Korg Poly 800 II
For those of you who were never formally introduced to the original Poly 800, let us set the scene. The battery powered, shoulder slung synth created a well deserved stir in 84/85, principally down to the wide selection of analogue features it offered.
At a budget price you would usually associate with a home keyboard - all presets and drum patterns - it offered genuine oscillators, filter, programmability, onboard sequencer, chorus, MIDI, joystick, white noise, and more.
Once you got deeper into the 800, it became obvious that a few careful economies had been made in order to hit the price target. Although boasting two banks of oscillators, they could only produce a maximum of eight notes. If you wanted double oscillator sounds, you were reduced to four note polyphony. And there was only one filter, not eight, so you had to make the choice of single or multiple triggering. With single triggering, you'd play a chord and the filter would run through its proper attack pattern, but wouldn't fire again unless you took all your fingers off the keys. Attempting to hold down one bass note and solo over the top produced sounds that were at the end of the filter's envelope - the soft, muted, sustained part of the sound, not the initial 'wang'. Multiple triggering would give you a freshly fired filter each time a new note was depressed. The drawback here was that all the other notes, you were holding would also sound out again, even though you hadn't struck the keys.
Some players used to more expensive polyphonics found this a restrictive practice which limited the variety of sounds available on the 800. Other's barely noticed, or said it actually helped them come up with new rhythms. Either way the 800 was an undeniable bargain, and even broke ground in its introduction of ADBSSR envelope generators - foul initials but a great idea. As well as the standard Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release settings there were Break point and Slope. These came into operation during the Sustain section, when the synth had been through its initial attack and decay and dropped to a fixed level, while your fingers were still pressing down the keys. A second set of drops or lifts in the filter or volume could now be programmed. This created a handsome array of building and fading sounds, and when the 800 was in double oscillator mode, it could create changing sounds that machines twice the the price had problems matching. That was its strength.
But after several months on top, along came the Casio CZ-101, also with dual oscillators, a low price and many facilities, but this time bearing the buzz word 'digital', and the 800 was knocked off its throne.
Which leads us to the 800 mk II.
It has everything which made the original great. But with one substantial exception, it has little else.
There are still eight oscillators and one filter. The features offered in terms of waveforms are identical. The control layout is unchanged. Indeed if it wasn't for the different order in the list of parameters printed on the front, and the 'II' behind the 800, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart.
The exception, however, is a big one - a digital delay in place of the chorus. With a maximum delay time of 1024 ms, and all the parameters of time, feedback, etc, individually programmable for each patch, it makes a powerful addition. The inclusion of a modulation section allows you to squeeze chorus, and a subdued form of flanging out of the device as well. Apart from the obvious grand canyon echos, the delay can do much more in a subtle way to greatly enhance the sound of the 800 II. Very short, slapback echos will roughen up chiffs of white noise to make them raw and thunderous. Deep modulation and a low effect level launches a voice into its own hallucinogenic soup. And each sound can be given its unique style of echo, called up as part of the program. Brilliant live, versatile in the studio.
Tacked to the end of the delay is a simple, two stage, programmable EQ section, cutting or boosting treble and bass. Again, more effective than you might think in varying the sonic possibilities.
Now for those bits in common with the 800. Programming is by parameter control, tapping in the desired figures on slim, grey buttons numbered 1 to 8. These will either call up the 64 patches, or by selecting the Program/Parameter button, dial in the function to be changed. For example, 31 requests the filter cutoff, and you step up or down through its value (0-99) by two larger incrementing buttons.
A joystick handles pitch bend to left and right, and modulation when moved up (DCO) or down (VCF). The amount of pitch bend is set by a slider so you can be sure to hit a fifth, say, when the joystick is banged hard up against the edge of its housing.
Korg say that one backroom improvement has been a change in the Digital Envelope Generators from a linear to an exponential curve. This should give a more aggressive set of envelopes, and there are some noticeable differences here, between the original and the mark II.
If the oscillators have a shortcoming, it's in the limited choice of fundamental waveforms. There are just two, square and sawtooth, although you can mix up to four octaves worth of each. This may not alter the basic shape, but it does twist the timbre for some additional variety. When the 800 II's oscillators are in the single mode (all eight notes), only DCO1 and DEG1 are open for business. When doubled, the parameters for the other two sections DCO1 and DEG2 come into play.
The 800 II's sequencer is step time, the pitch of a note being entered by holding down a key, and its duration inputted by pressing the step button once for each 16th beat you want it to last. It can be long winded, but it will store chords, and sequences can be dumped onto tape along with libraries of patches. The memory has been expanded to offer 1000 notes instead of the original is 250.
A distinctive sounding synth, and a worthy candidate for someone considering a first buy in analogue polys. It scores well on unusual and constantly moving atmospheric sounds, helped by the echo. An excellent addition. The 800 II is bright and clear, and the EQ assists in getting the toppy, piano tones through. And don't forget the two strap buttons for on stage leaping about. Less convincing, perhaps, in the area of hard, gutsy solo patches.
But could Korg have done more?: One substantial addition and a few internal tweaks is not a vast amount considering the upheavals elsewhere in synth and drum machine technology, over the last year. Extra filters, a real time sequencer and more oscillators would have had the 800 II leapfrogging its rivals. But perhaps they don't need to. After all it is £40 cheaper than the launch price of its father.