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KORG TRITON STUDIO

November 1, 2002
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Korg had a phenomenal hit back in the mid-1980s with one of the first keyboard workstations, the M1. In the years since, Korg has worked hard to keep its edge in the workstation market. Each generation of flagship workstations — the O1/W, the Trinity, and now the Triton — has been a great leap forward.

In a sense, the Triton Studio is the ultimate keyboard workstation (see Fig. 1). One of its most significant features is that the ability to burn CDs has been grafted onto the original Triton's powerful synthesis and sampling engine. The Triton Studio is the first keyboard in which you can take your production from a MIDI sketch all the way through to the final CD master without the need to power up another piece of gear.

EM's review of the original Triton (see the January 2000 issue) covered its voice architecture and other features in depth. This time around, I'll take a look at the features that are unique to the Triton Studio: a 16 MB grand piano multisample; the ability to sample or resample from any mode (even while sequencing); the ability to resample to the internal hard drive; seven PCM expansion slots rather than two; and twice as much polyphony as the original. Additional enhancements include six times the processing power and S/PDIF I/O. Before I explore those new capabilities, though, I'll recap the story so far, for the benefit of those who came in late.

SIRENS OF TRITON

The best thing about the Triton Studio is its sound. Or rather, sounds. The Triton Studio has room for 1,536 Programs and 1,536 Combis in RAM. As if that weren't enough, it has 256 General MIDI 2 (GM2) programs in ROM. If you have the MOSS board installed, there are locations for another 128 RAM Programs (see the sidebar “Climb on a Board”). The total number of sounds depends on how many expansion boards you have installed. The Studio ships with 512 Combis, 768 Programs, and 29 Drum Kits in memory, leaving plenty of room for new sounds.

I got lost for hours checking out the Combis — spectacularly big, speaker-filling productions. Many use the dual arpeggiators to produce inspiring hip-hop, dance, and ethnic grooves. Spacious pads are also in plentiful supply. If you're in the soundtrack business, you could rough out an underscore with one of these babies in no time flat. You practically wouldn't need to add anything; the Combis sound complete as they are.

Among the internal Programs, I found the choirs and new-age pads especially tasty. The drums are very punchy and solid, quite the antithesis of new age. The cheerful arpeggios of ProgressivTrance put me in an '80s electropop mood, and Chord Trigger addresses the same style from a darker space. The synth-lead department offers plenty of variety. Although the Studio is a little short on physical drawbars, the Studio's many Hammond imitations would go down very well at a club gig.

The new 16 MB acoustic piano multisample (a Bösendorfer) lives on the main board alongside the remaining 32 MB of waveform ROM. Compared with the original Triton piano, the new one has longer, smoother loops in the bass register. Its two-way Velocity cross-switching is so smooth and effective that I had to listen closely to hear it, and that's a very good thing. You can tinker with the cross-switch point in the oscillator page, but Korg got it just right in the Programs that use those samples. The Studio's programming capabilities also let you tailor the sound to suit your needs or preferences.

The original piano sound has a fatter bass response, but that's partly due to the 7 dB of bass boost in program A001. There's very little EQ in the basic Bösendorfer preset (C001). In Euro Grand (D001), a boost in the bass takes advantage of the keyboard being tuned an octave lower, giving the Triton all the presence of a nine-foot grand. The Bösendorfer has more presence in the upper midrange, but that's not to say it's lacking in the bass. It just sounds rich and full, the way a piano should. Although I might not want to use it on a classical recording, I would have no trouble laying it into a pop ballad mix.

Korg also deserves praise for the great effects section, which includes five insert effects for each Program, Combi, or Song, as well as two master effects and a 3-band stereo EQ. Whether you're into lush new-age beds or grinding grunge, the Triton Studio will deliver.

The Triton's filters are less powerful, offering either a resonant lowpass or a nonresonant lowpass/highpass pair that operates as a bandpass filter with adjustable width. There's no notch filter, no choice of rolloff slope, and no filter overdrive. To my ears, the resonant lowpass is satisfactory for shaping complex sampled waveforms, but less than ideal for analog simulations. If you crave a Triton and need something resembling authentic analog, I'd recommend adding the MOSS board.

FACE TIME

I like the Studio's 61-note keyboard action a lot; it's light and snappy, but it feels solid. The ribbon controller and four programmable knobs are also very handy for performance. I'd be happy to take the unit on a gig.

