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Polyphonic Synthesizers

A survey of trendsetters

Will Mowat returns to strike terror into the world of polysynths — evil henchmen played by Paul Wiffen and Mark Jenkins

Does choosing a synthesizer make you feel like this? Fear not, for help is at hand!

The rise in popularity of middle-range polyphonic synthesizers is as remarkable as the disappearance of the once-popular monophonics. Technology has become cheaper, allowing features once found only on the single-note machines to be incorporated on their polyphonic brothers, not the least of which is the ability to play lead-line styles at the flick of a switch and revert to chordal work equally quickly.

This review has been particularly difficult to write for two reasons. Firstly, pricing policy in the shops has gone haywire, with instruments that should have gone out with the Ark costing more than their more recent counterparts, and so far as we are aware, still being manufactured alongside these younger machines. Secondly, the advent of the Yamaha DX range has made criticism of the current keyboards all too easy as far as their sound goes: there is no doubt in my mind that digital generation will (indeed must!) take over from analogue generation; and now that one manufacturer has put programmable digital synthesis within everyone's reach, there is a state of tension in the market place creating unstable, incongruous pricing and indecision in the mind of the buyer. In the midst of this minor maelstrom I have reviewed a handful of currently available polyphonics at the not-too-expensive end of the market.

Roland Juno-60

This machine is a light, bright, welcoming little package with the standard Roland confusion of knobs, sliders and switches that point to its being an analogue-generated synthesizer. It is a six-voice, one oscillator-per-voice machine whose tuning is ultra-stable thanks to use of Digitally-Controlled Oscillators whose pitch is ultrastable (it says here!); this use of DCOs is an indication that there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre in the analogue market for improvement and refinement, and it could well mean that analogues and digitals will coexist quite happily for some time to come.

Having just one oscillator per voice, the Juno-60 could sound rather thin and uninteresting — the more oscillators you have per note, the 'richer' the sound — and there is an attempt to overcome this with the chorus function which deceives the ear quite well. Yet on its own, the Juno-60 has some surprisingly strong tones for a single-oscillator instrument, thanks probably to one of the nicest filters I have come across: it is so stable, you can push up the resonance until the filter self-oscillates and then make it track the keyboard very accurately without any glitching. Roland give you a lovely 'Hawaiian Guitar' sound in the memory to demonstrate this; it also helps to be able to stop the oscillator from reaching the filter when you do this, as indeed you can. The oscillator gives out the standard sawtooth pulse (manually or LFO-modulated) and white noise waveforms, and you get one of those rotten sub-oscillators to mix into the tone (don't do it!) before sending it into the filter where, with judicious use of both the high and low-pass sliders, you can even get a band-pass situation, of immense use if you are simulating angry wasps buzzing around. You never know when you'll need it.

Before inserting your sound into memory, you can program the loudness of the VCA, and whether or not you want the ADSR transient generator to control both the loudness and filter frequency envelopes, or just the filter, with the loudness being hived off to a straight "organ" envelope — fastest attack, fastest release, highest sustain.

The memories are displayed by a two-digit indicator: seven banks of eight programmes give you 56 memories, all instantly editable, swappable and dumpable onto tape.

To the left of the keyboard you find the performance controls: the usual Roland pitch bend lever and vibrato button (either off or on — no halfway house) and an additional pitch transpose which can also be transferred to memory giving five octaves of transposability — a lot by any standard.

Other features include the usual arpeggiator, controllable by an external trigger, but you will find no facility to switch the keyboard into monophonic mode — no fat sounds for solo work.

I liked the Juno-60. It does not pretend to be anything other than a simple, efficient and good-sounding analogue.

Korg Poly-61

The Poly-61 adds a whole new dimension to the term 'user-friendly'. I mean, it's about as user-friendly as a chainsaw and about as easy to get around as Spaghetti Junction. I found myself at a distinct disadvantage, with just two hands, one set of eyes and average memory, and caught myself mentally apologising to Mr Korg out there somewhere on Mars that the Poly-61 is the first keyboard ever which encouraged me to keep my hands in my pockets instead of on the instrument.

What a designer's dream! What a musician's nightmare! With its smoke-grey finish, criss-crossed with blue lines, it looks modern and high-tech. In fact it would look better hung on a wall in the Tate Gallery than on a keyboard stand in someone's front room. The looks belie the reality, that this is an ordinary analogue six-voice synthesizer, with two oscillators per voice; quite what service Korg thought they were doing to keyboard players by using this packaging is anybody's guess.

