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Korg DSS-1

Synthcheck

Paul Fishman checks out Korg's pro sampling keyboard



It was on a Thursday afternoon that I received a rather strange phone call from a manager of a new up and coming 'hot combo' who were about to start a tour and unfortunately had a few technical problems. My first thought was 'why me?' He explained that I had been recommended as a solution to 99% of all household problems, an alternative to shoe polish, and pretty handy at getting to grips with any piece of equipment that instrument manufacturers throw at the public. It seems that over the past few years I have earned a reputation as the equivalent of International Rescue's Pod 5 — when in doubt wheel in Fishman — the wonderdog!

So anyway, to the rescue I came. The problem was having just finished recording their album, the combo now intended to tour and reproduce their sound live, without the use of tapes. Yes it can be done!

Having surveyed the ever-expanding market for decent sampling keyboards they caught wind of the Korg DSS1, which is a mid-priced instrument that hopefully would answer all their dreams, and at the same time solve various technical problems.

So after making contact with Korg they managed to wangle two of the first models to arrive in the country, which is great in some ways but can be a potential headache in others eg: no-one else has any experience of them. This isn't generally a problem if the manufacturer is close at hand, or the shop has time to get to know what it is selling or there is a complete and comprehensive users' manual (preferably in English — Swahili is not a suitable alternative). Or more than anything else, the instrument's operational software is 'user friendly' as opposed to 'user antagonistic' — therefore it doesn't ask you out for a fight. Unfortunately, on arrival, Korg DSS1 didn't have any of these going for it, which is a shame as it does have a lot of potential.

So when the DSS1 turned up on my doorstep I sat down and did some serious thinking, which was interspersed by some serious swearing. Let it be said that I refuse to be beaten by man, machine or sampler, and that the word 'Bollocks' should be in all users' manuals.

Understanding the Basic Concepts of the Instrument



I find with every instrument you have to get to grips with the basic operational concepts, otherwise everything else just doesn't make sense. Where do you blow down a guitar? Where are the strings on drums? Where is the on/off switch on a computer? Beats me. With computer-based instruments, so much is concealed within the software and therefore can't be physically seen or hit. Once this code is cracked, everything else makes blinding sense. The DSS1's memory can be best understood by dividing it into segments, but more of that in a moment.

The DSS1 features three types of synthesis — Sampling, Additive Harmonic Synthesis, and drawing waveforms by hand. These can be processed by shaping the waveforms, by editing, by looping, reversing, mixing, as well as all the usual analogey methods, viz envelopes, filters, modulation etc.

The smallest division of memory stored within the DSS1 is a sample/waveform. These are then combined with other samples/waveforms to make multisounds, which are a group of samples/waveforms that have been assigned to the keyboard in a specific order, therefore creating a multisample.

You can have up to 16 multisounds in the memory at once. These are accessible via oscillators 1 and 2, allowing two sounds to be combined at any one time. They can then be processed by the VCF, VCA envelopes and modulation, and stored in up to 132 programmes, that can instantly be recalled. This entire collection of information is stored in what is called 'a system'. On one disk it is possible to store four systems, and each can be independently loaded in. Therefore, the internal memory of the DSS1 is a quarter of what can be crammed onto a disk. Obvious innit?

The sampling rate is what we in the trade call 'crucial' as it is this which governs replay quality. This is variable in four steps — 48kHz, 32, 24, 16. At a rate of 32kHz you have a maximum of eight seconds of sampling time. In theory it should give you a replay frequency of up to 16 kHz which is respectable, but you'd be amazed how quickly you can run out of memory space with only eight seconds of time. To get a good multisound, for example, of a piano, you need to make quite a few separate samples to cover the range of instruments. None of these should be too short, and all need decent length loops or they just won't sound right.

The next thing I discovered is that once individual samples are combined into a multisound you can't separate them out unless you have the original 'single samples' stored on disk. God knows I tried! When wading through the factory disks, I found to my horror only multisounds, although single samples could have been swapped. If only I had had a few lying around the house. All I wanted to do was combine a pinch of piano with a snippet of strings, and a hint of brass, but I was buggered if I could do it.

Additive Synthesis and Waveform drawing



One of the great features of this keyboard is that it isn't just a sampling instrument, you can also use it as a conventional synthesizer by creating your own waveforms. Additive synthesis is where harmonics are added at various levels to create highly complex waveforms as well as the standard saw square and sine which are all relatively simple. The DSS1 allows the adjustment of 128 harmonics. The hand drawing method lets you use the edit slider to draw one full wave cycle. Personally, I didn't get on too well with the drawing bit, probably because I was never that good at art. Now if you give me a vase or a bowl of fruit we would be seriously talking. The biggest hurdle I found was the inability to actually see the waveform you were drawing. The display only shows a representation of the level you put in during the short recording time. Maybe I need to practise a bit? But the additive synthesis feature was very easy to use and could be highly effective with further exploration. Both of these methods don't take up much space when stored in the memory.

