Italian firm Generalmusic have made their reputation in the home keyboard market, but their new Equinox is an extremely well-specified professional workstation. Paul Nagle is suitably impressed.
The idea of performing on stage or recording complete tracks with only a single keyboard is appealing to many of us and for a variety of reasons. Packaging the right bundle of features for every occasion whilst keeping a firm hold of the price tag is a delicate business, but a smart new contender, the GEM Equinox, is ready and eager to mix it with all comers.
When the Equinox arrived, I knew only that it was a 64-note polyphonic workstation with master keyboard facilities which was also capable of importing samples. Initially, the review model also lacked a manual, so I just had to switch it on and see how far I could progress before getting stuck. Fortunately, as you can probably tell by the length of this review, it was all pretty intuitive, but I was helped in no small measure by Generalmusic's excellent web site, which yielded the basic manual plus an additional manual listing enhancements added since the first version of the operating system was released. The Equinox's OS is flash-updatable, so bug-fixes or new features are installed simply by popping a disk into the floppy drive and letting it carry out its own installation. When the manual did arrive, I was pleased that it was ring-bound, making updates easy to insert.
With its smooth, rounded edges, chunky pitch bender and modulation wheel, the Equinox feels both friendly and substantial. A metal base supports the blue-grey plastic torso, while the front panel is turquoise, fading tastefully at either end. I think this GEM will forever banish any misconceptions that a successful home keyboard company can't produce professional synthesizers. Indeed, the Equinox's predecessor, the S2 (reviewed August 1992, followed by the rack version in March 1994) earned notable praise from reviewers at the time.
GEM EQUINOX £1399
Master keyboard and control capabilities.
Excellent drawbar mode.
Sample import with battery-backed sample memory.
Powerful sequencer, arpeggiator and groove functions.
Capacity to hold thousands of sounds.
Display is quite small and sometimes a little slow to update.
Stereo samples converted to mono.
There's a hell of a lot in the Equinox -- Generalmusic must have taken a good look at everybody else's offerings before producing their feature list. With sample import, a groove mode, sequencer, master controller features and drawbar mode, this is a workstation to challenge all-comers. With many upgrade options available, only the omission of user sampling prevents this being the Full Monty.
There is much here that is familiar: a high-density floppy drive (positioned to the left of the keyboard) for storage of patches and songs, an alpha dial for data entry, a numeric keypad, a combined enter/escape key and navigational controls to the right of a centrally-positioned LCD. This display is small (128x64), green and a little less impressive than the S2's large blue one. Underneath it are four 'soft keys' the functions of which vary according to what you're doing with the synth at the time. Below this are four buttons, collectively referred to as the 'Library' and used to select Sounds, multitimbral Performances, Drum kits or user Samples. There are over 50 hard plastic buttons, 34 of which have built-in red LEDs to indicate status. Their functions range from keyboard transpose (up & down for octaves and semitones) and effects on/off to dedicated transport controls for the sequencer. There's even one marked 'Help', although no help is currently on offer, while another, 'Notepad', is used to display the contents of text files found on the floppy drive.
To the left of the display, a row of sliders and buttons are the most immediate sign that the Equinox is well-endowed in the features department. Eight sliders, divided into Envelope, Filter and LFO sections, provide direct control of major sound parameters when the synth is in Sound Mode. These have yet more to offer in other modes -- for example, when combined with two buttons, innocently labelled 'User' and 'Drawbars' they transform the Equinox respectively into a programmable MIDI control station or a pretty versatile drawbar organ. The two leftmost sliders adjust the levels of master volume and 'input', this latter referring to the twin mic/line inputs (with dedicated gain controls) at the rear of the instrument which are used to mix external signals with the onboard sounds -- a feature which may be valuable for live use, though external audio cannot be processed using the internal effects.
Positioned next to the inputs are four output jacks which deliver audio signals to the outside world, two via the stereo effects processor, with the other two being freely assignable. Moving along the rear panel, there are two separate MIDI interfaces, each with in, out and thru, and a computer interface for direct connection to a PC or Mac. There are four pedal inputs: one is dedicated to volume, but the other three can control a variety of parameters such as sequencer tempo, patch increment, filter control or the toggling of rotary speaker speed. A blank panel for the optional SCSI port, a standard mains connection and an on/off switch complete the rear panel. If you were wondering about headphone sockets, there are two, positioned sensibly at the front of the instrument.
