Is it an analogue synth? Is it an FM synth? Is it an S+S or even an additive synth? Quasimidi claim that their new Quasar module is all of these. Paul Ward checks out the hype and the reality, and is pleasantly surprised.
Many moons ago, I would have given anything to be surrounded by an array of synths, leads a‑bristling and lights a‑flashing. Now I would just like to be able to fit my entire rig into the boot of my car! That ideal may have come a step closer with the advent of Quasimidi's Quasar synthesizer module, which on the surface appears to be the ultimate 'all‑in‑one' synth. Analogue, PCM, FM and additive synth sounds are all available, with built‑in effects and performance features — and all in a neat 2U rackmounted format. The provision of classic synth waveforms and resonant, self‑oscillating filters is also bound to give it a great deal of credibility, given the current analogue retro‑craze. On paper, the Quasar is a very impressive‑sounding jack‑of‑all‑trades. Does the reality live up to the hype?
Firstly, I must applaud Quasimidi for giving their synth a name, rather than a stream of indecipherable letters and numbers. I really do tire of reading about the latest XPQ‑F1/B, only to have forgotten its handle by the time I reach the music store! 'Quasar' smacks of such classic synth heraldry as 'Jupiter' and 'Prophet', and this can only help its chances in these days of endless 'black box' synths.
A full‑width standard rack‑mounting format is probably to be expected in a synth of this price bracket, and the casing seems to be sturdy enough to survive the rigours of a normal day's abuse. This is more than can be said for the screen inset, which promptly fell out when I tried to remove its protective film. Stronger glue needed there, guys!
The Quasar's build quality gave me the impression of not being quite as slick as what we've come to expect from, say, Japanese manufacturers (plastic jack sockets, for example), but is sturdy and quite pleasing in appearance. The obligatory liquid crystal display is the focus of attention on the front panel. This back‑lit, 2x40‑character display has the daunting task of keeping you informed of the Quasar's status, and does a reasonable job under the circumstances. The clarity is as good as might be expected, though not as pleasing to the eye as the larger displays used by the likes of Korg or Kurzweil. I would have liked to have seen envelopes and layer mapping displayed graphically, and maybe a facility to examine a list of the Performance names currently in memory, but the limitations of the display area obviously exclude this level of sophistication. Where necessary, velocity‑responsive bar meters at the top of the LCD show which layers of a performance or which parts of a multitimbral setup are active (more on performances, layers and parts later). Given that display space is at a premium, this is very commendable, and I often found myself referring to these indicators when in doubt.
A large 2‑character LED display to the left of the LCD shows the currently selected performance number, and provides a very useful 'at‑a‑glance' check — invaluable on a darkened stage. Two small decimal point characters (one for each of the MIDI inputs) flash reassuringly to confirm the receipt of MIDI information.
An alpha‑wheel to the right of the LCD is used to scroll through the pages of options. I found this somewhat at odds with the more usual role (no pun intended!) of such a wheel for editing parameter values. I reached for it more than once to change a parameter, only to find myself skimming across pages of information! Everything becomes clear when you take note of the four knobs just below the main display. Each of these four controls allows you to edit the parameter displayed directly above it in the currently chosen page. Though far from being a replacement for a panel full of knobs and switches, these knobs are very welcome all the same. On a module with this amount of facilities in such a small amount of space, I think that four knobs are a reasonable compromise. Once you've grasped the basic technique, editing with the Quasar becomes second nature.
The provision of two MIDI inputs makes it easy for players to share the Quasar. I can see MIDI drummers gleefully plugging in alongside the keyboard player to access the classic drum machine sounds (of which more later) from their drum pads. It must be understood that the MIDI inputs are merged together before coming into contact with the Quasar's sound circuitry, so 32‑channel operation is not possible — though at the asking price, it would hardly be reasonable to expect it. A MIDI Thru (from the first input only) and a MIDI Out make up the balance of the MIDI sockets.
Four separate outputs are provided in addition to the main left and right. These are a welcome sight on a machine with a penchant for multitimbral operation, though I would have liked to see another pair of stereo outputs, or at least the ability to configure two of the extra outputs as a stereo pair. This would have added a great deal of flexibility when two players are sharing the Quasar. The main stereo outputs can be configured as two more single outputs, which is a useful feature in itself. Provision is made for a sustain pedal via another standard (plastic!) jack socket. A standard Euro mains connector completes the holes in the back panel. No horrid separate power supplies here — hooray!
