FIG. 1: The Fusion is a versatile synthesizer, a sampler, and an 8-track audio recorder, all in one convenient package.
Alesis has long had a reputation for giving musicians more power than expected at very competitive prices. The Fusion continues that trend by serving up two features never before seen in a keyboard workstation in its price range: a built-in 8-track audio recorder and a choice of several types of onboard synthesis, including physical modeling, analog modeling, and FM. Only the Korg OASYS (which costs about three times as much) has comparable features.
The Fusion is available in two models: the 6HD, which has a 61-note semiweighted keyboard, and the 8HD, which has an 88-note fully weighted keyboard. When I unpacked the Fusion 6HD that I received for review, I was impressed by its futuristic front panel. I immediately plugged it in and started enjoying the huge variety of factory sounds, but there's a lot more to the Fusion than playing the presets. As I dug deeper, my opinion of the instrument became more nuanced.
Surfin' the Board
The Fusion's top panel has angled button arrays and a raised data wheel that looks like a miniature hubcap (see Fig. 1). The large LCD in the middle of the panel is the main programming interface. Six buttons for selecting menu items are on the left, and another six are on the right. Buttons labeled Prev and Next, positioned in the lower-left quadrant beside the data wheel, let you navigate among the numerous parameters within a given LCD page.
I was pleased to see the Fusion's Category button, which makes it easy to find the patches you're seeking. The Fusion has no effects bypass buttons, though, an omission of something I sorely missed while programming sounds.
The Fusion displays three CPU usage meters in Global mode, but the manual doesn't explain why there are three. According to Alesis, the Fusion has two independent voice engines; two meters are for those, and the third is for the audio record/playback engine. In Program mode, the Fusion plays only a single preset, so only one voice engine is used. In Mix and Song modes, both engines are used, with odd-numbered parts assigned to engine 1 and even-numbered parts assigned to engine 2.
The pitch-bend and mod wheels (which light up in blue when you move them) are positioned on the panel above rather than to the left end of the keyboard, making the Fusion a couple of inches shorter than comparable instruments. I didn't mind the wheels' position on the 6HD, but it might be a bit of a reach on the 8HD.
To the right of the wheels are four knobs for controlling the arpeggiator, filter, EQ, song mix, and other assignable functions. Buttons let you choose which row of four functions the knobs will have at any given time. Below the knobs are six assignable buttons — four momentary (for triggering) and two toggles.
FIG. 2: The Fusion''s rear panel supplies ¼-inch analog audio I/O, ADAT and S/PDIF outputs, footswitch and pedal inputs, MIDI I/O, a USB 2.0 port, a CompactFlash slot, and an unimplemented connection for a serial ATA drive.
On the Fusion's rear panel are eight inputs for the audio recorder, two inputs for sampling, two main outputs, two aux outputs, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone output (see Fig. 2). All except the headphones are balanced ¼-inch TRS jacks, though the sampling inputs offer 21 dB of gain, making them suitable for low-level signals such as guitars and some dynamic mics. If you want to record audio using microphones, therefore, you'll need a mic preamp. Flanking the CompactFlash slot are a USB 2.0 port; expression pedal, assignable footswitch, and sustain pedal jacks; MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports; ADAT Lightpipe and coaxial S/PDIF outputs; and a serial ATA port (see the Web Clip called “Making Connections”).
Inside the Fusion is a 40 GB hard drive for storing song data, audio tracks, patch banks, and so on. You won't find any drive maintenance routines in Global mode, but you can carry out operations such as defragmentation and directory creation using your computer.
The 292-page owner's manual contains only menu-by-menu explanations of the parameters, with no information on how to perform musically useful tasks. It fails to explain some important features and includes outdated information. Furthermore, its layout is jumbled, and it has only a sketchy index. The accompanying 33-page Quickstart Guide could profitably have been ten times as long. Alesis is working on some new tutorials for the instrument; the first should be available by the time you read this.
Describing the Fusion's hundreds of great-sounding presets would take many pages. The instrument ships with more than 950 Single programs and about 150 Mixes, and more are available as downloads (a Mix is a multi or combination program). One of the high spots is the Holy Grail Grand Piano that Alesis licensed from Q Up Arts. It's an excellent all-purpose piano with 3-way Velocity cross-switching. The electric pianos and Clavinets are also excellent, and some of the drawbar organs feature realistic monophonic percussion (a term that will be meaningful only to Hammond players).
The drum kits are very good, and most include a pattern (programmed as an arpeggio) triggered by unassigned notes, making it easy to audition them quickly. The kicks and snares are available in the kits, in menu presets containing numerous hits of one type, and as individual sound presets. The selection of percussion sounds is more than adequate for many styles of music.
My favorite Fusion sounds are the analog and FM presets. The Lead and Pad categories have more than a hundred presets each, all of them good. The orchestral instrument presets are typical of many keyboard workstations; they're adequately sampled, but as a symphonic musician, I found them stiff and unconvincing. The Reed and Wind (flute) models give the Fusion an edge in the solo wind category, but the physically modeled presets are only marginally better than sampled solo winds.
