Korg Triton Rack

Expandable Sound Module/Sampler

Published in SOS November 2000
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Reviews : Sound Module

Korg follow up their top-flight Triton workstation with a sophisticated rackmount expander. The new model sacrifices some features but enhances many others and adds support for the mLAN music network standard. Simon Trask racks it up.

With the introduction of their flagship Triton range last year, Korg showed their continued adherence to the tradition of the workstation. Now, with the release of the 2U 19-inch Triton Rack, the company are also maintaining their long-standing practice of following up a new workstation release with a rackmount version of the same technology. It's a practice that has always made a lot of sense, as not everyone wants to buy a new keyboard (workstation or otherwise) in order to get their hands on new technology. But with vigorous competion in both hardware and software markets (with the emergence of increasingly powerful and sophisticated soft synths and samplers), does Korg's new Triton Rack make the grade?

Shaping Up

The Triton was reviewed in depth in the June 1999 issue of SOS. If you can't find a copy of that issue, the review is on the SOS web site at www.sospubs.co.uk/sos/jun99/articles/korgtriton.htm. In this review, I'll be focusing on the differences between the Triton Rack and the keyboard models from which it's derived (but see the 'What It Is' box for a very quick Triton Rack spec overview).

KORG TRITON RACK £1799
pros
Rich, smooth, full sound, strong throughout the range.
Extensive PCM sample expandability.
Many additional Program and Combi bank, user drumkits and arpeggios.
102 effect types.
Five insert effects processors.
Well-specified built-in sampler.
Impressive parameter depth and detail.
RPPR live pattern-triggering facility.
Provides built-in S/PDIF and optional ADAT connectivity lacking on the workstation.
mLAN option.
cons
Loses the workstation's large LCD touchscreen.
Synth and sampler parameter editing tends to be fiddly.
No flash memory option for onboard sample storage.
summary
A professional, solid, mature and generously-featured synth/sampler rackmount with superb sound and depth, plus impressive sonic expandability. Destined to be a workhorse piece of kit in many a studio.

A number of factors can shape the rackmount version of a keyboard instrument, preventing it from being simply a clone of its parents' functionality. Of course, the rackmount's shape and reduced size have an influence, though not necessarily to its detriment. For instance, where the Triton keyboard can have up to two PCM sample expander cards fitted, the Triton Rack can have up to eight. This is a reflection of the norm set by Roland in the high-end synth expander market with their JV series modules, indicating another shaping factor: the fact that a rackmount version of a keyboard has to compete in a different area, which has standards and expectations of its own.

A more obvious consequence of the translation to rackmount format is the necessary ditching of the Triton's large (320 x 240) graphical Touchview LCD screen, replaced by a more compact text-based LCD and up/down/left/right keys for parameter navigation. However, the LCD is still reasonably big, at 240 x 64. Although the Triton Rack retains the four real-time control knobs of the Triton, space considerations mean that these knobs are also used for live arpeggio control, whereas the Triton keyboard has three additional front-panel knobs for this purpose. Also gone, both for space reasons and because of the Triton Rack's expander status, are the keyboard's ribbon and joystick controllers and footpedal and switch inputs.

Another illustration that the smaller physical size of a rackmount unit doesn't have to imply less functionality than its keyboard counterpart can be found on the Triton Rack's rear panel. The Rack not only adds a 24-bit S/PDIF output and the option to fit an ADAT interface board, but also has a 7-inch covered slot ready to take a board which constitutes perhaps the most significant difference between the Triton and the Triton Rack, at least in the longer term, for what Korg have done is implement mLAN functionality on the Triton Rack (see 'LANding in the Future' box), making it the first instrument to support what could become the most significant new protocol since MIDI. Of course, this means you can't actually take advantage of the mLAN functionality immediately, but the fact that the Triton Rack is 'future-ready' in this way is a significant point in its favour.

These rear-panel additions also illustrate two other factors which can shape the functionality of a rackmount unit that emerges later than its parent (the Triton Rack is released, of course, more than a year after the keyboard range). The Rack's aforementioned S/PDIF and ADAT interfacing would indicate that Korg have responded to criticism of their absence on the keyboard models. (Indeed, such criticism was made in the SOS review of the Triton, which described the absence of digital connectivity as "almost perverse"). With mLAN as well, no-one will be able to criticise the Triton Rack for lack of digital connectivity. Analogue audio outputs and inputs are the same as on the keyboards — L/R master out, four individual outs, and two inputs with a mic/line level switch.

It's with mLAN that the second factor, time, comes into play. Between the release of the Triton keyboards and the Rack model, the Yamaha-originated mLAN protocol has been finalised, and a licensing system designed to facilitate uptake of the protocol by other manufacturers has been introduced, allowing mLAN to be offered by the new instrument.

