Alesis' QS6.2 & QS8.2 may induce a feeling of déjà vu... they look remarkably similar to 1995's QS6 and QS8. But eight years on, surely the spec has been significantly upgraded to reflect the passage of time?
Including the original Quadrasynth and Quadrasynth Plus, the QS6.2 is the fifth incarnation of Alesis' S+S-based QS series of keyboard synths, and the third in the numbered QS series, which have so far included QSs 6, 7, and 8, and also the QS6.1, 7.1 , and 8.1. The '6' refers to the 61-key models, the '7' to the 76-key models, and the '8' to the weighted 88-key models. As the synth architecture of the QS series has remained largely unchanged, the essential details of the spec can be found in the QS6 review from SOS January 1996. It's also worth reading the QS8 review from SOS November 1996, and the QSR review from SOS June 1997.
Here I'm taking a look at the details of the latest makeover of the series — what's new, what's missing and what's still the same. Since the QS6.2 and 8.2 differ only in their keyboards (and because you can't swing a cat in my studio without incurring the wrath of the local RSPCA), I chose to review the QS6.2, though my comments apply to both synths equally.
It's been over seven years since the QS6 was released in late 1995, and that's a very long time in music-technology terms, so it is perhaps surprising that Alesis are continuing the QS line after so long. The QS6 was upgraded to the QS6.1 in 1998, although this revision was never reviewed in SOS, so a quick crash course is in order.
The QS6.1 retained the four-'oscillator' S+S 64-voice polyphonic, 16-part multitimbral synth engine of the QS6, but provided a number of improvements: firstly, the ROM was doubled to 16MB (incorporating a new set of piano waves). The two volume and control/value sliders of the QS6 were augmented to five: volume, plus four assignable performance sliders, one of which also doubles as a means for data entry. The QS6's tiddly 2x16 display was replaced by a larger, more informative type, the same one subsequently used on the Alesis DM Pro drum module. Dedicated Transpose and Sequence buttons were added, the latter intended for playback of MIDI files stored on PCMCIA cards. Two PCMCIA slots were provided, enabling the user to effectively double the available ROM — each slot could read up to 8MB of additional sample data, either from the series of optional themed Alesis sound expansion cards (or Q Cards, as they're known), or from sample data burned onto blank PCMCIA cards using the bundled SoundBridge software. The number of Programs (640) and Mixes (500) remained the same as on the QS6.
The serial connection port was retained from the QS6, a welcome feature to speed up those sample-data transfers. The connections on the rear panel were also repositioned — apparently the QS6 had some problems sitting comfortably on certain keyboard stands. Finally, the QS6.1 was awarded the ultimate luxury — an internal transformer and proper mains lead, which banished the QS6's external PSU.
Let's fast-forward five years to the present day, where we encounter the latest stage in the QSs' evolution — the QS6.2 (and its 88-key sibling, the QS8.2 — curiously there is no QS7.2). Cosmetics aside, the QS6.2 is in most respects identical to the QS6.1. The voice architecture has remained unchanged — this is surprising in that one would have expected some refinements by now, such as an improved filter. The one here is still a single, low-pass non-resonant affair, with not even a hint of high- or band-pass types. This does seem remarkably backward-thinking, considering the class — and price — to which the QS synths clearly aspire. The 16MB internal sample ROM remains the same, as do the effects and the polyphony.
So what are the differences? There is now a full trio of MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets, the User programs have been rewritten, and the navigation buttons flanking the LCD have been regrouped more ergonomically. The casing of the QS6.2 is now a sleek silver, with silver plastic end cheeks and a splash of blue on the panel. However, the computer serial port is gone, and expandability is halved — the QS6.2 has only one PCMCIA slot as opposed to the QS6.1's two. The most substantial difference that the QS6.2 has to offer is that the older 18-bit D-A converters have been upgraded to 24-bit, which should in theory deliver a wider dynamic range and a lower noise floor. Although higher bit-rate designs seem to be increasingly in vogue, is this factor enough to warrant the QS6.2's existence? The answer to this is clouded by several factors — in particular one glaring, missed opportunity...
