In the 'All Things To All Men' stakes, the Korg Trinity series (reviewed SOS December '95/January '96) appears to have more bases covered than most of its rival workstation products. Even in its basic form, it offers a great breadth of timbres and more DSP effects horsepower than anything else on the market. But once you start adding options, it seems there's very little it can't do -- including physical modelling synthesis, loading of user samples, hard disk recording, and digital interfacing (ADAT and SCSI formats).
Each of these options in itself is nothing new. The Solo board's physical modelling technique has been available for over a year, as the incredibly successful Prophecy synth. Synths as varied as the Yamaha SY85 and the Kurzweil K2000 have been able to add computer memory to load samples into, and the Ensoniq ASR10 had a software update a few years back which added hard disk recording to its capabilities. The first synth to feature the ADAT digital interface was the Alesis Quadrasynth.
What is unique about the Trinity concept is that all of these things can be crammed into one keyboard. This makes a fully-expanded Trinity prime candidate for the one luxury item a modern musician might choose to take to his desert island. But in the real world, does it make sense to keep all your eggs in one basket? Let's take a look at each option in turn and see how it stacks up against dedicated devices doing the same sort of job.
The Prophecy from which this board is taken is a completely unique synth, both in terms of the breadth of sounds it can produce and the way it has of grabbing your attention, whatever else is going on in a piece of music. In terms of 'analogue' timbres, I consider it the best-sounding monophonic synth since the greats of the '70s and '80s, and the only thing still in production which can hold a candle to them. But its physical modelling capabilities don't stop there, with a combination of real-world sounds which are second only to the real thing, from bass guitars to saxes.
The set of Programs you get with the SOLO-TRI option (which come up as Bank S) includes not only the original Prophecy patches, but also all those on the two PCMCIA cards which have recently appeared for it. This makes it seem even better value for its £475 price tag. I also found it a lot easier to navigate around the sounds available using Trinity's display (I always seem to get lost with the two button-pushes required to select a new Program on the Prophecy). In terms of sound, the SOLO-TRI has exactly the same character and warmth as the Prophecy, and it's just a shame that you can't add a couple more SOLO-TRI boards, so that you could have several Prophecy sounds within your sequences.
I can't think of any reason a Trinity owner wouldn't want to add this palette of sounds to their arsenal, unless they want to remain a shrinking violet and stay out of the limelight forever. You might not be able to strap the Trinity around your neck and get out there and pose (like you can with the Prophecy), but no-one will be able to ignore you with this set of attention-grabbing sounds coming out of your Trinity.
The PBS-TRI Playback Sampler/Flash ROM Option (apart from being a bit of a mouthful) gives you the ability to bring the world of sampled sounds into the Trinity, and mix and merge them with your synthesis. It also means that you don't lose your new 'best-of-both-worlds' programs when you switch off. Ever since the Yamaha SY99 let me load a TX16W sample library and use it in combination with synthesis, I have been convinced of the flexibility of samples + synthesis, but it is a tedious business having to reload your efforts every time you switch on. Fortunately on the Trinity option, the ability to load samples from disk is combined with the elephantine nature of Flash ROM (it never forgets), so you can get the samples in quickly and keep them on power-down. This means that it really does seem worthwhile to create interesting synth patches out of sampled sounds, as they will always be at your fingertips. Of course, the problem with Flash ROM is that it does seem rather expensive these days compared with RAM, which is currently being given away with cornflakes. The PBS-TRI option gives you 8Mb to play with for £625. This is about five times what you would expect to pay for SIMMs, but after a power cut on stage, I think you would come to appreciate the advantages of the extra expense.
This option also doubles the number of Programs, Combis and Drum Kits which can be stored in the Trinity. This gives you Banks C and D for both PCM Programs and Combis (for a total of 512 of each), and if a SOLO board is fitted, doubles the number of programs available for Prophecy sounds to 128. The file structure allows 500 samples (of which 200 can be drum samples) and 100 multisamples to be held in memory.
Samples can be loaded from disk in Korg, Akai and AIFF on DOS formats. This gives you access to a fairly large source library, but it would be nice if other formats, like the excellent Roland and Emu libraries, were available as well, as on the excellent Kurzweil K2000. Maybe a future software update will add access to other libraries as well (after all, the Kurzweil didn't read everything when it first came out). Multi-samples can also be read from Korg and Akai disks, so the key-mapping of several sounds across the keyboard to make up an instrument does not have to be recreated from scratch, but not all the other parameters of the Akai programs will be interpreted. For example, velocity-switched or crossfaded samples in a Keygroup will all be assigned to the key ranges they occupy in the Akai, but without the crossfades between Keygroups (not too much of a hardship, as few Akai programs use this feature).
