Quasimidi have distilled the experience gained from their successful dance‑orientated keyboards into a one‑box solution of concentrated rave power. Derek Johnson gets on the ravy train...
Back in 1993 it would have taken the Delphic oracle (plus, no doubt, the sacrifice of your first‑born) to predict the future plans of German company Quasimidi. At the time, their main product was a slightly expensive hardware auto‑accompaniment sequencer (the Styledrive), yet by August 1994 SOS was reviewing their Quasar synth module. Since then the company has hardly looked back, releasing a family of imaginatively named synth modules and keyboards aimed not‑so‑squarely at the analogue‑obsessed '90s dance musician.
Quasimidi's latest release is the 309 Rave‑O‑Lution, and if that name doesn't give you an instant idea of its target market, it's time to take up knitting. On the face of it, the 309 appears to be direct competition for Roland's MC303 Groovebox; that is to say, a combination of drum machine, pattern‑based sequencer and analogue‑style synth, with 100 appropriately programmed preset Patterns to get you started. As befits the current trend for all things analogue, the Rave‑O‑Lution offers real‑time control in a big way — just check out the knobbage on the front panel! — and the sound/sequence engine takes its lead from classic instruments such as Roland's TB303 Bassline and TR909 drum machine — 309, geddit?!?
Like Roland's MC303, the 309 is a table‑top box, and about the same size as that machine, although a little extra height makes the 309 seem more substantial. The finish is brushed aluminium, and thus shinier than the MC303, with a lot more knobs (36 altogether) and some nifty blue buttons. Although they appear solid, the buttons are actually translucent, flashing red (courtesy of an integral LED) when activated.
Generally speaking, the front panel is divided into two areas, with the main synth and drum sound controls at the top and the sequencer and other controls at the bottom, arranged around the 2‑line by 14‑character liquid crystal display and large alpha dial. Apart from controlling the sequencer, certain of these bottom‑half buttons allow you to edit sounds and system functions (such as global MIDI channel and sync status) using a '90s‑style parameter‑access interface. Clearly‑labelled buttons — the sequencer transport functions, Edit, Exit, Page Left and Right, and Write, for example — make navigating the 309 pretty simple from power up.
We'll discuss the allocation of knobs and buttons in a moment; let's just tie up the broad description with a note that the back panel offers MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a pair of audio outs, an assignable footswitch socket, and a power input: the PSU itself is external (with none‑too‑long leads), unfortunately. There's also a further quartet of holes, labelled but blanked off by a panel: an optional upgrade which adds a pair of audio ins and another pair of audio outs fits in here.
The exact details of the 309's sound generation technology, which Quasimidi has dubbed AES (Analog Emulation Synthesis), are vague. It utilises a combination of samples — most of the basic drum sounds — and DSP‑based modelled synth waveforms, although certain sustained bass drums and cymbals are also modelled; further modelling, of the subtractive synthesis variety (with 24dB/oct resonant filter), is available to treat any sound. As one might expect from a hi‑tech instrument of the '90s, there are also effects on board — two simultaneous treatments, plus EQ.
The Sound Source
The layout of the 309's 'sound module' is logical: a clearly labelled section is provided for each of its five sounds — Kick, Snare, Hi‑hat, Percussion Set (which provides a further 12 percussion sounds) and monophonic Bass/Lead Synthesizer. All instruments are monophonic, apart from the Percussion Set which can, if you wish, sound all of its 12 drum voices at once. Each section has its own collection of real‑time control knobs, the alterations of which can be recorded by the on‑board sequencer, or transmitted over MIDI, for reliable replay later. The basic knob‑controllable parameters are as follows:
- Kick: Instrument, Tune, Attack, Decay, Level, Sound
- Snare: Instrument, Tune, Tone, Decay, Level, Sound
- Hi‑hat: Instrument, Tune, Decay, Level, Sound
- Percussion Set: Perc Set, Tone, Decay, Level, Sound
- Bass/Lead Synthesizer: Wave, Attack, Decay, Sustain, Accent, Glide, Resonance, Envelope Mod, Level, Cutoff, Sound
Pretty self‑explanatory, although I'll point out that Instrument and Wave select between different raw waveforms, Perc Set changes to a different percussion set (there are 10), and Sound selects an actual patch.
Each section has its own collection of patches — 64 each for the drum sounds and 128 for the bass/lead synth. The sonic raw material is a collection of waveforms or samples: 26 kick drums; 25 snares; seven hi‑hats and 28 synth waveforms. The Percussion set has the option of 10 editable sets of 12 drum sounds each, which can be chosen from a pool of 128 raw waveforms.
