Martin Russ looks at Korg's affordable new synth and finds it takes him back a few years...
After a long period during which the straight polysynth seemed to have been superseded by the workstation, the last couple of years have seen the return of affordable instruments in the 'around £700' area. In close association, the arpeggiator and real‑time 'live' front‑panel controllers have reappeared too. The technology may have changed radically, but we seem to be returning to the days of the Roland JX3P and the Korg PolySix and Poly 61.
Reworking an existing product into different variants is as old as manufacturing itself. For some time we've been seeing the sound engine extracted from a workstation and turned into a rackmount expander, after which a keyboard is added to the guts of the expander to create a synthesizer. Often, the operation of removing and adding bits is done with a certain lack of subtlety, with the result that the derived expander and keyboard versions feel inconsistent. So you'll be as pleased as I was to discover that the N5 is not just an NS5R with an added keyboard, or an N364 without the sequencer and disk drive. Instead, it's a coherent and well‑thought out S&S (Sample & Synthesis) polysynth, with 64‑note polyphony, a 61‑note keyboard, an arpeggiator to play around with, and real knobs to tweak! For those who like a bigger keyboard, there's the N1, an 88‑key version with extra sample ROM (18Mb instead of 12) and two extra audio outputs.
The key to using any modern instrument is getting your head around how the sounds are put together. Back in the 1970s this meant selecting a patch and knowing that there were oscillators, filters and envelopes underneath. Nowadays, there's a lot more to cope with. The N5 shares the same split personality as most keyboards with a 'rapidly‑becoming‑a‑standard‑on‑entry‑level‑products' PC/Mac computer interface. It has two modes of working: one based around playing it as a performance instrument, and another where it's used as a multitimbral sound source. Avoiding any hint of techno‑babble, Korg call these Performance Mode and Multi Mode respectively.
The basic underlying sound‑generating element is called a Program, and this contains the oscillators, filters and envelopes of the usual S&S (AI<sup>2</sup> in Korg‑speak) voice architecture. If you assign programs to MIDI channels, and set volumes, pan positions, effects sends and returns with the on‑board 'mixer', you create a Multi, with up to 32 parts (Programs), and ideally suited to use with a computer sequencer. If you take a Multi and cut it down to eight parts, driven by the keyboard, you have what Korg call a Combination, which provides stacks, layers and splits to help you use up all that polyphony. Add in a snapshot of the front‑panel controls, the real‑time knobs and the arpeggiator, and you get a Performance.
The N5 powers up in Performance number 01, and it's very tempting to just choose Combinations or Programs and play them using this set of front‑panel control settings, but it's almost better to go through the 32 Performances first, because they show the instrument to its best advantage.
The N5 uses Korg's AI variant of S&S synthesis, providing audio samples which can be processed with a filter and envelopes, and then have effects applied to them. It's a well‑worn technique which is capable of producing some very effective and useful sounds. Synthesizer purists criticise S&S for its 'painting‑by‑numbers' approach, arguing that it is little more than sample replay. But Korg's strength has been in the programming of sounds for its instruments, from the ubiquitous M1 of 10 years ago through to the present day, and once you get past the GM, GS and XG sounds, which are predictably very much in the sample replay vein, there are plenty of sounds which exploit the full capabilities of the architecture.
AI synthesis provides single or double oscillators, as well as the special‑purpose 'drum' mode, where individual keys on the keyboard can have samples assigned to them. Using two oscillators halves the polyphony, of course, but having two samples available in double‑oscillator mode provides considerably more scope for clever programming. The weak link in Korg's S&S synthesis has always been the filters, and the N5 has the same rather tame 'Colour Intensity' control where other synthesizers have a more useful 'Resonance' control. Korg have addressed this in the N5 by providing an effect called Resonant Filter, which enables you to create those clichéd, synthetic‑sounding band‑pass filter sweeps.
There are 47 other effects types, split into single, series and parallel categories, and two independent processors, which means that you can have a maximum of four independent effects simultaneously. The N5 only has two outputs, so all these effects are mixed down to just a stereo pair. As usual, the effects should be used in the context of a Performance, Combination or Multi rather than an individual Program, and their quality is very good, with the now almost standard set of effects types: Reverb; Early Reflections; Delays & Echoes; Chorus; Flanging & Phasing; Exciter; Distortion; Tremolo and Rotary Speaker; and Parametric EQ. Series and parallel combinations of these are also provided, and the N5 allows you to use MIDI Controllers or aftertouch as modulation sources for controlling wet/dry effects mix.
The raw sonic material for the synthesis engine to manipulate is actually a mix of samples and multisamples. Korg provided, the samples required for the GM sounds, plus a large number of additional ones: 527 instrument samples and 285 drum samples. Included are some bass synth sounds with built‑in resonant filter sweeps, quite a lot of 'noises' (scrapes, clinks and clunks, plus the essential 'Pole' metallic clang), a 'probably fixable in the mix' bagpipe sound, a very chiffy 'Doo' sound, some rather restrained applause contrasted with a huge stadium roar, FX as per GM and beyond, and lots of single‑cycle timbres and loops. There's plenty for programmers to get their teeth into, especially given the N5's 64‑note polyphony and up to eight parts per Combination.
