GM MODULES for the MASSES

Our GM/XG/GS sound module roundup reveals some winners with general appeal.In the beginning there was MIDI. Well, actually, there wasn't; there was chaos,
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Our GM/XG/GS sound module roundup reveals some winners with general appeal.

In the beginning there was MIDI. Well, actually, there wasn't; there was chaos, at least when it came to communication protocols for electronic instruments. With each manufacturer paddling its own canoe, the time was ripe for a new standard that would let synthesizers and sound modules speak to each another. The development and acceptance of the MIDI specification was a wonderful testament to cooperation within an otherwise contentious industry, and it provided a level of cross-fertilization that had never been seen before.

In 1990, the computer and game industries threw increasing support behind a proposal for an even greater level of MIDI standardization, which would provide more conformity of sounds within a MIDI sequence. General MIDI (GM), as it became known, was ratified at the NAMM show in 1991. It lays down the law about the number of sounds a GM-certified instrument must offer, as well as the sound categories and program change assignments that it must use (see the sidebar "The GM Instrument Set"). It also specifies, among other things, the required amount of polyphony, some controller assignments, and the specific note numbers of individual percussion sounds within multi-sound drum kits (see the sidebar "The GM Drum Kit"). In addition, GM drum kits were assigned to MIDI Channel 10. The introduction of General MIDI brought about a new breed of instrument, and the General MIDI logo began to appear on synths and sound modules from several major manufacturers.

From the start, however, professional users grumbled about the dumbing down and homogenization of MIDI and computer-based music. Although such criticisms were unwarranted, MIDI soon faced serious competition from other camps. Digital audio, which many users deemed as more real, more cool, and more powerful than MIDI, gained suddenly in popularity. And from within the MIDI industry, the trend started to move from multitimbral boxes to more specifically hands-on instruments from new companies such as Clavia, Novation, Waldorf, Quasimidi, and Access.

General MIDI never really recovered from this double whammy. While GM modules continued to sell, and a niche market for Standard MIDI File (SMF) song libraries continued to grow, manufacturers began to show reservations about GM. In essence, they neither knew what to do with General MIDI nor what it could develop into, and that imbued the GM landscape with an almost apologetic air.

With all its problems and perceived unhipness, however, GM is an incredibly useful tool. GM allows a healthy (albeit never foolproof) level of uniformity that is a lifesaver for composers in the game, corporate, and broadcast industries. The Web, too, has benefited greatly from this universal language of musical delivery.

VARIATIONS ON A THEMEAlthough the intent of General MIDI was to create a single, uniform playback standard for MIDI sequences, some manufacturers found GM's inherent limitations too restrictive. Roland and Yamaha promoted their own flavors of General MIDI with expanded capabilities. More recently, the original GM, referred to as General MIDI Level 1 (GM1), was updated to General MIDI Level 2 (GM2). Here's a brief description of the variations.

Roland GS. Roland's turbocharged GM superset offers additional sounds (a minimum of 226) that are selected by using MIDI Program Changes along with Bank Select commands. MIDI NRPNs (Non-Registered Parameter Numbers) are harnessed to give users an element of sound-programming control over synthesis parameters, such as filter cutoff frequency and envelope shape. A special SFX (sound effects) set is also offered.

Yamaha XG. Yamaha's equivalent format expands slightly on Roland's GS format as well as on GM1. It specifies a minimum 32-note polyphony and three separate effects processors, including some dedicated effects banks. NRPNs are also supported, and XG specifies a minimum of 480 instrumental sounds. An XG instrument may also include a stereo analog-to-digital input that allows for mixing and processing incoming audio signals.

GM2. Ratified late in 1999, General MIDI Level 2 raises the GM1 bar by specifying 32-note polyphony, two simultaneous drum channels (10 and 11), and a host of Control Change (CC) assignments, including filter cutoff, resonance, envelope attack and release, vibrato rate, and a number of Universal System Exclusive Messages (an oxymoron, if ever one was) regarding tuning and chorus/reverb types.

