Last month, we devoted five pages to reviewing the new Korg Trinity in its basic model. This time, we take a closer look at the Prophecy motherboard incorporated in the Plus, Pro and ProX models, and have a further peek at the Trinity's sounds and 'Insert effects' section. We also give Phill Macdonald of Korg UK an opportunity to explain some of the new workstation's potential deficiencies. So, without further preamble, let's get stuck in...
The difference between the Trinity and the Trinity Plus is simply the addition of the MOSS synthesis Prophecy expansion board installed as standard within the 'Plus' (for more on MOSS and the Prophecy, see this author's review of that instrument in SOS October '95).
Once installed within the Trinity, the MOSS board provides another bank of sounds (Bank S) that you can program, play, and insert into Combis and Sequences as if they were no different from the PCM-based banks A and B. You then have access to the full power of the Prophecy: analogue modelling, VPM (Korg's version of FM synthesis), brass modelling, reed modelling, plucked string modelling, noise + comb-filtering, and three analogue-style sync, ring-modulated, and cross-modulated models. Then there are the Prophecy's effects: two types of wave-shaping, overdrive, wah-wah, distortion, chorus, flanging, panning, delay, and reverb, all of which you can insert into programs before, and in addition to, the Insert and Master effects. Indeed, since the Prophecy sounds now have access to the Trinity's effects, you could argue that they're better than before.
Korg claim that there are no differences between the Trinity's and the Prophecy's MOSS programming systems, but considering the Prophecy as a whole, I really missed the arpeggiator. Some may argue that the Trinity's sequencer more than replaces such a 'basic' tool -- but I don't agree. The Prophecy's arpeggiator tucks many neat tricks up its silicon sleeves, and while you could, with work, duplicate many of these using the 'pattern' capabilities of the Trinity's sequencer, this would remove the real-time nature of the beast.
On the other hand, the Trinity Plus invalidates my only two serious criticisms of the original Prophecy: the inadequate 3-octave keyboard, and the awkwardness of the programming interface. I never could understand why Korg limited the Prophecy to just three octaves, and the Trinity's five (or six, or seven, depending which model you are tempted by) are a huge improvement. Even more significant is the Trinity's screen. Because of its enormous flexibility and tiny display, the Prophecy can be a pain to programme. Korg could, and should, have overcome the problem by providing a bigger screen. This, of course, is exactly what the Trinity Plus does, replacing obscure messages with full parameter descriptions, putting up to thirty related parameters on screen at a time, adding envelope graphics, and making programming a doddle. On balance, I'll forgive the omission of the arpeggiator...
While on the subject of the display, I suspect that many people will wonder why they can't adjust envelopes (and this applies as much to ACCESS sounds as MOSS sounds) by pointing at handles on the curves and dragging them across the screen. Unfortunately, the human finger is simply too large to do this with sufficient accuracy. After all, there are 199 values for many parameters (-99 to +99) and should you want to move between two consecutive values you would need a finger like a hypodermic needle. In addition, if you want to set two envelope values close to each other, it's debatable whether you can get enough accuracy from the screen. Perhaps it's surprising, therefore, that Korg haven't offered a track-ball or a mouse port on the synth itself. On the other hand, by the time you've located a mouse over a desired handle, held down the button, dragged the curve to the new location and released, it might have been easier and quicker just to touch the appropriate place on the screen and then use the existing up/down controls.
The only other point worth debating -- seeing as the sounds are exactly the same as those on the Prophecy -- is the loss of the Prophecy's 'log' controller, and this is also only a minor niggle. The Trinity's ribbon controller boasts the same pressure sensitivity as the Prophecy's, and the joystick is within easy reach. Seven axes of control (plus the pressure sensitivity of the keyboard) may not be quite as good as the log, but they're good enough for me.
Last month, we reviewed the demonstration tracks supplied with the Trinity, but there wasn't space to say much about the individual sounds. So, let's look at a few of the ACCESS-generated PCM-based sounds produced by both the Trinity and Trinity Plus...