If you think I am spending too much time on the hardware angle of the Poly-61, and not enough on the sound it produces, it is precisely because they made the sounds so subservient to the hardware. I will translate the front panel as simply as I can: on more ordinary analogues, to change one of the parameters, you usually go to the knob, switch or slider that directly controls it. The controls are set out (sometimes strewn) across the front panel in some sort of order; the disadvantage is the possibility of breakdowns due to so many moving parts; the advantage is the rapidity of access to a given parameter. Now with the Korg system, the front panel is much simplified, to a point where speed of access to the parameter you are seeking to control is greatly decreased, and the chance of making mistakes much enhanced: you first must punch 'parameter' to alter the function of the eight main switches on the panel from program selection to parameter selection. You then have to punch in the code of the parameter you want to change by referring to the code display printed onto the panel (alternatively, after weeks of practise, your memory will have become used to the weird codification of parameters and their values, and the process may be slightly quicker). Lastly, you punch the 'up' switch or 'down' switch to increase or decrease the code, depending on what the code refers to. As an example, code 3 on parameter 12 selects pulse wave on the first oscillator, code 6 on parameter 24 selects maximum detune on oscillator two in relation to oscillator one, and to show you the extent of confusion this system engenders, I cannot recall whether code 15 on parameter 41 gives you slowest or fastest attack on the envelope generator.

Once you get to grips with the system, you soon realise the limits of the synthesizer: for example, the oscillators (ultra-stable DCO's) are only tuneable to three footages, there is no noise generator, and the filter is unstable — you can get it to self-oscillate but it glitches all the time and will not track the keyboard constantly.

Getting away from the quicksands of parameter selection, we travel to the key assign section which I liked. It allows four keyboard modes: polyphonic, monophonic (you select how many notes you want to control under one key — it need not be all six), Chord Memory (try soloing by assigning all six C's throughout the keyboard under one key) and Hold, where whatever you play will carry on sounding if the ADSR sustain setting is high enough. To the right of that is the arpeggiator, externally triggerable.

The 64 memories are fully tape-dumpable (the process takes only eight seconds, so tape recorder levels and tape quality are crucial to a successful operation). The most incongruous part of the Poly-61 has to be the joy-stick performance control. On any other instrument I would have criticised its inclusion roundly because of the built-in design problem of fragility and use of old technology. But on the Poly-61 it was a welcome sight after all the front panel modernistic nonsense.

Almost as an afterthought, a passing comment on the sound. Wonderful, (for an analogue) so long as you steer clear of the extreme filter settings. Strong and clear, what a shame it was so difficult to experiment with. A case of "the lost Korg"?

Roland JX-3P

You know the feeling when you bring what you take to be a nice cup of tea to your lips only to find it's coffee? This sudden confusion and surprise was my initial reaction to the oh-so-catchily-named JX-3P. It looks Japanese alright: garish silver buttons, clashing colours, a host of features not all of which the most useful in the world. But was it really Roland? The answer is yes, it is, but another manufacturer (Sharp) was involved quite heavily by all counts, and the optional PG-200 Programmer will eventually serve to program another type of synthesizer as well as this one.

A more detailed perusal of the front panel reveals some startling results. Firstly, the instrument without the programmer is strikingly similar to the Korg Poly-61 in that access to parameters is not the simple 'one control one parameter' process of the usual analogue synths. Secondly, this machine does not have an Arpeggiator, a fact so welcome that it is worth a mention as being a non-feature of decided advantage! Thirdly, the JX-3P incorporates a polyphonic, clockable sequencer of 128 steps, each containing up to six notes. This latter feature is so wonderful it makes me want to hug the little beast to my heaving bosom. Not only polyphonic, but triggerable from an external source, such as a drum machine! This means of course having to program in the chords and notes step by step, dividing the long notes by the shortest note and slurring them together, but a modicum of notation theory will soon see you straight. You can program the sequencer either by entering the chords as you go along, or by 'overdubbing', that is, completing the top line of your score, and then going back and adding the second line and so on, like multitracking in the studio. You can even choose whether you hear the original lines or not, by using the Mute button while you are programming. Another way to programe the sequencer is by entering your phrases in real time — that is, by playing at your own rhythm and tempo — and then seeing how the pulse time of the sequencer has re-ordered your masterpiece. The result can be dead good, as we say in the business.

