In these days of fast, flexible computers and powerful virtual instruments, has the hardware workstation synth had its day? Alesis's Fusion mounts the case for the defence, offering four synthesis types, sampling, sequencing and hard disk recording — for under £1000.
In the beginning there was the monophonic analogue synth. Mono begat poly. Several people begat MIDI. MIDI begat multitimbrality, and sampling begat sample and synthesis. And it came to pass that some bright spark looked at this abundance of begattery and said, 'Yea verily, why not create a vessel that combines a keyboard, a sample-based synth, some drum sounds and a sequencer, that just one person might make a mighty noise by playing and recording songs with a single box?'. And lo, there was born The First Workstation and there was generally much rejoicing (except, that is, among the Musicians' Union who gnashed their teeth, saying that such creations stole work from the Heavenly choirs).
This was all back in the late 20th century — ancient history in music-technology terms. Since then, although the keyboard workstation concept has never actually gone away, its role as the hi-tech musician's one-shop stop has been largely usurped by the computer. But Alesis for one clearly believe there's still a market for this kind of instrument. At NAMM 2005, they caused much interest and not a little surprise when they took the covers off their first ever foray into this area — the Fusion. Since NAMM 2006 is fading into memory even as I write, people have had to remain interested and surprised for a fair old while. But after various delays, the factory units are officially shipping to the UK and the Fusion is good to go.
The Fusion has been designed as a thoroughly modern workstation. If you think of the kind of tools a typical keyboard-based musician would currently have at their disposal, most likely by means of a combination of music hardware and computer-hosted software, the Fusion appears to have all the major bases covered. First, it offers not one but four different types of synthesis: sample and synthesis, virtual analogue, FM and physical modelling. Then there's a sampler, which can also be used to fuel the sample and synth engine with new waveforms. Extensive programmability comes as standard, with further sound-shaping possible through a list of (again programmable) insert and buss effects as long as your arm. In addition, the Fusion offers a matrix of real-time performance controls, including a sophisticated argeggiator which is fully editable. For composition, it sports an advanced 32-track MIDI sequencer plus — and this is the unusual bit — an integrated 24-bit, eight-track hard disk recorder. With the luxury of eight individual inputs, this potentially enables you to use the Fusion not just as a keyboard but as a self-contained recording studio. At the centre of all this, you have a software-based updatable operating system and a 40GB hard drive, giving you flexibility and expandability similar to that of a computer-based system. And for connection with the outside world, there is a USB 2.0 port, a slot for a Compact Flash card reader and an interface for an external hard drive or a CD/DVD-ROM recorder.
It's a list of standard features which certainly makes for impressive reading, particularly given a recent and rather dramatic reduction in the price of the two Fusion models, which took place after it was launched in the USA but before it reached these shores. The 6HD, which marries all the functionality mentioned so far with a 61-note, very playable 'synth-style' keyboard, can now be yours for a highly respectable £899 (it was originally scheduled to go on sale for £1499), while for £1099, you can 'supersize' to the 88 fully weighted keys of the 8HD (which was to have retailed for £1699). Be warned that you may also need to capitalise on your subscription to the local gym. Whereas the Fusion 6HD weighs in at a not inconsiderable 13.8kg (30.4lb in old money), the 8HD is a whopping 25.6 kg (56.4lb). Apart from the number of keys, though, the functionality of the models is exactly the same. So throughout this review I'll just be referring to the Fusion as a single entity.
At the beginning of the year, Alesis's web site featured an animated promo for the Fusion stating: 'Understated sex appeal included'. Sadly, they've dropped that line now, but the fact remains that with its sleek, slick and very silver body, this is a real looker of a keyboard, in a sort of 'future retro' kind of style. My wife's reaction was simply: "Cor!".
As you can see on the photo above if you look carefully enough, every single button is backlit, so when you first switch it on, it's like powering up a starship command console. Active buttons glow brighter than the others, so it's easy to see how things are programmed at a glance. Another funky touch is the mod and pitch 'levers' (they look wheel-like but are not strictly wheels as such), which glow a neon blue as you move them (see the picture on the last page of this article). This is not just a gratuitous style statement; it means that when you're using the Fusion in those dark places that musicians invariably find themselves in — often their own homes — you can see at a glance whether and how much modulation has been applied.
