Korg add more instruments to their growing stable of software classics.
Since the release of the Polysix, MS20 and Wavestation soft synths in the first incarnation of the Korg Legacy Collection, the incorporation of the Polysix, MS20 and CX3 in the OASYS, and subsequent ‘soft’ recreations of the Mono/Poly, the M1 and the Triton, Korg have been steadily mining their rich history of analogue synthesizers and digital sound engines. Now the company have turned their attention to three more of their keyboards — the MiniKorg 700S analogue monosynth, the Prophecy digital monosynth and the Triton Extreme workstation — releasing soft synths based upon each of these within the Korg Collection 3.
Some people might find these strangely chosen. After all, the Korg 770 and 800DV are more revered than the 700S, the Z1 would have covered more ground than the Prophecy, and the Trinity probably has more of a cult following than the Triton Extreme. But others will find them well chosen. Wherever you stand on this debate, there’s no doubting that the response to their announcement was almost overwhelmingly positive so I downloaded and installed all three new synths. It was time to indulge in a bit of gratuitous comparisonising.
The 700S soft synth comprises three layers: a recreation of the 700S itself with additional performance controls and an arpeggiator replacing the original Repeat function; an eight‑slot modulation matrix offering 80 destinations fed from 32 sources that can draw upon three new LFOs and three additional ADSR contour generators; and an effects board with six virtual stompboxes.
To begin testing it, I selected the soft synth’s monophonic Init patch, deleted all of the V.Patch sources and destinations, and then switched off all of the effects units. This, in theory, turned it into an unenhanced 700S playing a sawtooth wave. I then set up my MkII 700S in the same way. The sounds that I obtained from the hardware and soft synth were very similar and I could have used either with the same musical results. So far, so good. I then stepped through the other waveforms and differences emerged. The square and sawtooth waves were fine, but the chorus waves were different, with the modulations in both I and II being deeper and faster on the soft synth. These differences were so significant that I wanted to look into them further, so I liberated my MkI 700S from storage (yeah, I know... shoot me) and set up the three instruments alongside one another. The two hardware synths were almost identical with one another but the soft synth stood apart.
I then moved on to the Travelers (the 700S’s HP and LP filters). On the original, the controls for these ensure that the cutoff frequency of the LPF always remains equal to or higher than that of the HPF so that a conventional band‑pass response is obtained. On the soft synth, they can cross over. I know that some owners chopped bits off the Traveler knobs to make this possible on the original, so I can understand why Korg have done this. Comparing the three synths demonstrated that the underlying characters of the soft synth’s filters are similar to those of the originals, although its low‑pass filter closes further and the preset amount of filter resonance is greater. However, you can correct these differences in the V.Patch page if you wish.
The early Korgs have possibly the strangest envelope controls ever seen, yet they are capable of creating AS, ADS and AR contours. Experimenting with these revealed differences in the soft synth’s contour shapes and times, and I found that its ADS shape is only accessible within a narrow band at the top of the Perc/Singing range, which makes it harder to set up than the original. Furthermore, both of my original synths can generate a pleasing transient ‘bump’ at the start of the note, whereas the soft synth does not. Again, you can overcome this using V.Patch parameters.
Next, I moved on to the Effects (second oscillator) panel. This offers conventional dual‑oscillator sounds, three flavours of ring modulation and two types of noise, and in many respects it’s where the real power of the 700S lies. Here, I found further differences. For example, the depth of Modulator 3 is quite different. In addition, the pitched noise contains a tonal element that sounds like oscillator bleed, and this makes it impossible to obtain some of the exquisite breathy sounds of which the 700S is capable.
By this point is was clear that, if my hardware synths are responding and sounding as originally intended, the emulation is not a perfect replica of the 700S. Given the accuracy with which Korg have recreated the MS20, Polysix and Mono/Poly, I find this surprising. So let’s forget about emulating the original and ask what the soft synth is like as an instrument in its own right. In truth, it’s huge fun, and it generates high‑quality sounds with little or no aliasing. If you keep things simple, it has a lovely, clear ’70s vibe but, if you start to invoke polyphony, unison, lots of modulation matrix routings (including those that overcome limitations such as the on/off status of the filter modulation and resonance amounts) and plaster the results with effects, it becomes an unusual but powerful polysynth. After a while, I was even obtaining sounds reminiscent of the CS80 from it, and that’s not a trivial accolade.
In the 1970s, one mastered the 700S by understanding and overcoming its limitations and finding the sounds hidden beneath, and the same is true today. Sure, Korg have removed many of those limitations but I still found that, the more I came to know it, the better the soft synth sounded. If you fancy something that steps outside of the norm defined by all of the Minimoog, Prophet and Jupiter soft synths out there, this could be a good place to start.
