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Korg Triton Studio

Production Workstation
Published July 2002
By Paul Nagle

Korg's Trinity and Triton have led the workstation market for so long that updating the concept can't have been easy — after all, how do you improve the best? So what's new in the Triton Studio, and will it keep Korg comfortably ahead?

Korg Triton StudioPhoto: Mark EwingI had so much fun reviewing the Korg Triton Le for SOS in January this year that it almost had to be prised from my grasp when the time came for it to be returned. A few months of sulking passed and then I succumbed, taking ownership of my very own 88-note Triton Pro X. However, scarcely had I got the synth home when I heard that there was to be a new top-of-the-line Triton keyboard, the Triton Studio, available in the usual Korg array of 61-, 76-, and 88-note weighted versions. I was, therefore, a little anxious when asked to look at the 61-key version for review. What if it triggered off yet more gear lust? What if I ended up kicking myself and wishing I had delayed my purchase a little longer?

Shutting out those thoughts, I turned to the task of how best to sum up an instrument that aspires to be no less than a complete production studio. Much has already been written in these pages about the Triton, so there is little point embarking on yet another reflection on its architecture. Instead, check out our previous in-depth reports from SOS June 1999 and SOS November 2000. As they cover the essential details, I'll be concentrating here on what Korg have put into this, the latest incarnation of the Triton.

Throughout this review, I'll use Korg's terminology: 'Classic' to refer to the original Triton keyboard, 'Rack' for (unsurprisingly) the rack model, and 'Studio' for the new Triton Studio under review here. So, without further ado, let's see what's what.

The New Look

At first glance, the Triton Studio doesn't appear radically different to the Classic. It's a little larger, slightly heavier (the 61-key version is 17.2kg) and the space at the left-hand side now houses the sample RAM and seven expansion slots (the Classic has two, the Rack eight) under a readily accessible screw-down hood. At the far right-hand side, two extra buttons (see right) have sprung into existence, dedicated to record-enabling and starting (or stopping) the built-in sampler (on the Classic, these functions were shared with the sequencer transport controls). There is an additional row of seven 'EXB' Bank Select buttons, which access the memory storage locations associated with any of the optional Expansion Boards you can buy. Each of these Banks can store 128 Programs and 128 Combis and all can be tweaked or overwritten as you desire — even the patches supplied (on floppy) with the EXB cards. Tucked away underneath the floppy drive is space for an optional internal eight-speed CD-RW drive (of which more later). Oh, and the screen has a rather fetching new plastic surround with a shiny silver Korg logo on it.

It is on the rear panel that the rather more obvious physical changes are apparent. The large blanking plate (on the right as you look at the back panel) can be removed to house the intriguing FireWire-based mLAN interface — provided you buy the optional EXB mLAN board, that is!). A further interfacing option is the 48kHz ADAT optical connector (EXB DI) with six-channel support (corresponding to the Triton Studio's six analogue outputs) and a word clock input.

The rear panel of the Triton Studio offers all the connectivity you'd expect from a pro workstation as standard — six analogue audio outputs and two inputs, stereo digital outs, footswitch and expression pedal connections, the full MIDI trio and SCSI as standard. But there's provision for further expansion too, via the large rectangular panel on the right, and the blanked-off connections on the left, which can accommodate the ADAT digital option with word clock.The rear panel of the Triton Studio offers all the connectivity you'd expect from a pro workstation as standard — six analogue audio outputs and two inputs, stereo digital outs, footswitch and expression pedal connections, the full MIDI trio and SCSI as standard. But there's provision for further expansion too, via the large rectangular panel on the right, and the blanked-off connections on the left, which can accommodate the ADAT digital option with word clock.Photo: Mark Ewing

Now fitted as standard on the Studio model are a SCSI port (it was optional on the Classic), optical S/PDIF sockets and a pre-installed 5Gb hard disk — more about this later. The Triton Studio also has a battery backed-up calendar and a faster processor than its predecessor. At the moment Korg are not making it clear as to whether this difference in processor speed will preclude enhancements to the Classic Triton that would bring it closer in spec to the new Studio, but it seems likely, which is a shame.

Slot Machine

Korg Triton Studio internal expansion slots.The internal expansion slots.Opening up the expansion cover on the left of the Triton Studio reveals the impressive seven empty PCM expansion slots alongside the three RAM slots (see photo). One of the latter is occupied by the supplied 16MB SIMM so you would need to remove this and add three 32MB SIMMs to reach the full 96MB that the Triton Studio supports. Unlike on the Rack model, this extended memory-addressing does not have an adverse impact on polyphony. In fact, the Studio has 60 notes of polyphony divided amongst internal ROM and RAM-sourced sounds... plus an additional pool of 60 notes, divided amongst the expansion slots and the internal Piano sample. Thus, within those quirky limitations, the Triton Studio may be considered 120-note polyphonic.