Whether you want a workstation to be a songwriter's sketchpad or a full-blown production machine, there's no doubt that a broad range of sounds for every conceivable style is essential. The Equinox's 16Mb of ROM waveforms should appeal to a wide spread of mainstream tastes. These waveforms are the building blocks for over 1000 factory presets, divided into eight main banks and referred to as Synth A-D, Orchestral E and General MIDI 1-3, plus another bank of drum kits and two of individual drum sounds. If that isn't enough for you, there's space for no less than 16 user banks -- a grand total of 2048 user patch locations, all initially empty!
The amount of material on offer is vast, so I hope you'll forgive me if I pick just a personal selection of highlights whilst offering a general impression of the rest. The first four banks contain an abundance of generic synthesizer patches, many of which are extravagantly blended into a thick soup of filtered strings or breathy pads, seasoned with fat, analogue brass and topped off with generous sprinklings of reverb, delay and phaser effects. Dotted throughout these banks are an assortment of guitars, sound effects, choirs, and solo and bass synthesizers. Bank E,
Almost as this went to press, a new operating system revision introduced (amongst other things) a 'Preview' bank, which steps through the most impressive patches from all the factory sounds in an order designed to tempt potential buyers. This is sensible enough, but I'd rather they'd implemented a means of viewing patches by category -- so that if you need to find a bass sound, voilà, up pops a list of all available basses. After some hours of twirling my finger round and round the alpha dial, I was beginning to reach 'patch audition overload'!
Of the notable patches, bank A91, 'RumpBass' is suitably squelchy, especially when the Cutoff and Resonance sliders are brought into play, and another bass, A93 'Rezzedbass', is chunky, full, and only slightly spoiled by the slight aliasing of one of its waveforms (a much-transposed sine-wave). A little further into this bank comes A96 'StringMass', a positively huge reverberant string pad, and A105 'Choirshift' is a rich vocal pad to die for. Bank C's 'JMExcelent' is another good pad, spoiled only by a slight crackle which can be fixed simply by adjusting the level slider in the envelope section. Perhaps my favourite preset of all was E7 'E.PianoX' which is a delightfully bright and clear electric piano -- very addictive.
During my travels through preset land, I discovered that the left navigation arrow produced a handy Bank Select menu from which you could leap straight to a known location. This, combined with the numeric keypad, speeded up access considerably.
By this stage, I was itching to create some original sounds. Since there is no Patch Initialise function and it is not possible to select the empty User patches, the first step is to edit a Factory Preset and save it. When the Store key is used to save a patch, the memory location suggested is one which corresponds to the original bank. Thus an edited version of Bank A, patch 100 would be stored in bank User1, patch 100, which is handy if you wish to keep track of variations on presets such as our modified 'JMExcelent' patch referred to earlier.
Generalmusic have opted for the tried and trusted method of Sample And Synthesis (S&S). A single patch -- called a Sound -- takes its source from the onboard waveforms (or from imported samples, which we'll discuss later) and processes them through a digital filter section with multi-stage envelopes (up to 10 stages with a loopable section if needed) controlling pitch, filter and output contours, with a Low Frequency Oscillator for modulation. Waveforms may play forwards, backwards or in one of two 'alternate' loops, the usefulness of which varies according to the waveform chosen. For some it alters the timbre drastically, for others it introduces subtle or not-so-subtle glitches.
As in most S&S instruments, the main timbral modifier is the resonant filter, which can operate as low-pass, band-pass, high-pass, parametric cut or parametric boost. If you don't want to get deep into programming, the eight sliders offer a quick way to edit envelope level, attack, decay and release, along with filter cutoff and resonance and vibrato level and rate. All changes made with these sliders can be stored into user patches (unlike those made using the sliders on my Roland XP80!). A sound consists of up to three separate layers, each being made up from one or two waveforms and having its own key and velocity ranges. Five algorithms determine how the waveforms are routed internally, ranging from Single (one waveform passes through filter, envelopes and output stage) to four Dual configurations (two waveforms, either passing through their own filter and envelope routings or sharing them). Thus, with all layers active, a patch can have up to six oscillators in total, although this obviously reduces polyphony.