The N5's GM sounds are actually pretty good — very close to the standard GM set, but high quality. The non‑GM sounds are wide‑ranging and highly usable, including glossy and sparkly pads, bright, stand‑out comping sounds, distorted guitars in all flavours, tinkly pads with moody solo sounds, instant soundtracks, brash synth monsters, orchestral moods, and more... It's difficult to find fault, actually. It's the sounds that sell S&S synthesis, and there are many excellent ones crammed into the N5.
Finding your way around an instrument is very important. Basic tasks such as selecting Combinations or Multis are very straightforward on the N5. Getting around Performances is slightly less obvious, requiring button‑presses to move back and forth between the display page, where you choose a Performance, and the page where you can see which Combinations or Programs make it up. Named (rather than numbered) Performances and a slightly different single‑screen layout (with smaller text, perhaps) would have been so much better!
To move between editing pages and modes, the N5 uses a mixture of presses of the Perform or Multi buttons, cursor buttons and the Part/Page buttons. Actually getting into Program Edit mode can be confusing until you get the hang of the Program/Combination/Performance hierarchy. And I must confess to not liking the numeric keypad at all. But these are minor points that you grow used to in time. I just keep nagging away on the subject of user interfaces, in the hope that one day...
When editing Multis, changes that you make to the volume, pan, keyboard range, transposition, filter cut‑off, LFO speeds, envelope settings, and so on, are stored as offsets rather than changes to the underlying Programs, so the Program itself stays unchanged. This is excellent for those people who want to make changes to a mix, but who do not want to make minor changes to Programs and have to save all the slight variations.
Enough about editing. What's the N5 like to play?
Well, the keyboard is one of those you either love or hate. I'm not a great fan of this type of very springy keyboard, but the aftertouch transition is very smooth. The tops of the white keys on the N5 are slightly convex, which feels strange to my fingers after years of flat‑topped keys — but it does have the advantage that if you hold your head about half a metre above the keys, you get a perfect reflection of your entire head on each of about an octave's worth of keys. Someone's going to use this in a music video — and if they weren't, they are now!
The Korg‑style pitch‑bend and modulation wheels are smaller than I'm used to, since I was raised on Minimoogs, and the spacing between them is a little wider than on many other synths. But I adapted quite easily, and I'm sure the extra exercise for my left hand's little finger will do it good. Portamento is one of those performance effects that faded away when digital came in many years ago, and which you only notice you've missed when it comes back!
The four real‑time control knobs are simplicity itself to use. With only two sets of parameters to choose from (Attack, Release, Filter Cut‑off, FX; or Upper/Lower balance (splits), Panpot, Portamento time and
Mod 2) unless you re‑assign them yourself, you rapidly start to use them as extra controls over the sound, and you can save them as part of a Performance.
The Arpeggiator is cleverly designed to squeeze the absolute maximum from the available facilities. There are 11 up, down, random and other arpeggio patterns, and though this doesn't sound like many, there's an extra control that allows you to choose octave jumps — set it to 1 and you'll arpeggiate just the notes you're holding down, but set it to 2 and you'll get those notes in the first repeat, but those an octave higher in the repeat after that, and then back to the first set of notes. Beyond these basic patterns, there are also two sets of extra patterns, prefixed with B and D. The five in the B set are designed to produce walking bass patterns, and here the octave selection is very effective when set to 2, because it then provides an alternate‑bar octave jump — and of course, because this is an arpeggiator it tracks note changes, and so gives you a simple 'hold‑down‑a‑bass‑root' auto‑walking bass feature.
The four patterns in the D set are intended for use with the multisampled drum kit programs, and these work best with the octave jump turned off. The drum patterns are designed to work with the lowest key on the keyboard (and this is built into some of the performances — try that lowest C!) so you get Emu Orbit‑style transposed instrumentation variations if you play any other note. These 'pattern‑based' features aren't as trite as they might sound, and they allow you to try out ideas quickly and simply on a single keyboard. (If you like one of the patterns, you could always record the arpeggio at the MIDI Out and edit it using an external sequencer.)
It's the way that the settings of all these controls can be recalled, by selecting a Performance, that makes them easy to use. One final thing about the front‑panel controls: it's a measure of the success and ubiquity of the Sony Walkman that you now find a 3.5‑mm stereo headphone jack socket where not that long ago you might reasonably have expected a quarter‑inch stereo jack (and on the N1 you do find one!). I was pleasantly surprised by the available volume too.
The A4 110‑page manual is from the 'describe each screen and function' school, and only has a little bit of deeper material in the form of hints and tips. I kept hoping that I'd find a section that pulled me to one side and explained why there's an Off position for the Pan controls with a music 'rest' symbol, or why the normally orange LCD backlight flashes green and orange during the demo songs, but only allows you to set it to change colour when receiving GM, XG or GS messages...