The internal piano sample is a welcome addition and is a permanently resident copy of Korg's new 16Mb stereo piano expansion board (EXB PCM08). If you purchase this card for a Classic Triton, you load the patch data from floppy, as you do for all Korg's PCM cards. On the Triton Studio, this data is already loaded for you.

When creating a patch on the Studio, you choose waveforms from memory areas marked RAM, ROM and Piano — the latter containing just four waves (velocity-switched samples for the left and right channels). This implementation ensures patch compatibility between the various Triton models and doesn't tie up an expansion port either.

As I personally bought Korg's earlier EXB PCM01 board in search of that elusive perfect piano sound, I was keen to try out the new piano. I can report that it is much smoother, with a far more realistic decay. The biggest improvements seem to be in the middle registers — they're warm, natural and a joy to play, especially with classical pieces. Several of the new onboard patches make great use of the new expansion, but it really came to life when played from the weighted keyboard of my Triton Pro X , rather than that of the synth-action five-octave review model.

Driving It Hard

One of the initial criticisms of the Triton was its lack of a hard disk option. The gentle whirring emanating from the Studio's internals is evidence that this omission has been dealt with. The supplied 2.5-inch Fujitsu IDE drive has a useable capacity of 4.6GB — easily sufficient for most patch and sample dumps. If you need additional storage, backups can be written to CD, Zip or external hard disks via the SCSI port — or to the internal CD writer if you purchase that option. Of course, having a hard disk on board is bound to raise the question of hard disk recording, as seen in the Korg Trinity. However, Korg have chosen to adopt a quite different approach to audio for the Triton Studio; more on this in a couple of paragraphs.

As you navigate your way around Korg's ever-delightful touchscreen-driven graphical interface, you soon notice the new Sampling page, now present in Program, Combi and Sequencer modes. This page (shown above) is very much like the main 'Sampling Setup' one on the Classic Triton, but its purpose is to produce an instant audio recording of anything you care to play, in any mode, either into RAM or directly to hard disk.

Before starting a recording, you must specify the maximum time — the limit is 80 minutes when recording to disk. Once you've done this, the Studio then 'pre-allocates' the file. This can be a slow process, taking up to a minute for the maximum file length. Recording may be started either by the Sample start button or by playing a note — it's up to you — but from that point, there is no visible count-down of elapsed time. This means that recording simply stops without warning when your pre-allocated time is used up.

The resulting WAV files (assuming you are recording to disk and not to RAM) are written to the internal hard drive and may be transferred via SCSI for further processing if necessary. Your audio recordings can be auditioned directly in Disk mode using the Sampling Start/Stop button; however, this disables the keyboard and response to MIDI input.

MIDI + Audio Workstation?

When the Triton Studio first arrived, it had no manual, and my early efforts to understand its use of audio within the sequencer were hampered by a misconception that the Studio was intended as a complete hard disk-based Digital Audio Workstation. Audio can be incorporated into the onboard MIDI sequencer, but not in the way I first expected.

In fact, the Sequencer provides so-called 'In-Track' sampling: a special application of sample recording. When you open the Sampling page from within the Sequencer, two extra song-related recording options appear: Sequencer Start and Threshold. The former allows you to start sampling the moment song playback begins, the latter when a signal threshold is passed. Prior to using In-Track sampling, you must use the menu option 'Select Bank & Sample Number' to allocate a Sequencer track, destination Program and a Multisound (Korg's term for a related collection of samples) for your recording. The resulting track will contain trigger notes for the sample(s) you record, and the new Program references the Multisound created by the sampling process. You may select a trigger key that the sequencer will use to initiate playback of the sample, or allow this to be allocated automatically. Then, you set up levels, select the input source (the Triton Studio's rear-panel analogue or digital connections, or, if fitted, mLAN), and specify whether effects are to be added or not — all actions you would also perform for normal Triton sampling. If you choose to add effects later, you can do so during song playback, as you would for any sequencer track.

In-Track Sampling is always done to RAM, not to hard disk, so you are limited both by the available RAM and by Korg's rather strange divisions of it. Regardless of the amount of RAM you have, the longest single sample is just under three minutes of mono audio (stereo, obviously, chops that figure in half). With the maximum of 96MB of memory, you can record up to six samples of this length, or many smaller samples if you record your takes in shorter chunks. For a fuller explanation of the way memory is 'organised' (I use the term loosely), see the original SOS Triton review.

