With its synthesizer-like voice editing functions, built-in stereo signal processing, 8-track sequencing and SMPTE sync options, can Korg's new top-of-the-line drum machine justify its title of rhythm workstation? Richard Aaron finds out.
It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later someone was bound to hang the tag 'workstation' on their latest all-singing, all-dancing drum machine. That it should be Korg, who have taken the plunge and christened their new S3 a 'Rhythm Workstation', is only fitting. It was they, after all, who first coined the term to describe their ground-breaking M1 synth some three years ago. Of course, with the word comes an implied level of sophistication — or perhaps self-containment — which automatically raises expectations of what features such a machine ought to provide and how well it should perform. My own background in percussion and rhythm programming means that I have very clear views on what I expect from a 'rhythm workstation', so it was with considerable interest that I sat down with the S3 to see how my expectations compared to those of the Korg R&D department.
At the heart of the S3 is a drum machine. Not, as Korg point out, just another drum machine — but a drum machine nevertheless. Its promotion to the status of rhythm workstation has come about not from some unprecedented pairing with, say, a sampler (a combination for which I've frequently argued the case), but by the decision to add the sort of facilities which would place it at the centre of a MIDI-controlled system rather than on the periphery, as has previously been the case. Thus, we find the S3 equipped with a multitrack sequencer capable of recording notes from external MIDI instruments (in addition to those it generates itself), its own digital effects processors, and an integral SMPTE timecode reader/writer for direct synchronisation to tape or other SMPTE compatible equipment. In other words, a drum machine as master rather than slave.
The S3 comes equipped with a host of other features, too — not forgetting its rather tasty (programmable) sounds — but we'll be returning to these in due course. For now, let's look at its physical attributes. Design-wise, matt black plastic is the order of the day; eight large touchpads, data entry wheel, multifunction buttons, slider level control — get the picture? But whilst the S3 certainly couldn't claim to represent a new departure in hi-tech design, it is a rather sleek instrument, logically laid out and quite elegant in a quiet, businesslike sort of way.
Rear panel facilities include slots for external ROM and RAM cards, MIDI In and two MIDI Out ports, four channel outputs plus a stereo pair, SMPTE timecode in and out jacks, two external footswitch jacks, headphone jack, and the power socket — supplied from an external 9V supply.
Like most hardware (and software) systems these days, the S3 relies on a series of 'pages', each with its own menu outlining its principal functions. Change the page, and you change the operation of the Menu keys with which you adjust the parameters presented to you within the 2-line, 24-character liquid crystal display (LCD). Data entry is via increment/decrement keys or the Data Entry dial; holding down the Shift key whilst adjusting either of these speeds up the rate of change by a factor of 10.
Along the mid section of the S3 we find the Transport controls and the Mode keys. The Transport controls are laid out to resemble those on a tape recorder. Indeed, it is of great help when using the S3 to think of these keys in precisely that way. You can start, stop, pause, record, fast forward and rewind just as if you were spooling magnetic tape past the heads of a tape machine. The Locate facility helps complete the illusion; the difference here is, you can jump instantly to the cue points or markers you've set up within a song, simply by hitting one of the touchpads. As you may have guessed, this function is also used to establish punch-in and punch-out points in a song when dropping into record mode.
In amongst the Transport controls you'll find a key which, when switched to 'Pad Bank', allows you to select between two banks of percussion voices assigned to the touchpads and, when switched to 'Tempo', calls the requisite parameter on to the screen for editing. There's also a tri-colour LED to let you know the sequencer is running, pausing, ready to record, or recording — this is in addition to a down beat indicator located just to the right of the main LCD screen.
The four Mode keys are somewhat different to the other buttons on the S3 in as much as they are transparent and feature an integral LED which glows either red or green, depending on the key's status. They are responsible for accessing the four main modes on the S3 — Pattern, Song, Instrument, and Global. The keys for the first two, Pattern and Song, toggle between Play/Record mode and Edit mode. The third, Instrument, toggles between Timbre edit and Kit edit, whilst the fourth, Global, toggles between MIDI edit and System edit.