Although the new features laudably take on some of the facilities of Roland's GS and Yamaha's XG formats, the very notion of a GM2 is confusing. It's a bit like the trap of naming a file Final and adding a Final2, Final3, and Final4. Still, GM2 represents an important evolutionary step for General MIDI.

THE ROUNDUPWith so many software synths and samplers entering the marketplace, do GM sound modules still have a future? Without continued support, we may be seeing the last generation of GM-compliant modules.

Let's take a closer look to see if these relatively unsung heroes can still hold their own in today's music making environment. The following mini reviews focus mainly on the GM characteristics of the instruments. Many units, of course, do much more. Several of the modules in this article are akin to other models from the same manufacturers and offer similar features (see the sidebar "Family Ties"). Past issues of EM contain more detailed reviews of many of these sound modules.

All of the units were tested using Steinberg's Cubase VST on a Mac, playing an assortment of commercial and noncommercial Standard MIDI File sequences.

ALESIS QSRThe module version of Alesis's highly popular QS7 and QS8 keyboard synths offers a basic level of GM compatibility at a good value (see Fig. 1). This module is strong on synths and keyboards (acoustic piano in particular) and offers expandable sounds.

GM sounds. For a company that doesn't specialize in General MIDI instruments, Alesis has made a decent stab at the GM sound set. The pianos and other keyboards work best. The basses are a little clunky, but the drums are good. Unfortunately, the strings and brass are exceptionally dreary, which could prove decisive in a GM assessment.

The basic GM sequences work fine, but as a whole, the sounds don't blend together terribly well, so SMF playback is more satisfying technically than artistically. The QSR also lacks the enhanced features found in GS, XG, and GM2 modules.

Other sounds, features, and drums. Although it's not exactly an afterthought, General MIDI is not the main attraction in the QSR. The QSR is, however, a handy box of Alesis sounds, and it's brimming with ultra-high-quality effects. It also provides direct access to ADAT-compatible gear. The sounds include plenty of spangly pianos, Velocity-switching guitar-string things, lush orchestras, raucous organs, indescribably exotic synth patches, and rhythmic Wavestation-style patches. The QSR's drum kits are big and punchy. The drum selection is a bit limited, but the available sounds are eminently usable.

The QSR also features full onboard editing and allows loading personal samples via flash RAM and PC Cards. Each Bank of sounds stores 100 multitimbral Mixes. Two card slots provide access to new sounds.

Effects and controls. The QSR provides four separate multi-effects buses for routing chorus, delay, reverb, "lezlie," flanging, resonator, gate, detune, and a host of others. Each effect is fully editable, although users need to stay focused while routing them, especially when choosing effects for a Mix.

Controllers A - D (physically present on the QS keyboard but just "available" on the QSR) provide instant control over Program parameters such as filter cutoff, envelope attack, and modulation. Each Program has its own set of controllable parameters, so experimentation with what's available is necessary. The range of possibilities is impressive: pitch, effects, LFO, filter, portamento, and more.

Bottom line. GM alone is not the reason to buy an Alesis QSR. In fact, if GM is anything more than a testing requirement, other modules provide better GM capabilities. If the Alesis way of doing things is favorable, however, or connectivity to an ADAT device is needed, the QSR is worth considering, especially if just GM1 mapping and playback facility are necessary.

KORG NX5RKorg's NX5R is an odd one (see Fig. 2). Although Korg has never gone overboard for General MIDI, it has none-theless produced a few respectable units with basic GM capabilities. The modules, dating back to the 01/W, incorporate the company's highly prized and respected AI Synthesis technology. The 05R/W and X5DR combined Korg-style sounds and programmability with GM compatibility, and the NS5R continued the trend with more (and newer) sounds and drum kits. The NX5R is an NS5R with a preinstalled Yamaha XG TG300 daughterboard.

Just to add to the confusion, the TG300 side of the NX5R has two modes: XG and TG300 (the latter is compatible with standard GM1). It also has two GM banks (A and B). The first is a regular GM1 sound set; the second is compatible with data written originally for Korg's 05R/W.