This is a very straightforward but flexible design -- you can do the kind of deep, layered stuff in a single patch that many synths reserve for their multitimbral modes. In practice, I started to find the small screen less than ideal, because of the amount of scrolling that was necessary. Some form of jump function to quickly reach the bottom or top of a parameter list would improve things considerably.
Every patch has parameters common to all its layers: velocity curves, random pitch amount and a portamento (the ability to slide smoothly in pitch between notes, as a violin or fretless bass can) which is particularly well implemented. Interestingly, keyboard input is used to name patches, and I suspect having the printed manual throughout the review would have helped. Most of my creations ended up being called 'NNNF' or 'GGRZ,H' because I consistently failed to remember the key-to-letter associations!
A drum kit is a special type of patch, made up from separate samples spread across the keyboard as needed. Hit the Drum button in the Library section and the 44 factory drum kits are instantly available. Furthermore, editing drum kits is as easy as picking the relevant softkey shown on the display (for instance Waves) then playing a note and dialling up a new waveform. There are two banks of drum samples, but you can choose from any of the ROM banks or from Sample RAM. The practical result of this is that you can replace a single bass drum or construct an entire kit full of original samples and loops. Wicked, as I believe young people say. Each drum in a kit has its own pan and volume settings, effects send levels and output routings, plus a simple low-pass filter to brighten or dull the tone. For extra spice, a special two-layer configuration makes it possible to switch dynamically between waveforms based on velocity.
The Equinox also provides three 'exclude' numbers per kit which are used to make certain drum sounds mutually exclusive. If you want to prevent open and closed hi-hats, rim and snare and open/closed congas from playing at the same time, this is the tool to do it. Similarly, if you want a drum voice to be played over several keys, say to add tuned percussion to a kit, you can do that too. Unlike some workstations, there's no limit on how many user kits can be stored. I did find a small bug, apparently introduced in the latest operating system revision, which hung the entire synth when I attempted to re-edit the first user drum kit I saved. Oddly, it only affected this first one and I'm hopeful a fix will be available by the time you read this.
A Performance is a multitimbral collection of up to 16 sounds, referred to as Parts, each part being played from either of the two MIDI In ports or from the keyboard. There are 112 preset Performances and room for up to 112 user creations. When in Performance mode, each Part's level is set with one of the sliders. As there are only eight physical sliders, a small switch toggles between 'upper' and 'lower' settings to allow mixing of the full 16 sounds. Each part may be deactivated using the button directly below its slider and naturally, you can specify each part's output assignment, pan settings and send levels to each of the effects processors. When editing a Performance, a helpful 'Find' softkey quickly assigns sounds (if you know their name) to parts. If you're worried that that fantastic, chugging bass line will disappear because you accidentally hit a few extra notes in a chord, the 'polypriority' parameter might be the thing to save the day: it tells the Equinox which parts you consider most important. Of the remaining part parameters, Delay Time deserves a mention -- it will delay a note from playing for up to a bar's duration based on the current clock speed. In fact, the only thing that I could not discover was a means of editing an individual instrument without leaving Performance mode.
The sequencer is actually easier to use than the small display might suggest. It can store up to 16 songs, each with 16 tracks; has a capacity of 250,000 events and a resolution of 192 pulses per quarter note. I was impressed to find that it retained its songs after power down -- something that would make me more inclined to use it. Unusually, the sequencer operates separately to the rest of the instrument -- its 16 tracks are not tied to the current Performance. In theory, within the limits of polyphony, it is possible for the sequencer to drive a Performance of 16 parts while you play a different 16-part Performance on the keyboard at the same time, making the Equinox 32-part multitimbral in a sense. I found this a little confusing at first, but the easy way to remember it is that when the Song Edit button is lit, the tracks shown in the display, the volumes of which are controlled by the sliders, are sequencer tracks. Deactivate Song Edit and the control is returned to the current Performance.