A headphone output on the front panel might seem a trifle too obvious to warrant comment, but it clearly wasn't so obvious to Akai when they placed this socket on the rear of their S1000! I found the output level here to be on the low side, and noticed some distortion on louder patches when I tried to crank the volume up. A little more headroom would not have gone amiss. Annoyingly, a single volume control doubles up as both the main output volume and the headphone volume. This could be a bit of pain when you want to do a little confidence checking, since you can't turn down the main outputs while you listen in on the headphones!
When not in General MIDI mode, the Quasar allows you to play a single 'Performance' consisting of up to four layered ROM 'Sounds'. There are over a thousand individual sounds in the Quasar, with more made available by the optional expansion boards. Layers may be stacked, split across the keyboard, or switched in and out by keyboard velocity. Quasimidi have implemented one particularly brilliant layering feature. When selected, it allows you to trigger one layer by playing single notes and then fires all layers together as soon as you play two or more notes. I had great fun playing solo lines and punctuating them with massed choir and brass stabs! I don't recall having seen this feature on any other synth, but in my humble opinion it should be implemented by every other manufacturer as soon as possible.
There are three 'Banks' of 100 performances, two in ROM (where you can't overwrite 'em) and one in RAM (where you can). Banks and performances can be selected from the front panel by use of the numeric keypad and/or up/down buttons. A 'tens lock' function enables selection of a performance in the same tens range, by means of a single press on the keypad. The Quasar also accepts the usual MIDI bank and program change messages.
Sounds within a performance may have their pitch, filter and envelope altered by providing an 'offset' to the internally preset values. For example, any given sound may already have resonance added as part of its default settings. If you want less, you enter a negative value for the resonance offset. Other sounds may have no resonance at all, so giving a negative value would make no difference. I have to admit to finding this all unnecessarily complex — it's very difficult to get a feel for filter or envelope settings that will work in the same way for different sounds. I dare say I'd get used to it with time, but it seems to put a barrier between the programmer and the actual sound he's after. Also, during editing, changes only take effect when a note is re‑triggered. In some cases, making a change causes the note to cut off, which can be frustrating.
By plugging the MIDI output from the Quasar into your MIDI sequencer, and hitting buttons or twiddling the four control knobs, you can record the events and play them back. The most obvious application for this facility is to control envelope and filter settings on the fly, but it can also be used to set up the multitimbral parts that otherwise cannot be saved (remember them?). This is where the most fun can be had with the Quasar, sweeping filters, adjusting effects sends and hearing the changes play back just as you entered them. On any edit screen you can also see the changes happening before your eyes, which provides useful feedback. Whereas some manufacturers seem to have you jumping through hoops to perform such tasks, with the Quasar it's very simple.
The Quasar presents a dedicated series of pages to edit its drum sets. This is made fairly painless by the four editing knobs: the one on the extreme left changes the note on each edit page, and the other three are assigned to alter the parameters. Although you can't change the assigned drum voice (these conform to the GM standard), each note has individual settings for pitch, volume, panning and effects sends. The drum sounds are generally excellent, although I dread to guess at what it was they did to the TR808/TR909 open hi‑hats — ugh!
Portamento is featured as an option for any individual sound, but is spoiled by being only available as a function of legato playing. The values for portamento time are also rather strange, with the shortest setting being much too long for my taste. A 'fixed time' method is employed (i.e. it always takes the same amount of time to get from one note to another, no matter how far apart they may be) with no option to work as a 'fixed rate' (à la MiniMoog). I was also somewhat disappointed to discern the oscillators 'stepping' from one pitch to another, rather than hearing the smooth glide I am accustomed to with genuine analogue machines, but in normal usage, this should not really be a problem.
Vibrato can be applied either directly, or as a function of a MIDI modulation source, such as aftertouch or modulation wheel. There are many options for modulation of pitch, tone and effects sends via MIDI, including a source that can be defined by the user. In addition to full General MIDI operation, the Quasar sports its own 'Performance' multi‑channel mode. This mode retains the use of a four‑layer performance in addition to 12 other single‑sound 'parts'. Any of the single sounds can be edited as if they were layers of a performance, although the settings cannot be saved. All sounds share the effects brought along to the party by the currently selected performance. This is a reasonable way of working — the shrewd user might define several performances designed as effects 'vehicles' to complement specific multitimbral setups.
Two single‑effect processors are provided, which can be accessed by separate effects send parameters for each sound. A variable amount of signal from effects processor 2 can also be fed into processor 1. Processor 1 takes care of delay and reverb effects, and processor 2 handles modulation‑type effects such as flanging, chorus and so on. The editing options are fairly conservative, and the effects themselves are competent if unremarkable, covering most of the areas one might expect to see, with the possible exception of a pitch shifter. The overdrive and distortion effects are good, though, and are used in several of the factory performances to produce some quite convincing guitar imitations. After reading about the Quasar's vocoder, I was hoping to plug in a microphone and start squawking some absurdities about Mr Blue Sky, but sadly (or happily, for anyone within earshot of my potential performance!), there is no external audio input to allow this.
