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KORG TRITON

January 1, 2000
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Korg has always been good about supplying musicians with sounds that are appropriate for today's music, yesterday's music, and tomorrow's music. It is also good about improving the user interface with each new model. Every Korg workstation since the venerable M1 has been superior to previous Korg models in ways both obvious and subtle. Korg's latest offering, the Triton, is perhaps the best example ever of an all-in-one workstation that covers synthesis, sampling, sequencing, and effects processing. Unlike most workstations, it integrates these functions almost seamlessly.

The successor to the Korg Trinity, the Triton offers several improvements over its predecessor. In addition to user sampling, the Triton offers nearly twice as much polyphony, two arpeggiators, an improved sequencer, a faster touchscreen, and options you can install yourself without voiding the warranty. Add to that four Realtime Control knobs, stereo inputs, and an extra pair of outputs, and you have one serious workstation. Unfortunately, some of the Trinity's options are not yet available on the Triton, including digital I/O and hard disk recording. Like the Trinity and Z1, the Triton is housed in a plastic case that resembles brushed aluminum.

The Triton comes in three varieties. The basic Triton, which I looked at for this review, costs $2,850. It's a bargain compared with just about anything else on the market. The 76-key Triton pro is $525 more, a hefty price to pay for 15 extra keys ($35 per key). The 88-key Triton proX weighs exactly twice as much as the standard Triton and is nearly half again as long. It's $625 more than the Triton pro model, but if you need a piano-action, weighted keyboard, it's worth it.

ARCHITECTUREJust as with other Korg synths, Triton's sounds are divided into banks of Programs and Combinations. A Combination can include up to eight Programs that can be layered, split into zones, or played on different MIDI channels. (See Fig. 1 for a complete diagram of the Triton's architecture.) Programs and Combinations are divided into 16 categories, such as organs or strings, so you can quickly find just the one you need. If you don't like the way the categories are defined, you can rename them and create your own.

There are 640 Programs, 512 Combinations, and 64 drum kits in battery-backed RAM. That's right, I said RAM, not ROM. That means they're all user-programmable. If you don't like the sounds that are here (but you will!), you can ditch them and stuff the memory full of your own timbral creations. Up to 62 voices can play simultaneously, nearly twice as many as the 32-voice Trinity.

The Triton also sounds better than the Trinity. In fact, it sounds better than most synthesizers. Its timbral palette has all the bread-and-butter sounds like pianos, guitars, brass, synth pads, ethnic instruments, and other emulative sounds, but it also features a wide range of new timbres all its own. The basses are fat and punchy and the drums are clean and distinct. Swirling, evolving textures abound. The overall sound is rich, full, and satisfying. There's even a bank of 256 sounds that support the recent General MIDI Level 2 specification.

In addition to being a great synth that plays sampled sounds, the Triton is also a stereo sampler. In a world of samplers that are delivered with a bare-bones 2 MB of RAM, the Triton comes standard with 16 MB of sampling memory, expandable to 64 MB via 72-pin SIMMs. The sampling rate is 48 kHz, which is better than the standard 44.1 kHz. All 425 multisamples and 413 drum samples in the 32 MB of waveform ROM are also sampled at 48 kHz, giving the Triton a crystal-clear quality.

LAYOUTThe first thing you'll notice about the Triton is its 3.5- 5 4.5-inch LCD touchscreen, which is large enough to hold a well-conceived graphical user interface. The Trinity also has a touchscreen interface, but the Triton's responds much more rapidly thanks to its beefed-up computing horsepower and better design. Unlike the Trinity, the Triton has no onscreen sliders. Instead, onscreen buttons specify the function of value-entry devices mounted on the front panel.

The screen looks very much like that of a palmtop computer (see Fig. 2). There are pull-down and pop-up menus, push buttons, checkboxes, and scrollbars. Tabs for selecting various pages within a mode are displayed at the bottom of the screen. As with the Trinity, it's possible to call up an onscreen QWERTY keyboard for typing in names of Programs, sequences, and the like.

A Page Menu button in the upper right corner of the screen pulls down a menu of operations like saving changes, copying parameters, and so on, depending on the current page. Pressing the Menu button to the right of the display opens a screen with as many as ten buttons for jumping to various edit pages.

On the front panel, you can enter data with a value dial, a value slider, increment/decrement buttons, and a numeric keypad. A row of seven buttons selects banks of sounds. Any value-entry device selects Programs or Combinations within these banks. An onscreen button next to the Program name summons a display of all Programs in the current bank, as well as tabs for changing banks. A button at the top of the screen calls up a window displaying all the sounds in the current category; tabs on the sides of the screen provide access to other categories.