GM sounds. From both the GM1 and Yamaha XG perspective, the NX5R offers excellent support. The guitars tend to be a little stiff, but the keyboards are uniformly good, and even the brass is less embarrassing than on many modules. Within a sequence, the overall gloss of a Roland ED Sound Canvas (covered later) isn't quite there - the individual sounds are good, but they don't blend together that well.

Regular GM sequences work fine, and sequences written specifically for XG or 05R/W also call up sounds within those formats. In addition, users can mix and match daughterboard and internal banks, which is quite handy.

In SMF tests, the NX5R performed well in both GM modes. The only problem concerns sequences that manipulate resonance using MIDI CC 71. The NX5R doesn't implement resonance, so that effect parameter is missing. Similarly, while doing some real-time control from a MIDI controller, filter cutoff, envelope attack, and release are accessible from CC 72 through 74, but not resonance on CC 71.

Other sounds, features, and drums. The NX5R's main feature is access to a full set of Korg AI synthesis sounds with full programmability. Editing on the tiny screen is not bad, and the editing capability extends to detailed, individual drum editing within a drum kit. From the nicely designed front panel, users can quickly embellish the current sound with the full range of top-notch Korg effects, and they can easily call up, edit, layer, and use sounds in single and multitimbral (48-part) format.

Korg drums are invariably punchy, and the selection in the NX5R is vast (286 sounds in 37 kits). Standouts include the Producer and Zulu kits. The Modern and Dance kits are exceptionally bright and lively.

Effects and controls. The NX5R includes 47 pro-quality, editable algorithms. Musicians can even set them up for dynamic modulation control and vary them in terms of placement and balance. These features are quite sophisticated for a compact unit at this price point. For GM applications, the effects are naturally a bit more restricted, but the power is there when needed. The ability to tweak the resonance is missing, but the filter and envelope can still be controlled using standard CCs.

Bottom line. Korg has not fully managed to blend all the NX5R's various technologies and sound sets. In fact, trying to work out which sound set is being used and why can be downright confusing. In Korg's defense, though, even Yamaha makes a similar bolted-on attempt at blending a TG300 into its MU128.

As a dedicated GM unit, the NX5R definitely has a few shortcomings, but as a box of AI Synthesis sounds with an added level of GM capability, Korg gets full marks for trying. The NX5R is four quarts of cool sounds (and features) in a one-quart carton. Looks can be deceiving.

KORG TRITON-RACKThe Triton-Rack (see Fig. 3) is a monster of an instrument, and it's no less impressive for offering at least a modicum of GM compatibility. Although the GM features work fine, Korg scarcely mentions General MIDI aside from displaying the logo.

GM sounds. Considering that only 256 sounds and nine drum kits are reserved for General MIDI (GM1 and GM2), the Triton-Rack performs extremely well. The sounds seem modeled on the instruments in the Roland ED Sound Canvas (and are none the worse for it). The keyboards are the best (especially the electric pianos and organs), but everything works as it should.

Roland's XV-3080 has a sibling in the form of the XV-5080 synth/sample player. This versatile module can load Roland and Akai samples in addition to its huge number of internal and SR-JV80 Series expansion-card sounds. While the XV-5080 retains the XV-3080's GM2 capability, its many pro features take it even further out of General MIDI territory.

Yamaha's MU Series has many extensions and diminutions from the major current models detailed in this overview. The MU50 is an inexpensive, 32-note, tabletop module that offers XG features, including Performance layering. The MU100, with 1,267 Programs and 46 drum kits, is essentially the same as the MU100R, but in a chunky tabletop unit that can still receive PLG expansion boards. The MU90R (R for rack-mount) is slightly less well stocked, with 779 Programs and 30 drum kits, but it still offers 32-part multitimbral operation and 64-note polyphony. Its two independent outputs are useful extras. A/D inputs are present on all of these MU series units.