Finnish company Soundion have revived the GEM brand to bring us a successor to the Promega 2 stage piano — the Promega 2+.
In 2015, a little-known Finnish company named Soundion grabbed the synthesizer community’s attention by announcing its intention to re-release the Elka Synthex. It was able to do this because, following the closure of General Music and its eventual bankruptcy in 2011, Soundion had purchased the rights to its Elka, GEM and LEM brands. It was a bold move but, while the announcement caused a few ripples, it caused fewer than the company had hoped because the crowd-funding campaign established to raise the necessary funds fell short of its target. However, unbeknown to most outside the company, Soundion had also been working for more than a year on an update to GEM’s ‘DRAKE’ DSP technology, which had formed the backbone of its Promega stage pianos. While the sales of these pianos were low when compared with alternatives from the likes of Roland, Yamaha and Clavia, the Promega 3 (2002) and the cut-down Promega 2 (2008) were valued by players such as Herbie Hancock, Rick Wakeman, and Keith Emerson, and this proved to be a key element in Soundion’s decision to buy the rights and then hire members of the original team to develop a new version of the technology (which they christened UpDRAKE) in preparation for the rebirth of the Promega.
At first glance, the Promega 2+ is similar in design to the Promega 2, but it has been revised in numerous areas. Some of the updates, such as improved D/A converters and more memory for OS upgrades, are hidden from view. More visibly, the control surface has been updated with an OLED display that, in addition to showing which Performance has been selected, provides information about the split point, the transposition, the statuses of the pedals, which MIDI connections are active and the master tuning. A new keybed has also been adopted: the Fatar four-zone graded hammer-action TP/40GH that’s used in the Nord Piano as well as some Doepfer and Studiologic MIDI controllers. Around the back there’s the welcome addition of optical and S/PDIF digital outputs, and the antiquated RS232 and Apple mini-DIN connections have made way for USB interfaces. Finally, the new version is said to be somewhat lighter. It’s still a hefty lump, but any improvement in manageability is to be welcomed in a stage keyboard.
Philosophically, the Promega 2+ is an old-fashioned multi-keyboard offering three sections from which you can select one sound at a time, mixing them in any combination, layering them or placing them either side of a single user-defined split point. The sections are called Pianos, Vintage Keys and Bass & Orchestral, and each contains just 15 sounds created using physical modelling and PCM playback technologies. Some of these, such as the electro-mechanical pianos and Clavinet emulations, are created purely by modelling, while others are generated solely using the PCM synthesis engine. But the flagship grand piano sounds employ both technologies, using sample playback to generate the underlying sound, and four physical models to modify it.
The first of these models is FADE — Filter Algorithm Dynamic Emulation — which appears to be similar to Roland’s Structured Adaptive Synthesis, with the algorithm calculating the harmonic content of each note in real time as it’s played, modifying the sound by accentuating or subtracting harmonics as appropriate. Next comes Natural String Resonance, which modifies the sound of each note depending upon which other notes are depressed at the same time. Most other manufacturers use additional sample layers to fool the ear into thinking that it’s hearing the interactions of notes within an acoustic piano’s soundboard but, when this effect is modelled correctly, it can go a long way to increasing the realism of the piano emulation. The sound is further modified by the Damper Physical Model. Unlike some damper pedals (which are, in essence, on/off switches) GEM claims that their damper is a continuous controller that allows for progressive half-damping and modifies the sympathetic resonance appropriately. Finally, there’s Advanced Release Technology which models the truncation of harmonics that occurs when the virtual dampers come into contact with the equally virtual strings.
As a result of all the above, the soundboard ‘thunk’, the sympathetic resonance, and the undamped decay of the high notes on the grand pianos are impressive, and I found Stereo Grand 2 to be a stand-out sound. In contrast, the other piano sounds, which are based upon shorter samples and seem to utilise none of the physical models, are less so. However, all of the pianos exhibit the same limitation, which is a consequence of the (by modern standards) tiny PCM memory that extends to just 128MB for the whole instrument. To hear this, play a single note and hold it indefinitely. The sound will be detailed and animated as it passes through the initial strike and decay phase but, after a short while, the last few cycles of the underlying sample are looped and the decay is completed using filters and amplifiers. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the Techno and Dance sounds; whereas it can take four seconds for notes played on the Fazioli Stereo Grand to reach their loop points, these take less than a second, resulting in a ‘doingggg-ahh’ effect that I had hoped had been consigned to history. You might argue that this is appropriate for something emulating a 1980s workstation (and you would be right), but it’s also obvious on the CP80 sound, which is a great shame.
