The latest product of Korg's long‑established AI<sup>2</sup> synthesis technology, the N1R module may not break any ground, but it bristles with great sounds and is a cinch to edit. Paul White feels thoroughly Nlightened...
Korg's N1R presents their AI<sup>2</sup> synthesis technology in rackable form with 64‑note polyphony, 32‑part multitimbrality and a massive onboard library of well over 1000 different sounds and combinations. Layers and splits can be set up for control over a single MIDI channel and, as you'd expect from a serious modern synth, there are two independent effects processors on board. These are capable of producing a wide range of both conventional and less conventional effects, including resonant filtering. Though there's full GM, GS and XG support for the creation and playback of Standard MIDI Files, the N1R is actually a very flexible synthesizer — it might not do anything radically new, but the sheer number of sounds combined with good audio quality and a well‑conceived user interface makes it a very serious instrument.
To take the pain out of sound editing, four real‑time control knobs are included in addition to the main data entry wheel, while an internal arpeggiator offers 20 different arpeggio types, all of which can be sync'ed to MIDI clock if necessary. To simplify connection to a computer, a 'to host' socket is provided that is compatible with both Macs and PCs via optional adaptor cables. And for those more intimate moments, there's a headphone jack.
Although everything is crammed into a 1U box, the N1R has a comfortably uncluttered feel, complemented by a clear display based around intuitive icons. There are four audio output jacks on the rear panel, plus just a single set of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets — which begs the question 'How does the 32‑part multitimbrality work?' You need to use the direct computer connection if you want to send more than 16 MIDI channels at a time, but I'd have thought a second MIDI In socket would have been more use to more people. This may not be too drastic a problem — few people are likely want more than 16 parts out of the N1R, especially since the polyphony will probably run out before the number of parts does. The N1R's two sets of MIDI channels are designated A and B, and both Mac and PC drivers for the computer connection are included on a floppy disk; Mac users may also use MIDI Manager or OMS if preferred. Power comes from an external PSU, but at least this connects via a substantial 4‑pin DIN.
The front panel reveals the N1R to be non‑expandable. There are no card slots, and no provision for adding internal waveform cards or chips as you can with the Roland JV2080 or the forthcoming Emu Proteus 2000. What's more, though there are low‑pass filters within the voice architecture, these lack resonance and thus self‑oscillation — a curious omission, given the proclivity of modern composers to use thwips, blips and sweeps with seeming abandon. There is a 'colour' parameter which peaks up the filter slightly near the cutoff point, but it's really quite subtle.
Navigating through the various edit and setup pages is done by means of 14 small buttons, all of which have dedicated functions, or at worst, pairs of functions depending on what mode you're in. Data values are changed using either the data wheel or cursor buttons, and the two‑colour, backlit display employs lots of friendly graphic icons to help you along the way. But for me, the best part of this synth is the section controlled by the four knobs at the right hand side of the front panel. A Select button steps through three sets of functions that can be directly accessed via these controls, all of which are printed on the panel above the knobs, and the most useful mode provides instant access to Attack, Release, Cutoff (frequency) and Effect (amount). I've often thought that a synth with hundreds of sounds that could easily be tweaked would be very welcome in those studios where the business of making music takes precedence over fiddly patch editing — and here it is. The other two sets of functions relate to the main arpeggiator parameters and to Balance, Pan, Modulation and Portamento.
When you want to edit sound Programs in more depth, you're greeted with an icon‑based block diagram similar to that of a basic analogue synth. Each block may by selected in turn using the cursor buttons, while pressing Edit brings up the editable parameters relevant to that block. The Oscillator, Filter and VDA (level envelope) blocks each have one envelope and one modulation input, again depicted by small icons. Selecting any of these allows the relevant parameters to be edited very simply, and although I generally dislike editing synths, I sailed through most of this one without ever opening the manual — the user interface is supremely friendly and one of the best I've yet come across. The demo songs are also worth a listen — not only do they really put the instrument through its paces, but you also get a scrolling list of the machine's key features along with the display changing from orange to green in time with the music! Exit, and an aspirin, gets you back to normality.
As with most such modules, operation is divided into a single‑Performance Play mode and Multi mode, the latter for use with sequencers and the former for live keyboard control. Once a Program has been called up in Performance mode, four icons on screen show you which parameters the real‑time knobs will adjust if turned, as well as the patch name and number, the part number, the sound bank and the performance number. There's also an upper/lower designation to show which half of a split or layer you're dealing with.
Performance mode specifies the setup of parts 1 to 16 including the patches used, splits/layers, portamento and the real‑time knob setup as well as effect and arpeggiator settings. The arpeggiator button brings up a simple edit menu that allows the arpeggiator type to be chosen from a list of 20, with a choice of a one or two octave range and a fully variable speed that may also be locked to MIDI clock. At a slightly deeper level, the arpeggiator step base, gate time, velocity gate and swing parameters may be changed. Up to 32 user Performances may be stored.
To take the pain out of sound editing, four real‑time control knobs are included in addition to the main data entry wheel.
