In 1988 Korg launched the M1, which, if we set aside unaffordable monsters such as the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier, introduced on-board sequencing, 8-part multitimbrality, and the workstation concept to the world. It also introduced Korg’s AI (Advanced Integrated) method of synthesis. This, although it lacked resonant filters, was bright and flexible, and was a great success, so much so that Korg produced a rackmount version (the M1R), a cut-down module (the M3R), and three souped-up keyboards (the T3, T2, and T1). There was even a rackmount version of the T3, although, with somewhat arcane logic, Korg named this the M1R EX.
Still with me? OK… The next chapter in the AI story came in 1991 and, predictably enough, was called AI2. This came in the form of the second-generation O1/W and O1/W FD keyboards, and the rackmount O1R/W. As before, there was a baby rackmount, the 03R/W, but this time there were no equivalents to the T-series. The big difference between the ‘M’s and the ‘O’s was a facility called ‘wave-shaping’. In principle, this allowed you to distort the waveform, adding many high harmonics and, therefore, brightening the sound. And there was no doubt about it: the ‘O’s were noticeably brighter than their forebears, although (and few people seemed to notice this at the time) you could count on your fingers and toes alone the number of factory programs that used wave-shaping. Clearly, the second-generation machines were definite improvements upon their predecessors.
The third generation, introduced in 1993, used another new method of synthesis. This lacked wave-shaping but, for reasons that Korg have never explained, was still called AI2. Nevertheless, the new AI2 retained much of the brightness of the O-series, and the basic model of this generation (the 32-voice X3 keyboard) leapt straight to the top of the best-selling lists, where it resided for the next couple of years. Other third-generation products included the inevitable X3R, the X2, and the 05R/W. Uh-oh, this is getting confusing…
Despite its ‘O’ prefix, the O5R/W was an X3 module, the only difference between this and the X3R being the omission of one bank of sounds and the lack of a sequencer. But now things get really crazy… The X5 was the next X-series keyboard, but this was an O5R/W with a keyboard — or, to put it another way, an X3 without a disk drive or sequencer. The X5D was a 64-voice version of the X5, and the X5DR was the rackmount of that.
Now, eight years down the line, we have the fourth generation, the N-series, comprising the N364 and the N264. Snappy names, aren’t they? But here’s the joke: while the ’64’ refers to the number of voices (no problem there) and the ‘3’ and the ‘2’ refer to the keyboard size, in time-honoured T3/T2 and X3/X2 fashion, rumour has it that the ‘N’ refers to ‘Next Generation’. Why’s that funny? Because, while the ‘T’, ‘O’ and ‘X’ prefixes referred to derivatives of Korg’s original synthesis, the sound generation in the N-series is identical to that of the latter X-series synths and modules. The N364 is the keyboard version of the X5DR, with the same amount of PCM ROM, and the same chip-set, but with the disk drive and sequencer reinstated from the X3. Indeed, the N364 sounds identical to an X5DR. ‘N’ stands for ‘No changes’, maybe?
Well, of course there are changes, but they are more subtle than the introduction of a new method of synthesis. So let’s delve below the surface and discover whether Korg have struck gold again, or whether the enhancements embodied in the N364 are more along the lines of the Emperor’s New Clothes…
Physically, the 61-key N364 is very reminiscent of the X3, with an almost identical body and end cheeks. Indeed, the top panel is the same aluminium extrusion, the only difference being the width of the screen cut-out. The colouring is different, however, and I rather like the gun-metal blue, which reminds me of the OASYS prototype I first saw 13 months ago, but which has yet to appear in public..
Continuing in this mode of comparing the N364 to the X3, I can summarise the voicing of the N-series very easily. The N364 is simply two X3s bundled together, so it’s got twice as much of everything. For example, the X3 offered a maximum polyphony of 32 voices, so the N364 has 64. Likewise, where the X3 offered a single bank of GM Programs plus two non-GM banks of Programs and Combis, the N364 has four non-GM banks, though it retains the one GM bank. Furthermore, the N364’s 8Mb of sample ROM is 1.33 times that of the X3 (OK, so most generalisations don’t bear close examination) and, as already mentioned, there are twice the number of outputs as on the X3. If there’s a subjective difference in sound (for example, I always felt that the X5DR sounded better than the X3) it’s probably a consequence of better factory programming. Once you’ve worked with a synthesis engine for a year or two, you learn a few tricks which enable you to create better voices. This happened with the T-series (Korg’s programmers were considerably better at voicing the T3 than they were the M1) and I’m sure that, out of the box, the N364 sounds a whole lot better than its ostensibly identical predecessors.