The four knobs labeled "Realtime Controls" have double functionality, controlled by a switch. In the A position, the knobs control filter cutoff, resonance, envelope depth, and envelope release time. In the B position, they are assignable to any four parameters for the current Program or Combination; they can also be assigned to a modulator that affects several parameters at the same time.

The real-time controls to the left of the keyboard include a ribbon controller, two panel switches, and a joystick. Their functions usually depend on their assignments in the current Program or Combination. The joystick is just like the Trinity's: it isn't so much a joystick as a spring-loaded lever that moves sideways within a barrel that rolls forward and back. Move it left and right for pitch-bend, and forward and back for modulation.

The panel switches are assignable for each Program or Combination. There are 12 possible assignments, including portamento on and off; octave up and down; and locking the value of the joystick, ribbon controller, or Aftertouch. The value of the ribbon controller normally returns to center when you lift your finger, but when switch 2 is assigned to locking it, the ribbon's value remains what it was at the moment of release. For example, if sliding your finger to the left side of the ribbon closes the filter, it remains closed when you lift your finger.

On the back panel are the main stereo outputs and four individual outputs (see Fig. 3). Two audio inputs can be switched to accommodate mic or line input, and a tiny knob beside them lets you adjust the input level. There are the usual MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports, and a jack labeled "To Host" connects the Triton to a computer without the need for MIDI connections. In addition to the sustain-pedal jack, there are jacks for an assignable footswitch and footpedal. The stereo headphone jack is on the front next to the floppy disk drive, where it belongs.

EFFECTSThe Triton features the most powerful effects processor I've seen in a MIDI instrument, and it sounds great. Every Program can use up to five insert effects; two stereo master effects; and a stereo, 3-band equalizer that's always available except in Sampling mode (see Fig. 4). Thanks to plenty of processing horsepower, the Triton does this without any loss of polyphony. A mixer page lets you specify all the routings, levels, and pan positions of the effects sends.

There are a total of 102 effects, 13 of which are "double size," which means they require twice as much processor power as the others. All can be assigned as insert effects, but the double-size ones can't be master effects. Even with this restriction, the Triton offers far more possibilities than many other synths.

The effects are divided into types accessed by seven onscreen tabs. Most are stereo effects. Filter/dynamic effects include amp simulation, limiter, compressor, and random filter. One effect is called "talking modulator," which uses dynamic formant shifting to make an instrument sound as if it's speaking. Another effect, analog record, simulates the scratches and warps of a dusty vinyl recording.

Pitch/phase-modulation effects include stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, vibrato, and Doppler. Among the modulation/pitch-shift effects are ring modulator, pitch shifter, and rotary speaker. Next are early-reflection/delay effects, which include cross-feedback delay, several multitap delays, and auto reverse. There are six uniformly excellent reverbs, including hall, plates, and rooms.

The mono-mono chain effects are actually two effects in series, paired up like items in a Chinese restaurant menu: one from column A, one from column B. They include parametric 4-band EQ, exciter, overdrive/high-gain distortion, wah, decimator, chorus, and flanger. If you assign mono-mono chain effects to all five insert effects, you actually get ten separate effects.

The double-size effects include a 16-band vocoder, long multitap delays, and a simulation of piano- soundboard resonance. Each double-size effect takes up two insert effects slots, so keep that in mind when assigning effects.

Effects assignments are independent for each Program, Combination, or song. In Combination, Sequencer, or Song Play mode, insert effects are applied to individual Programs or tracks. Some effects parameters can be controlled in real time by internal modulation sources (such as the joystick, Realtime Control knobs, and control pedal) or externally via MIDI.

There are several things about the Triton's effects that I find exciting. First of all, the Triton can work like a stand-alone effects processor. Plug a couple of microphones or a stereo line into the audio inputs, process the signal as if it were an internal sound, then route it to a pair of individual outputs. You can even process the signal through several different effects and route them separately to all six outputs. If the Triton's voices aren't routed through the same effects, the processed signal is completely independent. When you're mixing, the Triton can add to your arsenal of effects processors. Very few synths or samplers can do this.

Another cool feature is that the LFOs and delay times can sync to MIDI Clock. With delay-based effects or LFO modulation, the rate can sync to the tempo of the music. If the tempo changes, the modulation rate follows.

SEQUENCINGThe 16-track sequencer is more like a computer-based sequencer than any other I've seen, making excellent use of the extra real estate in that large display. It has a maximum capacity of 200,000 notes, and up to 200 songs can be stored in memory.

Just to get you up and running, the Triton provides template songs in various musical genres. The templates contain the first eight track assignments, effects assignments, programming, and routing, as well as mix and pan settings appropriate to the musical style. You simply start recording tracks based on the combination of instruments within a template. For example, the template song Acid Jazz offers Standard Kit 2, Fretless Bass, Pro-Dyno EP, Funkin' Guitar, Stereo Strings, Percussion BX3, Tsunami Waves, and Espress Lead. There are 16 preset and 16 user-definable template songs.

