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KORG ELECTRIBE ER-1 and EA-1

11/1/1999

So-called groove machines are the hot-ticket item of the late 1990s. For the moment, at least, it is simply not enough to offer a synthesizer, or a drum machine, or even a sampler; dance-oriented electronica is the name of the game. Korg, best known for its classy synths and workstations, has been late in recognizing the revolution. But at the 1999 Winter NAMM show, the company enthusiastically donned a baseball cap, pierced its eyebrows, and launched the beknobbed Electribe ER-1 rhythm synthesizer and the EA-1 analog-modeling synthesizer.

Although they are quite separate in their range and capabilities, the physical-modeling-based Electribes clearly work as a pair: the red ER-1 provides the beats, and the blue EA-1 generates all the other squeaky bits.

FAMILY CHARACTERISTICSThe two units are each the size and shape of a small phone book, and their panels are smothered with a dozen or so knobs and 20 or 30 rubbery, semiopaque buttons that glow a rich Odeonic pink when active-very cool.

The look is superb, and the construction quality seems adequate for groove on the move-provided you're reasonably careful. (The anodized aluminum casing appears prone to scuff marks.) Each Electribe has a 3-digit LED screen and a free-flowing data wheel, and both come with wall-wart power supplies.

The MIDI implementation of the two units is good, with two noteworthy exceptions: the Electribes recognize neither MIDI Velocity nor Aftertouch. Less important, they do not transmit and receive the Delay Type and Motion Sequence parameters. Otherwise, they transmit and can receive every parameter and knob adjustment using MIDI Non-Registered Parameter Number (NRPN) messages. As a result, real-time manipulation of internal sounds can be recorded using an external sequencer. Pitch Bend, Bank Select (CC 0 and 32), Data Entry, and Reset All controllers are all transmitted and recognized, as are Program Changes and SysEx dumps and loads.

From here on, though, the ER-1 and EA-1 operate differently from each other and so must be looked at as different animals.

ER-1: OLD IS NEWThe name of Steinberg's ReBirth software is an accurate, albeit curious, analogy for understanding the ER-1. The irony, of course, is that ReBirth is a software approximation of early 1980s Roland hardware synth/beatboxes. In some ways, then, we have come full circle.

What you get with the ER-1 is a wealth of squeaky, squelchy drum and percussion sounds that are employed in 256 4-bar (maximum) patterns. Both sounds and patterns are freely tweakable on the fly using the knobs for sound changes and the buttons for pattern changes.

The ER-1 is not laid out like a conventional drum machine. The unit has five basic sections (see Fig. 1). The Common section includes the Master Volume knob, Audio In/Thru key (which lets you use external audio inputs as parts), LED screen, data wheel, cursor keys, Write button (for saving settings), peak LED indicator, and beat LED (which flashes on each quarter note to indicate the tempo). The mode buttons-Pattern, Song, Global, and MIDI-are also included in this section. Above the mode buttons is a matrix that lists the parameters available in each mode; LEDs indicate which row of parameters is active.

The other sections are the Sequence controls, Step keys, Part-select buttons, and Synthesizer. I'll describe each as we go along.

PART SELECTIONPatterns are built by assembling Parts, which in turn consist of a rhythm pattern (a sequence of rhythms) and a Motion Sequence, which records your real-time knob and button moves. I'll discuss Motion Sequences in more detail below.

There are ten types of Parts, so the Part-select section of the ER-1 contains ten "instrument" buttons (these actually control instrument types and input routings, as opposed to specific instruments) laid out in a keyboard-style grouping. These buttons are styled Percussion Synthesizer 1 to 4, Audio In 1 and 2 (for accepting a pair of external sounds that you can patch in at the Audio In jacks), Hi-hat Open and Close, Crash, and H.Clap.

When you strike one of these buttons, you select the associated sound for editing. You can also "play" these buttons in real time and record your performance. Because the resolution of the ER-1 is somewhat restrictive, you won't get a lot of subtle human feel into a pattern. But is that a stumbling block for dance-floor patterns and grooves? Probably not.

Among the instrument buttons are two Ring Mod buttons and an Accent button. Ring Mod allows you to ring-modulate between either Percussion Synth 1 and 2 or Percussion Synth 4 and Audio In 1 and 2. The Accent feature, in true Roland drum machine/TB-303 style, lets you set discrete volume levels for each step of a pattern.

THE PERCUSSION SYNTHThe Percussion Synthesizer sounds have a distinctively analog-synth vibe. Some of the hip-hop beats contain a passable level of lo-fi "reality," but the ER-1's strength lies in synthetic binks and bonks for the dance floor. All sounds are physically modeled except for the crash cymbal, open and closed hi-hat, and handclap, which are pulse-code modulation (PCM) samples.

