Korg SV-1 Stage Vintage Piano
By hcadmin |
Vintage sounds and modern hardware hit the stage
73-key MSRP $2,700, street $1,999; 88-key MSRP $3,000, street $2,199
By Craig Anderton
I’m glad the days of the “race to the bottom” in keyboards is over. Companies like Korg, Yamaha, Roland, Nord, etc. are building serious, stage/recording-worthy keyboards with excellent build quality and generous feature sets. They’re priced accordingly, but these are products with “legs” that aren’t designed to be flipped every six months for some shiny new plastic thingy.
Which brings us to the SV-1 Vintage Stage piano. It’s almost anti-climactic to do a review because if you were at AES, it was obvious that everyone playing the SV-1 loved it for one reason or another. Having now had a chance to use it in my own studio, I can confirm that those initial impressions were on the mark. Still, it’s worth covering the SV-1 in depth because with all the keyboards out there, it’s important to know whether the SV-1 is for you or not.
THE BASIC CONCEPT
The SV-1 is all about future retro. Retro, in the sense that it re-creates the sounds of piano, tine pianos, organ, clav, string synths, etc. – 36 sounds altogether, with additional variations. Future, because it uses today’s technology to the fullest, adding amp modeling, reverb that’s way better than that funky Danelectro spring unit I used back in the day, programmability, and a keybed with Korg’s excellent, weighted RH3 action (with 8 velocity curves). Both 73- and 88-key models are available, and while not exactly lightweight, they aren’t too hard to carry around at 38.5 and 45.3 lbs., respectively. The 73-key model has a sort of muted red color scheme with black trim, while the 88-key model is black with copper trim.
The front panel has a logical layout, with different functions separated into obvious blocks of controls. I get the impression that Korg’s engineers were forced to design the interface while in a darkened club with bad stage lighting, because you can be semi-conscious and still work the controls. Operationally, the Big Deal here is that there are very few hidden functions; the front panel is always “live” and available for tweaking. (There’s also a cross-platform editor/librarian that reveals many more parameters, and provides more details on certain parameters; we’ll get into that later.) The few functions that are less intuitive to access involve setup-oriented aspects, like choosing velocity curves or tunings.
The knobs have LEDs around them, but these aren’t high-resolution “rings” like you see on some gear. Rather, they indicate various switched positions. When you call up new sounds, all the LEDs indicate current control settings, which you can of course change. However, even though only a subset of settings is shown in the front panel, several of these spread values across a full 128 value range, which you can access with the editing software.
CHECKING OUT THE SOUNDS
Before getting into the details, I’m sure you want to hear what it sounds like. Normally I’d record some audio examples, but Korg has been very diligent about posting audio examples on their web site. Several of them are played by Greg Phillinganes, who’s a - uh - slightly better keyboard player than I am; if you want to hear the sounds, he does a fine job of presenting them. There are another 36 examples from the built-in demos (one for each sound), and Korg has indicated they plan to add more examples in the future.
But what’s most important is that the sounds are gorgeous: Clean, well-defined, rich, and lush. I don’t think anyone could find fault with them. Korg definitely got it right (which probably isn’t too surprising to anyone who’s checked out their latest instruments). As one friend said when I clamped headphones on her, “It’s so clear!
Also in the sound selection area, you can transpose plus or minus 12 semitones by engaging the transpose function and hitting a key that corresponds to the amount of transposition you want, referenced to C4. Simple. This is also where you can choose from one of 8 tunings (including stretch tunings), one of 8 velocity curves, and whether to turn Local Off if you want to drive an external MIDI tone module from the keyboard.
The equalizer is not about surgical sound-sculpting: There are three bands (bass, mid, treble) that provide gentle (low resonance) tone-shaping, which given the sound quality is really all you need. If you do need more, the editor software provides access to the Mid frequency. Like all other processing sections, there’s an on/off switch to enable/disable the effect.
This section includes six effects that Korg considers as “stompbox” effects: Compression, boost, “Univibe,” vibrato, tremolo, and Vox Wah (which can follow the amplitude envelope, or a pedal plugged into one of the rear panel pedal jacks). Boost is a lot of fun; it’s not just a gain boost, but adds a sort of “hardness” to the signal. All PreFX are mono, except for the Tremolo; however, you can often restore stereo image with the Modulation and Reverb effects, which are “downstream” in the signal path).
I feel the Wah works best with the pedal, because there’s not enough release time on the decay for my taste. As a result, if you hit complex chords, the wah effect “flutters” as it decays rather than having a smooth decay. Having designed envelope-controlled filters, I know this is a design choice where you have to choose the “sweet spot” between having too fast a decay (where there’s excessive fluttering), and too slow a decay, where there’s a sort of lag and lack of “tightness” to the sound. That said, I would have lengthened the release time a bit. This doesn’t apply to when you’re using the pedal.
These effects all have speed and intensity controls, but they’re set-and-forget – there’s no mod wheel for changing the intensity of the vibrato or tremolo in real time. I’d like to see a future software update that allows tying these in with the pedal.
