Korg's latest line in synths is the T-series workstations - modestly designed to pick up where the successful M1 workstation left off. Simon Trask climbs aboard the flagship T1.
Korg take the Advanced Integrated synthesis of the M1 upmarket with three new "mega" synths. But are they out of this world or simply out of reach?
FOR MANY YEARS now the £1000-2000 price bracket has been the starting point for new synthesiser ranges, with subsequent synths in the range progressively descending the price scale. To some extent Korg have conformed to this pattern by following their M1 synth with the M1R and then the M3R rack-mount expanders. But the new T-series synths - the T1, T2 and T3 - represent a more unusual move upmarket, in the T1's case into somewhat rarified financial heights.
The chief difference between the three new synths lies with the keyboard: the T3's has 61 notes, the T2's 76 notes and the T1's 88 notes. Only the T1's keyboard is of the wooden weighted variety, and very nice it is too, sitting comfortably between synth and piano-style action; in fact, both its feel and its range are spoiling me rotten - how can I ever go back to a five-octave plastic synth-style keyboard?
All three keyboards are responsive to attack veIocity and channel aftertouch. Increased keyboard span also means increased casing size and increased weight, and at 35kg the T1 certainly scores zero points for portability. The T1 is also the only one of the three synths to have a control-wheel option (the new synths come fitted with the familiar Korg joystick).
But in every other respect (synthesis capability, effects processing, sequencing power) the three T-series synths are the same. So why, you may well ask, is MT reviewing the biggest, the heaviest and the most expensive of the T-series synths? The reason is simple. Reviewing the T1 allows us to check out the EXK-T PCM RAM sample board, which comes as standard on the T1 but is an option on the T2 and T3 - what's more, an option which won't be available till around Christmas time (so now you know what to ask Santa for). I've dealt with the T1's sample board at some length later in this review, not only to give you a clear idea of how useful it may or may not be to you, but also because it represents a significant addition to the sonic flexibility of The Synthesiser, beyond the expandability offered by the M1's ROM sample cards.
Clearly the T1 will have a relatively small market, and it's very much a prestige instrument for Korg (not to mention for anybody who buys one). Of the three Ts, the T3 stands the most chance of attracting musicians in an upward financial direction (OK, encouraging them to fork out more money), so the important question has to be whether or not there are enough differences between the M1 and the T3 to warrant investing in the latter.
I should mention that the T3 Is also up against stiff competition from Ensoniq's new VFX-SD synth (see update review elsewhere in this issue) and Yamaha's (genuinely) new synth, the SY77 (see preview elsewhere this issue), both of which operate along similar workstation lines to the T-series while offering their own variations on the synthesis/sampling theme.
My main aim in this review is to point out the differences between the M1 and the T1 (and therefore the T2 and T3), so if you're not already familiar with the M1 then the original review in MT July '88 is probably a good starting point.
Returning to considerations of size and weight for a moment, the T3 not only has the same keyboard span as the M1, it's as near as dammit the same size and the same weight, so there are no benefits (or disadvantages) in portability between the two instruments. The most obvious physical differences between the M1 and the T3 are the latter's larger backlit LCD window (64x240 dot), altered front-panel layout and addition of an onboard disk drive (taking high-density double-sided double-track 3.5 floppies only). The two card slots for PCM ROM sample data and RAM Program/Sequence data cards have been retained, only where the M1 put the former on the rear panel and the latter on the front panel, the T3 unfortunately puts both on the rear panel. Wrong move, guys. The T-series synths retain the M1's 1/L, 2/R, 3 and 4 audio outs, headphone jack (carrying the 1 & 2 stereo signal only). sustain pedal jack input, two globally-assignable footpedal/switch jack inputs and MIDI In and Thru sockets. However, they make a significant addition in the form of four MIDI 0ut sockets, organised as A and B pairs to give 32-channel MIDI output.
The larger LCD window not only allows more effective parameter grouping on the T-series, it makes possible some neat display tricks. For instance, when you press one of the Bank/Page buttons in the Program and Combination modes a software-created window pops up to prompt you with a list of the ten Programs or Combinations in that Bank, while whenever you select a VDF or VDA envelope parameter to edit, a graphic display of the envelope appears which changes as you alter the parameter values. And when you're editing the effects placement and output routing of the Programs, a diagram of the relevant configuration pops up In the LCD to help clarify what's going on.