It's easy to check out the quality of a PCM synthesizer's samples. Initialise a patch, set all filters wide open, simplify all the ADBSR envelopes to just 0/0/100/100/0 (or whatever), kill the LFOs and effects, and then step through the multisamples to inspect the waveforms. Doing this on the Trinity reveals a tonal uniformity that may be a consequence of the recording process, the PCM creation process, or the programs that Korg used to prepare and normalise the samples. But considering what an analogue synth can do with just a square wave and a sawtooth waveform, it's hard to imagine a limit to what the powerful filters, LFOs and envelopes, not to mention the effects, of the Trinity can do to its 375 multisamples. So, while I shy away from writing reviews that send you away to try the 'Heavenly Choir Strings Spectral Pad' at patch location GSX650, it's worth pointing out a few of the Trinity's strongest suits.
The violins and solo strings are particularly impressive. Programmed with appropriate vibrato, and with a great response to the performance controls, they're instant Fiddler on the Roof. Then there are the analogue and FM basses, 12-string guitars, techno sounds, drums, strings and spectral pads. I was also very impressed by the excellent tonewheel organ simulations. The Trinity's overdrives and rotary effects could transform any vaguely organ-style sound into a rich Hammond-like swirl. With good PCMs as a starting point, the result is magic.
I loved some of the more ethnic sounds -- in particular the delightfully pressure-sensitive Koto with its convincing bends and slurs. Less impressive are the factory-programmed pianos and acoustic guitars (see the separate box on piano sounds elsewhere in this article), but I dare say that end-users will improve on the factory offerings.
It's worth noting at this point that the filter, while resonant, doesn't sound at all analogue. If you insert analogue waveforms into quasi-analogue patches, the filter begins to sound more realistic, but the PCM-based ACCESS sound generation system always lacks the bite of the Prophecy's MOSS synthesis.
On the other hand, some of the Combis are amazing. Whatever your tastes -- full orchestras, death metal, ambient washes, dance/hip-hop/house, soundtracks, whatever -- the factory presets offer oodles of options. And if you're into generating unique sounds, consider the structure of a typical Combi...
First, each Program within the Combi has access to numerous LFO-driven modulation and sample & hold-style effects. Second, you can layer, split, or crossfade up to eight Programs within a Combi (the crossfade zones in both the velocity and key maps allow you to create crossfades between patches, either as you play up and down the keyboard, or as you play lighter or harder. This beats simple velocity splits and key splits hands down). Third, each Program within a Combi can take advantage of up to eight Insert effects such as random filter, pitch-shifting, and L/C/R delays. Fourth, you can direct the output of each group of Insert effects, in individual proportions, to each of the Master effects. Fifth, each real-time controller can act in different ways at different rates upon each element within each Program. The complexity is mind-boggling, and the Trinity allows your imagination to roam further than any other instrument I know. And, most important of all, it's not just quantity, it's also quality. The sounds live up to the promise.
The Trinity Plus is far from perfect. Some niggles, such as the response time of the user-interface, are reasonably insignificant. Others (see the interview with Phill Macdonald elsewhere in this article) are far from trivial, and mar what would otherwise be an almost perfect keyboard. But, warts and all, the Trinity is a superb piece of kit, and it's going to drag the hi-tech music industry into the future. Indeed, once the hard disk editor upgrade arrives, it's conceivable that you could pre-master a CD including vocals, guitars (or whatever) using just a Trinity (well, actually, the way things are currently planned, you'll also need a sample rate convertor, but see Phill's interview for more on this).
The bottom line is... the Trinity incorporates an awful lot of what MIDI musicians have been asking for, plus a whole bunch of stuff that we hadn't even thought of. Capable of replacing a basic MIDI studio of sound sources, sequencers, effects and mixers, it's probably the first affordable instrument that truly earns the tag 'music production workstation'.
We're going to have to wait until February before we can lay our hands on the Trinity's S/PDIF and ADAT I/O boards, and until April before we see the Trinity ProX, and the hard disk editing and flash ROM options. Until then, adieu!
