Quasimidi's Quasar and Technox synth modules have earned themselves something of a reputation in modern dance music production -- see the reviews in SOS August '94 and February '95 respectively. With plenty of contemporary synth and drum voices to choose from, the mix'n'match approach on both these synths finds favour with those who want to spend less time programming sounds, and more time making music. Quasimidi have now taken things a step further with the Raven, which brings sequencing and arranging features on board. Does it provide a one-stop 'studio' for dance music production?
The Raven comes in a chunky package, with all-metal, blue panelling and a pair of quaintly 'retro', wood-veneer end cheeks. Personally, I like the design -- especially the front panel recess, which provides a neat place to leave disks, bits of paper and my MIDI fader box! The build quality seems pretty good: a point that caused me some concern with the Quasar. One problem that certainly seems to have carried over from the Quasar, though, is the weak glue holding the LCD overlay, which promptly fell off when I took the Raven out of its box -- shades of déja vu there! The only other niggle I have is the depth of the volume and four other control knobs, which stand well proud of the front panel, and leads me to wonder how long they would remain attached on a busy gigging schedule.
Power arrives on a standard Euro-connector, with attendant power switch. Those three wise monkeys, MIDI In, Out and Thru, are present and correct, as is a pair of left/right audio output jack sockets. There is provision for a footswitch, whose use is programmable, though there is no control pedal input, which is a shame, since the modulation options in the Raven undoubtedly benefit from as many real-time controllers as can be pressed into service. On the brighter side, there are a pair of modulation wheels in addition to the sprung pitch wheel -- excellent.
Above the four 'soft' (ie. their use is controlled by the software) control knobs is the 2 x 40 backlit LCD screen. For the most part, the display is well up to the task, helped in no small measure by the large 'Page Wheel' to its right, which allows for fast scrolling through the Raven's operating pages.
Just below the control knobs are four 'soft' buttons. For much of the time, these buttons have dedicated tasks assigned to them, but in the edit modes they are used to select sub-pages, and also set parameters for editing by the 'Value Wheel'. Since the control knobs do much the same job without the need to select a parameter first, I found this usage to be fairly redundant -- but it's nice to have the choice, I guess. Quasimidi generally keep the parameters on screen directly above their associated controls, but when screen space becomes tight, this is not always possible. In practice, I didn't find this too much of a problem, but it did throw me a couple of times, until I knew my way around a little better.
Beneath the Page Wheel is a pair of buttons to scroll through Performance banks or Songs (more of which later). Beneath the Value Dial are the sequencer start/stop buttons, while to its right is a pair of dedicated buttons to toggle between Performance and Sequencer mode (again, more later), and a 'Tap' key to enable tempos to be set by tapping the button to the quarter beats. Further to the right are the various buttons that take us into the Raven's editing environments, whether Song, Part, Effects, System, or common Performance parameters. I would have liked the 'write' and 'exit' buttons separate from this cluster, but the 'write' button does at least have a large red box around it, to warn the unwary.
At the bottom of this section of the control surface are the 0-9 keys. It seems unusual to see numeric keys arranged in a row, as opposed to the 'telephone keypad' style. But there is method in this madness, since the keys also double up for sequencing duties, their secondary function being clearly marked above them in red. Indeed, Quasimidi have used red and white legending to differentiate between Performance and Sequence modes of operation, and I found this to work well in context.
The basic synth sound building blocks within the Raven are held in the same way as the Quasar and Technox. Sounds are divided into 'Sound Groups', such as Basses, SynLead or Organ. As on the Technox, within Sound Groups the sounds are held in alphabetical order, making selection a quick and painless process. All parameter changes are capable of generating MIDI SysEx data to ensure that any editing done within a recording will be faithfully reproduced on playback. This is a seriously huggable feature, extending far beyond simple filter sweeps. Arpeggiator gate times can be changed, and even global system parameters.
The sounds themselves (512 in total) are generally excellent. In particular, the piano sample here is streets ahead of that presented on Quasimidi's earlier offerings. The sample ROM features a range of sounds eminently suited to dance/techno production. Fat Minimoog basses, squelchy TB303 bleeps, and classic drum sounds from the Roland TR606/808/909 stable abound. I particularly warmed to the Roland CR78 drum machine sounds on offer. The Quasimidi sound has lost none of its bass end, which remains unnervingly full when compared to other digital synths. You could be forgiven for thinking that some of these sounds are actually analogue.