In Performance mode, the arpeggiator controls a single part which you choose when you create the Performance -- and to all frustrated Roland XP owners, myself included, yes it has a hold/latch softkey so you can leave it arpeggiating while you wander around the studio!
As Generalmusic are keen to fulfill our every desire, there is, of course, a programmable arpeggiator. The user can specify arpeggio directions of up, down, up and down, random, 'Input' (which uses the incoming note order) and glissando (the arpeggio runs through semitone steps between the upper and lower note played) at a variety of time intervals, including some which are 'groove quantised'. Its 16 factory presets are all simple enough, but likely to get used all the more because of this. Once you have adjusted the settings to taste, user arpeggios can be saved in any of 16 user locations.
In Performance mode, the arpeggiator controls a single part which you choose when you create the Performance -- and to all frustrated Roland XP owners, myself included, yes it has a hold/latch softkey so you can leave it arpeggiating while you wander around the studio!
Any edit you make can be undone, so you can experiment without fear. Whilst in sequencer mode, the sliders act as volume controls for each part and, of course, you can record an automated mix as easy as pie (and watch the little slider graphics move during playback). Standard MIDI files (type 0 or 1) can be loaded in from the onboard floppy drive, and you can build Grooves from sections of your song too. Since we haven't discussed Grooves yet, make a mental note for later that this is a Good Thing.
Generalmusic have devised a means of sharing effects between the Sequencer and Performances, so that both the Sequencer's tracks and the Performance can have their own reverb and multi-effects processor. Which brings me to...
The Equinox is blessed with 85 different digital effects, ranging from stereo reverbs to multitap delays, flangers, chorus effects and so on. The quality is generally good, and a few are quite outstanding. Effects configurations are often seen as the weak link when workstations are used multitimbrally, but the Equinox allows you to split the effects in a '2&2' configuration. Essentially, this gives you four separate processors: a reverb and multi-effects each for the sequencer and the performance. The reverbs are clean and warm, and the multi-effects include delays, pitch-shifters, distortion, EQ, chorus, and dual effects such as flanged delay.
If you select the '3 effects' configuration, an additional option ('Pro Effects') becomes available. This contains the most powerful algorithms, such as 2x and 4x pitch-shifters, 3D processors, ring modulator, compressor and guitar effects. In Pro Effects mode, the effects for the Performance and sequencer apply to both in common -- you simply choose which of them is the source for the shared settings. It's a good trade-off, I think. I doubt whether anyone will be disappointed by the range of the effects on offer, either: I thought the phaser was especially deep and rich (and very easy to over-use!), and the delays are plentiful and varied . In fact the only thing I missed was the ability to sync delay times to MIDI clock -- but perhaps that will be added in a future update?
At first glance, you might miss the small button next to the eight sliders which is simply labelled 'Drawbars'. Pressing this transforms the Equinox into a surprisingly versatile tonewheel organ, complete with percussion, keyboard splits and effects which complement the sounds perfectly. Everything from key-click volume to individual drawbar levels is available, and using the sliders as virtual drawbars is an excellent spin-off, getting maximum mileage from the hardware. Realistic vibrato and distortion are present, and all these settings plus rotary speaker slow and fast speeds may be individually tailored and stored in 16 special User Performances. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with how good this section was, and its 16 factory presets are as good as anything else the Equinox has to offer -- who says that a jack of all trades can't do some of them very well indeed?
The Equinox comes with 2Mb (expandable to 8Mb) of battery-backed sample RAM as standard, which means you can augment the armoury of onboard waveforms with samples from a wide range of sources. The list so far includes import from the onboard floppy disk (WAV, AIFF, Sound Designer, Akai and Kurzweil formats are supported) or via MIDI Sample Dump. With the optional SCSI port fitted, you have access to samples from CD-ROM, Zip, Jaz or Syquest drives, plus external hard disks. Generalmusic also state that future operating system updates will include Roland, Ensoniq and Emu sample formats.
an internal 2.5-inch 2Gb IDE hard disk. a SCSI port for communication with external hard disks, Zip drives, Jazz drives, Syquest and CD-ROM drives. an A-D convertor with vocal harmoniser (up to four parts) and vocoder functions. It is rumoured that with the A-D convertor fitted, the operating system might be upgraded to provide user sampling too in the future.
