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Korg SV1

‘Stage Vintage’ Keyboard
Published October 2009
By Gordon Reid

The brand new Korg SV1 rejoices in a collection of retro keyboard sounds and lovingly sampled acoustic pianos. Read all about it in our world exclusive review!

Korg SV1Photo: Mike Cameron

Combining pianos, electric pianos and a small selection of other instruments chosen for the non‑synthesist who requires a range of mainstream sounds, the Korg SV1 'Stage Vintage' is the latest contender in the now-congested field of stage pianos.

With its smart black and burgundy livery (88‑note version) or burgundy and black livery (73‑note version), it has no screen, no menus, and few hidden functions, but instead boasts a control panel that would grace a vintage keyboard, with knobs and buttons that — on the whole — perform single functions. Two of these are selectors for the six banks of six sounds (yes... just 36 in total), while eight large buttons store and recall favourite setups. The rest of the knobs and switches control the integrated effects units, and the only hint of anything deeper lies in four buttons marked Transpose, Local Off, Touch and Function. The last of these provides access to the tuning curves (equal temperament, five types of stretched tuning, and two user‑defined curves that you can create in the supplied PC/Mac editor), the MIDI channel, and the level of the RX Noise layer (see the 'RX Noise' box).

At the back, things remain straightforward, with balanced and unbalanced stereo outputs, MIDI In and Out (no Thru), plus stereo inputs so that you can play along with your favourite something‑or‑other. There are also three pedal inputs. One is for the supplied damper pedal, the second accepts a footswitch, and the third accepts either a footswitch or an expression pedal. (Good news: you can configure these as a damper with half‑pedalling, sostenuto and soft pedals of a real piano.) The only other hole is for a USB cable that also carries MIDI data and provides the means for connecting a Mac or PC running the bundled editor software There's also a headphone socket but, sensibly, this is located at the front of the instrument.

The draft manual strongly implies that each of the 36 sound slots permanently houses a specific multisample. So, for example, it seems that Sound 1 in Bank 1 is always based upon the first of the Rhodes multisamples. But when exploring the editor, I dropped an EP200 sound from Bank 2 into Slot 1 in Bank 1... and the SV1 accepted it without a wibble! This has at least two consequences: one good, one bad. The good one is that the SV1 is more flexible than you might think, allowing you to create all manner of variations of favourite instruments and discarding instruments that are of less interest. The bad news is that, once you have discarded the only factory sound based upon a particular multisample, there's no way of creating another one without hooking up the editor or by performing a factory reset (which destroys all the on‑board sounds you've created).

Acoustic Pianos

Korg SV1

Although the greater part of the SV1 is dedicated to electro‑mechanical and electronic pianos, it is to the three acoustic pianos that many players will turn first.

The first is a Japanese grand piano, and it's safe to assume that this is a Yamaha of some description. For the most part, the sampling is first‑rate. There are no horrendous multisampling points across the keyboard, and the velocity zones are discrete at either end of the keyboard, although a bit more noticeable in the mid‑range. The impression of the soundboard and sympathetic resonance is superb, and the velocity‑sensitive RX Noise layer recreates the depression and release 'thunk' of the sustain pedal itself. This is excellent.

Next comes a German grand, most likely a Steinway. More ambient than the Yamaha, its multisampling is slightly more evident, but nonetheless I prefer this to the Japanese piano. The multisample underneath the Mono Grand sound is described as a monophonic version of the German grand, but I've yet to discover the piano that changes its tone and character when you remove a microphone from its vicinity. It's not bad, but I don't think I would find myself using it.

The Upright multisample is based upon another German piano, and I'll admit that I'm pleasantly surprised by it. Far too often, manufacturers of digital pianos seem to think that uprights have no depth or character, but Korg's sound conforms exactly to a description I have used many times — it's like a grand piano, but a little less so. It has less ambience, and the soundfield it creates is more compact, but the tone is more than pleasing, and I suspect that this is the best digital emulation of an upright piano I've yet heard.

