Somewhere in the middle of this month's One Two, there's a brief interview with John Bowen, the man at Sequential Circuits largely responsible for this, their latest and cheapest polyphonic synth. Yes, the boys who brought you the Prophet 5 and the Prophet T8 have finally cracked the £1,000 barrier with Six-Trak.
John Bowen's explanation of the Six-Trak is that, barring a few fine adjustments or a dramatic advance in IC design, they've taken the analogue synthesiser chip about as far as it can go.
Strangely enough, on a nearby page, Roland president Mr Kakehashi is heard to counter that we only use about 20 per cent of the capacity of analogue chips.
The Six-Trak tempts me to go along with Mr Bowen, mainly because this synth is based on the same technology as preceding, under-a-grand, rival polyphonics — but does five times as much with it. Programmability, MIDI, in-built polyphonic sequencing... they're all here, but to a degree of finesse and control that has never been witnessed at this price.
To conserve on cash, Sequential have swapped to the incrementing system of programming. The various sections of the synth are split into parameters — 32 in all, including ADSR times for the filter and VCA envelope generators, waveform selection for the oscillators, and so on. All the usual basic control options are here. You won't locate any form of cross modulation, nor is there the poly-mod that made the Prophet 5 so well known for its smoothly modulated string sounds.
And there's only one oscillator which is the single backwards step, since most Korg and Rolands have two these days, enabling you to produce growling synced sounds and helping to thicken the sound. No chorus, either.
Sequential would doubtless reply that their VCOs are fat enough naturally without the need for artificial aural expansion. There's an element of truth in that, but there are certainly times when the Six-Trak's programs lack weight. This is not a Prophet 5, nor even a Prophet 600. But you could buy two for under £1600???
The parameters are listed in the centre of the front panel. Immediately to the right is an LED display and a set of control buttons for programming. Beyond them, a further ten buttons call up the programs and the parameters.
The buttons are small, square, grey pads of rubber which only need to be tapped lightly to trigger. The Six-Trak has 100 memories but no way of dumping them onto tape. I'm not sure that you'd need anymore. The inclusion of only one oscillator, does limit the variety of sounds a synth can make, and many of the factory loaded programs are repeats of, or just subtle alterations to the settings that have gone before.
The control section has three buttons. The first marked program, ensures that the keypad to the right calls up the memories and displays the choice in the two figure LED window. The second swaps to parameter; you punch in, say, 19, up it comes on the readout, and in this case you're ready to alter the VCF cutoff. One knob in the centre of the panel then becomes the control for that parameter. The final grey button will cause the LED to show the value so you have a numerical, as well as an aural guide to what you're doing.
Two points here, one good, one bad. Whoever laid out this panel needs to be shot. The parameter button is immediately behind the control knob, there's barely a quarter of an inch between them so you're always reaching over the top of the knob to get at the switches. That was the bad one.
The good one is that lots of recent, cheaper, incrementing keyboards have saved chip space by limiting the memory definition providing only eight different steps for the attack time perhaps.
The minimum value on the Six-Trak is 16 (shown in the window as 0-15), several are 32 such as the coarse and fine tuning, a few are 64, for example the filter resonance, and one, the filter cutoff, is 128. It runs from 0-99, and then when the control is about three-quarters of the way round, it goes back to 0 and starts again until it reaches 27. All the while the filter is getting brighter and brighter.
As a result, your programming and memory perfection can be greatly refined.
The sound of the Six-Trak is... er... unusual, certainly for Sequential who are normally renowned for having a warm heart and a hard punch. This keyboard is spikier, and, dare we say it, slightly more digital than normal. Yes, yes, I know that more hype is currently being attached to that word than to any single ever made by The Smiths, but us hacks are stuck for an alternative. There is a distinct, resonant iciness inherent in digital sounds, and the Six-Trak has its share. Perhaps it's Sequential's programmers recognising a trend in the market, and going after it with analogue mimickery. Running through the programs, it seems to have a lot to do with a very spiney square wave and a filter that promotes hollow, middlish frequencies.
For example, string settings are not gurgling orchestral washes, but owe more to quartets where you can clearly hear the rasp of a bow drawn across the strings. Piano voices are also clean and slightly metallic, brass is precise, not drunken, and there's a host of those wiffy, digital flutes that have elephant's breath passing through them.
