Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Korg Poly-800

The reviews are back!

Today's Item : the analog polysynth Korg Poly-800.

First, to have something relevant to listen to while reading this little review : the following track is all Korg Poly-800.

Mutant Monty by khoral

The Korg Poly-800… here’s a quirky synth for sure.
It may look like a toy or home keyboard, but it’s a real, vintage analog synthesizer with plenty of retro character.

The interface (or lack thereof)

Now of course, this is a 1984 instrument, so don’t expect useful stuff like, I don’t know, KNOBS. What you get is a numerical board, a couple of value buttons and a graphical layout so you can understand what’s going on.

Programming obviously isn’t as easy and straightforward as it should, but as 80’s interface design goes, it’s decent. It certainly beats the Roland Juno-1, which is much more of a pain to program without its PG interface.

Oddly enough, Korg used sliders for functions like Pitch bend range or Oscillator tuning, at which point I should remind you that these are DCO, or digitally controlled oscillators, and they’re very stable. Why the dedicated slider, instead of a couple ones for filter cut-off/resonance, I have no idea.

The joystick is actually more than a simple pitch bend, as it also controls modulation and filter, a really nice feature.

The built is cheap, all plastic and please, please, beware of the fragile joystick, but its simple design seems to have aged very gracefully. Mine works like a charm anyway.

It works on batteries (yeah!) and again, because it’s 1984, you’ll find buttons on each side to use with a guitar strap.

Synthesis (play up to 8 notes at a time! with 1 single filter!)

Wait, did I say it was a 8-voices synthesizer?

Well, on the paper it is. If you only use one oscillator for your sound, a polyphony of 8 voices is what you get, but also your sound will often be thin and uninspiring.

For a richer sound, you’ll want to switch to the so-called Double mode, using both oscillators and reducing the polyphony to 4 voices.

Limited, eh? But it wasn’t so long ago you only had 1 voice, so…

I myself like the effect of notes stealing voices from one another on a limited polyphony instrument.

And speaking of limitations, let’s come to grips with the biggest : all oscillators pass through the same low-pass 24dB filter. So if you play legato, the filter envelope will trigger for the first note only, which makes for some funny playing.

This is a big limitation but one that I rather like, as it’s another quirk that adds up to a very distinct character.

The filter itself is a fine one, best suited for retro pads, sizzling analogue leads and early 80’s synthpop magic. A Polarity function allows for filter envelope inversion.

The oscillator section is quite interesting, as the Poly-800 uses additive synthesis to generate waveforms. The basic material is a squarewave, while on top you’ll add different harmonics at octave intervals, the volume of which reacts according to either a sawtooth or a squarewave form (that is, if you choose sawtooth, the volume curve of the various harmonics will be shaped like a sawtooth). Oscillator 2 can be be transposed on a full octave.

In Roland Juno fashion, Korg has added a great chorus, which should be considered an integral part of the audio chain.

Envelope (as in : lots of  'em)

Also notable is the rather complex envelope section. Each oscillator sports its own 6-stages envelope : Attack, Decay, itself split in two at Break point, with Slope setting up the time for envelope to go to Sustain, and finally Release.

If the Break point is set at a lower value than Sustain, what you will hear is the Attack, then Decay, a second Attack, and up to Sustain. A good way to create more sophisticated, evolving sounds.

The LFO section, on the other hand, is a bit primitive. A sinewave LFO controlling VCF and DCOs, and that’s it.


The Key Assign section too is reminiscent of my Roland Juno-1.
The Poly mode is the standard polyphonic mode you’ll use most of the time.
In Hold mode, notes will keep sounding until their voices are reallocated, as if all release values were set up on infinite.

Chord memory, often mistaken for a useless gimmick, is a great tool to create interesting sounds. Press Hold, then play a chord, hold it and press Chord memory. Every note will rep. Play a single C note instead and you’ve got a monophonic synth.

Finally, the Poly-800 features a simplistic 256 events sequencer and early MIDI.

So what?

Sonically, the Poly-800 falls square into the early 1980’s fuzzy, raw, poppy analogue family, and because it’s so overlooked, you’ll often be able to find a working unit for ridiculously low prices.

I bought mine 111€ shipping included on Ebay, and for such a fine analogue synthesizer, it’s basically a steal, so if you’re looking for eighties-styled analogue, and hesitate to pay 600€ or more for that soooo hip Juno-60, consider getting the Poly-800 instead, it’s no Juno-60 all right and you won’t show off with it, but it’s great value and I hardly think you’ll regret it.

I sure as hell don't.


John Fisher said...

cool review, nice track! That synth has a very interesting tone, sort of low fi, but very rich.

khoral said...

Right, it's somewhat plain to look at, but surprisingly rich...
Once you've layered a couple of tracks, the mix is already quite full