Tony Mills toys with the latest Korgi and gets enthusiastic
Screams of frustration! Remember the time when hi-tech products used to last as much as a year before being superceded? Remember when you could show off your latest Mighty Wurlitzer without some upstart pulling a Casio out of his back pocket, flashing the (miniscule) sales invoice and blowing you off the stage? Those days are gone, long gone, and now manufacturers have gone one better than competing with each other – and started working on embarrassing their own products.
Now Korg aren't the only examples of this, but they've pulled off a classic demonstration of the art with the DW8000 and its predecessor, the DW6000. Anybody who bought a DW6000 at full whack when it first came out must be feeling well sick now, mates. And anyone who bought one at the final selling price the week before the 8000 was announced has good cause to be pleased with themselves because the DW6000 wasn't a bad little synth (particularly once it had reached the £700 area), but the DW8000 knocks it into the proverbial cocked hat and does the same for much of the opposition.
We're talking digital sound generation, velocity sensitivity, pressure sensitivity, full MIDI, a built-in arpeggiator and a built-in digital delay programmable for every patch. Now look at the shop prices and try to find anything comparable.
The DW8000 takes all the good points of the 6000, adds several more and only sticks a few quid onto the RRP in the process. The result is a tremendously versatile polysynth, capable of digital and analogue effects, powerful chord work and screaming lead lines. Let's take it apart bit by bit to see how the trick's done.
The 8000's sound generation system is based on that of the 6000, but predictably enough, it's somewhat expanded. The DW range uses Digital Waveforms permanently encoded in the machine as the basis of all the sounds produced. So instead of a Sawtooth, a Square and perhaps a Triangle wave to choose from, you have 16 waves, from a sine to a sawtooth via an inverted double sinewave, noise, multiple triangle, and so on. These waveforms are chosen to vaguely resemble the basic shapes of piano, brass and other sounds, although of course they're only building blocks which can be affected by the other facilities of the synth.
But basically, the DW system means that your starting point for each sound is rather thicker, richer and more complex than on conventional synths. If you could sweep along the table of 16 waveshapes automatically you'd almost have a PPG Wave 2 effect, which I'd guess the Japanese tried and discarded as being too obscure – a shame.
In fact you simply choose a waveshape for each oscillator bank, mixing waveshapes at will to produce very rich basic sounds. Changing parameters in this way is by the familiar digital access system – the same eight numbered keys select sound patches in Program mode and different sound parameters in Parameter mode, each mode having its own red dual LED display. A slider alters parameter values, which are shown on a green LED display, and there's also a pair of Value Up/Down buttons for more precise parameter editing.
So, if you want to sharpen up a sound a little, you could hit Parameter, then 22 for Oscillator Waveform, then select 03 on the value slider for a nice craggy wave. If you want to save that change, make sure the rear panel Memory Protect is Off, hit Write, then the number of the memory you want to save the sound into. Easy, yes?
Each bank of oscillators can be set to any of the 16 waveforms, and to pitches of 16', 8' or 4', and to any level from 0 to 31. Oscillator Bank 2 has an Interval parameter which sets it +1, -3, +3, +4 or +5 tones from Bank 1, and there's also a Fine Detune parameter for thickening sounds which works from Oto 6.
All easy enough so far, and it's important to point out that even the untreated oscillator sounds can be quite impressive. On to the filter section, which has Cutoff (0 to 63), Resonance (0 to 31), Keyboard Tracking (0, ¼, ½, 1), Polarity (+ or -) and Envelope Depth (0 to 31) parameters. Quite a conventional Korg filter, and powerful enough in an Eastern sort of way.
The VCF Envelope Generator does give some unusual possibilities when applied to the Filter though. Like the Envelope generator for the Amplifier, it has Attack, Decay, Break Point, Slope, Sustain, Release and Velocity Sense parameters. Some very complex shapes can be created, allowing the filter to hold open at odd points in the sound, or close down at varying rates, or whatever.
On to the LFO, which Korg continue to refer to as MG (Modulation Generator). Here we have four waveforms on show (triangle, positive and negative sawtooths, and square), speed variable from 0 to 31, a delay factor to make the modulation fade in gradually with each note, and a variable modulation depth for the oscillators and the filter.
There's an unusually large amount of control available in the pitch bend field too (good for prospective guitar imitators a la Jan Hammer); you can program the degree of bend from the left-hand joystick, set Up or Down Auto Bend on every note for one or both oscillator banks, and also bring in polyphonic portamento. Between these three parameters you can bend a note so much that it never gets anywhere!
On to the Korg's three special sections – the MIDI, Digital Delay and AfterTouch controls.
The MIDI section has four parameters, the first of which is Omni On/Off; in Omni On mode the DW8000 responds to MIDI information coming in on all 16 channels, and in Omni Off mode you go automatically to Poly Mode and can select any channel from 1 to 16 for MIDI response.
MIDI Enable decides whether the 8000 responds only to MIDI note information, or to more exotic stuff such as patch change, pitch bend and modulation. Arpeggio Clock selects a response rate for the arpeggiator, which we'll look at later. Rates available are sixteenth, eighth and quarter notes, with internal or external synchronisation.
