The DSS-1 offers 12-bit sampling, high fidelity samples, integral dual digital delay and EQ, plus the most comprehensive synthesizer section of all the midrange samplers. Review by Mark Jenkins.
The DSS-1 offers 12-bit sampling, high fidelity samples, integral dual digital delay and EQ, plus the most comprehensive synthesizer section of all the midrange samplers.
Amongst the current plethora of sampling keyboards, one machine stands out due to its unusually comprehensive synthesizer facilities. Not surprising, then, that its catalogue number refers directly to these facilities: DSS-1 standing for Digital Sampling Synthesizer.
But what's the difference between a conventional sampler and a sampling synthesizer you ask? Korg would argue that it's a matter of signal processing capabilities and performance options, and even the briefest check through the facilities available will confirm that the DSS-1 is ahead of the Emax, Prophet 2000/2002, Ensoniq Mirage, Roland S50 and Akai S900 on this front.
But there are aspects of its design which indicate that the DSS-1 is intended more for performance and 'two-handed playing' than for complex sampling/sequencing tasks. For instance, there isn't yet an expander version of the DSS-1, and it's also not possible to have multiple audio outputs which are virtually indispensible in the studio if you want to use a sampler to play back a kit of drum sounds and separately EQ each one.
Is this situation likely to change in the near future? Well, if you definitely need multiple outputs, the Prophet 2002 Plus, Akai S900, Emax or forthcoming Casio FZ-1 are the machines for you. Apparently, it will never be possible to fit multiple outputs to the DSS-1 due to the fact that its multitimbral sampling section is passed through a single channel, polyphonic synthesizer section for processing.
Korg hope to make up for this oversight with the future release of the EX4 - shown this Frankfurt in prototype form - which will offer sample playback via four separate synth circuits in a 19" rack-mount format. In the meantime the good news is that a memory expansion is on its way for the DSS-1 which will take its capacity up to 1 Megabyte - matching the fully-expanded Prophet 2000/2002.
It's best to think of the DSS-1 as a polyphonic sampler tacked onto a Korg DW8000 synth with a harmonic synthesis routine thrown in. As you'll know if you've considered buying a conventional polyphonic synth in the last couple of years, the DW8000 offers exceptional versatility with 8-note polyphony, velocity and aftertouch response, multiple waveform options based on 'real' sounds, a powerful analogue filter with its own envelope, a built-in digital effects unit, and so on...
What the DSS-1 does is to replace the DW8000's waveform generators with a fully-featured sampler, and then adds a second digital effects unit and programmable equaliser for good measure.
The first thing that strikes you about the DSS-1 is its physical size, which when compared to slimmer competitors, (such as the Roland S50) can be offputting, particularly to home studio owners - at 309 pages of unnecessarily large type, the DSS-1 manual is almost as large! But in that imposing width and depth you're being offered a very fine five-octave keyboard, to the left of which is a disk drive accepting conventional 3.5-inch disks (about £32 for ten blank disks at the moment) and a joystick performance control. Korg have stood steadfastly by the joystick over the years because it allows pitch bend and filter opening (left-right), plus vibrato and filter modulation (up-down) all in one hand; but many players still prefer separate pitch bend and modulation wheels. You either love joysticks or you hate them.
On the top panel of the synth are Master Volume and Master Tune sliders, two (!) matching Data Entry sliders (A and B) with single-step increment buttons, and the LCD display with contrast control. This is completed by the keypad with Enter button, a pair of cursor buttons (Up/Yes, Down/No), and just eight more buttons to call up the operational sections: Sample, Edit Sample, Create Waveform, Multi Sound, MIDI, System, Disk Utility, and Program Parameter.
By now you should all know what a Disk Utility is (it deals with loading and saving sounds to and from disk) and you should all know what MIDI is (it's those three hi-fi sockets on the back of your synth that spend most of their time begging you to buy another synth). But what's a Multi Sound?
Herein lies the complexity of the DSS-1, which arranges sounds into Samples, Multi Sounds, and Systems. The term 'Sample' is self-explanatory - it's a sound which you record via the DSS-1's rear panel input, and which you can modify in many ways. But the DSS-1 powers up in System mode, and a 'System' is a set of 32 programs which can be loaded into memory at once and quickly selected while playing. Each disk can hold up to four Systems (128 patches) and you simply choose one of the four, using the Data Entry A button, before pressing Enter to load it.