The Groove Mix bank shows off the kinds of full arrangements the synth can generate in a variety of styles (see Web Clip 1). The arpeggiator-based multitrack patterns could easily inspire new tunes or get audiences moving in a nightclub. Many are aggressively dance oriented (see Web Clip 2). The Fusion's arpeggiator provides hundreds of cool patterns; it's not just an up-and-down note generator. The Split-Layer bank is more utilitarian, but the Mixes are excellent starting points for your own keyboard layouts.
Choose Your Poison
If you enjoy cooking up your own sounds, you'll appreciate the Fusion's comprehensive voice-programming features. Analog-type voices can have up to three oscillators; sampled voices can have four; and FM programs, as many as six. Signal routing for the FM algorithm is completely flexible and utilizes a handy matrix display similar to those in software-based FM synths, and FM voices can use the filter. Nine filter modes are provided, including three vocal formant filters (but no comb filter). Most synthesis types offer only one multimode filter per preset, but sample playback also adds a single-pole filter for each oscillator.
I discovered a problem when adjusting the filter's cutoff frequency. Most synthesizers will start at the cutoff's current parameter value when you begin changing it, to prevent a jump in the sound. When you initially call up a program on the Fusion, the knob's value is 0. As long as it's 0, the filter will use whatever cutoff frequency is stored in the patch. But when you move the knob from 0 to 1, the filter cutoff jumps from its programmed value down to an extremely low value (see Web Clip 3).
The same thing happens with the filter envelope's amount knob. Because most analog-style patches already have a filter envelope, moving the knob from 0 to 1 shuts down the envelope's output, thus causing the sound to stop playing.
You can create as many as eight envelopes and eight LFOs for each preset. The advantage of creating them as needed is that if a sound needs only one envelope, you can save a bit on the DSP required to make the sound, thus increasing the Fusion's available polyphony. The envelopes are DADSRs with an extra sustain-decay setting.
Each preset can use as many as 32 modulation routings. Sources include most of the usual MIDI data types and the front-panel switches, assignable knobs, and trigger buttons. However, MIDI Control Change messages (other than those coming from the knobs) are not available as sources. The choice of destinations is fairly comprehensive and includes individual envelope segments. You can modulate the depth of one modulation routing from another, which is an essential feature. You can select either additive or multiplicative modulation depth — a forward-looking feature I'd like to see on more synths.
The downside of all this flexibility is that programming a new sound entails a lot of jumping back and forth from page to page, and a lot of cursoring up and down to parameters within a given page. For instance, in many hardware synths, filter envelope depth is programmed on the filter page, and the envelope's Velocity response amount is programmed on the envelope page. In the Fusion, both those adjustments require that you go to the Mod page, create a new modulation routing if necessary, and then go to the modulation routing's Settings page to edit the depth. Because the six oscillators don't have their own dedicated envelopes, programming a standard FM patch requires that you create both an envelope and a modulation routing for each modulator and then assign them to the required source and destination.
Sample-playback synthesis offers a few extras, such as FM (audio-rate modulation) of one oscillator by another and the ability to trigger a sample on key up. Oscillator outputs can be panned individually, but they lack separate effects sends. The manual provides no list of factory waveforms, nor any indication of which of them may reside in ROM and which may be loaded from the hard drive. According to the list I received from Alesis, the Fusion has 783 ROM multisamples and 87 more on the hard drive. You can't edit the factory multisamples, but you can create your own from scratch using the Fusion's sampling capability.
The Fusion has four insert effects and two bus effects, though in Program mode only one insert is switched on by default. The inserts include the usual chorus, flange, phaser, rotary speaker, tremolo, and filtering, as well as several types of amp-simulator distortion algorithms and some bit decimators. All of the insert effects sounded very good to me except the chorus, which could be richer.
Fortunately, there's a fatter-sounding chorus in the bus effects area. Many of the insert effects are duplicated there. In place of the amp simulators, the bus effects algorithms include a variety of reverbs and delays. Because you can turn down the dry signal on the bus, bus effects can function as insert effects in Program mode. Overall, the Fusion is well equipped in the effects area — other than the fact that the delay times can't sync to anything, which is a perplexing omission.
While It's Hot
Setting up and recording samples in order to create your own multisampled instrument is quick and easy. You can assign as many as 512 samples to one multisample. The Fusion provides audio-through monitoring, so you can hear the signal you're about to sample, as well as view the incoming signal's level in a meter displayed in the LCD. All sampling is done from the rear-panel inputs. Unlike some other workstations, the Fusion isn't set up to resample its own internal audio.
The Fusion provides most of the sample-editing utilities you'd expect. You can cut, copy, and paste, insert silence, fade in or out, reduce the bit resolution, reverse, adjust the gain, or normalize, all with reference to regions of any size within the sample. You can edit the loop start and end points, and you can fine-tune the loop itself. You'll hear changes in the loop as you make them — no need to restrike the key.
