Programmable Digital Waveform Polysynth
An intriguing new synth design that tries to combine digital waveform generation with analogue control. Does it achieve its objectives? Dan Goldstein thinks it does - just.
With the 6000, Korg have aimed to create a synth that sounds good thanks to digitally-encoded waveforms, but is easy to program thanks to analogue control. Is their combination of technologies a success?
Flushed with the success of their budget Poly 800 polysynth, which has now achieved best-selling status in spite of having only one filter to share between all its oscillators, Korg have decided to revamp their image a little further up the financial scale by introducing a less compromised synth design, the DW6000. It's a sleek, attractive instrument that should be making its way into music shops for the first time as you read this, and it employs a new sound-generation principle (yes, another one) by the name of the Digital Waveform Generator System, DWGS for short.
It would seem that more than any other Oriental manufacturer, Korg have been bitten by the success of their deadly rivals, Yamaha, and their DX range of FM synthesis instruments. And up until now, they've had no synth capable of generating anything approaching DX-type sounds, particularly the delicate percussive timbres the Yamaha synths create so convincingly. Which explains why the range of preset sounds on the DW6000 includes such wonders as Celeste, Steel Drums, Helicopter and Tubular Bells. And very impressive they are too.
So, what precisely is the Digital Waveform Generator System? Well, put simply, it's a principle in which sound waveforms rich in harmonics are generated by additive harmonic synthesis, digitally-encoded and stored in ROM for future modification by the user. In the case of the DW6000, said user has eight waveforms (held in a total of 512Kbit of ROM) from which to choose, and any of these can be called up and assigned to either of the instrument's oscillators.
Partly because it can be useful to see them at a glance during programming, but mostly because they lend the 6000's front panel an air of technical sophistication, all eight waveforms are illustrated, along with analyses of their harmonic content, in green at the extreme right of the synth's control board. According to Korg, each of the waveforms are simulations of real musical instrument sounds: '1 ' is for the brass and strings families, '2' is for solo violin, '3' represents acoustic piano, and so on. And as if in acknowledgement of the fact that there's more to most acoustic sounds than a harmonically rich waveform or two, Korg have given the DW6000 a Noise Generator as well, which comes in handy surprisingly often as programming begins to get more involved. It's added to sounds as an entirely separate parameter from the two oscillators, which themselves have only waveform and octave selection and individual level controls for you to master, though OSC2 also has Interval and Detune parameters for musical transposition or mild detuning between the oscillators.
It's part of Korg's design philosophy that the DW6000 should incorporate adjustable parameters that are already familiar to the majority of modern keyboard players, and the sound modification sections of the machine are certainly far from foreign. To begin with, the filter and amplifier stages are both analogue, and there's little within them in the way of potentially confusing control possibilities.
The VCF (one for each voice this time) has standard Cutoff and Resonance functions, plus Keyboard Track (determines how the cutoff frequency changes as you play up the keyboard), Polarity (determines how the cutoff frequency is affected by the VCF's Envelope Generator), and EG Intensity (determines the reverse relationship).
The VCF and VCA have their own individual digital envelope generators, but the fact that they're digital is entirely incidental. What's of more significance is that they're both six-stage designs, with Korg's favoured Break Point level and Slope time parameters being introduced between the AD and SR portions of a conventional envelope. For those unfamiliar with this 'ADBSSR' system, Break Point level refers to the level at which cutoff frequency (VCF) or volume (VCA) stop dropping after the decay portion, while the Slope rate governs the rate of change in volume or cutoff frequency from the Break Point level to the Sustain level.
Once you've got round the idea that MG in this context does not refer to an old British sports car manufacturer but is in fact Korg's way of saying LFO (it stands for Modulation Generator), that section becomes almost entirely self-explanatory. That leaves the only remaining parameters as the bend wheel assignment section and switches for portamento, the 6000's built-in stereo chorus unit, and MIDI functions, more of which anon.
As a quick glance at the accompanying photographs has probably already told you, the DW6000 employs digital parameter selection and control, a system Korg pioneered with their Poly 61 (now 61M, of course) and continued to use on the Poly 800. Frankly, I think we've now got to the stage in synth development when we'd be foolish to expect anything better, especially in this category. Mind you, I was disappointed to find that Korg had not investigated any means of letting the poor programmer see all current parameter values at a glance, as Akai have managed so successfully on their AX80. A simple array of six numeric LEDs is all that's provided to show program and parameter numbers and the current value of the latter. That value can be incremented or decremented using either a pair of suitably-labelled switches or a rather flimsy slider control, and the only redeeming features of this section (which is in many respects the instrument's nerve centre, remember) are both carried over from the Poly 800, namely the large red Write button that replaces the original program with that incorporating all current values at the touch of a switch, and the Bank Hold selector that prevents you having to key in both digits of a program number when the first digit is remaining constant for a certain period of time.
True enough, the fact that the DW's control section has little in the way of programming surprises does make it easier to get to grips with than many, but it's still a shame that Korg couldn't have matched their desire to make the machine's internal workings more externally accessible as well as comprehensible.
The selection of 64 factory programs brings me back to the point I made earlier about digital sounds. Not content with giving the DW6000 a sound-generation system that's more conducive to the idea of recreating acoustic-type sounds, the synth's designers have given the machine a 'memo pad' of ROM-based voices that illustrate that point in about as blatant a way as I can think of. That means a proliferation of (well-executed) tuned percussion imitations and noise-assisted sound effects, and an all-too-obvious withdrawal into the background for what I might as well term as traditional analogue synth sounds.
