The sequencer is actually easier to use than the small display might suggest. It can store up to 16 songs, each with 16 tracks; has a capacity of 250,000 events and a resolution of 192 pulses per quarter note. I was impressed to find that it retained its songs after power down — something that would make me more inclined to use it. Unusually, the sequencer operates separately to the rest of the instrument — its 16 tracks are not tied to the current Performance. In theory, within the limits of polyphony, it is possible for the sequencer to drive a Performance of 16 parts while you play a different 16‑part Performance on the keyboard at the same time, making the Equinox 32‑part multitimbral in a sense. I found this a little confusing at first, but the easy way to remember it is that when the Song Edit button is lit, the tracks shown in the display, the volumes of which are controlled by the sliders, are sequencer tracks. Deactivate Song Edit and the control is returned to the current Performance.
Recording is very straightforward indeed: select a suitable Performance (Generalmusic provide several starter templates ranging from pop to, er, country), choose a tempo and time signature, hit the Record button and away you go. Most things you'd want from a MIDI recording system are present so you can, for example, repeat or copy tracks, erase individual events and types of event (such as aftertouch), shift events, alter the velocity or pitch of any group of notes in a selected track within a specifiable note/bar range, and so on. Quantisation is available for note starts or note lengths, and if you want to quantise as you record, that's no problem either. Bars can be deleted or inserted (in fact, inserting bars seems to be the only way that a song can contain multiple time signatures) and a special track, the Master Track, holds all tempo settings that you have made or recorded via slider movements. Controller twiddles may be recorded and if you need to edit individual MIDI events, there is an event list, with views selectable by event type so you don't get engulfed in spurious data. If that lot sounds comprehensive — it is!
Any edit you make can be undone, so you can experiment without fear. Whilst in sequencer mode, the sliders act as volume controls for each part and, of course, you can record an automated mix as easy as pie (and watch the little slider graphics move during playback). Standard MIDI files (type 0 or 1) can be loaded in from the onboard floppy drive, and you can build Grooves from sections of your song too. Since we haven't discussed Grooves yet, make a mental note for later that this is a Good Thing.
Generalmusic have devised a means of sharing effects between the Sequencer and Performances, so that both the Sequencer's tracks and the Performance can have their own reverb and multi‑effects processor. Which brings me to...
The Equinox is blessed with 85 different digital effects, ranging from stereo reverbs to multitap delays, flangers, chorus effects and so on. The quality is generally good, and a few are quite outstanding. Effects configurations are often seen as the weak link when workstations are used multitimbrally, but the Equinox allows you to split the effects in a '2&2' configuration. Essentially, this gives you four separate processors: a reverb and multi‑effects each for the sequencer and the performance. The reverbs are clean and warm, and the multi‑effects include delays, pitch‑shifters, distortion, EQ, chorus, and dual effects such as flanged delay.
If you select the '3 effects' configuration, an additional option ('Pro Effects') becomes available. This contains the most powerful algorithms, such as 2x and 4x pitch‑shifters, 3D processors, ring modulator, compressor and guitar effects. In Pro Effects mode, the effects for the Performance and sequencer apply to both in common — you simply choose which of them is the source for the shared settings. It's a good trade‑off, I think. I doubt whether anyone will be disappointed by the range of the effects on offer, either: I thought the phaser was especially deep and rich (and very easy to over‑use!), and the delays are plentiful and varied . In fact the only thing I missed was the ability to sync delay times to MIDI clock — but perhaps that will be added in a future update?
At first glance, you might miss the small button next to the eight sliders which is simply labelled 'Drawbars'. Pressing this transforms the Equinox into a surprisingly versatile tonewheel organ, complete with percussion, keyboard splits and effects which complement the sounds perfectly. Everything from key‑click volume to individual drawbar levels is available, and using the sliders as virtual drawbars is an excellent spin‑off, getting maximum mileage from the hardware. Realistic vibrato and distortion are present, and all these settings plus rotary speaker slow and fast speeds may be individually tailored and stored in 16 special User Performances. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with how good this section was, and its 16 factory presets are as good as anything else the Equinox has to offer — who says that a jack of all trades can't do some of them very well indeed?
The Equinox comes with 2Mb (expandable to 8Mb) of battery‑backed sample RAM as standard, which means you can augment the armoury of onboard waveforms with samples from a wide range of sources. The list so far includes import from the onboard floppy disk (WAV, AIFF, Sound Designer, Akai and Kurzweil formats are supported) or via MIDI Sample Dump. With the optional SCSI port fitted, you have access to samples from CD‑ROM, Zip, Jaz or Syquest drives, plus external hard disks. Generalmusic also state that future operating system updates will include Roland, Ensoniq and Emu sample formats.
