The Alesis QS line gets a flagship, with a weighted keyboard, controller features, and an extended sound set. Helmsman Martin Russ finds out whether she's seaworthy...
Alesis produce a deceptively small product line catalogue. Inside it, however, you can read about the ADAT 8‑track digital audio recorder plus associated accessories; the X2 24‑track recording console, the 'verb series of effects processors (Quadra, Midi, Micro and Nano); power amplifiers and speakers; a drum module and drum machine; and some synthesizers too. All in all, a remarkably broad range of hi‑tech audio gear, in keeping with Alesis' long‑held ambition to produce the complete project studio.
The two latest additions to the Alesis ranks are the QS7 and QS8. They are identical in all respects except for one: the QS8, reviewed here, has an 88‑note (A‑C) weighted piano‑style keyboard, whereas the QS7 has 76 (E‑G) synth‑style lightweight keys. The combination of these longer keyboards (most synthesizers only provide 5‑octave, 61‑note (C‑C) keyboards), in tandem with some limited master keyboard functions, seems intended to provide rather more than the average synthesizer — but does it deliver?
The QS series of synthesizers follow up the original QuadraSynth and its current successor, the QuadraSynth Plus Piano. The QS6 (reviewed in January 1996's SOS), QS7 and QS8 share the same synthesis technology — the now‑conventional 'Sample plus Synthesis' (S+S): audio samples are replayed via a filtering and enveloping synthesis processing stage, followed by up to four effects processors in the case of the QS‑series.
The whole of the sound‑generation chain is digital. Each of the three parts of the S+S sound generator (Sample, Filter and Amplifier) has a separate LFO and EG, and this forms the basic sound source for a single note. The QS8's custom chips provide enough processing power to give 64 of these basic sets, so the instrument is 64‑note polyphonic.
Because the sounds produced are often layered together, Alesis call the basic sound element a Layer; a Program can consist of up to four Layers, plus one Effects setting. There are 512 preset Programs (four banks of 128 sounds) and 128 user Program memories. Programs are restricted to receiving and transmitting on just one MIDI channel, but Mixes allow the settings for up to 16 Programs (plus just one shared Effects setting) to be stored, and these are used for multitimbral, multi‑MIDI‑channel operation. The QS8 has 400 preset Mixes and 100 user Mix memories. This type of architectural structure is used in many synthesizers, because it provides a convenient and familiar method of dealing with the fine detail of individual layered sounds, whilst still allowing rapid selection of complete sets or mixes of sounds.
The QS8 has two main operating modes:
- Program Mode is where you can layer sounds together, to provide thicker, richer textures or more complex composite sounds.
- Mix Mode allows Programs to be assigned to the keyboard as splits, layers, or as MIDI channels to control external expander modules. Up to 16 channels of MIDI information can be produced by the QS8, or alternatively (and unusually!), a monophonic sound using 16 four‑layer programs could be defined.
Editing is accomplished in one of four editing modes:
- Program Edit Mode allows the detailed editing of individual sounds or layers.
- Mix Edit Mode controls the assignment of up to 16 programs to MIDI channels, plus the selection of one effects setting.
- Effects Edit Mode allows you to configure the four effects processing sections, plus the parameters within each effects section.
- Global Edit Mode provides control for 'instrument‑wide' settings like display contrast, master tuning, Controller assignment, and so on.
There are two additional modes which allow you to compare an edited voice with the unchanged original, and store edited Layers, Programs, effects or Mixes.
The front panel has a backlit LCD display at its centre, with Mode buttons on either side, and a set of Program‑selection buttons on the right. The left‑hand side of the front panel hosts the pitch bend and modulation wheels, plus the volume control slider, and four additional sliders which can be programmed as parameter or MIDI controllers. The Program‑selection buttons use an unusual scheme for selecting Programs or Mixes: the upper row selects the tens digit (from 0 to 12) whilst the lower row selects the units digit (0 to 9). The upper row of buttons are marked with the group names for General MIDI instruments: Piano, Chromatic, Organ, Guitar, and so on — which allows very quick choice of Program. But the same buttons are re‑used in the editing modes: the first four upper buttons select the Layer in Program Edit mode, and the four effects sends in Effects Edit mode, while the remaining buttons select editing parameter pages. Separate buttons for changing values (the rightmost slider also acts as a value‑change controller), bank and page are also provided.
The user interface is based around the Mode buttons and software pages, with one parameter per page. To edit a setting, you select the appropriate mode and page, and then use the value buttons or slider to change the setting, with the store mode used to make the change permanent. Despite the small size of the display, it all works very well. You can change between modes and pages very quickly and easily, and the multiple buttons are labelled in rows of blue or white to indicate their function. In fact, the display's only limitation is that it can only show one parameter at once — the size does not seem as important because real buttons are used to select the mode and pages, rather than the more common arrangement of soft buttons driven by a larger display. The one niggle I have with the user interface is the buttons themselves: although large and well labelled, they have no tactile or audible click for feedback, so you only know if you've pressed one when the display changes. I would have preferred a more tangible acknowledgement.