Getting rid of the dead air at the start of a sample after you've recorded it is awkward for two reasons. First, you can't zoom the waveform display vertically to see exactly where a low-level signal begins. Second, the data input wheel transitions quickly and almost uncontrollably from fine movement to broad movement. I spent several minutes trying to zero in on the beginning of a waveform that was somewhere around 2,500 samples into the file, and found that the data wheel jumped from 2,000 to 3,000 (or back from 3,000 to 2,000) if I twisted it even a tiny bit too fast. Thirty seconds of wheel twiddling were required to locate to the start of the waveform. A 10-key data-entry pad would have sped up sample editing considerably.
The Fusion's large, well-organized display makes the process of recording songs fairly painless. A song can contain as many as 32 MIDI tracks and 8 audio tracks. The MIDI tracks are always routed to the instrument's MIDI output; if you want to sequence tracks for an external module, just turn the internal synth track's audio-output level down to zero. Audio tracks can't use the four insert effects, but you can send the tracks to either of the bus effects.
The Fusion's software lets you specify no count-in or a 1- or 2-bar count-in prior to recording, as well as the metronome volume, program, note value, and Velocity. Automated punch-in and -out are not supported, but manual punch-in and -out worked as expected on both audio and MIDI tracks. Unfortunately, audio recording offers no undo command. You can define 16 locate points for navigation purposes. In Song mode's Mixer page, you can conveniently use the Fusion's four left-hand knobs and buttons to adjust the level, bus sends, panning, and muting and soloing of any four adjacent tracks at a time.
The MIDI track editing is on a par with what you'll find in most keyboard workstations, with quantization, event editing, and so on. You can cut and paste regions in audio tracks, adjust their gain up or down, and create data-altering fade-ins and fade-outs. However, the Fusion lacks virtual tracks, a feature I've come to expect from full-function audio recorders. At least two XLR mic inputs with phantom power are standard on most hard-disk recorders too, but the Fusion's recorder has only line inputs.
More problematical, there is no way to bounce eight audio tracks (or audio and synth tracks together) to create a stereo mix of a finished song. Bouncing would also be useful for creating consolidated submixes and for printing audio with effects. To record a mix, you'll need to route the Fusion's outputs to an external recorder.
You can automate volume, pan, and send levels for both audio and synth tracks. The manual gives no information on how to do that, but it's easy: just click on the Enable Mixer Automation checkbox in the Song EditSongGeneral page, and then record knob moves in the Mixer display.
FIG. 3: With the free Fusion Convertor software for Mac and Windows, you can create new Fusion multisamples from WAV files, SoundFonts, or Akai-format multisamples.
The Outside World
Alesis provides a free software utility that is called Fusion Convertor (Mac/Win), a Fusion-specific version of Chicken Systems' well-known sample-translation software (see Fig. 3). The program communicates with the Fusion over USB and allows you to create a new multisample by importing a folder full of WAV-format drum hits with a few quick mouse-clicks. You can also import SoundFonts, as well as Akai S1000, S3000, and S5000 multisamples direct from Akai-format CDs inserted into your computer. Note, however, that Fusion Convertor is not an editor-librarian.
Fusion Convertor will attempt to approximate the settings of Akai presets in the new Fusion Programs it creates, but the results inevitably vary. By upgrading to Chicken Systems Fusion Convertor Pro (Win, $79.95), you can import sampler programs from a wide variety of formats, including GigaStudio, Kontakt, and HALion.
The Fusion Factor
The Fusion's excellent sound and wealth of features are bound to attract a lot of keyboard players. No other workstation in its price range provides an 8-track audio recorder, and perhaps it's not surprising that the Fusion's recorder lacks amenities such as virtual tracks, track bouncing, and XLR mic inputs.
The instrument's user interface is a mix of good features, such as the big LCD and sequencer-locate memories, and features that need improvement, such as the filter-cutoff knob's response. I was perplexed by the absence of certain functions found in other keyboards, including resampling the internal audio, syncable delay times, and USB MIDI I/O. Fortunately, most or all of the Fusion's problems can be remedied by revised documentation and operating-system updates, so I'm cautiously optimistic about its future.
All things considered, the Fusion's pluses and minuses balance out. It's not head and shoulders above the competition, but it offers musicians another good option in the workstation category.
Jim Aikin is a regular contributor to EM and other music-technology magazines, a cellist, and an author. You can visit him online atwww.musicwords.net.
FEATURES3EASE OF USE2QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Multiple synthesis types. Powerful modulation routings. Integrated 8-track audio recorder. Comprehensive user sampling. Release Velocity sensing. Large hard drive.
CONS: No XLR mic inputs. No audio mixdown. No bounce with effects. No internal audio resampling. Jumpy filter-cutoff knob. Delay effects don't sync to tempo. No undo for audio recording. USB port doesn't provide MIDI I/O. Poor owner's manual.