Peavey DPM3 SE & DPM SX
Digital Synth & Sampling Interface
Since entering the keyboard market with the DPM3, Peavey have expanded the range and power of their gear. Simon Trask checks out Peavey's "upgradable" philosophy.
Peavey's DPM3 workstation synth gets the upgrade treatment, while the DPM SX provides an optional sampling "front end" for the synth.
WITH COMPANIES LIKE Moog and ARP long gone, with Sequential biting the dust in late 1987, and with Oberheim still celebrating the glories of analogue synthesis, it's been left to Ensoniq to define the look, sound and feel of the modern American synth. So it shouldn't be all that surprising that Peavey took their cue from Ensoniq for the look, sound and feel of the DPM3. However, the extent to which they did this has made it difficult for the DPM3 to step out of Ensoniq's shadow and establish its own identity - especially as it's the similarities rather than the differences which are most striking on initial encounter with Peavey's synth.
Where Peavey and Ensoniq differ most significantly is in the nature of the technology that each uses for their synths. Ensoniq use custom-built (and proprietary) chips for their synthesis and effects processing - as does just about every other synth manufacturer - but from the outset of the DPM3's development Peavey decided to implement their synthesis and effects processing using general-purpose Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chips. A custom-built chip is optimised for a particular synthesis system, and consequently a synth based around one is tied into that system. A DSP chip, on the other hand, is optimised only for high-speed processing and can be reprogrammed to implement a new synthesis system. It's rather similar to the way in which you might run different pieces of software on a computer - the programming is different, not the chip. Peavey decided to use DSPs as a means of avoiding what their current ad in MT calls "the limited lifecycle syndrome" - you won't have to trade in your DPM3 for next year's model because your DPM3 can be next year's model.
The new features which turn the DPM3 into the DPM3 SE don't exactly qualify for next-year's-model status, nor do they all have to do with DSP (re)programming, but they do show that Peavey's heart is in the right place. Basically, they're tweaks which don't so much alter the character of the synth as fill it out a bit. So, for instance, you can now mute tracks, change Programs, change effect level and record volume changes at any point during a DPM3 SE Sequence, selectively filter transmission and reception of a range of MIDI messages, set independent MIDI transmit and receive channels and program four MIDI multi setups instead of one. A new parameter on the synth's Master Menu page allows its effects processing to be turned on/off globally, while each DPM3 SE Program (patch) can now have its own effect settings but can alternatively draw on the effect settings of another Program.
More significant in terms of how the DPM3 SE sounds (and in terms of reprogramming), Peavey have redesigned the DPM3's Exciter effect, added several more dual effects which make use of the new Exciter, and implemented both preset and user-programmable alternative tunings (so now you can play in, for instance, just intonation, a tuning of your own devising, or even - if you dare - 17th-tone equal-temperament tuning).
But the new features which will do most to change how Peavey's synth is perceived by musicians are those which govern its ability to communicate with the DPM SX and other SDS-compatible samplers, and those which enhance its sample-editing capability. These features in conjunction with the DPM SX allow the DPM3 SE's user-sampling to come into its own in a way which wasn't possible on the DPM3. You can now assign any sounds you want to the two oscillators of a DPM3 SE Program, and use them either as they are or as the basis of synthesis. This in itself should help to combat the "limited life-cycle syndrome". For instance, if the synth's own drum samples don't offer you enough variety and flexibility, you can easily incorporate more drum sounds into the DPM3 SE using its sample RAM - Peavey themselves are taking the lead here by making available a disk of TR808 and TR909 samples, but you could also invest in the Prosonics UK Mega Beats and Zero-G Datafile One sample CDs. And of course you can always load sampled rhythm breaks into the synth, trim them up and if necessary repitch them, then incorporate them into a DPM3 SE Sequence.
"Operationally and conceptually, the DPM3 SE is easy to get to grips with, yet it's an instrument which has depth and flexibility."
The DPM3 SE can store and access up to 48 individual samples in its sample RAM, and these can be organised into up to 32 Waves. A Wave can consist of a single sample or multiple samples (for multisampling across the keyboard). To use your RAM samples, you assign a Wave to an oscillator within a Program; in the Wave parameter field of the Osc1 and Osc2 LCD pages, the 32 RAM Waves follow on from the synth's 105 ROM Waves and five Drumkits. Additionally you can use RAM Waves in the Drumkits, each of which allows you to map up to 32 Waves onto the keyboard, with level, tuning, decay time, stereo pan position and effect level parameter settings per Wave; this is the best way to integrate your own drum and percussion sounds into the DPM3 SE.