Photo: Mark EwingThe layout of the controls and grouping and labelling of the main functions is extremely logical. To the left are real-time performance controls; to the right, we have preset selection buttons, the data wheel and its associated cluster of keys, then the transport section for the sequencer/hard disk recorder. In the middle, flanking the generous 240 x 128, high-definition backlit LCD are the system buttons giving you top-level access to all the Fusion's main music-making departments, plus 12 'soft' programming keys that allow you to thread your way through the many pages of the Fusion's deep and complex operating system.
The main operations are known as in Fusion-speak as 'Modes'. They consist of Mix, Program, Song, Sampler, Mixer and Global. Program is where you need to head to start with. From here you can load, play and ultimately edit the Fusion's hundreds of preset sounds. Hitting Mix Mode dials up what on other keyboards are generally called Performances, in other words the more complex multitimbral patches which usually see several programs split and/or layered across the keyboard. Song Mode gives you access to the sequencer and hard disk recorder functions.
The remaining three Modes (Sampler, Mixer and Global) are self-explanatory to anyone who's used a workstation before. As usual, Global encompasses various system settings and utilities, and on the Fusion is where you go to handle data transfer between the Compact Flash card and the Fusion's internal hard drive.
One thing you have to get used to with the Fusion is the way in which the first three Modes in particular (Mix, Program, and Song) interact with each other; they are interlinked, yet simultaneously separate. So it is that you can tweak the parameters of a Program within Song mode so that it sounds better in the overall mix. But these tweaks aren't applied to the sound if you dial it up from within the Program Mode.
It seems a bit mean to dismiss all those man-hours of product development and hundreds of pages of the reference manual by summing up the Fusion's sound engine as 'extensively programmable'. But nevertheless, this is the main message you need to take away with you. The Fusion's designers have struck a good balance between the practical and the possible; the available physical modelling parameters, for example, have been restricted to the essential elements. It's all too easy with this technology to program impossible instruments that don't make any noise whatsoever. On the other hand, there is extensive scope to program and modulate the sample-based and virtual-analogue sounds. Realistically, many Fusion users are going to largely keep their heads above the programming surface, content to play around with mixing and matching presets and effects, applying performance controls and fine-tuning the filters and modulation routings. However, the beauty is that you can always delve into the depths if you want. Here's a summary of the main components of each sound generation type.
SAMPLE PLAYBACK (DRUM PROGRAMS)
VIRTUAL ANALOGUE SYNTHESIS
All synthesis types offer a maximum of eight envelopes for volume, filter or pitch, and up to eight LFOs.
One of the first things I had to do was update the operating system to the latest version (v1.21 at the time of writing) — a simple matter of downloading the appropriate file to my computer from Alesis's web site, transferring the file to the Compact Flash card in the Fusion via the USB cable, and then rebooting while holding down a couple of keys. In a similar fashion, I was then able to install the latest bank of sounds on the Fusion's hard disk.
Most workstation keyboards generally use a synth engine coupled to a chunk of ROM filled with a bunch of samples (or waves) as the basis for their sonic palette. The Fusion is different on two counts. First, its waves are stored in Flash ROM, which means they can be substituted with others from either the internal hard drive or Flash ROM. This gives you access to a massive and potentially ever-changing library of sounds. Second, along with sample and synthesis, the Fusion gives you virtual analogue, FM synthesis and physical modelling.
