Following on from the DRV 1000 and DRV2000, this latest digital reverb cum multi-effects processor is Korg's most sophisticated yet - 16-bit, 20kHz bandwidth, full MIDI control and, for all armchair enthusiasts, an infra-red remote control. David Hughes reports.
David Hughes finds some nice surprises lie behind the sleek front panel of Korg's top-of-the-range stereo digital effects processor for those prepared to experiment.
I have to start this review with a confession: until a few days ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the facilities a modern digital signal processor could offer. I was aware that such devices did exist but I never really put them at the top of the purchasing list, always promising myself that one fine day I'd perhaps buy one. Alas, I never did, and I'd hazard a guess that I'm not the only one in this situation.
Effects units have come a long way in a very short time - another avenue of musical instrumentation to benefit from the advances in digital technology. There is also a great deal of competition between manufacturers at all levels of this market but, to me, none of these companies have ever really gone to a great deal of trouble to point out the advantages of using a sound processor. And this, I guess, is another reason why I haven't as yet taken the plunge and bought one.
In buying a synth, sampler or drum machine, your choice is usually based on one of two things. The first is obvious: cost. It's no use talking about Fairlights if you've just sold your grandparents to the white slave trade just to buy a plug for your amp! The second is one of basic sound - you either like it or you hate it. These features make it comparatively easy to choose an instrument. Not so with a signal processor. There are too many variables to make a reliable choice. To me, devices that make a sound have always taken priority over things that simply modify an existing sound.
But perhaps this is the best frame of mind in which to review a piece of equipment like the Korg DRV3000, concentrating on what it can actually do for you and what the end result sounds like instead of just comparing it with other instruments in the market place; though this, of course, must be taken into consideration.
To begin then, the DRV3000 is Korg's top-of-the-range model alongside the DRV2000 reviewed in the June '87 issue (you have read it, haven't you?!) and appears at first sight to be a rather unremarkable device. It has a simple, uncluttered appearance (rather like a Habitat showroom). There is only one rotary pot on the front and two pushbuttons, one of which is the power switch. The front panel is decorated with a large backlit LCD, a series of LEDs describing the current mode of the instrument, and a LED VU meter for setting input levels. However, all is not lost because the DRV3000 has a master card up its digital sleeve in the form of a rather elegant, hand-held, remote control box, which is used to operate the machine from the comfort of your master keyboard.
Okay, time to actually sit down and use the device. On plugging the unit into a source of electrons, ie. the mains, you are greeted with the simple, rather reassuring start-up message: K O R G D R V 3 0 0 0. The machine then jumps to the effects program you last called up. Now, with every instrument, be it the mega-synth of your dreams or even a humble tumble-drier, there are two ways to get to know the machine. The first is obvious: read the manual. The second, the one which I usually lapse into (naughty, naughty, slap on wrist), is known as the 'tweety-pie' approach, ie. 'here's a knob, what's it do?'.
Far too often this latter approach is pushed upon you by the fact that the manual is about as readable as War and Peace and about as involved. And this, sad to say, is where Korg have goofed up a trifle. The manual doesn't really explain exactly what 'reverb', 'phasing' and 'early reflections' are in detailed terms. You're expected to know what they are and what they should sound like. Also, there are one or two serious gaffs which had me sitting on the floor scratching the proverbial bum wondering what it all meant. Korg's translator appears to be a little confused over the definition of 'serial' and 'parallel'. At this point in the manual, I gave up and went to search out my Collins Dictionary to discover if I'd been using the wrong definition of serial and parallel since I did my O-Level in Maths.
However, I must say that the manual is streets ahead of the efforts from certain manufacturers who seemingly put more thought into their motorcycle repair manuals than those for their musical instruments. The graphics are quite good and do give a meaningful representation of the processes at work. I just wish that manufacturers would spend a little more time roof-reading to remove all of the topying wristaches from a manual before it's released to the general public.
The next step is to connect the device to an instrument and an amp. The rear panel of the DRV3000 is glorious: lots of sockets, both standard ¼" jack and phono, in even more glorious stereo. Consequently, I had no trouble hooking it up to my mixer with no rummaging around in draws trying to find a lead that would fit. The available connections are supplemented by the standard MIDI In and MIDI Thru ports. Sadly, there is no MIDI Out, which means no connection to any form of external storage is possible. So, if you've filled up the available memory locations resident within the machine, you're really up a gum-tree unless you are prepared to delete some of your previous edits. A curious omission. However, all of these marvellous ins and outs matter not one iota without actually assessing the sonic capabilities of this box. Time to start playing...