The instrument touchpads along the bottom of the unit are rather noisy in operation, but this is largely to do with the fact that there is a considerable amount of travel in the buttons. They are touch-sensitive and, though only eight in number, can be switched between two percussion banks, A and B. Unlike many previous drum machines they are not, I'm pleased to say, labelled with the name of a 'default' instrument — a practice which can be quite confusing if, like me, you regularly find yourself reassigning instruments to different pads.
Such details aside, there's really not that much physically to distinguish the S3 from any other drum machine/sequencer produced in the last couple of years. But appearances can be deceptive, so let's take a closer look at what goes on inside...
Every drum machine or sequencer has its own hierarchy of patterns, tracks, songs etc. which has to be learned and understood before programming can commence, and the S3 is no exception. Indeed, its capacity for recording data from external MIDI instruments makes it a rather more complex machine than most, and in this respect the S3 can be a little daunting at first glance. Certainly, potential users are going to have to resign themselves to a few hours (or even days) with the instruction manual if they are ever to maximise the S3's potential.
The first thing that needs to be understood is how the S3 organises its recording Tracks. There are eight in all, made up of four Pattern Tracks and four Song Tracks. Under normal circumstances, Tracks of either type are paired together — Pattern Track 1 with Song Track 5, Pattern Track 2 with Song Track 6. etc — and have a drum Kit assigned to them (we'll be looking at these later on). Broadly speaking, Pattern Tracks on the S3 equate to Song Tracks on conventional drum machines, in as much as they are made up of individual rhythm patterns programmed in step-time or real-time and chained end to end. The S3's Song Tracks, however, more closely resemble the audio tracks on a tape recorder: they can only be recorded in real time, and are used for overdubbing and dropping in over your 'guide' track, which would generally consist of regularly repeated Patterns or Pattern sequences. Because they run in 'parallel', Pattern Tracks must, by necessity, be of the same duration, and to that extent have to be regarded as being grouped together. However, they can each be assigned to different MIDI channels and drum Kits — a Pattern recorded across all four available Tracks, for example, is able to play up to four Kits on each one of them. Also, though I said earlier that Song and Pattern Tracks were, under normal circumstances, paired together, this is by no means a necessity. The standard configuration may be changed to allow the Song Tracks to play external devices, such as synths and samplers, each on a separate MIDI channel. Thus, the S3 is capable of functioning as an integrated 8-track sequencer.
All of the above would be of little use if the S3's programming and editing facilities were not up to scratch. Happily, I have to report that this is emphatically not the case; after spending quite some time in the company of the S3, I can only conclude that stones have not been left unturned in making this a machine which in no way restricts your creativity, and in most respects, makes life that much easier for the committed rhythm programmer.
As you'd expect, Patterns may be inserted, deleted, repeated, copied and appended etc, but there is a wide range of other facilities which take the S3 well beyond anything normally associated with beat box programming. The Velocity Edit page, for example, allows you to shift up or down (by a predetermined amount) the velocity of all the notes within a track, within all the tracks, or within a particular group of tracks. Velocity Compression, on the other hand, is used to lower the overall dynamic, whilst Velocity Expansion is used to broaden it. You can also transpose tracks by +/- two octaves, in semitone steps, though this would only be of use with tuned percussion sounds or melodic instruments such as the bass.
Inevitably on a machine which may be programmed in real time, a Quantise function has been included, but in comparison with some of the 'intelligent' systems designed for sequencers these days (particularly in software form), its performance is rather lacklustre. It isn't simply an on or off function, but quantise level is expressed in straightforward percentage terms, with none of the subtleties of feel you find on Cubase or Notator, for example. Talking of feel, the S3 does have a Swing function. Though triplet patterns can be written into the machine directly, this can often be confusing if you're not familiar with them — particularly when programming in real time. Having it made as simple as this does encourage you to experiment a little more — especially as swing can be introduced into a rhythm at a controlled level, from 50% to 88%. Like the Quantise function, however, its effects cannot be undone, so if you're not sure how it's likely to turn out, you'll need to make a copy of the Pattern first or make sure you still have the original on disk (Pattern dumps via MIDI are possible on the S3) or saved to RAM.
