Perhaps 'more sounds for less money' is becoming a tired selling point, but Christopher Holder finds some features that set Korg's latest GM sound module apart.
First impressions of the Korg NS5R? I'm ashamed to admit that I thought that Korg had accidentally packed a car radio when I opened its box. The size, display, soft keys and 'tuning' dial all suggested that the NS5R might be the latest in in‑car entertainment. Of course 'car hi‑finess' is in the eye of the beholder, but what is undeniable is that with the NS5R, Korg have made a dramatic departure from their normal styling conventions. A two‑tone grey replaces the standard black livery, and a large, backlit orange liquid crystal matrix display supersedes the fiddly green effort seen on earlier modules. Inside the NS5R throbs the heart of the latest in Korg's AI<sup>2</sup> synthesis, packing 12Mb of PCM samples, 64‑note polyphony and 32‑part multitimbrality. Serious specs indeed.
By way of a precursor to this review, I admit that in the grand scheme of things I'm a comparative sapling in the high‑tech recording scene. I only mention this because, fittingly, my first introduction to synthesis came via the Korg M1. I was as uninformed as any one man could be, and the M1 was a revelation, with its great sounds, great effects and on‑board sequencer, all in one unit. I soon discovered its limitations — I ran out of sequencer space halfway through my third tune, and had my first encounter with note cancellation due to limited polyphony around the same time — but it still was an awesome beast. I can tell you that the spirit of the M1 (and subsequent AI synthesizers) lives on in the NS5R, but it's been refined, revised, expanded and taken to what is almost its ultimate expression in this half‑rack module.
What principally makes the NS5R more than just a sequencer‑less repackaging of the latest Korg workstation (the N364) is its user interface. Nifty little icons point you in the right direction, while the 'home‑page' displays a valuable amount of user‑tweakable parameters, giving the unit a very straightforward and approachable feel. A refined user interface has at last become a priority for manufacturers, which is a most welcome development. As far as sound modules go, Yamaha impressed with their VL70m user interface, and Korg are working along much the same sort of lines, keeping the most oft‑changed parameters never far from the surface, in an environment awash with friendly icons.
On powering up, you're greeted by four slider icons, a pan pot icon, a patch name, bank number, channel and part number, and the name of the effect program in use. Also running along the bottom of the screen is space for bargraph information on the 32 parts, nominally displaying MIDI note velocity messages. Parameter buttons allow you to move about the screen, sometimes triggering an info 'balloon' giving you the numerical status of the information provided by the slider or pot icon. The parameters shown are Volume, Expression, Pan and two effects sends. Expression is a bit of a mystery here (expanding and contracting the dynamic range of the part, I'm reliably informed) and I'd like to see it replaced with something a little more useful, perhaps a mono/poly switch. The pan pot gives the usual hard left through to hard right control, as well as providing a great 'random' option, which, as you might expect, gives you something you won't expect. The Effects sends are somewhat misleadingly called RevSend and ChoSend — misleading because they can be customised to control your own effects combination (a flanger and a delay, for instance).
In all, the screen has a reassuring newsiness, and it allows you to set up the Part and voice structure of your tune with the absolute minimum of fuss.
Korg have been pursuing the AI PCM‑based method of synthesis for nigh‑on nine years now, and we've seen it packaged in a good number of synths, from the seminal M1 to the Top of the Pops‑friendly Trinity. Practice makes perfect, and the sounds on the NS5R are brighter, snappier and better than ever.
The NS5R is a General MIDI module, so naturally Korg have ensured that it will be compatible with basic GM and its variants (notably GS and XG), as well as with the earlier 05R/W module. Aside from a particularly grim violin patch, the GM sounds are beyond reproach. Korg's traditional strength lies in the 'keyboard' sounds, and I can't detect any decline in this department. Where there's scope for some flair (the pads, for instance), sounds have been programmed with great width and movement.
A quick spin of the data wheel takes us into Programs and Combinations territory. There are 1177 Programs on offer, 128 of which are user‑ definable. I refuse to put on the 'I've seen it all' poker‑face of the reviewer in this department, because this is a staggering number of sounds, and practically every one is worthy of its place.