If the samples you're loading are not already associated with a multi-sample, you can create your own. Each sample has its own Tune, Level, Top Key and Original Key parameters (the lowest key being set by the top key of the sample below). Alternatively you can use a Drum Kit to organise samples together into suitable groups for use. Once a multi-sample has been created, it can be used as the source instrument for a synthesis program, just like any other.
Obviously, 8Mb is not a huge amount of memory by today's standards, when 32Mb is common in many samplers (and some can be expanded to 128Mb). However, it's worth the work that is often needed to reduce the amount of memory a multi-sample takes up (by reducing the loop length and the time before the loop starts, stretching the range a sample has to cover and so on) because of the Flash ROM, which saves the need for continuous reloading. By judicious editing of samples before they're loaded into the PBS-TRI option, you can increase the number of sounds available.
Unfortunately, there are no parameters for editing size or loop points on the Trinity itself, so the only way you will be able to squeeze more samples into the available space is if you have an Akai sampler or Macintosh/PC on which you can edit the samples before you send them across. Korg have already produced four sets of 8Mb banks that fit the maximum number of samples into the available space, and these were also supplied with the review machine. I particularly liked the first two of these -- the Mega Pianos and the Orchestral bank.
I've always liked Korg digital piano products, and the TBS1S Mega Pianos bank is definitely in the same league as their dedicated digital pianos. Similarly, I found the TBS2S Orchestral bank a delight for sequencing up the classics. TBS3S is the Dance bank, and sounds every bit as unmusical and abrasive as the sounds I hear whenever I am exposed to the phenomenon known as Dance -- so I assume that this makes them ideal for those working in this genre! TBS4S is the original complete M1 set of sounds, and though I cannot imagine why anyone would want to regress a Trinity to sound as primitive as an M1, they sound 100% authentic to my ears.
The new Version 2 software for the Trinity adds the ability to read S3000-format disks as well as the original format, S1000 (which is what people usually understand by Akai format). While most of the library material published in floppy or CD-ROM format is S1000 format, so that it's compatible with as many devices as possible, if you're exchanging sounds with a friend with a recent Akai sampler, the disks s/he will give you will be in S3000 format, so the additional compatibility you get in version 2 software is a real bonus. It also allows you to read Akai CD-ROMs in both formats, provided you have either the HDR-TRI or SCSI-TRI options fitted as well (see box for a list of the other features in version 2).
Overall, the PBS-TRI works really well, and as long as the £625 price point doesn't overstretch your budget you'll really appreciate the fact that the samples are not lost when you power down. The only real problem I experienced with the PBS-TRI option was when loading an 8-bit AIFF file that filled an entire floppy. The Trinity loaded it fine, because it automatically converts the data to 16-bit format, but when I came to save it back to disk it was too large to fit on a floppy. Unfortunately, Trinity is just like the Akai samplers: it cannot split an audio file across two floppy disks. However, the remaining two options for the Trinity can get you around this problem, by allowing you to save these audio samples to hard drive via SCSI.
The HDR-TRI option is perhaps the most talked-about expansion for the Trinity, and was certainly the one which caused the most interest a year ago when it was first announced. It adds the ability to record four tracks of audio to the Trinity's sequencer. This means that you can add vocals, guitars and other acoustic sources which can't be recorded via MIDI, edit these recordings and play them back through the Trinity's effects. As I noted in the intro, Ensoniq added four tracks of hard disk recording to the capabilities of the ASR range of samplers a few years back, and a fairly limited form of stereo hard disk recording has been available on some of the Akai samplers back to the S1100. However, this is the first time I am aware of hard disk recording being available on a synth rather than a sampler.
In terms of hardware, the HDR-TRI option is more externally visible than any of the other expansions, giving you five additional connectors on the back panel, namely two analogue inputs, SPDIF co-axial in and out, and a SCSI connector. This means that you can record up to two tracks simultaneously, back up to and load audio data from DAT (as well as record from and mix down to CD-R or DAT) and connect up to seven SCSI devices (without which hard disk recording would be a little difficult). If you have the PBS-TRI option, the SCSI gives you the additional advantage of being able to save and load samples (and their associated programs, sequences, etc) to and from hard disk, not only speeding up the entire process tenfold, but also getting around the fact that samples larger than 1.4Mb cannot be saved to floppy.