Peavey's synth comes with a meagre 64Kb of static RAM fitted as standard, which means that if you want to make any serious use of user sampling you'll need to fork out for extra RAM straight off. The DPM3 SE uses battery-backed RAM so that user samples can be retained in memory through powerdown; unfortunately this doesn't come cheap. You can upgrade the DPM3 SE's sample RAM in 512Kb chunks to a maximum capacity of 1Mb. This is twice the capacity of a DPM3, or DPM3 with SE software upgrade. To get 1Mb on the DPM3 SE, Peavey had to compress the synth's operating system software onto four ROM chips instead of the DPM3's eight, so as to leave more sockets spare for RAM chips; they also had to redesign the board which holds the chips. DPM3 owners who want 1Mb of sample RAM will have to buy the new board (price unknown at the time of going to press).
Incidentally, Yamaha's new flagship SY99 workstation synth also has onboard battery-backed sample RAM, coming with 512Kb as standard, upgradeable to 3Mb maximum. Samples can be loaded off disk or via MIDI SDS dump, and are treated like AWM2 samples - which means, among other things, that you can integrate your own samples into AFM synthesis. At the time of writing the SY99 looks set to be around £600 more expensive than the DPM3 SE. However, upgrading the DPM3 SE to 512Kb of sample RAM (the amount the SY99 comes fitted with) would roughly halve that difference.
THE DPM3 SE is blessed with a neat, uncluttered front-panel layout which presents the various functional aspects of the synth in a way which makes them easy to comprehend. As a result, Peavey's synth is easy to explore and easy to get to grips with. Although the layout owes a lot to Ensoniq, the appearance is all Peavey thanks to the distinctive narrow, low-profile buttons the company have used. A firm touch is required for button-presses to register, a fact which can be disconcerting at first.
The buttons in the upper left half of the front panel are for selecting Program Banks and switching between internal and card Programs. The DPM3 SE has 100 internal Programs and can read a further 100 Programs off card; in each case these are organised as ten Banks of ten Programs each. Successive presses of the Bank buttons toggle between pairs of Banks (1/6, 2/7...). The ten Programs of the currently-selected Bank are displayed in the central 2 x 40-character backlit LCD screen, while ten of the 12 "soft" buttons located above and below the LCD are used for selecting individual Programs, and the remaining two allow you to scroll in either direction through the Banks.
In the synth's various edit modes, the 12 soft buttons are used for selecting parameters; when a mode has more than one edit page, two of the buttons allow you to scroll in either direction through the pages. Parameter values can be changed using the data entry slider, data inc/dec buttons and infinite-rotary data wheel. The data entry slider can alternatively be set to transmit MIDI controller data (such as volume) or to modulate any synthesis parameter which has a modulation input to it (filter frequency or pan position, say).
The four System buttons in the lower left area of the front panel provide access to "master" functions, MIDI parameters, effects editing, sample editing, and disk/cartridge/MIDI storage options. The upper two rows of buttons in the right-hand half of the front panel are for Program editing; these buttons reflect the synthesis architecture of the DPM3 SE so that, for instance, to edit filter parameters you press the button labelled Filter, while to edit LFO parameters you press the button labelled LFO. Easy - as it should be. The lower two rows of buttons are dedicated to sequencer operation and editing, and include dedicated Play, Rec, Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop, Pause and Erase buttons.
The only other front-panel controls are the volume slider and the bend and mod performance controllers. Set back from the latter two, in a readily accessible position, is the onboard 3.5" floppy disk drive (PC-compatible, 720K formatted capacity) which can be used to store Programs (one or all), Sequences (one or all), Songs, Effects (one or all), Global settings, sample RAM data, and MIDI SysEx dumps (up to 64Kb) received from other instruments. A "snapshot" of all the Program, Sequence and Effect data in the DPM3 SE's memory can be saved to and subsequently loaded from disk as a single Setup file, also known as an Edition. Any associated sample RAM data has to be saved and loaded separately, however.
The DPM3 SE's rear panel contains MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a CV pedal input, a single footswitch input, a dual footswitch input, Left/mono and Right stereo outs, and a stereo headphones output with an associated output level knob. One thing you find out about the DPM3 SE very quickly is that its audio outputs push out a lot of energy; this is no wimpy synth, so watch out for your speakers.
