A cursory glance suggests that the Korg iX300 is simply one of those God-awful diddly-diddly-bop accompaniment keyboards that we once suffered in working mens' clubs and bars on the Costa del Bonk. It even has the words 'Interactive Music Workstation' printed on its top panel, so it can't be of any interest to the real musicians who read SOS. Come on, let's leave the iX300 to sad old home organists, and turn a few pages until we find a real review of a real synth with real oscillators and knobs and things...
Hold on a moment. Look closely, and you'll notice that the iX300 displays some striking similarities to Korg's X3 and N364 synths. In fact, it looks like an N364 that's swallowed too many steroids. What's going on?
The iX300 is indeed built into an X3 case, although that means that it shares the same ghastly 61-key keyboard as its predecessor. Since 'i'-series instruments are designed specifically as performance keyboards, this is almost unforgivable. The adoption of the X3 case also means that the disk drive lies inconveniently on the left side of the instrument rather than facing forward.
The iX300 also retains the X3's 32-voice polyphony and its measly pair of outputs but, since the instrument is intended primarily for live work, I suspect that this will normally be sufficient. The rest of the rear panel is similarly sparse: MIDI In, Out, and Thru, a sustain pedal input, an assignable pedal input, and a socket for an EC5 pedal. The iX300 also features a direct computer port that supports both Mac and PC. The connection cables come with the appropriate software drivers, but they are an extra purchase, so don't expect them to be in your iX300 box when you first open it. The final hole is the headphone socket. The headphone socket! Round the back? Oh good grief...
The lean rear panel is in sharp contrast to the control panel, which has more buttons than a pearly kings' garden party. To describe them all would take a long time (or, at least, two manuals) so let's simply take a look at what they do.
The heart of the iX300 is the revision of the AI2 synth engine first used in the X3, and more recently in the 64-note polyphonic N364 keyboard and NS5M module, both of which have received favourable reviews in recent issues of SOS. With 342 multisamples occupying 14Mb of ROM, 28 drum kits, and a pair of effects processors, it's hardly what you'd call under-powered, even in 1997.
There's no room here to describe AI2, which is a shame, because it's a powerful method of synthesis that deserves re-examination. However, there's no need either, because we've covered it many times before, originally in our review of the X3R in February '94's SOS. But if the sound engine is the same, its implementation is radically different.
Unlike the 'X' and 'N' synths, the iX300 offers two GM banks with 128 programs and a drum kit, plus a further 192 programs and 25 kits in ROM. You can edit these, but you can't store the changes in the original locations, so there are 64 user-programs and two user kits available in RAM. Before you criticise this miserly allocation of memory, you should remember that the iX is primarily a solo performer's or home user's instrument, and is not directed at synthesists keen to explore every possible combination of the programming parameters.
The other area that is in stark contrast to the 'X' and 'N' series is Combis -- the iX300 doesn't have any. Since its raison d'être is accompaniment rather than conventional sequencing or layering, Korg have, in their corporate wisdom, ditched the Combis entirely. Unless there's a genuine reason for this (such as lack of memory or lack of EPROM space) I reckon that it's crazy. Why not satisfy every requirement? (Answer: for fear of damaging sales of the N364?) Anyway, this mapping of programs and absence of Combis is very familiar -- it's the i5S. Indeed, the configuration of the sockets on the rear panel leads me to suspect that the iX300 and the i5S share a common motherboard and are, therefore, cosmetic variations of the same instrument.
The iX300 has a huge variety of auto-arrangement and accompaniment functions. The bulk of these are based on 'styles', and it is their quality that determines the success (or otherwise) of the other facilities. There are 108 styles covering most points on the musical map, although four of these are in a User bank, which contains styles considered most germane to the country in which you bought your instrument. Each style has two intros, four variations, two fills, and two endings, and you can select between these as you play. There are six parts to a style -- drums, percussion, bass, and three accompaniment tracks -- and you can edit these if you like. The styles are then combined with split or layered programs to create the 128 arrangements that sit in ROM banks A and B. There are a further 64 arrangements in the User Bank, and these can be modified and saved to RAM or to disk.
