Korg have dominated the top‑end workstation market for several years with their Triton range, but apart from the rack version, there have been no lower‑priced spin‑offs. The Triton Le keyboard changes that, offering many of the Triton's powerful features at a more affordable price.
If you've been living quietly in Outer Mongolia, with nothing but a nose‑flute for company, it's possible you might have overlooked Korg's exploration of a concept they call the 'Music Workstation'. After a massive hit with 1988's M1, Korg released a succession of these increasingly sophisticated 'complete studio' instruments, the culmination of which has been the mighty Triton workstation. This is Korg's most powerful packaging of sequencer, synthesizer, sampler and effects unit, with expandability options, superb factory sounds, and more depth than Stephen Hawking in a mineshaft. Korg made few compromises with the Triton, and its price tag reflected that. Over a year later, they followed it up with a rack version, which offered greater expandability and digital connectivity. Now, another year on, the Triton Le is upon us. This re‑instates the keyboard‑based format, but retails for around £700 less than the original (in the UK, at least — in the USA the price for the Le has yet to be fixed at the time of going to press).
Clearly Korg must have juggled a few features and cut some corners to produce this 'entry‑level' version, so the first question for me was: "how much of the Triton is left?" Now, I'm no Agatha Christie, so please don't be disappointed if I kill the suspense here and now. The answer is: "plenty!".
Before I plough on into the review proper, I'd recommend that you check out the comprehensive review of the Triton keyboard (see SOS June 1999) and also the Triton Rack (SOS November 2000). Since the rack has a slightly different feature‑set (eg. digital output, mLAN connectvity, eight expansion slots), I'll keep things simple by concentrating mainly on the differences between the two keyboards. Thus, if I refer back to 'Triton' in my comparisons, it's the original Triton keyboard I mean.
After unpacking the Triton Le, I was first struck by how light and slender it was. Part of this can be attributed to the external power supply: a little box complete with a switch and a four‑pin connector. It seems strange to have a switch on a floor‑based adaptor, especially when the synth itself already has a power button. Surely it's just another thing to get trodden on and accidentally switched off, in the chaos of live performance?
The Le is reasonably solidly constructed, although I would recommend care with its thin plastic edge trimmings, which are a little on the flimsy side. The velocity‑ and aftertouch‑sensitive keyboard feels light and is not as substantial as that of the Triton. Yet, overall, I couldn't fail to admire the Le's style: sleek and chic are descriptions that came to mind. The brushed silver metal finish exudes a feeling of cool quality, and only those plastic edges lower the tone slightly.
- 61‑ or 76‑note keyboard, with velocity and aftertouch.
- Four Banks of Programs (A‑D) plus a GM sound set.
- Three Banks of Combinations (A‑C).
- 62‑note polyphony.
- 64Mb maximum sample RAM.
- 32Mb of waveform ROM.
- 200,000‑note sequencer (resolution 192ppqn).
- Two main stereo effects processors, one stereo insert effect, master EQ.
- SmartMedia storage slot.
- External power supply.
- 240 x 64‑pixel display.
- Two main and two auxiliary outputs.
- Optional EXB‑SMPL sampling board.
So what changes have come about in the transition to Triton Le? If you start with the rear panel, as I did in time‑honoured reviewer fashion, the first thing that strikes you is the blanking plate: a sign that the Le is ready and waiting to accept the optional EXB‑SMPL sampling board (sampling was, of course, standard on the Triton). As I also received this board to try, I'll talk about it in more detail later.
The Le has a main stereo pair and just two individual outputs (compared to the four individuals of the Triton) and it has also dropped the dedicated PC/Mac interface (no loss there, in my opinion). The Triton's assignable pedal, switch and damper inputs are all present and correct, as are the obligatory three MIDI sockets.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of a SmartMedia slot at the rear, something neither the original Triton nor the Rack has. Of course, this means that the Le has no floppy drive, which might add a layer of complication if you need to regularly transfer data between the Le and other models. For my money, the SmartMedia slot is an improvement, as it offers a far greater storage capacity than floppies (up to 128Mb) — and if your computer has a SmartMedia interface, it's a great way to pass large amounts of data between them.
If I didn't mourn the loss of the floppy drive, the same cannot be said of the ribbon controller. For me, the more performance tools that are added to synthesizers, the better — so it's a shame the ribbon had to go. Of the other compromises, the Le's display is considerably smaller (240x64) and, like that of the Rack, it lacks the touchscreen functionality. I didn't miss that too much — in fact my one observation about the screen was that it was slightly slow to update in response to movements of the alpha dial.
The Le also lacks any expansion slots for options like Korg's add‑on PCM cards or the MOSS board (essentially a multitimbral Z1 modelling synth). This expandability was a great selling point for Roland with their JV and XP series, and Korg added a similar feature in the Triton and KARMA workstations (two slots) and the Triton Rack (no less than eight slots). Leaving this expandability out of the Le renders it a far more closed system than the Triton.
Finally, the effects section has been pruned somewhat. The Triton's twin master processors and master EQ section are retained, but the insert effects section has been reduced from five processors to just one.