The final two acoustic piano multisamples are layered: the German grand plus strings that are bright and prominent in the upper range, and the same piano with a subdued sawtooth pad underneath. Both are pleasant, but the inability to control the relative volume of the string layer means that the first of these may be of limited use. For me, the second offers a nicer blend, and I would be happy to use it.

Electric Pianos & Clavinets

Compared to the front panel, the back of the SV1 is a simple affair. From left to right, we find a USB port, three pedal inputs, MIDI I/O, and stereo audio inputs and outputs, the latter on a choice of quarter‑inch or XLR connections.Compared to the front panel, the back of the SV1 is a simple affair. From left to right, we find a USB port, three pedal inputs, MIDI I/O, and stereo audio inputs and outputs, the latter on a choice of quarter‑inch or XLR connections.

The four Fender Rhodes multisamples are of high quality, and I was particularly impressed with the clunky bottom end of the brightest of these. Although the multisample zones are clearly audible at times, I'll remind myself that Rhodes pianos were never consistent across their keyboards. Likewise, while the transitions between velocity zones are a little abrupt at times, they are acceptable when playing normally, and overall these samples are a pleasure to play.

My favourite electro‑mechanical piano is the Wurlitzer EP200, even though its 'barking' sound is notoriously difficult to synthesize, model or sample. Consequently, I wasn't surprised when I caught another whiff of the multisample splits and velocity zones while listening to the SV1's two EP200 multisamples. Nonetheless, an 88‑note EP200 is a thing of joy, especially when the amplitude envelope and tone outside of the original range feel exactly right.

The Yamaha CP80 has for too long been the victim of bad samples and poor digital modelling. Happily, those days are now gone. The timbre of the SV1's emulation is very good, and it has a much smoother velocity response and less obvious multisampling than the Rhodes and Wurlitzer multisamples. What's more, its amplitude envelope is distinctly superior to emulations that I have reviewed on other instruments. I like this one a lot, and so should you.

The multisample that forms the basis of the ElectroPno patch might sound exactly like a Hohner Electropiano, but I have no basis on which to judge this and, given the rarity of the originals, the chances are that you won't either. Think of it as a large Pianet and you won't go far wrong. It has the same, bell‑like quality and, with RX Noise applied, it rattles just as it should. You can even hear the little pads pull away from the tines, as well as the glitch that occurs when you release a key. I used a Pianet for more than a decade, and it demands that you develop a specific technique for getting the best from it. Played correctly, the SV1's emulation sounds great although, again, some of the multisample points are a little audible. In the 1970s I would have killed for a Pianet with sustain, and the SV1 delivers splendidly.

The RMI multisample seems to be based on a mix of the Lute and Harpsi tabs of a 360, 368 or 368X Electrapiano with the Accentor and Organ Mode switched off. Its sustain is somewhat shorter than that of my RMI 368, and it lacks the heavy 'thunk' at the start of each note. But the sampling is excellent, and it's another great sound that hints at what might have been possible had Korg taken the Electrapiano a bit more seriously, sampling all the tabs and providing a sustained mode. Maybe in the future... please?

The Clavinet multisamples are the four pickup combinations — AC, BC, BD and AD — of a Hohner Clavinet D6. This is another monstrously difficult instrument to sample, so I'm not surprised that I can hear the splits and velocity layers. Nonetheless, the sound quality is high, the character is authentic, and I love the jangly rattle and key release provided by the RX Noise function. Unfortunately, there are no variations to emulate the Soft, Medium, Treble or Brilliant switches on the original, although the on‑board EQ does a passable job of providing a range of tone colours.

In addition to the vintage piano sounds, the SV1 offers four multisamples from a more recent era. Two are sampled from an FM synth. The first is bright and, because its tonal variation is so great between the softest and the hardest notes, its velocity zones are rather apparent. The second is rounder and warmer. Nevertheless, the response across the keyboard is very even for both, and when used with effects, as Korg intended, the results are perfectly acceptable.

