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The Complete Synthesizer Buyer's Guide

Looking for a new synthesizer keyboard or module? Confused? You won't be, after you've read this! Julian Colbeck presents a complete survey of all current instruments, plus a look at the past, present and future of the synth market.

A glance down the chart on page 32 will reveal, to even the newest of recruits to hi-techdom, that the sound generation system referred to as "S+S" — sampling plus synthesis — has been something of a winner. The combination of sampling for sound origination with analogue-type processing (ie. LFO modulation, digital filters, amplitude envelopes etc.) has been the technology of the '80s.

Of course, Roland called it LAS (Linear Arithmetic Synthesis), Korg called it AI (Advanced Integrated Synthesis), and Yamaha called it all manner of things. Yes, of course each manufacturer has taken a different route, and succumbed to different diversions along the way. But essentially they have all been going to the same place.

The reason for this is fundamental: first impressions. Your first impression of a sound, ie. its attack, dictates its suitability, and your judgement of its basic quality. When it comes to attack sounds, no technology can surpass sampling in producing the goods quicker, cleaner, sharper, cheaper, and in a wider choice of timbres.

Yet whether we think of it like this or not, synthesizers are part of the fashion industry. And though the D50 and the M1 ruled the second half of the '80s, spreading their chiff'n'pick followed by gooey washes over everything from Quincy Jones to Jesus Jones, the false dawn 'return to analogue' merchants have at least made one thing clear: we need something different for the 1990s.

In a recession, musical instruments cannot compete with food. Or mortgages. Or even holidays. But keyboards have been hit harder than most. I suspect the reason is that people have become confused, bored, and intimidated. Every month a new 'wondersynth' is trumpeted in these pages. How can they all be so wonderful? How can they all be so essential? How can they all be so obtainable.

Taken individually of course, they can. When I review, say, an Ensoniq SD1, I feel a depth and quality that inclines me to state that this is a most powerful and complete instrument. If, now, you were to hoover two grand out of your savings in order to take up this new hobby (or career) called keyboard playing then, yes, this could be regarded as an essential purpose.

But is it better than an 01/W? Or an SY99? Or a K2000? No it is not. And the problem facing both consumers and manufacturers is not that the SD1 is no better than an 01/W or SY99 because it is so different. Fundamentally, the problem is that it is so similar. Worse — it is also similar to an SQ2 and a VFX-SD, FD, OBE or whatever.

Trying to establish the differences — between the members of Korg's T-series, between the various Protei, between the assorted Roland Ds, the Yamaha SYs and TGs — has been quite the most arduous aspect of conducting this survey. Adding insult to injury, then, is the fact that despite enormous basic similarities between current synths, there are enormous differences in how each instrument achieves the same goals.

MIDI has standardised a considerable amount, and we should all be thankful for that. But if manufacturers are going to keep beating a path to the same door, they might at least agree on some of the ground rules; a good start would be agreement on the terminology for the smallest accessible part of a sound, for a multi-timbral setup, for a MIDI port layout etc.

The question, of course, is should they be trying to create fashion as opposed to following it, and the answer is "damn right they should be". I say this not out of purism, but out of realism. All the best-selling [and arguably the best, period. Ed] instruments in synthesizer history have been fundamentally different from what has gone before: the MiniMoog, the Prophet 5, the DX7, the D50, the M1. Clones can only hope to pick up the scraps.

The 1980s was the decade in which the impression of Japanese synths shifted from brash and cheap — consumer rather than musician-oriented — to one of cutting edge design and impeccable design and impeccable reliability. I'm sure the companies concerned will take no offence when I say that they have attempted — and almost succeeded — to kill off the rest of the world's synth manufacturers. But for an uncharacteristic deaf ear to the needs of their consumers they would have succeeded, too. In the early days Japanese companies listened and reacted. However, perhaps the confidence bred by feeling in control of the market has allowed American and European companies, who know they must evaluate and listen to people's needs in order to survive or gain a toe-hold in the market, to steal a march on the Japanese.


The re-emergence of Oberheim and Kurzweil, the entrance of Peavey, the newly adopted aggressive street-smart attitude of Emu, and the streamlining of Ensoniq will, I suspect, give the powers that be in Osaka and Tokyo plenty to chew on, if not choke on, this Frankfurt and beyond. Although Japanese products dominated the 1980s, they were often made possible only by foreign research, as in FM synthesis or sampling technology.

Whether another apparent current trend will also be adopted and adapted by the Japanese is open to question, but for the time being the shift towards flexible design — seen in varying degrees on Peavey's DPM synths in 1990-91, the Proteus family, and on the Kurzweil K2000 in 1992 — seems an American obsession.

Though the essence of the idea is both sound and exciting, manifestations to date have either been overly complex, or expensive as in the upgrading of a Proteus 1 to add just half of a Proteus 2 Flexibility must be combined with simplicity and accessibility. It must also take the aforementioned fashion element into account. A new set of sounds or features is one thing, but there's nothing to beat the thrill of a new and physical box of tricks. This is, or could be, the future. What of the present.