"You can always load sampled rhythm breaks into the synth, trim them up, then incorporate them into a DPM3 SE Sequence."
A pedal connected to the CV input can be used to control internal and MIDI volume, transmit data for any MIDI controller, or modulate any DPM3 SE synthesis parameter with a modulation input to it. Each connected footswitch can variously be set to act as a sustain pedal, duplicate either the data inc or data dec button, step through the Programs in a positive or negative direction, or duplicate either the sequencer Play, Record or Pause button.
The DPM3 SE's keyboard is a 61-note affair, responsive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch, and pleasant enough to play, if nothing special.
AT THE HEART of the DPM3 SE are 105 ROM samples and waveforms stored in 4Mb of ROM. These are divided into 16 categories: Analog Synth Waveforms (9), Digitally Generated Waveforms (5), Non-Harmonic Waveforms (5), Combination Loops (4), Organs (6), Bells (2), Bass (9), Pianos (7), Guitars (5), Orchestral (2), Voices (2), Accordion (1), Noise (4), Wind Instruments (8), Tuned Percussion (3), and Drum Sounds (33). The Drum Sounds category consists mainly of standard kit and Latin sounds, but also includes the likes of taiko, gamelan and turntable scratch; overall they have a nicely gutsy quality, and add up to a reasonably flexible collection of percussive sounds. Of course, now you can augment them with your own drum and percussion sounds.
Peavey's synth is also strong on waveforms and noises - the more abstract creative stuff - and on bass sounds. In fact, it's strong on bass sound, too - there's a richness and warmth to the synth's bass end which is very appealing. At the same time it has a bright, clear, penetrating top end and the same sort of grittiness that characterises Ensoniq's sound.
The (all-digital) signal path within a DPM3 SE Program consists of two oscillators going to two DCAs going to a digital filter (low-pass with restrained resonance) going to Amp Env going to an output stage going to the effects processor. In addition, the synth has modulation sources and modulation destinations galore, and allows virtually any source to be routed to virtually any destination courtesy of a sophisticated modulation matrix. Sources consist of two LFOs (each with a choice of triangle, sawtooth, ramp, square and random waveforms) and four five-stage envelope generators, velocity, keyboard position, aftertouch, mod wheel, pedal and external MIDI controller. The LFOs (rate and amount) and envelopes (time and level) are also modulation destinations, as are the oscillators (pitch), DCAs (amplitude level), filter (cutoff point), Amp Env (time and level) and output stage (pan position); modulation destinations typically have two modulation sources, with modulation amount and polarity programmable for each.
There's one area in which the DPM3 SE falls down when it comes to dynamic modulation, and that's effects processing. Which is a shame, because the ability to modulate reverb dry/wet mix, chorus depth, EQ gain or distortion feedback amount from the mod wheel, keyboard position or velocity, say, can be very useful. Still, in all other respects the DPM3 SE's effects processing is flexible and powerful. The synth implements two independent digital effects processors, each of which can be assigned one (Single mode) or two (Dual mode) effects, allowing up to four effects to be simultaneously active. Effects processor one is fed from the pan module, and thus receives a stereo signal; it also outputs in stereo. Effects processor two is fed from a mono FX2 routing, but creates a stereo signal from it. Effects processor one can be set to series, parallel or dual operation when using dual-mode effects, effects processor two is always set up in series for a dual-mode effect.
There are seven single-mode effects - reverb, delay, chorus, EQ, gate, distortion and exciter - and 32 dual-mode effects which create various combinations of the single-mode effects such as chorus/gate, delay/distortion, delay/reverb and reverb/EQ. These are all quality effects, somewhat in the Ensoniq mould.
The final component in a DPM3 SE Program is the Combi (previously called Multi on the DPM3). Put simply, if you select Combi rather than Single Program type on the Program's Main Combi page, you can "tag" up to three Programs to the main Program. As each Program can be assigned its own note range, velocity range, level, delay, detune, transposition and MIDI transmit channel, a Combi allows you to create sophisticated split and layer textures on the keyboard and "double" them on external MIDI instruments.