Then there are multisamples of two further digital pianos, the Korg SG1D and the Roland RD1000. The first of these sounds as it should: useable, in a ghastly 1980s sort of way. The second is much more pleasant, and genuinely evocative of the original and its myriad siblings. Finally (as far as the pianos are concerned) there's a multisample that appears to combine the Roland with a string ensemble, perfect for all your AOR ballads.

The Other Sounds

Many of the SV1's parameters can be edited via the front-panel controls. There are no displays or menu systems, and additional functions are accessed through the SV1 Editor software.Many of the SV1's parameters can be edited via the front-panel controls. There are no displays or menu systems, and additional functions are accessed through the SV1 Editor software.

There are six excellently captured organ multisamples in the SV1 but, with no drawbars or tabs to adjust them, these are essentially presets; you'll either find them useful, or you won't.

The first sounds as if it's based upon the Hammond registration 888000000 with third‑harmonic percussion and a massive wodge of key-click. Played through a nice, growling rotary-speaker effect, the results can be fabulous. The second sounds as if it's based upon the 16‑, 5 2/3‑ and one‑inch drawbars, while the third sounds like the once-derided registration 888888888. With leakage available via RX Noise, all of these can sound highly authentic.

The provenance of the next multisample is less obvious. The factory sound based on it is called Console Organ, and I suspect that it's a Lowrey of some description. Not having one to hand, I can't comment upon the accuracy of the SV1's rendition, but the raw multisample exhibits the brash quality that is sometimes associated with the brand, and it has oodles of character. I wouldn't hesitate to use this and, given that Korg's engineers can produce a preset of this quality, I wonder if they would consider creating a fully‑featured Lowrey emulator, if only in software. It could sound fabulous.

The next multisample is obviously a Farfisa Compact. Again, it's one registration, but with a little EQ, vibrato, slow Leslie and tape delay, it's instant late‑'60s psychedelia. The last of the organs is sampled from a Vox Continental. The sound is instantly recognisable but, again, it only hints at what might have been possible had Korg provided a fully featured organ emulator rather than a handful of presets.

The remaining multisamples comprise a strange bunch of bedfellows. There's a nicely captured string ensemble but, strangely, this is highly reverberant, which seems odd given that the SV1 incorporates a digital reverb unit. More interesting is the multisample of the Mellotron violins. The basic sound is pleasing but, instead of exhibiting a sharp attack and cutting off instantly when you release a key, each note has a soft attack and a slow release. Furthermore, the samples sustain indefinitely. The Mellotron used tape strips in preference to loops, so that the attacks of the recorded notes were replayed correctly. I suppose that, since the attacks have been rounded off, you may as well have infinite sustain, but it feels wrong.

The next multisample is clearly a Solina String Ensemble. Unlike the original, this is truly polyphonic, with individual envelopes for each note. But the most obvious difference is that each note in the SV1 has already passed through the trademark ensemble effect, so playing multiple notes creates an ensemble of ensembles. It's rather nice!

The choral multisample is a strange one, because there's a synthesized pad accompanying the vocal sound. This adds attack and body, but sounds based on the multisample therefore fall into the category 'synth‑choir' rather than choir. Finally, we come to the two polysynth multisamples provided. The first screams early 1980s, while the second is a blatant homage to the Oberheim patch used on Van Halen's 'Jump'. I'm at a loss to understand why Korg included these. It's unlikely that they'll be exactly what you want and, since you can't edit them, it's pot-luck whether they'll be of any use.

The Effects

Although you can't edit the multisamples, nor even select one directly as part of the sound-creation process, the SV1 is packed to the gunnels with programmable effects. First in the chain lies an effective three‑band EQ. There are no controls on the front panel for centre frequency, 'Q' or slope, although the editor allows you to sweep the frequency of the mid‑band. Next comes a selection of Pre FX units, ones that traditionally lie before a preamplifier. These are compression, boost, U‑Vibe (Uni‑Vibe), Hammond chorus/vibrato, tremolo, and a Vox wah‑wah that you can leave in 'auto' mode or control via a footpedal. You can only select one effect at a time, and the names of the knobs on the control panel are often inappropriate, but they do their jobs well.

