Julian Colbeck sizes up the new offering from the prolific Korg camp, the latest to use the company's long‑running AI2 synthesis system. Is it just the same old stuff in a new box, or does the X3R have enough Unique Selling Points to justify its existence?
To misquote from those '70s soft rockers, Ace, how long can this keep going on? Another box based on the technology, there or thereabouts, that has adorned dozens of synths, from the M‑series, to the T‑series, to the 0‑series, indeed even to the new interactive i‑series that blew into town this summer. But although Korg doesn't bleat on about it, AI2 is very much alive and kicking on the new X‑series: affordable General MIDI synths in the shape of the summer‑launched X3 and its modular counterpart, the X3R.
There are two great things about AI2 as a method of synthesis, the first being that its programming recipe, especially after all this time, is hardly what you'd call difficult: take one or two 'multisounds' — samples or waveforms ranging from full‑blown multisamples to 'chink and plink' sound snippets — bugger about with balance, tone, envelope, and movement, plaster with all sort of yummy effects, and have all around think you're a genius and continue to throw large sums of money at you. The second is that by the simple expedient of enlarging the number of multisounds available, internally via the size of the waveform ROM and externally via PCM cards, Korg can continue to produce instruments that have the advantages of familiarity while not being pure clones.
Living In A Box
In a nutshell, the X3R is a 2U module (rackmount wings packed separately) full of 32‑voice polyphonic AI2 sounds that manifest themselves as 200 single programs, 200 combinations and a 136‑program GM set. There is a DOS‑compatible disk drive that can play Standard MIDI Files, and a built‑in 16‑track sequencer. Four separate outputs can be found at the back. Soundwise, the X3R is great. The range of features is great. The user interface is crap.
The time has come to talk tough. Korg produce mainly excellent instruments that rightly sell by the bucketload. But they're not perfect. Over the years there has been criticism on a number of small but important points that would surely not be a major headache to rectify. Here on the X3R, for instance, the power‑up default, instead of being the last set program (the convention adopted by most devices these days) is always Combination 00. If you have a power problem this can be a major hassle, but even in normal day‑to‑day use it is an irritation (what patch did I use late last night...? I've screwed up the effects assignments so I'll just switch off and start again...). People have been moaning about this since the M1!
The X3R control panel is healthily spotted with buttons. You'd think, then, that it was pretty easy to scoot about the instrument and make most everyday adjustments. Only it's not. For a start, the various buttons needed to switch banks (A, B, or GM) and step through programs or combinations are all over the place. The bank select lies beneath the screen, but the Increment/Decrement is way over on the left‑hand side, and the keypad (alternative means of selecting a program) is on the right. In practice, unless you are operating the X3R via direct MIDI control (and, frankly, few people do), auditioning patches is a bit of a pain. Then there's the sequencer. I don't understand this one at all. The sequencer on the i‑3 is just wonderful — understandable and easy to use, and yet still powerful. The sequencer on the X3R is supposed to be identical, so how come it is almost unusably complicated and fiddly? Surely a built‑in sequencer must be quick and intuitive in order to justify its unavoidable slimming‑down by comparison to even the cheapest of software sequencers. If not, who needs it? It is not fair to say that the user interface is Korg's weak spot because the company did so well on the recent i‑3, and even on the 05R/W module. No, it is simply the weak spot on some Korg instruments; and the X3R is one of them.
Having dispensed with that, you'll be pleased to hear that the remainder of the X3R delivers.
However mind‑stretching some of the operations of the control panel are, you are at least offered plenty of buttonage. Top left are eight dual‑function buttons that either provide instant access to eight of the most common edit parameters in single program mode, or provide access to eight sequencer commands. (And still the sequencer's difficult? Incredible isn't it.) The program Instant Edit functions allow you to balance the oscillators, alter filter cutoff, attack time, velocity, effects level and so on, all without having to dive properly into the edit pages. This is something Korg has been offering since the M1, and all who use these instruments in anything other than full‑on preset mode like it very much. Beneath this lot come sequencer controls and a small main parameter value knob, looking about as important as a screen contrast control, with Inc/Dec buttons alongside. Beneath this is the disk drive which, I'm bound to say, has a somewhat wonky eject button which I wouldn't fancy pressing more often than strictly necessary. In the centre is the display screen, bluish and roomy, though often under‑employed. It has eight mode buttons underneath and a cursor square plus keypad to the right.
Some of my criticisms are, of course, down to cost. You want a car for the price of Fiesta? Fine, but then don't expect a Maserati. Inside the X3R, however, any notion of cost cutting seems to stop. There is an enormous 6Mb library of ROM waves, housing 340 samples and waveforms (even the O1/WFD only has 255).
