One for the Rack
A sampling digital delay line from Korg - the SDD2000.
John Harris lends a critical ear to Korg's latest MIDI-controlled sampler, the SDD2000. A versatile processor for stage or studio as John Harris finds out.
My initial interest in the Korg SDD2000 was for live applications, with the monophonic sampling as an added bonus. After all, with keyboard players using computer systems to change programs for them via MIDI, I was starting to get jealous; why can't the humble guitarist take advantage of such technology? However, it soon became apparent that the Korg is an exceptionally useful tool in the studio, and at a price tag of nearly £800 this is as it should be!
Used as a conventional delay the SDD2000 has a delay time of up to 1092mS with a generous bandwidth of 30Hz-18kHz. Switching the maximum delay time to 4368mS, the bandwidth drops to 4.5kHz which is a bit of a shame as this precludes any serious studio application on this range. Although it might have been better to drop the bandwidth in stages, this would have caused complications from the sampling point of view, leading to an extra cost which Korg may have found prohibitive.
With 64 memory locations to choose from, all accessible via MIDI or program-up footswitch, the Korg has the edge on its competitors. Although there is a dump facility via appropriate MIDI software, there is no retrieval. In other words, you can keep a list of program and parameter values but you're still going to have to program in manually if you want to keep a library of effects over and above the 64 user memories - however, Korg probably reasoned (with some justification), that with 64 onboard memory locations you have more than enough already. Its nearest rivals in the context of MIDI-controllable delay units are the models currently marketed by Boss, Dynacord, and Yamaha which either don't have the amount of memory space, or are limited by a short delay time (approx. 750ms in the case of the Boss and Dynacord).
In its Trigger Overdub mode a footswitch, drum machine trigger, MIDI clock, or audio signal can be used to set the delay time, while in the Sampling mode you have the option of a 1092mS sample at full bandwidth, or a 4368mS sample at the reduced bandwidth of 4.5kHz. These samples may be triggered by any of the above means, as well as from a MIDI keyboard, and the Korg will accept Velocity and Note On/Off information. Unfortunately you are limited to only a root-major 7th interval at full bandwidth, and nearly three octaves at the reduced bandwidth, although you can choose which part of the keyboard you want to place your playing range. This does not compare favourably to the Akai or Powertran samplers, but then, the Akai is £300 more and although polyphonic, doesn't function as a DDL. As you can see, what we are dealing with here is some sort of a hybrid, one of the new breed of such, and there are already similar budget units (like the DOD) on the market.
The Korg colour scheme of yellow and blue is something that people either seem to love or hate at first sight, (although you can get used to anything quickly enough if you've paid a lot of money for it)! The legend of this rather deep (344mm) 1U rack-mounting unit is well laid out, and white against the dark blue background. One of the things you notice immediately is the incremental controller, because Korg have opted for a knob instead of the more standard buttons/switches. One reviewer has mentioned that this controller is a bit slow and awkward to use, but I don't think its action takes long to get used to, and having a pot here on the right gives the unit cosmetically a more well-balanced look, as the only other knobs on the front panel (Input and Direct Signal Mix) are on the left.
Moving from left to right we have firstly, the Input and Output sections comprising a green-yellow-red LED input meter (with max headroom set at +6db), Input level knob, and Direct Signal output controller. The input level is switchable on the rear panel from -35dB to -10dB so that it's easy to use with Line or high Z Mic levels, an important consideration for the sampling mode when you're not using the unit with a mixing desk. Output of the delay signal is programmable and controlled via the Effect switch in the programming section, with a choice of +mix and -mix (in phase, out of phase), and Direct Output jacks on the rear panel. This allows you to obtain some rather good and varied stereo chorus and flange effects.