One criticism often levelled at digital synthesizers is that they lean too heavily on built‑in effects to create the impact for their presets. You know the usual routine — an overcooked patch bristling with full wraparound multi‑tap delays and fierce flanging blows you away in the shop, while at home in multitimbral mode it turns out to be a cowering and pathetic bit of shortwave interference. Not so with the NS5R: all the Programs are sweetened with a sprinkling of reverb, and that's it. The presets are almost uniformly spotless, with only the odd looping surprise in some of the pads. Otherwise it's a classic Korg showcase, packed with the fascinating and useless, the classic and potentially over‑used, and the unglamorous but useful. If there is any craftiness on the part of the Korg programmers, it's in the use of the double oscillator. If you use two identical or very similar samples, pan them hard left and right, and add a slight phase and tuning difference, you immediately have a sound that's intrinsically more interesting than the more mundane Single sample building block. This is more a credit to the programmers than any deception, but it has to be remembered that the 64‑note polyphony is halved if you're exclusively using double‑voiced Programs.
If over 1000 Programs aren't enough, you can have 512 Combinations to get your creative juices flowing (128 of these are in RAM). As many as eight Programs can make up a Combination, so naturally there's plenty of scope for interest amongst the presets. For my taste, most of the Combinations are a little too busy or dense to be particularly useful, but fortunately there are lots of exceptions.
The 32 drum sets are perfectly serviceable, with some nice orchestral samples and percussion sounds, as well as some completely bizarre special effects. Each sound in a drum set is individually editable (including individual effects levels) for added flexibility. There are 286 drum sounds to choose from, and enough memory to allow you to create two of your own drum kits.
Programs are composed of either a single waveform or two waveforms, while a Combination is comprised of as many as eight individual waveforms. No change there for Korg M‑, T‑, O‑, and X‑series owners, then. This may all be familiar territory for those people, but with the new interface they'll be flabbergasted by how easy it is to come to terms with the manner in which sounds are constructed, and how straightforward it is to manipulate and edit those sounds — it's like having an on‑board user's manual. I'd love to have learned to sort out my EGs from my LFOs on the NS5R.
If there's anything calculated to cause confusion in the editing process, it's the fact that you can make rudimentary changes to a Part, as well as to a Program or Combination itself. For instance, if you have a piano sound in Part 1, you may edit that Part itself, lowering the cutoff frequency, or shortening the release time, say, but if and when you replace the piano with, say, a wind chime, the frequency content and ADSR alteration will be carried over — it's the Part that's altered, not the patch. Obviously, you have to remember what you've altered, but this facility is a valuable slant on non‑destructive editing. All too often your favourite patch has its outstanding features frittered away as hundreds of minute edits are made to get it sitting correctly in the mix. No more — make the changes while keeping the original sound intact.
Program edit mode is of course altogether more sophisticated than Part edit mode, but no less easy to navigate. The initial page offers you, through self‑explanatory icons, the choice of exploring the delights of either the oscillator, filter or amplifier section. One or two of the 527 PCM samples may be selected to undergo the Korg treatment. As is customary, the NS5R isn't packing a resonant filter. What it does have (which will be familiar to other Korg owners) is a parameter oddly called Color Intensity, which, far from being a new line of Dulux all‑weather gloss, purports to offer something akin to resonance, but actually does precious little. You'll find that with most of the filter settings, it's a very restrained affair, refining the sample to your taste rather than completely reshaping it. It's almost like Korg saying "we've supplied you with all these painstakingly crafted samples: why do you want to go wrecking them?".
What with computer memory becoming cheaper and computers bursting at the seams with previously‑unthinkable amounts of RAM and ROM, it should come as no surprise that synths and sound modules are loaded with thousands of sounds, heaps of raw waveforms, and enough polyphony and multitimbrality to sink an orchestra. Nevertheless, it's a credit to Korg that the quality of programming is consistently as good as it is, with as little dead wood as possible. Having said that, there a good number of manufacturers in this market who can boast high‑quality sounds, and it would be fruitless to compete on quantity alone. Here Korg have the right idea with their superlative user interface: its a joy to work with and, for me, probably the NS5R's biggest selling point.
