Did Gem fix it?
Italian clothes in the shops, Italian football on the box - what next, Italian workstations? Well actually...
The home keyboard's traditional image is one of a cheap 'n' cheerful 'toy' instrument designed to attract the budget-conscious musical beginner. Yet today, this sort of keyboard represents one aspect of a much more diverse keyboard market, a market that includes 'flagship' keyboards which typically match pro synths in sophistication and price. This technological flowering is due in no small part to synth companies like Roland and Yamaha bringing their technology to the keyboard market in recent years, and in the process setting standards of technical excellence which other keyboard companies have had to match in order to compete effectively.
With instruments like the WS1 and WS2 Keyboard Workstations and the WS400 Piano Workstation, Italian company Generalmusic's Gem range is positioned at the sophisticated, expensive end of the keyboard market. The company have made the necessary R&D investment to produce instruments which provide sample-based, programmable sounds, drum kits, dual programmable effects processors, a multitrack sequencer and a 3.5" disk drive - in other words, all the features of a workstation instrument, whether it be synth or keyboard. But because the WS instruments are keyboards they also have built-in speakers and the inevitable auto-accompaniment section. Increasingly, then, it seems that the differences between synth and keyboard are ones of presentation rather than substance. At the same time, a growing number of keyboard owners are buying into the wider hi-tech world of synths, samplers, drum machines and sequencers, thanks to the omnipresent MIDI connection. Against this background, Generalmusic's entry into the synth market with the S2 workstation synth seems like a logical next step for the company - and, despite the fact that some synth players may still be put off by its home keyboard associations, for the Gem name.
Clearly, Generalmusic are aware that it's not enough for a synth to be serious, it has to look serious as well. The S2's sober black casing, large backlit LCD and sleek, low-profile buttons, sliders and infinite rotary dial certainly do the job here; at the same time, the build quality feels reassuringly solid. All in all, this is an instrument which can sit comfortably alongside synths from the established names. At the same time, a couple of stylish design twists, in the form of the curvaceous pitchbend and mod wheels and the bulbous Enter button, subtly differentiate the S2 from the pack. As does its unusual and, to my mind, fiddly method of selecting tracks and functions using two columns of small triangular buttons to the left and right of the central LCD.
Generalmusic have set their synth apart from the competition in a more significant way by opting to fit it with a keyboard which is responsive to individual key pressure. The keyboard's moderately weighted action gives it a satisfying feel in performance, substantial yet not heavy going. For those players who find the S2's 61-note keyboard restricting, the company have also introduced a 76-note version of the synth, the S3. This uses the same keyboard action as the S2 and is the same instrument in every other respect.
At the heart of the S2 is a collection of 209 samples and waveforms. The standard of the sampling is on a par with that provided by the more established competition, but then there's no reason why it shouldn't be - the keyboard market which Generalmusic are used to catering for demands quality samples just as much as the synth market does.
As with the S2's appearance, Generalmusic have placed the emphasis on fitting in with current expectations in the range and selection of samples provided. Thus there's a familiar spread of sampled sounds ie. acoustic and electric pianos, harpsichords, tuned percussion, acoustic and electric guitars and basses, strings, brass, wind and vocals, together with standard synth waveforms, more off-the-wall digital waveforms, synth pads and various noise and atmospheric sounds, plus some 60 drum and percussion samples covering kit and Latin sounds, with a few different kicks, snares, toms and hi-hats for variety.
The S2's collection of drum and percussion sounds doesn't come near to matching either the number or the variety of sounds typically provided on a sub-£500 drum machine these days, but it's not alone among workstation synths in this. Of course, you could always load further drum and percussion sounds into its onboard 2Mb sample RAM. At present, samples can only be loaded in from the S2's built-in 3.5" floppy disk drive, but with a planned software update - or 'Option' as Generalmusic call it - you'll be able to transfer samples into it via MIDI in Sample Dump Standard format. This and any other Options will be loadable from floppy disk, rather than made part of a ROM upgrade.
Unfortunately, the S2 doesn't have an SCSI port, so fast sample transfer is out of the question, as is hard or optical disk storage of samples - doubly disappointing when you realise that the synth's sample RAM isn't battery-backed.