Comparing Figures

The synthesis and effects architecture and functionality of the Triton Rack are the same as on the keyboards, however, Korg have taken the opportunity to enhance the Triton Rack's spec in a number of other ways. Where the Triton can be fitted with up to 64Mb of sample RAM, the Rack version can have up to 96Mb (three SIMMS compared to two). As standard , 16Mb of RAM is fitted, so if you want the full 96Mb you'll need to replace the 16Mb SIMM with a 32Mb one.

  What It Is  
  The Triton Rack is a 60-note polyphonic, 16-part multitimbral synth module, with a full-featured built-in sampler which can load AIFF, WAV and Akai S1000/3000 sample data. This programmable instrument provides a wide selection of high-quality sounds ranging from traditional, orchestral and electronic instrument emulations to synth, pad and drum sounds, produced using the powerful HI (Hyper Integrated) synthesis system. Built-in multi-effects run to two master treatments, five insert effects and one master EQ, and dual polyphonic arpeggiators are featured, as is a pattern sequencer and real-time pattern-play facility. New sounds can be added to the synth via the MOSS Z1 synthesis board option and up to eight PCM expansion boards.  
While the Rack has the same built-in sound ROM as the keyboard models (32Mb, containing 425 multisamples and 413 drum samples), and the same ROM preset GM2/XG/GS sounds (256 instrumental sounds and nine drum kits), Korg have upped the number of Program and Combi memories significantly. Where the Triton has 640 Programs (five banks, A-E) and 512 Combis (four banks, A-D) , the Triton Rack has 1664 of both (13 banks of each type, A-E INT and A-H EXB). All the Rack's additional sound banks are initialised (empty), but you can write to them, so if you want to use factory preset Programs and Combis as the basis of your own sounds and textures, you can write them into initialised memories and edit them there, thereby avoiding having to overwrite the presets.

The main purpose of the eight EXB banks is to provide onboard patch memories for the Programs and Combis that come with the additional optional PCM boards (EXternal Boards, presumably). Each PCM board comes with a floppy disk containing associated Programs and Combis, which you can load off disk into the EXB banks. Of course, the more boards you fit, the less spare memories you have for editing. Still, at least you don't have to use Internal Banks C and D for PCM board Programs and Combis, as you do on the Triton keyboards.

GM2/XG/GS programs and drumkits are the same on keyboard and rack (and accessed in both cases via internal Program bank G), while both instruments have INT Program banks E and F reserved for 128 sampler and 128 MOSS Programs respectively. Korg have also upped the number of user drumkits significantly, from 64 on the Triton to 144 on the Triton Rack (16 filled with factory presets, the rest initialised), and given the Rack 328 user Arpeggio memories (200 of which are presets), compared to 232 on the Triton (approximately 180 presets).

There is one thing the Triton Rack has less of: polyphony. Nothing dramatic — in fact, a mere two voices less than the Triton, at 60 notes. This is apparently because extra processing power is needed to access the additional sample and PCM memory that the Rack can support. Also missing is the Triton's PC/Mac serial interface port, though it's no real loss (I felt it was rather out of place on the Triton anyway).

  LANding In The Future  
  The Triton Rack's six additional PCM-board slots aside, perhaps the most significant difference in functionality between the Triton and the Rack — at least in the longer term — is the latter's support of the Yamaha-originated mLAN digital audio and MIDI interfacing protocol via an optional plug-in board (not available for this review). If you've been reading Paul Wiffen's series on mLAN in recent issues of SOS, you'll know that mLAN is big news, though its success or otherwise will ultimately depend on how many manufacturers adopt it. It's to Korg's credit, though, that they've struck out on the mLAN path with the Triton Rack, which is the first third-party instrument to support the protocol.

Essentially, mLAN (music LAN) uses the high-speed IEE 1394 digital interfacing buss, popularly known as Firewire, and available as standard on Apple computers nowadays, to transmit multitrack digital audio and MIDI data bi-directionally along a single cable. Firewire/IEEE 1394 supports data transfer rates of 100, 200 and 400 megabits per second. Around 100 channels of audio data or up to 256 ports of MIDI data (256 x 16 channels) can be handled over a single buss at the 200Mbps rate. mLAN supports both real-time streaming of audio and MIDI data and non-real-time file-based transfer of data. Up to 63 devices can be daisychained, or connected via hubs, and the resulting network is peer-to-peer, meaning that any device can take the initiative in transmitting to any other. Parallels can be drawn with the advent of MIDI, both in terms of mLAN's potential significance and the need for manufacturers to rise above their political and technological differences and collectively get behind the protocol if it's to succeed in the marketplace. (See the mLAN article on page 226 of this issue.)