A Bypass switch is also present as part of the output section and in common with the majority of switches on the SDD 2000 it is in the form of a black square pad with a red LED in the centre, bright enough to indicate clearly the status of the switch without being blinding. A Rec Cancel switch is also included, which stops any further recording into the DDL but lets what you have already recorded continue to repeat. You can then play over the top of a phrase or riff, but it will eventually die away whereas the Bypass will cut the DDL function immediately. Unusually the Korg has no Hold function as such. Perhaps they figured that with the Sequencer and Sample modes it was not necessary, but I feel it is a serious omission as you can't layer up sounds and hold them, because the unit will not sample or sequence from its own delay section.
Rec Trig overdub, Sequencer and Sampling switches make up the Rec Sync section, and illuminate to indicate which mode you are currently working in. To use the Trig, overdub facility trigger pulse, MIDI clock, and footswitch, are all input to the unit via jack and DIN sockets on the rear panel. In Sequencer-mode, phrases of up to 4368mS will repeat playback, and selecting Sample will access operation of the units sampling facilities. Both Seq. and Sample (if selected) recording begins automatically when the unit receives a +3dB input level and this causes the Rec. Sync switch to illuminate. Finally in this section a single red LED will flash each time the unit receives a pulse to trigger a sampled sound. All the switches in this section are linked to the six-digit green and red display giving information about each mode.
The SDD2000 can receive MIDI data via the MIDI In DIN on the rear panel, and one nice touch is the inclusion of a MIDI Thru output: a facility not always available. The usual 16 channels of MIDI are available and are shown on the display when the MIDI switch is held down and the incremental control rotated. The manual has a lot of useful information about MIDI, which makes a change from the days when a few perfunctory remarks were all that you got, and the SDD2000 will recognise Note On/Off, is Velocity sensitive, will pitch-bend to ±3 degrees, and Modulate 'up to Vibrato effect' in Sample mode, besides being playable from a MIDI keyboard. The unit can also be clocked and program changed from MIDI control. All in all, pretty useful, and in use very effective.
Modulation (Frequency and Intensity), Effect (Delay volume), Feedback, and Delay Time, whether x1 (up to 1092mS), or x4 (up to 4368mS) are programmable. The green 2-digit display shows the program number in seven banks of eight ie. 11-88. To access a program you press the white program switch and use the incremental control. When a program is selected the 4-digit, red data display always indicates the delay time and to access incremental control of this, or any of the other functions in this section you merely select the appropriate switch. At 10mS and below the readout is improved to read to one decimal point, enabling very accurate setting of flange and comb-filtering effects. Frequency, Intensity, Effect, and Feedback go from 0-31, but Feedback can also go to -31 for out of phase effects.
Whenever a parameter is altered a green dot appears next to the program number to indicate that the unit is in Edit. To program a change of parameter you simply depress the red Write switch whereupon the program number will flash, and further pressing will put the parameter into the memory; it's as simple as that! In fact it was so obvious what you had to do that I didn't even consult the manual before I was happily editing and storing to my heart's content. Another good feature of this unit is that if it's switched off while in Edit, when the power is restored the unit remains in Edit, displaying the same parameter value as it had when switched off; useful if there is a sudden power-cut.
On the rear panel Program Up may be accessed via footswitch as an alternative to MIDI control. This is very useful for live and studio work if you wish to change effect in the song-and the fact that the Effect attenuation may be programmed proves to be a very practical feature here. From the engineer/producer point of view, having a unit with so much memory enables you to store the effects you know and love and still have lots of program space left to experiment.
Last but not least on the rear panel is the fine tuner for Sample and Sequencer modes which is in the form of an innocuous small, black, knob with a centre detente. This lets you adjust the pitch of the reproduced sound by up to ±50cents, and once again proved an invaluable control.
As a DDL, the SDD2000 performs admirably, the repeat being so good that it's very hard to tell from the original signal in the x1 mode, with repeats which die away naturally. At the reduced bandwidth the quality and clarity of repeat is still good, however at both bandwidths some quantisation noise on bass frequencies is still in evidence.