All the 309's sounds have even more parameters that aren't accessible via the main knobs, but can be changed using the parameter access editing — for example, the envelope generator does have a release parameter, but this doesn't have a dedicated knob. Each section is, in itself, a complete synth, albeit a percussion synth in the case of each of the drums. The complete list of editing parameters available (including the ones without dedicated knobs) is as follows:
- VCF drive (a pre‑filter distortion parameter)
- Cutoff frequency
- Filter envelope modulation
- Filter dynamic modulation
- EG attack, EG decay, EG sustain, EG release
- VCA gate
In addition, the bass/lead synth has parameters for glide; LFO waveform, rate, depth, VCO modulation, VCF modulation, VCA modulation; and Hold pedal.
Note that when you're editing a Percussion Set, the general 'synth' parameters treat all 12 sounds within the set. The control over each individual sound consists solely of tuning, effects sends, pan and level.
Quite apart from the knobs, all five sections have a pair of buttons labelled Mute and Select; the first mutes a section, while the second activates it for editing. Looking at the front‑panel picture, you'll notice that the synth section has more knobs than the drum and percussion sections. This doesn't mean that the percussion sounds are any less editable or controllable in real time: pressing and holding the select button allows the section you're working on to be processed by all the knobs provided for the synth section — the knobs basically become assignable to whichever section you want — without your having to go into the parameter‑access Edit mode. So the filter can be used to treat, in real time, the Kick, Snare, Hi‑hat and Percussion Set, with tweaks being recordable by the sequencer or sent out over MIDI.
The synth section has one further button, labelled VCA/Gate; this overrides the envelope settings (which are normally shared by the filter and the VCA), letting a note sound for the length of its gate time.
Each section is routed through a virtual mixer, with level, pan and two effects send controls. The two effects units offer, broadly speaking, reverb (Room 1, 2, 3; Hall 1, 2; Plate; Delay; Pan Delay) and modulation effects (Chorus 1, 2, 3, 4; Feedback Chorus; Flanger; Short Delay; Feedback Delay). The whole stereo mix is then passed through a global 2‑band parametric EQ and an 'Overblast' control. The latter provides a "linear addition to the bass tone range". Think of it as a bass boost, similar to that found on the MC303; I suspect most users will leave this full on, but they should watch their speakers!
Let's talk about MIDI for a moment: hands up those of you expecting all the drum sounds to be on MIDI channel 10, as per the standard established by General MIDI? In fact, each of the five sections has its own MIDI channel, set consecutively (if, for example, the main System MIDI channel is 1, the Kick drum is on channel 1, the Snare on 2, the hi‑hat on 3, and so on). These channel assignments hold whether you're playing the sounds from an external source or transmitting knob movements over MIDI. Note that while knob movements can be sent over MIDI at any time, you have to make the decision to transmit notes: a special page in the mixer menu sets the 'track' mode to internal (which plays the on‑board sound) or external; you can't have both at the same time.
The 309's sequencer is essentially a 5‑track, pattern‑based device, with recording available in real or step time. The latter utilises a TR909‑like grid edit (with the row of 16 buttons, or pads, that run across the bottom of the front panel providing the grid) for percussion, and an MC202‑like event list for the bass/lead synth. A set of buttons on the left of the front panel take the form of one octave of a piano keyboard: this can be used to enter notes or events, and can be transposed if necessary. It is not velocity sensitive: velocity and gate values (four each) can be entered from the front panel with dedicated buttons. The actual velocity and gate values imposed by these buttons are user‑definable. If you write sequences using an external MIDI keyboard, however, you get access to a full velocity range (plus pitch bend and modulation).
There are 100 unerasable preset and 100 user Patterns on board, and these can be chained together to make Songs — up to 16. As simple as this may sound, Quasimidi have added one further layer of sophistication: Motifs. When you record a Pattern, you're actually recording five Motifs, one for each of the sound sections on the front panel; there's room for 100 user Motifs, and there are already 99 preset Motifs on board. A Randomise function, as found on Quasimidi's Raven, will randomly play back Motifs for you, which could be fun. The manual is a little confusing on the subject of Motifs, but you can pretty well ignore them initially and simply think in terms of Patterns, though Motifs come in handy when you want to create Patterns based on existing material, since new Patterns can be easily created from any Motifs that are already on board. The sequencer also offers a 'Special Loop Tracks' function, which allows Motifs to be assigned to pads for live triggering during a performance — rather like a fill‑in on an auto‑accompaniment keyboard, except more fun.