Now, how can I hold my head up in public by claiming that the JX-3P is much easier to program than you think? And how can I say it is much simpler than the Korg Poly-61? After all, the front panel contains only three sliders and a number of buttons, and no numerical readout of parameters, codes and so on. Well, the answer lies with the Sense slider used in conjunction with the two buttons called Group A and Group B and the row of 16 'Tone Selector' buttons parallel to the keyboard. That is what you do; first, glance at the drawing on the right of the front panel: this is arranged in a logical order, DCOs (yes, more of them!), VCF, VCA with control voltages below (LFO and envelope); you will notice that this "edit-map" is clearly laid out in two groups of A and B, and each function is numbered, one to 16. After identifying the group and number, press the corresponding buttons on the panel and you have accessed that particular parameter. Then, and here's the beauty of it, the tone button you pressed will light to show you which function you are changing, and another tone button light will flash to show you at what point the parameter was set when it went into the memory. To change the setting, simply move the sense slider up or down and the flashing light will sequence correspondingly up and down the numbered buttons. Thus, to change Keyboard Tracking of the filter on program A 12 you hit A, 12, Group B, 3, and then the Sense slider is at your disposal. It is much easier than mere words can convey.

It is important to note that you do not need the optional programmer to edit programs — by following the above instruction editing is a simple enough process. But the programmer allows two further things: by hitting 'manual' you avoid the process of editing and can build up a sound from scratch, and it speeds up the process of editing by giving you the more usual 'one parameter, one control' on continuous edit, although the knobs on the programmer are rather fiddly and slippery. The JX-3P does not have as many memories as you think; of the 64 possible memory slots, only the last 32 are fully programmable and changeable: the first 32 are in there for keeps; you can edit them, but you can store the result of that edit only in the latter 32.

And what of these sounds? Very strong, rather muddied, I felt, but astonishingly variable in the JX/3P's ability to route all sorts of control voltages to the DCOs and the filter; for instance you can control DCO1 with the LFO and DCO2 with the ADSR envelope, and by synchronising DCO2 to DCO1 and inverting the envelope generator's polarity... now, where was I?!

Worth a mention is the pitchbender, with its variable depth and huge control mechanism for ease of use (and, when the sequencer is running, you can play along with the voices you have left free, bending the pitch of your real-time playing without affecting the sequencer's pitch). And note the key transpose button, the chorus facility, the separate tape dumping for memories and sequences, the MIDI interfaces... the list is endless!

Prophet 600

The most unnerving feature of this machine is the price. With other synthesizers offering more features for less money — much less money — you wonder what justifies the price tag. The answer is probably 'quality': the sound fair drips quality, and of all the analogues we have reviewed, this has the smoothest, clearest sound. The 600 (not to be confused with the Fiat 600 which comes from Italy and doesn't make the same sound anyway) is in the same vein as its big brother, the Prophet V, with a similar vast range of sound effects; it contains some of its best features as well as improving on the weaknesses. Economies have been made, though, to help reduce the price: there is no white noise generator, no gradual filter keyboard tracking. And more subtly, the range of control of many of the parameters is more restricted than on the V; thus the LFO frequency will not go so fast or so slow on the 600, and there are fewer increments on many of the rotary controls. But at last you can introduce LFO modulation to the VCOs and filler without recourse to the modulation wheel on the left of the keyboard, and the gliding effect between notes (well-dressed keyboard players refer to this as the 'porte-manteau') is polyphonic. And of course, you can play six notes at once. It all adds up to this: if you are looking for a professional analogue instrument with class and distinction, then the 600 is a natural inclusion on your shopping list.

The look of the 600 is sleek and dark. The controls are tidily and soberly arranged along the long, thin package, the 100 memories being called up via a keypad to the left. Each memory requires two digits which are displayed on a large read-out above. No problem, you think, except that Sequential Circuits have opted for one of those diabolical pressure-type keypads, where you never know if you have made contact. You have to look at the display to see if you have hit the right digits, and by so doing you increase the chance of hitting the wrong button or missing the pressure-sensitive area altogether. Next to that horror are the sequencer and arpeggiator controls and the tune button. The 600 being analogue and not having the fashionable DCOs needs retuning occasionally, the process taking around four seconds. The sequencer is more of a toy which serves to sell the instrument in the shop and is way out of place on this class machine.