AfterTouch has only four levels, from 0 to 3, and can be applied to the VCF, VCA or Modulation depth. It's great to find aftertouch on such a relatively inexpensive machine – only the DX7 has the facility for anything like the price – and the expression that can be brought to your playing is enormous. Lead lines can be modulated without needing an extra hand, strings and brass sounds can have vibrato added or the filter slowly opened according to individual playing technique, and so on.
Maybe just four levels of aftertouch sensitivity doesn't offer much variation, but basically you either want the effect to be available from the keyboard, or not. The bottom line is that it works well, and adds a whole new dimension to your playing.
Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, come the six digital delay parameters – Time (0 to 7), Factor (x0.5 to x1), Feedback (0 to 15), Modulation Frequency (0 to 31), Modulation Intensity (0 to 31) and Effect Level (0 to 15). This is a real digital delay hidden away inside the Korg, not simply a MIDI function which repeats notes. Effects range from Flanging (with some modulation sweep on very short delay times) to double tracking (with medium delay times) to long repeat echo (up to one second). You can set the effects level very high to swamp the synth sound in flanging or echo, or keep it down to subtly thicken a sound without being too obvious.
Many of the factory patches use the DDL facility to thicken sounds, while some of the lead lines are quite heavily echoed. But the DDL is not over-used by any means, and you can always add a little echo into any patch which lacks it.
Over on the left hand side of the control panel we start with a Bank Hold facility, which allows you to select sounds in a particular bank by punching just one number rather than two, and of course new patches can be selected via MIDI as well. There are four programmable Key Assign Modes – Poly 1, Poly 2, Unison 1 and Unison 2 – which can be chosen to suit the purpose of a particular sound. The Poly modes give slightly different methods of note assignment and release, while the Unison modes offer a powerful 'all oscillators' unison, or a thinner effect with a single pair of oscillators.
On to the arpeggiator. This feature has been absent from the last few major polysynth releases, but has always been good value for money in terms of the fun you can have with it – particularly with synchronisation facilities as advanced as those on the 8000. There's a slider which controls the arpeggiator speed (unless you're using external sync) and of course an Arpeggio On/Off switch. 'Latch' allows you to lock up an arpeggio so that it will play with 'hands off'.
The arpeggiator's Octave switch has three options marked with small LED's; One Octave (playing the arpeggio up and down exactly as you're holding it on the keyboard); Two Octaves, which doubles the range covered; and Full, which sounds the arpeggio in every octave available on the keyboard. Lastly, there's the very powerful Assign Mode, which arpeggiates notes in whatever order you hold them down, acting as a miniature monophonic sequencer.
Clock the arpeggiator from a drum machine, add a bit of digital delay and a couple of types of modulation, and you have a very powerful synth backing track.
In performance terms, the 8000's keyboard is unusually pleasant to the touch – it's weighted as well as sprung to make the most of the velocity and after-touch capabilities. It's difficult to see what's actually giving when you use the after touch (at least the whole keyboard doesn't bend as on the ARP or PPG touch-sensitives) but the facility is very easy to use. The keys are slightly heavier than those on a typical non-responsive synth, but not heavy enough to seriously slow you down during those 'see my fingers fly' solos.
Finally, the back panel of the 8000, which like all Korgs bristles generously with knobs and sockets. Some we've already mentioned – MIDI In, Out and Thru, and Write Enable. Next to these is a Tape Enable switch to allow you to build up a cassette library of your patches, followed by the To and From Tape minijack sockets, the latter with a level switch.
Next to these are three footswitch sockets, for Damper (release), Portamento and Program Up. Then a stereo headphones socket, and audio outputs (Left/Mono and Right with a level switch).
You certainly can't accuse Korg of being unconscientious, and all these rear panel options add immeasurably to the flexibility of the synth. By the way, the audio output's nice and clean, unlike some of the opposition. One small winge – the mains socket is of a non-standard, two-pin design, so if you lost your Korg mains lead you couldn't use one from another piece of equipment.
Another winge may well arise from those who prefer modulation and pitch bend wheels to a joystick, because the 8000 has – a joystick. Oscillator modulation Up, filter modulation Down, and pitch bend Left and Right. Joysticks take a little getting used to, but Korg seem committed to them and in combination with the pressure sensitivity this one gives lots of performance options.
The 8000's styling is nothing to write home about. Blue on grey isn't exactly eye-catching, but at least the synth seems well-built and relatively ergonomic (good word that – try to use it at least once a week). What isn't so ergonomic is the highly knockable front panel Fine Tune slider, although it's good to have a sliding control for output volume since it gives a better visual indication of what's going on than a rotary would.
Overall, though, the DW8000 is a massive success – the most impressive all-rounder for some time. There are few other synths which offer chord and leadline capability, velocity and aftertouch, decent MIDI and an arpeggiator, and none at all that offer a built-in DDL combined with the power of the 8000's digital waveshapes. A hit.
Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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