THE DPM3 SE includes a nine-track sequencer with a memory capacity of approximately 20,000 events. Memory permitting, the synth can store up to 50 nine-track Sequences and ten Songs. While the sequencer RAM is independent of the sample RAM, both are battery-backed - so you can have Programs, Effects, Sequences, Songs and sample data all available from the moment you switch the synth on.
"The DPM3 SE's audio outputs push out a lot of energy; this is no wimpy synth, so watch out for your speakers."
In order to record a Sequence you must first Create it. As part of the Create process you name the Sequence and give it a time signature (1/4-32/4) and a length (1-996 bars). The Sequence length can be changed later.
Before starting to Record, you can set the tempo (40-250bpm), internal or MIDI sync, metronome on/off, metronome resolution (1/4, 1/8 or 1/16), track loop on/off, and XSysR on/off (this works in conjunction with the sync mode to determine how the DPM3 SE responds to MIDI Start/Stop/Continue and timing clock, so you could Start the sequencer remotely but have it run at the internally-set tempo).
Each track within a Sequence can be assigned a Program, a volume level, a MIDI transmit channel and an FX2 send amount. You can also select whether each track will play internally only, via MIDI only or both internally and via MIDI. Additionally, each Sequence can be assigned an Effect Setup, and a Sequence can be Copied and Deleted.
You can mute a track at any time while a Sequence is Playing or Stopped by scrolling to the Track Volume page, pressing the soft button assigned to the track you want to mute, and then pressing the same soft button again. Once you've selected a track, successive presses of its soft button mute and unmute it. These mutes can't be recorded, but you can record continuous volume changes into each track, so a sudden drop to zero volume could be used as a (memory-intensive) track mute. Personally I would have preferred to see a dedicated Track Mute page and the (recordable) ability to mute combinations of tracks live.
As it is, Peavey have hit on a novel (and presumably unintended) interpretation of track muting: each time you select a different track while a Sequence is playing, the DPM3 SE cuts dead all active sounds in the Sequence. If any of those active sounds happen to be held notes or a sampled break, the result is a major dropout and major frustration. What's going on here, guys?
You can record a track either on a single pass or in drum machine-style looping mode. You can also drop in and out of Record mode at any time without interrupting the sequencer, and "spot erase" at any point in a track. When you first select a track for recording, you can specify a track length, which needn't be the same as the Sequence length. If you select, say, a four-bar track length within a 16-bar Sequence, the sequencer lets you record for four bars and then loops what you've recorded. Apart from being a useful way of saving on memory (a repeating bassline only needs to be recorded once), it's a potentially useful creative feature in that you can use it to create evolving textures - try three bars against four against five against 17. These loops "overlap" Sequence repeats, but when the DPM3 SE switches to a new Sequence it cuts short any potential overlaps.
The sequencer's maximum record resolution is 96ppqn. Post-quantisation offers quantise values from 1/4 - 96ppqn (off) including triplets. Usefully, the sequencer defaults to playback-only quantisation, so you can hear what a particular quantisation sounds like before deciding whether to make it Permanent or not.
Other track edit functions are erase, copy, transpose, scale (note velocities), insert, delete, merge, and slide (up to +384 clock pulses/one 4/4 bar). Many of these functions allow you to specify ranges for them to operate within so you can erase or transpose a selected note-range (which could be as little as one note) within a selected bar/beat/clock range. You can also, for instance, erase all MIDI controllers or a selected MIDI controller (so if you want to change the mixdown on a track, say, you can erase the MIDI controller seven data and record it afresh). There's plenty of flexibility to be had here. But for the ultimate precision, you can select step-edit mode, which allows you to work on individual events at single-clock resolution.
In familiar fashion, a DPM3 SE Song consists of chained Sequences and is constructed in step time. Each Song can have up to 76 steps, and a step can be a Sequence (with an optional number of repeats), a tempo change or an End Marker. Steps can be inserted and deleted, and whole Songs cleared.
"In fact, it's strong on bass sound, too - there's a richness and warmth to the synth's bass end which is very appealing."
As an alternative to chaining Sequences together into Songs, you can select Sequences "live" from the synth's front panel as you would select patterns on a drum machine - the active Sequence plays through to the end of its current pass and then the DPM3 SE moves smoothly to the newly-selected Sequence. I must say, once again, that it's a shame there's no function for auto-compiling these live selections into a Song.