It is realtime, not clockable, so you cannot enter a sequencer and synchronise it to a drum machine, nor can you update notes, nor shift the register of your sequence once it has been entered, other than by retuning the VCOs. A slap on the wrist for such throwaway merchandising. The arpeggiator arpeggiates as it is supposed to (why do they bother?!), and you can program in an arpeggiating chord or a simple pattern based on the order in which you hold keys down (Arpeggio Assign) to relieve the boredom. At least this is clockable from an external source.

The LFO gives out the bare minimum triangle and pulse waveforms for vibrato and trills, pulse-width modulation and wah, but it is the Poly-mod section which is potentially the most interesting controller on the 600 in that it allows Oscillator B and the filter envelope to act as modulation sources, producing crashing metallic effects.

The 600 goes monophonic at the flick of a switch, putting all 12 oscillators under one key. Beware the increase in volume! Both banks of oscillators are tuneable over four octaves at semitone intervals, which means the possibility of tuning the 600 to whatever scale you like: while all around you are wrestling with A flat, you can be playing in C, nice and easy! The relative loudness of each oscillator can be mixed before they enter the filter, a fine 24dB rolloff feature with relatively stable self-oscillation: on full tracking, the sine wave 'whistle' will remain tolerably in tune with the keyboard.

Now here is my advice: ignore the sequencer and get stuck into the sounds. This is a working musician's instrument, a portable no-nonsense professional machine which stands up to the more expensive competition more than adequately. What it lacks in imagination it gains in solidity, but due to its price you need to examine closely where you stand vis-a-vis the professional market, or you could end up paying for more than you need.

Siel Opera 6

A quick glance at this instrument might lead you to assume that it's just another budget 6-voice polysynth. Indeed it has all the distinguishing features of the genre — a couple of mod wheels, a 24dB/octave low-pass filter, a full ADSR, Pulse Width Modulation, everything seems to be there. But in fact, the Opera 6 is very modest in the first impression it gives — closer inspection reveals quite a few features we would not expect on a machine of this size and price.

For a start, there are two oscillators per voice, vital for the richer sounds that can be obtained from de-tuned settings as well as voicings based on fixed interval settings. Both these effects can be quickly set up on the Opera 6 thanks to a Fine Detune control for the former and a Coarse Detune for the latter effect. Also not immediately obvious is the fact that the waveforms on each oscillator (ramp and variable width pulse) are mixable, just as on the Prophet 5. Maximum flexibility can't be obtained as oscillator B is either off, half on or full on (à la Oberheim) but this is only a small niggle.

The powerful filter will go into sine wave oscillation when the Resonance is more than two-thirds maximum; there is also a Track control which allows the filter to open more as higher notes are struck. On Full, this means that the harmonic content of every note is identical, but any point between 0 and 100% can be selected, unlike some synths which only offer Off, Half and Full.

But it is the Dynamic ADSR which gives this synth the biggest lead over its rivals. Whilst the Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release can all be programmed in the time-honoured way, the envelope can also be controlled from the speed at which the keys are struck. Yes folks, the Opera 6 is in fact Touch Sensitive (this year's buzz phrase) and at a price of £1,299 equals the Yamaha DX7 as the cheapest touch-sensitive on the market. It has the added advantage of being programmed in a method familiar to most musicians — you won't need a video to teach you how to work this one! The speed of the keyboard strike can be used to override the Attack time, or to control the overall ADSR level. This second feature is particularly useful as the envelope (and therefore the touch control) can be used to control the amplifier (harder strikes make the sound louder) or the filter (harder strikes make the sound brighter) or both.

The Opera 6 boasts three LFO's, one for oscillator modulation (vibrato etc) one for filter modulation (wah-wah etc.) and most importantly an entire separate LFO for Pulse Width Modulation. Most polysynths nowadays offer PWM, but as this rich 'moving' effect sounds best at a fairly slow speed it normally precludes the use of vibrato, which needs a much faster modulation. But not on the Opera 6, which can handle both effects simultaneously at different speeds.

A look at the back panel gives further cause for praise. Besides the option of controlling either the volume or the filter frequency with a pedal (supplied with the instrument, no less!) there is a cassette interface for storage and recall of voice programmes and MIDI In, Out and Thru. The MIDI system will allow interfacing for sequencing, patch storage and display and composing from other MIDI-compatible synths, sequencers and micro-computers.