As you add additional audio overdubs, new samples are grafted onto the growing Multisound. Each recording is played back via a separate MIDI note trigger that the sequencer allocates and writes into a track for you. With a little planning, and some extra memory, you can build up quite a long audio track using lots of small individual takes. Having sampled directly to RAM, you can process it using the full range of Triton's edit functions. RAM samples can also be exported as WAV or AIFF files via the Disk/Save menu. Later, perhaps if you have processed them off-line, files can be imported back into RAM, subject to memory limitations.

So, with all this in mind, can the Triton Studio be regarded as a genuine MIDI + Audio workstation? Well, yes and no — but mostly no. To be fair to Korg, they don't claim this capability. What In-Track sampling does is give you control of when to record and trigger samples from within the sequencer. People used to do this kind of thing with samplers in the days before hard disk recording became commonplace, and it is still perfectly valid today — it just feels a bit of a bodge compared to what we've got used to. Perhaps it's just that my expectations were too high, but I found myself constantly running out of recording time, which seemed a bit daft with a big empty hard disk connected up and just crying out for the right software. Owners of Korg's original Trinity, which had a true hard disk recording option, can probably afford themselves a smirk at this point.

Of course, as I've already mentioned, you can record an audio file directly to hard disk (or RAM) in Program and Combi modes, and this is also true in Sequencer mode, so you could record an entire song in the same way. What's more, you can overdub from an external source while this is happening, creating a completed mix on the fly. This blends the external signal and onboard song playback into a finished WAV file using the same technique you'd use to master your song in preparation for CD writing (see below). Of course, you can't go back and tweak an individual track or your external audio separately, as they're not on separate tracks, but it might be handy in some situations.

Triton Studio At A Glance

  • 120-note polyphony — essentially two pools of 60 notes, the first for internal ROM/RAM sounds, the second divided between the internal piano sample and any expansion boards you buy.
  • 48MB PCM ROM (including the built-in 16MB stereo acoustic piano), with 429 multisamples and 417 drum samples.
  • Seven PCM expansion slots, plus three SIMM slots for a maximum of 96MB sample RAM.
  • Built-in hard drive and optional CD-RW to create music and data CDs.
  • 1536 Program locations, in user-writable memory (512 preloaded).
  • 1536 Combination locations, in user-writable memory (512 preloaded).
  • 256 sounds and nine ROM drum kits for GM2 compatibility.
  • 144 user drum kits (20 preloaded).
  • Five insert effects slots, two master effects slots, and a three-band master EQ.
  • 102 different effects types.
  • Six outs plus stereo digital 96kHz S/PDIF (which duplicates the main analogue outs) and SCSI.
  • Powerful dual polyphonic arpeggiators.
  • Real-time Pattern Play/Recording.
  • Mono/stereo 16-bit sampling at 48kHz sampling frequency.
  • Sample-editing includes time-slice and time-stretch.
  • You can sample directly to the internal hard disk to create a mono or stereo WAV file.
  • Supports both analogue and digital sampling.
  • Supports AIFF, WAV, AKAI (S1000/S3000 samples and mapped multisamples), and Korg-format sample data.
  • 16-track sequencer with 'In-Track Sampling'.
  • Korg's touchscreen interface.
  • Performance controls include joystick, ribbon controller and real-time control knobs.
  • Available in 61- and 76-key synth action versions, and an 88-key, weighted hammer-action model.

EXPANSION OPTIONS

  • Six-voice DSP MOSS synthesis board.
  • Up to seven 16MB PCM expansion cards.
  • ADAT output connector (EXB DI) with six-channel support and word clock in. The six outputs correspond to the Triton's six audio outputs (main left and right outs, and individual outs 1-4).
  • Optional mLAN interface (EXB mLAN).
  • CDRW1 internal 8x CD-RW drive.

Finished CDs

When you have recorded your finished masterpiece into the sequencer or maybe just played it in live from within Program or Combi mode, the resulting WAV files on hard disk can be assembled into a track list and written to an audio CD. Remember that in doing this, there's no need at any point to stray outside the Triton Studio and use, say, an external DAT recorder for mastering.

It's left up to you whether to purchase Korg's own internal CD writer (shown below) or make use of an external CD-RW drive attached via the Triton Studio's SCSI connection. My initial experiments were with an external drive and this produced great results with the absolute minimum of fuss. When Korg's internal drive arrived, fitting it took about 30 seconds, after which I had a complete and integrated means to produce finished CDs — and with no computer in sight. CD writing is simplicity itself; you simply set the tracks in the order you want them and decide whether to Finalise the disc at that point or leave it until later (which you might if you wanted to add more tracks). You must Finalise the disc in order to play it in a standard CD player, but that's about all you have to worry about. The Triton Studio even takes care of the sample-rate conversion from its internal rate of 48kHz down to the 44.1kHz required for CD.