Perhaps the Six-Trak isn't as warm or fulsome as its analogue rivals and predecessors, but then it does stand squarely between them and the straightforward digital Seikos, Casios, even certain cheaper Yamahas which are too cold nosed.
But this is only half the story. On the left of the control panel is the multi-track controller (and beyond that the pitch bend and modulation wheels which are mounted on the panel itself rather than by the side of the four octave C to C keyboard).
Firstly, it's a real time sequencer capable of holding 800 notes which can be split into two sequences. You could, if you liked, perform a straight six note poly sequence. Or you could record one monophonic line, then go back and overdub a second mono line, all the way up to the full half dozen. OR record two, then three more, then the final one, and so on — any permutation of six.
On playback, the six tracks (each has its own button and indicator LED), can be individually adjusted in the mix, and that mix will be remembered for the next playback. You can also assign new sound programs to each track once they've been recorded.
And what's more, the multi-tracker is ridiculously easy to use — possibly the most straightforward of on board sequencers I've come across, considering how much it can do.
First you press record, then select sequence A or B and decide how many notes you want to play on the first run. If it's a bass line, you only have to push one of the six track buttons at the top of the panel and its LED will light. As soon as you press the first key, it begins recording and stops when you tap the record button again. There's no metronome or bar length to worry about, and the Six-Trak will automatically loop what you've done. That's a matter of personal preference. I don't like self correcting sequencers that snip off your last note if it doesn't end precisely on the bar.
If you do prefer a more disciplined, metronomic approach, the sequencer can be clocked on via its MIDI inputs and Sequential obviously recommend the use of their own Drumtraks machine. Incidentally, by swapping the directions of the MIDI links, the lower notes of the Six-Trak can trigger the digital drum samples within the Drumtraks.
For overdubbing, you leave the loop playing, press record again then choose another set of tracks, maybe three for a chord accompaniment. The first time the loop plays, the record light blinks but nothing happens. It's only when the loop comes round for a second time that the light goes solid and you're able to add in the new notes — all the way up to the end of the sequence if you want, or stopping at any point. This, for example, is an improvement over Roland's JSQ-60 polyphonic sequencer where you have to overdub to the end of the line, otherwise the original track underneath will be wiped clean.
The ability to balance individual tracks — or take them out completely — and the potential for assigning each one of them a different sound after the event, makes the Six-Trak's performances incredibly full.
You're always free to edit out one or all tracks and record them afresh, and providing you don't fill all the channels, you can play along live on the keyboard.
Also worth noting that when you're accompanying yourself, you can alter your solo volume compared to that of the sequence, and you can apply the performance wheels without twitching the sequence about at the same time — matters which were overlooked in the Memory Moog's sequencer.
The total of 800 notes is not to be sneezed at. Many separately available sequencers such as the JSQ-60 are going for 2,000 and upward, but compared with other on board recorders, such as those included in the Korg Poly 800 and the Roland JX3P, the Six Trak does exceptionally well... especially as it's real, not step time.
And still we haven't reached the end of the line. The final talent proves what John Bowen had to say about exhausting the capabilities of analogue technology. Since Sequential have already divided their machine into six channels, why not do the same with the sound?
There are two further buttons in the multi-tracker area marked stack mode. With these you can 'mount' six different sound programs on top of each other to produce a monophonic synth of colossal power. Multi-timbrel is the word Sequential use, but then they are American.
So you could gather together an organ bass note, a brass note, a slowly developing string voice, a hint of clavinet, a piece of white noise and a weird, wobbling digitalesque special effect to finish it off.
And like the sequencer, each of those components can be mixed for level, and the resultant balance stored in Stack A or B. It's only a shame that they couldn't include more memory space for extra stacks as this is the Six-Trak at its most powerful. You have to go all the way back to the original Oberheim four voice (as ordered by Jo Zawinul) to find a match for that sort of ability.
Complaints?? Found the LFO a bit lumpy, could have done with a quick way of changing octaves since it is only a four-octave keyboard, and get that control knob moved. Otherwise, Sequential may not have come up with a sound that is much different from their rivals in the same price league, but they've certainly twisted technology to expand its application and your performance.
Review by Paul Colbert
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