Korg DSS1

Digital Sampling Synthesizer (Retro)

Published in SOS November 1997
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Reviews : Keyboard

Not over-endowed with intelligence, the chunky DSS1 had just 256k of memory. PAUL NAGLE speaks up in defence of a dinosaur.

 

Launched in 1986, the Korg DSS1 was billed as a combination of sampler and synthesizer. Perhaps this was an astute realisation that samplers were destined to be perceived as modules not keyboards, or maybe it was intended to conceal the fact that its sample memory was a soon-to-be-eclipsed 256k...

With eight notes of polyphony, two oscillators per voice, a noise source, two multi-stage envelopes, a resonant filter and auto-bend, the DSS1 had much in common with Korg's underrated DW8000 flagship synth. But it went much further, boasting twin digital delays, oscillator sync, an improved unison mode, a lush analogue VCF switchable between 12 and 24dB, and more. Whereas the DW8000 got its raw material from 16 stored digital waves, the DSS1's oscillators took their source from additive synthesis, sampling or even hand-drawn waveforms.

SAMPLING BRONTOSAURUS-STYLE

The DSS1 is comparable to a dinosaur, its great bulk and power controlled by a small, rather ponderous brain. It has only four sliders and 27 switches, yet is larger than a JD800, weighing in at a hefty 18.5kg. All editing is done via the small turquoise 2 x 20 character display, using dual data-entry sliders and switches. Navigation is simplicity itself: every parameter is printed neatly on the expansive front panel.

At the heart of the DSS1 is a 12-bit sampler with fixed sampling rates of 16, 24, 32 and 48kHz; maximum sampling times range from 16 seconds down to a crisp clean 5.5 seconds at the (impressive) top rate of 48kHz.

Sampling is actually a pretty straightforward process, with the menu system guiding you through sample-rate selection, number of sample divisions, the key number for samples, and so on. I'm probably weird, but I've always rather liked this approach. I know it involves more button-pushing than more advanced machines require (it takes three button pushes just to load a bank of sounds) but the results are quite satisfactory. I find that synthetic samples work very well at 24kHz; the distinctive graininess adds character.

There is an auto loop facility, which works well with smooth or simple sounds and not so well with anything complex. Crossfade and back-and-forth looping will get you some way towards a seamless loop, but often I prefer to settle for a long sample, turning off looping altogether. MIDI hackers will be delighted that the raw sample data can be edited from the instrument itself, although you'd need to be rather fanatical to make much use of this facility via the small LCD.

If you don't want to use samples as your sound source, you can create digital waveforms by hand-drawing with the sliders or by the harmonic addition of 128 sine waves. All methods can be freely mixed and matched.

 

"Its main performance control is Korg's nasty, waggly joystick."

 

Hand-drawing is a pretty unusual feature: it allows the creation of complete single-cycle waveforms from scratch. The DSS1 gives a visual countdown during which you can thrash about with a slider if you want a complex wave, or move it gradually for something more pure; it automatically creates a looped, mapped multisound of these waveforms. In their raw format these tend to be rather buzzy and static, but by mixing them with other waves or samples and then processing via the synthesizer section, you can easily make some startling hybrid analogue-digital sounds.

Less useful, in my opinion, is Harmonic Synthesis, which offers six initial tables created by 128 sine waves. These include saw, square, metal, clav and so on, and all can be modified to create new waveforms. I tend to use this facility as a quick way of rustling up a sawtooth wave -- I certainly wouldn't bother adjusting the levels of all those sine waves if there was some nearby wet paint that needed scrutiny. A handy link function allows you to paste together your creations to make longer, more interesting waveforms, and with not too much effort you can achieve some rather PPG-like tones, especially when the DSS1's powerful filter is brought into play.

You can save individual samples or waves to disk and map them over the keyboard (multisamples, in Korg terms) from a variety of sources. Although the DSS1 isn't multitimbral, you can spread a maximum of 30 samples over the keyboard range using a simple technique: since each multisound can hold up to 16 samples, simply leave one of the samples silent in each multisound then layer the first multisound so that its silent area is overlayed by whatever multisound is used by the second oscillator.

Each multisound has a global loop on/off switch but, since each sample within a multi has its own loop points, it's quite possible to mix one-shot sounds (such as percussion) with looped sounds (such as organs) by the cunning trick of looping some silence at the end of the drum hit.

Although I called the DSS1's brain ponderous, it does have a flexible system for managing individual samples, multisounds, and synthesizer patch parameters (and even MIDI setup), with almost everything you could wish being interchangeable. With a bit of thought you can compile libraries of regularly used waveforms to quickly slot into new patches. Make sure you keep all those old 31/2-inch 720k floppies, as it's surprising just how these collections grow. Each disk can hold four Systems -- complete setups of 32 patches and up to 16 multisounds. Curbing your enthusiasm for a moment, though, I'd better point out that loading time can be agonisingly slow. When the DSS1 asks you to wait a minute, it's not kidding!

SYNTHESIS BIG-STYLE

With a System loaded, the DSS1 acts very much as a traditional synthesizer. Indeed, its signal path will be clear to anyone who has tinkered with a basic monosynth. The two oscillators may be mixed, detuned, modulated, and passed through the low-pass filter with its dedicated envelope and low-frequency oscillator, and finally reach the outside world via an amplifier section, equalisation and twin digital delays. Some features of note are:

 

"Even now, a resonant sweep from the DSS1 can put all but the mightiest analogue synths to shame."

 

OSCILLATOR SYNC: The addition of oscillator sync, so unusual on a sampling instrument, opens the door to vibrant timbres plus the strangest of textural sweeps; liberation at last from those sawtooth or square wave sources.