Pressing the Library key marked 'Sample' acts as a shortcut to all the patches containing user sample data. This certainly beats searching through hoards of material for samples, especially if your patch names resemble mine. If you press the Sample key a second time, you can either re‑edit the sample or import more. The manual makes no mention of restrictions in either sample rates supported or number of samples that can be held in memory. It also neglects to mention that whilst stereo samples can be imported, the Equinox automatically converts them to mono, which is a pity and something I think should be addressed in a future revision if possible. Incoming samples maintain any loop points that exist in the data, and looping may be turned on or off from within the Equinox's (basic) sample editor. You can also alter the sample rate (for a 'lo‑fi' effect, or just to save memory).
Other tweaks can be made here to the loop start, sample end (you can truncate bits here to save memory) and the pitch. If you want to import several samples, assigning them as multisamples across the keyboard, that's easily catered for. Indeed, if the Equinox went one step further and implemented onboard sampling, it would be a dream machine — but even without it, doing all the complicated stuff on a computer, or lifting material from a sampler, then importing to the Equinox works a treat. The fact that the samples are still in memory after power‑down is a very big plus factor. The Equinox can be fitted with an internal 2Gb 2.5‑inch IDE hard drive and up to 32Mb of 'ordinary' computer SIMMS (I believe this to mean 72‑pin SIMMS — indeed I opened up the synth and this appears to be the case, two slots being available).
The Equinox's manual has the following to say about its Grooves function: "these provide a valuable source of drum, bass and keyboard 'riffs' which can be used for real‑time playing or can be incorporated into sequences and edited to your taste." Essentially, each groove is a multitrack, looping MIDI sequence in which every element is tweakable: sounds, effects, tempo, key and pitch. Each groove is allocated to a single key, with up to 16 exclusion groups to prevent two conflicting grooves from sounding at once. You decide the range of keys over which different grooves can play — perhaps just the lowest octave, so you can perform 'over the top'.
Over a thousand Preset Grooves are provided in 16 families (each containing 64 grooves), with an additional eight user families capable of holding 512 user grooves. The factory grooves are Drum 1‑3, Percussion, Bass 1‑3, Keyboard 1‑5, Guitar and Combi 1‑3. Of these, I found the drum and percussion to be pretty valuable 'instant' resources, and the rest less so — I thought they exhibited the only signs of the 'home keyboard' mentality that is otherwise thankfully absent from the Equinox. I know some people value these 'twiddly bits' though, so I'll leave you to decide if they can add anything to your music.
Perhaps the coolest feature of Grooves is 'shuffle', which randomly selects different groove layers. It will combine drum patterns, percussion breaks, bass and keyboard motifs, and so on at the press of a button. If you find one you like, you can save it whilst continuing to randomise the other parts. This is hardly composing as we know it, but as a rhythm ideas generator there's nothing quicker. With up to eight tracks possible in a groove, things can quickly get out of hand, and the manual advises shuffling just two or three tracks as the best starting point. I particularly liked the ability to restrict the shuffle function to only the families you want — say if you want only variations of user‑created material. Or you could marvel at how few masterpieces are stumbled upon by random combinations of techno bass riffs and country and western drum patterns...
Pressing the 'Drawbar' button transforms the Equinox into a surprisingly versatile tonewheel organ, complete with percussion, keyboard splits and effects which complement the sounds perfectly.
Grooves can also be sourced from the onboard sequencer or from MIDI files, and once a groove is running, the fun's just starting. When in Groove mode, the sliders become a 'Groove Lab' for creating 'DJ‑like' effects such as altering the tempo of the loop, panning, attack, filtering and adding modulation. When the 'lower' row of sliders is active, they function as volume controls for each track of the groove. The pitch‑bender plays an important role here: it, too, performs tempo changes, but releasing the wheel always returns the groove to its correct speed as the wheel springs back to the centre position. Great fun! In real time, Grooves can be transposed, their direction reversed, and they can be programmed to start (or stop) instantly or on the next bar or beat. Grooves can loop forever, play through just once or play only while a key is held. They can be tweaked so extensively that I found myself becoming a convert — this is Roland's RPS mode done right!
Ordinarily, this would be the point to wind up the review and reach some kind of conclusion. However, the Equinox has one last trick up its sleeve: it is a versatile master keyboard and MIDI controller. The onboard sliders don't just edit patches, mix sequencer track levels, operate as drawbar organs and control Grooves — they can also be programmed to transmit different types of MIDI controller information. And the switches underneath them don't merely activate layers, tracks or sequencer parts or control the speed of a rotary speaker effect — they can also transmit MIDI information such as program changes, MIDI notes, Performance increment or tempo settings. A quick prod of the 'User' button, and up to 16 programmable slider templates can be accessed, the upper/lower switch effectively giving you 16 different sliders and switches. Any MIDI controller number, plus some internal Equinox settings (such as tempo) can be programmed with a user‑definable range and direction. If that's not enough, the slider's control can be sent to either MIDI output, restricted to the internal synth engine or to the sequencer, and can transmit on up to 16 channels simultaneously. There's even a suggestion that future operating systems will support programmable SysEx strings too.