I was much more impressed when I moved on to the Vintage Keys section, which contains the modelled Rhodes, Wurli, Clavinet and Harpsichord sounds. The e-pianos have a bark not often found on digital emulations, the Clavinets are bright and detailed, and I was stunned by the accuracy of both the Clavinets’ and the harpsichord’s key release noises. I would have no hesitation using any of these.
Finally, there are the 15 Bass & Orchestral sounds. These are a mixed bag. For example, the acoustic and electric basses are again let down by obvious looping after the initial attack/decay stage. In contrast, I enjoyed playing all of the vocal and string sounds, which exhibit a reassuring body and warmth. But as for the organs... oh no! The Hammond samples have been recorded with vibrato and through a rotary speaker, and are distributed across multiple notes on the keyboard so that chords sound wrong and, when you come to a transition point between one sample and the next, there’s a discontinuity. Finally, there’s the Church Organ, which has slightly different tonality on different samples, and discontinuous looping on a few notes. These deficiencies wouldn’t have been so notable in 2002 when DRAKE was introduced, but I don’t think that they should have been allowed to survive to 2017.
The Promega 2+ also incorporates two very useful effects units: Reverb and ProEFX, the latter of which includes choruses, a phaser, a flanger, a couple of delays and so on. You have limited control over the effects contained in these, with three parameters available for each. For all 15 algorithms in the Reverb section these are Depth, Pre-Delay and Reverb Time; for the 15 in the ProEFX section, they are Depth, plus things such as modulation frequency and depth, delay times and feedback and so on as appropriate. The two units (which, in general, sound rather good) were designed to run in parallel, but I found that their parameters can sometimes interact in strange ways, which must be a bug. Perhaps Soundion can fix this with an OS revision. An ‘in series’ option would also be welcome.
The last stage in the signal path is a four-band graphic EQ. I found this useful because, for me, some of the underlying sounds in the Promega 2+ seem to be a bit thick at the bottom end, and a bit light at the top. Tweaking the EQ for each and then saving the resulting sounds as User Performances goes a long way to overcoming this. You can also use this section as a coarse master EQ by setting it up and then locking it but, if you do so, it will no longer impart any specific tonality that you’ve programmed for individual sounds, so I would never use it in that fashion.
When I first unpacked the Promega 2+ it exhibited an annoying buzz when I played it, and I wondered whether there was something small rattling around inside it. Later, I noticed that the top panel wasn’t screwed down fully, so I tightened it up. The buzz then disappeared, but I couldn’t depress the top half-dozen keys far enough to play a note so I had to find a degree of looseness that allowed me to play without reintroducing the buzz. Since this is a pre-release unit I have no problem with this but, obviously, it will have to be corrected before instruments are delivered to the public.
Having dealt with this, I turned my attention to performing. Soundion make a big deal about the simplicity and immediacy of the Promega 2+ and, for many uses, I can’t argue with this. The large knobs and faders make real-time selections and adjustments straightforward, and the shallow menus provide access to useful functions such as the static low-pass filter in each section, panning, and pedal and control wheel assignments. Consequently, there’s no need for numeric keypads or advanced navigation controls, although this means that you have to use the keys themselves to spell out names when saving your creations to the 64 User Performances that lie alongside the 64 factory presets!
You can also configure the instrument as a basic three-zone MIDI controller keyboard, with each zone having its own MIDI channel, program select value, and local on/off value. This is pretty straightforward, but I was intrigued by one feature in particular; if you use the sliders to determine the Program number sent by a section over MIDI when you select a Performance, that section on the Promega 2+ itself goes silent because doing so switches Local Off. Alternatively, if you use the knob in that section to select the Program number, Local remains On. It’s weird, but I can see that there might be times when it could be useful.