Speaking of which, the existence of RAM and ROM card slots on the rear panel, which can load Pattern and Song data virtually instantaneously, means that the S3 is not nearly so dependent on its internal memory reserves. However, it is certainly no slouch in this area and can accommodate 30 Songs assembled from 100 Patterns at any one time. And given that RAM cards, like ROMs, come as rather expensive optional extras, this will be welcome news I'm sure.
No matter how sophisticated the operating system, a drum machine lives or dies by the sounds it creates, and the same has to be true of a rhythm workstation. It is in this department that Korg score what I believe to be a first in drum machine technology by offering full editing facilities of its onboard voices. At the heart of it all is what Korg refer to as their 'Sonic Integrity' sound synthesis system which, to quote the manual, "...combines the latest in 16-bit PCM sampling techniques with the same advanced editing capabilities found on samplers and synthesizers". A total of 75 internal and two banks of 40 ROM-based waveforms provide the basic building blocks which go to make up each of the S3's voices — or Timbres as Korg prefer to call them. These include the various drum head and shell sounds which combine to form the bass drum, snare, and tom-tom voices as well as cymbal, Latin and conventional percussion instruments, synthesized bass and other 'melodic' sounds which the S3 is capable of recreating.
It is in the combining and treatment of these waveforms that the S3 comes to resemble a conventional synthesizer (if there is such an instrument). However, though the basic palette of waveforms you have to work from is extremely broad, the range of treatments to which they may be subjected on their way to becoming Timbres is fairly modest. First and foremost is the application of an amplitude envelope to shape the level of the waveforms with respect to time. This works in the conventional way with envelopes definable at up to eight individual points in the attack, decay, sustain, release cycle. All editing is performed within the Envelope edit page, and here you will also find provision for switching a Sustain function on or off, which determines whether or not the S3 acts upon the receipt of a Note-Off message from the touchpad or external MIDI key. There is also, incidentally, a facility for reverse playback of any of the internal waveforms — useful for creating special effects.
After setting up an envelope, a degree of automatic pitch bend may then be applied to the waveform(s) in order to accurately recreate instruments such as the tom-toms and cymbals. In the 'acoustic' world, the degree of pitch bend, though seldom noticeable, is actually quite dramatic — as you will realise if you try to achieve a convincing tom-tom voice without it. The S3 provides a generous three octaves of deviation in either direction and it is also possible to adjust the speed at which it occurs. From pitch bend, we move to our final programming option — modulation. Here we are given a choice of five modulation sources — Pitch Bender, Modulation Wheel, Note Number, Velocity and Pressure — for sending MIDI data to a total of seven destinations: Pitch, Level, Attack Level, Attack Rate, Decay Rate, Pitch Bend, and Pitch Bend Rate. Not every source/destination combination is possible, but there are a total of 14 available in the Modulation page and these cover all of the 'sensible' options.
Once assembled, our chosen waveforms and their treatments take on the status of Timbres and can be tuned in semitones (or smaller units referred to as 'cents'), panned to any position within the stereo field or assigned to one of the four multi-out jacks on the rear panel. Two banks of 80 Timbres may be resident in the S3 at any one time. The first, Bank A is factory preset and cannot be edited, but the second. Bank B, is assembled from user-programmed Timbres and may be stored (and, of course, loaded) via RAM. It is from this array of 160 Timbres that we make our selection of the voices we wish to comprise each 'Kit'.
On the S3, a Kit is defined as a set of (up to 16) instruments made up of one or two Timbres. These may be played by striking the touchpads, by triggering them with the on-board sequencer, or from an external MIDI device. For convenience sake, each Kit is given a name and may be assembled, along with nine of its brethren, within the user-programmable 'Int' bank (and stored on the RAM card) — a further 10 Kits being factory programmed (and therefore not available for editing) in the 'Pre' bank. The fact that each instrument in a Kit may be composed of up to two individual Timbres, to which a different touch response curve may be assigned, opens up a wealth of playing options and also the possibility of creating the sort of effects which (to my knowledge) have only previously been available on top-flight electronic kits such as the Simmons SDX. These include Timbre Switching, where the pad (or key) switches to a second Timbre if struck over and above a threshold velocity; Cross Fading, where a velocity-controlled fade out of one Timbre coincides with the fade in of the other; and Timbre Window, where a second Timbre may be added to the first if the pad is struck at or near a predetermined threshold.
