Korg's DS8 presented FM synthesis in a more friendly light than originators Yamaha. Now their latest synth makes the price more friendly too. Simon Trask looks at a sine of the times.
Korg have taken Yamaha technology and put their own stamp on it once again. This time the result is a new budget-level FM synthesiser - but does the world really need another FM instrument?
WHAT'S IN A name? When you're confronted with a synth called a "707" it's hard to know. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? One thing's for sure: Korg's latest synth has nothing to do with a certain other manufacturers' drum machine.
In fact the 707 is Korg's replacement for the venerable Poly 800, but apart from a budget price tag, the two synths have little in common. Instead the 707 is a slimmed-down version of Korg's DS8 FM synth (reviewed MT July '87).
Now, you'll all be wondering what Korg have sacrificed from the DS8 in order to get the price down. The answer is, perhaps surprisingly: not a great deal in practical terms. Korg's new synth has the same number of voices (eight) and the same voice architecture as its more expensive relative. The only significant omission in sonic terms is the DS8's digital effects section - delay, flange and chorus.
Inevitably the company have economised on front-panel operational controls. Missing are the DS8's volume balance slider, velocity and aftertouch on/off buttons and oscillator combination button. Korg have also given the 707 a smaller LCD (2X40-character backlit).
Better news is that the 707 retains the DS8's edit sliders, 100 RAM patches and 10 Combination memories together with Split, Layer and Multi modes and cartridge storage. The 707 can load DS8 sounds, and uses RAM cards capable of storing 200 patches plus 20 combinations and 400 patches plus 40 combinations. Last but not least, Korg have given the 707 a dynamic four-octave keyboard (attack velocity and channel aftertouch).
THE MOST NOTICEABLE feature of the 707 is its Philishave-chic appearance - all rounded edges and compact design. To my mind, Korg's design awareness can only be a good thing. After all, style is a natural part of today's image-obsessed world, and if you're going to spend countless hours in the company of an instrument you want it to look good.
Less enthralling is the news that the 707 is to be made available in a range of colours. How about grey, blue, white and "Japanese Red" (which I'm reliably informed is a euphemism for "lurid pink"). Now this could be taking stylishness too far.
Lift the 707 from its box and you immediately become aware of how light the instrument is (just under 11 pounds, in fact). This is a good thing, because Korg have included strap buttons so that you can sling the 707 over your shoulder and step out to the front of the stage. Battery power is included for those moments when the 707 is necessarily parted from its power supply.
For ease of use in strap-on mode, Korg have positioned the pitch-bend and mod wheels on the rear edge of the synth, and have allowed the operation of both wheels to be reversed at the touch of a button.
The rear panel of the 707 sports the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets along with stereo and headphone audio outputs, and two footswitch inputs. The footswitches can be assigned to program up, program down, portamento or sustain functions. The front-panel wheels to some extent make up for the lack of a footpedal input: the control wheel can be assigned to volume or modulation, while the pitch-bend wheel can adjust timbre as well as (or instead of) pitch-bend.
THE 707'S SOUNDS have the familiar clear, sparkling quality of FM synthesis, and Korg have coaxed a wide range of sounds from their synth. These have been divided into 10 categories (each offering 10 sounds): keyboards, MIDI stacks, organs, bells (tuned percussion), brass, solos, analogue sounds, guitar and bass, strings, and percussion. As usual, the keyboard, organ and tuned percussion sounds are among the most effective; there's the inevitable Rhodes-style electric piano, several hard-edged acoustic pianos, some well-detailed pipe and jazz organs and the usual vibrant tuned percussion instruments (vibes, marimba, celeste, kalimba). I particularly liked the jazz guitar (Joe Pass revisited), the Round Bass (warm and, er, rounded), the French Horn (very mellow) and King&Queen (Baroque harpsichord and strings). The 707 acquits itself well in the screaming lead synth department, while some of the percussion sounds (including congas and cowbell) are among the best I've heard produced using FM. All in all, I'd say that Korg have done their new synth proud.
