Korg SG1 Piano
While other manufacturers dabble in new resynthesis technology, Korg stick with multi-sampling for their new digital piano. Simon Trask puts fingers to ivories to find out if their approach works.
Latest entry into the booming electronic piano market uses "traditional" sampling techniques, but has some novel features, too. How does it compare with the rest of them?
OF ALL THE tests that modern music technology is put to, the most consistently difficult is its ability to recreate the sound of an acoustic piano. It's still a sound that the majority of keyboard players want from their technology, and for studios who have to keep calling in the piano tuner or for touring musicians who never know what acoustic horror they'll be presented with next, the availability of an electronic instrument of consistent quality is a strong attraction.
Nowadays there's the added attraction of incorporating a "piano" with all the other goodies that technology has to offer, courtesy of MIDI. The latest wave of electronic pianos to attempt the magic feat has brought us offerings from Yamaha, Roland, Ensoniq and now Korg. The last company on that list has an offering called the SG1, with the letters standing for Sampling Grand - though curiously, the instrument can't actually sample sounds the way Korg's DSS1 can, for instance.
As seems to be common practice among manufacturers of electronic pianos, Korg have made their instrument available in 76-note (the SG1) and 88-note (the SG1D, which we had for review) versions. While the keyboard span is the most noticeable difference, it's also worth bearing in mind that only the 88-note version is pressure-sensitive for MIDI transmission, while the 76-note version goes some way towards compensating for its smaller number of notes by including key transposition over a one-octave range. Apart from these differences, the two SG1s offer the same facilities.
In keeping with current electronic piano aesthetics, the SG1 is rigorously constructed and has a sparsely designed front panel. As with Roland's RD300, the SG1 has no central LED window display, which fortunately doesn't prove to be too much of a problem.
Received wisdom dictates that electronic pianos need only provide a small number of sounds onboard - they are essentially pianos rather than all-purpose synthesisers or samplers. So, the SG1 has four piano sounds (two acoustic and two electric), which turns out to be several less than other electronic pianos currently on the market.
However, Korg have provided the option of a much broader sound palette by giving the SG1 a slot for ROM cards. None were available with the review instrument, but apparently harpsichord, clavinet, guitar/bass and harp cards are in existence.
Elsewhere, the SG1 provides you with three-band equalisation (bass, mid and treble) together with an additional brilliance control for modifying the overall character of its sounds. These are implemented on front panel sliders, allowing modifications to be made very quickly.
Also provided is a digital chorus unit, with on/off control (not storable) and depth and speed parameters adjustable via front-panel sliders. Subjectively this chorus lacks the warmth and fullness that Roland are able to bring to their chorusing, though it's usable enough.
WHILE YAMAHA HAVE chosen to use FM for their PF pianos and Roland have used Structured/Adaptive Synthesis for their expanding RD range, Korg (like Ensoniq) have opted for sampling - in this case 12-bit sampling. As you'll probably know, for sampling to be effective over a wide range, you need to take a number of samples; in other words, you need to embark on what's known as multi-sampling. Korg have provided about 12 samples for each sound, some crossover points being more noticeable than others; it's a point worth bearing in mind, and of course a consideration which doesn't arise with the Roland and Yamaha offerings.
But the actual sound quality of the acoustic pianos is superb: clear and rich right across the range, and bright without being thin in the upper regions (where the hammer strike is also caught very well). The first acoustic piano sound represents the 'standard" acoustic grand, while the second has more of a honky-tonk sound to it - though less noticeably at each pitch extreme.
"Unusually, there's a slot for ROM sound cards. None were available with the review instrument, but apparently harpsichord, clavinet, guitar/bass and harp cards are in existence."
The electric pianos which Korg have opted for both have a hard-edged sound, though the second has more warmth to it. Neither are representative of a Fender Rhodes sound, for those of you who want such a thing.
If there is a weakness to the SG1 sounds, it appears when they are sustained; depending on the range, there is either an unnatural buzzing or a ringing, which perhaps arises from the looping of sounds (though if there is some looping taking place, it's incredibly smooth on all four sounds). These characteristics also tend to make the decay sound a little too long to be realistic.