Some of you may be wondering how all these progressive features and the improved professional appearance have come out of the blue from an Italian organ manufacturer. The fact is that the company has been working very closely with Sequential Circuits, one of the original developers of the MIDI system (which was largely Dave Smith's baby). SCI in fact repackaged some of Siel's ensemble keyboards for sale ip the US as the Prelude and Fugue (which probably won't appear over here as the Siel originals are available). Siel also used to build the Quartet for the much lamented ARP company, so their experience of synthesizer technology isn't as recent an introduction as is may seem.

All in all Siel appear to have entered a whole new class with the Opera 6. Whilst the factory presets in the prototype don't exactly show off all its features to the full, there are 100 program positions available, giving plenty of scope for you to explore the many possibilities this neat little package presents.

Kawai SX-210

Kawai's SX-210 needs to have a lot going for it to beat the Korg/Roland stranglehold, but as we shall see it has a couple of unusual points which may allow it to do just that. It is a no-nonsense, five-octave, eight-note polyphonic design which is programmed in a combination of the Juno 60 and Poly 61 methods. In other words, it has a selection of control buttons (30-odd featherlight touch switches with integral LED's) which are selected one at a time and which surrender control of their particular parameter to a master 'Incrementor' knob. The system is a little slow to use, particularly if you want to change a lot of parameters rapidly, but if this is the case you should have had a new preset prepared in advance, shouldn't you? The SX offers 32 memories, which isn't enough to spoil you, but these are clearly named by a large 'Voice Identifier' panel showing up to six LED characters. You can change a name as easily as changing a sound — each key acts as a letter, number or symbol in the 'Name Enable' mode. This is a wonderful feature, ending forever the need to remember that Voice 35 is that big whangy sound and Voice 22 is the one you want just before the end of the set, or is it just before the end of the next set?

The sounds themselves are quite varied due to the relatively large number of modulation possibilities. The DCO's can be doubled up to four-voice polyphony for thicker sounds, or locked together for lead lines. There's a high pass in addition to a lowpass voltage controlled filter, three oscillator footages (not mixable), a sub oscillator, white noise, VCA modulation (for tremolo), two ADSR's and an ensemble. This is needed to thicken up the otherwise rather static DCO tones, but isn't as effective as the Juno 60's chorus at doing so. Although there's no sequencer or arpeggiator there's a Chord button (to program a chord on a single key, good for leadlines consisting of all the C's on the keyboard for instance) and infinite Hold.

Other performance controls include Portamento and Glissando (not on the Juno), Delay Modulation and LFO disable. If you disable the LFO it's re-introduced by a touch-button — just like the Jupiter 8! (if that's what you're into) Memory Protect, Tape Dump and stereo outputs occupy the back panel, which is annoyingly short of footswitch controls such as Programme Step on Hold. To beef up the sounds you'll probably find yourself using other functions such as Pulse Width Modulation and filter sweep, probably to excess as we'll see.

The problem with the SX-210 is the usual Japanese one of thin sounds. Neither the filters nor the oscillators are as good as those of the Juno which could often do with a bit of help itself, and the situation isn't improved by the factory presets which are largely thin and lifeless. It's possible to improve on them in about 12 seconds, but you'll probably find yourself throwing everything in (pulse width mod, delay vibrato, ensemble) to get fuller sounds. Obviously this limits your creative possibilities.

Summing up, the SX-210 has a lot of good ideas and a distinctive sound which might date it too much. The good points — like the Voice identifier, four-voice mode, portamento and glissando and excellent construction — shouldn't be neglected though, for as we all know, mere sound is a matter of taste. The SX is selling quite cheaply at the moment although its RRP is around that of a Juno 60, so check it out. At least you'd be the only person on your block who could hurl LED-generated obscenities at unauthorised users of your new synth.

Yamaha DX9

'I have seen the future... and it works! I'll let you into a little secret: it has taken me days to work out a suitable opening for this particular keyboard. When you are faced with an instrument that marks a change in synthesis — not a just a sideways shuffle, but a leap forwards — it is too easy to go way over the top and give it a rave review. But there is no getting away from the fact: sitting at home with the DX9 before me, I was aware that I had at my finger-tips an instrument that had made all other synthesizers up to five times the price look (and particularly, sound) rather silly. And there is no better recommendation than this: my wife, known to prefer being hit repeatedly round the neck with a wet fish to hearing synthesizers, actually came into the drawing room at Castle Mowat where I was tickling the ivories to find out what the wonderfully fresh sound was that I was producing. (Then I switched the synthesizer on.) The next day, she commented on the good night's sleep she had had, claiming it was due to the DX. I rather think it was that bottle of sherry, but I could see her point: the sound is all-conquering, and the hardware is a means to an end in the production of that sound.