Photo: Mark EwingMost SOS readers will be familiar with the virtual-analogue subtractive method of synthesis, and many of you will recall FM (the Fusion's implementation is a flexible six-operator affair, like the original 1983 Yamaha DX7). However, true physical modelling is a relative rarity in a hardware synth (for more on some of the background to this, see the 'Alternatives' box on page 42, in this month's review of Arturia's Brass — another physical modelling product, although this time a software-based one). The technology itself has been around for well over a decade in commercial form, and involves modelling the attributes and behaviour of real instruments as they are physically played. A typical example is a wind instrument, where you'd analyse parameters like the amount and force of breath being applied to 'excite' the air in the instrument, how it bounces around within the casing, and so on. After analysing a real instrument and creating a software-based model of how it behaves, the idea is that users of the model (that is, us!) can then start playing around with the parameters to create, say, a 500-foot long tuba played by a dwarf with giant lips. The technology is obviously highly complex (as Alesis rather charmingly put it, it 'requires a lot of math'. So the Fusion's implementation of it is fairly modest with just two models — Reed and Wind — and a relatively small set of parameters to play with.
As you might expect with these various technologies under its casing (and also because it's aimed at a 'generalist' rather than 'specialist' market), the Fusion's presets offer a pretty broad spectrum: from 'real' sounds like pianos and organs, through guitars, basses, orchestral, choral and ethnic instruments, to DX-style tuned percussion and analogue squelch. I have to say though that the initial factory soundset I got to play with was pretty lacklustre. There were very few programs or mixes that seemed really inspiring — and certainly none which took advantage of the fact that you've got four synth technologies at your fingertips. However, one of the plus points of the Fusion's design is that new sounds can be added, and while I was conducting my review Alesis were busy adding new sets of sample-based preset banks to the downloads available from their web site at a rate of one a week (there were four by the time I was finishing this, and a fifth appeared before this went to press). The majority of these new sounds come from UK sound designer Hollow Sun (the work name of sound designer and sometime SOS contributor Steve Howell), whose credits include extensive work with Akai's sampler and sound modules. The new patches, which include electric pianos, organs (some mighty, some deliciously cheesy), strings, choirs and some really nice drum kits, definitely better many of the original sample-based factory offerings. Again, though, you're left wondering why Alesis aren't yet making more of the various other technologies that the Fusion offers in addition to sample-based synthesis.
Having loads of sounds to pick from can be a mixed blessing if you can you never remember where they are. The Fusion tackles this issue with a quirky but very workable system. Within each preset bank, sounds are organised by type (Piano, Chromatic, Organ, and so on) like a General MIDI synth. This means you can use the various program-selection buttons to either work your way sequentially through the different types of instrument in a bank, or jump about between banks to access, for example, just the brass patches. When you create your own patches, you can label them by type so they also slot into this system. What's not so slick — though it's a logical consequence of the Fusion's architecture — is the load time associated with calling up a new preset. Once the 64Mb of Flash ROM has been filled with patches, dialling in a new one means calling it off the hard disk — at which point it displaces an older one. While the loading time is not overly significant — a second or two at most — it can be irritating when you are quickly trying to audition patches. And on one occasion, the system did freeze, necessitating a reboot.
Workstation users have traditionally found they have run out of available notes long before they have run out of compositional ideas. Fortunately, the Fusion uses its internal hard disk to store its songs, so that usual line in the spec sheet which reads '200,000-note sequencer capacity' is replaced with the word 'unlimited'. While not totally true, in the sense that you could conceivably run out of hard disk space at some point, you'd probably only do so if you left the Fusion in a room full of monkeys with a predisposition for Wagnerian composition.
Restrictions on polyphony can be another problem area, but on the Fusion, this parameter depends very much on the complexity of the Programs being used, since the Fusion uses its synth engine dynamically. Even so, for Programs requiring the most intensive processing (for example, those using the reed and wind physical modelling) Alesis claim that they've achieved polyphony counts of 60 and 48 voices respectively, which is pretty impressive. And for programs based on S&S synthesis, FM and virtual analogue, their claimed figures are much higher.
Now is as good a time as any to look more closely at the Fusion's Performance Panel — the section shown above with the real-time tweaking controls. In addition to the mod and pitch wheels, there are four very chunky continuous controller performance knobs, plus four programmable trigger buttons and a couple of on/off switches. The mapping of knobs to function is controlled by four switches — Arp, Filter, EQ and Assign. Known as the Performance Grid, it offers the familiar matrix programming approach taken by manufacturers when there are too many functions and not enough dedicated knobs. The first three 'lines' of the Performance Grid hardwire the knobs to the main parameters of the Arpeggiator, Filter and EQ respectively. The Assign row gives you control over four user-programmable parameters, so with the trigger buttons and switches you've got a very workable combination of fixed and assignable knob-ability.