When I reviewed the Korg Prophecy in 1995 I heaped fulsome praise upon it. In retrospect, I may have been a little too enthusiastic, but not by much; it was and remains a wonderful performance‑oriented monosynth that was adopted by some important artists, although in my view it deserved even greater acclaim than it received. Consequently, I was very excited to test the soft synth especially since, with its polyphonic capabilities, it’s the closest thing yet to a ‘soft’ Z1 (or, rather, a soft monotimbral subset of the Z1).
Since the soft synth is, by definition, a re‑hosted version of an existing digital synthesizer, I didn’t bother setting it up next to my Prophecy when I first tried it. After all, while not wanting to be dismissive of the huge amount of work involved in porting them to modern hardware, running the Prophecy models on a Mac or PC should provide the same results as running them on the original platform. Right? Well... no. I didn’t need the original in the same studio to realise that there was something wrong.
I had started by playing my favourite Prophecy brass sounds. These were a revelation when I first heard them, with an authentic sounding ‘rip’ — the division of a pitch‑bend into discrete modes — that lifted them far above conventional synthesised and sampled brass sounds. However, the soft synth didn’t emulate this, and rapid bends also caused digital clicks as the model struggled to keep pace with the controller. Disturbed by this, I moved on to some of the reed model sounds such as saxophones. When played on the original Prophecy, certain bent pitches contain just the breath noise, as they should. On the soft synth, I again obtained a smooth pitch‑bend as one would on any conventional synthesizer. And yet further differences were revealed when using sounds based upon the other models.
Not wanting to blame Korg for anything just yet, I took advantage of the soft synth’s compatibility with the original Prophecy’s SYX dumps to transfer the complete setup from my original Prophecy into it. For obvious reasons, this would ensure that I wasn’t hearing differences in programming. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. The discrepancies remained, so I could only conclude that the models themselves were at fault.
Had I submitted this review a few weeks ago, you would now be reading a handful of (now deleted) paragraphs about how disappointed I was but, before I did so, Korg released the soft synth’s first update. This corrected the pitch‑bend in the brass model and, although the results I obtained were still not identical with the original’s, they were a huge improvement. But why is there any difference? I suspect that it’s because the Synth Kit code on which the original Prophecy is based has been obsolete for so long that it can’t be ported directly on to modern computers. If that’s the case, a significant rewrite would have been necessary and small differences are both inevitable and forgiveable. It remains to be seen whether Korg will update the discrepancies in the other models.
These issues notwithstanding, the soft synth can often sound very much like the original, so perhaps I’m again becoming too engrossed in a slavish comparison between the two. Maybe I should just be asking whether it’s a great musical instrument. In many ways it is, and there are aspects of the soft synth that are streets ahead of the original. It took me a long time to get the best from the Prophecy in 1995 because its programming system — accessible through the letterbox of a two‑line display — was tricky to navigate. Today, everything is laid out clearly in three main pages: the synth itself; the effects page, which also provides access to various voice settings; and the arpeggiator page, which includes the performance control editors. This makes the Prophecy accessible in a way that it has never been before. However, one thing that will remain hard to emulate is the sheer playability of the original, with its log (which includes a ribbon controller) and dual pitch‑bend and modulation wheels in close proximity. Perhaps this would be a perfect opportunity for MPE to take over performance duties, but this hasn’t been implemented. I hope that it eventually is, because it would be a great way to control the Prophecy’s various models. But even today, if you add the bonuses of polyphony and unison and start to explore what physical modelling can do when running in multiple polyphonic instances on a powerful DAW, the results can be remarkable.
There were numerous models of Triton workstation, all based around versions of Korg’s HI sample+synthesis engine plus a sampler, a 16‑track sequencer, dual polyphonic arpeggiators, and the option to install a 6‑voice MOSS (Z1 sound engine) board. The series started with the original Triton (retrospectively renamed the Triton Classic) and — not including the cut‑down ‘LE’ and ‘TR’ versions and various sideways trips to the Karma and other spin‑offs — it evolved through the Triton Rack and Triton Studio before ending up at the Triton Extreme which, amongst other things, boasted five times the ROM, more sample RAM, improvements in storage and connectivity, and a valve that could be placed in either the effects or output signal paths.
When you purchase the Triton in Collection 3 you receive two separate soft synths — the Triton Classic already available in Collection 2 and the new Triton Extreme, the latter of which offers three DAC output modes to emulate the Classic, Studio and Extreme models. Of course, neither is a full recreation of a Triton, not least because there’s no sampler, no sequencer and no option to run a MOSS engine in either of them. Less significant differences include (yay!) a maximum polyphony of 256 voices in both versions, and (boo!) a reduction of the maximum multitimbrality to just eight Parts. However, you can always overcome the second of these by launching two instances of the soft synth, so I can’t see that this should ever be an issue.
So how do they sound? Having sold my Triton Pro when I was unable to stop myself from buying an OASYS, I was nonetheless able to test the Classic soft synth against my Triton Rack. I was impressed. In fact, I was very impressed. Stepping through the factory sounds demonstrated that Korg have recreated the HI engine accurately, and I was unable to find or create anything that would have failed to drop into an existing track. Given that the soft synth also includes most of the sounds from all eight of Korg’s PCM Expansion boards (the original could host only two), the sound creation potential is enormous.