Briefly, this is what it does, and how. There are various systems on the market for producing a sound in a synthesizer. The analogue system consists of an oscillator chip that chucks out any old waveform quite indiscriminately, which is then 'filtered-down' by circuitry to give the usual ramp wave, pulse, sinewave and so on. With the PPG Wave, the waveform or complex waveform is already programmed into the chip, obviating the need for the extra analogue circuitry: here the sound is crystal clear, but in a way the basic tone is preprogrammed because you are selecting a waveform that is already 'in memory'. Under the DX system, you can select combinations of pure sinewaves (which inherently contain no overtones) to create highly complex events of overtones. The system is by definition devilish difficult, but it gets easier as you learn, and the result is repayment enough for the effort of perserverance.

With the Yamaha Frequency Modulation system, the principle is of one signal they call the 'modulator' affecting the behaviour of the second signal — the 'carrier'. Both the modulator and carrier are potentially audible, and indeed their frequencies can be made equal. The carrier signal determines the pitch of note produced, and the modulator defines the shape of the waveform; in other words, its harmonic content. The immensely brainy amongst you will immediately note the huge advantage of this: a sharply-defined set of harmonics can be given their own envelope quite separate from the other harmonics in the tone, especially by variously combining carriers or modulators. Yamaha have included four 'operators' in the DX9, which can act either as carriers or modulators. You cannot exactly choose any combination of operators: Yamaha give you eight 'algorithms' which combine the four operators in various orders, and in which the last operator or operators in a chain of two or more operators is the carrier. Now here's that bit that concerns all you programming junkies: by varying the envelope of the modulator, and by varying the modulator carrier frequency ratio, you can assemble a very broad range of complex waveforms.

The whole process of learning is such fun that at first you do not realise that, for the first few weeks at least, you will be unable to use the DX9 on stage as anything other than a preset polyphonic since you have to know what you are about when accessing and varying parameters. Even when you are more experienced, editing is a tricky and slow business.

If we try and compare what the DX9 does to the more usual analogue synths, we find that it has 16 voices (in an ideal world you would have tons more to cope with the very long release time... but still, 16 is better than six); it has 20 internal memories, with full tape interfaceability (does this word exist?); it has a monophonic mode, which allows you to play just one note at the same volume and timbre as the polyphonic notes (the DX9 does not amass oscillators under one key); there is an LFO with six waveform outputs which can be programmed into the memory or accessed via the modulation wheel; there is key transpose; it has pitch bending and portamento; and last but very wonderfully, there is a comprehensive MIDI terminal, and the possibility of plugging in the Yamaha Breath Control which I rated so highly when used with the CS-01 synth.

Brothers and Sisters, forebear! The DX9 made me happy to be a keyboards reviewer and programmer. It, and its bigger brother, the DX7, has put the zest back into the at-times stifling synthesizer market. It all comes down to sound; if you like and prefer the 'warm' 'rich', analogue sounds, then go for them; but if you prefer the 'clear', 'refreshing' digital sounds, then at least you now have a choice.

A Comparative Survey

When God created the analogue synthesizer, he was only practising. When Yamaha brought out the GX1 all those years ago (Stevie Wonder called it his 'dream machine') little did we know just what they were planning to do for the ordinary man in the street. Then came the GS1, and more recently the CE range of preset digital polyphonics. The top of this latter range, the CE25, has a velocity and pressure-sensitive keyboard but otherwise is totally superceded by the DX range which offers preset convenience married to user-programmability. The price of the CE25, which once hovered around the £1K mark, swiftly dropped to the recommended price of the DX9, and it is now an anxious time for shops when customers ask to try the two out since only very few musicians will opt for the limited CE25 when DX9s are freely available.

