Korg S3 (Part 2)
In the final part of this review, Korg's new Rhythm Workstation reveals the secrets of its sequencing and fx-processing. Simon Trask looks at the future of the beatbox.
Korg's M1 Music Workstation helped redefine what a modern keyboard could be; can their S3 Rhythm Workstation do the same for the humble beatbox?
IT WOULD PROBABLY be fair to say that Korg's M1 Music Workstation represented the popular (commercial?) acceptance of the workstation. And while it would also be true to point out that the M1 had its shortcomings, it would certainly be true to say that the instrument represented a huge success for Korg and a popular choice for many musicians.
What, then, of the company's new S3 Rhythm Workstation - a combined drum machine, sequencer and effects processor? Last month, in the first of this two-part review, we looked at the architecture and sounds of the S3; this month we turn our attention to sequencing and effects - and try to come to some conclusions about the instrument.
THE S3 CAN store up to 100 Patterns, each of which can be anything from 1-99 bars long. Each S3 Pattern consists of four tracks (Pattern tracks 1-4), each of which can be assigned its own Kit and can transmit and receive on its own MIDI channel. Individual Patterns can also be assigned their own Effect program.
As already mentioned, a track needn't only play internal sounds and needn't be confined to playing drum parts - you can just as easily loop a bassline or a sequence of piano chords played on an external instrument via MIDI, so depending on how many parts you want to record it's possible to build up a piece of music using only the four Pattern tracks and the Arrange Pattern chain in Song mode.
The S3 allows you to record into one Pattern track at a time. Pattern recording follows the typical drum-machine model, in that the S3 loops in overdub record mode and allows you to delete the input from particular pad(s) in real time by holding down the S1 soft function button together with the relevant pad(s). Less typically, you can specify an initial count-in, a welcome feature (though the maximum eight bars seems a little over-generous).
You can introduce rolls and flams into your patterns by holding down the S2 and S3 buttons respectively and playing the relevant pads. The parameters governing these effects are set globally in System mode.
A time signature (1-8 numerator and 4, 8, 16 or 32 denominator) can be specified for each Pattern together with a record quantise amount (1/4 - 1/32 triplet or High/no quantise). The S3's maximum record resolution is 192ppqn.
Pattern editing functions include track transposition (±24 semitones), velocity edit (shift, compress, expand), track swing, track erase (specific types of MIDI data, including single or all notes), pattern clear, post quantise (including percentage scaling - degree of quantise), pattern copy, and track copy/merge (within a pattern, but sadly not between patterns). A range function allows you to specify a particular section of a Pattern track for recording, playback and editing. As an example, you can copy a section of a Pattern (tracks 1-4 or individual tracks) to itself, which effectively allows you to keep part of a pattern which you like and get rid of the rest.
If you press the Pause button during real-time pattern record, the S3 switches into step-time record. You can now enter chords and individual notes off the drum pads, automatically advancing to the next step when the last note is released. The S3 offers a choice of nine step sizes, ranging from a quarter note to an individual 1/192 tick for precision timing. Additionally each step can be given a gate time of 50, 80 or 100% of the step length.
"The S3 has the potential to play a much wider range of sounds - via ROM PCM sample cards, than its 'drum machine' tag might suggest."
BEFORE YOU CAN record the continuous tracks 5-8 within a Song you must first create an Arrange Pattern chain. This effectively creates tracks 1-4 running in parallel with the Song tracks. The chain can consist of up to 250 steps, with each step being either a Pattern, a Pattern Repeat command (2-99) or a Kit change. There's a practical limit of 999 bars per Song. It's also possible to chain Songs together, but there's no means of inserting a Pause between them.
There are two forms of Song track recording: Normal and Punch in/out. Normal recording can only begin from bar one, so to record from any other position in the Song you first need to preset your punch in/out points for an automatic drop-in and drop-out. This can become tedious if you want to record sectionally, or just go back over a mistake. However, the six user-definable Locate points which the S3 allows you to set up can make life easier - once you work out how to set up and utilise them.
Individual Song tracks can be delayed (up to a quarter note, in 1/192 tick increments), while other functions, such as track quantise, transpose, velocity-edit and erase, provide the same edit facilities as are available for the Pattern tracks, complete with edit range specified by the Song Range page. Additionally, you can insert, copy or merge a section of one Song track into the same or another Song track. Step-time recording isn't available for the Song tracks, but then any step-time recording you want to do can be quite reasonably confined to the Pattern tracks.
At this point it's worth considering what you can practically do within the constraints of the S3's memory. The drum machine allocates 33,600 bytes of internal RAM for recording Patterns and Songs. The Free Memory page in System mode tells you how many bytes of memory you've used at any given moment, and also allows you to gain some idea of how memory is used up. For instance, the S3 requires a certain number of bytes just to create each Pattern. A one-bar 4/4 blank Pattern uses up 74 bytes, a two-bar 4/4 blank Pattern uses up 106 bytes, and a 16-bar 4/4 blank Pattern uses up 554 bytes. Consequently, 100 4/4 blank Patterns require 7400 bytes, leaving 26,200 bytes for the notes - or 262 bytes per Pattern. A pad hit within a Pattern uses up four bytes, which means that for 100 Patterns you have an even distribution of 65 pad hits per Pattern (across all four Pattern tracks), with 200 bytes left over in total.