There can be no better advice to give than my stock answer whenever I'm asked "should I buy this now, or wait for XYZ to come out in a couple of months?" (And believe me, I'm asked this so often I'm tempted to get an 0898 number so I can some money out of just sitting on the phone.)

My answer is this: while you're waiting for XYZ to a) come out, b) get into the shops, c) get debugged, and finally d) do half of what you thought it was supposed to do, the smart people have nipped into the shops already, and are busy making money or just getting pleasure out of an instrument that is currently available. A friend of mine bought an Emu EII sampler at the height of its price and the worst of the Dollar-Pound exchange rate. I thought he was mad. But in the time it took for cheaper samplers to appear and the exchange rate to improve he'd got so much work from simply having an EII that he couldn't care less.

Jumping in is one thing. Sinking or swimming once you've taken the plunge is another. If the recession has any merit at all, it is that we are being forced to get our money's worth from our purchases. The days of the 6-month synth are over. It's not just that instruments must be able to do more. We must learn how to do more with them.

This takes time. It takes explanation. It takes a certain amount of investment from the manufacturers, distributors and retailers. It also takes perseverance and patience from the consumer. It involves better and more easily understood basic design, better software, better manuals, and better after-sales service. Some of the money so liberally spent on marketing in the 1980s had better be diverted into providing musicians with the expertise to get value for money from their purchases if the whole synth industry is to survive the next decade.

How can I affect the situation? Isn't this all a bit 'industry'? Not a bit of it. If you as a consumer make your feelings known to manufacturers — and your general lack of buying anything has already got their attention — then they will be forced into doing something about it.

The accompanying survey comprises instruments that are currently available new in the shops. As any good student of Keyfax (a book about current and older synths, written by some guy called Colbeck) will know, there are hundreds of older and highly reputable synths lurking in the second-hand columns as well.

When it comes to making choices, consider the following:

Don't buy unnecessary features unless there's no choice, ie. a sequencer on a workstation when you use Notator or Cubase anyway.

The upgrade factor: in an ideal world, ideal! But only if the upgrades are a) reasonable value, and b) actually of some use to you.

Sounds: if all you do want from a JD800 is someone else's sounds, be honest about it; save yourself a lot of money and buy a JX1 instead.

76-note keyboards. A complete waste of time if you're not going to use them by learning to play keyboards, as opposed to prod the odd note here and there, or need a serious master keyboard.

Don't be put off or fooled by marketing speak. There's a world of difference between a genuinely new technology and a company's new name for an old one.

Don't think you'll ever discover everything about any instrument. You're buying a ticket, not so much for the destination as the ride.

(Click image for higher resolution version)


The accompanying table lists the most important specifications of all current synthesizer keyboards and modules. Several instruments that are still available new in music stores are not included, because they are not part of current product ranges; we have to stop somewhere. Most of the categories are probably self-explanatory, but just to make it easy they are all explained below.

Price. This is the manufacturer's RRP. You may be able to buy cheaper than this by shopping around.

Format. Is it a keyboard, a rackmount module, or a 'desktop' module?

Sound Generation. What technique does the instrument use to create its sound?

Keyboard. Where appropriate: how long is the keyboard, does it transmit channel (Ch) or polyphonic (P) aftertouch data, and how are the keys weighted (S = synth action, W = weighted synth action, P= piano action)? Channel aftertouch means that pressing any or all keys as you hold them down generates the same modulation data; polyphonic aftertouch distinguishes between every key on the keyboard.

Sequencer. How many tracks are there, and how many notes can you record?

Polyphony. This is the maximum number of notes an instrument can play. In practice, polyphony is more limited as most sounds use more than one 'partial', or whatever the manufacturer chooses to call the equivalent sound element.

Programs. How many single and combination sounds does the instrument store in ROM (preset, permanent, immutable etc.) and RAM (you can change it!).

Multi-timbral. Effectively, how many independent instruments do you get in that one box. A surprising number of synths will let you assign a different sound to each of the 16 MIDI channels, but watch out for note-stealing if you get too carried away.

External Storage. What dedicated hardware (ie. an on-board disk drive or memory card slot) is available for data (sound, and perhaps sequence) data. SysEx storage via MIDI doesn't count.

Upgradability. Some manufacturers offer upgrade options for their instruments: extra chips or boards to add more sounds, for example. Third-party products may also be available.

Effects. Where applicable, how many different effects algorithms are there? Ch + R indicates chorus and reverb only.

MIDI. I = MIDI In, O = MIDI Out, T = MIDI Thru.

Audio. Most instruments have left and right stereo outputs, and a good many add separate outputs to which you can assign different sounds in a multi-timbral set-up; aux means a second set of stereo outputs (often 'dry', without the digital effects). If only separate outputs are indicated, at least two of them can probably be configured as a stereo pair.

Programming. A rough (and totally subjective!) indication of how powerful and easy to use are an instrument's sound programming facilities, on a scale of 1-10.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jan 1992

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Buyer's Guide

Feature by Julian Colbeck

Previous article in this issue:

> Making Your Own Video

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