One level up, as it were, from the single sounds is the Raven's Performance mode, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Quasar or Technox. Here, the Raven uses up to four synth 'Parts', and its two effects processors, FX1 and FX2 to produce a wide range of lush, inspiring tones. Parts may be split, layered or velocity-split, depending on the key mode selected for the Performance. Each Part within the Performance can be edited, by providing an offset to the internally preset parameters. For example, if you felt that a sound had too slow an attack, then you would enter a negative offset value for the attack parameter. Similarly, if you wanted a brighter sound, then you would enter a positive offset value for the filter cut-off. I still feel a little uncomfortable with this way of working, but there can be no doubt that it gets the job done. Level, panning, tuning and effects sends are also programmable for each Part.
Two hundred ROM performances are implemented in the Raven, with a further 50 in RAM that are freely programmable. It would have been nice to see these figures reversed, but then I speak as an inveterate synth programmer!
Generally speaking, on the effects front, FX1 takes care of reverb/delay treatments, whilst FX2 handles modulation effects. Room, chamber, plate and hall settings are all available in FX1, in addition to a selection of gated and early reflection patterns. FX2 has a vast range of typical chorus, phasing, flanging and delay effects, which are of excellent quality. Quasimidi's implementation of phasing is still second to none, in my book. FX2 can provide a variable amount of input into FX1, to allow the processors to work in series or parallel.
All this will no doubt seem very familiar to Technox users, as there are few conceptual differences. Arguably the most significant is that any part can now make use of the drum sets. The combination of button pushes and dial twiddles may be different, but the terms and screen references are like old friends.
On the face of it, in 'Sequencer' mode, the Raven takes on the guise of a 16-part multitimbral expander. When in use with an external sequencer, this is exactly the way the Raven behaves. Under the regime of its own internal sequencer, however, the Raven makes use of just eight tracks, in a unique method of song construction.
Ten songs can be held within the Raven's internal memory. Each song may consist of up to 10 basic 'patterns'. Although 10 patterns might seem restrictive at first, there is a lot that can be done with those basic patterns when we come to create the final song 'remix', as we shall see. Once into the song edit pages, we can begin to create a pattern. The screen responds with 'Give me a groove!' -- hmmm, very hip... At this point, press the 'kick' button and the Raven will begin playing one of its 400 preset kick drum 'motifs'. Press the 'kick' button again, and a different kick motif is chosen. Once you have one you like, you can start hitting the 'snare' button, to be presented with a selection of snare motifs until you find one that complements the kick motif. This process continues, in any order, with the hi-hat, percussion, bass, sequence 1, sequence 2 and chord tracks, until you have a pattern of motifs chosen from the 400 available for each track type. All that remains is to store the pattern in one of the 10 available locations. Each motif brings along its own synth part, although this can be changed by going into part edit, selecting a new basic sound and/or editing the parameter offsets for the part.
Once safely stored, another set of motifs may be chosen in the same way, and similarly stored to another pattern location. Helpfully, the Raven increments the pattern number each time a save is made. This avoids overwriting the previous pattern, and also lets the creative process keep flowing without having to break off to select a new pattern number -- nice touch.
During editing, and in pattern playback, there are a few useful real-time controls to make the patterns more interesting and bring a 'performance' element into the proceedings. Any track may be muted by holding down the zero button, in conjunction with the appropriate track button. A simpler and faster method is to press a note on the lowest octave of the keyboard, where each note corresponds to a track. By pressing notes in the next octave up, the melodic tracks can also be transposed. During pattern playback, the 10 numeric keys may be assigned different functions. In 'Pattern' mode, they simply select each of the 10 patterns in a song. In 'Mute A' mode, they allow for the selective muting of each track. 'Mute B' allows tracks to be similarly muted, but once muted, the track will only play whenever its track button is held down. This is an addictive feature, allowing you to break up riffs and punch in sections of motifs on the fly, to spice up an otherwise static pattern. Throughout all of this, the upper three octaves of the keyboard continue to make the 'solo' part available for adding licks and lead breaks.
