Thursday, August 09, 2007

Korg R3 Synthesizer and Vocoder

Korg R3 Synthesizer and Vocoder
Twice the sound at half the weight
Oscar Sommers

Korg R3 Synthesizer/Vocoder keyboard

Fat analog synth sound means fat analog synth weight. Old-school analog synths are heavy (sometimes as tubby as 200 pounds!) making travel to gigs and practice a backbreaking chore. It’s also hard to delicately handle large, heavy objects, which is how you must treat your synth lest you knock the often fussy oscillators out of tune. If you do manage to gingerly settle your synth onstage without any slips or bumps, there’s a good chance you’ll be out of tune halfway through the gig anyway. Yes, those analog synths known for their great sound are also just as (in)famous for their tendency to drift out of tune after only 20 minutes of play due to circuit design and cooling issues.

All those reasons, and many more, are what make the KORG R3 such an appealing instrument. Introduced at the last winter NAMM, this compact 37-key synthesizer weighs only six pounds but packs a version of the ridiculously thick, rich, and delicious Multiple Modeling Technology (MMT) sound engine found in the RADIAS. The R3 is to the RADIAS as the wildly popular MicroKORG is to the MS2000—it scales it down while retaining the sonic essence and power of its larger sibling. 128 customizable programs deliver sounds from mild pads to cutting lead tones with lots of other excellent synth and imitative sounds on tap. There are also six multiple-mode arpeggiator patterns to get creative with. Last but not least, the R3 has a flexible vocoder and even comes with a mic.

All of this is mounted in a very geek-chic chassis that looks and feels solid while also being sleek and light. The control panel and keys are laid out in a simple, easy-to-follow manner that packs a lot of control into a small space without really feeling cluttered. The synthesis parameter control section is especially cool. On the right side of the panel are four knobs, each topped by a small LCD. The function of the knobs and their LCD information changes to reflect the parameters you’ve selected to edit (oscillator 1, oscillator 2, filter 1, etc.) using a fifth knob placed just to the left. Neat, simple, and cuts down on the number of knobs. You can also use the included Editor software and connect your R3 to your computer via USB for even more control over the Programs.
Osc-some engine

The R3 is featherweight and stylishly retro-modern but any earnest examination of its worth begins with the sound engine that drives this tiny synthesis terror. In the R3 the MMT engine has an extremely variable sonic character thanks to the array of oscillator waveforms provided. Best of all, it’s flexible and easy to use.
Korg R3 Synthesizer/Vocoder keyboard

You get two oscillators per voice, with each oscillator using the low-aliasing design of the AL-1 Analog Synthesizer from the OASYS, noted for its smooth, powerful character. Oscillator one gives you choices for sawtooth, pulse, formant, noise, and Digital Waveform Generator System (DWGS) algorithms with DWGS providing over 60 wave shapes. To give the analog waveforms extra flavor, you have access to four separate modulation algorithms: cross modulation, pulse-width modulation, unison modulation (for voice thickening), and harmonic-generating Variable-Phase Modulation (VPM—Korg’s particularly tasty and proprietary take on FM synthesis).

You get fewer options with the second oscillator; just four analog-modeled waveforms. But the selection of sawtooth, square, triangle, and sine waves combined with sync modulation, ring modulation, and a combination of the two deliver an in-your-face mod perfect for taking any sound into sonically wicked analog synth territory. These modulation functions in addition to tuning abilities give you plenty of tweakability with the second oscillator.
More synthsational tools

You also get a noise generator, filter section, two LFOs, three envelopes, and an amp section to play with. The noise generator is useful for adding everything from percussive effects to a white-noise wall of sound. The filter setup is more versatile than you’d initially think two filters could be. You can match up a filter with one of the pair of oscillators, use one filter (filter one only), or two filters in series (filter one feeding into filter two) or parallel. And the two filters have separate tonal characters and parameters as well, increasing the amount of variability you can squeeze out of them. Filter one is a continuously variable multimode resonant filter which can be morphed between various high-, low-, and band-pass functions. Filter two is much the same, except for two things: it’s not continuously variable and it also includes a comb filter for lovely airy, metallic chorus and flanger effects.

Two of the three ADSR envelopes control filter tone and volume while the third is assignable. The amp section lets you add variable amounts of drive to the signal, allowing you to push the sound from classic analog style warmth to much heavier distortion, or use it for ultracool wave-shaping—even bit-decimation-style clipping. You can also place it in front of the amp section or in front of the filter section. Plus you can route the audio inputs right into the shiny, hot-rodded synth engine to process and manipulate external sounds as well as use six virtual patch cables to customize the signal flow from component to component, just like an analog synth.
Voice encoding

The small, flexible 16-band vocoder section supplies a few input mix controls while the vocoding functions efficiently use the same controls as the MMT engine with vocoding functions labeled in red. You can apply the vocoder to your voice or other audio (through the rear inputs) and also use Formant Motion to record 16 seven-and-a-half-second sections of movement in the vocoder filters and apply them later without any external input.

The R3 is a deceptively powerful analog-style synth, especially when considering its price and size. While it is friendly enough for beginning synthesists, it definitely has enough meat for wave-bending vets looking for a small second ’board with superb analog sounds.
Features & Specs
Korg R3 Synthesizer/Vocoder keyboard

* Multiple Modeling Technology synth engine
* Full-size, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard
* 16-band vocoder (mic included)
* 8-voice polyphony
* 128 programs
* 16 formant motion data sets (7.5 second x 16)
* Top-panel XLR input
* Dual rear-panel 1/4" inputs
* Headphone jack
* L/MONO, R 1/4" outputs
* Footswitch input
* MIDI I/O/Thru
* USB port
* 5 LCD control displays
* Dual oscillators
* Noise generator
* 2 filters
* 2 insert effects and 1 master effect per timbre
* 6 arpeggiator patterns