Korg SV-1 Review

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FIG. 1: The Korg SV-1 has unique looks, a sturdy build quality, and easy access to the raked front panel.

Korg has entered the electro-mechanical-clone keyboard market with the introduction of its SV-1 stage vintage piano. The SV-1 features retro looks, fully weighted action, durable construction, and a performance-oriented set of controls that is dead-simple to navigate.

The first thing I noticed about the SV-1 was its sturdy and uncompromising build quality. The unit seems able to withstand the punishment of nightly gigging, with thick, sturdy control knobs and a hefty power toggle switch. In contrast to the flat front panel of most keyboards, the SV-1 has a curved cowling, which looks cool and allows for a slanted control surface that is easy to reach in the heat of a performance (see Fig. 1).

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FIG. 2: Korg includes a Mac/PC-compatible editor/librarian to store your favorite sounds onto your computer.

The SV-1 features a fully weighted, piano-style action. It is perfect for playing acoustic piano and appropriate for electric piano, although the actions on my vintage Rhodes and Wurlitzer instruments are lighter than that of the SV-1. The SV-1''s weighted action is heavier than that found on a Hammond organ or Hohner Clavinet, though. You can''t have it both ways—Korg made the design decision to emphasize pianos in this instrument. Other vintage keyboard emulators with lighter actions feel appropriate when playing organ and Clavinet, but don''t work as well when playing piano sounds.

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FIG. 3: The SV-1 sends audio samples through seven digital processes and a 12AX7 tube en route to the outputs.

The SV-1''s signal chain is straightforward and comprehensive. You start by choosing one of 36 sounds, which are broken down into six categories with six variations each: Electric Piano 1 and 2 (mostly Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds); Piano (acoustic piano and piano/pad layers); Clav (mostly Clavinet sounds); Organ (Hammond, Vox Continental Lowrey, and Farfisa); and Other (strings, choir, and synth brass). You can swap in additional sounds by way of the included editor librarian software (Mac/Win; see Fig. 2).

Tone shaping begins after the sound or program is chosen, as there are seven processing blocks that the sound goes through en route to the outputs (see Fig. 3). First comes a 3-band equalizer. Next is a section that emulates a variety of stomp-box pedal effects, as well as a Hammond vibrato/chorus. After that comes an amplifier emulator with six algorithms. The digital power amp simulation is integrated with an actual 12AX7 analog tube circuit. Back in the digital domain, you can choose from 10 speaker cabinet simulations. Then comes a modulation effects section, with chorusing, phasing flanging, and Leslie speaker simulation. This is followed by a reverb and delay module. A limiter completes the signal chain.

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FIG. 4: The SV-1''s front panel is fun to work with and easy to navigate, with thick, sturdy knobs, switches, and buttons.

The front panel is designed for ease of use over depth of programming, which is the right call to make for a performance instrument. There is no LCD screen or menu system, just purpose-built knobs and buttons that use rings of LEDs to tell you their status (see Fig. 4). This makes selecting and tailoring your sounds a snap. Most parameters can be adjusted from the front panel, but there are some parts of the signal chain, such as the limiter, that can only be accessed from the editor/librarian program. Once you have a patch dialed in, you can store it to one of eight dedicated Favorites buttons in the center of the panel. I love this feature because it allows you to easily take the keyboard out for a gig—with all your favorite sounds one touch away.

The front-panel controls are perfectly adequate for the majority of sound-tweaking tasks except for one flaw: Engaging the drive control results in a significant jump in patch volume, which makes it difficult to control the relative volumes of different sounds. There is no way to compensate by storing an overall gain setting for a particular patch from the front panel. You can adjust patch level from the editor/librarian or speaker simulator, but if you are changing a sound at the gig and you add some drive, you are going to reach for the volume knob every time you switch patches.

On the back, the SV-1 has ¼-inch unbalanced outputs and balanced outputs on XLR. It also features a pair of ¼-inch unbalanced inputs to pass another signal through to the outputs. MIDI is handled by 5-pin DIN and USB connections. The SV-1 has three pedal inputs: one for the included damper pedal, and two more for additional footswitch and expression pedals. Power is via a standard IEC connection. There is also a ¼-inch headphone jack on the front.

At the end of the day, sound quality is the most important feature of all, and as usual, Korg gets a lot right in this department. The SV-1 has full sample sets of German and Japanese pianos, and they both sound eminently realistic and playable. Along with stereo full-range patches for both pianos, the company also thoughtfully includes a mono keyboard-amp-friendly version for the gigging player.

I thought the SV-1''s Rhodes sound was excellent, with enough growl in the midrange and just enough bell up on top to make it satisfying and realistic (see Web Clip 1). The Wurlitzer electric piano was good, but not quite as beefy as the real thing. I was surprised to hear audible noise in the Wurlitzer samples when playing through headphones, though in a gigging situation, it would be irrelevant.

The Clavinet instruments were just fine, although I would recommend running them through a real wah pedal for that extra bit of authenticity. I was pleased to see the inclusion of a Mellotron string patch (see Web Clip 2), and Oberheim-style analog brass and string sounds.

Of all the SV-1''s sounds, I was only disappointed with its organ patches. The unit includes four Hammond organ sample sets, and one each from the Vox Continental, Lowrey, and Farfisa. The particular organ settings that Korg used when recording were good, offering the most variation possible within six choices. You cannot shape the tone of the organ by changing drawbar positions or engaging percussion, which is a big part of the performance practice of the real organ. Furthermore, I was not particularly convinced by Korg''s rotating speaker simulation. The organ sounds themselves are not bad, but the choices are limited (see Web Clip 3).