Of course, that's without recording any other MIDI data or getting into Song mode. Just Making a Song uses up 147 bytes. Each step in an Arrange Pattern chain uses up two bytes (so it saves on memory to use a Repeat step wherever possible). It's not so easy to follow memory usage in the Song tracks themselves, but as an example a 128-bar Song consisting of a simple four-bar bass 'n' snare pattern chained 32 times and all four Song tracks recorded continuously with bassline, sustained and arpeggiated chordal accompaniment and melody line parts took up around 14K.
Due to its lack of a disk drive the S3 has nonvolatile RAM, so there's no need to remember to save your precious Songs and Patterns before switching off. However, as the memory begins to fill up you begin to wish that the S3 did have a disk drive. A RAM card (never the cheapest storage medium) can store at most 2K less than the S3's internal sequencing RAM (that's if you don't store any Timbres or Kits to the card). Fortunately, remote data storage via MIDI SysEx is possible for all the S3's data, so an Alesis Datafiler looks like being a sound investment sooner or later (probably sooner).
NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE quality and versatility of the S3's effects processing is on a par with that found on Korg's synths, though the number and range of effects is not so large. The 14 stereo effects consist of three hall reverbs (up to 9.9 secs), three room reverbs (up to 5 secs), three early reflections, delay, chorus, flange, phaser and tremolo. In addition to dual equaliser and dual exciter, the 14 compound effects variously offer combinations of equalisation or mono delay with reverb, chorus, flanger, phase and tremolo.
"It is possible to build up a piece of music using only the S3's four Pattern tracks and the Arrange Pattern chain in Song mode."
Each of the S3's 16 Effect programs can be assigned one or two of these effects, whose parameters can be edited per Effect. As on Korg's synths, the S3 provides a choice of two effect configurations. Placement 1 puts both effect slot one and effect slot two in the stereo output chain, while Timbres routed to effect send one or two are panned into the stereo path after effect slot one. Thus, for instance, you could route selected Timbres through a stereo delay and then a stereo reverb, while other Timbres are routed only to the reverb via effect sends one and two.
Placement 2 puts only effect slot two in the stereo output chain, while Timbres sent to effect sends one and two are routed through effect slot one and then panned into the stereo path before effect slot two. Using a compound effect in slot one, you could route, say, a bass drum to effect send one and through equalisation to boost its bass end, while at the same time routing a snare drum to effect send two and through flanging. These two sounds will then be panned across to effect slot two, which could be a stereo reverb. For further separate processing, sounds can always be routed via the four Multi outs.
WITH THE WORKSTATION synth and its dedicated drumkit section on the one hand and sophisticated computer-based sequencing/sampling on the other, drum machines are having a hard time. The response of most manufacturers has been to keep drum machine prices down and their facilities fairly straightforward in order to appeal to the budget market. Consequently, Korg are going against the grain with the S3. The Rhythm Workstation is an intriguing combination of drum machine and MIDI sequencer. The pattern-based sequencing aspect of the S3 is the most sophisticated you can expect to find but when it comes to recording extended instrumental tracks, its sequencing capabilities don't matchup to the sophistication and flexibility of a dedicated sequencer like Roland's new MC50. Ultimately the S3 is probably best suited to recording rhythm patterns, pattern-based instrumental parts and extended rhythm parts. For a MIDI sequencer it doesn't have a great deal of memory, so the lack of an onboard disk drive for data storage is a problem - a MIDI data storage device could be a quick follow-on purchase.
Sonically the S3 is an intriguing and versatile machine - especially with its combination of head and shell samples which allow you to create a wide variety of bass and snare drum sounds - and packs quite a punch. The inclusion of digital effects processing provides another dimension to sound creation on the S3, and another reason - along with its SMPTE read/write capability - why the Rhythm Workstation's asking price is more reasonable than it might seem at first.
However, the range of samples in the internal memory needs to be considerably expanded, which is where the ROM sample card library comes in. On the evidence of the card library which Korg built up for their DDD drum machines, they should do the S3 proud in this department.
However, despite its overall flexibility there are one or two areas in which it shows its long development time. For instance, it would have been useful if the sound editing could have included filtering with resonance (as on Kawai's new XD5 drum module and Roland's D70 synth), not least because the S3 has the potential to incorporate a variety of instrumental sounds along with the drum and percussion sounds.
So is the S3 going to do for drum machines what the M1 did for synths? I'm not convinced, but for anyone who prefers working with dedicated units and reserves a prominent place for rhythm in their music, the S3 offers plenty of enticing possibilities to explore.
Price £899 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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