KORG ELECTRIBE EA-1 & ER-1
SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
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An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.14 No.9. July1999

Review by Chris Carter

KORG ELECTRIBE EA-1 ANALOG MODELLING SYNTHESIZER
KORG ELECTRIBE ER-1 RHYTHM SYNTHESIZER


TODAY IS A GOOD DAY TO BUY
So just when you thought it was safe to buy that fab new dance based workstation Korg decide to announce two brand new units adding even more choice to an increasingly crowded market. Which just goes to prove that as with most hi-tech products, there's never a good time to buy as there will always be something better around the corner. Well, follow that argument and you might as well join a monastery, so take a look at the new Korg ElecTribe Rhythm Synthesiser and and Analogue Modelling Synth, then get out you credit card or cheque book.

SHARED INTERESTS
The ER-1 Rhythm Synthesiser is a 6-voice programmable beat box, unashamedly in the Roland TR style. Well, maybe not in looks but definitely in concept and execution. Unusually the percussion sounds are constructed from four programmable oscillators and four adjustable percussion samples. There are also two audio inputs which can also be integrated into rhythm pattern steps and rhythms are constructed using the now classic Roland style step programming method (707, 808, 909). The ER-1 arrives with 192 preset patterns and users can overwrite these with 256 of their own making. A few demo songs are included and these can also be replaced by 16 user songs. A Motion Sequencer feature lets you record knob movements for each pattern.

There's a large 3-digit LED which shows the current Pattern or Song you are working within and is also used to display the EA-1's general housekeeping parameters. Which are accessed using a 5 x4 parameter matrix to select editable parameters, entered using a continuous data knob. Even with such a basic display, and combined with the fact that every button illuminates, there is plenty if visual feedback to help keep track of what's going on.

Connections are plentiful with stereo audio output jacks, two mono inputs, headphone socket, MIDI in, out and thru and a socket for a 9v wall wart (unfortunately batteries are not an option). The unit is approximately 11.5" x 8.5" and has a very low profile, only around 1.75" deep and is compact enough to sit on a desktop, next to a turntable or in a DJ bag.

ANALOGUE MODEL
The EA-1 Analog Modelling Synthesiser shares many of the ER-1's basic constructional features, such as size, connections, memory capacity, programming method and the general layout. But it only has a single mono input and instead of percussion voices the EA-1 contains two independent programmable mono-synths with 2-voice polyphony and independent mono outputs and a slightly expanded effects section.

Both the EA-1 synths are independently programmable.
The feature list for each is as follows:

OSCILLATORS
Osc 1 waveform: Saw, Pulse, Triangle, Ext. Audio.
Osc 2 waveform: Saw, Pulse, Triangle.
Osc 2 Pitch Offset (variable over 4 octaves)
Osc Mod: Ring Mod, Sync, Decimator
Osc balance (between 1 & 2)
Osc Portamento

FILTER
Cutoff
Resonance
EG Density
Decay
 
AMP
Level
Distortion

EFFECTS
Type (Chorus/Flanger, Delay)
Depth
Time (chorus/flanger speed)

SYNTH
The synths in the EA-1 are based around analogue modelling technology used in the Korg Z1 and in this incarnation are akin to a standard VCO/VCF/VCA/EG configuration (see diagram) and as you can see from the synth features chart have a reasonable arsenal of controls and parameters to play with. The frequency range of the oscillators is wide ranging, though Osc 1 isn't as great as Osc 2 and strangely in their raw state the waveforms sound vaguely samey (whew, try saying that after a few pints). The ring modulator and sync settings sound as you would expect in an analogue synth and the Decimator setting imposes a down-sampled, grungy edginess effect to the waveform.

 
FILTER/AMP
The filter is a good approximation of an analogue low-pass type that sounds more Japanese than US (or more Korg/Roland than Arp/Moog). Although it can be persuaded to self-oscillate when doing so it displays some uneven peaks and troughs while sweeping. But all told not a bad filter.
The envelope control is a bit of a let down though. The AMP section isn't envelope controllable at all, it's just on or off and the filter control is severely limited using just an EG Int knob (envelope depth) with a centre null/off position and negative control to the left and positive to the right. This is coupled with a simple Decay control and although there's no attack control one can be approximated using negative depth values with longer decay settings but because there is no Amp envelope control there is always a slight blip at the front of the sound.