The Arpeggiator is great fun, and very simple to use. I could go on for ages about the number of controls offered. Suffice it to say, though, that it does about everything one could reasonably expect an arpeggiator to do and a few more things besides — for example, it also offers note sorting and MIDI control options. The arpeggiator will synchronise to incoming MIDI clocks, and can play an external machine or record to a sequencer — brilliant! The only downers here are its inability to work on more than one part at a time (though by recording into a sequencer it's possible to get around this) and the lack of provision to synchronise to MIDI Time Code.
As ever, the bottom line is how the Quasar sounds, and I can confirm that, to these ears at least, it sounds pretty good. The high frequencies are crisp and clean and the bass is phenomenally punchy. In isolation I did notice a bit of 'grunge' in some of the samples, and some 'stepping' of the output levels as a note fades away. These minor irritations pale into insignificance, however, once the Quasar is in full flight. With several channels running at once, the Quasar really does sound very impressive, with none of the 'choked' quality you can hear on some lower‑priced multitimbral machines. The bass end of the audio spectrum is very satisfying, and the chunky TR808/TR909 bass drums fare particularly well. The analogue basses are undoubtedly the stars of the show, in my opinion, benefiting greatly from the (more or less) analogue filter. I became quite covetous of the bass sounds I was able to coax from the Quasar — for example, I am convinced that very few people would be able to tell a real TB303 patch from those on offer here. The rest of the sounds are competent examples of their genre, with the notable exception of one or two uncomfortable keyboard split points. The Steinway piano suffers greatly from this, and the heavy‑handed filtering employed as a disguise merely renders it one of the weakest performances. Happily, this is not the only piano sound in the Quasar, and the others make up for it. Some of the electric pianos are impressive too, Performance A10, 'Rhodeseq' being my own favourite, and the clavinet is amongst the best I have heard. But no matter how hard manufacturers try, they just do not seem to able to capture the character of the good old Mellotron!
A dedicated button takes the Quasar into General MIDI territory, where it confidently outstrips any of the GM modules that I have come across. For a while it did seem that anything with the GM logo automatically implied 'cheap 'n' cheesy'. There are no such problems with the Quasar. The GM configuration does not restrict the use of the machine in any way, and can really be seen as a bonus rather than the necessary evil it seems to present on other synths. In GM mode, the Quasar is fully 16‑part multitimbral, and had no problems playing the several demanding GM compositions I threw at it. Indeed, it's as a multitimbral machine that the Quasar really comes to life. This is a classic case of the whole somehow being more than the sum of the parts. Individual sounds that are a little suspect in isolation proceed to growl and sparkle in the context of a mix, and the bass content sounds strident and confident. Of course, in GM mode, you are restricted to the GM sound set provided, but that is the nature of the beast. In this case, I would be quite happy to compose with the GM set alone!
The software in the review machine informed me that it was version 1.01. With this in mind, I was prepared for the occasional bug, but in reality I had few problems, though on one occasion nasty random sounds appeared in place of the currently selected patch. After turning the power off and then back on, everything returned to normal. A potentially more serious problem seemed to be the long reverb settings, which occasionally disappeared when staccato notes were played. I could see no sensible reason for this, and hope it was just a feature of the review model. Apart from the strange case of the disappearing reverb, I also noticed one or two other glitches: unexpected waveforms occasionally popped their heads up, and some samples clicked during their loop phase. These anomalies occurred very rarely, and only for a brief moment, but it goes to prove that the current software, though stable, is fallible. Other than this, I didn't encounter any nasty bugs, and the Quasar seemed oblivious to my attempts to crash it with strange combinations of button presses and massive overdoses of MIDI data. System exclusive dumps are possible, with various options, including the ability to save program tables and drum maps. Utility functions are also available to copy parts and performances.
The Quasar is something of a mixed bag. Certainly the sounds themselves are good, but the limited extent to which they can be edited may be seen both as an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your point of view. The provision of both FM and additive synthesis is a tantalising prospect, until you realise that you can't get in and generate your own sounds, so any attempt at reproducing your own personal 'best of the DX7' is doomed for the moment. It seems a bit like buying a sports car and hiring a chauffeur to drive it for you! It may be easier, but is it really what you are buying it for?