Generalmusic clearly have great plans for the Equinox, with options to expand the battery-backed sample RAM to 8Mb and to add:
an internal 2.5-inch 2Gb IDE hard disk.
a SCSI port for communication with external hard disks, Zip drives, Jazz drives, Syquest and CD-ROM drives.
an A-D convertor with vocal harmoniser (up to four parts) and vocoder functions.
It is rumoured that with the A-D convertor fitted, the operating system might be upgraded to provide user sampling too in the future.
Other tweaks can be made here to the loop start, sample end (you can truncate bits here to save memory) and the pitch. If you want to import several samples, assigning them as multisamples across the keyboard, that's easily catered for. Indeed, if the Equinox went one step further and implemented onboard sampling, it would be a dream machine -- but even without it, doing all the complicated stuff on a computer, or lifting material from a sampler, then importing to the Equinox works a treat. The fact that the samples are still in memory after power-down is a very big plus factor. The Equinox can be fitted with an internal 2Gb 2.5-inch IDE hard drive and up to 32Mb of 'ordinary' computer SIMMS (I believe this to mean 72-pin SIMMS -- indeed I opened up the synth and this appears to be the case, two slots being available).
The Equinox's manual has the following to say about its Grooves function: "these provide a valuable source of drum, bass and keyboard 'riffs' which can be used for real-time playing or can be incorporated into sequences and edited to your taste." Essentially, each groove is a multitrack, looping MIDI sequence in which every element is tweakable: sounds, effects, tempo, key and pitch. Each groove is allocated to a single key, with up to 16 exclusion groups to prevent two conflicting grooves from sounding at once. You decide the range of keys over which different grooves can play -- perhaps just the lowest octave, so you can perform 'over the top'.
Over a thousand Preset Grooves are provided in 16 families (each containing 64 grooves), with an additional eight user families capable of holding 512 user grooves. The factory grooves are Drum 1-3, Percussion, Bass 1-3, Keyboard 1-5, Guitar and Combi 1-3. Of these, I found the drum and percussion to be pretty valuable 'instant' resources, and the rest less so -- I thought they exhibited the only signs of the 'home keyboard' mentality that is otherwise thankfully absent from the Equinox. I know some people value these 'twiddly bits' though, so I'll leave you to decide if they can add anything to your music.
Perhaps the coolest feature of Grooves is 'shuffle', which randomly selects different groove layers. It will combine drum patterns, percussion breaks, bass and keyboard motifs, and so on at the press of a button. If you find one you like, you can save it whilst continuing to randomise the other parts. This is hardly composing as we know it, but as a rhythm ideas generator there's nothing quicker. With up to eight tracks possible in a groove, things can quickly get out of hand, and the manual advises shuffling just two or three tracks as the best starting point. I particularly liked the ability to restrict the shuffle function to only the families you want -- say if you want only variations of user-created material. Or you could marvel at how few
"Pressing the 'Drawbar' button transforms the Equinox into a surprisingly versatile tonewheel organ, complete with percussion, keyboard splits and effects which complement the sounds perfectly."
Grooves can also be sourced from the onboard sequencer or from MIDI files, and once a groove is running, the fun's just starting. When in Groove mode, the sliders become a 'Groove Lab' for creating 'DJ-like' effects such as altering the tempo of the loop, panning, attack, filtering and adding modulation. When the 'lower' row of sliders is active, they function as volume controls for each track of the groove. The pitch-bender plays an important role here: it, too, performs tempo changes, but releasing the wheel always returns the groove to its correct speed as the wheel springs back to the centre position. Great fun! In real time, Grooves can be transposed, their direction reversed, and they can be programmed to start (or stop) instantly or on the next bar or beat. Grooves can loop forever, play through just once or play only while a key is held. They can be tweaked so extensively that I found myself becoming a convert -- this is Roland's RPS mode done right!