Cast your mind back seven years or so to the review of the QS6 in SOS January 1996. The opening paragraph contained the phrase 'most importantly, the means to import your own sample waveforms.' The feature to which this referred was the QS6's ability to read sample data stored on PCMCIA cards — a pretty groundbreaking facility at that time and at the selling price of the QS6. The sample burning was achieved via the bundled SoundBridge software — you simply compiled the samples you wanted using SoundBridge, then transmitted them to the QS6 (with the PCMCIA card inserted into the slot.) Transmission could be done using either the QS6's serial port or via MIDI. Inevitably, the MIDI data transmission was painfully slow, but the main thing was that you could do it — after all, who ever turned their nose up at a long tea break? The maximum data capacity of one of these PCMCIA cards was (a now meagre) 8MB, but again, at the time, this was relatively generous, and the opportunity to integrate your own samples into the QS6's synth architecture had punters buying the QS6 in droves for this very reason, especially in the US. However, while the QS6 also sold in respectable numbers in the UK, my guess is that the PCMCIA slots on British synths remained largely unused. Why should this be? I'll tell you a little story... and I'm afraid we have to leap forward in time again, this time three years, to 1999.
In that year, I bought an Alesis DM Pro drum module (which shares an almost identical synth architecture to the QS synths) specifically for the sample-import facility offered by the PCMCIA card slot. I was delighted with what this offered — the sound quality of my imported drum samples was immeasurably superior to any other sample-reproduction device I had at the time, and the DM Pro became my drum and percussion generator of choice. However, the journey I had to make to get to that point was far from easy. Why? Because even in 1996, the PCMCIA format used in the DM Pro had already booked a room in the Sunny Valley Retirement Home for Imminently Obsolete Technology. Not suspecting this, I visited Tottenham Court Road in London with cash in hand, hunting a suitable PCMCIA card — after all, with so many laptop computers around that used PCMCIA-based accessories, what could be the problem? I was laughed out of each and every store, feeling rather like HG Wells on a shopping trip for plus-fours and a Norfolk jacket in swinging '60s Carnaby Street. Undeterred, I reckoned that the local music stores would be a better bet, as they were already familiar with QS synths and DM Pros. But it was like looking into the Guinness Book of Blank Expressions. According to every store I visited, nobody had enquired about these cards — ever. "Try the computer stores!", they said, brightly...
Eventually, I decided to risk a little experiment, based on the idea that if I bought an 8MB CompactFlash card and plugged it into a PCMCIA card adaptor, I might be able to use that. Smart thinking, perhaps, but it didn't work. It turned out that the Alesis DM Pro (and the QS synths) are extremely fussy about which type of PCMCIA cards they use — even down to stating a specific type and brand name — AMD-C or D-series, Type 1. I then began scouring the Internet. Sure, I found AMD PCMCIA cards — but from American suppliers, who would not ship outside the USA. It seemed the only place to get these cards was from Alesis's UK distributor — but at a seriously monumental price. It took me several weeks to find a solution, and it eventually involved a computer specialist friend of mine who agreed to import some of the right cards from the USA under his company name. Somehow, this worked. I ordered two cards, and was finally able to justify those long tea breaks.
Returning at last to the present, you can imagine my surprise when, looking around the back of the new Alesis QS6.2, I saw... a PCMCIA slot. I immediately checked my tricorder — no, there had been no temporal displacement anomalies, it was indeed still 2003. The manual confirmed the worst — PCMCIA card compatibility is quoted as only Type 1 AMD-C or -D series. The QS6.2 can read cards of 2MB, 4MB and (hold on to your hats, now) a whopping 8MB! And guess what? You can burn sample data by... transmitting over MIDI from the (now downloadable, not bundled) free SoundBridge application.