The first thing I noticed about the DRV3000 was that it does seem to need quite a beefy signal before the 'headroom' LEDs on the front panel start to twitch. I had the output of a DX5 synth at full volume before the first LED lit up and, since the DX5 has a somewhat noisy output, the resultant signal from the DRV3000 was also noisy. And the problem did not vanish altogether when I plugged my Akai AX80 into the mix - and yet that is a synth which is notable for its quiet output. So, I suspect that the Korg unit may have a problem in the pre-amp department. When compared with a Yamaha SPX90 and a Roland DEP5, the Korg certainly sounded a trifle on the noisy side but nothing really to worry about.
The DRV3000 has 16 preset sound processing effects which include five reverb effects, two early reflections, two echo effects and a few 'special' variations on the above to bring the most out of the machine. Jumping through the presets, I began to realise why these devices have become so valuable in recent years. It is always difficult to convey personal impressions of how something sounds in words and, obviously, what I like you might not. So here goes.
The presets available (remember, these are not fixed rigidly, you can edit them quite freely via the remote control and store them away afterwards) form a pretty broad selection from the range of treatments that you might conceivably want. Running through the presets then, 'Concert Hall' sounds exactly as its title implies. A nice effect that needs little introduction since it's really too accurate to quibble over. 'Natural Reverb' adds to a sound in a brilliant way. The original sound still shines through in all its glory but the tightly clustered reflections from the walls of your imaginary reverb chamber combine to make this one of the most usable of the effects available.
Similarly, 'Space Reverb' does much the same but successfully animates a sound, producing a combination of reverb and discernible echoes as the sound dies away. 'Space Echo' is most obvious on percussive notes and sounds just like the old tape echo units, only without the associated hiss of tape noise. And so on. Other notables include 'Chorus and Echo', 'Gate Reverb', and the ghastly 'Reverb and Flange', the last of which successfully emulates the appalling sweeps in pitch that became the hallmark of many a punk artist.
As some of the above names imply, the DRV3000 can be configured to create two effects at once. This is not a new idea, other processors such as the Roland DEP5 put the idea to good use. The Korg unit does not fall short in this area at all. However, the front panel could be a little more helpful. The main user interface is a 40-character backlit (hurrah!!) LCD display and this gives out all of the effect-specific information, such as voice level and program name. Alongside the main display are a series of legends which describe the global functions of the unit, such as the mode you're currently using, either serial or parallel, and the program group that you're accessing. The legends for program and effect selection are backlit and are therefore quite easy to read some distance away. Program number is easily legible in the form of a large, bright, two-digit LED.
However, the indicators for the serial and parallel mode consist of two small rectangular LEDs and these are very hard to interpret unless you learn exactly where they are on the front panel. This I certainly had trouble with since I'm becoming myopic in my old age!
Creating new programs is quite straightforward with the DRV3000 and comes as a breath of fresh air in this world seemingly obsessed with 'preset-itis'. To me, buying a preset synth was somehow a contradiction in terms and, hence, I never really took to the idea of all these Alesis or ART processors - but that's a personal preference. You may, after all, be perfectly happy sounding just like every other band that happened to buy such a machine and, yes, there are an awful lot of them around.
The initial route to customising your own effects is by adjusting the levels of the direct (untreated) and processed sounds. This is quite satisfying and lets you tailor the balance of the final elements to suit the type of hypothetical environment you're attempting to imitate. The second method of customisation is by editing the program parameters themselves.
There are some restrictions on the way in which effects may be combined on the DRV3000 and this I didn't take to very well at first, but you can't have everything I suppose. This has more to do with the restrictions imposed by the hardware rather than any fault of the programmers.
The display is always helpful during the editing process, indicating clearly which effect is being modified and at which level you're working on. (Yes, there are a lot of them!). For example, when editing a reverb effect, you can set the reverb time in the range 0.3 to 99.9 seconds which does seem to go to extremes but is nonetheless effective. You can vary the degree of high frequency damping which is especially useful when emulating the effect of curtains and the odd deep-pile carpet in your hypothetical room. Other options include setting the pre-delay time, that is the time delay which occurs naturally between the direct sound and the first reflected sound reaching the listener in (say) a concert hall, bedroom or dog-house, depending on where you might want to be. It is also possible to filter the frequency content of a sound using the DRV3000's high and low pass filter facility. Furthermore, there is also provision to add a second reverb time to a sound process and to activate this from a footswitch (not supplied) plugged into the rear panel. Good stuff, eh?