 
EFFECTS
The distortion is another on/off effect and works well enough but subtle isn't in it's repertoire. There are some pretty redeeming features in the EFFECTS section though. The Chorus/Flanger effect is basic with only two controls but sounds fine and works well enough . The Depth control affects both the depth of the effect and introduces feedback at the higher settings, while the Time control (or speed in this case) ranges from the very slow to the ridiculously fast (0.2Hz-5Khz). Which is actually fast enough to sound like one of the oscillators. As you can imagine at the higher speeds this produces some beautifully crazed and over the top manipulations. Which brings me nicely to the Tempo Delay. Again, the Depth is dual control (delay depth and feedback) and with the Time knob set to minimum the effect is like a flanger, while at the maximum setting the delay is capable of producing delays of a second or more. As the delay is synchronised to the pattern BPM the delay times will vary in accordance with the pattern speed, so at high BPM's the maximum delay available will be shorter than with slower speeds. It's worth noting that because each synth has its own effects section some wonderfully syncopated bouncing echoes can be programmed.

 
GRIPE WATER
One gripe with many of the synth controls (and this also applies to the effects) is the sensitivity and stability of the knobs. The OSC2 Pitch Offset is very sensitive and sweeping the oscillator over four octaves is admittedly very fast but it's also very difficult to fine tune. The centre detent stop position rarely settles on the same tuning, sometimes locking-on sometimes gently drifting. The same applies to the Effect Time control, which although it was great fun to almost randomly warble the sound at the slightest touch, sometimes I just wanted to set a particular delay time with no hassle.
Tied in with this pet peeve of mine though is a useful feature called Original Value. This is just a single LED that glows whenever a control you are editing settles on it's previously programmed value. Useful if you are trying to go back a few editing stages without actually reloading a whole sound again and works on all the knobs, until you save the current settings to memory.
All synth settings are saved as a pair (Part 1 & 2) within an associated pattern, the pattern doesn't have to contain any sequenced notes but all patterns will contain synth setting information and Parts can be freely copied and exchanged with other Patterns.

 
VINTAGE MODEL
It may not be a Mini Moog or SH101 but the EA-1 synths can still hold their own in company. Including not only two synths but two oscillators in each and some interesting modulation options too, is pure genius and makes up for some of the shortcomings. Coupled with the filter and effects the overall combination is very versatile and quite powerful. This is shown in some of the presets which include some wonderfully deep and powerful bass lines and all manner of weird, wonderful and wacky synth tones and patterns. Hand on heart I wouldn't/couldn't say this is analogue modelled 'vintage' but definitely close to cutting edge.

Just a quick point, does anyone spot the deliberate mistake ? Horror of horrors, no LFO modulation for the oscillators, not even over MIDI, but maybe that's in the EA-1 mk2.

 

SMOOTH
The 16 illuminated rubber buttons along the front are used for playing the synth voices (activated using the Keyboard button) and also for editing, selecting moving and deleting Parts, Patterns, Events and Songs.

There are also 2 additional Transpose buttons that allow you to transpose individual notes across 6 octaves.
The Patterns can be as short as 12 steps or as long as 64 and can be in 4/4, 3/4 or triplet timing.
And in Step Edit mode there are options for adjusting note Pitch and Gate times and inserting Rests and Ties, though no option for velocity control. When the sequencer is running the16 keyboard buttons light up. Which ones light depends on which part is selected and what notes are playing, but it's a usefull guide when editing individual notes within a pattern.

The sequencer section defaults to real-time loop recording mode and is easy to use in the extreme. Press the RECORD button (the large left-hand one) which glows red and puts everything into record stand-by mode and sets the PLAY/PAUSE button flashing green. Press the PLAY/PAUSE button and real-time looped recording begins. You now play your notes using the front buttons (or external MIDI keyboard).

As you play you can switch back and forth between the two synth, or hold down the erase button and relevant note to wipe bum notes and mistakes and even engage the Motion Sequence feature and record a little knob twiddling at the same time. The Motion Sequencer is an adaptation of a feature I first came across in the Boss DR202 Dr Groove. In the Dr Groove you could record most of the knob movements within a pattern. However, with the EA-1 you can only record a single knob or button activity for each synth voice. Once you've recorded your knob movements there are two playback options: Smooth plays back pretty much what you recorded while TrigHold quantises the motion to the nearest 16th beat.

