Italian firm Generalmusic have made their reputation in the home keyboard market, but their new Equinox is an extremely well‑specified professional workstation.
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.
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, Orchestral, contains a collection of organs, strings, pianos, guitars and woodwind; this, plus the three General MIDI banks, comprises most of the 'bread and butter' sounds we've come to expect.
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.
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.