Korg Poly 800 Synthesiser
Korgs latest fully programmable polyphonic synthesiser, with digital sequencer, and MIDI.
Hard to believe though it may seem, it's actually less than a year since the PR people at Korg announced the Poly 61 synthesiser onto an unsuspecting public. It set a trend among poly-synths that has since been followed by Roland (the JX-3P), Yamaha (the DX series), and, more expensively, Rhodes (the Chroma and Polaris), in that it was the first such instrument to utilise digital setting of parameters to cut the number of mechanical controls down to a minimum in order to reduce parts costs and increase portability considerably. It was also Korg's first - and, from a sonic point of view, very successful - foray into the world of digitally controlled oscillators.
The Poly 800 continues along both these paths, and in the former case has taken the ultimate course in doing away with almost all mechanical controls save for three slider potentiometers, one rotary one, a score or so touch-switches, and a performance joystick. All these are located at the instrument's top lefthand corner, with the schematic of programmable parameters printed on the right, as on the Poly 61. However, the Poly 800 is rather better endowed in this department than its senior stable-mate, in that almost every conceivable parameter known to synthesists can be fiddled with, including the built-in Chorus unit, Break Point and Slope (in addition to ADSR) on each of the Digital Envelope Generators (of which more anon), and control over MIDI in/out.
Altering preset values of parameters is accomplished in much the same way as on the Poly 61, by pressing the 'Prog/Para' switch and changing values via the Down and Up switches just to the right. Storing settings in memory is accomplished with the red Write button, slightly further to the right.
In the oscillator department, the 800 goes one better than the 61 in offering two per note in the context of eight-note polyphony as opposed to six-note, making sixteen oscillators in toto. However, both DCOs offer a choice of only square or sawtooth waveforms and a choice of three octave ranges, and this in fact proves to be something of a limiting factor when it comes to the instrument's sonic versatility. For while the synth can quite willingly reproduce a myriad variations on the brass/organ/strings theme, radically different sounds are difficult to achieve, largely due to this lack of versatility at source.
On the credit side, however, there are no fewer than three envelope generators, one for each oscillator bank and one for the VCF and Noise. Not only do these facilitate control at six points along the envelope instead of the more usual four, but the fine degree of control available for each parameter (31 steps) results in easily the most versatile EG section the right side of £1000.
As well as the Chorus unit mentioned above (which is quite comfortably Korg's quietest circuit to date, incidentally, even though its variability is nil), the Poly 800 also boasts a digital fully polyphonic sequencer of 256-step storage capacity. This can only be programmed in step-time from the control-panel (I think it's safe to say that real-time programming would not have been feasible at this price level) and it is of course possible to clock the sequencer externally via the MIDI out.
The keyboard itself is only four octaves in length, with a light but positive action that's typically Korg. Whereas on most instruments of this sort I would have expected a limitation such as this to be fairly serious (even the Poly 61 had five octaves), in practice there were few occasions when I wished for greater extension during performance. The joystick control is quite a versatile one, seeing that it's capable of modulating pitch, DCO and VCF.
The Poly 800 comes complete with factory sounds loaded into its fifty memories (these are also stored on a supplied cassette), but a lot of these are a bit disappointing and don't really make full use of the synthesiser's capabilities, while those sounds that are given names similar or identical to the factory settings on the Poly 61 are rarely as good as their forebears.
When it comes to programming your own sounds, the first problem that becomes apparent (once the waveform limitations have been negotiated) is the provision of only one filter for all oscillators. The upshot of this is that no note can be triggered individually without any held notes being re-triggered also.
It's an effect that can be quite fun at first but it rapidly becomes fatiguing and eventually annoying. I realise that such an economy is probably necessary if the Poly 800 is to be the price breakthrough it's intended to be, but I still can't help thinking that the money spent on providing three envelope generators might have been better spent a little closer to the source of the sound-generation chain.
Still, these gripes can't detract from the fact that what the Korg sets out to do, it does well. The system of programming is ridiculously easy to master regardless of whether or not you've had previous experience of synths with digital control, and if you take your time programming the parameters - particularly the VCF and Modulation Generator - the Korg will reward your labours with some fine, full-bodied poly sounds, equally effective whether you regard it principally as a lead or a backing instrument.
Undoubtedly, the 800's makers have been able to save considerable sums in constructional economies. This isn't to say that the keyboard is poorly built - far from it - but in comparison with most other pro instruments, including some of Korg's own, the Poly 800 is a real featherweight. The scarcity of mechanical controls has already been mentioned, and those that do exist are small and light, saving further on production costs. The review sample was perfectly put-together with no faults that I could see, and my only worry is that the 800 may not stand up all that well to the pressures of road use. Digital control is not in any case a particularly convenient way of using a keyboard in a live situation, and it's no understatement to say that the Korg's frailty may well pose problems if the machine is treated to an extended bout of touring.
To take advantage of the Poly 800's enormous portability (it weighs no more than an average large Casiotone, and is extremely compact to boot), Korg have given it a battery supply, six 'C'-type batteries being housed in a sliding cover on the synth's underside. The only problem here is that the instrument seems capable of consuming these at a fantastic rate, even a set of new Duracells lasting little more than six hours of continuous use. To be honest, I'm not altogether sure why Korg have included this particular facility since no built-in amplifiers or speakers are provided, and although there is a standard quarter-inch headphone jack, this is rather inconveniently located at the rear panel.
Accompanying it are the socket for a 9V mains supply, stereo main outputs, connections for sequencer and program tape-dumping, plus DIN sockets for MIDI in and out. This is of course one of the Poly 800's star features, since it is now comfortably the cheapest professional keyboard so-equipped, and this fact alone should win the instrument a lot of friends.
While it's always dangerous to say that anything is a revolutionary instrument, there's no doubt in my mind that the arrival of the Poly 800 is going to cause some widespread and far-reaching changes in the professional keyboard market. We've already heard rumours of competing products being developed as you read this, but as it stands now, and bearing in mind the slight shortcomings illustrated above, it's and extremely impressive piece of equipment.
If you can live with the fact that it's unlikely to stand up all that well to live abuse and aren't too fussy about the sound details already mentioned, the mere fact that a polyphonic, programmable sequencer- and MIDI-equipped keyboard can be bought for what was monosynth territory little more than two years ago is going to make the Poly 800 very, very hard to beat.
The Korg Poly 800 carries a recommended retail price of £635 including VAT, and the importers, Rose-Morris, of (Contact Details) should be able to provide you with any further information. Alternatively, you can contact them by telephone on (Contact Details).
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