Moving on to the Extreme soft synth, I was pleased to find that this sounds slightly different from the Classic; there were small differences (as there should be) even with its DAC emulator set to Classic mode. So which is the better version? In my view, neither is — they’re just a little bit different. If you want to take advantage of the valve emulation, you’ll obviously turn to the Extreme, but I would suggest that you simply choose whichever version you prefer for any given application or sound.
Just for fun, I created a short track using nothing other than one instance of the Classic and one of the Extreme, and the results were fab. Indeed, the 16 Parts available to me were more flexible than the 16 Parts on a hardware Triton because I had now twice as many arpeggiators, twice as many effects and much more flexibility about how I allocated the effects to the Parts. If I have to find a criticism (and I do) I was disappointed to find that — like the Prophecy — neither Triton has a MIDI Learn function. You can allocate MIDI CCs to allow external controllers to control their soft equivalents, but there are potential improvements to be made here; attaching MIDI CCs directly to parameters would be a step forward. Nevertheless, for ‘in the box’ track creation, these two soft synths could easily become the bread‑and‑butter workhorses for many users. Having been an OASYS and Kronos user for so long, I had forgotten how damn good the Tritons can sound, and these soft synths were a timely reminder of how musical they can be.
All in all, I have to admit that I enjoyed using the Triton soft synths more than I ever enjoyed using the original workstations, and I soon found myself whizzing around them as if I had been programming them for years. Despite the touch‑sensitive screens of the originals, I found the soft synths’ GUIs to be more intuitive than the Menu/Select/Open architecture of the hardware Tritons, and the new browser and search functions make it far easier to find the right Program within the thousands of sounds on offer, and therefore both quicker and easier to build Combis.
But despite all of the above, perhaps the most significant improvements between the Triton soft synths and their inspirations are practical ones. Firstly, you can edit their Programs within a Combi. Not only that but, when you save a Combi containing an edited Program, the original Program is unaffected, so you don’t end up wrecking other layered or multitimbral sounds that use it. It’s hard to overstate what a huge benefit this can be to serious programmers. Secondly, and perhaps catering for players at the other end of the scale, there’s an Easy Edit page that provides a small but important subset of Program parameters for those who want to tweak sounds without diving into the full HI programming engine.
If you fancy something that steps outside of the norm defined by all of the Minimoog, Prophet and Jupiter soft synths out there, this could be a good place to start.
Covering four soft synths in one review means that, without taking up 20 pages of the magazine, it hasn’t been possible to cover each in any depth, but let’s be clear about the conclusion... all of them produce excellent sounds and each could add something extra to your music creation. Having said that, you may feel that I’ve been a little hard on two them, but I disagree. If something is sold as a recreation of an original, it should meet that promise. In my view, the Tritons achieve this with honours, so let’s hope that further updates are on the way to correct the remaining differences in the 700S and Prophecy. If they do, I will have little but praise for all four soft synths. Sure, their MIDI capabilities need to be enhanced to meet modern expectations — I’m getting a little tired of MIDI CCs that can only affect a single parameter at a time — and I think that Korg should add MPE as a matter of urgency, particularly on the Prophecy, but there’s much to enjoy here.
So the final question concerns value for money. At $149 (approximately £110 at the time of writing) for the 700S, $149 (also £110) for the Prophecy and $249 (£185) for the pair of Tritons, they’re not low‑cost plug‑ins. But for just $399 (£300) you can obtain the complete Collection comprising the 700S, Prophecy, both Tritons, plus the MS20, Polysix, Mono/Poly, ARP Odyssey, M1, Wavestation and MDE‑X multi‑effects processor, which equates to just $40 (£30) per instrument. That’s excellent value and, despite the existing caveats with the 700S and Prophecy, the Collection gets a solid thumbs up from me.
- Korg have made the 700S, Prophecy and Tritons accessible to a whole new generation of music makers.
- The 700S can take you in new directions whether used monophonically or polyphonically.
- The Prophecy adds physical modelling to the Collection and takes tentative steps toward being a ‘soft’ Z1.
- The Tritons are superb workhorses with a huge range of factory sounds to get you started.
- If my Minikorg 700Ss are to be trusted, the soft synth doesn’t appear to be a wholly accurate emulation.
- The Prophecy models need further work to make them authentic recreations of the original.
- The MIDI implementations of all four soft synths leave something to be desired.
- There’s no MPE compatibility, which would particularly benefit the Prophecy.
Adding the 700S adds breadth to the range of vintage sounds available in the Collection, while the Prophecy adds physical modelling to the mix. In addition to these, the Triton workhorses complement the existing M1 and Wavestation beautifully. There are some issues to be addressed, but the more I used these soft synths, the more I liked them and the better they sounded.