The multisound tally appears to be identical to that of the X3 keyboard and, for that matter, the same as found on the i‑3. Most, if not all, 01/W multisounds have been retained; additions include numerous organ‑type things, from hollow pipe organ and Musette to harmonica and bandneon(?). There's also an assortment of overdriven mates, sitar, santur, bouzouki, shamisen, and some additional basses, including a useful FM bass. There's a nice new pristine xylophone, more bells and glocks, a recorder, ocarina, Gamelan, and many more sound FX and assorted cheeps and chinks, with an amalgam of power chords, orch hits, and scratches that goes under the name of 'DJ Kit' to finish off with.
Separate to the tone‑based multisounds are the drum sounds, no less than 164 of them (the 01/WFD has 118), making the X3R one of the most dynamic and powerful drum repositories on the market. For ease of use, the drum sounds come shrink‑wrapped in mapped‑out drum kits. There are four internal kits, and four more can be taken off card, all of which can be re‑jigged if you have the patience, and a further eight kits are available under preset and unalterable GM mapping.
Now some people complain that Korg multisounds are too static — there's no wavesequencing or similar going on, it's true. There's not even the facility of waveshaping, a notion dreamed up for the 01/W series. But the range and style of the multisounds is such that, unless you are an absolute analogue 'movement' fiend, there are very few textures and effects that you'll find you cannot create.
With apologies to those who read my review of the i‑3 (SOS November '93), an instrument that essentially shares a synthesis engine, each of the two oscillators can harness its own multisound (with nice touches like being able to positionally crossfade between two oscillators, and a delay factor for Osc. 2), with separate volumes and pitches. Programming tools include rate and level type pitch EG (shared EG but individual amounts per oscillator), but independent low‑pass filters with their own rate and level type EG and standard ADSR type EG for velocity control, plus fundamentally the same arrangement again at the amplifier stage. The multi‑waveform LFO can be faded in, varied in intensity and triggering, and of course be initiated by a whole host of sources — from joystick, to filter, to aftertouch, to keyboard tracking.
Resonant filters continue to be missing. The 01/W implemented waveshaping as a passable alternative; the X3R's rather more predictable answer to this is 'color,' which is apparently a form of exciter. I'm afraid that most times it doesn't make a blind bit of difference.
Genuine sound programming isn't too arduous on the X3R because the underlying method is straightforward, and by now even the most nervous twiddler has probably got some idea about how Korg programming works. But things could have been easier still if better use had been made of the screen. Often you have to scroll left or right for a couple of pages when an initial 'parameter group' page seems to have bags of room left over. The parameter list really is controlled enough for all linked parameters to live on a single page.
Combination mode is where up to eight programs are literally combined for either a nice fat layer, or perhaps a split, for regular instrumental playing, or as an eight‑part multitimbral setup for sequence control. The screen cannot display all eight programs within a combination at a time, which is a shame, as an M1 can, but the flexibility of sound stacking, zoning, detuning, and multitimbrality is extremely useful.
Combination effects replace the effects normally sewn into a program, as the X3R only has two effects processors, not 16. (Nobody else has 16 either, in case you're wondering.)
But this is a GM instrument, yes? So how do you squeeze that out of 8‑part multitimbrality? The answer is you don't. Although you are perfectly at liberty to dive into the GM tone bank for everyday instrument playing, whenever you surreptitiously slide an SMF GM sequence disk into the drive the X3R will latch onto these 136 musical, drum, and sound effects sounds in pukka GM 16‑part multitimbral style. Automatically.
In the main I encountered no compatibility problems whatsoever with the GM aspect of the X3R. I slid in all manner of disks, of my own and from companies like Pro File, and everything worked just fine and dandy. Even effects, which Korg is right to issue a warning over — you may have to re‑jig them slightly — were never less than appropriate. The disk drive claims to be able to handle any DOS disk, 720kb format, and I certainly cannot report otherwise.
The screen, which I disliked in general, does perform well in a couple of situations, MIDI File playing being one of them. During playback. a series of numbers (1‑16) at the top of the display corresponds to MIDI channels, with tiny squares blinking beneath any on which data is being received. Similar numbers and squares pop up in program mode (indicating the global channel) and combination mode, this time indicating 'timbres' (the name the instrument gives to its eight multitimbral parts), and which ones are currently being activated.
X3R marketing seems to be making quite a play for the GM audience, and quite right too. Although GM is having the sort of blanding‑out effect on synth patches that most pundits feared it would (with GM tones it is almost impossible to distinguish between anybody's instruments any more), it's here and probably here to stay. Few modules possess disk drives and so the X3R's DOS‑compatible, SMF and SysEx‑accepting disk drive is almost like having a MIDI data filer thrown in. Not only can you save sequences to disk but you can store program, combination, and global data (called PCG files) too.