The most basic playable sound element is the Program, which may be based either on a multisample or a drum sound. These basic ROM sounds and waveforms provide a source that is then further modified via the conventional subtractive synthesis elements of filtering and amplitude envelope shaping. Modulation comes from envelope generators, LFOs and real‑time MIDI control, and two oscillators may be used together to create a more complex sound, though a two‑oscillator Program uses up two voices of polyphony. The VDF variable digital filter can be modulated via LFO, but its lack of resonance means that fierce 'zweeeeee' filter sweeps are right out. However, it can be used to create more natural dynamics or to take the edge off a sound.
The N1R comes with 1269 Program sounds, and there's a drumkit editing mode that allows the user to create new drumkits or modify existing ones. There are 37 preset drumkits ranging from rock to ethnic, with memory space to store a further two user kits. When in Multi Mode, any of the 1269 Program sounds can be assigned to any of the 32 parts, and Combinations (combinations are usable in both Performance and Multi modes) based on up to eight layered Programs may also be included. Up to 402 Combinations can be accessed, and 100 of these are user‑editable. Of course Combination sounds eat up polyphony, so 64 voices can soon start to look restrictive, especially if your basic sounds use two oscillators. However, most of the sounds are rich enough without relying on Combinations to fatten them up. If the polyphony is exceeded, the oldest voice sounding is the one that is turned off.
Each part in a performance may be routed through the two internal effects units in a number of series and parallel configurations, with routing either just to the main output or to all four outputs; as with so many synth modules, the effects routing is potentially the most confusing part of the whole thing. As with most other competing units, the same two effects are available to all sections of a Combi or a Performance, though the effect level may be adjusted on a part‑by‑part basis. The effects themselves cover the usual reverb, delay and modulation treatments, but there are some nice refinements of these along with distortion, enhancers, parametric EQ and a resonance filter. This latter effect may be controlled via an internal envelope generator and offers three different triggering modes, but because there is only one filter, it isn't the same as having a synth with a resonant filter on each voice. In fact it's closer to the effect of putting the output of an instrument through an external filter box, and it can't be used at all in Multi mode.
It never ceases to amaze me how many chunks of sound synth designers can cram onto a few megabytes of ROM, especially when you consider how many drum sounds there are in a module like this. In fact there's a fairly generous 18Mb of sound ROM in this machine, but even considering space‑saving techniques such as data comression and clever looping (some of the trickier loops are credited to Jupiter Systems' Infinity software), I still can't see where they put it all.
Cruising through the presets and tweaking up a few custom sounds of my own showed the N1R to be tonally very versatile, and the sounds it creates tend to sit comfortably in a mix. The sound quality also manages to be both warm and clean, and for all the variety, I was still reminded very much of the M1, not least because a few M1 favourites are in there, including 'Lore'. Granted, you get more of everything than you got in an M1 and the sounds are cleaner, but somehow I felt that after all these years there could be something more. After all, Korg have their own version of physical modelling, their Wavestation is still breathtaking even after all this time, but there's little sign of anything new here. That said, there's a lot to be positive about too. Most of the sounds are musically useful, and if you like warm pads or strings, there are lots to choose from. This is a box that really could provide all the parts of a backing track without seeming obviously weak in any area. Like the M1, the sounds have a warmth and classiness that many other modern synths still fail to capture, and it's worth noting that most of the patches work well with just basic reverb rather than requiring complex effects to hold your interest. This is obviously good news if you're working multitimbrally, as the effects settings are always a compromise in that mode.
Judged purely on originality of sound, the N1R doesn't appear to offer anything special, but as a general purpose, cost‑effective, wide‑spectrum workhorse it's actually extremely good. There are tons of ready‑made sounds, good‑sounding drum kits covering various styles, and a quick‑access editing system that's second to none. In fact it's so easy to come up with new sounds that the 100 user Program memories and 100 user Combi memories might soon seem inadequate. The onboard arpeggiator is lots of fun as well as being easy to access, the operating system is friendly, and the asking price is little more than you'd spend for a decent GM module or a couple of voice expansion cards, yet you get GM/GS/XG support on top of all the more adventurous sounds. What's more, Korg's sound designers have done an excellent job in filling the sound ROM with genuinely useful musical sounds. If you're a technology fan, you may find the N1R a little tame, but if you simply want good sounds, easy editing and good tonal variety combined with a solid GM sound set at an affordable price, you really don't need to look much further.
The included PC‑format floppy disk contains a number of programs and utilities for both Mac and PC, most importantly the Korg MIDI drivers and a patch editor package. There's also a file converter that changes Standard MIDI Files between type 0 and type 1 or vice versa. The PC driver is always required when using the host connection to a PC but Mac users have a choice of using the supplied Korg PCIF OMS driver in conjunction with OMS and an OMS compatible application, or the Korg MIDI driver in conjunction with Apple MIDI Manager. The included editing software, however, is not OMS‑compatible, and works only with the Korg driver. The manual suggests that OMS is required to get all 32 channels running, but Korg UK have confirmed that this is a mistake; 32‑channel MIDI operation is also possible via the Korg MIDI driver.
The editing software can be used to make changes to Performances, Global Settings, User Programs, User Combis and User Effects. Though less sophisticated than some commercial editors, all the basics are there, including envelopes with grab handles that can be manipulated using the mouse.
- A huge range of usable sounds and drumkits.
- Extremely easy to use.
- Built‑in arpeggiator.
- No resonant filters within voice architecture.
- External PSU.
Though the AI 2 synthesis method is now far from new, the N1R is a good‑sounding, easy‑to‑use synth at the affordable end of the price range.