 
STEPS
Song construction is also a straightforward affair. There are two input options Step programming and Event programming. Step mode is just a matter of assembling a song by selecting the appropriate pattern at each step until you have assembled your complete song. Once you've assembled a Song there are editing options for Inserting, Deleting and transposing Patterns.
Alternatively Event mode is supposed to allow real-time recording of the Keyboard buttons into a song but the results aren't very rewarding. There is a small warning in the instruction manual that states: 'After rewinding a song it may not be possible to playback exactly according to the event data'. Your not kidding mate ! It sounds rubbish, and it wasn't my style of playing either. My advice, stick with the default Step mode.

 
A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT
Out of favour for years but now being introduced on many new synths is an external audio input, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it included on the EA-1. The external source needs to be at line level to get the best use of this feature but once inside the EA-1 the sound can be treated just like the oscillator wave forms. The Ring Modulator, Decimator, Distortion, Filter and Effects are all available for treating the external sound. Not only that but you can set up entirely different sets of treatments for each part, simultaneously.

 
MASTER & SLAVE
The EA-1 has a reasonable MIDI specification and external MIDI control is available for most of the EA-1's parameters including saving and loading patterns and songs, MIDI sync (master or slave), selecting patterns and songs remotely and individual MIDI keyboard or sequencer control of the synths. It will respond to pitch bend but it won't recognise velocity or modulation. A nice touch is that the Keyboard buttons light-up in response to incoming MIDI notes.

 
AND YET MORE
Other features are the familiar Tap Tempo, no worse (or particularly better) than most other beat box versions I've tried and Pattern Set. Pattern Set is useful in that it allows you to assign 16 of your favourite patterns/synths to the 16 Keyboard buttons for instant access and is a great feature for jamming or live playing.

 
KORG ER-1 RHYTHM SYNTHESIZER
As I've said above there are many similarities between the two ElecTribes and some of the features and functionality I've covered concerning the EA-1 also applies to the ER-1.

For instance, setting system modes, using and editing parameters with the parameter grid and the 16 pattern buttons (ie. editing, deleting, copying and patterns, pattern scale, swing setting and pattern step number etc.), MIDI functions and using Song mode (recording and playing back) are all fundamentally the same on both units. So if you are using both units this makes the learning curve a lot easier and also comes in handy when using the ElecTribes side by side (particularly if they are synced via MIDI) as you tend to operate them as a single workstation.

 
IT'S THE DIFFERENCES THAT COUNT
The ER-1 is a 6-voice beat box (seems like an insult to call it just a drum machine), featuring four programmable percussion synthesisers, four PCM percussion samples (open/closed hihat, crash and clap) and an accent option. There are also two external audio inputs that can be placed within rhythm patterns and processed like the other percussion voices. Now is probably a good point to go into a little more detail about the percussion oscillators.

Each of the four percussion oscillators has the following controls:
PITCH: 20Hz - 12kHz
WAVE: Sine or Triangle
MOD DEPTH: + or - 0 to 100% (centre off)
MOD SPEED: 0.1Hz - 5kHz
MOD TYPE: Saw, Square, Triangle, Random, Noise, Envelope.

In addition, every voice (this includes the oscillators, PCM samples and external inputs) also has Decay, Level, Pan and a Low Boost control. The Low Boost also introduces a pleasant bass distortion and really does what it says, with a vengeance, so look out for those speakers particularly if using it on more than one percussion sound.

A further sound modifying feature is the inclusion of two Ring Modulators. One works in conjunction with oscillators 1 & 2, while the other works with oscillator 4 and either of the external audio inputs. As with all RM's two sounds have to be present simultaneously for any sound to be heard. This means placing any voices to be modulated on the same pattern step number, or you'll just hear the sound of silence and when used with an external audio input you'll need to keep the flow of sound constant to get results, which by the way are very good.

Where the EA-1 essentially operates as two independent synths, each with its own mono output the ER-1 is a stereo unit, hence the voice pan controls, also the delay effect has a ping-pong type stereo output.

 
EDIT SUITE
Instead of the single Part select button of the EA-1 the ER-1 has a Part Select bank of 13 buttons, 10 for selecting voices, two for the Ring Modulators and one for the Accent feature. As only one voice button is ever active you can see at a glance which voice is currently being edited or available for placing into a rhythm pattern, easy peasy.