More than one Korg source has now mentioned the possibility of trotting along to your 'gig' with X3R tucked under arm and disks in back pocket for a spot of GM backing track. Without having tested this application I shouldn't really comment on its feasibility but an educated guess does seem to say "not bloody likely, pal." As to why, unless I have overlooked a whole slab of the instrument, I didn't catch any jukebox or autoplay facilities. And since accessing sequences is by no means an instant feat, the whole concept has a ring of impending disaster to it — not helped by the fact that when you want to load songs from disk, you encounter all manner of prompts, Are You Sures? and the like, before the data starts whirring in. So it's just an extra careful sort of instrument? Well, yes — but when it comes to erasing a song from the internal memory, you need only make one nervous stab at the delete command for it to breeze back 'Completed' at you. And there's the end of it! Shurely shome mishtake?
Going over this review I am conscious of a certain carping tone in the voice. I don't feel the need to retract anything but I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that this latest Korg is a bit of a turkey, as it is most certainly not. In the end what it boils down to — again and again — is does it sound any good? And even the most cursory stab through the factory presets will inform you that it does.
Factory programs that grabbed me include the wonderful wurlitzer piano Wurlie, made from, interestingly, an electric piano mixed with a clarinet sample, the seductive, handbell‑toned Vibra Bell, Full Pipes — a first class pipe organ — Gamelan, based on one of the new multisounds, and — just to remind you that this is a synthesizer — Glide Sweep, Space Wing, and Busy Boy. With 200 programs plus the GM set, you are not going to be at a loss for sounds.
Clearly, the X3R is not breaking any radically new ground as a sound generator. New multisounds notwithstanding, it sounds very much like an 01/W although it is in fact only fully compatible with the 03/R in terms of USC PCM cards. The new ground here concerns price and, to an extent, application. Those in the market for a new module who are still standing on the fringes of GM would do well to buy the X3R because GM does not compromise the product in any way. It is simply there as an additional sound set and mode to be used as and when required. And if nothing else, the disk drive and SMF GM capability acts as a blindingly good system for demoing the X3R!
I am not going to waste my time and yours wading through every detail of the sequencer. Baldly, it has a 16‑track, 32,0000 note capacity, with that nice Korg feature of being able to save little soundbite 'patterns' which you can lace into your sequence willy nilly. All very nice except for two things: as mentioned, the sequencer is murderous to operate, and I don't think anybody uses built‑in sequencers much anyway. If I'm wrong I would be very interested to hear. Perhaps SOS could do manufacturers a big favour and conduct a small survey? The only justification for having a sequencer here is due to the MIDI Files. Actually writing the wretched things here is a prospect too wearisome to contemplate. However, for those of you into whipping and chains and stuff, you are at liberty to write 'free' sequences, or dip into GM Song Mode, whereby you will automatically be presented with GM assignments. This is a good idea, mind.
There are two separate effects processorsin the X3R, each containing no less than 47 effects algorithms, quite a few being double effects (reverb plus chorus, for example). Tacking the effects onto programs is not arduous in itself but effects routing, something that Korg has always insisted on bundling up with the actual output routing of the sound itself, does take a bit of figuring out. There are four input paths (A‑D); two panpots; and four outputs (L/R, 3,4), conforming, in other words, very much to the M1 school. There are notable improvements, though. M1 owners may have noticed an edit program page that claims to offer each oscillator within a double oscillator program the chance to use a different effect. This is total cobblers of course — it can do nothing of the sort. But the X3R can. Moreover, you can selectively program an effects amount for each drum within a drum kit. This is good stuff. The X3R also implements a third routing option called Parallel 3 (A+B go straight out of the L/R outputs via panpots, while C and D go through Effect 1 and Effect 2 respectively before being mixed in with A and B). Korg state that this is particularly useful for GM playback applications. No doubt.
The effects themselves are the best around, in my opinion. You have reverbs from rooms to live stages, plates and spring types; delays from cross to dual mono to multi‑tap; chorus settings from gentle to full grunge quadrature; flanging; exciter; distortion; overdrive; phaser; rotary speaker (with pedal controllable fast/slow 'Leslie' effect option); parametric; plus nine dual effects. You can, if you're smart, program a combination where four separate sounds come out with four separate effects. I should point out that you can do this on an M1, but it is none the less impressive here.
X3R Brief Specifications
- POLYPHONY: 32‑voice
- VOICES: 200 program, 200 combi (same again on card), plus 136 GM programs
- EXTERNAL STORAGE: 3.5‑inch disk drive, program and PCM card slots
- MULTITIMBRALITY: 16‑part
- INTERNAL FX: 2 x multi FX DSP with 47 algorithms each
- SEQUENCER: 10 songs, 100 patterns, 32,000 notes
- OUTPUTS: L/R, 3, 4
- Sound quality.
- Quality and number of effects.
- Disk drive.
- SMF/GM compatible.
- Can be used as data filer.
- Poor user interface.
- Over‑complicated sequencer.
A capable synth module with a very large number of quality voices and excellent effects, hampered somewhat by an inelegant user interface and fiddly sequencer. GM and Standard MIDI File compatibility come as useful bonuses which in no way compromise the X3R's standing as a serious synthesizer. On‑board disk drive unusual on a module and very convenient.