The main audio track recording screen allows you to select the hard drive to record to (if you have the luxury of more than one SCSI drive), to name your recordings (called Takes), to set the input source (analogue or digital), to see the input level on VU-type metering (complete with Overload indication) and adjust it in precise dB steps (whether recording from the analogue or digital inputs, which is a little unusual but very useful), and to select destinations track(s) for your recording (1, 2, 3, or 4 for mono, or 1&2/3&4 for stereo). In general, the whole business of recording is simplicity itself. One feature I particularly liked was the ability to instantly redo a recording by pressing the Compare key, should you happen to make a mistake during a take. Too often on hard disk recorders you have to erase a recording before you can redo it. There's also an Auto Punch In feature to keep your hands free for playing as you drop into record, and even a Rehearsal mode to let you practise the drop-in before you actually do it. Version 2.0 software also adds a very useful Free Time display, which shows you how much recording time remains on the currently-selected hard drive.
Once tracks have been recorded, they can be routed through a new mixer page (MixA1-4), giving you High and Low EQ, Pan, Level and two effects sends for each track; if stereo recordings have been made, channel pairing can be switched on so that both sides are adjusted together. What's more, all mixer movements can be recorded for full automation. The 'Atrk Edit' page allows a fair amount of editing of the audio tracks, including Copy Measure, for those all-important drum-loops and other repeated phrases. Trim lets you non-destructively adjust the start and end time of a recording without moving it in time, so you don't lose sync (although you cannot hear the other tracks when editing like this, as the Audition key acts like a solo button as well).
The HDR-TRI option is every bit as good as any stand-alone hard disk recording system I have ever used (and a good deal better than most), and of course with the Trinity's excellent effects, the resulting audio mixes can be made to sound fantastic. Where I found the Trinity's hard disk recording a bit limited in comparison with computer-based systems was in the visual side of the editing, and the speed of copy and repeat functions. There's no substitute for a large monitor when looking at long recordings and for mouse-based editing tools for cut and paste operations.
My only other comment is that whilst four tracks of hard disk recording was quite a respectable figure when the Trinity options were first announced (and units like the Akai DR4 and Yamaha CBX-D5 were selling for over £1500), these days most systems offer at least eight tracks, so the HDR-TRI may seem a little restricting from this point of view.
However, to counter this, the HDR-TRI option is excellent value for money at £599 (don't forget that you have to buy a separate SCSI hard drive), especially since it gives you a SCSI interface and S/PDIF in and out, both of which are very useful for other things. Considering that the SCSI-TRI option alone is £399 and omits both the audio inputs and S/PDIF, it would be crazy not to go for the full HDR-TRI, even if the main thing you want to be able to do is save and load samples to hard drive.
This (slightly) cheaper option gives you just the SCSI interface for the Trinity, without the ability to record to hard disk or the S/PDIF digital interfaces. As such, it allows the same saving and loading of PBS-TRI samples to hard disk as detailed in the above section, but nothing more. One to miss, I think. Either go for the full HD option, with the attendant benefits of an S/PDIF interface, or stick to floppies and spend your £399 more wisely.
Those of you who read my Korg 168RC mixer review last month will know I am a bit of a broken record on the subject of ADAT interfacing. As the only multi-channel interface to have gained wide acceptance outside the inventing manufacturer's products, I think it should now be made compulsory in the same way as MIDI now is -- no synth/sampler/effects unit should be without it. The ability to send and receive eight channels of digital audio at professional sample rates down one tiny optical cable is just too useful to ignore. Full marks, then, to Korg for making it available for their flagship synthesizer, in the form of the DI-TRI, and at a very reasonable price point too (£225).
With all digital interfacing, it's very important to make sure that all the digital clocks in a system stay in sync, so it's particularly praiseworthy on Korg's part that they have supplied a Word Clock In connector with their ADAT Optical Out. This is important because it means that the Trinity does not have to be the master in a full digital studio (where you might have numerous digital devices, all of whose clocks need to be kept in sync). The ludicrous situation often arises that a humble sampler ends up being the master clock for the entire studio, just because it has no way of slaving to an external Word Clock.