Sound-sculpting controls are housed in Oscillator, Amp, and Delay categories, as evidenced by ten dedicated, continuous-control knobs at the top of the instrument panel. You press, say, the Percussion Synthesizer 1 button in the Part-select section, and you can then tweak the currently applied sound in real time. Oscillator controls include pitch, mod depth, mod speed, and mod type, and there is a Wave button for specifying the waveform.

The sound-modifying controls are incredibly sensitive; with even a touch, your sound can change dramatically. You can transform a rumbling kick drum into a shrill whistle with a twist of the Pitch knob. This is good for general dramatic effect and is sure to be useful for live dance applications, but it may be a little unsettling for those who want to make specific, subtle sound modifications.

With the ER-1, Korg has cannily blended and blurred classic analog features with street-style sounds and applications. You simply tweak until you hear what you like-then you stop. The Original Value LED is especially helpful when you are tweaking on the fly: it lights up whenever you pass through a sound's factory setting. I really appreciated this brilliant feature, especially for learning the ER-1's sensitivity and range.

The amp controls are decay, level, pan, and low boost. Again, these may not be in line with what normally constitutes the amplifier section of a synthesizer, but the controls are generally self-explanatory.

CONTROL PATROLThe ER-1 is brimming with control options, from the Motion Sequence feature (which allows you to record sound changes in real time as a pattern plays), to tap tempo, to Part mute and solo. It offers all manner of record, cut, copy, and paste possibilities for recording patterns and assembling them into songs.

Motion Sequence is a cool feature, although you need to appreciate its limitations right away to avoid turning cool into downright cold. You can specify an instrument by simply pressing the relevant instrument button, after which you can tweak and record its sound as a pattern goes through its cycle. Cool. You can then select another instrument within the same pattern and record tweaks in real time to that, too. Also cool.

Having sampled the delights of this type of control, you may feel inclined to, say, tweak the filter on an instrument on which you have just imposed a bit of pitch modification. No luck there. Nor, in fact, can you modify a motion: once moved, always moved (or removed), and you'll have to start afresh. But thanks to its ability to send and receive NRPNs, the ER-1's parameters can be recorded and endlessly tweaked with an external sequencer; just be aware that when using it as a self-contained unit, not quite everything goes.

STEP BY STEPThe Step-key section contains a row of 16 Step keys, a pair of Select keys, a Pattern Set key, and a Shift key. You can access a number of functions using combinations of these controls. For instance, you can set the length of a pattern, the time signature, the Swing (timing offset) value, and more.

One of the most important uses of these keys is to set up the rhythmic pattern of each Part. The Step keys represent divisions of a beat (or bar). For example, when the first button is activated, the currently selected sound and pattern will be triggered on the first beat of the bar. Activate buttons 1, 5, 9, and 13, and the currently selected sound will trigger on beats 1 and 3 of a 2-bar pattern, or on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 of a higher-geared, 1-bar pattern.

This tried-and-tested, grid-style input method will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used a Boss rhythm machine or Roland TR-series beatbox in the past decade or so. The Select keys are associated with two rows of LEDs-four green and four red. The green LEDs indicate the location within the currently playing rhythm pattern; the red LEDs indicate the location within the rhythm pattern selected with the Step keys.

That's all fine, but the Select keys also have another, even better use: when the Pattern Set function is on, these keys let you access four different groups of 16 patterns. So you can set up your favorite 64 patterns to be activated using a combination of 16 Step keys and four Select-key positions. This handy live-performance feature is sure to be popular with DJs.

Unless you're happy flipping back and forth between patterns, though, you'll want to string patterns together to form a Song. Song mode gives you one final chance to do real-time tweaking, which Korg calls "event recording." You can mute and solo individual parts, you can record knob movements-including recording more than one parameter, unlike in Pattern mode-and you can call up (and thereafter tweak) different parts within the patterns as your song plays back.

The ER-1's audio inputs are what set it apart from a regular drum machine (see Fig. 2). This handy feature lets you patch in a CD player, a loop of scratchy old vinyl from your sampler, or whatever else suits you. The ER-1 is not a sampler, of course; it simply allows two external audio signals (or one stereo signal) to be used as parts in the same way you use drum parts. Pressing an Audio instrument key opens and closes a gate, so you can turn the external signal on and off in rhythm manually, and you can automate this ability using the sequencer. You also can pan the signals and route them through the effects.

Note that this feature gates the audio, rather than retriggering the sound; other than the amplifier and effects sections, the signal is not passed through the synthesis features. The Delay Depth and Time knobs work especially well on audio signals; rotating the Time knob produces a convincing scratch effect.

The Electribe units are primarily intended for live performance, and the ER-1 is at its best in this venue. Remixers looking for instant gratification should love the ER-1's dramatic range of tweakable rhythmic sounds, controls, and patterns. Electronic musicians who are more studio-oriented can also put the unit to good use, but if you're just looking for modern sounds in a modern context, be sure you understand the ER-1's limitations before taking the plunge.