The flange, chorus and ADT all have the classy, professional sound quality you'd expect from a unit in this price range, and the ability to exercise greater control over the shortest delay settings (below 10mS) is a positive bonus for flange and comb filtering. Add to this the three available outputs (Direct, +mix, -mix) and you have a variety of impressive stereo effects at your fingertips. Although having incremental parameter controls doesn't seem to encourage you to experiment or be as spontaneous as much as the old pots at first, you soon get used to them.
"From the engineer/producer point of view, having a unit with so much memory enables you to store the effects you know and love and still have lots of program space left to experiment."
Although the bandwidth drops after 1092mS I can't really think of many applications for using repeats longer than say, 750mS in a studio situation, so I think Korg have covered most eventualities in this department.
Selection of this switch changes the unit from the delay mode to Trig. Overdub and the display changes accordingly, showing whether you are in x1 or x4 mode. Pressing the flashing Rec. switch starts the delay time measurement on the display from 0-1092 or 0-4368mS, pressing again sets the delay time at the figure the display has reached. This is a useful feature in the studio if you are trying to match the repeat time to the tempo of the song, provided you've got a nimble finger and a good sense of timing you should be able to to get an approximation to the timing of repeats in quarter, eighth, or triplet times. Once an approximate time is set you can edit for accuracy and commit to memory. If you're feeling clever you can set a number of repeat times for each song and commit them to spare memory positions, enabling you to look smug in front of a client, while offering a variety of echo effects right up to the end of the session. A footswitch can also be used to set the delay time in this way.
For absolute accuracy in those sessions where a drum machine is being used the Korg will set the delay time from a trigger pulse. Or if fed a few trigger pulses the display will change from one to the other continuously until one of them is selected by depressing the Rec. switch at the right time. However, if the time between the triggers exceeds the maximum delay time set then the unit automatically goes to the max. delay. Rhythmic echo can be used to great effect on many sounds, but careful editing of the Feedback is necessary.
One of the most disappointing things about the Korg, and surely an oversight, is the fact that unlike say, a budget DDL like the Boss DE200, you cannot use pulses to trigger an actual repeat pattern in the DDL mode. Surely it would have required only a simple adjustment, because in Sample mode you can set up any trigger pattern you wish.
As its name suggests this mode is for repeat playback of recorded sounds, melodic phrases and so forth. It's a sort of Hold, but you can't layer sounds as on more conventional machines. Both Seq. and Sample modes are directly tied to the display. When either are selected the Time switch flashes, enabling you to change between x1 or x4 delay, displayed in green to the left of the screen with a three bar code indicating whether velocity sensing and note on/off information is being accepted via MIDI.
The unit automatically switches into record when the input level reaches +3dB with a red Rec legend appearing on the screen, but the recording may be stopped manually before the maximum delay time is reached by pressing Rec or using a footswitch. When recording is complete the display reads Play. As one reviewer noted, the Japanese must have a sense of humour after all because in x4 mode the display will now read x4 Play! In the Sample mode this is a little more complex and the unit goes through a short calibration routine once Rec has stopped and before you are able to Play.
In Seq. mode you hear the recorded sound as soon as recording is completed, but in Sample either a trigger or MIDI control is needed to reproduce the sample. Once the delay is set you can edit the various parameters the LED's of which will be flashing. More importantly the Time parameter can be edited, but unfortunately you can only shave off the end of the recording, so effective looping of non-percussive sounds like choral vocals is out of the question. In view of the competition from Akai and Powertran this is another serious omission.
Another possible criticism is that although you can change the pitch via a MIDI keyboard in Sequencer mode, you cannot trigger it from a drum machine or footswitch. This is reserved for the Sample mode.