Effects 6 and 7 are 'Early Reflections' and don't refer to staring in a bathroom mirror first thing in the morning! Instead, these reproduce the initial early reflections which occur in an acoustic environment and indicate precisely the size and quality of that environment. Here, you can set the type of early reflection groupings, either Hall, Random, Reverse or Plate (the latter referring to 'Plate Reverb', which creates reverb-type effects using large sheets of metal). You can modify the size of the room from a box to a stadium (stuff the TARDIS, Doctor! Buy one of these instead!). One thing I succeeded in doing was to create an acoustic environment that was actually too small for the device, namely a snare drum. This is a weird sound which doesn't defy description but I suspect I'd spend most of next week searching through 'Roget's Thesaurus' looking for suitably descriptive words.
The next effect (8) is 'Parametric EQ/Driver', which is pretty useful allowing you to set two resonant frequencies, filter cut-off frequencies and the cut and boost levels for the sound under scrutiny. A thoughtful addition is a 'Delay' function which lets you set a time delay between the processed and natural sound and really shows how well the DRV3000 has been thought out.
Several DRV3000 effects fall into the category which was once the province of the good old digital delay line. These are 'Stereo Echo' (Effects 9 and 10), 'Stereo Flanging' (Effect 11) and 'Ensemble' (Effect 13). Of these, 'Stereo Echo' was, to me, the most impressive. Here you can set the echo times for both right and left channels independently, the principal difference between the two effects being the position of the feedback element in the algorithm. Musically, very satisfying, giving the impression of two very complex instruments at work.
The penultimate effect is simply 'Panning', ie. sweeping the signal from right-to-left and back again in the stereo field. Quite useful but, somehow, an effect which I feel was done to death many years ago. Here, the variables are pan speed, pan mode and pan depth. (Sounds like a lavatory commercial!) Finally, we arrive at one of the musical delights of this instrument, a process not too dissimilar to sampling, pitch shifting. There are two possible modes here - effects 15 and 16. You can control the pitch shift of a musical source (+/— one octave in semitone steps) using a MIDI keyboard or sequencer and thus dynamically harmonise a piece, which can sound very, very impressive. This is how I tried it out: I played a test sequence into two tracks of my Steinberg Pro-24 sequencer, one an instrument track, the other a harmonising track. I then set my trusty DX5 synth to receive on MIDI channel 2 and the DRV3000 to channel 1. When I hit 'play' on the sequencer, the result was two instruments each playing a melody, one of which was the real melody, the other a counter-melody produced as a result of the pitch shift. It took me a while before I actually got the harmony track right (my music theory is pretty grotty in this area) but the end result was well worth the effort.
Having produced a suitable edit, the next step is to save your program for posterity and, happily, the DRV3000 manual leaves nothing to chance when it comes to storing data and is genuinely helpful. Each program can be given a name and a number, rather than just a number - which is good, and this is accessed from the 'Utility Mode'. As stated, you can set the MIDI receive channel using this mode but Korg have thoughtfully seen to implementing a MIDI 'mapping' facility as well. Hence, you can set a program change on the Korg to correspond to a particular voice patch on a MIDI keyboard, which is especially convenient for live use.
Everything else works much as you would expect. The preset program specifications are included as a parameter chart in the back of the manual and I found this pretty helpful in analysing how an effect was actually created. Also, a block diagram of the internal workings of the unit is included, I suspect to keep the technofreak, button-pushers amongst us happy. From this, I noted that the machine has a three megabyte 16-bit memory and a dedicated sound processing chip, which is not to be sniffed at!
I spent a lot of time just playing with the DRV3000 and that was very important to me. I didn't spend a lot of time going through the manual because I found I didn't need to, the unit was very straightforward to use. One thing that I did miss though - a feature now working its way into a lot of synths (typically Yamaha's) - is the use of an 'edit buffer', which lets you park patches away and then recall them later, just in case you made a bad goof and couldn't remember exactly how you arrived at that particular point.
I found the Korg machine added so much to a mix that it was actually aiding the musical process rather than holding it back. Sonically, each of my instruments - ranging from the old and battered Moog Prodigy (which had been semi-retired but has now been fully reinstated for doing Keith Emerson rip-offs) to that giant beast of an instrument, the DX5 - gained a whole new vocabulary, thanks to the DRV3000.
My conclusion to this review was not hard to arrive at. The Korg DRV3000 is a very good product. It scores over most of the competition in that it has more to offer in terms of both facilites and potential uses. It is easier to use and to modify existing programs than most other machines by virtue of the hand-held, infra-red, remote control unit. The sound quality is very high due to the 16-bit resolution and 20kHz frequency response. The unit, by virtue of being programmable, allows you to twiddle to your heart's content giving rise to all manner of abstract treatments. When you consider the amount of work and thought that must have gone into this box, all I can do is recommend it most heartily. It's what synthesis is all about.
Price: £999 inc VAT.
Distributed by Korg UK, (Contact Details).