One aspect of piano sounds which computer hardware and software have yet to touch upon is the interaction between notes within the resonant body of an acoustic piano; this is particularly evident when using the damper pedal, which on a real piano releases the dampers from all the strings. Technology has some way to go before it is able to recreate all this complexity, and comparing any digital equivalent with the real thing, the difference can be quite striking - though in the case of a digital instrument in isolation, this is perhaps a consideration which will concern only perfectionists.
The SG1 keyboard conforms to the normal requirements for a piano-style action, being weighted and consequently firm to the touch; if anything, this one was a mite too firm to these fingers.
Korg have also provided a choice of eight velocity scales, which effectively control the touch-responsiveness of the SG1 and of any slaved MIDI instruments. With the piano on its own, this is a genuinely useful range which allows you to fine-tune the response to your taste. And when used in conjunction with slaved MIDI instruments - which themselves have varying responses to MIDI velocity data - it's more useful still.
What is annoying, though, is that Korg have used a small knob on the piano's rear panel for selecting the scale. The same approach has been adopted for selecting the MIDI transmit and receive channels, and for adjusting the master tuning of the instrument (+1- nearly a semitone). Not exactly what I'd call ready access.
THE PROVISION OF MIDI on today's electronic pianos (and what manufacturer in their right mind wouldn't provide it?) obviously has implications for the ways in which these instruments will be used. The simplest application is to record and play back solo piano performances using a MIDI sequencer, but your piano can also become prime candidate for the role of master keyboard in a larger MIDI setup.
Korg's offering gives you some flexibility in determining how you want to organise your piano sounds and MIDI'd slave sounds. Essentially this involves a single split-point which can be set anywhere on the keyboard, giving you two sections which together can be set to various combinations of internal and MIDI performance.
"You're given a choice of eight velocity scales to control the touch-responsiveness of the SG1 and of any slaved MIDI instruments... which themselves have varying responses to MIDI velocity data."
Switch the SG1 on, and the default arrangement involves both sections playing internal sounds and transmitting to external MIDI devices. You can also set the upper section to play only internal sounds while the lower section only transmits to external MIDI devices; set the lower section to play only internal sounds while the upper section transmits only to external MIDI devices; or set both sections to transmit only to external MIDI devices. When internal sounds are off, they can still be played from external instruments (this is known as MIDI Local Off), so you can be recording into a MIDI sequencer using only an external sound, while the sequencer is playing back an SG1 piano part.
The other point to bear in mind is that, as you can only set a single MIDI transmit channel on the Korg, it's not possible to route each section of the SG1 to a different instrument.
Now, while this MIDI implementation doesn't cover every possibility you might want to make use of, it's certainly flexible. And what's more, switching from one mode to another can be accomplished with little fuss.
Unlike some manufacturers, Korg seem to appreciate the rote of an electronic piano as MIDI controller to the extent that they've provided pitch-bend and mod wheels for use with other MIDI equipment, despite the fact that acoustic pianos obviously don't possess such things. They may appear odd at first, but they're small enough to be fairly inconspicuous, and they certainly come in useful when you start connecting MIDI synth voice units to the SG1.
Korg have also provided their mod wheel (which is centre-sprung) with two functions, labelled vibrato and filter tremolo and allocated to MIDI controllers 1 and 2 respectively.
The only other MIDI controller which can be transmitted is Sustain On/Off, but the SG1 can also respond to master volume, sostenuto and soft pedal commands from an external instrument or sequencer. The instrument's inability to generate these last three itself raises the ironic possibility of using a Yamaha MCS2 to provide them, but that's another story.
Finally, other MIDI facilities allow you to enable and disable Omni reception, program-change reception and sustain (damper) pedal transmission. These are implemented by pressing the patch selector buttons in conjunction with the MIDI button; as each switch has its own LED, you can see at a glance what the current settings are.
Overall, the SG1 is a fine instrument which should satisfy a lot of musicians looking for an electronic alternative to the acoustic and/or electric piano. Its sound may not be the most realistic overall, but it has a number of other advantages over its rivals, most important of which is its ability to play back sounds from additional ROM cards. I look forward to those with relish.
Price: SG1D, £1499; SG1, £1349; ROM memory cards £TBA; all including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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