Now that digital synthesis is on the streets you have a straight choice between the wildly different sounds and facilities of two generations. In general, you will find analogue synthesizers with the conventional one control per parameter easier to program than the DX range or those two hybrids, the Korg Poly 61 and Roland JX-3P. I have had heated discussions about whether the Yamaha system of assigning the function of the increment changer to the various parameters one after the other is as easy as going 'straight to' the parameter itself as with the Juno 60; one obvious answer is that if you have been brought up on the left to right flow chart of recent analogues, then the changeover will be confusing, and equally clear is the fact that those starting their synthetic careers, and have chosen DXs, will have a much easier time of it. But I would say that there is more than one approach to the user/synthesizer interface (and other ongoing situations). Yamaha has shown one way.

I have taken the Juno 60 as an example of good, simple polysynthesis. A couple more keyboards you should look at if you are that way inclined are the Juno 6 and the Korg Polysix. The Juno 6 is identical to the 60 differing only in its lack of memories. The disadvantage is obvious, though the price difference between the two can be considerable, and so I should mention to those who cannot afford to go for them that memories are a convenience (though with digitals they are a must) and you will very soon become well adept at changing sounds in real time (unreal time comes after the Special Brew, when programming becomes rather less important than managing to stay upright).

The Korg Polysix feels, looks and sounds tired of life. It seems to have given up the will to compete in the exciting Disney World of Synthesis, and sits there in the corner, drab and thin like a pensioned-off Mickey Mouse. Only one thing can save it — a massive price-reduction. In many shops it out-prices the JX-3P and the Korg Poly 61 — ludicrous!

After one oscillator per voice the market seems to think you need two per voice, and the contenders I looked at were the JX-3P and Poly 61, and Prophet 600 and Roland Jupiter 6. Of the former two, the Best Buy on whatever grounds you like, sounds, facilities, programmability, was the Roland. The Korg was an interesting example of lateral thinking by designers who got carried away and forgot it was humans that buy synthesizers, not ETs. It looks alright, but the beauty is just skin deep.

The Prophet 600 will be having a tough time with the JP-6 so close in price. My trained ear can pick out the difference between American and Japanese sounds, and if it could talk it would tell you that the Prophet sounds more natural, less plastic, than the JP-6, though the vastly superior controls on the JP-6 more than compensate for any over-talkative ear. Much time needs to be spent with both before reaching a decision, especially since what you may really be looking for is the JX-3P at several hundreds less.

The digital/analogue fight becomes heated between the DX7 and the JP-6/Prophet 600. If you are waylaid by real-time sequencers, arpeggiators and four-parameter ADSR transient generators, then digital synthesis is not for you and kindly leave the room. If you like the sound of 16-voice polyphony, eight-parameter envelope generators and change in your pocket, then you'll have to wait a few months because there are not enough DX7s around yet, though the more limited DX9 is in good supply. You may reach the stage where you prefer digital synthesis altogether for its sound, and for the concept of being able to build up complex waveforms yourself. As digital synthesizers become used more and more on records, your ears will become attuned to the altogether different feel of digital waveforms, and you will find yourself wanting to recreate the same sounds yourself, without any conscious effort on your part. I remember working in a synthesizer store when Gary Numan was charting; everyone who came in was looking for "that particular sound''. No, Sir, you cannot achieve his Greatest Hits on a Bontempi organ. And please stop playing that riff.'

In the final analysis, the analogue versus analogue argument is the standard one of ease-of use, strength of sound, number of memories, how well they interface with other synthesizers; you should recognise the pattern by now. Between the two Yamahas, there is a gap of some £400, for which you are getting, on the DX7, more memories, more algorithms and operators, a velocity and pressure-sensitive keyboard, and greater keyboard scaling control to allow you to get that little bit closer to natural dynamics.

The composition between analogue and digital is purely one of sound, not hardware. If you like the sound of digital synthesis, you will not let the hardware get in the way of the riches that lay beyond. If you prefer the sound of analogue synthesis, go for the most recent keyboards that offer improvements such as stable tuning and varied modulation.

Me? I'm going back to my tin whistle.

Roland Juno 60, shop price £860-£960; Roland JX-3P with PG-200 Programmer, shop price around £800. Roland UK, (Contact Details).

Korg Poly 61, shop price £770; Rose-Morris, (Contact Details).

Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, shop price £1,395-£1,595; Sequential Circuits, (Contact Details).

Siel Opera 6, RRP: £1,299; Siel UK, (Contact Details).

Kawai SX-210, shop price £860-£999; John Hornby-Skewes, (Contact Details).

Yamaha DX9, shop price £895; Yamaha UK, (Contact Details).

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Music In The Video Age

Chip Parade

Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


Electronic Soundmaker - Dec 1983

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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