The arpeggiator is an aspect of the Fusion's real-time control that I really liked. Where many keyboards bury the arpeggiator beneath several menu layers, the Fusion puts it very much at the top of the performance agenda, with a separate button to turn it on and off for each patch. Good one! Actually, arpeggiator doesn't really do justice to what's on offer here, as the Fusion offers 1000 preset patterns, plus the wherewithal to fashion your own. The presets go well beyond the up/down, round and round type of bleepy electronica stuff. There are so-called 'Phrase Arpeggiations' that are designed to mimic certain ways of playing such as guitar strumming. These help you get the most out of those kind of sounds and work especially well when you are building arrangements. Another pattern type gives you what to all intents and purposes are pre-programmed drum patterns. While the Fusion doesn't strictly advertise itself as having an built-in drum machine, these patterns, when used in conjunction with the drum kit presents, give you the wherewithal to use it like one.
The Fusion's 64MB memory can be upgraded with a 128MB factory-fitted RAM module. This not only allows you to load more presets, it also increases the amount of capacity for user sampling from the standard 12 mono minutes at 44.1kHz/16-bit to just over 37 mono minutes.
Stereo or mono user sampling is done via a pair of dedicated inputs on the back panel. With their associated gain control, these are capable of handling a line signal or a dynamic mic. Sampling is very straightforward using the record and play keys within transport controls. You can monitor through the keyboard with virtual bar-graph meters to set accurate levels. Usefully there's a variable threshold control which means recording is triggered only when the signal hits a particular level.
Photo: Mark EwingThe Sample Edit screen offers a range of functions to manipulate either the entire sample or parts of it, including changing the gain, normalising, cropping, setting loop points, cutting and pasting and creating fade ins and outs. Plus, for more creative effects, there's Reverse and Quantise, the latter allowing you to grunge up the sound by reducing the bit depth. Further screens enable you to then build up complex multisamples with up to 512 component samples. In all this, the Fusion's central screen provides more than generous visual feedback, and old-school samplists will certainly feel very much at home.
As an alternative to DIY, you can import files via USB or load from the Compact Flash card. For this purpose, Alesis offer a free utility, Fusion Converter, enabling you to bring in WAVs, AIFF files, Soundfont files, and Akai S1000/3000 and S5000/Z-Series samples and programs. Note that Fusion Converter is currently PC-only, though Alesis say a Mac OS X version is in development.
As I have mentioned, user samples can form the basis of new synth Programs, and there's a Generate Program function on the Sampler Utility page which takes you straight from working with a sample or multisample into dealing with the synthesis element. This is just one of several cross-functional commands which enable you to port from one Mode to another taking all the relevant parameters with you.
As a general comment, detailed editing on the Fusion is a fairly stress-free experience, thanks to its well-designed user interface, which is consistently applied across all the modes. There are also various shortcuts involving a combination of buttons and the keyboard itself that are worth learning, meaning you don't have to rely entirely on the data wheel. However, when you are sitting at the keyboard, the soft buttons don't line up by eye with the corresponding functions. There are some ridges on the casing that are supposed to help, but they don't, so you often end up pressing the wrong one by mistake. Fortunately, the interface is such that this never proves fatal!
The entire premise of workstations is that you can go from noodling about on the keyboard, to laying down an entire symphony before you can say 'Why isn't my computer recognising my multitimbral sound module?' While loads of keyboards have some kind of MIDI recorder or arranger on board, the Fusion is unique in its price range in that it offers both a MIDI sequencer and an eight-track audio recorder, control of both being offered within Song Mode.