Moving on, I had a bit of an issue with the pitch-bend and modulation wheels, which you can program to transmit over MIDI as well as affect any combination of the internal sections. Sure, these are flexible — the pitch-bend wheel is also able to control the pan, the filter cutoff frequency and the wah effect (if selected), and the modulation wheel is able to control a huge range of internal functions and MIDI CCs — but they’re not in the ideal position. Placing them behind the keyboard has saved a few inches in width, but I would prefer to find them in their usual positions.
Finally, there’s the keyboard itself, which generates both velocity and channel aftertouch messages, even though the Promega 2+ doesn’t respond to the latter. In general, I found this to be perfectly usable, and somewhere in the three preset velocity curves (Soft/Normal/Hard) and the User mode (which ranges from almost no velocity response to a super-heavy response) there was a sensitivity that worked for me on any given sound. But I also found that it was prone to not generating a note if I hit a key a little too lightly. Of course, acoustic pianos exhibit this behaviour too but not, in my experience, to quite the same degree. Perhaps this is something that can also be addressed in software.
Despite the Promega 2+’s quirks, I like its grand pianos, and I very much like its vintage keys. I’m less enamoured of its other piano-type sounds, and I doubt that I would ever use any of these, nor its basses nor its organs, although there might be times when I would use its strings and choirs. But whatever you think of it, the problem for Soundion is going to be the amount and quality of its competition.
Leading the field is probably the Nord Piano 3, which allows users to replace its excellent factory sounds with yet more that can be downloaded from Clavia’s web site. Then there’s the Nord Stage, which adds superb modelled organs and a VA synthesizer into the mix. Even more powerful in many ways, there are the Yamaha CP4, the Kawai MP7, and the latest of the Roland RD series, the last of which offers a huge range of SuperNatural sounds and wave expansions to the V-Piano sounds on which it’s based. Other instruments with yet more advanced specifications include the Kurzweil Forte, Artis and PC3-series, all of which offer VAST synthesis in addition to their renowned piano sounds, and the Korg Kronos 88, which, while not a stage piano, is often used as such. And, at around £3000$4000, the Promega 2+ lies near the top of the price band for these instruments. I have no doubt that there will be some players who love the concept and the sound of the Promega 2+, but things have moved on since 2008 and I think that Soundion will have their work cut out finding a niche for it in a very crowded market.
I asked Jukka Kulmala of Soundion about the driving force behind the purchase of GEM and the development of the UpDRAKE technology. He told me, “To create a good and competitive digital piano has been our main target all the time. But the acoustic piano sound is a complex thing, and many of those complex phenomena cannot be achieved using only sample layer technology. Also, there is some roughness in the acoustic piano sound, so to achieve a sound that is familiar to the human ear is quite complicated with pure modelling technology. In our concept, samples produce the root of the sound, and the real-time modelling applies all the complex physical phenomena that affect it. We measured the partials of our piano sound and have genuine reason to believe that it is rich and lively, and that it models the acoustic instrument with high detail.”
I also asked why he chose to release an enhanced version of the Promega 2 rather than basing the new model upon the older but more flexible Promega 3. He continued, “This development was undertaken with the attitude of ‘the piano comes first’, and any compromises would be made elsewhere. From the piano point of view, the Promega 2 and Promega 3 are very much the same, and since we also wanted to launch our first piano in this price category, we chose the Promega 2.”
There are two pairs of stereo outputs, and you can freely assign the sections to these. However, if you insert unbalanced (TS) plugs into the main (balanced) outputs, the signal level will be much lower than you might expect. Unfortunately, using the auxiliary (unbalanced) outputs doesn’t sidestep this because, while it’s not mentioned anywhere in the documentation, the effects are not directed to these. Consequently, you’ll need balanced cables and inputs on whatever device lies next in the signal chain to use the Promega 2+ most effectively.
Next to the analogue outputs, there’s a stereo input that allows you to mix your playing with external audio, while digital output is provided on optical and phono connectors. MIDI is carried by both 5-pin DIN and USB B connectors, while a USB A socket allows you to upgrade the system. Real-time control is provided by three pedal inputs, but I learned during the review that one shouldn’t plug in pedals or remove them while the instrument is switched on because it confuses the system and leads to incorrect responses. Finally, there’s an IEC power socket with an associated on/off switch. At the front of the instrument, you’ll also find a soft on/off button to place the instrument in standby mode, and this sits alongside dual stereo headphone sockets that echo the signal from the main outputs.