When Alesis launched the original Quadrasynth in early 1994, it was met with a mixed reception; the supremely high sound quality and huge 64-note polyphony was an obvious bonus, but the piano sounds didn't quite cut it, and the lack of resonant filters meant that the pallette of available sounds erred on the side of being 'safe' rather than breaking any new ground. In launching the Quadrasynth Plus Piano, Alesis have obviously addressed the piano problem, but what else is new, and how does the machine shape up against the latest competition?
Physically, the synth is virtually identical to its predecessor, and those unfamiliar with the instrument might like to look back over Martin Russ's in-depth review in the May '94 issue. The casework has changed from grey to black and the graphics have been improved, but the real changes are inside the box, where quite a lot is new.
After checking out the 'What's New in the 2.0 Plus upgrade' section of the manual, it seems that a lot of the original customer comments have been heeded. The biggest operational change is the way in which effects settings are stored. In the original Quadrasynth, these were stored in their own separate section within a bank comprising programs, mixes and effects. In its favour, this arrangement did allow you to try out different effects configurations on a program/mix very quickly. The only problem was that if you changed a program and tweaked the associated effects, you had to store both of them individually -- something that caught me out a few times. Furthermore, as more than one program could use the same effects patch, changing that patch could have an unforeseen knock-on effect on other programs. Now, in common with most other manufacturers, the effects settings are stored directly within the program, which makes a lot more sense.
Selection of a program is now, unlike on the original instrument, glitch-free; you can either punch in the program number using the number pad or use Quad Knob 1 while pressing the program key to 'dial' through the list. If you are using the +1/+10 keys, you automatically scroll over to patch 000 of the next bank when you go over patch 127 in the current bank.
If you're a previous Quadrasynth owner, like me, your memory banks will need to be re-formatted into the new style. This may sound tedious, but fortunately all you have to do to bring any old SysEx dumps up to date is simply load banks into your internal RAM, and re-transmit them immediately... remembering to save the internal RAM bank first! As for memory cards -- I dumped the contents of the card (all four banks) into my computer, re-formatted the card and then re-saved the data. The Quadrasynth Plus 'knows' that the programs are from the older version and deals with them accordingly.
Alesis has something of a track record in building digital effects, so you won't be surprised to learn that the Quadrasynth Plus offers something rather special in this department. The Quadrasynth Plus processor employs the same technology as used in the Quadraverb II and the Midiverb IV, giving direct access to four high-quality effects busses. A new algorithm has been added which includes a stereo Leslie effect, and I feel the reverbs sound nicer than before.
The very first impressions of any new keyboard rely heavily on the factory presets and, with only a few exceptions, these sounds are excellent. 'True Stereo' piano (ROM Bank 1 patch 000) is totally breathtaking, and the demo sequences are actually worth listening to if you want to get a feel for the sounds on offer.
Several new raw waveforms are included in the 8Mb ROM expansion (giving 24Mb in total), and these are arranged in two new groups, QSPlus and Rhythm. There are also a few additions to existing groups -- for example, 'Analog Kit', 'Brush Kit' and 'Tribal Kit' are additions to the Drums group. The 'Rhythm' bank, as the name suggests, is dedicated to rhythmic loops, and these are ideal for jamming or writing rough outlines.
Amongst other 'master keyboard' improvements, there's now greater control over the Quad Knobs (an opportunity completely missed in version 1.00). These can now generate any controller information for use internally and/or externally. This makes performance control far more flexible and interactive than before, and enables the instrument to function as a powerful master keyboard.
Another welcome enhancement is that you can now play sounds directly from the RAM card without having to overwrite the only internal user bank. The addition of three extra preset banks (including one General MIDI) brings program storage to five banks in total (four preset plus one user), plus a whopping eight on an industry-standard PCMCIA card. This means you can now access a maximum of 13 banks of 128 patches (over 1660 in total, before you leap for your calculators!) with the addition of 100 mixes per bank.