In Fusion-speak, MIDI tracks are known as Synth tracks. Creating a song gives you one Synth track for immediate use: you then add further Synth or Audio tracks as you need them. In practice, this is not the best way to go about setting up a song from scratch, as with each new Synth track you then have to laboriously dial up the sound you want to use. It's much better to start from the Program or Mix menus, where the Generate Song command will set up a song with the right program and its parameters already in place. In the case of a Mix that uses several Programs, the Fusion will automatically generate one synth track per Program.
Photo: Mark EwingThe MIDI sequencer is a sophisticated beast with just about all the editing facilities you would expect from a software equivalent, including pre- and post-recording quantise, piano-roll and event-list editing with step-time input, MIDI event filtering and extensive cut and paste editing. The new 1.21 Fusion OS (which arrived while I was writing this review) adds some welcome extra features in the form of the ability to loop entire songs, plus the ability to create new synth tracks while a song is playing or recording Synth tracks, though you can't do this if your song contains an audio track. The only omission I think I might be worried about is the ability to record changes of tempo during a track. If this facility is offered, then I couldn't find it.
Recording your first track used to be a simple matter of pressing Record and Play, waiting for the programmable count in on the programmable metronome and starting to play. With the arrival of OS v1.21 it can now be even simpler: put the Fusion into record-ready mode and recording will start as soon as you hit a note. Then select another track and record the second part — though not without winding the sequencer back to the beginning first. You can do this in several ways, including using one of the 16 programmable locate points, though I did find it annoying that I couldn't set the sequencer so that it always automatically jumped back to the start whenever you pressed Stop.
Another thing which had me stumped for a while was how to loop things. Once I realised how to do it, I began to see what a creative tool it could be. Basically, you can set the start and end loop points individually for each track, so for example, track 1 — a drum pattern — might loop round bar one, giving you a basic rhythm loop. You might then loop the bass track between bars 1 and 4 giving you a four-bar bass pattern. The piano part might loop between bars 15 and 17, in which case it plays up to bar 17, then loops back to 15. I'm talking in round numbers here to make it easier to describe; in fact, as on the sequencer itself, the resolution of where you can place your loop points goes down to 1/480th of a note. What's more, you can adjust loop points on the fly as you play the song, which makes life very interesting indeed.
Audio tracks are treated in a similar way to MIDI both in terms of recording and editing. As with sampling, you can zoom in on the actual waveforms for precise edits. I was interested to see that audio tracks have an associated 'event' data list — and I subsequently discovered that this was the way of creating and/or editing the automation of mix parameters such as volume or pan. As you adjust these mix parameters, events are stored so that these changes can be played back later.
While there's no question that the Fusion is eminently capable of creating a complex song, it is most definitely a labour of love. As the Fusion's screen only shows eight tracks at a time, a complicated mix requires a lot of jumping backwards and forwards, both between tracks and between different parts of the song. At this point, you're probably thinking that the best thing is to get the basics of a composition laid down with the Fusion, and then use the handy USB port to transfer the MIDI and audio across to a computer DAW for further editing. You can do this, but the details of how to achieve it are somewhat buried in the rather cryptic reference manual. The Export Track utility is the one you want. The Fusion normally saves all song info and audio in a proprietary format, but a couple of button presses are all it needs to export synth tracks as MIDI files and any audio tracks as WAVs. These can be saved to a Compact Flash card attached to the Fusion and imported into your computer-based sequencer from there.
In terms of analogue outs, the Fusion has a relatively modest complement of two main plus two auxiliary audio outs on balanced quarter-inch jacks, along with a stereo headphone socket. Digitally, there's S/PDIF which mirrors the main outputs, plus an ADAT digital output. I was expecting that the ADAT connection would be for the eight tracks of the hard disk recorder, but there's currently no way to link all eight to the ADAT out. Instead, the ADAT connection provides a means by which the keyboard sounds can interface with an external mixer or recording device. The first four ADAT channels mirror the main and auxiliary outs, while the second four give you outputs from Insert Sends 1-4. So you can output the first four hard disk tracks via the ADAT out by assigning them to the main output buss, but not the others, as audio tracks don't have inserts.
