Hands-On Review:Korg Electribe Series

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I admit it ... I'm old-school. I love guitars. I love amps. I love drums and pianos and organs, two-inch tape and reel-to-reel machines. I'm skeptical of the new generation of instruments. These genetically modified mutants, these shiny plastic boxes festooned with multitudinous buttons and accompanied by owners' manuals the size of encyclopedias. That's not how you make music, is it? With "bits" and "bytes," with jog wheels and memory chips, filters and sequencers?


Korg Electribe SeriesBut with the help of Korg's Electribe series my skepticism has been laid to rest. I've come to see that they offer a way to make music like none you've ever made before. Music that throbs and oozes contemporary cool. Music that flows from you like water out of a bucket. Music that sounds like the work of four people, but isn't. Music you make all by yourself. Sitting on the couch. Not a guitar, an amp, a keyboard or drumset in sight.


Keep the slim owner's manual handy, but you probably won't need it long. After a few hours with the ER-1 Rhythm Synthesizer, the EA-1 Analog Modeling Synthesizer, and the ES-1 Rhythm Production Sampler, you'll feel like I did. Pleased with yourself ... A bit guilty for yielding to electronica ... Completely satisfied, hungry for more, and idiotically happy.


When is a drum machine, not a drum machine?
My change of heart began with the Korg ER-1 Rhythm Synthesizer. While the ER-1 looks like your standard drum machine-lots of buttons and trigger pads, a small display window-it didn't take long for me to discover that there is nothing standard about it. Like a drum machine, the ER-1 comes loaded with a factory-installed library of sounds and patterns, but that's where the similarity ends. Other beat boxes can be described as "what you hear is what you get." And you'd better like what you've got because that's all you're going to get. Forever and ever, amen.


The ER-1 is different. It's not merely a drum machine, it's a percussion synthesizer. More accurately, four DSP synthesizers that give you the power to radically alter the sound of each of its over 250 patterns. Are you getting the picture?


Even if you love the ER-1's patterns (and you'll find plenty to love), you'll never be stuck with them. As soon as you grow tired of any particular sound, you can change it as regularly and radically as you'd like.


And it's a breeze to do so. Thankfully, I didn't have to wade through level after level of LCD menus or learn a list of arcane commands to access this machine's editing abilities. I had the ER-1 going from a lamb's bleat to a lion's roar and back again with the twist of a few knobs. By playing with the waveform, with modulation depth, with delay depth and time, and with pitch, I was able to make the ER-1 change color faster than a schizophrenic chameleon. And for the required hi-hat and cymbal sounds the ER-1 has thankfully included some real PCM samples so I didn't have to even attempt to figure out how to get those complex sounds started.


Satisfied with a few of my newly created sounds, I decided to try building some grooves with the ER-1's sequencer (each of the three Electribes comes with this sequencer onboard). In realtime mode, I could simply tap on the drum part pads and my rhythm showed up instantly lit on the 16-step grid below. Or in the venerable tradition of electronica yore you can simply turn on and off the step keys themselves to create a pattern, from one to four bars in length.


Since the ER-1 is a synthesizer I can have even more fun with the sound/parts I've recorded. Turning on the Motion Sequence function while the sequencer was playing back one of the 4 synth or the 2 PCM parts, I realized I could make profound realtime changes to any oscillator or effects parameters - panning, filter, and level, etc. - and the sequencer tracked my every move with the precision of an automated mixer. I'd like to see a drum machine try that.


Click to EnlargeI tried recording a few different patterns, an intro groove, a cool verse pattern, and a complex breakdown. Then I used the Pattern Set function to assign each of the Patterns to steps on the step grid, and quick as you could say "DJ MF" I was switching between the patterns on the fly just like I was dropping in samples and spinnin' turntables at the hottest dance club in town!


To build up your final Song (one of 16 possible in memory at the same time) I could have organized up to a whopping 256 phrases, and then added additional Motion Sequenced parts with the ER-1 sequencer's substantial memory. And that's per Song!


Keyboardists will be thrilled to know that they don't have to use the onboard trigger pads to control the ER-1. By connecting the ER-1 to any MIDI keyboard, the synthesizers and sequencer can be controlled remotely. There are even two inputs for routing external audio signals into the ER-1, whether from a CD-player, a computer, or another Electribe product. Gating the imported signal using the 16-step keys as yet another part of your Pattern will produce rhythmic effects that make it sound as if your external audio is now even playing in time with your pattern. Awesome! Don't get me wrong, a straight-on rock and roller intent on producing hyper-realistic sounding snare, toms, kickdrums, etc should look elsewhere. But you can't beat this thing for electronica and dance-flavored beats.


