Korg DSS1 Sampling Synthesiser
It's very complicated, but it's very powerful. If I stopped writing now and simply began listing the functions of the DSS-1... just the names of the things it can do, let alone explaining them... I wouldn't be half way through by the end of this review. But we'll try.
For sanity's sake the Korg can be divided into three. It's a sampler, obviously, and a very fine one capable of unusually high quality samples (a 48KHz sampling rate sees to that) and able to load 16 at one go from the in-built mini-disc drive. (Sixteen instantly accessible samples is good these days, as the discs themselves need a minute to load.)
It's also a semi-traditional "analogue" synthesiser with a wealth of detail... 43 parameters on this bit alone and some of those with up to six programmable functions. The synth side includes two digital delay lines, programmable eq and a very sensitive and versatile velocity and second touch system on sturdy the keyboard. As just one example of its finesse, I really liked the way the initial decay of the note could be changed by your dynamic attack on the keyboard. The harder you hit, the shorter the note becomes, as well as being louder and brighter. That's clever, and realistic, as many percussive instruments, like the Fender Rhodes, do choke back when you belt the keys.
And somewhere between those two sections is the digital waveform generation which allows you to construct your own waveforms by individually mixing up to 128 harmonics. You can step through each one, setting the harmonic level between 0 and 256. Or you can 'draw' a waveform using a slider to run up and down the harmonics as the Korg counts to itself 'sampling' your movement through the peaks. Enormously varied waveforms result.
Any of these systems can be edited, and used as the source for the synth side to treat. When you do switch to the oscillators and start fiddling, you'll find eight preset waveforms... sawtooth, pulse width etc... and one of them will always be the basic sample from the disc you've loaded. So it's a very simple job to take a string patch from the synth, but substitute a grand piano sample as the source... Steinway waveforms but the attack and sustain of a string section.
Each disc is divided into four 'systems', each of which can hold 16 samples, plus another 16 patches for the Korg's synth section.
The control of the Korg is given over to eight departments - Sample, Edit Sample, Create Waveform, Multi-Sound, MIDI, System, Disc Utility and Program Parameter. They all boast their own switch and menu of functions inserted in blue on the front panel. Two sets of sliders and incrementing buttons, plus a 0-9 keypad call up parameters and alter values once you're inside the desired department.
Taking them as they come, Sample lets you record from mike or line, and sets the sampling rate, how long you can record for, and the trigger threshold where the machine thinks, this is the loud bit I'm supposed to be listening for, I'll start recording now. Maximum sample time is 16 seconds at a 16KHz rate (then proceeding to 24, 32 and 48KHz.
Edit sample is where you begin to play with your recording, trimming off the front and back (each expressed as a six figure number to show you where you are).
I confess to finding this the most confusing part of the DSS-1 mainly because so much information is being thrown at you on the backlit, 40 character LCD screen.
Multi-Sound is easier to grasp. One sampled piano note is a 'sound'. But the Grand Piano on the disc is a multi-sound as there may be several samples involved, say one note for each octave of the DSS-1 keyboard - so that no one recording is stretched too far. You can get at each Multi-Sound and tweak the individual samples within it.
Here is where you can loop short or edited samples to give you sustained sounds, and there are two tricks for smoothing out the joins. Cross fade will take a "cutting" from the beginning of the sample and mix it in to the end so when the join comes round, the tail is already beginning to sound like the mouth. Or there's Back-and-forth which will finish one part of the sample then reverse its way along the waveform to the beginning and start again.
The next three switches are housekeepers, looking after the MIDI functions, shifting information to and from disc and keyboard (System) and watching over the disc itself (Utility) getting it into the right format for copying, etc, and building sensible directories of the sounds in store for easy reference.
The final button has the greatest number of parameters, and that's for the synth section, just this bit alone would have been impressive - six stage envelope generators (Attack, Decay, Break Point, Slope, Sustain, Release), rich filters at 12 or 24dB, a raw syncing sound (getting very unusual these days with the swap to digital), all the useful tricks like delay and eq, and strange things like being able to alter the resolution of the digital to analogue converter... very nice if you really want to find out what disgusting fuzz low level resolution can gift to synthesis.
And remember that all of these are applicable to the samples as well as the pre-set waveforms. The talent to produce noises that have a foot in both camps — analogue and sampled — is a vital one if the next generation of creative keyboards is to avoid the dull play-it-back-at-a-different-pitch mentality.
Which, as the price would imply, puts the DSS-1 well ahead of the plain rack mounted samplers and has it battling with Ensoniqs and even Emulators.
And it's on that scale that the Korg begins to get very deep indeed, such as the ability to edit each data word. A sampler works by taking many repeated slices of the sound it's listening to. The signal level on each of these occasions is measured (quantized) and that value stored (known as wave RAM as it's the information which eventually reproduces the waveform). Each of those slices is represented by a data word, and you can get at all of them and individually edit their value - you may have 1,000 on your hands, but it's that sort of fine detail which produces the smoothest, error free loops and sustained noises. Is big stuff.
Other than that, the DSS-1 is big, black, not wonderfully thrilling to look at, and comes with the ever present Korg joystick for pitch bend plus modulation. To the left of the keys is the disc drive, round the back we have sockets, and it's stereo, by the way.
It's a brilliant machine. I haven't been so struck with the potential and capabilities of a synthesiser for some time. It does so much, then controls it all so well.
You could start getting into arguments on price beating, and yes I'm sure that in two years time there'll be machines around that do all this for half the price. But can you wait? Besides, I think you could go on discovering new sounds on the Korg for a long time.
But be prepared for a lot of night school before you get there. It has to be said that the Korg is not the friendliest of devices. The screen is forever supplying prompts on what you want to do next and how long it will take, but the language of initials, six figure numbers and sequences to be followed takes some learning. I'd also keep your fingers crossed that the early sample manual we had will be rewritten when production models appear. Can't fault the keyboard, though.
Review by Paul Colbert
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