THE NUMBER OF onboard programs has been upped from 100 to 200, while the number of Combinations stays at 100. Foot controller settings, scale type (equal temperament 1 & 2, pure major, pure minor and user-programmable - the latter within a "master" octave and globally defined), and velocity and aftertouch curves (one of eight types in each case, positive direction only, and affecting both onboard sounds and MIDI transmission) are now selectable per Program. However, the synthesis architecture, the 33 effects and the utilisation of those effects remain exactly the same as on the M1.
The Oscillator Mode still allows you to choose between Single (16-voice), Double (eight-voice) and Drumkit (16-voice). Four Drumkits can be programmed utilising the synth's Drum samples: the parameters are the same as those on the M1, with the exception that the number of sounds which can be included in a Drumkit has been upped from 44 to 85 in line with an increase in the number of Drum sounds (see below).
Combination mode (where combinations of up to eight Programs can be stored) sees the axing of Single, Layer, Split and Velocity Split types, leaving only what was previously referred to as the Multi type - a Combination of up to eight Parts (or Timbres, as Korg call them). This isn't unreasonable, as all of the axed types can be created using the velocity-range and note-range window settings of individual Timbres. As on the M1, a single group of effects settings can be programmed for each Combination.
The T-series synths do add some Combination parameters, however. You can now select for each Timbre within a Combination separate internal and MIDI-transmit velocity and aftertouch curves, and MIDI transmit patch number and volume level, while for all Timbres within a Combination you can set joystick functions (X, +Y and -Y), foot controller settings and a scale type.
However, the most significant difference between the M1 and the T-series synths is undoubtedly the latter's doubling of the onboard ROM sample memory from four to eight megabytes, which in practical terms ups the number of Multisounds from 100 to 190 and the number of Drum sounds from 44 to 85. Just to be clear, all the M1's Multisound and Drum source samples are retained for compatibility purposes. Added to the Multisounds are a healthy number of "real" instrument samples together with a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar tuned and untuned percussion sounds, a few synthy wavesweep sounds, and some more pulse and spectrum waves, while the Drum section is augmented by a mixture of kit and Latin sounds and some more wayward metallic percussive sounds such as 'Potcover', 'Techno Zap' and 'Gamelan 1 and 2' (some of which appear to have been derived from the Multisounds). In fact the Drum section has a wonderfully eclectic range of percussive sounds, ranging from familiar kit sounds to the weird and the wonderful, and should suit anyone who likes to be experimental with their rhythm sounds. Certainly it wins out over the narrowly-defined collection of drum sounds on the new VFX-SD, which has been derived from LA session drummers and sounds like it: straight rock kit sounds and precious little else.
"The T1 also takes account of sample loop points, so that any instrumental sounds or rhythm samples using loops can be successfully transferred to the synth."
Personally speaking, I love the T-series' combination of the ethereal and the metallic, the smooth and the spiky, and the overall sound quality of 'ice beauty' (eagle-eyed readers will notice that I've nicked that description from Holger Czukay, who used it in a different context in last month's Can interview - but what the hell, it's appropriate).
By the way, you absolutely must listen to factory demo sequence No. 4, the appropriately-named 'Marshalman' - you too will believe without question that there's a crazed widdly-widdly merchant lurking inside the T1's casing.
It's worth pointing out that M1R owners can get their expander's ROM sample memory upgraded to add the same extra sounds as are found in the T-series, while if you've yet to buy an M1R, Korg are bringing ExM1Rs into the country - M1Rs with the upgrade already fitted. Both of these options mean forking out extra money, of course. M1 owners can forget about getting their synths upgraded, however; because of the way in which the M1's innards are organised, upgrading the memory is, apparently, impractical.
Incidentally, the M1 didn't implement MIDI Overflow mode, which meant that if you wanted to use an M1 and an M1R together for 32-voice polyphony you had to set the M1 to Local Off, the M1R to Overflow On and route the M1R's Thru output back to the M1; the T-series synths make life easier by implementing Overflow mode.
THE ONBOARD SEQUENCER on the T-series synths still has eight tracks, with each track able to play one of the synths' Programs at a time and with dynamic allocation of the synth's 16 voices across all eight tracks. However, the number of Patterns has been doubled from 100 to 200 and the number of Songs from ten to 20, while sequencer memory has been significantly increased from 4400 notes - 7700 if the number of Programs and Combinations on the M1 is halved to 50 - to a much more respectable 50,000 notes (these figures, incidentally, are reduced as soon as other MIDI data is recorded).