Viewed as a master keyboard, the Equinox can transmit on multiple MIDI channels with up to 16 zones available, corresponding to parts in a Performance. Keyboard splits and layers are easily achieved, and data may be routed to either MIDI port to further extend the flexibility. The keyboard's action is good, successfully balancing a light feel with enough depth to dig in when needed. Unlike GEM's previous effort, the S2, only channel aftertouch is available. Incoming MIDI data can, if you choose, be merged with the Equinox's own output, and up to seven incoming and outgoing filters can be applied to the data (for instance pitch‑bend, aftertouch, specific control changes and so on) for each of the 16 parts. GEM haven't missed a trick here with the possible exception of a 'patch remain' feature to allow notes from the onboard synth engine to sustain over patch changes.
The Equinox is quite a pleasant surprise and, as estate agents used to say, 'deceptively spacious'. If Generalmusic intend to take on the world, they have to offer something special — and with the Equinox they've done just that. In most areas it has more features than the competition, and if it also offered the import of stereo samples, or provided a user sampling option, I feel there would be nothing to touch it. Even as it stands it's hard to see where the competition lies without looking at considerably more expensive instruments. My occasional references to the Roland XP series are intended to illustrate how, in many areas, the Equinox exceeds what I consider to be the benchmark workstations.
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. I personally wasn't overawed with most of the factory presets, but they are easy to tweak, and with over 2000 locations to store user patches, it seems a crime not to do just that. Any cynicism on my part about the 'grooves' function wore off very quickly — it's simply wonderful for real‑time control of loop‑based music. In a computer‑based studio, we take for granted how easy it has become to paste a drum loop, vocal sample or sound effect into a project. But there are times when a computer isn't the ideal partner, and in such cases, the Equinox's sample import would score heavily. Speaking as someone whose previous interest in sampling peaked at 'musical belches', the Equinox made me wonder whether I've been missing something all these years.
During the review, I discovered a couple of bugs but an upgrade to the operating system fixed one of them, and the other was easily avoided once I was aware of it (the user drum kit problem referred to earlier). My only other reservation concerns the display, which occasionally responded sluggishly when the data entry dial got spinning; some edit menus also require a lot of tapping the down arrow before you reach the field you need to change.
The organ mode works very well and the master keyboard functions are splendid additions, setting the Equinox apart from other workstations in its class. If you need to expand, there are plenty of options, and since the operating system is in flash RAM, when any bugs are fixed or new features added, the upgrade is as simple as loading a floppy.
So would I buy an Equinox? Actually, if I didn't already have a Roland XP80 workstation, I might. The Equinox's sequencer has a higher resolution, its Grooves are more versatile than the Roland's RPS mode, the ability to import samples and retain them after power‑down would be superb for stage use, and the control sliders offer many possibilities. Ultimately the sum of the parts adds up to a very impressive instrument, and anyone needing a workstation would be foolish to ignore it.
As Generalmusic are keen to fulfill our every desire, there is, of course, a programmable arpeggiator. The user can specify arpeggio directions of up, down, up and down, random, 'Input' (which uses the incoming note order) and glissando (the arpeggio runs through semitone steps between the upper and lower note played) at a variety of time intervals, including some which are 'groove quantised'. Its 16 factory presets are all simple enough, but likely to get used all the more because of this. Once you have adjusted the settings to taste, user arpeggios can be saved in any of 16 user locations.
In Performance mode, the arpeggiator controls a single part which you choose when you create the Performance — and to all frustrated Roland XP owners, myself included, yes it has a hold/latch softkey so you can leave it arpeggiating while you wander around the studio!
Generalmusic clearly have great plans for the Equinox, with options to expand the battery‑backed sample RAM to 8Mb and to add:
- an internal 2.5‑inch 2Gb IDE hard disk.
- a SCSI port for communication with external hard disks, Zip drives, Jazz drives, Syquest and CD‑ROM drives.
- an A‑D convertor with vocal harmoniser (up to four parts) and vocoder functions.
It is rumoured that with the A‑D convertor fitted, the operating system might be upgraded to provide user sampling too in the future.
- Master keyboard and control capabilities.
- Excellent drawbar mode.
- Sample import with battery‑backed sample memory.
- Powerful sequencer, arpeggiator and groove functions.
- Capacity to hold thousands of sounds.
- Display is quite small and sometimes a little slow to update.
- Stereo samples converted to mono.
There's a hell of a lot in the Equinox — Generalmusic must have taken a good look at everybody else's offerings before producing their feature list. With sample import, a groove mode, sequencer, master controller features and drawbar mode, this is a workstation to challenge all‑comers. With many upgrade options available, only the omission of user sampling prevents this being the Full Monty.