GENERALMUSIC EQUINOX 61 - EMusician

GENERALMUSIC EQUINOX 61

With its Equinox series of synthesizers, Generalmusic is redefining the synthesizer workstation. The Equinox 61 sports a fully editable synth engine,
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With its Equinox series of synthesizers, Generalmusic is redefining the synthesizer workstation. The Equinox 61 sports a fully editable synth engine, complete with resonant digital filters and massive oscillator power. Beyond that you get a 250,000-event sequencer, sample-loading facilities, a groove library, a drawbar section for serious organ playing, and an operating system that's upgradable with a floppy disk. You can even load text files, so you can review your shopping list during rehearsals!

Add in the multifarious options of a hard drive, a SCSI port, and up to 40 MB of memory (8 MB of battery-backed RAM, plus 32 MB of SIMMs), and you've got one big box of goodies.

Unlike many other Italian-made synths, which tend to offer the world but require a lifetime of study to operate, the Equinox 61 delivers its power in a mostly intelligible way, thanks to a well-designed display, plenty of panel hardware, and a logical operating system.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTESThe Equinox 61 is a good-looking instrument, professionally presented with sturdy pitch and mod wheels, recessed disk drive, and contours in the end panels that make the unit very comfortable to grab and carry around-a thoughtful touch.

The screen is smallish (only 352 inches), but sufficient for displaying the amount of information you need. Generalmusic has not thrown budgetary caution to the wind with the Equinox panel hardware, but the synth's many control sliders and buttons feel substantial-a good thing, because this instrument has great master-keyboard potential. (The model reviewed has 61 notes; a 76-note model is also available.)

I have some reservations about the Equinox 61's keyboard, which has too light an action for my battle-hardened fingers. (If you are similarly fussy, check out the summer-NAMM-previewed, weighted 88-note Equinox Pro model.) The synth's ins and outs are all in the right place, including a pair of front-mounted headphone sockets. The back panel includes two sets of MIDI ports, Left and Right audio out (along with an auxiliary pair of outputs), four pedal connectors, and the power switch and socket (see Fig. 1). There are also two mic/line inputs.

SOUND STRUCTUREThe most basic Equinox patch is called a Sound; more than 1,000 are provided onboard. Sounds can be stored multitimbrally in a Performance, 112 of which are offered as presets. An additional 112 locations can house your own Performance creations.

The Equinox 61 does not break any new ground in terms of sound structure. It uses a sample-plus-synthesis system that will be reasonably familiar to anyone who has programmed a Korg, Roland, or Yamaha synth in the past ten years.

But what is new-radical, almost-is the way in which the Equinox implements its various structures and systems. You find yourself wanting to do something and, presto, this synth lets you do it. You can do anything from single-sound tweaking via the panel sliders to using those same sliders to rebalance a multisound Performance. Can you save these edits? Yes. Will those sliders kick out MIDI control information? Yes. Can you tweak within a sequence? Yes. Can you instantly switch off the effects? Yes!

The Equinox comes with a thumping 16 MB of waveform ROM from which sounds can be hewn; you can also load your own samples in WAV, AIFF, and other formats. A Sound can be a three-layer, dual-oscillator sandwich if need be, although harnessing six oscillators like this will slash your polyphony from the 64-note, single-layer/oscillator maximum.

Despite its modest size, the Equinox's screen is clear and helpful when determining the number of layers, programming the oscillators, and setting up the signal flow that you want your sound to follow. You have a choice of keeping pitch, amplitude, and filter envelopes separate for each waveform on a dual-oscillator sound or applying the same contouring to both waveforms. You can even choose to unify or separate the filters themselves. LFO, pan setting, effects, and mod routing are all common parameters per layer.

Although layering gobbles up polyphony, you could set up key-range and Velocity-dependent layers, which can make for some highly expressive patches-flutes that develop a guitarlike edge, say, or marimbas that change in pitch-with added keyboard dynamics. Oscillators can be chosen from an Olympic-size pool of waveforms, and these can then be processed through multimode (digital) filtering, LFO modulation, the envelope generators, and more.

The Equinox 61's sounds range from every imaginable squeak and hit to looped and moving waveforms that can be played forward or backward, have their start time offset, be rescaled (so that each key triggers the same note, if that's what you want), and fine-tuned in respect to their dynamic performance.