The instrument's synthesis architecture consists of oscillator, filter, amplifier and pan stages, with envelope generators for all four stages and a single LFO which can be applied to any of the first three. The resulting sound is called, logically enough, a Sound. Generalmusic have managed to provide a lot of flexibility within this familiar framework. For example, there's a pair of two-pole state variable filters, configured in series, which can each be set to low pass, high pass, band pass, parametric cut, parametric boost or off. Each filter can be assigned its own cutoff point, resonance amount, velocity sensitivity amounts for cutoff and resonance, cutoff aftertouch sensitivity amount, and output gain. Generalmusic's digital implementation of cutoff and resonance is one of the most successful I've come across.
The S2 allows you to program separate key on and key off envelopes for each of the four stages (though not for each filter). Each envelope can have up to ten segments, with time and level programmable per segment. You can also program each key-on envelope to loop between its final segment and any one of the earlier segments - effectively, loop until release. The S2 also gives you dynamic control over the key-on envelope's attack rate and the overall key-off envelope rate.
As if this wasn't enough, you can also alter the effect of each envelope across the keyboard by programming a tracking envelope for it - so that, for instance, key on and key off segment times can be longer in the lower register of the keyboard than they are in the upper. All in all, the envelopes allow you to create Sounds which have a lot of movement in them. As, of course, does the LFO. It's possible to set separate LFO mod depth and touch response amounts for pitch, filter 1, filter 2 and amplitude, though the LFO waveform and rate are common to all.
As an alternative to in-depth editing, you can edit a Sound's volume, attack rate, release rate, filter 1 & 2 cutoff, and pan position parameters quickly at any time using the front-panel sliders - and then Save the results as a new Sound if you want. For the most part, then, the S2's synthesis architecture is well specified. However, although it gives you two oscillators it doesn't let you layer different samples or waveforms within a Sound; instead, when you select a source sound the S2 automatically assigns it to both oscillators. You can then detune the two oscillators against one another if you want to create a fatter sound.
The synth has a special type of Sound, known as a Sound Patch, which does let you assign different sounds to each oscillator - but for the purpose of velocity-switching between them. For instance, a Sound Patch called 'Rhodx' switches between soft and hard Fender Rhodes samples in response to the strength of your playing; another, 'Dyn Flute', lets you bring in an overblown flute by playing more forcefully.
Sound Patches also let you assign a different source sound or pair of source sounds to each key - a primary application being the creation of keyboard 'drum kits'. You can program volume, pan, transposition, fine-tune, exclude, and effects routing values for each side of the velocity split on each key and set the velocity splitpoint itself per key. However, in exchange for this greater flexibility you have to forgo the synthesis architecture available for the Sounds.
If you have a disk in the drive on power-up, the S2 automatically loads in any Sound, sequence, sample and other data on the disk - otherwise, it powers up with 'just' the ROM Sounds available. In fact, these Sounds give you a large and quite varied selection of voices to work with, covering the usual range of instrumental samples with reasonable proficiency, but also providing plenty of synthetic sounds, some of which have an unmistakably modern digital sharpness, others a satisfyingly smooth, full analogue quality (though the S2 is actually an all-digital synth).
'Filter Res 1', for instance, provides the classic smooth filter-swept sound with looping filter and pan envelopes adding to the sense of movement. 'Decay 05', on the other hand, is a punchy, percussive sound, based around a sawtooth wave which ranges in character from a bassy click to a bright 'whap' sound in response to velocity, thanks to filter resonance and a high cutoff touch sensitivity setting. There are some great analogue-style synthbasses in a similar vein, nicely balanced by a selection of powerful, hard-edged digital basses.
Classic full, rich analogue-style pad sounds are also in evidence - for instance, 'Synthex 4' a reminder that Generalmusic were behind the Elka Synthex, a much-rated analogue synth released back in 1984. At the same time, the S2 is able to provide the sort of breathy instrumental sounds and atmospheric pad sounds popularised in more recent years by the M1.
Individual Sounds don't tell the full story of the S2's sonic capabilities. This is because Sounds are organised into Performances consisting of up to 16 Tracks with one Sound per Track. Each Performance can have four sources: Local (the S2's keyboard), MIDI In, Song and Option. Sound assignments are common to all sources. The Local source can be set to single, layer, split or multi Sound assignment. Layer and split both use Sounds assigned to two adjacent Tracks in the Performance; by selecting a different lower Track you automatically call a different pair of Sounds onto the keyboard within the same Performance. The S2's ROM Performances include some wonderfully full, rich pad sounds produced by layering two Sounds on the keyboard in this way.