Korg's EXB-mLAN board isn't available or priced at the time of writing this review, but a few details are known. It handles 200Mbps Firewire, has three Firewire ports (so two for daisychaining), and supports I/O of eight digital audio channels and 16 MIDI channels over a single cable.

The Triton Rack only outputs six audio channels, however, and this raises an important point about mLAN. The theoretical figures mentioned earlier are not an indication of what will actually be achieved in the early stages, or 'first generation', of mLAN implementation. The current interfacing (and the EXB-mLAN board is essentially rebadged technology from Yamaha, utilising the current Yamaha mLAN chip) is restricted to eight digital audio channels, while the Triton Rack is essentially taking a feed from its existing audio-output architecture to route over the mLAN bus. Hence, although in Combi mode the module has eight parts and in Multi mode 16 parts, actually routing these separately over mLAN would require a change in architecture and more processing power than the Rack has to spare. In other words, for the true potential of mLAN to be realised, both the interfaces and the equipment will have to be designed to deliver on that potential.

Nevertheless, the Triton Rack's mLAN support is an exciting start — it just needs other equipment and software to support the protocol too. Apparently the board will come with a Firewire cable and PC/Mac software, though what that software will provide remains to be seen. With the fact that all Triton Rack parameters are editable over MIDI, the potential of high-speed audio and MIDI transfer over mLAN, and the fiddly nature of front-panel editing on the Rack (especially in the sampler section), I would hope to see a remote computer-based graphical-editing front end emerge at some point, with real-time updating of the Rack over mLAN. Now that would be something.

 

Sampling The New

The sampler section of the Triton Rack, like that of the Triton, can stand proud against professional dedicated samplers in terms of its sampling, looping and editing capabilities, while at the same time being able to take full advantage of Korg's flagship synthesis and effects technologies.

The Triton Rack's sampler section includes Time Slice, Time Stretch and crossfade-looping features not found originally on the Triton, although latterly introduced with the Triton v2.0 system software upgrade. Time Slice, effectively Korg's take on Steinberg's ReCycle, is intended for slicing up rhythm loops into individual instrument samples, though of course you can try it on any material and see if anything useful comes out. The Time Slice process works by detecting note attacks and dividing the loop into multiple samples based on what it finds. These samples are then automatically assigned to adjacent notes on the keyboard within a new Multisample and Program, in Internal Bank E. You can adjust the sensitivity of the slicing process, effectively increasing or decreasing the number of attacks it will pick up, and there are parameters for splicing together two adjacent time-sliced samples or splitting one sample into two after the initial slicing process. In addition, the newly-created Program is assigned to a Multi track (see below), while the note sequence to 'reconstruct' the loop is assigned to the track's RPPR (Realtime Pattern Play/Record sequencer, of which more in a moment). You can then play back the loop at different speeds by changing the RPPR tempo and, of course, alter it by recording a new pattern with the time-sliced samples.

Time Stretching produces good results with the minimum of fuss. There are Sustain and Slice options for handling different types of material (sustained and percussive respectively), and you can set number of beats (in the sample), source BPM, new BPM, and ratio (the latter two are different ways to set the same thing).

As on the Triton, a potentially very useful (not to mention creative) feature is the ability to route audio inputs for sampling through any of the Triton Rack's five Insert effects (IFX) processors. You can chain together between two and five of the processors and sample the result. The IFX settings you make in the sampler section will be lost when you turn off the power, so to retain them you have to copy them into a spare Program, and then back into the sampler IFX when you next want to use them (this, at least, has the advantage that you can create as many sampler IFX parameter sets as you want). While you can't resample internally, an obvious workaround is to record a Triton Rack sound, phrase or loop to an external digital audio program or digital recorder and then sample the recording back into the Rack, with added IFX if required.

As on the Triton keyboard, samples aren't retained in memory on power-down, so disk storage is necessary. While the Rack has a built-in floppy disk drive, like the Triton, realistically you will need to invest in the SCSI option if you want to make use of the sampler section. In addition to letting you store your sample data to hard disk, this option also gives access to Akai S1000/3000 sample CD-ROMs, and lets you load samples in the commonly-used AIFF and WAV formats, as well as in Korg sample-data format. You can also export your samples as AIFFs or WAVs, a feature which apparently still isn't implemented on the keyboard Triton.

How To Audition

Another new feature on the Triton Rack is Audition Riff — introduced so that you can audition or edit Programs when you don't have a keyboard hooked up to the expander. Korg have provided 382 short riffs or phrases suitable for a range of instruments and musical genres. The preset Programs each have a suitable Audition Riff assigned to them, and all you have to do is press the front-panel Audition button to hear the Riff for the current Program. You can change the selection yourself to any one of the 382 available Riffs, and transpose the Riff +/- 24 in semitone steps (to hear the Program across a wide pitch range). However, you can't change the tempo or create your own Riffs.