The manual devotes quite a lot of its back pages to the setup of the N5 with a computer, and a floppy disk containing Mac and PC support software is also supplied: this comprises an N5 sound editor, MIDI driver software and a MIDI file format converter, plus an OMS driver for the Mac. The catch is that the serial cable you'd need for connecting the synth to your computer is not included — so make sure you buy one with the N5 if you want to use it as your computer MIDI interface and sound generator.
The N5 is a mixture of '90s digital S&S synthesis with the performance controls of the '70s, and the result is a very usable synthesizer that has a wide breadth of sounds coupled with a lot of playability — I really enjoyed using it.
In fact, the N5 strongly reminded me of the old Korg PolySix — I think it's mainly the knobs and the typeface used for the front‑panel text, and the single‑function buttons, that trigger the nostalgia. And although this is a sparsely‑populated front panel, the LCD need not be the complete focus of your attention, largely because those buttons mostly have only one function — and you can use them live. I imagine that some people may well ignore the Performances and just set up the arpeggiator on the fly — rather like doing patch changes on analogue monosynths.
As so often happens these days, the external casing doesn't reflect the power and opportunity lurking inside. The N5 is a big synth disguised as a small one — add it to your audition schedule!
It's traditional for reviewers to include a few of their recommended sounds. Here are my faves:
- CmbA:00:Megatron. Big, brashy and bouncy comping sound.
- CmbA:30:FreeTime. Echoey, ethereal and eastern in feel.
- CmbA:40:Vectoring. Bound to be used as an intro...
- CmbA:43:Sting&Wind. Gorgeous plinky plucks and synth flute.
- CmbB:30:First Snow. Typically S&S pad. Soundtrack fodder.
- CmbC:13:Percolator. Split for show‑offs.
- CmbC:59:THE Deep. Multisample soundtrack & pads.
- CmbC:62:HumanBeam. Neat plink and pad combination.
- PrgU:90:WaveSweep. Complexity from simplicity.
- PrgC:70:PolySix. So I'm not the only one who thinks...
Don't forget to try out the Performances too!
The four assignable control knobs might be seen by some as a knee‑jerk reaction to the Yamaha CS1x/AN1x, but don't forget that this is an old idea — the Alesis Quadrasynth is a modern example of a synth with four control knobs, and if we go back to the Oberheim OBXs and OBAs of the '70s, the whole front panel was full of real‑time control knobs!
The cycle of user control styles seems to be returning to knobs, after a long period where parameter dials, increment/decrement buttons and selector switches were predominant. Of course, the ultimate expression of this was in Yamaha's 'one slider, many buttons' DX7 user interface, and some people liked the two‑handed approach to parameter changing that this dictated. But whilst this method of changing sounds is fine for people who change many parameters and then move their hands to the keyboard and play, it's much less suited to people who play, then make a minor tweak; play again, tweak again; and so on. It looks as though the knob‑twiddlers are in the ascendancy once more.
Technically speaking, there's an interesting corollary to this 'knobs versus parameter access' cycle. Scanning large numbers of control knobs to determine their values in an analogue synthesizer uses quite a few chips and quite a bit of processing. In the '70s this was a major contributor to the price, whereas a single slider and parameter buttons enabled Yamaha's DX7 to concentrate on its custom FM ASIC chips and still deliver what was, at the time, a gob‑smacking polyphony and sound quality. In these all‑digital days, the processing to do the scanning and analogue‑to‑digital conversion is built into fast, cheap microcontroller chips, so the cost of providing synthesizers bristling with real‑time control knobs has fallen considerably — which is why they're now back on the agenda. As an aside, the microcontroller chips incorporate these scanning and conversion features because mass‑market consumer products like video recorders require them, not because a few synthesizers can make use of them!
The obvious contender in a comparison race might appear to be the Yamaha AN1x, but the Yamaha CS1x, Alesis QS6 and Quasimidi Raven are actually closer in their synthesis technology. The CS1x is cheaper but has only 32‑note polyphony and lacks GS compatibility, whilst the Raven is more expensive and has a more comprehensive arpeggiator, but has no computer interface and is arguably in the next price bracket upwards. The QS6 (reviewed SOS January 1996) is the closest fit: it has the same polyphony and a computer interface, but has a smaller display.
And don't forget the Korg N1, the N5's big brother, with 88 keys and more sample ROM.
- 61‑note velocity‑ and monophonic pressure/aftertouch‑sensitive keyboard
- 64‑note polyphony
- 32‑part multitimbrality
- 4‑part multi‑effects (2 processors)
- 12Mb internal ROM samples
- 527 instrument samples
- 285 drum/percussion samples
- 32 Performances
- 302 preset Combinations
- 100 user Combination memories
- 1169 preset Programs
- 100 user Program memories
- 48 effects types
- 39 drum kits
- Poly portamento!
- 4 real‑time control knobs
- GM, XG, GS compatibility mode
- Mac/PC computer interface with 05R/W emulation mode
- External PSU
- Resonant Filter effect.
- PC/Mac interface and editor software.
- 64‑note polyphonic.
- Four real‑time control knobs.
- Reasonable price.
- Only two audio outputs.
- No ROM expansion port.
- Numeric keypad!
A lot of synthesizer, a lot of polyphony, and a lot of real‑time performance capabilities — for not a lot really!