This section has six amp models, and is where the Real Tube comes into play (aha! so that’s why they sound like tube amps!).
The Favorites buttons are all about saving variations on sounds that are easy to punch up on stage, or storing some of the 36 sounds in a particular order for fastest access. The buttons are big, with big number labels (come to think of it, the whole front panel is quite readable), once again emphasizing that Korg expects you to be in a club with bad lighting when you rev up this puppy.
This section has two phasers, two choruses, flanger, and rotary. The flanger doesn’t go “through zero” like real tape flanging, but has a good modulation curve that gives a smooth flanging effect. The Rotary Speaker includes a slow/fast switch that speeds up and slows down when you change positions, just like the real thing. As with the Pre FX, you have Speed and Intensity controls but as mentioned previously, no mod wheel to which you can tie Intensity. The two choruses and rotary effects are stereo; the others are mono.
There are four reverb choices (Hall, Plate, Room, and Spring), along with Tape Echo and Stereo Delay. The natural reverbs are excellent, so much so you won’t be wishing for an outboard reverb; the Spring is little too periodic for my taste out of the box (springs weren’t always that periodic), but there’s always the editor. The Stereo Delay has a tap tempo option, but curiously, it doesn’t affect the Tape Echo. I’d vote for Korg to make the tap tempo apply to whichever delay is selected.
The only front panel control here is Depth, which varies the mix of the processed sound with the straight sound.
INS AND OUTS
The I/O is pretty comprehensive. There’s a USB connection for interfacing with the editing software that also provides a virtual MIDI interface (e.g., for driving the SV-1 from a sequencer), and jacks for three pedals. A damper pedal is included with the SV-1; the other two jacks handle a footswitch and expression pedal that can work either the volume or wah. The footswitch and pedals are optional at extra cost.
Output options are balanced XLR or unbalanced 1/4”.
As for audio, there are stereo inputs designed for feeding in the output from a CD or MP3 player for jamming or accompaniment. There’s no volume control for this on the SV-1, so you’ll need to use controls on the devices themselves. This signal is fed in post-effects, so it passes unmodified to the output.
There are two unbalanced 1/4” outs (use one for mono), and two parallel, balanced XLR outputs. The XLR outs aren’t combo jacks, which makes sense – you could send the balanced outs to a mixer, and the unbalanced to something like a miked amp for extra “character.”
The SV-1 Editor is a really useful add-on that works on both Mac (PPC or Intel) and Windows XP or Vista. It looks very cool, and is just as easy to figure out as the SV-1 itself. It also allows modifying the 36 presets and Favorites, which you can then save to build up a collection of patches, or to swap patches with other SV-1 users.
Perhaps the most important element of the software is that you can access several parameters that you can’t tweak from the front panel. As you can see from the screen shot, the Compressor reveals Attack, Level, and Sensitivity controls, and the Reverb offers four additional parameters. Furthermore, amps and cabs can be chosen independently, and each has more descriptive names so you can get a better idea of what Korg chose as the source for their models.
Another very useful feature is that there are controls for taming any “noise” elements included in a patch, like the noise found with string synthesizers, or the key clicks of an organ. This gives you the option of going for the most authentic sound, or cleaning it up somewhat.
If you’re not a tweakhead, you don’t really need to use the SV-1 editor; but those who want to get the most out of the SV-1 will find the editor not only very useful, but exceptionally easy to navigate.
The SV-1 is a truly solid performer. I would like to have a mod wheel, and some of the knobs wobble a bit so I was careful not to abuse them, but those are relatively minor complaints. Some people will want more than 8 favorites (it would be nice to double that by using a “shift” key, like holding down Tap Tempo while selecting to get another eight sounds), although the 36 included sounds pretty much hit the mark as is, and are easy to dial up.
However, remember that the SV-1 is not targeting synth nerds, but gigging musicians who want really great sound quality, portability, ease of use, piano-type keyboard action, a transparent user interface, and the ability to re-create the sounds of the vintage keyboards of yesteryear – albeit with a more delicious, polished sound. The detail of these sounds is really quite remarkable; for example, it’s always difficult to get the dynamics right on electric piano sounds, but the SV-1 pulls it off whether doing tine, reed, or electronic-based types. The editor/librarian software is a nice touch, as it lets you create a pool of patches that you can blast over as favorites (for example, you might load in a different set of sounds when you’re doing that wedding gig than you would if you’re opening for Herbie Hancock).
If I had to choose one word to describe the SV-1, it would be “satisfying.” The look, feel, and sound all add up to a playing situation where you really feel connected with the keyboard – something that was common in the days of vintage instruments, but which sometimes gets lost in instruments with tons of menus and options. Playing it compares to having a really great meal at a restaurant as opposed to just whipping up a frozen dinner at home, even though both fall under the category of “food.” There’s an experience of playing the SV-1 that goes beyond just hitting keys to trigger sounds.
The SV-1 doesn’t replace a digital audio workstation/synth like the Korg M3; this is all about a real-time, stage-worthy instrument that’s fun to play and hear. In terms of accomplishing that goal, the SV-1 hits a bulls-eye.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.