The structure and facilities of the sequencer are essentially the same as the M1's sequencer (again, see the M1 review for fuIler details), with a combination of track- and pattern-based recording, and the ability to insert patterns anywhere in a track and to extract a portion of a track into a pattern. Real-time (including punch-in/out and, in the case of patterns, loop-in-overdub) and step-time recording are available, as is event editing (here benefiting from the larger LCD window on the T-series synths). The maximum length of a Track has been increased from 250 to 999 bars, while the maximum length of a Pattern (and therefore also of the section of a Track that can be extracted) has been increased from eight to 99 bars. Sequencer resolution has been kept at 48ppqn, however.
One of the complaints I had about the M1's sequencer was that, although you could play a Combination via MIDI from an external sequencer, you couldn't use a Combination within an onboard sequencer track. Korg have rectified this situation with the T-series synths, but not in an entirely satisfactory way. You can now assign note-range and key-range windows (using bottom and top values) for each sequencer track, so that, effectively, you can recreate the texture of a Combination within a sequence, playing and recording into the relevant tracks by setting Multi record. As each Track can still only play one Program, the more Programs you have in your sequencer "Combination" the less sequencer tracks you have left (for playing parts on external MIDI instruments, perhaps). Other new features include Track Protect, filtering out types of event from the MIDI data display, appending one Song to another to create a new composite Song, and programming foot controller settings, scale type and velocity and aftertouch curves on a Song basis.
MIDI SysEx transfer of parameter and sequence data is essential for any MIDI device nowadays, and especially so where a company needs to maintain some degree of data compatibility between their instruments. T-series Programs, Combinations and Global data can be MIDI-transmitted in T1/T2/T3 or M1/M1R formats, while Sequences and All Data can be dumped to other T-series synths but not to an M1/M1R. Data from an M1/M1R can similarly be loaded into a T-series synth via MIDI, while Korg ROM sample data cards can be read by all the M-series and T-series synths and expanders.
M1/M1R Program, Combination, Global and Sequence data stored on a RAM card, and preset M1/M1R Program data stored on a ROM card, can be loaded into the T-series synths. T-series Combinations, Programs (Bank A or Bank B) and Global data can be stored to RAM card and loaded into the M1/M1R, but T-series Sequence data can't be stored or transferred In this way.
The T-series' onboard disk drive makes life a lot easier and a lot cheaper. There are two possible disk formats (formatting Is, of course, done from the synth): Program/Sequence/PCM (one file containing the complete contents of memory) or Program/Sequence (four files, each containing the complete contents of memory minus the PCM RAM samples). Memory must be saved to disk in bulk, but you can load Programs, Combinations, Patterns, Songs, Drumkits and samples individually or in bulk.
Korg have also given the T-series synths the ability to act as a generic SysEx librarian, receiving and storing to disk SysEx files up to 64Kbytes in length. Like most sequencers which tack on such a facility, it seems a bit half-hearted given the variety of transmission protocols in use (even the manual admits the synths can't handle all SysEx data); for instance, you can't send SysEx requests to instruments which aren't able to initiate their own data dumps.
AS MENTIONED EARLIER, the T1 comes with a 512Kword RAM sample board fitted as standard, while the same board can be fitted as an option on the T2 and T3. If the sounds you load into the T1 have been sampled at 44.1kHz, this gives you around 11 seconds duration. The sample board's contents aren't retained through power-down, so you'll need to save any new samples to disk before switching off the T1.
"The most significant difference between the M1 and the T-series is the doubling of the onboard sample memory which ups the Multisounds from 100 to 190 and Drum sounds from 44 to 85."
There are two sources of samples for the T1: samples from Korg's own DSM1 sampler (but not their earlier DSS1) and from forthcoming T-series sample disks which are loaded from the synth's onboard disk drive, and samples from any other sampler loaded in via MIDI. Because the T1 has to convert from the DSM1's 12-bit resolution to 16-bit resolution, you have to select a special DSM1 loading routine - and then you can go and make the proverbial cup of tea, because loading is a slow process. However, once you have DSM1 samples In memory you can save them to another disk as T1 samples, in which case they'll load a good deal more quickly the next time. After trying out a healthy variety of Korg DSM1 sample library disks I can say that the samples transfer very well to the T1, exhibiting clarity and good dynamic range.
But by far the more flexible option is to load samples into the T1 via MIDI. Korg's synth will accept samples stored in MIDI Sample Dump Standard format, which means that if your sampler can't transmit samples in this format then you'll need an intermediary stage: generic sample editing and librarian software.