If 16 steps per 4‑beat bar isn't a high enough resolution for you, as with Roland drum machines it's possible to change this: you can also select 8th note, 12th (8th triplet), 24th (16th triplet) and 32nd note resolution. Sixteen pads won't be enough to enter or edit 32 32nd notes, so use the Page buttons to scroll through the various sections of a Pattern. The same is true of Patterns that are more than one bar long. You can freely change resolution, with an 8th‑note kick drum Motif playing alongside a 16th‑note triplet hi‑hat and a very busy 32nd‑note bass synth; you can even record events using one resolution, then add more events to the same Motif using a different resolution. The only problem here is that not only can you not easily switch voices during grid or step record, but the sequencer also judders somewhat as you do so.
It's probably worth elaborating here on how many tracks the sequencer offers: as I said earlier, it's basically a 5‑track job, but when you're working with the Percussion Set part in drum grid mode, it feels as though you've got an extra 12 tracks — you're building up a Percussion part one instrument at a time, to a total of 12 instruments, in a similar manner to the TR808 and TR909.
In addition to the above, the sequencer has a sixth track, the Master Track, available only for use on a completed Song. This Master Track is used to record all front‑panel tweaks and is one of the truly fun aspects of the 309, but be warned that there is a 'working' time lag when you've finished recording the Master Track as the new data is merged with the original song material. A particularly violent tweaking session on a long Song might take a while to compute. Let's just make sure this is quite clear: you don't record knob‑tweaks while you're laying down the Patterns that make up a Song; you add them all at the end when the Patterns have been chained into a Song.
Unfortunately, the 309 doesn't offer any variety when it comes to time signatures: its sequencer is permanently in 4/4. On the positive side, however, the 309 will easily synchronise to other MIDI equipment, although when using the 309 as a slave, you need to hit its Play button before starting a sequence on the master machine. Sadly, the 309 doesn't respond to Song Position Pointers, which means that you'll always have to start your sequences from the top.
The Edit button opens up a world of minute control over sounds and sequences. Use the Page buttons to scroll through the options and you find the following main headings: Sound, Mix, Pattern, Song, FX1, FX2, EQ, Pads and System. The small display is a little inadequate here, but a logical hierarchy takes you fairly painlessly through the various levels of the operating system. When it comes to drum and synth sounds, you can pretty well customise them with the control knobs, and save the results, but using the parameter‑access option gives you more control.
What you don't get is the option to name all of your work; raw sound waveforms are provided with names, and you can name the 16 Songs, but Motifs, Patterns and sounds remain numbers forever. And with 64 memory locations for each drum sound, 128 for the synth sounds, and the large number of Patterns and Motifs, that's a lot of numbers. If this isn't fixed in a future software upgrade, you'll have to get out the pen and paper to keep track of your work. To be honest, this is also the case with the MC303, which lacks even an LCD. At least the 309 lets you see the name of the parameter you're editing or tweaking at any time.
Saving your work is accomplished courtesy of the Write button, which also hides a menu for the initialisation of Patterns and Motifs, plus some commands for sending the 309's memory contents as a MIDI System Exclusive Dump. You can send sounds or sequences, and also have the option to send a Temporary Dump — a dump of only the active parameters for current Patterns and sounds.
Take it out of the box, and the Rave‑O‑Lution is one of the most immediately useable products on the market. Plug it in, start the sequencer, and tweak away. It sounds great, it's easy and it's fun. As I said earlier, the front panel is clearly and logically labelled, so it's quite simple to figure out what you need to do to edit a sound or a Pattern and so on. When it comes to the minutiae, however, it's time to dig out the manual. It's clear and nicely laid out, but not, regrettably, totally coherent. The contents seem to jump around a bit, and there is no index to get you to specific topics quickly. Luckily, the important points that you wouldn't necessarily discover on your own — such as pressing and holding the Select buttons to give drum parts access to the synth section's knobs — come up quite easily in the manual, but trying to figure out all the fiddly little moves needed to edit sequences can take a little time.
Since the 309 is aimed at the dance market, the ability to use it live could be seen as essential. And Quasimidi haven't let us down. It's possible to assign Patterns to the pads at the bottom of the panel, and the Loop Tracks mentioned earlier help to add a bit of variety. The real essence of live performance with the 309 comes from the drum and synth knobs, and a positive feel and general lack of zipper noise makes for a very satisfying experience.
Used in a MIDI studio, you'll find the 309 pretty flexible. As perverse as it may sound, I wrote sequences using just external sounds (remembering that individual drum sounds are on different MIDI channels), and produced some pleasing results — like using an analogue sequencer or a TR909 with modern digital synths. Playing the internal sounds from an external sequencer also works well, and is a valid option; another thing you might want to do is record a finished 309 performance into an external sequencer for high‑level manipulation. Synchronisation is tight in both directions (which is not necessarily the case with the MC303) — the 309 locks quickly to an external sync source and also provides prompt and reliable leadership when used as the master in a MIDI system. Full control over all parameters is available via MIDI: the MIDI controller listing and MIDI implementation chart in the manual will aid the intrepid when it comes to defining software mixer maps.