The Multi keyboard assignment allows you to build up some massive sounds for keyboard performance by layering more than two Sounds. Multi also lets you set different delay times for each Track, so you can create smoothly evolving sounds or rhythmic sequences; and by transposing individual tracks you can create pitch sequences which can be played from a single note.
A Performance's MIDI In source actually allows you to define Local and MIDI input and output routings for all 16 Tracks of a Performance. Each Track can be triggered by Local and/or MIDI input, and can be set to play internally and/or via MIDI. You can also set which MIDI In(s) and which MIDI channel a track will respond to, and which MIDI Out(s) and which MIDI channel it will transmit on. So, a Track needn't actually be used for its Sound - it can simply provide a means of routing an incoming MIDI signal to one or both Outs and rechannelising it if necessary. You can also get the S2 to filter out selected MIDI data for each incoming MIDI channel.
Further MIDI control is available via the front-panel sliders and their associated buttons, which can be used to transmit MIDI controller data when you select User mode. Each slider and button is routed to a single Track, and therefore transmits on a single MIDI channel via one or both Outs. Controller assignments are programmable per Performance.
With the Song source selected you can select Tracks for recording in the sequencer and mute individual Tracks at any time. The Option source, on the other hand, is undefined at the moment - awaiting the arrival of some... er, Options.
Effects are assigned to a Performance rather than to individual Sounds. One processor can be assigned a reverb or early reflection effect, the other a modulation effect such as chorus, flanger, phaser, delay or echo. You can assign each processor an effect level and determine effect routing for each Track. However, effects programming is done within the S2's Effects Libraries rather than the Performance.
Each processor has its own Library which can consist of up to 64 user-programmed effects with each effect drawing on one of 16 effect types. The reverb effects have five or six parameters eg level, room size, attenuation, diffusion, filter type and filter frequency for the stereo reverbs, while the modulation effects typically have four programmable parameters eg. level, feedback, depth and frequency modulation for Phaser 1-3. Effects quality is well up to the general standard expected nowadays.
Up to 10 Songs can be stored onboard the S2, with 10 Performances available for each Song. The 16-track sequencer provides real-time replace and overdub recording with a maximum resolution of 192ppqn and lets you use quantisation on and/or after recording. You can record on multiple Tracks at once, so keyboard layer, split and multi textures can be used within a sequence.
In addition to the 16 instrument Tracks, the sequencer provides a Master Track into which you can record tempo, master volume and effect level changes. Familiar record, stop, play, fast forward and rewind transport controls are implemented on dedicated buttons below the LCD screen, while a return-to-zero function is available by pressing the Stop button twice.
Detailed, step-by-step editing of all recorded data is possible using the Microscope edit function. Other song edit functions allow you to erase, move and copy events, transpose and quantise a track, insert and delete bars across tracks and set a fixed velocity value or offset recorded velocity values within a track.
The S2 is an instrument which demands to be taken seriously - no doubt this was Generalmusic's intention when they designed it. It sits very comfortably alongside other workstation synths in its price bracket, providing the quality and range of sounds and the complement of features expected from this type of instrument nowadays - even down to the trendy front-panel edit sliders and onboard sample RAM.
Yet the S2 is no mere copycat instrument. Generalmusic haven't been afraid to put their own imprint on the synth, and as a result it has its own character. It also has its own characteristic sound, a sound which provides richness, smoothness and fullness coupled with clarity, presence and dynamism - a good mixture in anyone's book. Worthy of particular appreciation is its ability to provide both digital sharpness and analogue-style smoothness with equal success. Those resonant filters and 10-segment loopable envelopes are also strong points in the synth's favour, as are its sophisticated MIDI routing and control options and a well-specified onboard sequencer with a sizeable event memory.
All in all, the S2 provides the Gem name with a very assured and impressive entry into the synth market. As such, it's an instrument which shouldn't be overlooked just because it doesn't have an established synth manufacturer's name on its casing.
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Review by Simon Trask
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