Korg DS8 Digital Synthesizer
Korg's very latest keyboard is non other than a touch-sensitive, sub-£1000, 8-voice FM synthesizer! Mark Jenkins managed to catch a sneak preview.
Something very very strange is happening between keyboard manufacturers in Japan. Mark Jenkins has seen the first piece of evidence...
Behind the scenes of the musical instrument business, concepts much more abstruse than Frequency Modulation synthesis, SMPTE synchronisation and digital sampling help to decide what instruments you and I will be playing two, five or even ten years from now. I'm talking about copyrights, licensing deals, big bank business and five-year plans made by Japanese businessmen so inscrutable as to be incomprehensible to the average Western musician.
For instance, in the recent past the FM patent developed by John Chowning and licensed by Yamaha has passed into the public domain. In addition, business between the major Japanese banks (who own all the instrument manufacturers directly or indirectly) has led to an agreement between Yamaha and Korg, who will be using the former company's research and development facilities in the future. And the result as far as the ordinary musician is concerned? No less than a Korg FM synthesizer.
Enter the DS8, Korg's newest synth and something of a mystery machine. It's similar to the Yamaha DX7 and DX9 in some ways, clearly different in other less obvious ways, and strangely reminiscent of a few more recent products as well.
The DS8 looks very similar to Roland's new S10 sampling keyboard and to Yamaha's new-style DX7 MkII. It's long, low, black, and uses rectangular pushbuttons with built-in LEDs. There's a central LCD display which flashes up a jolly "Welcome to Synth World!" when you first switch on; a joystick on the left of the keyboard in the manner of most Korg synths; a slot for a RAM memory card where most samplers have a disk drive; a keypad and a handful of other controls. The familiar data entry slider method is employed for editing sounds and the various alternative functions are labelled on the right of the panel.
Before I venture further, it's worth pointing out that this review is more a preview based on a fairly brief look, without the benefit of a handbook, at the first DS8 outside Japan - a 110V model with some software features not yet implemented. The basic sounds may be changed as well, but what I heard seemed to represent a good selection of the synth's capabilities.
Basically, the DS8 is an eight-voice FM synthesizer with multitimbral capabilities. It has a five-octave velocity and aftertouch sensitive keyboard with a pleasant, light but firm action, and is pretty compact overall. On the rear you'll find sockets for MIDI In, Out and Thru, for Left/Mono and Right Audio Out (in other words, it's stereo), for a control pedal and an assignable footswitch, for a Program Up incremental footswitch, and for Stereo Headphones.
Moving along the front panel controls from left to right, there's a master volume slider, then an A/B balance slider - the DS8 uses two sound generators per voice and this control fades from one to the other. Then there's an overall Timbre slider which brightens up the current sound being played. Obviously, this is unlike existing FM synths such as the Yamaha DX7 and DX9, and it seems as if the effect of this control is not simply to open an analogue filter - it's actually re-calculating or adjusting the FM algorithm to give more top and fizziness to the sound, probably in the same way that the DX-Max expansion board for the DX7 works.
The next two sliders are likewise as handy - they're the EG controls for voices 1 and 2, and are calibrated from Fast to Slow with 0 in the centre. On the DX7, if you want to extend the decay of a sound, you first have to find out which operators are being used as carriers and which as modulators, then increase the decay length of the envelopes controlling the carriers. On the DS8, all you have to do is whack the EG setting up and the whole envelope is speeded up or slowed down - very handy for quick edits.
The next control is Oscillator Select, which toggles between Osc 1, Osc 2, and Both. Alongside this are the Velocity on/off, Aftertouch on/off, Portamento on/off and Multi-Effects on/off/select buttons. Like Korg's DW8000 and Poly 800 MkII synths, the DS8 has a built-in digital delay line, and by pressing the Multi-Effects select button you can cycle around its options - Long Delay, Short Delay, Doubling, Flanger, Chorus and Manual.
Obviously, these effects add a great deal to the DS8's sounds, and they've been used intelligently on many of the presets. On one (imaginatively labelled 'Don't Hold!') the delay line is used to create a long, wobbling repeat echo like something from an expensive studio effects unit such as the Yamaha SPX-90.
Moving on, we find the Data Entry slider and associated Up/Yes, Down/No incrementors which you utilise for all the heavy editing work. In some cases, you can enter new values using the 0-9 numeric keypad as well - this is used when selecting from the functions listed on the right of the panel. Above the slider is the Combination button which calls up one of ten complete multisplit sounds comprising one to eight patches with all the relevant split points.
There are four keyboard modes which can be used in these combination patches - Single, Layer, Double and Multi. Single sounds are eight-voice polyphonic with two oscillators per voice. Layer sounds have four oscillators per voice. Double sounds can use splits or layers, while Multi sounds can have any assignment of split positions, patches and MIDI channel numbers for external control.
Next up are the Write and Compare buttons for edited sounds, and the Internal/External selector to switch between the onboard memories and the RAM card memory. Since each of these holds 100 sounds, you're able to call up any of 200 patches very quickly, which compares favourably with an unmodified DX7's rather paltry 32 patches.