If organ is just another color in your palette of sound choices, then the SV-1''s sounds may be adequate for your needs. If organ is your main focus, though, there are other instruments that are better suited to the task.

If you didn''t get enough of those electromechanical keyboard sounds in the ''70s (or, in fact, you weren''t there) and you are looking to gig without the herniated discs and endless maintenance required of the real things, then Korg has a keyboard for you. The SV-1 is a serious contender in the world of vintage-keyboard clones (see the Online Bonus Material for how to choose the right clone for you). It looks great, feels great, and is particularly strong in the area of acoustic and electric pianos.

The Korg SV-1 is a very good instrument, but it also faces some stiff competition from the Nord Electro 3. Both instruments focus on offering simulations of all the major electromechanical keyboards of the '70s. They are both performance keyboards with fairly simple user interfaces, and they are in the same price range, though the Korg is a bit less expensive. So if you are shopping for a keyboard of this type, which one should you get?

The answer, as always, is that it really depends on what you are looking for. Both are good products, with various design tradeoffs. To start with, the SV-1 has a weighted keyboard, while the Electro 3 is unweighted. Weighted keyboards are better for playing acoustic and electric piano sounds, while unweighted keyboards have the advantage for organ, Clavinet, and synth patches.

When it comes to the visual aspect, the Korg SV-1 has the edge in my book. I''ve never been a fan of Nord''s bright-red color scheme. With its retro spaceship curves and raked front panel, I like the look of the SV-1 better. It also wins in the user-interface department. The SV-1''s thick knobs ringed by LEDs are easy to maneuver on a darkened stage.

The Nord Electro 3 has the advantage in terms of portability. The 73-key Electro is a good 15 pounds lighter than the SV-1, which is doubtlessly due to the Korg''s weighted keyboard. The Electro 3 is so thin that it fits easily into the rear-seat passenger leg area of a Honda Civic—in a hardshell case! This is not to say that the SV-1 is overly heavy or clunky; it is actually quite compact considering the weighted keyboard and build quality.

When it comes to sound quality, there are winners in both camps. The acoustic pianos are very good on both instruments, but I think the SV-1 comes out ahead by a nose. The SV-1''s Rhodes is truly superb, although the Electro is no slouch in this department either. Neither instrument has really captured the essence of the Wurlitzer 200A in my book—I am still standing by for greatness, waiting for someone to do the definitive version of that instrument.

If you are a Mellotron fan, the Electro 3 is the way to go as it offers the entire Mellotron library. The SV-1 only offers the Mellotron strings, although the company does a great job of it. The Clavinet sounds are comparable on both instruments. The Electro 3 is the clear winner when it comes to the Hammond organ. Offering a full organ-simulation engine, the Electro allows you to adjust drawbars and engage or disengage percussion, and sounds closer to the real thing. It also has a more convincing rotating-speaker simulation.

So which instrument is better? Neither. It all really comes down to personal preference. Are you primarily a pianist or an organist? Which do you use more, the Rhodes or the Mellotron? You can''t really go wrong with either of them, so my best advice is to play them both and see which one speaks to you most strongly.

SV-1 73: 73 keys
SV-1 88: 88 keys
Polyphony: 80 notes (max)
Sounds: 36 sounds (6 banks x6 variations)—Electric Piano 1, Electric Piano 2, Clav, Piano, Organ, Other
Effects: 5 insert effects + 1 global effect
Equalizer (Bass, Mid, Treble)
Pre FX: Compressor, Boost, U-Vibe, Vibrato, Tremolo, VoxWah
Amp Models: Amp1/2/3/4/5/Organ Amp + Cabinet Models Valve Reactor Technology – 12AX7 (ECC83) valve
Modulation FX: Chorus1, Chorus2, Phaser1, Phaser2, Flanger, Rotary
Reverb/Delay: Room, Plate, Hall, Spring, Tape Echo, Stereo Delay
Global Effect: Stereo Mastering Limiter, Stereo Limiter
Connections: MIDI In/Out, Headphones (front panel)
Audio outputs: (2× XLR, Balanced), (2× 1/4” Jack, Unbalanced)
Audio Inputs: (2× 1/4” Jack, Unbalanced)
USB: Type B connector (doubles the MIDI interface), USB 1.1 Supported
Damper pedal: Korg DS-2H, supplied
Pedal 1: Footswitch
Pedal 2: Volume/expression or footswitch
Power supply: Internal switching adapter, AC100~240V, 50/60Hz
Power consumption: 15 Watts
Dimensions (W x D x H): SV-1 73, 45.0x13.66x6.1 inches (1,143x347x157 mm); SV-1 88, 53.3x13.66x6.1 inches (1,356x347x157 mm), excluding music stand
Weight: SV-1 73, 38.5 pounds (17.5 kg); SV-1 88, 45.3 pounds (20.55 kg), excluding music stand
Included accessories: Power Cable, User Guide, Accessory Disk, Music Stand, Damper Pedal

Nick Peck is a composer/audio engineer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the audio director of a videogame company and a proud papa of two little ones. Visit him at underthebigtree.com.

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Click on the Product Summary above to view the Korg SV1 product page.