LIKE ITS MORE expensive relative, the 707 imposes a simplified and more intuitive programming system on the real workings of FM synthesis (the algorithms, operators, carriers and modulators which you'll encounter on Yamaha's FM synths). The basic voice architecture of the 707 consists of two oscillators each with its own four-stage timbre envelope and four-stage amplitude envelope, plus a four-stage pitch envelope and a Modulation Generator (LFO by any other name) which are common to both oscillators. You can also use oscillator one to cross-modulate oscillator two.
The oscillators provide familiar, harmonically-rich waveforms in the shape of sawtooth and square waves which can then be "filtered" by the timbre section. This gives the appearance of subtractive synthesis, but in reality it's still good ol' FM you're dealing with. In FM terms the 707 is a four-operator synth which employs two algorithms (the second one is chosen by selecting cross-modulation). You don't need to understand the underlying FM structure (and Korg aren't about to tell you), but to my mind it makes the results of editing on the 707 easier to understand. On the other hand, it's best to use your ears and learn a programming system on its own sonic terms, and you can certainly do this with the 707. The virtue of Korg's simplified programming system is that it allows you to concentrate on the sounds rather than the button-pushing - which can only be a good thing. Indeed, perhaps this is the reason why Korg have called their new synth a "performing synthesiser", and the message "Let's Make MUSIC!" scrolls across the 707's LCD each time you switch the synth on.
The best way to begin programming the 707 is to pick an existing sound close to the result you want to achieve, and play around with the synth's three performance sliders.
One of these is given over to controlling the timbre of both oscillators, while the other two are dedicated to controlling the timbre and amplitude envelope shapes governing oscillators one and two respectively.
Korg have cleared up one annoying feature of the DS8's slider editing. On the earlier synth you could neither store the results of this editing nor return to edit mode to fine-tune them. In contrast, the 707 allows you to store a slider-edited sound; the new sound then becomes the basis for more precise editing in edit mode. A welcome improvement, I'd say.
KORG'S SYNTH ALLOWS you to combine sounds on the keyboard in Split and Layer modes, while in Multi mode up to eight different sounds can be played over MIDI. These three modes can be stored in 10 Combination patches (one mode per Combination).
Layer mode allows you to detune the two sounds, while split mode (or "double", as Korg call it) allows you to place the split anywhere on the keyboard and to shift the octave range on each side of the split. In all three modes you can pan each sound to A, B or A+B outputs. Incidentally, adjustments made with the edit sliders affect all the sounds being used in each mode.
In Korg's implementation of Multi mode you have to preset the number of voices assigned to each channel/patch (within the total of eight) and select one of the active channels as the source of MIDI controller data for all the others (though fortunately you can switch reception on or off for each channel).
On the plus side, the company have improved on the DS8's multi Combinations in two significant ways. You can now define a volume level for each patch in a multi Combination, while pressing the Program button allows you to see the name of each patch as well as its number.
When you're in Combination mode, incoming MIDI patch changes ordinarily select one of the 10 Combinations. This isn't really ideal for multi Combinations, where you'll probably only want to select patches at the same time on all channels when you're at the start of a piece. However, pressing the Program button enables patch changes on individual MIDI channels.
Finally, the 707 includes the usual System Exclusive transmit/receive capabilities, so you can store the large number of patches you'll no doubt create on the 707 to an external storage device.
THE 707 IS a welcome addition to the range of budget (well, relatively budget) synths on the market. It makes available many of the DS8's features for around two thirds of the price and throws in portability (so to speak) as well. To be honest, it's hard to see where the 707 loses out to the more expensive DS8 when it comes down to the most essential aspect of any synthesiser: the quality and scope of its sounds. Even the 707's minimalist front panel doesn't really seem to count against it; I didn't find the 707 any harder to use than the DS8.
Given that Yamaha are essentially still using the FM voice architecture and programming system that they've used from the outset (witness their latest FM synth, the DX11) the 707's simplicity and ease of use can only be a good thing. I reckon it'll win itself a lot of friends.
Prices 707 £599; RAM card MCR02 £80. MCR03 £89; ROM card TBA; all prices include VAT