The provision of good analogue synth sounds and those classic drum machine voices should certainly make the Quasar of interest to anyone who wants to get their hands on a good selection of retro‑sounds. When the cost of a TR808, a TR909 and a couple of trendy analogue synths is taken into consideration, the Quasar begins to look like something of a bargain. But this is only the starting point, since the Quasar is crammed with a comprehensive selection of waveforms. The strong bass response also makes it a good contender in the dance arena.
For anyone who is looking for a fine‑sounding synth module with a plethora of instant mix 'n' match sounds at their disposal, the Quasar is definitely worth checking out. If GM compatibility is also on your list of desirables, then this synth will deliver the goods in an easy and impressive manner.
The usual complement of breathy pads and shimmering strings are well represented, but the Quasar excels at those squeezy resonant bass patches, especially when the arpeggiator is kicked in. Here are a few magic moments:
- A34 'Level42' — A slapped bass speaker cone destroyer. Use with care.
- A54‑56 'Shineon' — a truly impressive imitation of one of Pink Floyd's finest moments. The chord is on the left side and the various leads on the right. You can almost smell the patchouli!
- A92 'Flngmoog'/B32 'TB‑303' — Gloriously squidgy bass sounds with plenty of guts.
- B30 'Ravebass' — Grungy and fat. Trip on...
- B90 'Taurvox' — Hold down a few notes and let the arpeggiator blow your mind!
512K of user sample RAM is available with an optional expansion kit. Populating this RAM requires a sampler or computer software with the capability to communicate in MIDI Sample Dump Standard. Half a megabyte is quite mean these days, considering that samplers often come with 2Mb as standard. In its defence, the Quasar does not make any claims towards trying to do the job of a conventional sampler, and the provision of any user sample memory at all should be seen as a bonus. In any case, anyone who has sat through a MIDI sample dump session will realise that shunting more than a few kilobytes of data around is about as thrilling as an evening of Eldorado re‑runs. My main reservation is the cost of the upgrade, which seems inordinately high in comparison with other manufacturers. The machine I had for review did not include the sample memory, so I can't make any comments as to its efficacy.
Of much better value would appear to be the 'Techno Rave Electronic' (I think they've covered all the important buzzwords there!) expansion board, containing 1Mb of samples from analogue synths and such notable drum machines as Roland's CR78 and TR606. And what excellent sounds they are too! If you are into dance, I would strongly recommend that you check out this upgrade. In my opinion, the extra TB303 sounds and the CR78 drum kit are almost worth the asking price alone!
The technology behind the sound generation system has been given the catchy tag of 'MASS' — Multi Algorithm Sound Synthesis. What this really means is that more than one synthesis method is employed to produce the resultant sounds. In addition to the S+S (Sample and Synthesis) method which we have all come to expect on any new synth, the Quasar utilises both FM (as on the DX7) and additive synthesis (perhaps best known for its implementation by PPG). A detailed explanation of these methods of synthesis is beyond the scope of this review, but suffice it to say that the differences, as far as this synth is concerned, are pretty much transparent. Indeed, when I was initially skipping through the Quasar's edit pages, I was surprised to find no parameters indicative of either FM or additive synthesis at all! It would appear that Quasimidi have taken the hard work away, by hiding the sound architecture somewhere behind the Quasar's front panel. Unfortunately, this also means that we are denied any fundamental editing of a sound at the waveform level. For many players this might be seen as a bonus, since you can remain blissfully unaware as to how a tone is created and get on with making some music with it! But I can hear a whole generation of sound library programmers gnashing their teeth. If Quasimidi intended to keep their synth easy to use then they have certainly achieved this, but I feel they may also have robbed it of some flexibility. A better solution might have been to allow multiple editing levels, with the simpler functions (basic envelope shaping and filter cut‑off, perhaps) at the lower levels, progressing to the more esoteric options in the higher level menus.
One disappointment is the Quasar's inability to apply filtering to FM‑generated sounds. The filter parameters are still available in the edit pages, but they don't do anything! This is a little confusing, and it might have been better if the operating system had hidden the filter parameters when an FM sound is chosen. It would have been better still had they managed to get the filter to work on all the sounds!
- Superb analogue‑ish sounds with excellent bass response.
- Real‑time recording of highly twiddleable knobs to MIDI sequencer.
- 2 MIDI inputs.
- Easy multitimbral use.
- Comprehensive arpeggiator with facility to work on external synths.
- GM compatibility.
- Occasionally quirky operating system.
- Slightly tacky build quality.
- Relatively limited editing capabilities.
- Individual sounds can be weak in isolation.
- Expensive user sample memory upgrade — and only half a Mb at that!
A great‑sounding, easy to operate synth with excellent multitimbral capabilities, marred only by an occasionally quirky operating system (on the review model), which, however, could not be made to crash.