There seem to be two types of master keyboard. The first is the sophisticated central controller which is intended to replace all your keyboards and be connected to expander modules to produce the sounds. With lots of performance controllers, dedicated sequencer/drum machine and song position controls, MDR (MIDI data recorder) storage facilities and MIDI processing, these are large and complex pieces of equipment which can be a formidable learning exercise.
The second category encompasses performance‑oriented keyboards which also provide just enough additional facilities to enable the user to control all their expander modules from one keyboard. This typically means that they include multi‑channel layering of sounds with setup information like program changes, volume and pan. Complete setups of keyboard layering, splitting and initialisation information can be saved and recalled, but the more specialised and complex 'master keyboard' features are omitted.
The QS8 is a good example of the second category. It allows complete setups of its own sound‑producing facilities, plus external ones and an effects selection, to be saved as a Mix.
The QS8's synthesis technique has good sample resources, limited sample processing and a fixed resonance filter, but good modulation facilities, and integrated effects which can be controlled using most MIDI Controllers — except (unfortunately) the keyboard velocity.
Onboard the synth are 17 groups of 44.1kHz, 16‑bit samples, arranged in more or less the same groupings as the GM instrument groups: Piano (50 samples); Chromatic (21 samples); Organ (25 samples); Guitar (28 samples); Bass (34 samples); String (15 samples); Brass (9 samples); Woodwind (19 samples); Synth (51 samples); Wave (69 samples); Noise (14 samples); Voice (9 samples); Ethnic (16 samples); Drums (82 samples); Percussion (62 samples); Sound FX (73 samples); Rhythm (90 samples).
The review of the QS6 in the January 1996 issue of SOS details some of the sources of these 649 samples: it reads like a 'who's who' of past classic instruments and drum machines. However, quite a few of the samples are resonant or high‑pass filtered sounds designed to try and make up for the lack of a resonant filter.
The QS8's separate Drum mode changes the structure of a Program, away from the keyboard‑wide, polyphonic bias designed for instrumental sounds, to one suitable for more note‑specific, monophonic drum sounds. Unusually, it provides the same sort of detailed envelope and LFO modulation that you might associate with monotimbral instrument sounds, but for up to 40 different drum sounds (assuming you use all four Layers in a Program for drums) with each individual drum sound being assignable to between one and three keys on the keyboard. The drum samples include some of the full 649‑instrument sample set, but with additional single drum samples, with 44 complete drum loops also being included to liven up the drumkits.
If you want just sample replay, here are the sounds to try out to impress your friends when you audition the QS8:
- GenMIDI: 97 Soundtrack
- Preset1:111 Discotron (do not play DGCDFCD...!)
- Preset2: 114 JungleGruv
- Preset2: 113 Robotechno
- Preset3: 107 Trilogy Ld
- Preset3: 84 Applewine
- User: 59 Waterfalls
- User: 56 String Tek
- Preset1: 81 MovingMarb
- Preset2: 71 6Str&Flute
- Preset2: 90 Arkham2000
- Preset2: 94 Algorhythm
Don't forget to try altering the four controller sliders: B,C and D are assigned to the effects‑processing section by default.
From the people who invented the Quadraverb, you'd expect that the QS8's effects processing would be slightly more than just an afterthought tagged onto its synthesizer section. And you'd be right. The Quadraverb 2 effects processor section provides four inputs to some of the most complicated DSP processing I've seen on any S+S synthesizer — and there are two auxiliary outputs on the rear panel of the QS8 for additional audio processing.
The effects processor provides multiple effects units in five configurations. There are four types of effects processor available: Pitch, Delay, Reverb, and Misc. These give the usual chorus, flanging, detune, mono and stereo delays, reverbs, gated reverbs, reverse reverb, EQ and overdrive effects. Learning to program these effects properly is a major task on its own!
Although the effects can be modulated with independent LFOs, as you might expect, they can also be modulated with the keyboard's aftertouch pressure, mod and pitchbend wheels, pedals and controller sliders — but you may hear some zipper noise on some settings. Even so, this is one of the best integrated effects sections on any S+S synthesizer I have yet seen.
The QS8 has an 88‑note, weighted, 'hammer‑action' keyboard. I'm biased towards the lighter synthesizer/organ style keys for synthesizer work, but I actually prefer a 'proper' action for just piano and other percussive keyboard sounds. Keyboards are such a personal thing that you really need to try one out, and no amount of subjective waffle or opinion from me is going to alter that. Having said that, I rather liked the feel of this one.
It seems that no hi‑tech instrument is complete these days without the obligatory built‑in computer interface for MacOS and IBM PC‑compatibles. The QS8 has complied with this trend, and so has the usual selector switch and Mac‑style mini‑DIN socket.
Something that very few instruments have, however, is ADAT connections, in the form of a clock input and digital optical output. Since Alesis make the ADAT too, the QS8's output can be digital from the moment your fingers hit the keys to the moment the punter plays the resulting masterwork on his CD player. Someday all instruments will be made this way, but at the moment the QS8 is an exception.