EA-1: ROUGHLY RETROThe EA-1 is essentially a simple, duophonic synthesizer with fancy sequencing facilities. Because of its simplicity, its similarities to the ER-1, and the familiarity of its components, I will discuss it in less depth than I did the ER-1.

The EA-1 is set out much like its drum-oriented partner, with a small LED screen, a free-flowing data wheel, and buttons and knobs for modifying sounds and for programming patterns and songs (see Fig. 3). And like the ER-1, it looks superb and is great fun to operate.

Based on Korg's Z-1 and Prophecy analog-modeling technology, the EA-1 provides independent access to two synthesizer parts, each of which can use dual oscillators, with filtering, envelope shaping, effects, and such. Two parts? It's not a lot, and you can best judge the instrument as a purveyor of bass, arpeggio, effects, and lead lines-all of which have a deliberately synthetic hue. Obviously, polyphonic pads are out of the question.

BASIC USELike the ER-1, the EA-1 is full of patterns, each of which contains 2-part, 4-bar (maximum) grooves with sounds twisted and tweaked anew. Spin through the presets and you'll hear classic techno and house stuff by the yard. At this point you can simply toggle between Part 1 and Part 2 and tweak the current sounds in real time using the oscillator, filter knobs, and so on.

You can control tempo using the wheel or the tap-tempo button, or you can sync the unit to an external device. You can add or subtract "notes" to or from the current pattern by activating or deactivating any of the rubber pads. The Motion Sequence feature found in the ER-1 is here, too.

SOUND CONTROLThe EA-1's synthesizer engine is presented in a style similar to a classic analog synth's. The oscillator panel gives you a choice of three waveforms (triangle, sawtooth, or square) per oscillator, plus ring mod, sync, and oscillator balance. Portamento control is shared between the oscillators. The pitch of oscillator 2 can be set independently of oscillator 1 so that you can produce 2-part harmonies on each part.

The Decimator is an interesting feature that permits you to alter the sampling rate of oscillator 1 as a function of the frequency of oscillator 2, providing a source of lo-fi sounds. To use the Decimator, you select a fixed frequency for oscillator 2; the lower the frequency of oscillator 2, the lower the sampling rate of oscillator 1-and the result can be some nasty sounds. You hear only the Decimator's output, not the unprocessed outputs of the individual oscillators. The feature is effective when used with a triangle wave or the audio input, but not with saw or square waves.

As with the ER-1, you can route an external audio signal into the synth (see Fig. 4). However, unlike with the ER-1's audio inputs, the signal appearing at the EA-1's single audio input can be used as an oscillator waveform and processed through the whole synthesis architecture.

The EA-1's sounds are bright and dynamic, but I didn't find walls crumbling when it came to bass lines. The lowpass filter section has controls for cutoff frequency and resonance, as well as for envelope amount and decay-hardly comprehensive. Although the EA-1 offers more in the way of recordable real-time control over sounds, sonically you can achieve ten times more on a 20-year-old Korg MS-20. Then again, the EA-1 costs only $499; even a used MS-20 will set you back more than that.

The amplifier section offers level control and distortion (triggered by a button), and the effects section offers depth, time, and effects type (essentially delay or chorus). I have no problem with this clutch of controls: it provides all you'll need for many types of dance-music applications. They're fine if you just want to come up with a catchy little line, sample it, and move on.

The instant-fun factor is there, without question, no matter what sort of music you're into. But if you have much prior knowledge of synthesis and want to use it for in-depth sound manipulation, or if you need specific levels of control, the EA-1 will probably only frustrate you. That statement is by no means intended as a criticism of the EA-1 or as a slur on the dance scene for which it has been primarily designed. I think that Korg is absolutely right to make the EA-1 as wild and dynamic as can be. My point is that just because the unit makes excellent squeaky, squelchy sounds, you shouldn't think that you are buying the level of control of, say, a Synthi 100 for only a few hundred bucks.

What you're getting with the EA-1 is a well-tuned performance machine. Therefore, long-term satisfaction with the unit is most likely for die-hard dance-music producers. Electronic musicians in need of more in-depth synthesis should probably look elsewhere.

THE ELECTRIBE VIBEWith the ER-1 and EA-1, Korg has gone for full-on flash and live-performance immediacy over technical completeness. There's nothing wrong with that approach; in fact, it's absolutely right if traditional musical-instrument companies are going to capitalize on the burgeoning DJ and remix market.

Given Korg's approach, I think that not offering a battery-power option is an unfortunate oversight. (I'd love to annoy fellow airplane passengers with either of these units.) Otherwise, however, both Electribes appear to be well targeted for the DJ or remixer who does not want to do in-depth tweaking.

Julian Colbeck is retired from active duty on the road as a keyboardist, deeming running the U.S. branch of Keyfax Software/Hardware a more dignified midlife occupation.

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