Last but far from least is the new option of loading your own samples into the Quadrasynth on a card capable of storing up to 8Mb of sample RAM, thereby allowing a certain amount of customisation. As the manual very clearly explains, SampleCell type I and II samples (including all key group, root notes, tunings, loop points, and so on), AIFF and SDII samples can all be compiled into a 'project' (Alesis-speak for a set of samples) on your computer and then downloaded via MIDI into Flash RAM or SRAM cards. You then insert the cards into the Quadrasynth's card slot to access the samples. The best thing is that there is no need for any SampleCell hardware! One of the new Quadrasynth's (few) bad points is that it has just the one card slot, and cards cannot be split to incorporate sample RAM and program/mix data, so you can only access one or the other at any one time. Happily, Alesis are planning a January '96 update to allow card splitting in exactly the way described above. This may not get around the current restriction on card size, however -- the manual mentions a maximum card size of 8Mb. As you can buy 16Mb Flash RAM cards, I wonder if Alesis have set this limit in the software. Compatibility with larger cards (with a lower price per Mb) would be better.
As creating custom sample cards is so easy (I did it first time!), I do hope that off-the-shelf sample card prices will be quite low. After two telephone calls I found a distributor who had both types of card in stock; SRAM was £135 for a 1Mb card, while the slightly cheaper Flash RAM prices ranged from £100 for a 1Mb card to £288 for 8Mb. Flash RAM cards do start as small as 256K though, which is sufficient for either four complete memory banks or three seconds of sample time. Alesis have included their own engineers' Sound Bridge card creation software free as an encouragement to the rest of us to experiment, although version 1.00 is only available for the Macintosh, and is only capable of processing mono samples. Once again, an update is on the horizon, as is a PC-compatible version.
If you already own the original Quadrasynth, and want to upgrade, you have two alternatives. The first is the simpler of the two -- sell your old one and buy a 'Plus'! However, the last batch of original Quadrasynths were 'chopped out' for around £799, and the Plus costs £1299, so this is likely to be an expensive route. Option two is to buy an add-on board which should upgrade your existing machine to the full version 2.00, but as it wasn't available at the time of writing, I wouldn't like to comment further. The projected price is between £250 and £300, so this will probably work out more cost-effective than selling off your old machine.
If you want access to just the additional waveforms, buy an 8Mb ROM card. Three cards will be available 'shortly', according to UK distributor Sound Technology: Pop/Rock, Piano and World Ethnic, at £225 each. If space is a major factor in your studio (ie. you haven't got any!), you could always consider the updated S4 Plus Piano rack module, which has a retail price of £899, £100 less than the original.
Though there are still no resonant filters, I feel that the Quadrasynth Plus Piano is a significant improvement on the original. I know that Martin Russ said this in his original article, but as it applies even more now I'll say it again: I really can see many people using this machine as their only sound source. With its large range of quality sounds, brilliant internal effects and the new 'matured' software, the Quadrasynth Plus Piano represents a truly professional editing environment. Check it out, even if the original Quadrasynth didn't make it onto your shortlist.
It's obviously impossible to describe the subtleties of synth sounds using mere words, but if you get a chance to play with a Quadrasynth Plus Piano, check out these presets to get a feel for what's on offer.
Bank 1 Program 000: TrueStereo -- an amazing stereo piano.
Bank 2 Program 003: DSP Acoust -- a thick 6-string.
Bank 2 Program 011: Ascention -- Enya-esque strings.
Bank 2 Program 018: TeknoStorm -- impressive techno drum loop.
Bank 2 Program 031: TwistedSun -- slow and weird.
Bank 3 Program 121: Monolith -- evolving modulation!
Alesis Quad Bank RAM Card (256K) £149, giving Virtual Composer banks I, II and III with one spare.
SRAM 1Mb £135; 4Mb £652.
Flash RAM 1Mb £100; 4Mb £186; 8Mb £288; 16Mb £629.
All prices include VAT.
User Sample RAM employs PCMCIA industry-standard cards.
Improved operating system.
Improved programmable controllers.
Only one card slot.
Still no resonant filters (c'mon, guys...).
A significant advance on the original Quadrasynth, this should appeal to users who want access to lots of quality sounds with 64-voice polyphony. The facility to load new samples is also good news, and in part makes up for the lack of resonant filters.
£ Quadrasynth Plus Piano £1299; S4 Plus Piano rack module £899. 8Mb ROM expansion cards, £225 each. Prices include VAT. For Flash RAM and SRAM card prices, see separate box.
A Sound Technology, Letchworth Point, Letchworth, Herts SG61ND.
T 01462 480000.
F 01462 480800.