For me, the Rave‑O‑Lution 309 feels rather like the machine Roland's MC303 should have been. The MC303 is still good, mind you, but the 309 has more of a gritty, raw, analogue feel about it. The user interface (and sequencer) is fairly similar on both units (though, I feel, rather more accessible on the 309) but, sonically, Quasimidi's modelling‑plus‑samples approach beats a box full of samples any time. The filter models on the 309 are superb — really fat and squelchy.
The preset Patterns are good, make no mistake: there are extremely fine replications of typical rave and dance styles here (including a wry nod in Kraftwerk's direction). However, I would have preferred to be able to write over the presets, and perhaps be given the option to restore them later. All the sound memories, which are full of factory sounds when you get the 309, can be overwritten with your own creations.
If you're not a rave or techno enthusiast, don't be put off by the name: just because Quasimidi are aiming the Rave‑O‑Lution at the dance market, this doesn't mean that non‑dance musicians should avoid it. Remember that the TR909 and TB303 were simply drum machine and bass sequencer respectively when they were first released — only later did fashion cause them to evolve into hyper‑trendy dance boxes. Look at what the Rave‑O‑Lution offers for musicians of almost any kind: a superb bass synth with great filters, a collection of excellent drum sounds, and a pretty accessible sequencer. Then there are the effects and the all‑important real‑time control. If you're at all nostalgic about the way synths, drum machines and sequencers used to operate, the very modern but very traditional 309 has plenty to offer you.
- Synthesis system: Analog Emulation Synthesis, a combination of samples and modelled subtractive synthesis.
- Polyphony: 17 voices.
- Sound Storage: 128 synth sound memories, 64 memories each for Kick, Snare, Hi‑hat, Percussion Set.
- Sequencer: 5‑track sequencer, plus Master Track.
- Song & Pattern capacity: 16 Songs (up to 99 steps of up to 64 bars each), 100 User Patterns (up to eight bars per Pattern), 100 ROM Patterns.
- Effects: Reverb, Modulation/Delay, 2‑band parametric EQ, Overblast.
- Display: 2‑line x 16‑character backlit LCD.
- Connections: 2 quarter‑inch jacks for L/R stereo out, MIDI In, Out & Thru, quarter‑inch footswitch jack.
It's A Model And It's Sounding Good...
While I'd like to say something about the quality of the 309's factory sounds, I can't really give you the usual obligatory guided tour of favourite presets, since they're not named, being designated simply by numbers. The 128 factory synth sounds are made up from 28 waveform models (not samples), including Sawtooth, Sine, Square, and Triangle waves, Moog waves and distortion Sine and Triangle waves. Detuned, double‑oscillator versions of some waveforms are also provided. The factory set is uniformly authentic, and mostly concentrated in the bass end of the spectrum (though the synth section is called a bass/lead synth, I suspect most will be using it for low‑frequency duties). While perfectly capable of emulating a TB303, the 309's synth section goes way beyond this type of sound.
Each of the drum sections feels like a little synth too; while most of the raw material is sampled (from the TR909, TR808 and TR606 drum machines), some are actually models. For example, modelled white noise can be used to create snares from scratch — and we all know the irritation of trying to use sampled white noise. It changes pitch as you tune a patch based on it.
When editing a sound, either with the real‑time control knobs or via parameter access, you feel very much as if you're editing a real analogue synth rather than a digital approximation. And if what you're looking for in the sound department is Analogue with a capital 'A', I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Rave‑O‑Lution Evolution: Expandability
Quasimidi have had a refreshing policy of building upgradability into their instruments from the start, whether for memory, sound expansion or extra audio outputs. The 309 continues this healthy trend: underneath the unit is a small, removable panel which provides access for a forthcoming sound and oscillator waveform expansion option (which we don't have much info about at the moment), and at the back there's a blank panel offering space for an extra four audio sockets. These provide two more audio outputs and a pair of audio ins, the latter of which would be used for treating external sources with the 309's entire sound‑shaping armoury.
- An all‑in‑one dance machine, which, however, can work
- Loads of knobs for loads of real‑time control.
- Great sound matched by great looks.
- No naming of sounds, Patterns or Motifs.
- Changing between some modes causes sequencer to jump.
- External PSU, with not very long leads.
One of the hottest products to come out of Germany, and one of the hottest products, full stop, for this year so far. Ignore at your peril if you're anywhere near interested in bloopy, dubby rave, and have a go if you're in any way electronically biased.