Further CD functionality includes playback of audio CDs using the sequencer transport (although not whilst the sequencer is active), recording from CD and even 'ripping' (ie. extracting the audio digitally from CD to the Triton Studio's hard disk). With this technique, you can grab entire tracks or sections of tracks. You can 'rip' directly to RAM too if you wish, which is perfect when working with sample CDs. Naturally, you can back up patches and samples to the CD too.

Conclusions

At the start of this review, I pondered whether existing Triton owners (myself included) would now be kicking themselves and wishing they had waited for the Triton Studio instead. In the end, it depends on how you work. The Studio is not in direct competition with computer-based MIDI + Audio applications, nor does it offer all the CD-writing bells and whistles of programs such as Steinberg's Wavelab. Where the Triton Studio does score is in being a complete package — it offers music production facilities to aid you on the path from the first faltering notes of a new composition to a finished audio CD, and without you ever needing to touch a mouse. For some, that will be reason enough to examine this Triton closely.

Had the onboard sequencer been integrated with hard disk recording rather than sampling, it would have offered far greater versatility, not to mention longer audio recording times. As it is, the audio implementation feels rather limited by modern standards, although it is still capable of impressive results if sufficient ingenuity (and RAM) is applied. If you feel the need for some kind of visual feedback of the audio alongside the MIDI data, though, you'll need to look elsewhere.

In other areas, the Studio excels. As a scratchpad for quick audio recordings, it is invaluable and the convenience of CD writing and audio 'ripping' should not be underestimated — especially for quickly grabbing samples. I particularly liked the new piano patches and was pleased to see those extra expansion slots — they make the two in my own Triton seem ungenerous to say the least. With SCSI and digital I/O now supplied as standard, Korg have made the new Triton a far more rounded package than ever before. It's important not to forget that the Triton Studio contains the same awesome sounds, arpeggiators and other features that made the original Triton such a hit.

Finally, to answer my own question: no I'm not kicking myself, and I'm still more than happy with my Classic Pro X — but the Triton Studio's extended feature-set will doubtless be enough to tempt other existing Triton owners to take that extra step up.

Moan & Whinge Corner

Having owned a Triton myself for a few months, there are a couple of minor annoyances that I've found. My first gripe is with the file system — it lacks finesse. As an example, imagine that you've created a Multisound and later make a simple edit, such as altering the key ranges for the samples. It's then not possible to simply resave it, because the Operating System complains that the file already exists. Similarly, when creating a new audio recording with the Studio, you have to remember to enter the Disk Utilities menu to rename previous takes left over from earlier sessions. An additional option to overwrite existing files rather than endure pointless warnings would have been welcome. Turning to the arpeggiator for a moment, this is truly inspiring and transmits its notes via the MIDI Out socket as you would hope, but it only does so when the keyboard control is set to Local On — not something you'd typically do if the Triton was the centre of your computer-based sequencing setup.

Finally, my biggest whinge — sample loading. I had expected that the Studio's onboard hard disk would facilitate automatic loading of samples each time the instrument is turned on — but it doesn't. As there is no Flash RAM option, Korg really should have provided a means to define an auto-load path for samples. It is a real pain having to manually load my own working set of samples at power-up each day. I can only hope that a future OS update will rectify this for the Studio (and maybe, just maybe, for Classic Tritons too?).

Pricing

  • Triton Studio 61: £2349.
  • Triton Studio Pro 76: £2549.
  • Triton Studio Pro X 88: £2999.
  • Triton MOSS board: £399.
  • EXB PCM01 Expansion board (Piano & Classic Keys): £155.
  • EXB PCM02 Expansion board (Studio Essentials): £155.
  • EXB PCM03 Expansion board (Future Loop Construction Set): £155.
  • EXB PCM04 Expansion board (Dance Extreme): £155.
  • EXB PCM05 Expansion board (Vintage Archive): £155.
  • EXB PCM06/07 Double Expansion board (Orchestral): £275.
  • EXB PCM08 Expansion board (Concert Grand Piano; built into Triton Studio): £155.
  • EXB DI Expansion board (ADAT interface option): £169.
  • EXB mLAN Expansion board (mLAN interface option): £699.
  • CDRW 1 (internal CD writer/rewriter option): £249.

All prices include VAT.

Published July 2002