THE 1U-HIGH 19" DPM SX could hardly be simpler to use from its front panel. Once you've plugged in either your line-level or microphone input, you turn the input-level knob while watching the clip/threshold pinpoint LED (green means adequate signal level for sampling, red flashing or continuous means clipping or distorted). Once the level's set, select either a 24kHz or 48kHz sample rate, then press the Start/Stop button if you want to initiate sampling manually from the front panel, or press the Arm button to put the SX in "stand-by" mode if you want to initiate sampling by some other means (audio threshold or MIDI note on). You can terminate sampling by pressing the Start/Stop button, or else you can wait for the SX's memory to fill up. Once you've captured your sample, pressing the MIDI Dump button initiates a dump of the sample in SDS format.
The DPM SX is intended for use not only with the DPM3 SE but with any sampling system which supports SDS. So, for instance, it could be used as a sampling "front end' for Yamaha's SY99. You could also use the SX in conjunction with generic sample editor/librarian software, which could be used to convert SX samples to a non-SDS sample format and, if it supports the creation and transmission of SysEx commands, to program the full range of SX parameters. The manual includes details of all the SysEx messages which the DPM SX responds to and transmits, governing both remote programming of the SX parameters and transfer of sample data from the SX in MIDI SDS format.
If you're only using the SX in conjunction with the DPM3 SE, there's no point in having more than 1Mb of sample memory in it. However, the SX can actually hold up to 16Mb-worth of SIMM chips, which could be useful in a different context, like using the SX in conjunction with the DPM SP.
Remotely controlling the SX from the DPM3 SE is so straightforward that you don't have to think twice about it - you're just doing it. The relevant parameters have been so well integrated into the DPM3 SE's programming environment that the sampling process feels like it's an integral part of the synth rather than an add-on - until you have to w-a-i-t for your sample to reach the SE via MIDI before you can listen to it. Also, by programming from the SE you get a larger range of sampling rates of 16kHz, 24kHz, 32kHz, 38.4kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz.
Once you've got a sample in the DPM3 SE's sample RAM, you can set its root pitch, trim it, loop it, and optionally map it onto the keyboard as part of a multisample. The synth provides a choice of manual and auto looping - the former steps sequentially through the sample, the latter searches out a new zero-crossing point each time you move one of the data controllers. With auto looping mode selected, the synth cuts short sample playback each time it selects a new zero-crossing point, so that you have to retrigger the sample again - irritating if you're trying to loop a break. This aside, manipulating samples on the DPM3 SE is easy.
THE DPM3 SE can compete with the best that other, more well-established hi-tech manufacturers have to offer. Clearly a good deal of thought, a good deal of effort and a good deal of technical expertise has gone into its development, and it has a mature, well-rounded feel to it which belies the fact that it's Peavey's first synth. Put another way, there's nothing of the novice about it.
Operationally and conceptually, the DPM3 SE is very easy to get to grips with, yet at the same time it's an instrument which has plenty of depth and flexibility. Sonically, it's a versatile instrument which should manage to appeal to a range of musicians, from those who like bright, clear, highly-produced American AOR-type sounds to those who like gritty, atmospheric, metallic, bleepy dance music-type sounds. And if a rich, warm bass end appeals to you, you should be aware that this is one of the DPM3 SE's sonic strengths.
The Ensoniq influence is apparent in Peavey's synth, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As an avowedly American synth in both sound and style, the DPM3 SE is a useful addition to a market which has for so long been dominated by Japanese sounds and style. And if you like the keyboard workstation approach to creating music, no-one does it better than Ensoniq - and now, of course, Peavey. The DPM3 SE's sequencer may be no Cubase, but it is the sort of sequencer which encourages you to be spontaneous in what you do.
But where the DPM3 SE is all but in a class of its own is in the sonic open-endedness provided by its onboard sample RAM and the add-on DPM SX sampling "front end". The SE's melding together of sampling and synthesis is well judged and well implemented, and should gain it a lot of converts. As for the other feature of the DPM3 SE which sets it apart from the competition, namely its use of general-purpose DSP chips in place of custom-built chips, the advantages have yet to become apparent. Software upgradeability is a reassuring facility, but it only makes sense to buy an instrument if you're happy with what if offers you in the here and now.
Prices DPM3 SE, £1940.28; DPM SX, £305.50; 512K RAM, £325.93. All prices include VAT.
More from Peavey Electronics (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Desert Island DPM3 SE sample disk library: (Contact Details).
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Review by Simon Trask
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