Third in line lies the vintage amp modeller. Although this appears basic and can generate an unpleasant amount of noise if controlled only from the front panel, it's more sophisticated than it appears, because the editor allows you to cross‑combine the six models shown with any of 10 speaker cabinets, and provides a full range of 'head' controls, including noise reduction. There's also one of those glowing glass bottle thingies that guitarists love, bathed in a fake orange glow provided by a small lamp hidden behind it, and coupled to a dummy output transformer and speaker load. This lies between the amp and speaker models and should help to create a 'miked up' sound, even when the SV1 is connected directly to a mixer or the inputs of a recorder.

Next come the Modulation effects, with two choruses, two phasers, a flanger and Korg's unsurpassed rotary speaker emulation. Two of the effects are instantly recognisable. Chorus 1 is a Boss CE1, while Phaser 2 is a reasonable recreation of the popular Small Stone phaser. I suspect that there's at least one MXR in there, too. However, you'll have to hook the SV1 to a computer to get the best from these, because many of their parameters are only available using the editor.

Moving on, we come to a reverb/delay that offers room, plate, hall and spring reverbs, plus an emulation of a tape echo unit and a basic recreation of Korg's DL8000R stereo delay. Again, the editor gives access to a wider range of controls than is available on the SV1 itself, with extras such as pre‑delay and damping for the reverbs, and feedback for the delays.

Finally, there are two types of limiter that are invisible without the editor. A studio engineer would probably ask you to defeat these, but they're there if you want them.

In Use

Despite using the exceptional RH3 keybed found on Korg's dedicated pianos and the M3 88, the SV1 supplied for review is lighter and smaller than you might imagine. There's also a 73‑note version that's heavier than you might imagine because, unlike most six‑octave keyboards, it uses a truncated version of the RH3 in preference to a semi‑weighted keybed.

Both instruments are a pleasure to play, with an action that works extremely well for the acoustic, Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos. Of course, they are totally unlike the shallow actions and lightweight keys of an RMI, Pianet or Clavinet, but I didn't find this to be a problem. Reducing the velocity sensitivity (there are eight curves available) to a suitable level for the Clavinet sounds and switching it off for the RMI and Solina sounds (the organs are already invariant to velocity) made things feel even better, especially since the keyboard response settings can be saved independently for each sound, rather than as a global setting.

The user interface is also good, with the most important parameters falling easily to hand, and clear, illuminated indications of settings. The lack of a screen and menus is not a problem, largely because Korg haven't tried to squeeze an overly complex operating system into an interface that's not designed to support it. But that then brings you back to the need to use the editor. Ho hum!

As for the sounds themselves, I have described the multisamples that lie at their cores, but I haven't said much about the factory sounds, nor those that you can program for yourself. In short, these can be superb. Yes, I've commented on the velocity layers and multisample splits, but — while these are sometimes apparent — they are superior to the many digital pianos that exhibit horrible inconsistencies across their keyboards and abrupt transitions from soft to loud playing. As for authenticity, there are differences between, say, the factory 'Dyno EP' patch and a genuine 'Dyno‑My‑Piano' Rhodes, just as there are differences between the EP200 patches and my EP200, and so on, but I would be happy to live with these for the pleasure of playing such well‑behaved versions of these sounds on such a good keyboard. Let's face it, most experienced electric piano players have torn their fingertips or nails on the ghastly keyboards that their instruments boasted, and almost as many have suffered from broken tines or reeds, dodgy pickups, sticky pads that are no longer sticky, and other failures. The SV1 cures all of these ills, and it would be a canny listener who could tell the difference in a mix between the Korg and the original pianos.

So is there anything I don't like about the SV1? Sure there is. The fact that you need to use the editor to access a number of valuable effects parameters, as well as to place multisamples in alternative memory locations, is annoying. More seriously, the lack of any split points or layers will render the SV1 unusable for some players who would otherwise be tempted, and the lack of multitimbrality or any master keyboard functions will deter still more. But at least these are nice, clear‑cut issues. Either the SV1 is for you, or it isn't.