A feature new to Korg sequencers is independent track looping. Specified measures in any track can be looped to any length at any point. For example, you can record 16 measures of a bass part and loop measures 9 through 16 four times. You can then loop four measures of the drum part eight times and leave the remaining tracks unlooped.

Another way to use patterns in songs is called RPPR, Realtime Pattern Play Record. There are 150 preset patterns and 100 user patterns available for each song. All the preset patterns are drum patterns, ranging in style from pop to hip-hop. You can't edit the presets directly, but you can copy them to user patterns and then edit those. User patterns can be anything you like, from ostinato bass parts to chromatic piano runs.

Creating a user pattern is as simple as recording it, and pattern playback can be triggered by pressing a single key. This is great for improvising techno music in real time the way you can with groove boxes. Like template songs, RPPR is a good technique for getting a quick start on laying down tracks.

Another powerful feature of the Triton's sequencer is the cue list. This lets you specify up to 99 songs to play in succession without BREAKs between them, and you can store up to 20 cue lists in memory. Working with cue lists is very much like building a song from smaller sequences or chunks. Each song is a step that you can repeat as many times as you like before going on to the next step.

You can use the cue lists to assemble a verse, chorus, bridge, and solo into a song, or create a live-performance set list by specifying a number of complete songs. In addition, you can program a section to repeat until you step on a footswitch to move on to the next section. This feature lets you rearrange the order of the various sections much more easily than with linear recording.

Once a cue list is complete, the Convert to Song command transforms the sections into a song. This is useful if you want to create backing tracks in sections, then turn them into a song and add solo parts over the entire arrangement.

The great thing about sequencing with the Triton is the manner in which these features all connect as part of the recording process. Begin with a template song you've created yourself, plug in some of your own RPPR patterns, record some live tracks and loop them to taste, and save your new song as a verse. Repeat the process for other sections and then use the cue list to link them into a complete song. It's almost as easy as it sounds.

POLYPHONIC ARPEGGIATORSThe Triton's programmable arpeggiator section evolved from the Z1 synthesizer. Three dedicated knobs and an arpeggiator on/off switch are located on the right side of the front panel. One knob controls tempo, and the other two control offsets from the programmed gate and Velocity settings. The Gate knob changes the length of each step in a pattern, anywhere between staccato and legato. You can indicate the arpeggiator's scan zone so that playing only within a defined zone on the keyboard triggers a pattern. A flashing LED indicates tempo as it plays, and tempo can sync to MIDI Clock.

There are five preset patterns, and the other 232 are user programmable. Korg has filled up most of the user slots, but you can replace any or all of them. In addition to the usual up and down patterns, these patterns include guitar strums, drum patterns, brass riffs, and bass patterns. Many are classified by style, including trance, bossa nova, heavy rock, jungle boogie, and '70s disco bass. Others have colorful descriptive names like Euro Lights, Vice Squad, Crazy Computer, and Happy Dog.

User patterns are set up in Global mode, then assigned to specific Programs and Combinations. Each Program has an Arpeggiator page that lets you specify the pattern, tempo, note resolution, number of octaves (one to four), and whether the Sort, Latch, Key Sync, and Keyboard functions are turned on or off.

The Sort function controls whether notes play in an assigned order or the order in which the keys are pressed. If Latch is turned on, a pattern continues running after you take your hands off the keys. Key Sync controls whether a pattern begins at its first step whenever you play a new note or chord. When the Keyboard function is turned on, holding a chord both sustains the notes and triggers an arpeggio. All these parameters are repeated on the Arpeggiator Setup page, which also lets you specify the initial gate, Velocity, and degree of swing.

Each step in an arpeggio plays up to 12 simultaneous notes, with up to 48 steps in a pattern. A Fixed-Note mode makes it easy to create drum patterns with the arpeggiator. As an arpeggio plays, other patterns can be selected without missing a beat. Arpeggios can be recorded into a sequencer track and are transmitted as MIDI note data.

In Combination, Sequencer, and Song Play modes, you can run two arpeggios at the same time. Velocity cross-switching can alternate between two patterns, or you can play different patterns in different zones of the keyboard or with different Programs in a Combination, like bass and drums.

SAMPLINGThe Triton is Korg's first sampler in over a decade and its first 16-bit sampler ever. It records in mono or stereo at a fixed rate of 48 kHz. As many as 1,000 multisamples and 4,000 individual samples can reside in memory. You can sample through the insert effects, but unfortunately, it's impossible to resample a signal from the Triton itself. Samples can be quickly recorded in the context of a multisample, then easily converted into a Program at the touch of a button, so they can be immediately used in the sequencer without further editing.