The Studio uses Korg's futuristic touchscreen, and although I appreciate having a large, well-organized display, I found it difficult to use. Perhaps fiddling with its calibration would have helped, but the touchscreen didn't always sense my fingernail on the first try. Besides, curling your finger under so you can tap with your fingernail is not a natural hand position. I found that tapping the screen with a makeshift stylus was more reliable and more comfortable. Other users might like the touchscreen, but I would have preferred a standard cursor diamond.

Most of my other user-interface complaints are minor. The disk operating system allows only eight-character, DOS-style file names. That led to some confusion when I tried loading WAV files from third-party CD-ROMs, because the Triton was unable to display the correct file names. (The Studio never found the WAV files on eLab's Abstract HipHop CD, although my computer had no trouble seeing them. Korg says that the latest OS should correct the problem.)

After creating and saving a multisample, I made a few edits and tried to resave it, but I got an error message saying, “File already exists.” So where's the Overwrite Existing File button? For that file type, astonishingly, there isn't one, though other types of disk files can be overwritten.

Another small gripe is that in the Sample Edit page, when you make changes to the sample loop as you hold a key, you can't hear the loop change as it plays. Several other samplers (even my old Kurzweil K2500) and sampling programs provide that capability, and it's unbelievably convenient. Korg would do well to revise the Triton's loop editor.

FREQUENT SEQUENCER MILES

Although a workstation's sequencer is unlikely to surpass the capabilities of a digital audio workstation, the Triton Studio's sequencer has some useful features. It can record incoming audio (such as a vocal) into a RAM track, for example, and loop individual tracks. If you're planning to take the Triton onstage, you'll certainly appreciate the sequencer's cue list, which can spool out an entire set's worth of songs.

Compared with previous Tritons, the Studio features an improved method of importing Combis into its sequencer. Thanks to some sophisticated OS capabilities, the Combi's arpeggiator, effects, and MIDI channel settings are modified in such a way that when you find a Combi you like, you can start transforming it into a song without much muss or fuss. A minor limitation is that you can import the Combi only into tracks 1 through 8 or 9 through 16.

Transferring a single Program into the sequencer is more difficult than transferring a Combi. After pounding out a catchy two-finger beat with a factory drum kit, I decided I wanted to start a new song. When I dialed up the identical drum-kit Program in the sequencer, none of the effects or EQ settings were imported. By the time I had copied the necessary insert and master effects and then assigned the effects-send settings to the track, my inspiration had evaporated. To remedy the problem, Korg expects to implement a Copy Prog to Seq command in a future OS update. (I reviewed OS 1.0.1.)

My greatest disappointment was that the sequencer doesn't do swing/shuffle quantization — only straight duplets and triplets. Fortunately, Korg says that swing/shuffle quantization is expected in an OS update soon, and it has recently been implemented in the original Triton's OS. In a market dominated by dance and hip-hop, such an update is sorely needed. I was also bothered that you can't start playback while you're editing the event list; you have to leave Edit mode to listen to your edits.

On the other hand, I was pleased to discover 16 factory-programmed Song Templates that provide sounds, effects settings, and drum patterns, which you can use to jump-start the song-recording process. You can also store 16 Templates of your own. For use in live performance, Korg's RPPR (Realtime Pattern Play/Recording) phrase player lets you assign 150 drum patterns to individual keys.

Even without a dedicated front-panel button, it's easy to switch back and forth between arpeggios in performance: just pop into Edit mode and type in the arpeggio numbers on the fly. The Triton will segue flawlessly from one arpeggio to another. You can even do that as you record tracks into the sequencer. It's a great time-saving feature, and inspirational too. Some of the drum patterns have an exotic flavor when you use them on the “wrong” kit.

BIG AUDIO FUN

The Triton Studio isn't just a synthesizer; it speaks digital audio too. It comes standard with S/PDIF I/O, and the optional EXB-DI board ($200) provides six channels of ADAT Lightpipe out and word clock in (see Fig. 2).

If straight sampling doesn't suit your needs, you can record incoming audio to a sequencer RAM track, as I mentioned. Internal resampling to either RAM or hard disk is supported. You can transfer an entire sequenced song, complete with RAM tracks of acoustic instruments, onto the internal hard drive to create a stereo WAV file. When you're ready to share your creation with your bandmates or listen to the mix in the car, just burn an audio CD using the optional CDRW-1×8 drive ($199) or an external SCSI CD-R.