The Verdict

Perhaps because we are so accustomed to affordable workstations delivering such an amazing breadth of sounds and features, the current rule seems to be 'more is better, so lots must be best'. In contrast, the SV1 is not feature laden and it's not designed to be all things to all players. Nor is it designed to be many things to many players. It's designed to do just a handful of things, but to do them extremely well.

In this, it succeeds admirably. Apart from a few audible transitions between velocity layers, there's almost nothing to criticise about its pianos, whether based on acoustic, electro‑mechanical or electronic originals. Indeed, with no audible aliasing, and with RX‑Noise to make everything sound as realistic as possible, the SV1 is outstanding in this area. That's not to say that the opposition is poor — far from it — but if you're after a keyboard that can be a convincing Rhodes one minute, an EP200 another, a Pianet another, and a full‑blooded Steinway grand the next, it delivers splendidly. OK... I have in the past expressed misgivings about stretching e‑piano sounds beyond their historical limits, but given the success with which this has been achieved on the SV1, I'm ready to overlook my reservations and even embrace the extended ranges.

It's only when you introduce the organs, strings and polysynth sounds into the discussion that things start to go a little awry because, in this area, the SV1 can't compete with the competition. There's nothing wrong with having a handful of such sounds at your disposal, however, and, given their quality, it would be churlish to complain about their inclusion. But it's as a piano emulator that the SV1 will score and, if I'm honest, I think that the non‑piano sounds confuse the issue. If I had been Korg's design team, I would have ditched the extra sounds and used the freed memory to include a greater range of Clavinets and Pianets, as well as the rest of the RMI's registrations. I would then have called it the SVP1 'Stage Vintage Piano' rather than the SV1, and marketed it as the best acoustic and electric piano emulator on the planet. Which, in all likelihood, it already is.  

Alternatives

It's hard to suggest a direct alternative to the SV1. It doesn't compete head‑on with the Nord Stage series, because these offer fully‑featured organ emulations, an interesting polysynth, and the ability to load alternative multisamples from which to build sounds. As for modern workstations that major on pianos and organs (of which the Kurzweil PC3x is perhaps the leading light), any comparison is meaningless. The Roland V‑Piano is no equivalent either, because it lacks the electro‑mechanical and electronic pianos that are a major element in the Korg's raison d'être. A better choice might be the defunct GEM Promega series, but perhaps the closest contemporary match would be Roland's FP series, even though these offer master keyboard functions, splits and layers, and control over the organ registration.

RX Noise

Korg have dubbed the SV1's sound generator 'RX'(Real eXperience) technology, because it steps beyond the usual samples and effects to include an additional layer containing the noises that often accompany the principal sounds: noises such as damper pedal 'thunk', key releases, clackety keys, and undamped resonances. These noises make a significant difference to the authenticity of the acoustic pianos, and you can almost hear the Rhodes and EP200 falling to bits under your fingers. Whether you're playing a £50,000 concert grand or a tatty old Pianet that cost you £50 in a boot sale, these imperfections are fundamental to the characters of the original instruments, and I am impressed by the difference that the RX Noise layer makes.

The Editor Software

The free Mac/PC editor/librarian provides a quick, easy way to edit, store and back up SV1 sounds, and it considerably extends the range of effects parameters available. The screen below illustrates this. To the Hammond chorus/vibrato 'type' and mix knobs offered on the front panel when this effect is selected, the editor adds a custom mode with controls for chorus/vibrato mix, speed and depth. Likewise, the front panel controls for the rotary speaker effect (horn speed and acceleration) areaugmented in the editor with controls for rotor speed and acceleration, and the all‑important horn/rotor mix.

Editing is painless, which is just as well, because using the software is a necessity rather than a luxury if you're to get the best from the SV1. Over the course of the review, I created new sounds, edited their effects, compared the resulting sounds with the originals, gave each a different velocity‑sensitivity curve, named them, saved them, dumped them, loaded them, and backed them up. In short, I tested everything on offer and, although it was a pre‑release version, it didn't glitch once during the review. A round of applause for Korg's software team, please.

Published October 2009