Each of the four PCM samples can be transposed over a wide range using the Pitch knob and further modified using the Decay and Low Boost controls but only two samples can sound at once. To be honest I could do without the rather lack-lustre samples (which all sound like they were taken from an ancient TR909) and would rather have a couple more oscillators to play with because the range of sounds available from the percussion oscillators is truly astounding. Even with only four oscillators some incredibly complex and unique sounding patterns can be built up, quite like nothing you've heard before.

Some of this sonic flexibility can be attributed to the slightly different implementation of the Motion Sequencer in the ER-1 (more on this later) but the almost infinite modulation and pitch warping possibilities available to the percussion oscillators outshine the oscillators in the totally non-LFO equipped EA-1 by miles.

Sure you can simulate run of the mill analogue kick drums, snares, toms and hihats but the ER-1 really shines when it's making none of these bog standard drum sounds, in my opinion anyway.

 

PATTERNS
Recording patterns will be familiar territory to anyone who's used a Roland TR drum machine, Steinberg Rebirth or anything that uses the standard step-time method. Step-time is the recording default mode and is always active in PLAY, PAUSE and STOP modes. As with the EA-1 you can set the number of steps from

12 to 64 and the time signature can be in 4/4, 3/4 or triplet timing.

To record a pattern you just select a voice (using the Part Select bank) and tap a few of the Pattern buttons, which now glow steadily and if a rhythm is playing you see the familiar 808/909 style running LED display along the Pattern buttons. Add more voices or steps as you go along and build up a rhythm. And that's it ! Song construction is the same as the EA-1

 
SO WHAT ELSE IS NEW ?
The ER-1 Motion Sequencer works in a slightly different manner than on the EA-1 (an improvement I would say). The global stereo Delay effect is essentially the same as the EA-1 mono versions and can produce the same type wacky and flangy effects. It has two settings Tempo (sync to BPM) and Motion Seq but in the ER-1 the delay effect has a dedicated Motion Sequencer, for each pattern. In addition ALL the voices have their own Motion Sequencer and can record knob movements for any of the controls associated with a particular voice, now that's more like it !

With this much control at your fingertips you can of course go completely over the top if you wish (please feel free), sweeping the pitch of every oscillator and sample throughout a pattern, well at least you have the choice.

There's a very useful PART SOLO/PART MUTE feature for isolating or muting individual voices (playing or paused) and interestingly I found the ER-1 voices respond to velocity over MIDI but quite why the EA-1 doesn't I'm not sure, but it ought to.

 
WEIRD OR WHAT ?
It strikes me as pretty strange to think how far we have pro/regressed when we consider that here I am using state of the art digital analogue modelling to simulate instruments that were hopelessly trying to recreate a real drum sound using basic oscillator circuits that actually sounded nothing like the real thing, but we still yearn for THAT sound. Crazy or what ? Has the world gone mad ? Metaphysical answers on a post card please.


ARE THESE TRIBES WORTH FIGHTING FOR ?
Both ElecTribes are capable of some very unusual, wide ranging sounds. The ER-1 comes across as particularly radical, almost anarchic at times. Some of the uniqueness of the ElecTribes can be attributed to the unusual implementation of the delay effects and Motion Sequencer (an adaption of a feature first seen on the Boss DR202 Dr Groove). Using both these features together can create some truly Frankenstein warping of sounds and patterns.

In some respects each ElecTribe is missing features the other would benefit from. The brilliant LFO modulation feature of the ER-1 would work wonders with the EA-1 oscillators, I'm still totally mystified why the EA-1 doesn't have the most basic of synth tools, an LFO. And the ER-1 could use another effect or two. The speed at which you can put together a completely new set of sounds and rhythms on the ER-1 reminds me of the Jomox XBase 09, a sadly underrated beat box.


NO GM (AND THAT'S NOT GENETICALLY MODIFIED EITHER)
To some degree the ElecTribes buck the trend of hundreds of formulaic preset dance styles, patterns and sounds and there's certainly no sign of GM either. The presets are ALL erasable and if anything this encourages the user to experiment with new sounds and patterns of their own. And although the supplied preset patterns are on the whole perfectly usable and sound VERY polished and professional, I suspect (I hope) a lot of users will be diving headlong into the murky waters of hands-on programming and coming up with their own unique sounds and rhythms, no bad thing I say.