Ordinarily, this would be the point to wind up the review and reach some kind of conclusion. However, the Equinox has one last trick up its sleeve: it is a versatile master keyboard and MIDI controller. The onboard sliders don't just edit patches, mix sequencer track levels, operate as drawbar organs and control Grooves -- they can also be programmed to transmit different types of MIDI controller information. And the switches underneath them don't merely activate layers, tracks or sequencer parts or control the speed of a rotary speaker effect -- they can also transmit MIDI information such as program changes, MIDI notes, Performance increment or tempo settings. A quick prod of the 'User' button, and up to 16 programmable slider templates can be accessed, the upper/lower switch effectively giving you 16 different sliders and switches. Any MIDI controller number, plus some internal Equinox settings (such as tempo) can be programmed with a user-definable range and direction. If that's not enough, the slider's control can be sent to either MIDI output, restricted to the internal synth engine or to the sequencer, and can transmit on up to 16 channels simultaneously. There's even a suggestion that future operating systems will support programmable SysEx strings too.
Viewed as a master keyboard, the Equinox can transmit on multiple MIDI channels with up to 16 zones available, corresponding to parts in a Performance. Keyboard splits and layers are easily achieved, and data may be routed to either MIDI port to further extend the flexibility. The keyboard's action is good, successfully balancing a light feel with enough depth to dig in when needed. Unlike GEM's previous effort, the S2, only channel aftertouch is available. Incoming MIDI data can, if you choose, be merged with the Equinox's own output, and up to seven incoming and outgoing filters can be applied to the data (for instance pitch-bend, aftertouch, specific control changes and so on) for each of the 16 parts. GEM haven't missed a trick here with the possible exception of a 'patch remain' feature to allow notes from the onboard synth engine to sustain over patch changes.
The Equinox is quite a pleasant surprise and, as estate agents used to say, 'deceptively spacious'. If Generalmusic intend to take on the world, they have to offer something special -- and with the Equinox they've done just that. In most areas it has more features than the competition, and if it also offered the import of stereo samples, or provided a user sampling option, I feel there would be nothing to touch it. Even as it stands it's hard to see where the competition lies without looking at considerably more expensive instruments. My occasional references to the Roland XP series are intended to illustrate how, in many areas, the Equinox exceeds what I consider to be the benchmark workstations.
By concentrating on a simple synthesis implementation, the Equinox scores by being easy to use, yet remains capable of producing very deep and complex sounds. I personally wasn't overawed with most of the factory presets, but they are easy to tweak, and with over 2000 locations to store user patches, it seems a crime not to do just that. Any cynicism on my part about the 'grooves' function wore off very quickly -- it's simply wonderful for real-time control of loop-based music. In a computer-based studio, we take for granted how easy it has become to paste a drum loop, vocal sample or sound effect into a project. But there are times when a computer isn't the ideal partner, and in such cases, the Equinox's sample import would score heavily. Speaking as someone whose previous interest in sampling peaked at 'musical belches', the Equinox made me wonder whether I've been missing something all these years.
During the review, I discovered a couple of bugs but an upgrade to the operating system fixed one of them, and the other was easily avoided once I was aware of it (the user drum kit problem referred to earlier). My only other reservation concerns the display, which occasionally responded sluggishly when the data entry dial got spinning; some edit menus also require a lot of tapping the down arrow before you reach the field you need to change.
The organ mode works very well and the master keyboard functions are splendid additions, setting the Equinox apart from other workstations in its class. If you need to expand, there are plenty of options, and since the operating system is in flash RAM, when any bugs are fixed or new features added, the upgrade is as simple as loading a floppy.
So would I buy an Equinox? Actually, if I didn't already have a Roland XP80 workstation, I might. The Equinox's sequencer has a higher resolution, its Grooves are more versatile than the Roland's RPS mode, the ability to import samples and retain them after power-down would be superb for stage use, and the control sliders offer many possibilities. Ultimately the sum of the parts adds up to a very impressive instrument, and anyone needing a workstation would be foolish to ignore it.
61-key version £1399; 76-key version £1499;
Pro 88-key version (including 8Mb of RAM and internal hard disk as standard) £1995.
Prices include VAT.
Prices for optional SCSI expansion, internal hard disk and A-D convertor not yet confirmed.
+44 (0)1245 344001.
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