For setting up multisamples, the Triton will import a bunch of WAV files all at once by using wildcards in the file name. Even slicker is the Time Slice command, which chops a beat loop into individual drum hits, ReCycle-style, and creates a sequence track that triggers the slices one by one. In theory, you can slow down or speed up the sequencer and change the tempo of the loop. I could introduce a modest amount of time-stretching with drum-only loops, but just as with ReCycle, loops with bass or other pitched elements tended to get choppy when I slowed down the sequencer tempo. If you want to isolate certain drum hits to do fills or stuttering effects, though, time slicing will do the job nicely.

Although the Korg Trinity played back as many as four audio tracks from its hard drive, that feature was bafflingly omitted from the Triton Studio. The stock Studio comes with 16 MB of RAM, which is plenty to get you going, but the unit tops out at 96 MB, which is less than many dedicated samplers. The RAM is segmented into 16 MB blocks, and no single mono sample can exceed that size. That's a reasonable limitation, though, when you consider that 16 MB is enough RAM to record the entire vocal for a three-minute song.

When I was ready to burn a CD, I was surprised that the Triton Studio wouldn't let me specify the length of time between tracks. Two seconds of silence are automatically inserted at the end of each track, and you can't change that amount. Unless you export the track to a computer, you can't add or trim silence after a song is recorded. Depending on your needs, then, you still might need a computer when it's time to do your duplication master.

TRUE TONE

The Triton Studio is a powerful instrument with great sounds and an impressive list of features. True, it's on the pricey side, but you get a generous voice and effects count: even the basic model is packed with great sounds. If you need more, I'd recommend the Vintage Archives expansion card for analog-style tones or Future Loop Construction for percussion tracks.

It's been a long time since I was so seriously tempted to buy a synth, but I can't help wishing the OS and user interface were as good as the sounds. As much as I like Korg's ribbon controller and arpeggiator, the touchscreen is just not my cup of tea. If Korg built an instrument with the Triton's synth and arpeggiator in a box by themselves, complete with all the insert effects and expansion boards but with no other bells or whistles, it would jump to the top of my shopping list. For many musicians, though, the Triton Studio might be the ideal one-box-does-it-all solution.


Jim Aikin has been writing about synthesizers and music technology in a variety of magazines for more than 25 years. For fun, he writes interactive software and plays classical piano.

Triton Studio Specifications

Analog Audio Outputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS main; (4) unbalanced ¼" TS assignable; (1) ¼" TRS stereo headphone
Analog Audio Inputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS mic/line
Digital Audio I/O (1) optical S/PDIF; 24-bit; 48 kHz
Control I/O MIDI In, Out, Thru; (1) SCSI (50-pin half-pitch); (1) ¼" damper pedal; (1) ¼" assignable switch/pedal
Sound Engine PCM playback; sampling
Keyboard (61), (76), or (88) keys; transmits Velocity and Key Pressure
Polyphony (120) notes (mono); (60) notes (stereo)
Multitimbral Parts 16
Program Memory (1,536) RAM (512 preloaded); 256 GM2 ROM
Combi Memory (1,536) RAM (512 preloaded)
Drum Kits (144) RAM (20 preloaded); (9) GM2 ROM
Waveform ROM 48 MB, expandable to 112 MB; (429) multisamples, (417) drum samples
Sample RAM 16 MB; expandable to 96 MB
Sampling Rate 16-bit, 48 kHz
Sample Import Formats AIFF, Akai S1000/S3000, WAV
Filters (1) 24 dB/octave resonant lowpass; (1) 12 dB/octave lowpass/highpass
Effects (5) insert (stereo in/out); (2) master (mono in/stereo out); (1) master 3-band stereo EQ (all simultaneous); (102) insert effects types; (89) master effects types
Arpeggiators (2) polyphonic; (5) preset patterns; (507) user patterns (367 preloaded)
Sequencer (16) channel tracks; (1) master track; 192 ppqn; (200,000) notes; (200) songs; (20) cue lists; (150) preset patterns; (100) user patterns for each song; RPPR
Left-Hand Controllers (1) joystick; (1) ribbon; (2) switches
Disk Drives (1) 5 GB hard drive; (1) 3.5” floppy drive; (1) optional CDRW-1×8
Expansion Slots (7) EXB-PCM; (1) EXB-MOSS; (3) 72-pin SIMM
Display TouchView 320 × 240-pixel backlit LCD
Dimensions (61-key model) 43.46" (W) × 5.08" (H) × 15.04" (D)
Weight (61-key model) 37.92 lb.