If you haven't heard one of the modern breed of interactive keyboards, you'll find many of the arrangements rather a shock. I was stunned by the authenticity of many of them, as well as by their diversity. In particular, the Blues and R&B styles are great fun, and the Latin and Caribbean arrangements are simply superb: my Colombian girlfriend was dancing Merengue, Cumbia and Salsa as soon as she heard them. In fact, when she first heard the iX300, she thought that I was playing one of her CDs. (Honest, guv, it's true!)
When it comes to playing the iX300, all the usual features are here: synchro start and stop, breaks, real-time transposition, tempo changes, time signatures... you know the kind of thing. But if you want to go further -- saving, editing and replaying your performances -- you can do so using Backing Sequence, Song Play, and Song Edit Modes. For example, Backing Sequence Mode records three 'tracks' in real time: the melody you played, the chordal data from which the backing track was constructed, and any button presses you made while playing. You can record these tracks linearly, or using the punch in/out function, and can edit them in step-time fashion after recording. You can insert and delete measures, quantise, copy and bounce tracks, and edit individual events. But the iX300 goes still further. Turning the Backing Sequence idea on its head, you can ask the iX to add its own chords (Interactive Composition Mode) to your melody. You just need to know the key signature, and then keep everything simple. If all this wasn't enough, there are eight further tracks into which you can play additional parts. Quelle surprise... that makes the iX300 a 16-channel multitimbral module. And if polyphony is a problem, just hook up a couple of expanders and set some of the tracks to 'external'. Finally, if you're not happy preparing or playing your own songs, you can load somebody else's. The iX300 will play Standard MIDI Files directly from disk and, unlike the i5S, allows you to load an SMF song into memory, modify it in the same way as you would a backing sequence, and then re-save it.
You can record and store up to 10 songs at any given time, subject to a limit of 40,000 events. You can also dump your compositions to an external sequencer for later use with the iX300 itself or with other MIDI gear. (Great cheating possibilities here!) But don't think of the iX as an AI2 expander for an existing MIDI rig -- it's MIDI hell. It can be done, but it's too complex to be worth it.
The iX300 differs from the i5S in only three significant ways: it lacks speakers, it allows you to edit MIDI files, and it looks a whole lot cooler. Of course, that means that it remains as impenetrable as its sibling, as powerful, and, in some areas, as limited. Indeed, its impenetrability is its Achilles heel because, in cramming so many facilities into a single box, Korg have sacrificed the ease of use that would attract many of its natural customers.
Nevertheless, Korg have recognised that there's money to be made from musicians who could find excellent uses for an i5S, but wouldn't be seen dead lugging one around because the image is simply too naff. So the iX300 is the 'i'-series synth for image-conscious musos like you and me. With the same chip set and the same sound as the X3, it's no lightweight in the synthesis department. With the same accompaniment facilities as the top-of the-range i5S (and a few extras) it's no slouch there, either. A close friend of mine makes a very good living playing a mixture of standards and modern tracks in pubs and clubs up North. He's going to love it.
The AI2 synth engine remains a source of excellent sounds.
Some of the accompaniments are superb.
Good GM implementation, and direct PC support.
Playing live is very simple and intuitive...
...but the sequencing and editing are not.
The ghastly X3 keyboard should have been dumped years ago.
Only 64 user-programmable memories.
Difficult to use as a multitimbral expander.
The screen is inadequate.
The iX300 is, for most purposes, identical to an i5S, but
with the styling of a powerful modern synth. If you can
overcome your prejudices, you'll find that it's great fun,
and it sounds excellent. A superb backing band for the working
soloist, and you won't even have to buy it a drink after the gig.
£ £1399 including VAT.
A Korg UK, 9 Newmarket Court, Kingston, Milton Keynes MK10 0AU, UK.
T +44 (0)1908 857100.
F +44 (0)1908 857199.