The A4‑sized, 140‑page 'reference' manual is low on tables of specifications, but high on 'how to' and tips. Unlike many manuals, it opens with a clear overview of exactly how the QS8 produces sounds, so that the user can start with a mental picture of how everything works together. It then covers first usage of the synth, which is quite unusual and very welcome — not all users of hi‑tech gear want to find out how their new purchase works by trial and error. The one‑page index looks very sparse at first — until you notice that the preceeding three pages are a parameter‑by‑parameter index as well. No MIDI System Exclusive details were provided in the supplied documentation.
There's also a CD‑ROM which contains a mix of Alesis and third‑party software programs, QS sounds and samples, and MIDI File sequences, mostly in both IBM PC‑compatible and MacOS formats. Notable amongst the goodies on this disk is Sound Bridge, a utility program which allows custom samples to be compiled from a number of sources and then downloaded to a QS8 PCMCIA Flash RAM card. AIFF, Digidesign Sound Designer I and II, and SampleCell I and II formats are all catered for. To ensure that the CD‑ROM is as up‑to‑date as possible, Alesis apparently only press 100 or so CD‑ROMs at a time: the review QS8 came with a piece of paper which you return with the warranty card in order to get the current CD‑ROM.
Sounds sell S+S synthesizers. The General MIDI sounds are often a good place to start when auditioning an instrument — the aim of the programmers is to try and make them as similar as possible in timbre and response to all the other GM modules, and this makes it easy to compare a synth's sonic potential with others you've heard. The QS8 had one of the nicer‑sounding sets of instrumental GM sounds I've yet heard, with a smoothness that you don't often get from the pervading GM gritty blandness. The sound effects are less wonderful, with 126:Applause being little more than coloured noise, and the synthesized 125:Helicopter sounding rather more like a steam train to my ears. Then again, who uses these doldrums of the GM spec anyway?
The non‑GM sounds are more immediately impressive. They have the crystal‑clear, bright sound that is associated with high‑quality effects where no corners have been cut to save money. The Alesis sample designers have chosen carefully, so there are a lot of separate samples squeezed into the 16Mb of ROM. With 64‑note polyphony and four layers to play with, the sounds are just as complex, detailed and expensive‑sounding as you might expect.
But, as I've said many times before, the problem with S+S synthesizers is that they often can't allow you to make any meaningful edits to their raw samples — they just replay them. The QS8 is no exception — although you can load in your own customised audio samples if you fit a PCMCIA card. But then you need to prepare the sounds in advance, so you might as well be using a sampler. (which probably has sample manipulation facilities like looping, start points, and reverse playback). Having said all that, many people are looking for instant high‑quality sounds, and so for them, the QS8, which is a very competent instrument, may well fit the bill exactly.
- Live changes to four parameters at once, which was definitely one of the neatest features of the QuadraSynth, lives on in the QS8 in the four slider controllers — but normal editing is restricted to one parameter at a time.
- The QS8 has 16Mb of onboard sample ROM instead of 24Mb. However, the difference appears to be mostly accounted for by the Quadrasynth Plus Piano's 8Mb grand piano sample, now available as a separate PCMCIA card.
- The QS8's combination of an aluminium extrusion and weighted, hammer‑action keys makes it much heavier and more solid‑feeling than the lighter and more flexible ABS plastic casing of the QuadraSynth.
- 88‑note weighted hammer‑action keyboard, velocity and monophonic pressure/aftertouch‑sensitive.
- Two Type 1 PCMCIA RAM/ROM card expansion slots.
- 64‑note polyphony.
- 16‑part multitimbrality.
- Up to 40 individually‑editable drum sounds.
- 16Mb of 44.1kHz, 16‑bit internal ROM samples.
- 649 samples.
- 44 drum loops.
- 80 drum/percussion samples.
- Up to 16Mb of extra sample storage on card.
- 512 preset Programs.
- 128 user Program memories.
- 400 preset Mixes.
- 100 user Mix memories.
- Up to 1408 additional Programs on cards.
- Up to 1100 additional Mixes on cards.
- Poly portamento.
- General MIDI compatibility mode.
Alesis have a reputation for adopting new technology early. The internal contruction of the QS8 is an interesting set of contrasts. The three large Alesis custom PLCC chips inside the review model all had 1992 copyright dates, whilst the eight ROM chips and the Operating System EPROM were all dated 1996. The main processor was a Hitachi H8/510. The PCB features almost entirely very current surface‑mount technology, and was designed to a high standard, with only one correction: a small wire from the ADAT interface area to one of the custom chips. The dating confirms that the QS8 (and presumably the QS7 and QS6) are indeed a reworking of the QuadraSynth technology.
- Weighted 88‑note keyboard.
- Some very classy sounds.
- 64‑note polyphony.
- Quadraverb 2‑class effects processing.
- Auxiliary outputs for effects‑free audio.
- PCMCIA card sample and sound expansion sockets.
- Computer interface built in.
- Tiny (2‑row x 16‑character) display.
- Buttons have no tactile or audible feedback.
- Fixed resonance filter.
- No internal user sample RAM storage.
- Limited master keyboard facilities.
Yet another high‑specification S+S synthesizer, but with a simple user interface, reasonably well‑produced set of samples, and some inventively‑programmed sounds. It also has slightly better drum sound flexibility, and a better effects processor, than much of the competition.