Second Time Around
Korg Poly 800II Polysynth
Korg's popular polyphonic synthesiser gets a new coat of paint and a built-in digital delay line. Dan Goldstein finds out if it's still top of the budget synth tree.
After a successful two years at the top of the budget synthesiser tree, Korg's Poly 800 has been given a better spec, a new colour scheme and a programmable DDL. Is it still the cheap keyboard to beat?
For some reason not unconnected with the success rate of new keyboards, few electronic musical instruments ever get as far as being turned into a MkII version. The Korg Poly 800 is one that has, because as modern keyboards go, it has been a great success.
When it was introduced two years ago, the Poly 800 could justifiably lay claim to the title 'world's first budget polysynth'. For less than £600, it offered a fully programmable, eight-voice analogue synthesiser section, a built-in polyphonic sequencer, MIDI, and quite a bit more besides. To thousands of musicians all over the world, it was an irresistible package. And even now, when the MkII model has already entered production, many Korg distributors sell as many of the original Poly 800s as they can get their hands on.
Yet for all that the first machine introduced the idea of playing synth sounds polyphonically to a whole new generation of keyboardists, it was far from perfect. Economies had been made to get the selling price down, and the first Poly 800 sounded a little on the over-rounded side (not enough sparkle of the 'digital' kind), and had a MIDI implementation way behind what we would come to expect within a few short months (the 800 was Korg's first attempt at fitting the dreaded five-pin DIN).
Twenty-four months on, and Korg have given their budget success story a visual revamp, and made some far-reaching changes inside, too. Most significant of these is the addition of a digital delay to the Poly 800's list of programmable facilities. Korg first used this idea on the upmarket DW8000, and have cut no obvious corners in transferring it to the cheaper machine. The DDL isn't a simple MIDI device that works by delaying note-on signals; it's a fully-fledged delay similar to that built into separate, dedicated rack units costing over £200. Programmable parameters are delay time (maximum just over a second, variable over 100 steps), feedback, modulation frequency/intensity and overall effect level.
In addition to the DDL, Korg have fitted programmable bass and treble controls which act on the final audio signal, rather than on the output of individual oscillators.
In most other respects, the Poly 800's synth circuitry remains as before. That means two eight-voice digitally controlled oscillator sections, each with a choice of square and sawtooth waveshapes, switchable octave ranges and programmable output levels. Both DCO sections are routed through a single VCF, whose variable parameters include cutoff frequency (also with a handy 0-99 resolution), resonance, keyboard tracking, and switchable single or multiple triggering. There's a white noise section that now has a useful — and unusual — detuning facility; three separate digital envelope generators, all with six stages in the Korg tradition, acting on DCO1, DCO2 and VCF/noise respectively; and a modulation generator (Korg parlance for an LFO) unchanged in spec from the Mk1 synth.
You select parameters using the Prog/Para switch in conjunction with the front panel's numeric keypad, adjusting values with a pair of up/down switches. The process is the same adopted for every Korg digital access synth I can think of, and in the Poly 800's case, is aided by separate two-digit LED displays for program, parameter and parameter value figures. Also carried over from other members of the Korg family is the Bank Hold facility, which keeps the first digit of the program/parameter constant while you use the keypad to step through sounds/facilities of the same bank. This saves a fair bit of key-pressing, and helps make what is undeniably an awkward system of programming that little bit smoother in use.
All parameters, their numbers, and their range of values are indicated on the MkII's parameter list, which takes up the bulk of the front panel and which, thanks to the new, more subdued colour scheme and a bit of reorganisation, is now much easier to get to grips with than it was on the original instrument.
The MkII arrives, as its predecessor did, with 64 sounds already recorded into memory. To overwrite any of them with a patch of your own, you simply press the red Write button on the Korg's display panel, remembering first to disable memory protection by flicking the appropriate rear-mounted switch. If you need more space than the 64 memory locations will provide, the Poly 800 lets you store the entire contents of its memory (sounds and sequences) on cassette — not the quickest, most reliable storage medium in the world, but certainly cheap.
Preset sounds weren't a strong point of the MkI Poly 800. For reasons best known to themselves, Korg's programmers gave the original instrument 64 voices that simply didn't span a wide enough sonic vocabulary. Lots of wah-wah organs, synthy strings and grizzly guitar impressions, but precious little in the way of clean leadline voices, tuned percussion sounds or ethereal 'atmosphere' slices.
That mistake has been rectified on the new model, which displays a broader, more contemporary selection of sounds on power-up. Unlike the DW models, the Poly 800 doesn't list its presets on the front panel. Instead, they're shown on a chart at the back of the user manual, and a quick browse through the names shows the collection has a broader, more fashionable look to it. There's plenty of detuned oriental percussion, chiffed woodwind, and other-worldly chime noises, along with a slimmed-down group of conventional analogue poly patches, among them some warm, vibrant organ tones and silky strings replicas.
It's the percussive voices that do most to impress on first encounter, though, aided as they are by some clever programming of the built-in DDL. Somehow the 800II succeeds in sounding much bigger than its synth section suggests it should, largely because Korg's programmers have coaxed a wide range of treatments from the synth's delay circuit, from delicate repeat echoes to raunchy chorus effects.
However, all is not rosy in the 800II garden. Nothing has been done to endow the new model with a more comprehensive filter section, which means the Korg's shared filter has its work cut out trying to do justice to your playing technique. If you set it to multiple triggering, it retriggers the envelope of all held notes every time you hit a new one; set it to single triggering, and it simply ignores the attack stage of every new note played until you lift your fingers from the previous keys. It's a pity, really, that Korg should have spoiled the ship for a ha'porth of tar in this way, since I've no doubt a full complement of filters would have been a good deal cheaper to fit to the MkII than the DDL, say.
The other gripes don't need to be voiced quite so loudly. The four-octave keyboard can be limiting at times, even though its range can be transposed by an octave up or down, and the ivories' lack of sensitivity to initial velocity or aftertouch will also disappoint players used to tinkling something like a DX7 — as I was when the MkII Korg arrived for review.
But the cheapest Korg does more than simply generate clever noises for you to play from its keyboard. Its built-in polyphonic sequencer records up to 1000 notes in step time, and can be synced via MIDI to external drum machines and keyboard recorders — though unhappily, whilst the rest of the machine has been updated to both receive and transmit on any of 16 MIDI channels, the sequencer is stuck sending data out on channel 2. Its chord memory can store any chord configuration you choose to input from the keyboard, then transpose it automatically as you play one note at a time. And its joystick performance control, in common with other Korg keyboards, is a versatile four-way affair acting on pitchbend (up/down), DCO modulation or VCF modulation, depending on the direction you push it in.
So where, exactly, does the Poly 800 stand, now that two years' worth of improvements have been made to it, while two years of changes have taken place in the budget synth market? Actually, it stands the test of time rather well. It sounds a good deal more 'expensive' than it did in its MkI incarnation, its MIDI facilities have been improved, and its built-in DDL is an ingenious and extremely useful addition that none of its competitors can provide.
If I wanted to be cynical, I'd say the Poly 800II has had a number of new features tacked onto it to cure the ills of its basic specification, rather than prevent them taking effect in the first place. But while it's true to say that the one-filter limitation is still a real pain, the new Korg is too competent in other areas to make the omission a critical one.
Pleasant to fisten to, convenient to program, and easy to get on with in general, the new Poly 800 should take over where its predecessor left off: making analogue synthesis a lot of new friends, without giving them permanent overdrafts.
Price RRP £575 including VAT
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Review by Dan Goldstein
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