On that basis, there’s not much point in lingering over the N364’s programming capabilities, nor the quality of the results, in great detail. These have been covered in our reviews of the X3R (February ’94) and the X5DR (May ’95). Still, I should pause to give the GM bank special mention because it’s one of the best I’ve yet encountered. What’s more, it’s editable, so full marks to Korg here. It’s also worth pointing out that, while the N364 has lost the O1/W’s wave-shaping facility, it’s brighter, cleaner, and offers extended parameters regarding the panning of the oscillators, and the way in which you can apply effects to individual parts. Finally, I should mention that the N364 retains Korg’s traditional quick editing mode: just press one of the appropriate buttons on the top panel, then use the data slider or increment/decrement buttons to change primary values. It’s hardly new — the M1 had it — but it’s still a super feature.
With regard to its Combis, the N364 takes a step backward when compared to the M-series and T-series. While the screen will tell you how many Programs are inserted within a Combi, it can only give you the numbers of Programs 1-4 or 5-8 at one time. This is not a consequence of the size of the screen, but of the way in which the space has been (mis)used. And it’s a pain. Before Korg jump on me, I’ll admit that I’m aware that the higher cost of a larger screen would have to be passed on to the consumer. But better programming should have cost no more, and besides, if the M1 could do it…
We now diverge from the N364’s predecessors, because we come to the all-new, real-time Pattern-play function, part of the N364’s onboard sequencer (see ‘Sequencer Strengths’ box for more sequencer details).
Patterns are phrases that you can assign to keys. They may contain drums, or basses, or organ, or guitar — or whatever you like — and different keys access different Patterns. So, for example, bottom C could trigger your basic bass and snare, while D and E access variations, and F and G access fills. Then, C# and D# could offer hi-hats, ride and crashes, with other percussion under F# and G#. Above these notes, A, B and C could have bass riffs appropriate to the basic rhythm, with suitable fills on A# and C#… and so on. These phrases can then be played in real time from within the sequencer. The Roland XP50 has a similar feature, but the bonus of the N364 is its immediacy. The Roland demands that you decide which Patterns you wish to use and where, and then place them in the appropriate tracks. Then Korg simply invite you to put the sequencer into multitrack mode, initiate recording, then press the keys that relate to the desired Patterns and listen to the sequence develop as it’s recorded. If you press a key a little early or a little late, there’s no problem. Provided that you’re deriving MIDI clock internally, the N364 doesn’t allow you to record anything out of time, and quantises the Pattern ‘on the fly’.
There are important constraints, however. The most important of these is the need to match the Patterns to the song in which they’re being placed. Failure to do this will result in incorrect instrumentation and, in all likelihood, the wrong tempo. Serendipity isn’t my chosen method for writing music, and I’ve discovered that playing funk patterns with a light jazz kit and double bass doesn’t work. You have been warned.
Despite the fact that the N364 can store up to 100 Patterns, the nature of Pattern mode precludes a great deal of variation, and the tracks generated display a great deal of repetition. In other words, nobody is going to write a violin concerto in this fashion. On the other hand, the dance fraternity are going to love it. Programming bass and drums can be a mind-numbing operation for some people, and this is a very quick way of getting the basics recorded. Then, once the rhythm track is in, you can use the sequencer to add transposition, variation, and changes in instrumentation. Mind you, it’s hardly going to make software such as Band in a Box, or even Korg’s i-series keyboards, obsolete. It might if it, for example, recognised chords played in the upper half of the keyboard (or something like that) and tracked them in real time. But it doesn’t. You can play over the top of the Patterns, but that’s all.
In addition to the Patterns pre-loaded in the N364, and the others that Korg supply on the factory disk, you can, of course, create your own. These can be edits of the factory data, or new Patterns programmed from scratch. You can even load sequences from elsewhere, select bits and pieces that you like, and allocate these to Pattern memories.
The final major facility, and another one ‘new’ for ’96, is the N364’s arpeggiator. This offers five modes: Up, Down, Alt1, Alt2, and Random. Of these, three are self-explanatory, but the alternate modes bear explanation. On most arpeggiators, the upper and lower notes are played once per cycle — for example, a C major triad would be played over a single octave as C E G E on the first cycle, followed by C E G E again on the next. This is the behaviour exhibited by Alt1. Alt2, on the other hand, plays the highest and lowest notes at the start and end of each half-cycle, so that our triad now becomes C E G G E C, followed by C E G G E C again. You may think it a fine distinction, but this allows you to keep arpeggios within time signatures, shifting between common and complex times at the touch of a button.
The parameters that you can then apply to the arpeggio are range (1-4 octaves); note sorting; gate time (to make arpeggios more ‘choppy’); MIDI velocity (1 to 127, or the played velocity); sync; latch; and speed. Oddly, if you continue stepping sideways within the arpeggio parameters, you find yourself in the edit map of the program playing the arpeggio. Whether this is intentional or not, I don’t know, but it could be very useful, allowing you to modify the sound as the arpeggio is playing.
Article written by Gordon Reid for Sound on Sound Magazine.