This synth gives you an almost overwhelming amount of programming control. I like the fact that you don't have to download a Unisyn driver (or an equivalent patch editor) to edit sounds. On the other hand, any serious programmer will soon become tired of scrolling through edit pages and making adjustments on the Equinox's comparatively sluggish data wheel or keypad; this is a problem with the hardware and, to some extent, the user interface.

The Equinox software is abundantly rich in filter types (lowpass, highpass, bandpass, parametric cut, parametric boost) and sophisticated envelope generators-not just for the amplifier, but also for the filters and oscillators. Indeed, rather than offer standard attack/delay/sustain/release controls, the Equinox provides you with graphic control over the Key On and Key Off portions of your sound. You can thus draw the shape to control how your sound's volume, tone, or pitch changes over time.

The number of segments in both Key On and Key Off envelopes is your call. Well, 10 is the hard limit (just keep hitting Enter in the Add Segment pages), but I can't see anyone seriously exceeding that. Each segment has a Time and Level parameter (value 0 to 100) and can be looped. Fortunately, you can also delete a segment if early flights of programming fancy start to pall.

As powerful a system as the Equinox 61 is, it's not at all complex-the screen is just too small (in spite of the handy zoom feature). And I did manage to make the instrument crash several times when fooling around with the envelope generators. But luckily, the unit is blessed with an updatable operating system, and the newly released OS has apparently fixed several problems in the envelope environment (though I haven't tested it myself).

PICK QUICKIn the early days of synthesizers, an instrument's tally of oscillators, filter types, and modulation routings was the first, if not the only, port of call when deciding if it was the right model for you. Today, although they boast parameter lists far outweighing those of any old Oberheim and Sequential warhorse, modern marvels like the Equinox 61 almost hide their power under the hood.

The front panel offers an innocent clutch of Quick Edit sliders for immediate control over attack, decay, and release envelope parameters, filter cutoff and resonance, and LFO depth and rate. Just call up any of the instrument's 1,000 or more instant-gratification presets, and make adjustments on the fly. You can even overwrite Sounds thus edited, record Sound changes over time into a sequencer, or both.

MEET THE FAMILYThe Equinox's factory sounds are grouped into 11 banks (or "families," as Generalmusic refers to them), each containing 128 patches. The first four banks are simply labeled Synth A-D. Thereafter come Orchestra, GMX 1-3, Drum Kits, and Drum Sounds 1 & 2.

Sounds range from Rick Wakeman-esque solo synth with portamento, to standard pianos, to multilayered swooshes and swizzles. Pretty much the lot. Organs? Not only do you get a bag full of blistering organ patches, but the Quick Edit slides can, at the touch of a button, turn into a set of eight drawbars providing real-time harmonic control (see Fig. 2). Similarly, several controller buttons beneath the drawbars can double as slow/fast Leslie switches, percussion switches, and click switches.

You want drums? The Equinox boasts some 40-plus drum kits, mapped using different drum sounds across the keyboard range, and you can also substitute sounds from any part of the instrument (including samples) to produce fully customized kits and subsequent loops. Individual drum sounds can be given their own pan and volume setting, and you can specify that certain drums be exclusive so that, for instance, open and closed hi-hats cannot be triggered simultaneously. If you find the General MIDI mapping too restrictive, you can spread a sound across several keys as well. Someone has really thought this out. It's good stuff.

So you get a huge number of pitched sounds (with organ a particular specialty), a competent drum sound system, and samples; what else could you ask for? Would it be churlish to want "character?" The Equinox does not have the distinctive character of, say, a Nord Lead, a Yamaha FS1R, or a Korg Wavestation. You won't hear the phrase "Just use a classic Equinox patch" very often. But in terms of range and potential, the Equinox 61 makes some other synths in its class seem uninspired and, frankly, rather tired.

EFFECTSEver since the Korg DW-6000 first added effects to a synthesizer's parameter list, instruments have had a love-hate relationship with this previously outboard area of signal processing. There's no question that effects enhance sounds; indeed, that's what they're supposed to do. The question is when and how, and who should perform the operation.