The Audition Riff loops continuously until you turn off the function with the Audition button, so you can take as long as you want editing the Program — or carry on until you get tired of hearing the Riff, anyway! So when checking out the Triton Rack in a shop, make a beeline for the Audition button — or for the adjacent Demo/Sng button — if you want to hear Triton Rack sounds demo'd in ensemble in a variety of musical styles. To play around with different Riffs and transpositions for a Program, press the Menu button, then F2 (Basic), F8 (Open) and F7 (Audit) to get to the relevant software page.

Multi Story

The Triton Rack's full 16-part multitimbrality is accessed in Multi mode, which features many of the Triton multitrack sequencer's capabilities, but not its Song recording capability as such. To be more exact, you get all the track and effects settings of the Triton in sequencer mode, storable in up to 200 Multis, plus the Triton's ability to draw on 150 global preset Patterns (created for use in drum tracks) and 100 user-recordable Patterns per Multi. These patterns can be assigned to the RPPR feature that originally appeared on Korg's mid-range N264 and N364 workstations and was reintroduced on the Triton. RPPR lets you trigger single-track patterns from keys or from MIDI notes (a different pattern can be assigned to each key in the range C#2-C8).

Also retained from the Triton is the ability to assign arpeggio A or B to any of the 16 tracks. RPPR and arpeggio data can be used to play external instruments and/or recorded into a MIDI sequencer. Real- and step-time recording methods are offered for user Patterns, which may be up to 99 bars in length. Event editing is also available, with a wide range of time signatures for each user Pattern. Mixing and matching of time signatures within or across tracks is therefore possible. In addition, Patterns and arpeggios can be synced to one another and to external MIDI clock. All Multi data has to be saved to disk (floppy or SCSI) or 'datafiled' over MIDI before you switch off the instrument, or it will be lost.

  Expansion Options  
  • mLAN board: mLAN connectivity for MIDI and 8-channel digital audio I/O over a single cable.
• ADAT board: 6-channel 48kHz ADAT output with wordclock sync.
• SCSI board: external storage/sample CD-ROM reading.
• MOSS board: 6-voice, 6-part multitimbral physical modelling synthesis.
• PCM boards: additional PCM samples (up to eight boards can be fitted).
• SIMM memory modules: additional sample memory (up to 96Mb).

PCM BOARDS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE:

• Studio Essentials
• Piano & Keyboards
• Future Loop Construction
• Dance Extreme
• Vintage Archive

There are more boards to come — watch the SOS news pages over the ensuing months for further info.

 
Expanded Finish

Korg have taken their time bringing out a rackmount version of the Triton, but the wait has been worth it. The company could simply have rushed out a clone of the workstation in module form, but that would have been a lesser instrument than the one we have now — and one less capable of competing successfully in its own market. As it is, while sticking to essentially the same synthesis, effects and sampler functionality, the company have managed to add value to the Triton Rack by providing more of quite a few things — patch memories, sample RAM, drum kits, arpeggios and, most significantly, PCM expansion board slots. These eight slots enable a major expansion of the Triton Rack's sonic capabilities compared to the Triton with its quota of two slots, and the boards that fit into them are very reasonably priced compared to the competition. Meanwhile, like the Triton, the Rack can also offer physically modelled sounds with the addition of the EXB-MOSS board (essentially a Z1 with half the polyphony and some effects routing limitations, as reported on in the Triton review).

The additional S/PDIF and optional ADAT connectivity is welcome, but possibly the biggest benefit of the year-plus wait for the Rack is that it has enabled mLAN connectivity to be implemented as an option. Consequently, if you buy into the Triton Rack you're quite possibly also buying into the future of digital audio and MIDI connectivity.

The Triton Rack doesn't come cheap, at £1799, and if you want all the options — especially all the PCM boards — you'll have to pay more on top. The ongoing strength of the pound against the yen hasn't helped either, as prices have recently had to go up. Still, the Triton Rack is immensely satisfying, both sonically and functionally. It's high-end not only in price but also in terms of its sonic richness and versatility, the sheer depth, detail and maturity of its functionality and, of course, its expandability. I'd say it's quickly going to be figuring in many a stage and studio setup where professional, reliable, versatile and inspiring tools are the order of the day.

 information
Triton Rack £1799; EXB-mLAN board £TBA; EXB-SCSI option £119; EXB-MOSS board £399; EXB-DI ADAT option £149; EXB-PCM expansion boards £155 each; Triton (61-note) £1999, Triton Pro (76-note) £2199; Triton Pro-X (88-note weighted) £2899. Prices include VAT.
Korg UK Brochure Line
+44 (0)1908 857150
+44 (0)1908 857199
www.korg.co.uk

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