Retailing for a not inconsiderable £2,395 and £2,795 respectively, the Trinity and Trinity Plus are significantly cheaper than their 76-note and 88-note siblings, the Pro (£3,195) and ProX (£4,795). However, if you're thinking of starting with a basic Trinity or Trinity Plus and then adding the more advanced options later, I advise you to sit tight until Korg announce the upgrade prices.
Given that there are only four differences between the implementation of MOSS on the Trinity Plus and a stand-alone Prophecy (you lose the 'log' real-time controller, the five real-time controller knobs, the arpeggiator, and the Prophecy's final EQ stage) it's remarkable that the difference in price between the basic Trinity and the Plus model is only £400. On the other hand, the keyboard, case, screen and controls comprising the user-interface are expensive components within any synth. Add to them the electronics that provides the key scanning, interprets the controllers, and drives the display, and you've probably accounted for about 90% of the build-cost of the instrument. Obviously, the Trinity's MOSS synthesizer uses the same keyboard, screen and controllers as the native ACCESS sound generator, so the expansion board is able to dispense with the Prophecy's 'house-keeping' V55 processor and all its attendant electronics. As a result, it ends up little more than a third the size of the Prophecy's motherboard. All in all, the additional cost of £400, compared to the Prophecy's asking price of £995, is probably about right.
Whether this implies that there could be a Prophecy module for, say, £500 or £600 in the next few months is unclear. Korg UK have stated that despite initial shipments of the Prophecy going "like hot cakes", there are no plans to produce a Prophecy module. Their philosophy seems to be that if you want access to Prophecy sounds without coughing up £1,000, you should buy a Trinity as your main keyboard!
The Trinity's effects sections are monstrous, justifying their own 158-page manual. Unfortunately, reviewing them would require a few pages in every issue of SOS for the next year. Similarly, explaining them would require... well, a 158-page manual. So, here's a list of the Insert Effects. Remember (see last month), every Program can have three of these in series, provided that they don't exceed a total 'size' of four (or eight within a Combi or Sequence). Drum programs, just to be arcane, can have four size 1 effects in series.
Overdrive / Hi-gain
Parametric 4-band EQ
Wah / Auto Wah
Stereo Amp Simulation
Overdrive / Hi-gain Wah
Stereo Parametric 4-band EQ
Stereo Graphic 7-band EQ
Graphic 13-band EQ
Stereo Random Filter
Stereo Harmonic Chorus
Stereo Random Flanger
Stereo Tempo Flanger
Stereo Random Phaser
Stereo Tempo Phaser
Stereo Bi-phase Modulation
Stereo Auto Pan
Stereo Envelope Pan
Stereo Dyna Pan
Phaser + Tremolo
Pitch Shift Modulation
Stereo Multi-tap Delay
Stereo Modulation Delay
Stereo Dynamic Delay
Random Panning Delay
Reverb: Smooth Hall
Reverb: Bright Room
Reverb: Wet Plate
Reverb: Dry Plate
Piano Body + Damper Simulation
Stereo Multi-band Limiter
Overdrive / Hyper-gain Wah
Stereo Graphic 13-band EQ
Stereo Harmonic Chorus
Stereo Tempo Flanger
Stereo Tempo Phaser
Stereo Pitch Shifter
2-band Pitch Shifter
Rotary Speaker Overdrive
L/C/R Long Delay
Stereo Long Delay
Dual Long Delay
Stereo Tempo Delay
Of the effects, some are inevitably more interesting than others. For example: the Random Filters offer stunning analogue-style 'sample & hold' effects; the 'tempo' effects allow you to assign their modulation speeds to that of the sequencer; the Ring Modulator offers both fixed frequency and scaled frequencies against which to modulate the signal; the Talking Modulator adds a 'human' vowel sound to the signal; the Decimator reduces the sampling frequency for gritty sounds with FM-style aliasing if desired; the Piano Body + Damper simulation does much to rescue the piano PCMs; and the size 4 Rotary Speaker effect is simply superb. Derived in part from Korg's dedicated A-series and G-series units, the Trinity's effects are of equivalent quality and flexibility. Enjoy!