The DIY approach to making percussion sounds and easy to use step-style rhythm construction of the ER-1 plus the EA-1's new spin on vintage flavour analogue modelling makes for a couple of tasty packages, and cheap to boot.

There's little direct competition to the ElecTribes in this price range, especially taking into account what sounds they're capable of producing and I suppose to most of us that IS the most important aspect. In this respect they may not be to every ones taste because particularly with the EA-1 it is almost TOO easy to produce wonderfully formless, atonal chaos, totally lacking in rhythm (mmm...lovely). Which is ironic really because the Dance music scene is in many ways as conservative a musical genre as Country music is, because even something as relatively new as Dance has already established traditions and rules and it can take a while for something as radical sounding as the ElecTribes to make an impression. But they will, nothing this good will go unnoticed for very long.

Apart from a few points I've mentioned above there's very little to complain about in the Korg ElecTribes. My personal favourite is probably the ER-1 Rhythm Synth (because that's the kinda guy I am) and I'm up for buying one as soon as I feel flush. But it's a close run race, they're both versatile, both sound bloody great, they're easy to use and they're cheap, what more could you ask for ? Oh yeah they look pretty cool too, in a kitsch 70's sort of way.

 
_________________________

KORG ER-1 RHYTHM SYNTHESIZER
PRICE £349

SUMMARY
What a refreshing change, a beat box that doesn't want to sound like every other beat box. Plenty of innovative features and tons of parameters yet so easy to use. It really makes you want to experiment and try out new sounds and rhythms. Cheap too, so I'm buying one.


PROS
Almost limitless combination of sounds.
Fun, visual and easy to use.
Plenty of useful preset patterns.
Portable.
Cheap.

CONS
Some limited voice assignments.
Choice of samples not great.
Only one effect.
Mains only.

SPECIFICATION
Sound generation:
Analogue modelling synth and PCM samples.

Number of parts per pattern:
Synth x 4
Samples x 4 (only two simultaneously)
Audio inputs x 2
Accent x 1

Memory:
Patterns x 256
Songs x 16

Effects:
Delay, Normal or Tempo.

Sequencer:
Pattern: 64 Steps per part.
Song: 256 patterns per song.
One Motion Sequence parameter per part.

 
192 Pre-set style patterns, including :
Electro
Techno
House
Garage
Hip Hop
Big Beat
Drum & Bass
Trip Hop
Vintage
Industrial
Trance
Hardcore
Jungle
Lounge
Connections (all on rear):

MIDI:in/out/thru
Audio:
Left & Right output jacks
2 x mono input jacks
Stereo headphone jack

9v DC socket

________________________________________________________________________

KORG EA-1 ANALOG MODELLING SYNTHESISER

PRICE: £349

SUMMARY
A bold attempt to break the dance workstation mould with something a little different. The EA-1 is a very capable and great sounding synth/sequencer combination whether you are on a budget or have just won the Lottery. Go on, get analogue modelling you'll feel better for it.
 
PROS
Two independent synths
Funky sequencer (and Motion Sequencer)
Capable of some interesting and unusual sounds.
Easy, hands-on, real-time programming.
Fun, if erratic, effects.
Cheap.

CONS
Limited synth parameters
No LFO !!!
Slightly fiddly controls
Mains only.


KORG EA-1 ANALOG MODELLING SYNTHESISER

SPECIFICATION
Sound generation:
Analogue modelling synths.
(Each with: 2 x Osc, 1 Filter, 1 Amp, 1 Effect)

2-Voice Multi-timbral

Number of parts per pattern:
Synths x 2

Audio inputs x 1

Memory:
Patterns x 256
Songs x 16
Events x 65,500 approx

Effects:
Tempo Delay, Distortion, Chorus/Flanger.

Sequencer:
Pattern: 64 Steps per part.
Song: 256 patterns per song.
One Motion Sequence parameter per part.

192 Preset style patterns, including:
Techno
Hip Hop/R&B
Big Beat
Drum & Bass
Trip Hop
Goa Trance
Acid Tek
Komputer Musik
Ambient
Hardcore
Speed Garage
Chicago House
Garage House
House Chords
Handbag

Connections (all on rear):
MIDI: in/out/thru
Audio:
Left & Right output jacks
1 x mono input jack
Stereo headphone jack

9v DC socket

http://info@korg.co.uk

Copyright © 1999 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.