A number of useful sample-editing functions are available. Most, such as truncate, cut, copy, paste, normalize, and reverse, are obvious and necessary in any sampler. Other functions, expected in serious samplers, include insert, mix, volume ramp, and rate convert (which down-converts the rate of samples for a lo-fi effect). There's nothing terribly fancy, such as time stretch or resynthesis, but there's always the prospect of new functionality in a future OS upgrade.

One major advantage of such a large display is graphic waveform editing, which lets you view a sampled waveform and zoom in or out on the horizontal and vertical axes. You can visually indicate the start and end points of a region to be edited, and the Use Zero command ensures those points occur on zero crossings only. On some samplers, you can hold down a key and hear the result of your edits as you perform them, but on the Triton you can't hear the results until you restrike a key.

Also unlike some samplers, you get only one loop per sample. Editing loops on the Triton is very much like editing with a computer-based sample-editing program, except there's no window to allow you to zoom in on both loop points simultaneously. A loop-tune function lets you correct any pitch problems in the loop. If you know the tempo of a recorded phrase, you can display a grid based on note values, which is very useful if you're working with rhythmic passages like drum loops.

The Triton also plays back samples saved in AIFF, WAV, and Akai S1000 or S3000 formats. All three formats can be imported via SCSI or from floppy disk. This is very good news if you have an old collection of Akai sounds on floppy disks and no Akai sampler to play them. It's no surprise that Program parameters (envelopes, filter settings, and so on) aren't converted, but samples and multisamples are, including the first loop. (Subsequent loops are ignored.) Most samplers that translate foreign sample formats tend to skew the loop points occasionally. On the Akai samples I tried, all the loops came across perfectly.

The Triton has two slots for user-installable SIMMs-either 16 or 32 MB-and comes with one 16 MB SIMM. SIMMs don't have to be in matching pairs; add another 16 or 32 MB for a total of 32 or 48 MB, respectively. For 64 MB of memory, remove the 16 MB SIMM and install two 32 MB SIMMs. Fully expanded, the Triton provides almost six minutes of stereo sampling time.

OPTIONSA number of upgrades are available to extend the capabilities of the Triton. These upgrades are designed to be installed by the user; an authorized technician is not required. In addition, all upgrades can be installed simultaneously, so you don't have to choose between them.

Perhaps the most important upgrade is a SCSI port ($200). SCSI is a necessity if you want to read sample data from CD-ROMs or save your samples to a hard disk. If you don't save them to some kind of disk, they're lost the moment you power down. Without SCSI, the only medium for saving and loading sounds is the floppy drive, and saving 16 MB to floppies is a slow, tedious process. (MIDI Sample Dump and SMDI are not supported.) SCSI transfers are acceptably fast, averaging less than three minutes to load 16 MB from a CD-ROM and a little less time to load from a hard disk.

Another option that significantly broadens the Triton's capabilities is the EXB-MOSS DSP synthesizer board ($600), which adds another six voices. This is the same 13-oscillator sound engine found on Korg's Z1. When the MOSS (Multi-Oscillator Synthesis System) board is installed, another 128 Programs are added in a dedicated bank. This board provides synthesis from scratch rather than from sample playback, including physical modeling, emulative analog synthesis, variable phase modulation, comb-filter modulation, and other techniques.

There are two EXB-PCM boards ($200 each) that each add 16 MB of multisamples and drum samples to the waveform ROM. Each one also includes 128 Programs and 128 Combinations, which you can load into internal memory. One of the boards is called Pianos/ Classic Keyboards, which features a large variety of acoustic and electric pianos, Clavinets, and other vintage instruments, with an emphasis on grand piano and Hammond organ. The other EXB-PCM board, Studio Essentials, has an emphasis on strings, vocal ensembles, and sounds that didn't fit in with the Triton's main waveform ROM.

ALL YOU'LL NEEDI call the Triton a "desert island" synthesizer because if I were stranded in a remote studio with only one MIDI instrument, this is the one I would want. Its beautiful Programs, pristine waveform ROM, full-function user sampling, flexible multi-effects processing, and touchscreen interface are only the beginning.

Strictly as a synthesizer, the Triton continues the Korg tradition of providing timbres that are both inspiring and useful. In addition, there's a flow to the process of sequencing music on the Triton that actually enhances the creative process. Of course, this has been the goal of music workstations from the beginning, but I've never seen it realized in any instrument until now. The Triton has my highest recommendation. Sell all your other synths and get this one.

Geary Yelton hopes to win the lottery any day now. Then he can afford to buy all the stuff he writes about.

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