This is where the factory selection starts to get misleading, however, because as its inclusion of analogue sound-modification stages would suggest, the DW6000 is perfectly good at producing decent 'non-digital' voices as well, especially in the areas of key-click organs and solo bass sounds. What it won't do is provide a range of immensely raunchy and unsophisticated brass sounds at the flick of a switch, nor is its VCF stage really strong enough to make filter sweeps as powerful and convincing as the best of the competition manage in this area. It's the return of the ol' Japanese disease, I'm afraid.
Mind you, the creation of strong leadline sounds is greatly aided by the inclusion of a Unison mode that locks all six of the synth's two-oscillator voices onto one note (and detunes them automatically as well), while a further key assignment mode - Poly 2 - lets you implement polyphonic portamento effects.
The keyboard itself is a decent five octaves of width but, horror of musical horrors, doesn't respond to either initial velocity or after-touch. Now this really is a sad omission, because with more and more keyboard players serving their performing apprenticeship on synths that do have dynamic keyboards, gravitating down to the DW6000's performance level is going to be one hell of a retrograde step. The keys have a spongey, imprecise feel to them that doesn't really inspire confidence (maybe Korg reckoned fitting pressure-sensitivity would have been a waste of time), while the joystick's wide range of controlling options can't make up for the fact that it's one of the flimsiest attempts at a performance device since Korg fitted it to the Poly 800 a little over a year ago.
This sort of thing bothers me. After all, if the 6000's designers can do so much to make their new darling respond to the needs of programmers, why can't they make it respond to players, too?
It strikes me that the middle-ground of the synth market is rapidly polarising between instruments that offer a sparkling library of instantly available sounds but whose programming versatility doesn't quite live up to their promise, and those whose inherent synthetic flexibility is so inaccessible, it might as well not be there in the first place. The Korg DW6000 seems to occupy a position somewhere between the two. And whereas the most a lot of people ever get from sitting on the fence is a sore bum, the Korg wears its non-aligned status remarkably well.
Any instrument that attempts such a string of compromises is going to hit problems, of course. Perhaps somebody should tell Korg about the wonders of dynamic and/or splittable keyboards, onboard sequencers (even the Poly 800 had one), multi-timbral MIDI implementation, and RAM cartridge storage (there are the usual sockets for dumping data to audio cassette, but RAMs are preferable in almost every respect except cost, so why can't we have both). But then again, I very much doubt the company's engineers are ignorant of such developments. More likely they've sacrificed the possibility of their inclusion to the Great Gods of the Balance Sheets, and perhaps it's just as well they did, otherwise the DW6000 might have become much less of a financially viable proposition.
The 6000's implementation of MIDI is useful without being anything remarkable. The keyboard can be set to transmit and receive on any of the 16 MIDI channels, and data that can be sent and received includes portamento switching, VCF and oscillator modulation and damper pedal activation as well as more everyday things such as note on/off data, program changes and pitch-bend information. Additionally, channel mode messages (omni on/off and all notes off) and volume can be received but not transmitted.
It's a mite difficult trying to envisage what sort of keyboard player Korg are aiming their new synth at. Certainly, it'll appeal to the Poly 800 owner keen on adding a range of more contemporary sounds to his or her library, not to mention getting his hands on a synth with more than one filter, and it should also find favour with musicians too impecunious to consider the 'DX7 plus MIDI expander' route to a happy digital-analogue marriage.
The DW6000 is undeniably a jack of all trades and master of only a few, yet in spite of that, I found myself rather liking it.
Introduced simultaneously with the DW6000 is the MPK, to our knowledge the first pedalboard capable of controlling a MIDI synth via standard five-pin DIN sockets at the rear. Neatly styled and sturdily constructed, the pedalboard has 13 foot-operated keys spanning a nominal range of one octave (C to C), but a further pedal at the extreme right of the unit can be used to select an octave down or an octave up, making a total range of three octaves.
Strangely, that's the only one of the MPK's several switchable functions that's actually controllable by foot. As for the others, MIDI send channel can be anything from 1 to 16, but this is selected using tiny DIP switches at the back of the device: not the most accessible place for them to be. I'd have thought altering the instrument to be controlled during performance would have been a major bonus, but this arrangement makes such changes well-nigh impossible to execute. Maybe Korg'll fit a pedal controller for this function on the MkII MPK...
There are two alternative modes of keyboard operation you can choose between, and these are referred to as Mono and Poly. Now, you might think that means you can play the MPK either monophonically or polyphonically - you'd be wrong. In fact, both modes can cope only with monophonic operation, the difference between the two being that Mono mode gives priority to the highest note played at any one time, while Poly mode will only allow the first note you play to be heard: any other notes you might be treading on will remain inaudible until such time as you take your foot off the first note. But alas, the Mono/Poly selector switch is tucked away at the rear of the unit, so you're not going to get the chance to alter modes on stage without looking a complete dodo, I'm afraid.
Seeing as the live performance is one scenario where a pedal controller such as this should come into its own, I can't help thinking these are serious omissions that should have been taken into consideration long before the MPK even got off the drawing board, let alone into series production. Nonetheless, the Korg is a unique machine that could make a lot of people happy. After all, every keyboard player runs out of fingers sooner or later, and there must be hundreds of guitarists who'd like to extend their sonic vocabulary without having to sacrifice centre-stage position. Ladies and gentlemen, the MPK130 is for you.
RRP of the DW6000 is £1099, while the MPK130 retails at £459, both prices inclusive of VAT.
Further information from Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Dan Goldstein
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!