A 'Multi Sound' stands mid-way between a single Sample and a whole System, and comprises a set of sounds together with the definition of the way in which they're assigned to the DSS-1 keyboard - a complete multisplit if you like. You can choose to load a single Sample, a whole System, or a single Multi Sound from disk.
Loading a System takes about 40 seconds, which is par for the course for this amount of memory. Unfortunately, you tend to have to say everything twice to the DSS-1 since it has comprehensive built-in error protection routines in its software; so in fact you have to press Enter twice before a System will load - irritating for the experienced user.
Once loaded, hit the System button again and you can select one particular program using the Up/Down cursor arrows or the keypad, by entering a program number from 01 to 32. In contrast to the Mirage and Prophet 2000, all sound programs (from straight samples to synthesizer-modified effects) are named in the LCD display so that you know what is about to issue forth before you commit yourself to actually pressing a key. It takes about half a second for the program to become available after selection.
A DSS-1 Multi Sound, with any combination of synth and sampled effects, can contain up to 16 sounds with different split positions, and since some of these can exceed the physical range of the keyboard it's possible to control some sounds from an external MIDI sequencer and some from the keyboard. In fact, it's possible to obtain 30 sounds simultaneously - one of the DSS-1 Owner's Club news releases will tell you how.
The 'Orig' (Original Key) and 'Top' (Top Key) parameters allow you to set up a Multi Sound and each component of the sound can loop or not loop quite independently, so you could create a Multi Sound with short percussion samples and sustained string or organ-like effects together. However, for recording purposes, the point of doing this is limited by the lack of individual voice outputs. As we've already mentioned, there's only one central synth module on the DSS-1 so you can't choose a long decay on the lower half of the keyboard and a short one on the top half if you're relying on synth envelopes.
In terms of performance controls, the DSS-1 offers velocity control of volume, filter opening, pitch and attack; plus aftertouch control of vibrato depth, filter opening and volume. You can transpose the whole keyboard up five semitones or down six semitones, although some keys may become silent if you have exceeded the pitch transposition range of the original sample. Additional performance controls are a Damper/Hold footswitch, a Program Up footswitch which loops from Program 32 back to Program 1 again, and the aforementioned joystick.
The DSS-1 considered as a synthesizer has a familiar two oscillator/filter/amplifier design, with oscillator mix, octaves, modulation and other variables all completely programmable. You can select a different Multi Sound basis for each oscillator and this can be either sampled or synthesized using the harmonic synthesis routine outlined below.
Favourite functions from the DW8000 such as Auto Bend (a fixed pitch bend up or down to the note played, with variable rate) are included, but polyphonic glide isn't. You can apply positive or negative envelopes to the VCF, alter filter cut-off, EG and Tracking amount, VCA Decay tracking (so lower notes are longer or shorter than higher ones), apply ADSSR (Attack Decay Slope Sustain Release) envelopes, use velocity to switch from the Osc-1 Multi Sound to the Osc-2 Multi Sound (for instance, to alternate between popped and snapped bass guitar sounds according to how hard you play), and so forth. Sadly, you can't use aftertouch for a similar mixing application.
Other facilities include programmable EQ (bass and treble), Unison Mode Detune - with 2,4,6, or 8 voices; and the very important Dual Digital Delay which includes delay time, modulation and feedback parameters giving everything from chorus to echo and 'slapback' pseudo-reverb. You can choose to have the two digital delays connected in series or in parallel. You can also reverse the phase of the second unit's modulation waveform to create some wonderful stereo effects.
Sampling on the DSS-1 is reasonably basic but very professional. Rates available are 16kHz (giving a 16 second maximum sample length), 24kHz, 35kHz and 48kHz (for a 5.5 second sample). The latter gives a maximum playback bandwidth above 20kHz. Who needs more? A 12-bit design is employed, which puts it ahead of the 8-bit Ensoniq Mirage in terms of sound fidelity, but (theoretically) behind the forthcoming 16-bit Casio FZ-1 sampler.
Another unusual aspect of the DSS-1 is the harmonic sound creation routine. Here you can define the harmonics of a sound individually or 'hand draw' a harmonic table by moving one of the Data Entry sliders over a variable period of time. Of course, you can also reverse, truncate, splice and mix these harmonically defined sounds just as you would a sample, and you can blend a harmonic sound from one oscillator bank and a sampled sound from the other to create unique sonic combinations (or splice the start of a sample to the end of a synth sound even). E-mu Systems' Emax offers many of these facilities too but it depends much more on re-sampling sounds, which is unnecessary on the DSS-1.