Fortunately, everything that remains still manages to sound and perform like a Triton. You have the same 32Mb of base ROM waveforms, although this time around Korg have seen fit to program the Le with some far more dance‑specific patches. However, music workstations all need a bit of everything, and so you won't be surprised to find a full complement of warm strings, (very) playable electric pianos, superb organs and, frankly, cheesy saxophones (why are they always cheesy?). There are also some truly inspired synth basses, swooshy pads, tons of general synth noises, ethnic instruments, and so on.
The sounds are demonstrated in style in many of the factory Combis — Korg's term for combinations of up to eight Programs arranged in layers with velocity splits. The Combis are almost complete tracks in themselves, full of movement and (sometimes) kicking, driving arpeggios. Normally, with my synth‑purist hat on, I'd be a little snooty about such 'one‑finger wonders' — but I challenge anyone not to find their sheer playability infectious. Indeed, I had so much fun, I was in severe danger of missing the review deadline, and, unlike the more complex arpeggiation seen on Korg's KARMA (an instrument which I confess was not my cup of tea), I felt I knew what was going on with the Triton Le and that I was actually in charge of it. You can find more on some of the Combis in the box below.
Given that Korg's Hyper Integrated Synthesis has been covered extensively in previous SOS Korg workstation reviews, I won't go here into the details of how the sounds in the Triton Le are programmed; it's basically the time‑honoured method of multisampled sound sources being passed through digital filters, amplifiers and finally the effects section, with comprehensive modulation options at all stages. Certainly, as a former Korg M1 owner, I can't help observing that Korg's synthesis has progressed considerably in the last decade. The two filters (a 24dB‑per‑octave resonant low‑pass filter and a 12dB‑per‑octave low‑pass filter plus high‑pass filter) might not sound very analogue, but they're not bad all the same. More types would have been nice, however.
It's almost impossible to pick favourites, especially from the Triton Le's wide selection of Combis, so here are just some of the ones from Bank A that I spent hours playing:
A004: 'Trancy Euphoria'
A023: 'Chill Factor'
A036: 'Progressive Code'
A038: 'Tribal Drum 'n...'
These are all examples of 'instant performances' with drums, arpeggios and several other layers too. Great fun!
A034: 'Phases of Angels'
Two examples of lush, Wavestation‑like textures.
A032: 'Soft Piano Pad' — a warm pad and piano layer for those New Age moments.
A009: 'Studio Orchestra' — a lovely orchestral collection, featuring strings, brass, and percussion.
A028: 'The Guitarist' — someone with better technique than I have could make this one magical.
A043: 'Universal Choir' — heaven in a keyboard!
The Le's real‑time parameter adjustment knobs are laid out as on the Triton Rack; in other words, they are formed into a small 3x4 matrix incorporating arpeggiator controls, simple edit parameters and user‑assignable functions. My personal gripe with these knobs is that they are too small; I can't understand why Korg have used them so often in their recent synths. Despite this lack of enthusiasm on my part, the user interface is really very easy to navigate — I hardly needed either of the two manuals at all.
There are a couple of buttons not seen on the Le's big brother: Category and Audition. The former lists patches selected from 16 categories, so you can easily locate any organ, vocal, bass or drum patch in an instant. The latter plays a small, appropriate riff for each patch — something probably of more value on a rack unit than an instrument with its own keyboard. In Program Edit mode, the Category button takes on a slightly different, but equally useful role: it filters the view of available waveforms according to the type you select, making it quicker to find the right basic building block for any patch you want to create.
A dedicated 'Menu' button can be used at any time to delve into more detailed menus (of which there are lots). This keeps the panel uncluttered yet pretty intuitive. The other buttons are self‑explanatory: sequencer transport controls, bank selection, soft keys positioned under the screen, navigation keys — in fact, everything you'd want (and expect) on an instrument of this type. The two buttons above Korg's joystick controller (see below) are user‑programmable, so you can use them to drastically alter or transpose patches, lock the current joystick value, add effects, and so on. They can even be programmed to act momentarily (ie. while held) or as conventional switches on a per‑patch basis.
No workstation would be complete without a generous splash of internal effects. The Triton was blessed with an impressive array of them: no less than five insert effects, two global effects and a master EQ section. As already mentioned, the Le offers a single stereo insert effect, but keeps the two master effects and EQ. A handy block diagram in the thicker of the two manuals (the Parameter Guide) makes it clear how everything fits together.
You can choose from 89 different effect types for both insert and master effects, divided into the following categories: Filter and Dynamics (eg. EQ and compression), Pitch and Phase Modulation effects (chorus and phaser), other Modulation and Pitch effects (rotary speaker and pitch‑shifter), Early Reflections and Delays, Reverb, and Mono chain effects (where two effects are connected in series).
The insert effect can be used to process sequencer tracks or individual Combi parts prior to the application of master effects. If the sampling option is installed, the inputs may be routed via the insert effect before sampling, which is very useful. Each track or part has a send level to each of the master effects, and I can't say I ever felt short‑changed by the single insert design. Certainly the quality is stunning — every bit as good as what the Triton offers — but if complex multitimbral arrangements are your bag, the additional processing provided by the Triton keyboard or Rack could prove significant.