It takes two to tango
What's a great percussion groove without a buttery bassline to accompany it? That's where the EA-1 comes in. Like a twin son from a different mother, the EA-1 so closely resembles the ER-1 that, at first, their only distinguishing feature is their different colors (the ER-1 is red and the EA-1 is blue). And while their common layout makes it easy for anyone familiar with one to get cooking with the other, these are completely different creatures.


Click to EnlargeWhat we have in the EA-1is a sequencer, an effects unit (chorus/flanger/delay/distortion), and a two-voice analog-modeling synthesizer for creating basslines and sound effects. Completely different library of sounds/patterns - same amazing powers of sonic manipulation.


Again my mind was blown by how easily I was able to create exciting sounds and textures unavailable to me on my more familiar instruments. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the EA-1 is the only synthesizer you're ever going to need. Korg has reached a very satisfying balance between ease-of-use and an instrument's complexity (not to mention price).


Don't think this is simply a toy. You get a dual oscillator voice with 3 different waveforms per oscillator, Ring Mod, Sync and a nasty effect (and I like nasty effects!) called Decimator to create aggressive and classic analog sounds. These two oscillators are fed into a fully resonant filter, and the resulting sound is fed into both a tempo-synced delay and a Chorus/Flanger. This is a plenty-powerful voice that can really shake the house when it needs to!


The EA-1 share the same recording features, including the ultra-cool Motion Sequencing, the Pattern Sets and the Song function as the ER-1 so you already know what I'm talking about here. So let's move on to the last brother in this funky family trilogy ...


Click to EnlargeGood things come in threes

The last member of the Electribe tribe is the ES-1 Production Sampler. The newest addition to the family, the ES-1 makes use of the same button layout, same sequencer, and same control of realtime parameters seen in its older brothers. More significantly, it is born of the same fundamental philosophy that gave rise to its predecessors: give musicians a versatile, affordable, easy to use instrument that allows them to twist sound like saltwater taffy. The ES-1's take on this is to give you a sampler that does much more than sample. (Though sample it does - 95 seconds in mono mode. A total of 100 mono/50 stereo samples can be stored in memory.)


Take its Time Slice function. After sampling a few seconds of drums from an old jazz record of mine, the ES-1 was able to detect the attack of each kick, tom, snare, and cymbal so that I could cut up and and play with each element to create an entirely new groove. Speeding the tempo up while maintaining the original pitch of the drums was a piece of cake.


Desiring something further "outside," I then resampled my new drum break while simultaneously tweaking knobs like a mad scientist until I arrived at a Frankenstein monster of a track that sounded nothing like the original. To drag it even further through the mud, I put my sample through the Decimator effect (one of eleven basic effects including reverb, delay, distortion, compression, pitch shift and phaser) to give it a lo-fi twist before adding a few, well-selected accents.


And I've only been talking about one part up until now - the ES-1 can have up to 10 parts going at once, with some parts playing forward samples, other running backwards. Some parts can go into the effects, others can remain unprocessed. Or sample through the effects or resample with effects to get the sound of a full production from this one diminutive box. There's a global tempo-based delay to sweeten your final mix, and the same Motion Sequencing and audio gating features you've come to expect from an Electribe product.


The ES-1's onboard media slot allows you to download your work onto Smart Media for storage, or to download AIFF and .WAV files from your computer (and that means the Internet, my friends) into the sampler. So this means that you've got a drum machine/sample player that will never grow old, since you can put any sound imaginable into it.


Look, ma ... I'm Moby!
I have a final admission to make ... I'm not as old-school as I thought. I kinda like the industrial static and white noise hum of bits and bytes, and I'm guessing that my trusty guitar will be gathering more dust than it's seen in years as I tinker with my new friends in the Electribe series. Those of you who have shied away from technology-based instruments such as these owe yourself the favor of taking one or more of them for a test drive. Call Musician's Friend now to get your hands on a new breed of instrument that will take you to uncharted and unexpected musical terrain at the push of a button and the twist of a knob.