PS. I Love You
Korg's PSS-50, your portable backing band
Gunther Carstensen is seduced by Korg's PSS-50, the programmable backing band.
Every musician would love nothing better than to tell his own backing group what to play and how to play it.
Manufacturers have long since recognised this. In fact, the boom in home recording equipment probably derives from it. In the past, a fine balance had to be struck between costs and the possibilities that such equipment could offer in terms of flexibility. Enter Korg's new Programmable Super Section which features not only digitally stored drum patterns but also a walking bass and an accompaniment for each pattern. And to this you can sing or play an instrument over the top. But this is only the starting point of what the Super Section PSS-50 can do. There is much more.
Let's begin with the basics. The PSS-50 comes in a dark grey plastic casing of which the front is almost completely taken up by what at first sight is a confusing array of knobs, charts and keys. For convenience the front panel can be divided into basically three sections. In the top left hand corner are the display indicators. Their status depends on what mode you are in. An LED indicates whether the Super Section is playing a pattern or a song in which case the next indicator shows either the key of the pattern or the song number. Moving further to the right you can see which chord is being played and the pattern number. Again in the song mode this lets you know the chain step as well as the bar number of the song. Four LEDs which light up in time of the beat act as a visual conductor. Confused? You won't be because it all ties in very neatly.
Underneath this section we come to the pattern chart which consists of 8 columns by 8 rows. Of these 5 columns are taken up by preset patterns, such as NewWave, Disco, Hard Rock, Latin Rock, Shuffle, etc. giving a total of 40 patterns, one column provides you with 8 breaks and endings while the last two marked Arrangeable are left for you to fill. This last one is a great feature as it allows you to combine, for example, a 16-beat rhythm with, say, a boogie bass and a fusion accompaniment as well as storing the fill-ins you want. Korg have worked out how many different patterns you thus have at your disposal. Suffice it to say that it'll take considerably more than a lazy Sunday afternoon to try them all out.
To the right of the pattern chart are two rows of rotary knobs. The five slightly smaller rotaries in the top row allow you to adjust the relative levels of the rhythm, the bass, the accompaniment and the external input of, say, a guitar or your vocals as well as providing control over the stereo image of the sound. Below these you find the tempo control and the master volume control. Moving along to the right we have the centre piece of operations. No modern piece of equipment is without its mode selector, and this one lets you switch the PSS-50 on or off, check the batteries and tune your instrument or, for that matter, your vocal chords. You can also select the Song Chain, Play, Write and Arrange modes. More of these modes later.
Probably the most confusing section to the uninitiated is the last one. The left half is taken up by a set of touch sensitive push buttons, the so-called Chord Keys which have a range of one octave from C to B. Above these is a row of eleven buttons which allow you to choose just about any usual chord you'd care to mention, such as minor 6 or 9 or major 7, even diminished or suspended 4. Obviously these work in conjunction with the chord keys. If you want F# major 9, no problem, you simply press the corresponding buttons and the PSS-50 will play the selected pattern in that key and indicate the chord on the display panel. All these buttons have dual functions according to the mode the Super Section is in. For example, the keyboard buttons can be used to transpose the key of a pattern or song you have written while in addition to that the six buttons from C to A change their function in the Arrange mode. Likewise, part of the top row in this section is used to dump the data in the PSS-50 onto tape while the other buttons are used when editing sequences programmed in the Write or Song Chain modes.
Now then, time to take a deep breath in order to decode what at first glance may have the appearance of the control panel of the Space Shuttle. The centre of this segment is taken up by a numerical pad consisting of two rows of four buttons each. These allow you to either select a pattern or access one of the songs you have programmed. Arranged around these number keys are eight function keys. Pressing the pattern/song key alters the display of the first section and the number key mode. You can access the song memory with the chord and pattern buttons. The clear/all clear key erases a pattern or the whole content of a specified song memory. And if you want to write chord names, pattern numbers and song memory numbers into the memory you simply press the enter key. Below the number keys are a count start/fill-in button which either gives you a drumstick lead-in or produce a fill-in during play and the start/stop key which is self-explanatory.
"The PSS-50 has 8 song memories each of which has a storage capacity of up to 80 bars giving a grand total of 1280 bars when you chain the song memories together. And this may even be enough to bring the concept album back into fashion!"
Compared to these facilities the back of the PSS-50 which houses the connections and a few controls is simplicity itself and can quickly be dealt with. They are Tune, to adjust the pitch of the unit to other instruments, an input jack for instruments or a mic, an attenuator to match the external input signal level, stereo outputs, a headphone jack, a tape switch plus the tape interface section and the connection for the AC adapter which comes with the PSS-50. Another useful feature are the foot switch jacks which let you control the start/stop and the fill-in functions by remote control.
The easiest way to get to know all that the PSS-50 has to offer is to go through one or two examples. To write a particular chord progression to a preset pattern you set the mode selector to Write and press the pattern/song key if the song LED on the display panel does not light up. Now choose any of the number buttons from 1 to 8 and make sure that the LEDs above the chord and pattern keys are on. You erase the memory content of that particular song number by pressing the clear key while holding down the function button. After hearing a click which lets you know that the function has been performed you can start programming to your heart's content; well almost, since in this basic mode you can only select a pattern from the pattern index and programme the chord changes that you want. This, incidentally takes place in steps of half a bar at a time. Fill-ins and a suitable ending can also be stored. After choosing a chord or fill-in you just press 'enter' and commit it to memory.
That may do for a start but soon you'll want to write songs or create your own backing patterns in the Arrange mode. The PSS-50 has 8 song memories each of which has a storage capacity of up to 80 bars giving a grand total of 1280 bars when you chain the song memories together. And this may even be enough to bring the concept album back into fashion! To make sure that the program has been correctly entered you just set the selector mode switch to Play, confirm that the LEDs above 'chord' and 'pattern' are on and hit the start button. If you find that you have made a mistake the PSS-50 lets you edit the sequence step-by-step. And for this there is really no better reference than the excellent manual.
Now what does the PSS-50 sound like? Korg certainly have not cut corners as far as the drums are concerned having used digital PCM technology for the percussion sound sources. The drums consist of hi-hat, snare, bass drum, low and high toms and handclap. There is, of course, no way to beef up these sounds — after all the PSS-50 is no drum computer, but on patterns such as Hard Rock and Heavy Metal they did sound a bit thin. On others, particularly the Latin rhythms this was a positive advantage.
However, on the whole they were more than acceptable. The bass, too, sounded OK to me, yet I must admit that the accompaniment fell somewhat short of my expectations. It is supposed to include guitar, organ, piano, strings, brass, synth, etc, but it really sounded like an up-market organ or electronic piano.
Apart from being stuck with those accompaniment sounds (to which you can, of course, add your own with a guitar or keyboard) there is perhaps a more important point and that is that although you can arrange different rhythm, bass and accompaniment patterns, you are still left with those accompaniments and they either fit in with your musical imagination or they don't, for it shouldn't be the other way round, should it?
Having said that it is only fair to point out that having decided on this package Korg have done their best to transcend the limitations which are obviously inherent in its design. You can select just about any chord, choose from 40 patterns, write and edit whole songs including breaks and fill-ins, etc. etc. That this great range of possibilities is also reflected in the price — the PSS-50 retails at £445 — only shows the dilemma Korg's designers must have been facing: cut corners and offer less in order to keep the price down or exploit the existing technological possibilities in order to present a truly versatile backing system. I think they have made the right choice. As evidence I can only cite the many enjoyable hours I spent getting acquainted with my new backing musicians and letting them know in no uncertain terms how I wanted those songs played.
Review by Gunther Carstensen
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