The Triton Le's 16‑bit 48kHz stereo sampling upgrade is something many owners will want to perform at some time — especially bearing in mind the Le's lack of sound expansion slots. When you think about it, presenting sampling as an optional extra makes a lot of sense. Not everyone needs it in a workstation, but it's great to be able to add later if you change your mind. I always thought I didn't need it in a workstation either — until the Le arrived on my doorstep! Fitting the EXB‑SMPL sampling board should take around 10 minutes, and it's straightforward even if you have never done so much as add extra memory or a new soundcard to a computer. First you remove one of the panels on the underside of the synth and then unscrew and remove the blanking plate at the rear. The expansion board slots in relatively easily and connects via a supplied multi‑way cable. Once installed, your Le is instantly promoted to the Big League, gaining the same input level control, Mic/Line switch and stereo audio inputs as the Triton. As SCSI connections are also included in the sampling upgrade, it also gives you direct access to external CD‑ROM drives, hard disks, and so on. The upgrade is completed by opening the second underside panel and fitting a 16Mb SIMM (supplied with the upgrade) into one of the two available slots. If you wish to upgrade to the full capacity of 64Mb, you'll need to remove this and supply two 32Mb SIMMs of your own. Sadly, there is no option to add Flash RAM or an internal hard disk, although the SmartMedia slot goes some way towards compensating for this.
Once installed, all the features of the Triton version 2.0 appear at a press of the Sample button; in other words Waveform‑editing functions such as crossfade looping, truncation, normalisation, time‑slicing, time‑stretch and sample‑rate conversion. The sampler is compatible with various sample formats, including AIFF, WAV and Akai S1000/3000‑format samples. Although the screen is a little small, it is still capable of a basic waveform display and compared to my Yamaha A5000 sampler, it's intuitive and enjoyable to use. I was pleased to discover that WAV files can be imported from SmartMedia, although if you don't have the sampling option installed, you can't edit them.
The Triton Le's 16‑track sequencer is well designed, and provides a genuine alternative to computer‑based recording. With an impressive 200,000‑note capacity (double that of the Triton's sequencer) and 200 Songs, even the reduced screen size of the Le doesn't hamper things unduly. A range of features such as individual track looping, cue lists (ideal if you like to assemble songs starting with smaller segments) and song templates give you everything you need to hammer together arrangements with the minumum of fuss — and there's not a mouse in sight. As per the Triton, detailed edit functions are provided, and the sequencer can drive external instruments too if you want.
The Le retains the Triton's RPPR (Real‑time Pattern Play/Record) for triggering of patterns and phrases via single keys, and you can put this to good use live, kicking off drum patterns, bass lines and sequences from any key over the range C#2 to C8. There are 150 supplied factory patterns, which are clearly conceived as drum patterns (and much more fun as accompaniment than a boring metronome when recording), and there's space for a further 100 user patterns too, which you can record in either real or step time. The onboard arpeggiators (see box below) sync happily to the song's current tempo, allowing you to either add patterns during song playback or record your efforts directly into the song.
The Triton Le offers much of the full Triton at almost half the price (in the UK, at any rate). Obviously, Korg have had to trim the Triton's features back in order to sell the Le at just over £1000 (the clear intention being that it will eventually sell at a street price of £999), and yet the casualties are surprisingly light.
I did miss the ribbon controller, and felt it would have been nice to have at least one expansion port to accommodate a PCM card or the MOSS expansion board. At least the SmartMedia slot can be used to store additional programs (complete with their sample data) — but in order to use them you must import the samples first, so it's not quite as instant and convenient as the PCM route. And the loss of four insert effects is no small thing, but at the Le's price, I can't really rate this as a con.
The sampling option extends the scope of an already powerful workstation and, as I spent more time with it, I started to understand why a friend of mine sold up almost his entire studio and replaced it with a single Triton. I suppose that if you needed sampling from the outset, it makes more sense to stretch your budget for a full Triton but if not, it's great to know it can come later. For those who don't want a computer humming away while they are trying to compose, the sequencer is also good enough to assemble complete tracks, with double the Triton's capacity.
Throughout this review, it's been my task to point out the things that Korg have trimmed in order to release the Le at this price, but it is nevertheless a stunning workstation for the money. I particularly loved the arpeggiators, the effects and the new Programs and Combis. I can happily report that if I were looking for a new workstation, this would be it.
The Le's two polyphonic arpeggiators offer a wealth of creative possibilities — especially in Combi mode, where you can set different patterns to play over different keyboard zones, velocity‑switch between two patterns, and generally head for arpeggio heaven. With 216 user patterns and five presets available, this is one of the best arpeggiators I have ever used, lacking only a dedicated Latch button to make it perfect. The on‑screen graphical editor for user patterns is rather small (and not terribly user‑friendly at first), but when you get the hang of it, the patterns you can produce make it all worthwhile.