Editing Sounds and Developing your own programs



All editing is achieved by selecting the required parameter, then adjusting the two edit sliders, or the 'up and down' arrows, or typing in the necessary value on the keypad. This is fairly straightforward, as long as you remember which slider is controlling what.

In the 'Edit Sample' mode, it is possible to truncate the sound and so edit start and end points, reverse samples or mix them by combining two sounds together — the front of one and end of another.

The 'program parameter mode' is where multisounds are loaded into the two oscillators, either combining two different sounds, or doubling the same sound to create chorus effects. Since the DSS1 can be used to create comprehensive synthesizer waveforms these, if desired, may be loaded into one of the oscillators, which will add a whole new aspect to the 'natural acoustic' samples.

As well as modulating the oscillators by the LFO, there is an autobend function which is extremely useful for percussion effects, particularly when used in conjunction with the velocity control. And whilst on the subject of percussion effects, somebody has had the bright sense to include a noise source — Whoopee!

Both the VCA and the VCF have separate envelopes and keyboard tracking.

Parameter editing: take your pick


More and more keyboard players are starting to realise the importance of velocity controlling parameters. The qualities that make up natural acoustic effects are essential to the character of so many instruments. Without them, things can sound flat. The DSS1 provides velocity control of the bend, VCF envelope cutoff, VCF attack and decay, VCA envelope amount (level), VCA envelope attack and decay and velocity switch. The latter is where you want to switch between two different samples eg a normal bass and a slap sound, or a lightly played snare drum, and an ambient one. There is also the facility to add after-touch to the modulation amount, VCF cutoff and VCA total level.

Instead of the usual pitch bend wheels, Korg have opted for a four-position joystick that controls modulation, pitch bend, and filter amount.

Much to their credit, there are two separate digital delays, so different types of processing can be added to the programs. This is well useful as it allows you to set up specific echoes etc for each program, as opposed to having to add these by using external processing.

Both are variable in delay time, feedback, amount and degree of modulation. Another sensible facility is the inclusion of an eq for adjusting the bass and treble of each program.

Returning to operational concepts, it is important to remember that all the above processing in the 'program mode' affects the entire keyboard. This could be a problem if you want to have lots of different sounds within one keyboard program, and they all require separate types of filtering envelopes, velocity response, delays, etc. Unlike some other sampling instruments (which shall be nameless) — you are not editing just one sound but an entire keyboard layout.

Conclusion



There are many great aspects to the Korg DSS1, but I do feel that it is a shame that certain important 'user sensible' points seem to be lacking. I know I have raised this before in other reviews, but designers and manufacturers do not always take into account the poor bastard who has got to use the instrument, particularly if they have got to be professional bastards who might be faced with the awesome task of playing live and having to create the sound of 'the world and his mother' within one number. Despite the fact that you've got a maximum of 32 programs which can be made out of 16 samples/waveforms, these are totally dependent on the available memory space. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Korg decide to expand the DSS1's internal memory. For example if you look at some of the factory sound disks you can see that each 'system' generally contains only one multisample of a real instrument. The remaining space is filled with a collection of additive synth waveforms. Although you can make 32 permutations of these sounds, it is near impossible to cram in any more sampled multisounds. This is not a problem when working in the studio, but could be when playing live.

The ease of use of the operating software can make the difference between choosing between one keyboard and another. Although in many aspects the designers appear to have taken a good hard look at the Emulator II's methods of operation, they don't seem to have inherited that feeling of general friendliness. That's not to say that the DSS1 is hard to operate, but on first contact it can mystify the user! Like instruments that don't allow their versatility to get in the way of 'Hey great! Lets make music!'

But then we are living in the world where the DX7 is probably the most popular keyboard synthesizer around and only a handful of musicians ever get past using the factory presets, which to my mind is a great shame. Then again I am sure if you spent enough time getting to know the DSS1 it would appear to be blindingly straightforward, like sampling off a duck's back. As they say familiarity breeds familiarity, or is it contempt?

The DSS1 is clearly an attempt by Korg to get into the professional market. Every manufacturer wants to be taken seriously and not just always creators of cheap and cheerful products.

This unit I received contained three disks, which I assume is what you get when you buy it. Apart from various synth sounds, these contained real strings, choir, acoustic guitar, bass guitar and various brass. Like all manufacturers who enter into the sampling instrument market, Korg will no doubt be supporting their instrument by making available a library of sounds.

The competition between manufacturers is getting fairly tough as better quality instruments become available at lower prices.

The DSS1 has many interesting and valid features, but I can't help feeling that there are a few operating aspects that need to be looked at further if it is to be able to handle the competition. Henry Kissinger eat your heart out!

Korg DSS1 Sampling keyboard - RRP: £2,259


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Culture Chronicle

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Toa Professional Series


International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

 

International Musician - Nov 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Sampler > Korg > DSS1


Gear Tags:

12-Bit Sampler

Review by Paul Fishman

Previous article in this issue:

> Culture Chronicle

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> Toa Professional Series


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