The reason I'm making such a fuss is that this burning-samples-onto-card facility is still such a darned good idea, and it had the potential to be a massive strength of the QS series. Yet even more than seven years down the line, Alesis have made no attempt to embrace current technology. With 128MB Smart Media and Compact Flash cards now available for around £50 — a price that won't break the bank — I can't believe Alesis are still pushing these old PCMCIA cards. And as for having to transmit the data over MIDI... It's high time the QS synths used modern storage media, along with a means to copy the sample data directly, in a matter of seconds, to a Smart Media or Compact Flash card using any of the USB card readers obtainable from computer superstores. Come to that, why is there no USB connector on the QS6.2 to facilitate direct, speedier data transfers, and to enable the use of the QS voice editor that was so thoughtfully bundled with the older models? It's not as though USB connectors are unheard of on synths these days, after all...
On the subject of running costs, although Alesis's UK distributor has changed since 1999, the cost of the aforementioned blank 8MB PCMCIA cards when purchased from them is still high. For patch storage only, blank 512K S-RAM cards cost (pinch me, someone)... £125. The Alesis Q Cards (8MB of samples) come in a little more reasonably at... oh, hang on, £125. Why, then, can Alesis's competitors sell their expansion boards, which hold up to 64MB of (albeit compressed) data, for only around £25 more...?
Whilst reflecting on the whys and wherefores of the QS6.2, I found myself contemplating an intriguing fantasy. What if I was able to get into a time machine and travel back (with suitable youthful prosthetics) to 1973, to a gig with my first band at school, armed with a QS6.2? I could dramatically set fire to my Welson President organ — then, kicking aside the smoking ruins, produce the QS6.2 with a grand flourish. Jaws would drop, we'd have our pick of mega record deals, and the adoring world would be our oyster — if we could avoid being whisked off to Area 51 for immediate dissection. This goes to show how readily we take technology for granted. It's all too easy to get blasé about the tools we now have at our disposal, and easy to forget that not so long ago, we didn't have instruments as good as the QS6.2. But that's the problem — the QS6.2 was a good instrument — in the last decade.
So why have Alesis seemingly re-issued a five-year old synth whose architecture dates back even further — nearly 10 years — and which still incorporates rapidly vanishing technology from the early 90s? The changes from the QS6.1 seem minimal at best — sure, the 18-bit DACs are now 24-bit, but that, some new presets and a few cosmetic improvements don't really seem to add up to a significant revision. Unfortunately, the QS synth engine and sample set are now looking a little tired and basic compared to the those of the competition. Patch editing is still frustratingly button-intensive, and is not helped by the fact that, of the four voices that make up a patch, only one can be edited at a time. The 16MB internal ROM is, frankly, meagre on a synth of this price — as evidenced by the abundance of overly short samples and ungainly single-cycle loops I noticed, and the 'overstretched' key splits in many of the multisampled sounds. Alesis might argue that their samples are more memory-hungry due to being uncompressed, but I would rather have compressed samples that are longer and pleasingly looped than very short uncompressed ones. There also seems to be no evidence to suggest that the ROM sample waveforms (or indeed those on the Q Cards) are anything other than the original 16-bit ones, so the benefits of having 24-bit A-D converters is somewhat questionable.
However, one thing that has marginally improved for the good is the price of the QS6.2, which retails for £699.99 compared to the QS6's £899 in 1996. This is still not necessarily inexpensive, and at this price it's all the more baffling that Alesis haven't invested in the opportunity to keep up with the times by banishing the Wicked Witch of PCMCIA, embracing one of the cheaper, more widely available, capacious and modern card-storage formats, or even adopting the USB connection which is increasingly common on other sub-£1000 instruments. If Alesis had done this, the QS6.2 could have been given a meaningful boost. Despite its shortcomings, it might still have made a very useful tool, offering substantial and practical user-sampling facilities at this price point. As it is, this synth offers the Golden Chalice of Sampledom on the one hand, only to have it dashed away by the Spectre of Obsolescence.