Piano sounds are the lifeblood of many synthesizers, so much so that some players bought the DX7 just for its (now clichéd) FM Electric Grand patch. Indeed, only this year Alesis felt that their improved piano sample was sufficient justification to re-launch the Quadrasynth as the Quadrasynth Plus Piano. So how does the Trinity shape up?
The factory patch, A01: 'Acoustic Piano', is dry, lifeless and (despite being panned across the stereo image) lacking in depth. It compares poorly to Roland's PCM-based JV pianos, and is totally outclassed by dedicated piano modules such as the Roland MKS20 and P330. However, the modified acoustic piano Programs on Steve Kay's sequences prove to be quite usable within a mix, and they demonstrate that tinkering with the Trinity can produce much improved results. Experimentation with the 'Piano Body and Damper' simulation suggests that there is even better to come. Ultimately, however, classical pianists are not going to be satisfied with the Trinity's piano programs.
Electric pianos fare much better, with a fine range of Rhodes, Wurlitzer EP200 and Yamaha CP70 imitations. All are usable, and one or two are first class. Consequently, I suspect that rock, jazz, and blues players will separate into three camps: those who rarely use acoustic piano sounds, and who are more than adequately served by the Trinity; those who (like me) use both acoustic and electric pianos and who have always disliked Korg's acoustic piano programs; and those strange beings who have loved all of Korg's pianos, from the M1 onwards. The bottom line is this: if you liked the M1's and 01/W's pianos, the Trinity will not disappoint you. If you didn't, it will. It all depends upon your point of view.
Korg's Technical Support Manager, Phill Macdonald, recently took the trouble to deliver a Trinity Plus to me in Cambridge. I ungraciously reciprocated by putting him on the spot with a few searching questions regarding what I see as the deficiencies in the Trinity's design (see the first part of this review, last month)...
Phill, £2,795 seems expensive for a 33-note workstation with the standard features of an eight-part multitimbral mode and a 16-track sequencer...
"We knew that the Trinity was going to be expensive, because we made a conscious decision to obtain the best possible sound quality from it. Hence the very large ROM, and the fact that we didn't use any old PCMs, no matter how good the original sources were. We didn't sample anything on the cheap, using only Neve- and SSL-equipped studios, sampling through high-quality A/D converters, and then direct to DAT at 48kHz.
"But most of all, we wanted to get round the age-old problem of 'when I'm in the sequencer it doesn't sound the same as it does when I'm in Program mode'. To overcome that, we had to implement a lot more DSP power than we would otherwise. Also, don't overlook the Trinity's 16-part multitimbral capabilities: over MIDI, you can use a sequencer setup as a sort of 'super-Combi' template. And, finally, don't forget the Trinity's expandability."
But what about the person who doesn't want to expand? Why pay for expansion potential you might not want or need?
"You don't. We've invested the extra cost in the ROM and the Insert effects because, at the end of the day, we made a decision to get as good a sound as possible. Also, don't overlook the user interface -- it takes money to get that to be as nice as it possibly can be."
But Roland's JV90, JV1080, and their XP50 workstation are all 56-note polyphonic. The Yamaha TG500 offers 64 voices. Even your own X5D offers 64 voices for less than £800. Surely 32-note polyphony is a big step backwards?
"I can't comment on other manufacturers' devices, but at the Trinity's sample rate -- 48kHz -- the samples are better than CD quality, and manipulating them uses a lot of processor bandwidth. I guess we could have gone for 64 voices, but they wouldn't have been as powerful and dynamic as the 32 you're getting. Thirty-two voices is a lot -- it's only when you need double or quadruple layers within programs that they become a limitation."
You're implying that you don't have enough processing power to generate 64 good voices, so you've traded the flexibility of 64 lower-quality voices for 32 better ones.
"I haven't investigated this down to the nuts and bolts, but the more voices you have, the longer their response times become, and the more slowly their envelopes respond. The Trinity is really quick, not just in terms of the voice response times, but also, for example, in terms of the speed and resolution of the sequencer, which is the best we've ever done."
