Korg PSS50 Programmable Super Section
A novel 'backing band in a box' comes under Paul White's critical gaze.
In what represents something of a break from most current electronic music hardware development, synthesiser giants Korg have come up with the Super Section, a programmable 'backing band in a box' comprising drums, bass and instrumental accompaniment. Paul White gives us his report.
Korg blimey, what will they think of next? The Korg PSS50 is the perfect gift for the musician who has everything - except a band.
Based on technology developed in the field of sequencers and the more sophisticated home organs, the PSS50 allows backing tracks to be built up from a bank of preset rhythms and fill-ins, whilst bass and accompaniment circuitry organises your choice of chords into its idea of a tasteful and sympathetic musical pastiche.
The percussion voices are generated using digital PCM techniques which produce tight and authentic drum sounds more closely resembling those of an acoustic kit than the familiar rhythm box, the computer allocating suitable voicings and accompaniment patterns depending on the rhythm chosen.
If you are dissatisfied with this Orwellian style of electronic dictatorship, you can programme up to 16 accompaniment patterns of your own choosing by assembling various parts of the existing patterns into new combinations. An entire backing track may be assembled and stored for future use, or the machine may be operated in real time by means of the one-octave, touch-sensitive keyboard.
The first thing that you notice about the PSS50 is its small physical size. Measuring a mere 310 x 210 x 50mm, this harmless looking plastic box weighs in at only 1.25kg, and that's including eight AA-type batteries. Styling is typically Japanese - very tasteful and incorporating plenty of LEDs and numeric indicators. Because of the complex nature of this type of instrument, most of the controls are dual function - and with a little cunning reprogramming, the internal computer would no doubt be capable of navigating a starship to Alpha Centauri, assuming the mains lead would reach.
The internal construction holds no surprises as one piece of computer circuitry looks very much like another, but it is thoughtfully engineered and tidily laid-out.
In terms of physical strength, the PSS50 would probably not take kindly to being dropped, but if it is treated with the same reverence as a multitrack cassette machine, it should survive OK.
All the switches on the front panel are of the touch-sensitive, calculator type and are concealed behind the flexible plastic facia which incorporates the one-octave keyboard, the numeric keypad, and all the parameter switches.
The rotary controls enable the various voicings to be balanced, the tempo to be adjusted and the master volume set. A six-way rotary selector doubles as both a power switch and a mode selector which is used to play or write arrangements.
Four numeric LED indicators are fitted at the top of the unit, these having different functions depending on the mode of operation - and a row of four LEDs labelled 'conductor' indicate the current position within a measure. A chart is also printed on the front panel to indicate the 40 preset backup patterns and eight break and ending patterns available. 16 further locations are indicated but left blank for the storage of user-modified patterns, and these are allocated numbers 71 to 88 inclusive.
To programme, a backing pattern is selected and then chords allocated to each half of each bar of the arrangements. The mode selector is set to write and the backing pattern is then invoked by inputting the column and row numbers from the front panel chart. For example, Disco 2 is column one, row eight and is therefore entered as 18. The desired chord is then stored, by pressing one or two buttons; for example, D minor seventh would be entered as D and m7 separately. When this has been done, the enter key is pressed and a click informs you that your offerings have been accepted.
If a drum fill is required in a particular bar, the rhythm fill-in button is also used before pressing enter, and the other measures within the song are built up in this way until the complete backing track is finished.
In the event of a mistake being made, the clear key may be used to step back half a bar so that the error can be corrected. When the song is complete, switching the mode selector to play enables the piece to be played, and up to eight separate songs may be stored. Further editing facilities allow stored songs to be modified or lengthened, but I won't go into too much detail here as this would entail reprinting great chunks of the manual, a compendious tome over 40 pages in total length...
A table in the aforesaid manual lists the various accompaniment voicings for each backing pattern, there being almost as many voices as there are patterns. All patterns consist of drums, (including handclaps), bass and accompaniment parts, the accompaniment voice being preset by the system (examples: banjo for 'Blue Grass' and distortion guitar for 'Heavy Metal').