Sampling on the DSS-1 is very much aided by a powerful Auto Loop routine. There's also a useful prompt which tells you what note is expected next when you're creating a multi-sample. You can choose sample times and rates and whether you intend to divide the memory into 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 blocks, and these blocks can be assigned automatically or manually to the keyboard. Sampling can be triggered manually or automatically with the LCD acting as a VU input level meter as with Emax.
Further sample editing facilities include Auto Truncate, which discards unused memory to save on total capacity, and the ability to edit down to individual sample points, which is handy (particularly if you discover a click in the middle of your sample) but can be long-winded through its very comprehensiveness. The Auto Loop Search mode is brilliantly effective, creating totally silent loops (most of the time), and Cross Fade Looping and Backwards-Forwards Looping are also available with programmable fade lengths.
The actual disk storage method used by the DSS-1 is somewhat obscure. Let's take a direct quote from the handbook:
"There is one set of MIDI parameters (on a disk); there are four sets of programs (01 to 32), one set for each of the four Systems, A to D. Then there are the Multi Sounds and Sounds. You can store up to 120 Multi Sounds and Sounds... Programs (the patches numbered 01 to 32) are stored separately for each System. However, Multi Sounds are shared. That is, the same Multi Sound can be used by any or all of the Systems. The individual Sounds... are not directly linked to the Systems. However, the Sounds share storage space with the Multi Sounds."
Confused? The bottom line is that a Korg factory disk label for the DSS-1 reads like War and Peace, with alternative Sounds, Multi Sounds and Systems all over the place. Thus, using disks to their fullest capacity is a real artform, and you'll probably find yourself putting only one System, or half-a-dozen short samples, on each disk.
The DSS-1's MIDI implementation is pretty advanced, although it lacks the Prophet 2000 and Akai S700's Multi Modes to simultaneously assign different voices to different MIDI channels. Still, you can choose any MIDI channel from 1 to 16 as the send or receive channel, and can filter out control change and pitch bend messages. Patch changes can be directed towards the sounds currently in memory or towards the contents of System A, B, C or D, and you can select Omni or Poly modes, switch Local Control on/off, and so on.
Most of this data can be saved as part of a program if required, and indeed the DSS-1 can dump whole samples or Multi Sounds over MIDI using System Exclusive codes. However, this can only be done at the request of an external unit such as a computer, and so it's not possible just to pump System Exclusive data out of the DSS-1 into a sequencer or other recording device.
So what does the DSS-1 sound like?
Well, more than any other contemporary sampler, the answer must be - whatever you want it to sound like. If you want untreated pre-sampled sounds you'll find that the DSS-1 has a very good line in pianos, rich strings, powerful brass and crisp, precise percussion. Several demo disks containing sections of pop chart material exist, and they are virtually indistinguishable in quality from the record.
If you want complex samples, the DSS-1 will give you multisplits either of one sound (as on the Piano factory disk) or of many sounds (as on Percussion), with the odd reversed or spliced sound thrown in for good measure. If you want synthetic treatments, the DSS-1 will offer you filtering, detuning and modified envelopes plus very expressive control via keyboard velocity, aftertouch and the joystick.
If you want to go over the top and sound like a Prophet 5, a MiniMoog or a PPG, the DSS-1 will give you that too thanks to its harmonic synthesis routines, with the bonus integral dual DDL providing as much echo and thickening as you wish. And, of course, the unique combinations possible when you mix sampled and synthesized sounds, synth treatments and those two digital delays together are quite spectacular.
Sampling is easy to initiate, although Korg could have installed an even larger LCD (as on the Akai S900) and rendered rather more of their parameter indications in plain English. The sample assignment method as far as disk storage goes is frankly overcomplex, but familiarisation with the DSS-1's concepts of Sample, Multi Sound, System and Program shouldn't take too long.
Overall, the DSS-1 is a true professional's instrument, and one which takes a little time to grow to love. If you're a genuine preset merchant, this may not be the sampler for you - it offers too many possibilities, so you'll be paying for facilities which you'll never touch. But if you're interested in quickly capturing high quality samples, perfecting them with accurate editing, modifying them beyond all recognition with powerful synthesizer facilities, and then performing with them in a very expressive, full and responsive manner - then the Korg DSS-1 is the instrument for you.
RRP £2259.00 Inc. VAT.
More information from Korg UK, (Contact Details).
The DSS-1 Owners' Club also operates from the above address and gives advice and information in an occasional newsletter.