Of course, nothing in this world is absolutely perfect, and it's a shame that because of limitations in the Trinity's internal architecture all eight channels cannot be used. The Trinity only has four analogue outs, a stereo master and a stereo aux, and these are simply mirrored on channels 1-4 of the ADAT digital out. Just think how great it would have been if you could have sent the output of different MIDI and audio tracks down different channels to your mixer. Still, the on-board automated mixing and effects of the Trinity are pretty comprehensive, so you can digitally send the overall output of the Trinity into a full digital mixer like the Korg 168RC without needing to take up any of its effects and EQ capabilities. Overall, this is an excellent facility for the Trinity, at a very reasonable price, and other manufacturers should take note.
At a couple of points in the review, additional features of the version 2.0 operating system are mentioned. Thanks to the fact that the Trinity's operating system is held in EEPROM, this can be loaded in from floppy disk, so you don't have to do any tedious mucking about with changing EPROMs (and breaking off the legs as you do so). Here's a full list of the extra functions version 2.0 gives you:
Audition highlighted sound in Program, Combi or Seq mode.
Enable 10s Hold allows quick access to nearby programs.
Bank selection shortcut in Program or Combi mode.
Pan Off setting for effects sends (makes effects routing easier).
MIDI track Solo function in Seq mode.
Delete function bug-fix in Disk Utility mode.
Akai S3000 format compatibility (see PBS-TRI section).
Akai CD-ROM compatibility.
WAV file compatibility (for PC users).
Free time display (see HDR-TRI section).
Sequencer Pause function.
Beep enable can be retained on power down.
Sounds every bit as good as the Prophecy for half the price.
Trinity becomes a great monosynth as well as a great polysynth.
Longer keyboard saves stepping up and down octaves all the time.
Does not have Prophecy's real-time controls or arpeggiator
No Trinity owner should be without this board (unless they already own
a Prophecy, of course); it increases the expressivity of the Trinity tenfold.
Adds user samples to the Trinity's rich synthesis palette.
Reads Akai and AIFF formats as well as Korg's own disks.
Doubles the Trinity's Program and Drum Kit capacity.
Retains samples and programs on power-down.
No editing of sample size possible on the Trinity.
Flash ROM is much more expensive than the SIMMs equivalent.
Not all Akai parameters are read.
Libraries other than Akai are not currently supported.
Cannot save audio files across two floppy disks.
Using samples as source waveforms is one of the best ways of increasing the
scope of sounds a synth can produce. Although somewhat more expensive,
doing this via Flash ROM means that once a good set of samples has been loaded
and programs created using them, they are as permanent as any of the original
sounds in the machine. This makes an excellent way of customising a synth,
especially for use in a live situation.
The only hard disk recording option for a synthesizer workstation.
Adds SCSI, SPDIF and audio inputs to the Trinity.
SCSI can be used to save and load samples for PBS-TRI option.
S/PDIF can be used to send entire Trinity output, not just audio tracks.
Four tracks may be a little restricted in today's terms.
Simultaneous recording of four tracks not possible.
Although no substitute for a full hard disk recording system,
this option makes a very cost-effective add-on to the Trinity,
giving you not only four tracks of HD recording, but S/PDIF
In and Out and SCSI storage of samples for the PBS-TRI option too.
Lets you use SCSI hard drives to save and load samples.
The most expensive SCSI upgrade I have ever seen.
Very restricted functionality compared to HDR-TRI.
At £399, this looks very expensive as compared to the full
HDR-TRI at £599, or indeed a simple SCSI interface for any
other synth/sampler. Even if your main need is SCSI sample
storage, you would be crazy not to buy the full HDR-TRI option.
Allows Trinity to be integrated digitally with the 168RC mixer or other ADAT-compatible systems.
Allows Trinity to be the slave for glitch-free digital audio systems.
Cheapest ADAT interface on the market.
Only uses the first four digital channels.
One day every synth will have this option, but Trinity owners
don't need to wait or beggar themselves to add it.
£ SOLO-TRI Prophecy board option £475; PBS-TRI Playback Sampler/Flash ROM option £625; HDR-TRI hard disk recorder option £599; SCSI-TRI SCSI interface Option £399; DI-TRI ADAT digital interface option £225. Prices inc VAT.
A Korg UK, 9 Newmarket Court, Kingston, Milton Keynes MK10 0AU.
T 01908 857100.
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