For the purposes of this review, an Akai S900 sampler and Steinberg's Avalon generic sample software for the Atari ST were called into play. The beauty of this setup is that Avalon handles the translation from S900 sample format to MIDI Sample Dump Standard format for you; the only adjustment you have to make manually is to choose 16-bit resolution for the Sample Dump Standard transmission from Avalon, as the S900 is a 12-bit sampler and the T1 appears to only accept samples in 16-bit format. Otherwise all you have to do is drag Avalon's S900 icon onto a sample-slot icon, then when the sample has been loaded into Avalon, drag that icon onto the MMA icon and instigate the transfer to the T1 (first of all ensuring that the T1 is set to "Recv Sample Dump" on the relevant Global menu). Oh, and if you're aiming to do a lot of sample transferring then a MIDI patchbay will come in handy - much manual repatching of MIDI leads is the alternative.
Both Avalon and the T1 tell you if the transfer has been successful or not. However, once you've sussed out the few necessary steps the whole process is very straightforward, and there's no reason why you should encounter problems. There's no reason why the transfer process shouldn't work equally well for other samplers included in Avalon's (or any other generic sample software's) library of sample formats.
It would appear that the T1 takes account of sample rate (indicated in the Sample Dump Standard header as sample period), as there was no transposition of samples from S900 to T1. Crucially, the T1 also takes account of sample loop points, so that any instrumental sounds or rhythm samples using loops can be successfully transferred to the synth.
Once you've loaded some samples into the T1's EXK-T RAM board via MIDI, how can you use them within the synth? Well, samples have to be incorporated into the T1's four onboard Drumkits, with or without a selection of the synth's 85 Drum sounds. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense: a T1 Drumkit requires samples to be mapped across the keyboard rather as you would map samples across the keyboard on a sampler. As samples can only be transferred individually to the T1, and there's no means of telling the synth how they should be mapped, multisamples from another sampler have to be recreated manually within a T1 Drumkit.
On the T1 a Drumkit sample will automatically spread downwards in pitch across the keyboard until the next sample-allocated note is reached. Samples do not spread above their allocated "root" note, so if you want a sample to spread a fifth, say, above its original pitch, then you need to assign it to the note which is a fifth above that pitch and raise its pitch by a fifth (the maximum range is +/- 1 octave).
So what else can you do with your samples once you've included them in a Drumkit? Well, as with the Drum sounds you can adjust their level, decay time and pan setting; the latter governs their routing through the T1's effects, and allows you to position each of them in the stereo spectrum of outputs A and B or route them to outputs C or D. And as a Drumkit can be assigned to an oscillator within a Program, you can globally apply any of the associated VDF, VDA and MG parameters to the samples.
You can't layer or velocity-switch between samples within a Drumkit, so you have to turn to Combination mode for this. Layering can be achieved by assigning the relevant Drumkits to different Timbres and assigning those Timbres to the same MIDI channel, while velocity-switching can be achieved by the additional means of setting a different velocity window for each Timbre.
So as far as samples transferred via MIDI Sample Dump Standard are concerned, I'd say that the best use of the RAM sample board is for turning the synth (or at least its Drumkit section) into a sampling drum machine, allowing you to incorporate anything and everything from your local scrapyard favourites to that essential looped breakbeat. Some of you might alternatively find it useful for sound effects.
However, it seems that T-series samples and resaved DSM1 samples can be loaded as Multisounds from disk into the Single or Dual oscillator configurations of individual Programs, because their sample maps are stored with them in a way which can be read by the T-series synths. This opens up a completely different angle on the use of samples in the T-series, being as well suited to multisampled instruments as to multiple percussion and sound fx samples.
I OPENED THIS review by drawing attention to the unusual upmarket direction of the T-series synths in relation to the progenitor M1. However, there are precedents - notably Yamaha's DX5, Oberheim's Matrix 12 and Roland's JX10 synths. Each of these instruments is basically two of another instrument combined in a single box: the DX5 is two DX7s, the Matrix 12 is two Xpanders, and the JX10 is two JX8Ps. And each of them could rightly be labelled "megasynth".
The same label springs to mind for the T-series synths - especially, given its price, for the T1. But do the T1, T2 and T3 also conform to the "two-in-a-box" philosophy of the other instruments? Well, compared to the M1, a number of things have been doubled, but these don't include the effects processors, audio outputs, Timbres, sequencer tracks or - crucially - voices ("prohibitively expensive", say Korg), which is a shame, particularly as Ensoniq's VFX-SD and, quite possibly, Yamaha's SY77 (which I have yet to hear as of writing this review) are going to be snapping at the T3's heels in coming months. Still, there's enough that's new on the T-series to warrant looking beyond the M1, particularly with the additional sounds and the RAM sample board (whose significance shouldn't be overlooked).
Prices T1, £3700; T2, £2999; T3, £2399; EXK-T, £TBA. All prices include VAT.
Review by Simon Trask
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