CLIMB ON A BOARD

The unit I received for review was packed with expansion boards: Orchestral Collection, Dance Extreme, Future Loop Construction, Studio Essentials, Vintage Archives, and MOSS.

The multisamples for the 32 MB Orchestral Collection ($480) are taken from Peter Siedlaczek's well-known sample library. It's a versatile set, with lots of strings (including tremolando and pizzicato samples and some solo instruments as well as sections), winds, orchestral percussion, and harp. A few performance flourishes (harp glissandi, violin runs, and so on) are included. Orchestral Collection comes with two additional banks of Programs and Combis.

The Dance Extreme board ($240) features tons of individual drum hits — good ones. I'd happily use the Program called Raw RnB Kit as the foundation of a radio track. Room-filling synth basses are also in plentiful supply. The rest of the ROM is filled with a grab bag of guitar chords, chord hits, and “gospel” vocal phrases. There's no documentation on what key the singers were singing in (if any), and their intonation is pretty spotty.

If you crave fresh percussion tracks, Future Loop Construction ($240) would be an even better choice. I have to give Korg full points for innovation. Rather than providing sampled loops that are set in stone, Korg split the loops up using Propellerhead ReCycle 2.0 (yes, they're stereo) and loaded the ReCycle MIDI phrases into the Triton's RPPR section. As a result, you can change the tempo of any loop without changing its pitch.

The loops sound great over a wide range of tempos, with no stuttering or glitching. You can replace any drum hit with any other sound from the kit and event-edit the rhythms, so you can totally customize the loops. There's no need, however, because these grooves are totally happening right out of the box. Styles covered include hip-hop, rock/pop, Latin, drum 'n' bass, house, and R&B. Several variations are available for each groove, and there's a scattering of fills. Whether you're a songwriter or a project-studio owner whose clients demand great grooves on a tight deadline, Future Loop Construction will be a must-have.

The 16 MB Studio Essentials board ($240) supplies rich choirs and alternate string, brass, and woodwind samples. If you get a lot of calls to add sweetening to rock and country tracks, you might appreciate having some extra colors. “Essentials” might not be the right description, though the string and brass ensembles are in stereo, unlike the mono ensembles in ROM. The board features a couple of solid basses as well, but the Harpsikord and Electric Sitar Programs were worse than disappointing.

I liked the Vintage Archives board ($240) a lot better. It has a broad assortment of short waveforms sampled from old analog gear. The basses and leads sound quite cool, and many Programs gave me flashbacks to the '80s. The distortion and tremolo in Vintage EP200 are especially tasty, turning a square wave into a reasonable Wurlie imitation.

The EXB-MOSS board ($600) is a cool piece of hardware. Its synthesis architecture is completely different from the rest of the Triton. It has both analog-style oscillators and physical models — electric piano, brass, plucked string, and so on. If you've never heard a physical model of a trumpet before, you're in for a treat: when you use the Pitch Bend, you'll hear the player's embouchure “break” in a way that a sample playback synth simply can't duplicate. The richness of the plucked string and electric piano models is also sweet. And the shimmering glitter of the Acid Rain Program, which uses a comb filter, is quite striking.

The MOSS board has been around for a few years (as far as I can tell, it hasn't been updated since it debuted in the Korg Z1), and its six-note polyphony isn't exactly a cutting-edge spec. To layer a MOSS sound with a standard sound in a Combi, you have to tell the Combi how many MOSS voices to make available. That makes sense, but I was stumped for a few minutes because the MOSS board didn't seem to work in Combi mode; then I discovered that the default setting is zero voices.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Korg
Triton Studio
keyboard workstation
61-key $3,400
76-key $3,800
88-key
$4,200

FEATURES 3.5
EASE OF USE 3.5
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.5
VALUE 3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Huge set of high-quality sounds. Built-in hard drive. Resampling. Excellent multi-effects. Plenty of insert effects per sound. Effects can be used in real time with external sources. Versatile arpeggiator with tons of pattern memory. CD burning with optional CD-RW drive.

CONS: Can't play audio tracks from hard drive. No swing/shuffle quantization. Can't control amount of silence between tracks when burning audio CDs. Can't adjust loop point while auditioning sample. Can't audition sequence edits while in event edit page.

Manufacturer

Korg U.S.A., Inc.
tel. (516) 333-9100
Web www.korg.com

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