Sounds are called up by inputting two digits on the keypad, and come complete with names and numbers in the backlit LCD display. As you'd expect, the same display doubles as an editing guide when you want to alter a sound, and there are five main sections allowing you to do so - Function Section 1 & 2, Voice Parameter Section 1 & 2, and Combi Parameters.
The editing parameters available in the Function section (a push on the Program button taking you back to the normal sound selection mode) are as follows: Tune - this uses a bargraph display in the LCD to show just how far you've strayed from the default tuning; Transpose; Footswitch Assignment; Pedal Assignment; and Memory Protect.
Parameters available in the second section include: Save to RAM card; MIDI Channel select; MIDI Filter - this allows you to switch on or off the external response to pressure, patch change, pitch bend and so on; MIDI data dump - which transmits memories to another Korg DS8 or to a micro-based System Exclusive data recorder such as Hybrid Arts' Gen Patch.
On to the Voice Parameter section, which provides control of the following:
Pitch Envelope Generators
Osc 1/2 Waveform
Osc 1/2 Amplitude EG
The Timbre EG (think of it as the filter envelope) has the parameters Initial, Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release and Keyboard Track, so it's pretty versatile. However, the selection of available oscillator waveforms differs from the selection of algorithms on the Yamaha DX synths. Usually, there are only four waveforms available on the DS8 plus cross-modulation, and since the waveforms are only numbered 1 to 4 (and in the absence of a handbook with any deeper technical information) their exact nature must remain a mystery - just as on the Elka EK44 FM synth with its enigmatic 'Oscillator Combination' parameter.
In the second half of the Voice Parameter section you'll find the following: Portamento Mode; Joystick Mode; Velocity Response; Aftertouch Response; Voice Assignment; Voice Name; and Multi-Effects Assignment. Again, these are pretty self-explanatory.
On the joystick, the left-right motion controls pitch bend, an upward motion controls vibrato, and a downward motion controls timbre modulation. This doesn't sound quite as it would on the DW8000 or any other analogue-based synthesizer - there's a sort of quantisation effect produced in the timbre modulation, which is unusual but not unpleasant.
Finally, the Combi Parameter selection, which has the following functions:
Key Split-Octave Shift
Number of Voices
On the model I looked at the whole of the Combi Parameter software was in that delicate state known as 'Unavailable'. When it's up and working, you'll be able to assign any sound operating on any MIDI channel to any range on the keyboard, with a suitable transposition and (presumably) selection of aftertouch response and effects. A complex display shows which patch (by number rather than name) is assigned to which of the eight available split zones.
It will also be possible to select whether each voice comes from the left or right audio output or equally from both, which means that the DS8 will operate rather like the Yamaha FB-01, coming up with any combination of up to eight voices with different effects and pan positions in a flash.
All this would tend to suggest the DS8's suitability as a sequence-playing instrument, a facility which would certainly allow it to compete more closely with the multitimbral Ensoniq ESQ-1. Korg's answer to this is the SQ8, a tiny polyphonic MIDI sequencer which works off batteries or a mains transformer. It has a comprehensive LCD display, a 6,500 note capacity on eight tracks, and is small enough to sit on the top panel of any respectable synth. It will cost around £245.
Time for some conclusions on the DS8, which will in part depend on its retail price. This hasn't been fixed at the time of writing, but Korg UK say it is likely to be between £999 and £1099. This puts it slightly below the ESQ-1 in cost, considerably below Elka's multitimbral EK44 which is in many ways similar, and about four times the price of a Yamaha FB-01. Why mention the FB-01 again? Well, it was the first provider of budget multitimbral FM synthesis, but sadly has not become completely independent of the CX5 computer from which it was derived. Unlike the DS8, which is very easy to edit, you'll get nowhere without a computer if you want to edit the FB-01 sounds.
But what does the Korg DS8 sound like? Initial impressions are of a brightened-up Yamaha DX9, with an emphasis on sparkling metallic sounds. The Tubular Bell sound is practically identical to that on the DX9, and there's a large selection of brass, piano, clavinet, and string sounds, most of which are very respectable. Again, these resemble familiar DX9 sounds, but there's a certain additional sparkle which is added to by the effects section and by the detuning and layering possibilities.
In the 80-90 program range you'll find a good selection of special effects sounds including the mandatory helicopter, a real sizzler called 'Sti'n'Fry', some sci-fi lasers, water drops and much more - just to show that the DS8 is as versatile as any other FM synth. Apparently, the DW8000 is being kept in the Korg catalogue though - it's clearly a warmer-sounding synth altogether.
Korg's problem is that Yamaha are updating their DX7 synths with multisplit and layer capabilities around this time, and Elka are on the scene now with the EK44. But the DS8 offers most of the EK44's facilities with more compact presentation and the advantage of a built-in digital delay, and it certainly represents a powerful performance/sequencing synthesizer at a more reasonable price.
The design of the DS8 is attractive, functional and imaginative, and despite the fact that it's bound to have a bit of a struggle, I'm confident that it will find a sizeable niche in the market.
Estimated selling price £1099 inc VAT.
More information from Korg UK, (Contact Details)
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Review by Mark Jenkins