It's easy for effects to mask lazy programming or to smear some inherent weakness in the original waveform. Bravely and laudably, the Equinox 61 provides a dedicated FX Off button, so you can test this for yourself. Still, I'm concerned about the importance that the effects have in some of the sounds. For instance, should a sound labeled Steel Gtr, say, or Jazz Pick-relatively clean types of sounds, surely-be so reliant on not just reverb, but also on chorus and exciter processing?

What's the harm? Well, provided you plan just to play or trigger single sounds, the only harm is a tendency toward patches that sound great on their own but don't work, or can't be heard, in context. But because the Equinox 61 is a workstation, and much of its work is geared toward multi-instrument playback, there is the inevitable trade-off between single patch effects and effects that are available simultaneously for the instrument as a whole. Even though the unit does have separate effects processors, settings still have to be apportioned among all current sounds.

Generalmusic does address this perennially thorny issue as well as it can. The Equinox 61 offers three separate effects processors: MultiFX, Reverb, and ProEFX, with effect type and attendant programming parameters individually assignable and routable for each sound.

Effects can be set up in either 3 Effects or 2xSynth + 2xSeq modes. The first maximizes all available processing, but the second is very useful if you're accompanying a prerecorded sequence and want the effects on your live playing to be different from those in your sequence. There's a catch, though: this separation nixes the ProEFX effects altogether.

Though I'm issuing words of warning about synth programming in general, I don't mean to diminish the inherent quality and flexibility of the Equinox's effects processing. Reverb, for instance, is relatively uncontentious, with a choice of ten reverb types (Hall 1-4, Plate 1-2, Matrix 1-2, Gated, and Studio Room), each offering control over reverb time and delay factor. I'm not about to split hairs between Plate 2 and Matrix 1, but the quality here is unquestioned. Ten years ago you'd pay thousands of dollars for equipment that can achieve reverbs of this smoothness. Even with comparatively silly reverb times like ten seconds, there's no degradation of the signal.

The MultiFX bank offers 30 mainly time-based effects, ranging from mono and stereo delays to chorus, flanging, and phaser. One or two rather unusual effects creep in: dubbing, dramatic hard left-right delay, Pitch Shifter 1 and 2, two rotary speaker simulations, and a few preordained EQs-Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Classic-for, I presume, the sort of Kmart hi-fi shopper who wants instant access to (what someone else deems) such sensibilities.

The really juicy effects are stationed in ProEFX, where you'll find Stereo Wah, Overdrive/Delay, Audio Exciter, Hex Chorus, 2 x PitchShift, Ring Modulator, and about 25 other effects.

There's no denying the power of the Equinox's effects. Call up almost any patch and start going through the effects options-it's almost like flipping through brand-new patches. The pitch-shifting options are especially powerful where you have separate control over tuning (both fine and in half steps), and high and low frequency gain over both the original and pitch-shifted signal.

It took me some time to find the ProEFX programming parameters, because I had to scroll down (out of immediately obvious view) on the LCD. For one nasty moment, I almost wondered whether the ProEFX effects must be presets. Not only are the effects themselves yummy, but their relative routings and applications are sensibly offered-once you figure out the options.

Again, this took a bit of head-scratching. Even with a reverb level of zero set on the main Sound Effects page, I was still hearing reverb. Diving directly into the reverb pages themselves, I found that a level of 80 was set and, indeed, increasing or decreasing the value altered the current sound. Meanwhile the MultiFX, similarly at a level of zero on the main Sound Effects page, was not operable no matter what level or setting I tried on its own pages. Very odd.

The answer lay in the ProEFX pages, where an assigned stereo chorus was being sent to the reverb. So, the zero reverb level set on the main Sound Effects page was applying only to the dry signal. What I was hearing was reverb from the ProEFX chorus.

I hope that these mentions of my flounderings illustrate the range and flexibility of this synth's effects options.

SAMPLE OFFERINGAs if the instrument's diverse preset library weren't enough, new samples can be loaded into the Equinox to form the basis of new sounds, or simply to be retriggered virgo intacta. The process seems admirably flexible yet direct. You can load from floppy disk, from CD-ROM over SCSI (provided you have the SCSI kit installed on your Equinox), or via MIDI Sample Dump.

I loaded in some treasured old Akai S-1000 samples from my days on the road with ABWH and Yes. Boy, did they bring back some memories. Data from disks that had not seen action for ten years loaded up just perfectly; even the mapping and loop points came through. For some reason, samples initially load with a generous coating of Generalmusic effects in place. That's why they sounded so creamy and produced! These effects can be switched off; indeed, after some minor tweaking, the effects were no longer present.