Accepting that, why did Korg limit their flagship workstation to just four outputs? This imposes a severe limitation on people who want to apply classic effects and other outboard equipment to individual Programs.
"I can understand that you might want several pairs of outputs, but the Trinity is a workstation, and the idea was to get everything into one box. Anyway, if you want to use analogue choruses or tape delays, you're likely to be using them on just one sound, and it's probable that you'll be in a studio while you're doing it. So, you could dedicate those sounds to tape."
But even basic modules such as Roland's U220 had six outputs!
"Yes, I know what you're saying, but consider this: I recently needed to write a track for a record company. I thought, 'I can get all my old gear out, but I've only got a 3-band EQ on my desk. If I use the Trinity, I can bang a 13-band graphic across every sound I want'. Then I thought about how many effects I have in my rack. Most people have maybe two or four, but the Trinity gives me up to eleven, and the Trinity Plus offers seventeen. I may not have access to the classic sound of a dearly-loved effects box, but the Trinity's effects are certainly more comprehensive."
"Sure, it's a big number, but it's true! MOSS synthesis offers eight effects, six simultaneously, so the Trinity Plus offers seventeen simultaneous effects in total, even if a third of them act on just one of the 33 voices. But that still leaves eleven for the PCM side of things. And don't overlook their quality -- they're not poor relations. Take the rotary speaker. I would say that the Trinity's is better than our dedicated G4 rotary speaker module. You can even play external sounds through the effects if you've got the analogue inputs supplied with the hard disk option. Let's face it, if you've got the hard disk option, you can even sing into this thing!"
But that's exactly my point: if you take an external sound such as a vocal, pass it through the Insert effects, and spin it out through one pair of stereo outputs, you only have two left for the rest of the mix. Why limit the Trinity in this way?
"Well, I'm not sure at the moment how the editor will operate, but it seems that it should be possible to store the result on the disk. You could then complete the mix later, although it then becomes a non-real-time thing. Ultimately, it all comes down to cost. If you want to keep the quality as high as possible, you have to have things such as independent D/A converters on each output, or you'll get phase problems. The more outputs you have, the more de-multiplexing noise and phase problems you get, and the more the quality suffers."
Finally, looking to the future -- the flash ROM seems like a good idea, but why choose 48kHz as the sample rate for the hard disk recorder? While it's irrelevant for many production tasks, 48kHz is surely the wrong rate for the music industry. You can only master a CD at 44.1kHz.
"Holding samples in flash ROM will be great, and the nightmare power-cut scenario simply won't apply. If the power goes off, your samples, Programs and Combis are immediately available once the power comes back again. Regarding pre-mastering, sure, we recognise the difficulty in trying to make a 48kHz CD, and have asked Korg Inc in Japan for further clarification. But we haven't received a reply yet, so we shouldn't jump the gun. Let's wait before judging products that nobody's going to see for a few months."
[Stop press -- just as this article was being prepared for publication, news reached us that Korg Japan had responded to Phill's fax. Sadly, all hard disk recording within the Trinity will take place at 48kHz, and there won't be any internal sample rate convertors, so those making a CD with the Trinity will either need to buy a stand-alone sample rate convertor or have their mastering house carry out the conversion to 44.1kHz for them -- Ed.]
The power of a Prophecy.
Seamless integration within the Trinity.
Programming on the large screen.
MOSS access to the Insert and Master effects.
Five octaves rather than three.
A Prophecy for £400 rather than £995.
Loss of the arpeggiator.
Loss of the 'log'.
A further strain on the number of outputs.
If you're seriously thinking of buying the basic Trinity, you'd be
certifiably crazy if you didn't try to find the extra £400 for the Trinity Plus.
£ Trinity (standard model) £2395; Trinity Plus £2795; Trinity Pro £3195; Trinity ProX £4795; Alesis I/O board £TBA; Solo (Prophecy) board £TBA; Sample Flash ROM expansion option £TBA; Hard disk recorder option £TBA. Prices include VAT.
A Korg UK, 9 Newmarket Court, Kingston, Milton Keynes MK10 0AU.
T 01908 857100.
F 01908 857199.