Photo: Mark EwingPhoto: Mark EwingFor audio input, the Fusion boasts a pair of connections to the sampler, again on balanced quarter-inch jacks. An associated gain control means this can cope with both line and mic inputs. The sampler input can also be used to feed a signal to the program engine for processing, but not to the hard disk recorder, which again remains separate. There are eight separate quarter-inch jack audio inputs to the eight individual tracks of the hard disk recorder, once again on balanced quarter-inch jacks. These are software-switchable between -10dBV and +4dBu. In other words, they're OK for line signals, but for mics or guitars, you'll need preamps. Nor is there an internal audio link between the synth and the recorder. If you want to commit your playing to audio, rather than MIDI, you have to patch the Fusion's outputs to the hard disk recorder's inputs, which seems a little clunky.
Alongside the three wise MIDI sockets (In, Out and Thru), there are inputs for expression and sustain pedals, and a user-configurable footswitch input which can be used for a variety of triggering and performance-control functions.
To handle moving data around, the Fusion offers USB 2.0 and a slot for a Compact Flash card, both of which allow you to back up Programs and transfer them between users. There is also a SATA connection for external hard drives and an optional (forthcoming) external CD/DVD-ROM recorder.
I've always been attracted by the idea of a single piece of gear which would allow me to play, compose and record without me needing to switch on the computer and power up loads of ancillary gear. And on the face of it, this is just what the Fusion would seem to offer — a performance instrument coupled with a kind of 'portable Studio B' that would enable you to spontaneously lay down your tracks, then port them across to the main recording system to add further polish.
There is a slight fly in the ointment here in that the inputs to the hard disk recorder are strictly line-level only (see the 'Ins & Outs' box opposite). This may seem trivial, but realistically, this idea that you have the freedom to record wherever you can lug 30lbs of keyboard is compromised by the fact that you also need to carry around some DI boxes or maybe the odd mic and guitar preamp. This doesn't square with the 'one box for all' picture the Fusion's promotional literature has tried to paint. But more seriously, it doesn't really fit the requirements of the most natural audience for a keyboard like this — the solo composer looking for a self-contained songwriting solution. What these folk want to do (and I know, because I'm married to one) is to start by laying down some keyboard tracks via MIDI, then plug in the guitar and microphone and build up a complete song. So I think it's curious that Alesis haven't equipped the hard disk with either a Hi-Z input for guitars or a mic input (ideally with switchable phantom power) — it seems a puzzling product-development decision.
I can see that the Fusion's combination of audio and MIDI playback could make it a good instrument for backing sequenced live performances — especially as the internal hard drive allows you to store plenty of songs. But as I've said elsewhere in this review, the lack of internal routings to the hard disk recorder don't help to give the impression that it's particularly well integrated into the Fusion, making me wonder whether it was added at a late stage in the design process.
The fact is, the current market for 'professional' keyboard workstations designed to appeal to the generalist musician is, like the best pubs, very small and very crowded. And the Fusion is up against some particularly fierce competition from Korg, who not only produced the first mass-market keyboard workstation (the M1) but have remained wholeheartedly committed to developing the concept ever since. Over the years, Korg have set the benchmark for workstations based on a combination of ease of use and innovative features, but most importantly, classy, inspirational sounds.
Now, a month back, I would have said that in a head-to-head comparison with the likes of the Korg Triton Extreme, the Fusion really wouldn't have stood much of a chance, simply because of its rather indifferent sounds. But that was when the 8HD was slated to retail at £1699 and its smaller brother at £1499. With the recent price cuts, it's a different story. On a pound-per-feature comparison, the Fusion now looks quite a bargain compared to the list of rival £1500 keyboards against it was originally designed to compete. OK, so even at its new price, the Fusion is up against the Triton LE, which in the sound department again offers that 'extra something' that has always set Korg keyboards apart from the rest.
Generally though, there are many aspects of the Fusion that are really good, such as its looks, its interface, and its feature list. Most importantly of all, it has a flexible architecture and a large hard disk, all for a very affordable price. If Alesis continue to give it the kind of development support they have shown so far, with OS upgrades and new sounds, then the only way is up.