As previously intimated, these patterns can be broken down and reassembled to form 16 new user-arrangeable patterns, so that, for instance, a waltz with heavy metal distorted guitar voicings can easily be brought into existence, if that's what you really want. The computer chooses not only voicing but also phrasing, all these being selected to be appropriate to whichever style of music corresponds to the basic rhythm, and some of them are surprisingly sophisticated.
If you want to play the unit in real time, the mode selector is set to play, so that the keyboard can be used to change the chords whilst the computer looks after the rhythm and the phrasing. Chords only change on the half-bar, so if you can play slightly ahead of yourself the music will always change in the right places, though this does take a bit of practice. There are eight modifications available to the major chord, ranging from the simple minor to the augmented, so there shouldn't be many occasions where the machine can't come up with appropriate chords, unless, of course, you're into something like obscure jazz.
A song chain is composed of steps, each step being selected from amongst the song memories. Up to 16 steps may be used within a song and, as a song memory holds up to 80 bars, the total possible chain length is 16 times 80, which is 1280 bars. When all 16 steps have been written, all four conductor LEDs illuminate to inform you that any subsequent offerings will be ignored due to lack of available memory.
When using the chain write mode, the last bar in the last step should be pattern number 61 or (without fill-in) 68. If you don't have a song number that meets these final step requirements, then one must be created.
This may sound complicated but, again, the manual contains all the relevant information and it all makes sense if you start at the beginning. Once programmed, the song memories can be dumped onto a standard cassette for posterity.
The basic drum unit is really very good, consisting as it does of bass drum, snare drum, toms, hi-hat, cymbals and handclaps. These voices are pre-panned to form a distinct stereo image.
A synth bass voicing is used throughout for all the bass parts, and this is a fairly bland, inoffensive sound that fits in reasonably well with most styles.
The accompaniment section is where the designers have really gone to town: the available voicings are extremely varied, while the stereo control being used to provide what appears subjectively to be a mild stereo chorus effect. There are, in fact, more voicings in this section than can practically be listed, but they include rock guitar, strings, brass and banjo, this last sounding rather like Earl Scruggs meets Vince Clarke at a home organ convention.
Most of the patterns are at least adequate and some have quite an interesting feel to them: particularly the Fusion section and the Boogie pattern which incorporates a pretty convincing bar room piano. By simply punching in a few jazzy chords, this setting produces an almost ad lib boogie piano piece and I would imagine this could become a popular pattern for jamming.
Other combinations worthy of note are Disco with it's clavinet preset, and Reggae 2, which incorporate a convincing 'cheap organ' accompaniment.
The Korg PSS50 is neither cheap nor particularly simple to use but, within the limitations imposed by its design philosophy, it does its job very well.
Of course, this genre of machine is not going to appeal to everybody, due mainly to its 'preset' style of operation; indeed, it could be said that its behaviour is rather akin to that of a sophisticated 'even the family pet can play it' home organ automatic accompaniment section, the main difference being the degree of programmability.
I can foresee great interest in this type of system coming from the cabaret or solo performer, but the storage limitation (only eight songs) may mean that for live use, the backing tracks could well end up being recorded on cassette and then replayed conventionally on a suitable machine. The serious music composer, on the other hand, may frown upon the way the PSS50 restricts him to having to use rhythm patterns and phrasing devised by someone else.
Programming is, I suspect, about as user friendly as is possible for a machine of this complexity, but it may appear daunting to some potential purchasers, especially if they are Country and Western guitarists whose only previous technical achievement has been fitting a set of strings...
No instrument can be all things to all people but, if you are prepared to have a proportion of your musical taste and artistic direction dictated to you by a machine in exchange for an easy life, then this new Korg invention could be just the thing.
The Super Section carries an RRP of £449 including VAT, and further information is available from the importers, Rose Morris, at (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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