Clearly, pattern playback can be used to great effect in a live performance situation, and Quasimidi put a great deal of emphasis on this potential usage. However, the Raven takes things one step further, by allowing complete 'mixes' of songs to be created and stored. A song consists of up to 99 steps, detailing the pattern to be played, the tracks that will be muted, the number of bars to play, and a transposition value. Steps may be copied, inserted and deleted. Although use of the song step editor may not be quite as much fun as punching patterns and tracks in and out in real-time, it is the key to producing a polished, repeatable piece of music from the Raven. While editing each step, the chosen pattern will loop, taking on the mutes and transposition set for the current step, in order to let you hear the results that will be produced on playback.
Songs are stored in internal RAM. There doesn't seem to be any way to send the song data to an external device for storing, and the sequencer doesn't generate any MIDI data (other than clock data for synchronisation). An onboard disk drive would be welcome. As it is, once those 10 songs are used up, it seems to be back to the drawing board.
If song step editing all seems a little too much like hard work, there is always the Raven's 'Create Song' option. Hit the button and the Raven will produce a complete mix, based on the patterns you have created. This seemed to produce uncannily usable results in most cases, although everything did sound a little 'formula-driven' for my tastes -- open with a sequence, introduce the kick on the eighth bar, cut the snare and hi-hats for the mid break... But the point here is that it works! I have certainly heard much less inspired pieces gain national airplay. Frequently, in fact.
If this all sounds a little like music-by-numbers, then you are essentially correct. The construction of song mixes relies on the selective muting/unmuting of pre-defined track data, rather than on actually recording a musical performance.
This is undoubtedly a very powerful machine, with the capability to produce some polished dance tunes in the blink of a cursor, and with the minimum of musical know-how. The Raven has no pretensions to be anything other than a dance/techno music generator, and performs this task in a slick and confident manner. If you are looking for a workstation for the composition of FM rock or a few progressive 7/8 rhythms, then you're on the wrong street here. Four-on-the-floor, no-nonsense dance ditties are what the Raven lives to produce, and it achieves excellent results in this context.
True, the motifs may not be of your own making, and the Raven did the arrangement for you, but you have the final say as to what your audience hears. You at least get to choose the colours, the canvas, and whether or not to put a frame around the finished picture. And while your friend with the computer and a couple of multitimbral synths is still digging around the edit pages of his sequencer, your tune will be shaking the speaker cabinets.
If you want a painless way to produce music that gets a dancefloor moving, perhaps as a DJ looking to add a little of his own flair to the show's musical content, then you owe it to yourself to take a serious look at the Raven. At the moment, I can think of no other machine that will produce anything like these results for the amount of effort expended. I am just left to wonder how hip those results will sound in a few years' time.
The manual that arrived with the Raven is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely awful. The sound editing features seem to have been totally forgotten, whilst the rest of the information is so poorly translated that I sometimes had to check the front cover just to make sure that I hadn't picked up a medical dictionary by mistake! Quasimidi's British distributors assure me that a properly translated manual is on the way, but early purchasers might do well to insist on the new manual being sent to them when it is available, and for no extra cost, preferably. Here's a typical quote (sic):
"Because you are loged somewhere in the song, the songstructure would normally mess up, if the raven would change it's position upward and delete the step edited before." Er, right...
The arpeggiator of Quasimidi's earlier machines has now blossomed into the 'Motivator'. The Motivator is an arpeggiator to end all arpeggiators, with options to alter speed, timing resolution, gate time, direction, octave range, note sorting, note repetition, loop length, hold mode... the list goes on! Modulation options allow for the real-time alteration of note velocity and gate length. The Motivator can even be set to produce chord rhythms and gating patterns, rather than individual notes. My arpeggiating life has been waiting for the Motivator!
Instant dance/techno tunes -- just add water!
Those wonderful Motivators.
Seriously meaty sounds.
Internal 'sequencer', primarily geared up for four-on-the-floor tunes.
No capacity to record manually-played material over an arrangement.
No disk drive for storing song data.
Beware the Germ-glish manual!
If you want instant dance/techno music, the Raven will deliver in bucketloads, providing you are happy to use a cut'n'paste approach with the Raven's motifs. Many 'musicians' will deplore the idea, but for the technically-challenged, the Raven is probably a dream come true.
£ £1599 inc VAT.
A Key Audio Systems, Robjohns Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 3AG.
T 01245 344001.
F 01245 344002.