What The EK..?
Elka EK-44 Programmable Digital Synthesiser
Julian Colbeck tries the Italian Job...
Had Elka decided to launch a pair of up-market synthesisers a year ago, I can't help but think that most who work in the musical instrument business (shops and the Press, at any rate) wouldn't have given them a second glance. Even when the EK-44 and its analogue sister, the EK-22, were 'discovered' in a booth at the British Music Fair this summer, one's delight at finding something to talk about that wasn't made by Yamaha was tempered by the fact that it was made by Elka, whose reputation in synthesis is — well, nonexistent. But it looks like all us clever dicks are going to be made to eat our words. The Italian Jobs, as they must surely come to be known, must be taken seriously — and especially the EK-44. The EK-44 is a digital synth; externally a little drab and downbeat, internally fascinating and full of potential. Basically, what you are offered is a barrowful of hard-edged digital sounds whose origin, in theory at least, owes a considerable amount to FM synthesis as popularised (and patented still, we thought) by Yamaha. If Elka had simply swiped or rehashed FM and boxed the result in low grade moulded plastic, then we could all raise a quizzical eyebrow and mosey on over to the next piece of Roland gear without a thought.
But they haven't. They've been inventive, and have used what I'll call 'the system' merely as a launch-pad from which to produce an instrument brim-full of helpful and decidedly performance-orientated features, all of which adds up to A Jolly Good Thing as far as I can see.
The EK-44, used to to its full potential, is a complex instrument to programme, and potentially a wordy one to review. So let's keep things simple, and start off by saying that you can switch on and, mindful that all Italian synths make you press Enter before a programme becomes playable, whizz through the 96 factory sounds without ripping open the manual. There's a 32-character display screen to help you, cursor keys, and of the course the dreaded Enter button. Making life easier still, Elka have actually printed the names of the presets on the control panel.
You'll be impressed. You'll be intrigued, then curious, quickly followed by lost, and finally stumped. Then you'll open the manual. Sadly, I only received a manual a day or so ago — a week after the instrument was hoiked back - but on reading it, many unfathomable aspects of the EK-44 have begun to make sense.
The sounds are varied. You are presented with not only a range of (sotto voce, vor favor — or is that Spanish?) Yamaha style percussive and clangorous tones, but also a whole bunch of surprisingly warm and swirly ones. Ah, there's a chorus. Very smart idea. As it comes, the range of plug in and play sounds is wide and of high quality; but it would be a waste of time to buy the EK-44 if you're not prepared to put in some effort and actually make the instrument work for you. If you just want a bunch of Yamaha-type sounds, buy a DX synth and a load of ROMs. Good though the EK-44's sounds are, it's how they can be applied that singles this instrument out from the pack.
I'll come on to the voice structure in a minute, but let's took at how the EK-44 can be controlled. For a start, the 5-octave keyboard is velocity and aftertouch sensitive, and weighted of sorts, though 'stiff' might be a more accurate description. Not only can programmes be played in pairs (split left and right or layered) while still retaining very impressive 9-note polyphony, but the keyboard can be multi-split into eight individual sounding areas, each blessed with its own MIDI channel number, in which case the polyphony count is sort of 'first come, first served'. Although there may be few occasions when you'll need quite such a sectionalised arrangement for actual playing, the feature of individual MIDI channel number assignment makes the EK-44 a perfect candidate for use with MIDI sequencers.
However, as a 'performance' instrument the EK-44 has several labour-saving devices up its sleeve. Heading the cast must be the 16 performance memories which can store all split and multisplit data and relative volumes, as well as sundry Function Parameter settings which I'll come to shortly. The performance memories can either be stored internally or offloaded on to cartridge, so infinitely increasing the eventual capacity. Seeing as this is a performance feature, Elka have sensibly allowed you to recall the performance memories via 16 centrally located push buttons. But if even this seems to arduous, you can store a sequence of performance memories in the programme sequence recorder and access them in turn from an MP7 footswitch.
Coupled with the above, the presence of portamento, a lone flipper-type mod/pitch lever and a reasonably informative and easy to read display screen, the EK-44 is as ideal a player's instrument as you could hope for in this price range.
So how are the sounds produced? Well, any fool can see that something akin to FM must be happening, just by listening to the sounds and looking at the control panel, which lists parameters with names such as 'level and envelope scaling', 'pitch envelope type' and 'feedback'. What seems to be happening is this: you have two basic sound generators called DCGs (Digital Control Generators) which in turn house two groups of four digital oscillators, all of which generate basic sine waves. The two groups of four oscillators are called Sound 1 and Sound 2. Though each oscillator can be changed in pitch and given individual envelope shapes and individual volumes etc., it's how they react with each other that holds the key to the type of sound that results. If the outputs of all the oscillators are simply totted up at the end, you'll produce a rather flat, lifeless sound. If, on the other hand, certain oscillators are set to modulate each other, then you'll start producing harmonics and overtones and all sorts of gloriously unpredictable noises and effects. The information concerning precisely what all these oscillators are doing to each other lies in the Oscillator combination section, in which eight permutations (or should we call them algorithms?) await your inspection. You can just flip through these algorithms and hear the different character that each lends to your sounds, just like on a DX. Obviously this whole concept is distinctly FM-ish, and I don't think it's stretching the point to think of the instrument as being an exploded form of 4 operators/8 algorithm instrument like a DX9, 21, 100 or 27.
In the same way as you can simply work on one operator on a DX, you can work on one oscillator here; varying the pitch (out of sight at both ends of the spectrum), detuning slightly, shaping it with a 5-stage envelope generator, altering the volume, the keyboard scaling and the velocity sensitivity. And then there's a whole bunch of global controls that govern all the oscillators in a 'sound'. These comprise the Oscillator Combination (already mentioned), feedback, octave, transpose, detune, pitch envelope attack-decay-level-type, various vibrato parameters, repeat, chorus and overall volume.
I'm not going to pretend that I'm now an EK-44 expert. Sorry: not in one week with no manual. But although I can't claim to have exactly seen God, I began to get an idea of the vast potential that this instrument offers. Undoubtedly some experience of the DX isn't going to go amiss, although there are many differences. And if this similarity to FM sounds like a lot of hard work to you, the EK-44's control panel — smothered with diagrams of the envelope systems, preset names and edit parameters, along with the generally most informative display screen — does at least try to be a little more forthcoming (on all but the Oscillator Combination front, that is).
And finally to the Function parameters — again, overall controls mainly relating to performance-orientated aspects of the instrument that can be stored along with programme combinations in the 16 performance memories. Most of these function parameters are standard fare: modulator controls pertaining to the keyboard (after touch) or mod wheel, pitch bend ranges, portamento, detuning, transposing, and a very strange feature under the name of Arabian Scale (of which no one I've spoken to has ever heard) and which either wasn't working on the sample I reviewed or else is some form of microtonal exercise whose effect is too minimal for the naked ear to discern. Either way, frankly, who cares? The thing is, the EK-44 is nothing if not a welcome breath of fresh air. Assuming that retailers, already spoiled for choice by the major Japanese manufacturers, give the instrument a chance, it's certainly worth a long, hard, serious look and listen. As a 'bagful of new sounds' keyboard it's certainly good enough to succeed, but considering its enormous potential in control terms, thanks mainly to the multi-split feature, keyboardists of all levels and persuasions should find it hard to resist.
More from Elka-Orla Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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