Though the precedent for including self-contained signal processors in synths and portastudios was established some time ago, the S3 (to the best of my knowledge) is the first example of a drum machine being equipped with its own built-in effects. This is despite the fact that percussion voices are rarely recorded without at least a touch of reverb these days, and that gated and delay effects are frequently used to enliven otherwise unremarkable rhythm tracks. Clearly, the need for a programmable effects unit dedicated to percussion voices has long been felt, and Korg can only be congratulated for being the first to deliver the goods. They should be even more warmly praised for having the good sense to realise that a single processor would be in no way sufficient for a sophisticated drum machine (let alone one which bears the proud title of 'Workstation'), and have therefore included two signal processors, each with fully programmable left and right channels making it possible to use two stereo or four mono effects simultaneously.
A total of 28 effects are provided, including Hall and Room reverbs, Early Reflections, Delay, Chorus, Flanging, Phasing, Tremolo, Exciter, and EQ. Up to 16 programs may be stored, each comprising two effects, their send and output routings, and the pan settings (the effects are only available at the stereo output pair). Editing takes place within the Effects page, and whilst space prevents me from listing them, the range of adjustable parameters is very comprehensive and certainly the equal of most dedicated signal processors. But when you think about it, this is perhaps not without good reason. Because the S3 is primarily a machine used to produce rhythm patterns, having a processor which can be programmed to meet their timing requirements becomes essential. On the S3, there's no question of tempos not fitting in with echo repeat cycles or modulation speeds; effects may be tailored to fit a rhythm perfectly. And, of course, because your S3 rhythm tracks have their own effects processors, any existing effects units can be moved to less demanding tasks.
As comprehensive as the facilities are on the S3, there comes a time when it has to communicate with the outside world and inevitably, being a drum machine, one of the first considerations is how it synchronises to tape and/or to other sequencers. As far as tape is concerned, the S3 goes for the 'professional' option in the shape of a SMPTE read/write generator — which, briefly, means it stays in sync with the tape, irrespective of your starting position within a song. Use of the SMPTE function straddles two pages on the S3: the Time Code Generate page, where commands are entered for sending the code to tape, and the Clock page, where the frame rate is established (the S3 caters for all four standard rates) and the clock source chosen.
In addition to SMPTE, two other clocks sources may be selected here: internal clock, used for stand-alone operation or where the S3 acts as the controller (via MIDI) to a slave device such as a sequencer or second drum machine; external MIDI clock, where the S3 itself becomes the slave device. The S3 does support MIDI Time Code song position messages, so, providing these are sent or recognised by your other MIDI device(s), syncing the two together should mean they keep track of each other no matter where you are in a particular song.
In addition to its extensive synchronisation options, the S3's MIDI implementation provides an enormous range of data transmit and receive functions, which should ensure the S3 is well placed at the centre of any MIDI setup. This is reflected in its ability to record and replay MIDI events from external sources (as well as those generated from within) and also its secondary role as a sound source for external MIDI devices. There are, for example, programmable input filters to prevent unwanted data being recorded by the sequencer, or triggering the internal voices, whilst admitting data which is required. It is possible, also, to reconfigure one or both of the MIDI Out ports as MIDI Thrus and select whether or not they transmit internal clock or MTC data. (During implementation of this latter option, no other MIDI data can be sent.)
A page is also provided for defining a Global channel on which the S3 receives Program Change messages for selection of its internal effects and for the sending and receiving of System Exclusive messages. There are quite a number of these: a result, primarily, of there being a considerable range of dump options by which the S3 can offload its data to disk (in addition to storage on the RAM card). Using a MIDI data recorder, it is possible to store and recall individual or all Timbre data, individual or all Kit data, Pattern, Song or all Sequencer data, Global data — or the entire Timbre, Kit, Sequencer, Global data contained within the S3 at any one time.