Should you need to, you can assign or reassign incoming samples. There's even a handy autoassign feature, so you can get an instant spread of samples across the keyboard. Samples can be refined in terms of tuning, loop point, truncation, and gain. And the sample-rate-control parameter on the Edit Voice page gives you precise control over tempo or tuning for sampled drumbeats or vocal passages.

Given the high level of sample tinkering you can do, and the fact that the Equinox screen actually displays sample waveforms, the omission of user sampling seems odd. I imagine that Generalmusic's updatable OS may well include such a feature on a later revision.

Sample formats that the Equinox 61 can currently import include WAV, AIFF, Sound Designer, Akai, Kurzweil, and MIDI SDS. Other formats, such as Roland, Ensoniq, and E-mu, are slated to appear in due course. Though other workstations have paid only lip service to sampling, the Equinox 61 tackles the issue head-on and deserves to reap the rewards accordingly.

THE FUN STUFFThe word groove is almost as overused as phat these days (and I speak as a guilty party). Despite its ubiquitous moniker, the Grooves feature of the Equinox 61 is one of those "didn't know I needed it until you gave it to me" facilities.

Equinox Grooves are MIDI-recorded drum loops, bass lines, and keyboard (or other accompaniment) parts that you can trigger directly from the keyboard and mix and match in seemingly limitless permutations. You can use the feature as a glorified drum machine to inspire some writing. You could even use it live by holding down a Groove or two in the bottom octave of the keyboard, for example, while playing parts or chords with your right hand.

The Equinox offers more than 1,000 Grooves to choose from, in styles that focus on dance music from hip-hop and R&B to techno/drum and bass. Grooves can be used in isolation (just call up a cool drum pattern) or amalgamated with other grooves. The splendid Shuffle feature randomly mixes different drum and instrument Grooves, allowing you to save any combination that rings your bell.

As you're grooving, sounds remain fully editable using the Quick Edit sliders, and tempo is completely flexible, of course. If you believe, as I do, that the kernel of a great song is so often the accidental (or at least unplanned) juxtaposition of parts, players, and sounds, then this feature will aid in generating a slew of hip new tracks. Less radical, but also inspirational, is the unit's powerful little arpeggiator whose pattern, shapes, and styles can be endlessly modified.

THE SEQUENCERWorkstation sequencers range from scratch-pad idea mongers to full-blown recording devices. Both of these can be handy, but both typically come with limitations of memory, editing ability, resolution, and usability. I'm nervous about sticking my neck out and saying there isn't a better workstation sequencer around than the Equinox 61's, but a more flexible and useful model doesn't come to mind.

On the face of it, this is a standard 16-track sequencer with all the usual trimmings: replace/overdub/punch-in-style recording, a lot of quantize factors, event editing, track copying and looping, and good resolution (192 ppqn). But unlike with the normal workstation sequencer model, in which sounds you play live are welded into those you've sequenced or are currently sequencing, the Equinox 61 keeps these separate. In other words, you can sequence a drum track, a bass line, or two or three keyboard parts and still physically play a full multilayered Performance patch over the top. And you can do this at any time during the process.

You can also spin through any of the Groove-stored drum tracks to see the effect of different drum styles on your sequence, accompanying your sequence in real time by simply holding down a key and thereby triggering a Groove. The sequencer is even intelligent enough to remain in sync with each Groove no matter what the current tempo. When you consider that each Groove defaults to its own tempo, this is a very smart and very cool ability.

SERIOUS FUNThe more I played with the Equinox 61, the more I liked it. I won't tell you to forget the computer sequencers with their fancy plug-ins, but if you actually do want to record or perform songs (as opposed to just mucking about pretending to do so), then the Equinox 61 will deliver the goods. Its screen is a tad small and sluggish; a display three times the size and twice the resolution would no doubt have improved the product. But for sheer scope, not to mention great fun with Grooves and real-time sliders, the Equinox 61 is an instrument that only fools should ignore.

Julian Colbeck has played keys for Yes, ABWH, Steve Hackett, John Miles, Alan Parsons, and others. But far more daunting was playing (the Equinox) at a recent first-graders' production of The Ugly Duckling at his son's elementary school.