This is straightforward enough, but a number of operations have to be set up. The first involves the 'supported note range' settings. Remembering that you are restricted to a major 7th interval in x1 delay, and just under three octaves in x4, the point on the keyboard from which the sampled note is to be played is of great importance. Using the Korg 'code' if you take C0 as the lowest C on a MIDI keyboard (most, like the DX7 have an octave above this as the lowest note ie. lowest note = C1) then it is worked out thus:
Setting the support note range involves holding down MIDI and Seq. buttons whereupon the display will show two sets of letters and digits eg; C4 B4 in red. The letter and number to the left of the display will flash, showing support note settings, to the right is the note on the keyboard at which the sample will be played back (at the pitch it was recorded at). Using the incremental control places the support note range anywhere you like on the keyboard, and incidentally, sharp's are indicated by a dot after the letter. The Sampled note may now be chosen, but of course, it can only be placed within the supported range. For example, if the Support range starts at C1 in x1 mode it could be placed anywhere from C1 to B1.
Setting the Sample note is of utmost importance if you wish to use a sampled sound to overlay an existing sound on a MIDI keyboard and play it in tune. For example, if you were to blow into a bottle, you should determine the note of that sound and match it to the correct note on the keyboard. You can then set this note as the Sample Note. If it's slightly out, then after recording the fine tuner can take care of that. Using this method you can play the sample at the right pitch and overlaying sounds is simple. Sounds with little relation to pitch can also be very effective, and ultimately it's all down to individual experimentation and taste.
Because the Korg is so easy to use for this function I had a lot of fun with the DX7 I was using with various blown and struck sounds. The unit also has multitriggering for those M-M-Max Headroom effects, although maybe that's a little too cliched now. Another very practical use of the sampling mode is the ability to trigger recorded drum sounds, different snares, percussion and so forth to replace the sometimes well-trodden sounds of the drum machine.
For this application the SDD2000 proved to be a real winner. As you are probably aware by now, there's always a slight delay before a sample is triggered. Even with the AMS it's about 6 or 7mS, and although that may seem a very small amount it can still be irritatingly audible. The Korg seems to have only a very slight delay resulting in a light flam effect. In practice, replacing a turgid drum machine snare with a good old ambient rim-shot snare (the x1 delay is long enough to capture quite a lot of ambience), proved to be no worse in terms of timing than the AMS with such a short delay that only a small change in the feel of the track was detectable. The Korg will also audio trigger off tape accurately to most hard percussive sounds. Again there is a slight delay, but nothing you can't get rid of by reversing the tape, and recording the delayed trigger onto a spare track.
When played from a keyboard there was no detectable delay. Reaction to Velocity data was also impressive. Editing the sample is possible, but as in sequencer mode you can only edit back from the end of the sample, but at least this is useful for getting rid of any unwanted noise after the sound has occurred and is quickly and simply achieved.
The unit automatically goes through a calibration process every time a new sample is taken to make sure that the pitch of the sound is reproduced accurately by the keyboard. This can also be performed manually if necessary in Rec. standby or after the sound has been recorded, but I found that I used it infrequently because the machine so accurately calibrated itself.
I liked this unit, despite the obvious drawbacks of its hybrid nature; no looping, no program retrieval, and only a limited note support at the best bandwidth. Little things like the Korg's inability to pass on information from Delay straight into Sequence and Sampling modes bugged me too, but the ease of operation made up for all of this. Having no sound dump (well, what do you expect at this price?) means that you have to get your own library of sounds onto 1/4" tape or cassette but I don't see this as a problem. Particularly impressive was the ease with which samples were triggered with a minimum delay from trigger pulses, drum machine voices, and off tape. The calibration system ensures accuracy of pitch reproduction when played from a keyboard, and the ease with which a sample from the unit and a keyboard voice may be layered is impressive. In view of the new competition on the sampling side from the price reduction of the Powertran MCS1 (now about £699) the facilities offered by the hybrid Korg as a sampler compare a little unfavourably. But if, like me, you need an all purpose unit for live and studio use with a lot of memory space, then it's certainly worthy of consideration.
Further information is available from: Rose Morris, (Contact Details).
Review by John Harris
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!