Our final area of investigation takes place in what is termed the System mode. Here you will find a range of utilities designed to make the S3 a more 'playable' instrument. It is here, for example, that you are given access to the parameters associated with the touchpads: it is possible to adjust the overall sensitivity of the pads and also their response curves (another drum machine first?). For those occasions when you're programming tuned percussion or melodic bass voices, the pads can be arranged to provide a major or chromatic scale of eight notes beginning at a predetermined pitch — leaving you to play the S3 like a conventional keyboard.
Tuning of the whole instrument also takes place in System mode, as does selection of the S3's built-in metronome — or the MIDI channel on which an external device may provide the same function. Purpose-made rolls and flams also start life here: roll resolutions of 1/32nd note and 1/32nd note triplets are possible, with flams programmable at volume ratios of up to 1:32 and spacings of between 1 and 10 — ie. from 'barely perceptible' to 'almost too much'.
Still within System mode, the Foot Switch page allows you to select the function associated with each of the two footswitches from a list which includes Start/Stop — Restart, Start/Stop — Continue, Bank Select, Touchpad Stroke (allowing the footswitch to mimic the action of a bass drum or hi-hat pedal), and Touchpad Disable. This clearly is a very useful feature, which makes the S3 far more attractive as a live performance instrument.
The S3 is not the kind of instrument to be given a brief summing up. My feelings about the machine were split right down the middle, and I think it only fair that I share them with you and let you make up your own mind.
First of all, let's look at what the S3 is. In so far as it combines the functions of a number of pieces of equipment which previously have not been brought together in a single box, the S3 most certainly qualifies as a 'workstation'. It would sit quite happily at the heart of most MIDI setups and provide sophisticated control over most of the equipment which surrounded it. Its on-board sequencer is both versatile and powerful and, used to its full potential, effectively removes that very arbitrary line between rhythmic and melodic programming.
The S3 is without doubt the most well-specified drum machine I have yet encountered. I can't think of a single rhythmically useful function that it could not accomplish with considerable ease. Sonically, it is similarly difficult to fault; the programmability and sheer range of voices puts the S3 in a different league to most other drum machines. Attempting to describe its overall sound becomes a major problem — there is no overall sound. Within limits, you can make the S3 sound just as you wish — powerful, subtle, contemporary, versatile — it's up to the programmer. Add to this the potential opened up by the built-in effects and the extra ROM cards, and I think you'd have to agree this is an instrument you will not soon outgrow.
However, despite the fact that I am engaged for the greater part of my time in putting rhythm tracks together, and could exploit the S3's potential to the full, I cannot ever see it being on my shopping list. Why? Well, like most people who could warrant the outlay, I already own a sequencer which can eclipse anything the S3 is capable of — as good as it is. Similarly, I already have a SMPTE sync unit and my sequencer sends out MIDI Time Code, so I've no problem syncing to other MIDI devices. Having two effects processors dedicated to rhythm tracks would be useful, but it would make more sense to buy units which I could use with other instruments should the need arise (the S3's effects processors cannot be used by external instruments). In fact, all things considered, the only thing I personally would be buying an S3 for would be its percussion voices.
Having said that, there is a category of musicians for whom the Korg S3 would be the answer to a prayer. Any drummer or percussionist looking to get involved in electronics could not fail to be impressed with it. At a stroke, the S3 will provide him with a vast range of contemporary percussion voices, give him access to two effects processors, lay down drum tracks which he can play over, or supply a click track that is synchronised to the band's sequencer to keep him in time. He could also use the S3 to experiment with rhythmic ideas before sitting down at his kit, and to record any new ideas he emerges with. It will happily adopt the role of surrogate bass player, and even allow him to experiment with melodic voices on his kit. Now that's what you call a workstation!
Anyone outside this category has got some serious thinking to do, I'm afraid. If you already own a MIDI-based setup, the chances are that it will include a sequencer, effects processor, and some sort of tape sync. That being so, buying an S3 really wouldn't make a lot of sense. If you haven't already invested in that sort of gear and your work has a strong rhythmic orientation, I can honestly say that the Korg S3 would be an investment you wouldn't regret. As far as anyone else is concerned. I'm just glad I've reached the end of the page and can leave you to make up your own mind...
£899 inc VAT.
Korg UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Richard Aaron
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