Superficially, there are a number of things about the NS5R that suggest it might be aimed at the computer hobbyist‑cum‑multimedia boffin (all fancy names for computer games players). I'm all for new colours for gear, but I suspect that the choice of 'multimedia grey' came as no coincidence. Similarly, the phono inputs on the back panel are great for input‑starved home studios, but even more useful for mixerless computer hobbyists — and patently not a high priority for those serious about making music. The NS5R is a half‑rack module (which, again, has certain multimedia connotations) and you have to fight your way through a stack of General MIDI banks before you can even sample the delights of the 'real' instrument. These are all distractions, and shouldn't be construed as an intention by Korg to snub the semi‑pro market — be in no doubt that this is a serious synthesizer. One of my few irritations is the lack of outputs (just one set of L and R jacks). How Korg can expect their customers to get any decent use out of 32‑part multitimbrality and 64‑note polyphony through a single L and R output astounds me, and also seems a tragic waste of a flexible and powerful effects section. But it would be ridiculous to end on a sour note, because my opinion of the NS5R is overwhelmingly positive. A powerful and versatile synth module at a wholly reasonable price.
If you want to trace the pedigree of the NS5R further, take a look at Gordon Reid's illuminating examination of the AI lineage in Sound On Sound's October 1996 issue. Likewise, if you want to know more about the AI method of synthesis that Korg use in the NS5R, your could start by dusting off your October 1993 issue and checking out Julian Colbeck's explanation in his Korg 05R/W review.
Two separate effects engines and 47 effects are on offer here, and by getting your head around the weird and wonderful Korg routing system and hooking up a couple of dual effects modules, you should be able to haul four different effects into action simultaneously. Korg have supplied 256 effects patches, which combine two each of the 47 effects in various permutations and at various settings, all of which you can save, name and edit yourself. This is great for creating and saving your favourite effects combinations — almost like a real effects unit! The Korg routing system utilises four separate busses (ABCD) which the signal can follow before being sent to the L and R outputs. It's well worth inspecting the manual to investigate getting the most from the effects section. One point that should be mentioned is that the NS5R comes supplied with a 'Hall reverb and Chorus effect' combination applied across all parts. This effects patch uses a parallel routing mode that has the Hall reverb set on the C buss, and the Chorus set on the D buss, so the RevSend and the ChoSend sliders on the home page work by sending signal to the C and D buss respectively. Depending on which routing option and effects configuration you choose, these controls will not necessarily work as sliders to 'turn up the effects'. What they will do, regardless of your editing, is continue to send signal to buss C and buss D respectively, an incredibly useful facility nonetheless — but only if you're sparing a thought for which routing option you're using.
The effects themselves are very likeable. I have a real soft spot for Korg phasers and choruses. The choruses are particularly strong, with four types on offer, all adding extra width and depth without sacrificing the integrity of the original sound — particularly useful on the brass patches. Delays are well represented and the combination patches well conceived. I confess to not being a big fan of Korg reverbs — they're a little too metallic and resonant for my liking — but if Korg released an effects unit sans reverbs, I'd be their first customer.
The NS5R has a few tricks up its sleeve. As standard, Korg supply a Mac or PC format SoundEditor disk that allows you do your editing with a mouse, keyboard and monitor. Your computer communicates to the module via a cable connected to the serial port. It's simple enough to install and worth experimenting with. Something else of interest can be found on the back panel, in the form of stereo phono inputs. These allow you to input the signal from another keyboard, drum machine or the like, which will then be output, together with the NS5R sound, via the L and R output jacks.
Also around at the back, you'll notice a volume knob for an optional tone generator expansion board. An AG‑WB Wave Blaster GM sound board will increase maximum polyphony to 96 notes, and Korg will be happy to install it for you.
Lastly, the NS5R comes equipped with an integral MIDI interface, which makes for one less worry if this module is you first foray into MIDI music‑making.
- Brilliant user interface.
- Loads of sounds.
- Acts as a PC/Mac interface.
- GM sound banks and drum kits.
- Only two outputs.
- No card slot.
Korg have given us hundreds of top‑quality sounds, and loads of polyphony and multitimbrality, in an inexpensive package that is a joy to operate. Can't be bad.