D/A CONVERTORS: Interestingly, the resolution of the D/A convertors can be changed in each patch, giving an increasingly grainy quality as resolution is altered from the standard 12 bits down to 6 bits. It makes real samples crunchy, and created waveforms get harmonics you never counted on. This kind of thing is now starting to appear as a Lo-Fi processor on some effects units.

UNISON MODE: You can choose the number of stacked voices (up to eight) and the amount of detuning between them. If you start with, say, a powerful guitar sample, a generous dose of unison can very quickly lead to something truly, impossibly monstrous.

VCF: Yes, a high-pass or band-pass option for the filter would have been welcome, to trim some of the excess fat. Nevertheless the DSS1's distinctive sound is largely due to its wonderful low-pass filter -- one of the best that Korg have ever bestowed on a synthesizer. Even now, a resonant sweep from the DSS1 can put all but the mightiest analogue synths to shame.

VELOCITY CONTROL: Velocity can be applied to auto-bend (pitch-sweep up or down to the note for either or both oscillators), filter cutoff, or VCF or VCA envelope times, or can be used to switch between multisounds. Also, keyboard tracking can be routed to VCA decay time to help simulate acoustic instruments, which have a shorter note length for higher pitches.

DDL: Twin outputs might deceive you into thinking that the DSS1 handles stereo samples; in fact the mono sound source is processed via twin digital delays, each of which is connected to a separate output. Usefully, the rate of DDL1 can control the rate of DDL2 for some rich, swooshy stereo chorus effects that belie the simplicity of the available parameters. As is often the case, having just a few options means you tweak them incessantly and discover all kinds of neat ways to extract the best from them.

EQ: Each patch has basic treble and bass EQ settings to provide extra coloration for an already rich sound.

MODULATION: The only real let-down is in the modulation section. The LFO is a simple sine wave which is always sync'ed to keyboard triggering. A technique to get a free-flowing LFO involves holding down a note outside the playable range, and voilà -- those evolving filter-swept bass lines are suddenly possible. On the plus side, there are separate modulation generators for both the filter and oscillator pitch.

CONCLUSION

Admittedly, the DSS1 takes up quite a bit of space. Its keyboard, despite being a little clunky, is both velocity and aftertouch sensitive, but its main performance control is Korg's nasty, waggly joystick; there are sockets for connecting a sustain pedal and patch increment footswitch socket. The MIDI spec is adequate, supporting Local Off and separate receive and transmit channels, with MIDI parameters being saved as part of each 'System'.

If you're considering a DSS1, the main things to check out are the display and the disk drive. The quality of the display will be self-evident. A diagnostic test mode is accessible by powering up and holding down Data Entry A's Up and Down buttons simultaneously. The test procedure is pretty straightforward; some later DSS1s also included a test for the floppy drive, which is useful. (To save wear and tear on my own drive, I use a dumb-copy program on the PC to copy an existing formatted disk, since the drives are no longer made.) A copy of the manual is a bonus -- at over 300 pages, it's a serious read, containing some valuable information that a DSS1 owner should not be without. If you can get any disks with it, all the better. If not, resign yourself to sampling or manually creating your starter waveforms from scratch.

I'm not going to pretend that the DSS1 is the ultimate keyboard, and you certainly shouldn't buy one if sampling is your main use for it. (Sequential's Prophet 2000 was similarly conceived and it didn't exactly set the world alight either.) I love mine, not as a sampler but as a synthesizer that also samples, has a powerful filter and can easily accommodate a palette of analogue, digital or 'real' sounds. Even now I get a thrill from this single keyboard that can switch from warm, swirly synthesizer pads to drum loops and then on to strange, digital tones or massive screaming unison solos. If you want something a little different but with enough power to keep you interested for years to come, the DSS1 is a neglected relic and a snip at today's bargain prices.

 

DSM1 MODULE

The DSM1 was almost the modular version of the DSS1. Able to store four times as much data in its 1Mb of memory, it had a much faster operating system, a high-density disk drive, individual outputs and a multitimbral mode. It omitted the digital delays, twin oscillator patches, oscillator sync and (worst sin of all) resonance that gave the DSS1 much of its character. Polyphony was doubled at 16 notes, but this soon reverted to eight notes when you layered two oscillators in a performance. Its ability to read DSS1 disks is useful -- some models even had SCSI too -- but Korg's trimming of its synthesizer features in favour of improved sample memory meant I never wanted one. These units are pretty rare and it's hard to put a price on them now. I wouldn't suggest any more than £300 but then I now firmly believe that a sampler is a PC soundcard programmed via Sound Forge and triggered via Cubase VST, so perhaps I'm not the best judge...

 

UPGRADES, SOFTWARE, SOUNDS

I've heard conflicting reports of the legendary DSS1 upgrade which boosted the memory to 2Mb, added a SCSI port and speeded up the disk drive and operating system in general. I'd probably risk surgery on mine for the SCSI upgrade alone, but Korg UK inform me it wasn't available here. Software support was never plentiful with the exception of the excellent Digidesign programs Sound Designer, Soft Synth and Turbo Synth. With the passing of my Atari ST, I have to content myself with Turtle Beach's (now discontinued) Sample Vision, the only PC program I've found that will export WAV files to the DSS1.

Korg and a few third-party companies produced a reasonable sample library but getting hold of such things now is about as likely as my securing a hot date with Cindy Crawford. Some gems from these collections later found their way into the M1 synthesizer, although arguably the DSS1's superior filter got better mileage from them.

 

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

When it was new, the DSS1 was a sobering £2,259. Ten years down the road, I've seen them advertised for as little as £200, although a more typical price is between £300 and £400. If I had the space I'd consider getting a second one as a spare, before someone writes a retro about them and you can't find one for love nor money.

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