply real-time control to the effects processors, although you can only modulate one parameter for each effect. Effects settings designated within Programs are overruled by those selected in Combination and Multi mode. For reference, the effects parameters are also the only Multi mode settings retained in memory when the unit is turned off, and can also be saved to a Data Card. With a unit featuring an above average built-in effects system it is a shame that the designers did not go one step further and install audio inputs for external access to the effects units, as found on Korg's own Wavestation A/D.
It is becoming apparent with modules like the 03R/W that manufacturers are continuing to produce units with more editable parameters and higher levels of complexity. As such, remote editors like the RE1 are a welcome and useful tool — but shouldn't they be supplied as standard and not the usual 'optional extra'? With the 03R/W's fiddly front panel ergonomics it's rather like supplying a computer without a mouse. I feel that GM, as a new standard, needs to be pushed more heavily if it is to continue successfully into the areas for which it is intended; specifically the consumer market, multi-media, and education. There are countless applications for the new medium. Look, for example, at the growing trend in pre-recorded songs as MIDI files, or the imminent CD + MIDI disc format (exhibited by Warner New Media at NAMM), and even future technology in the shape of Satellite MIDI.
Being the second company to market a GM device, Korg have obviously had time to examine Roland's debut, the SC55 Sound Canvas. Whether they have learnt anything from this evaluation is unsure, but what is certain is that in the GM stakes they are up against heavy competition from Yamaha's impending TG100 — a very attractively priced 28-note polyphonic tone generator — along with Roland's CM Series modules and JV30, which as the first GM keyboard will undoubtedly attract many first time users.
Despite the fact that the 03R/W features an above average in-built effects processing system, the unit would appear to be overpriced for a GM product being introduced into the consumer market. However, for many semi and fully professional musicians, the unit's GM side will be of minor interest, and the 03R/W's main role as a compact and powerful version of the 01/W Workstation will win it many admirers.
Korg 03R/W £999 inc VAT.
RE1 Remote Editor £275 inc VAT.
Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Nigel Humberstone
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