Korg Kross 2
The Kross 2 enjoys the twin benefits of Korg’s workstation pedigree and an attractive price tag.
Technology tends to follow a path from expensive to affordable. Computing power that would have required a government research grant a decade or two ago can now be obtained in your local supermarket, while the latest version of the flat-screen television that cost you more than £2000 a few Christmases back is now on sale for £399. The same is true in the world of keyboard workstations. Technologies first encountered in flagship instruments drift down until they appear in models that their manufacturers hope will be widely affordable. Take, for example, the Korg OASYS-88, which introduced the HD1 sample+synthesis engine to the world. This cost £5400, but soon begat the M3-88, which was based on a cut-down version of HD1 called EDS and cost just £2600. This in turn begat the M50-88 at £1500, followed by the Krome 88 (EDS-X) and then the Kross (EDS-i), which took the price of an 88-note Korg workstation to below £1000.
This doesn’t mean that the Kross was an OASYS or that it provided the full HD1 engine for less than 20 percent of the original price, but much of the underlying synthesis had survived. Korg must therefore have been rather disappointed when the Kross attracted a degree of criticism, not because of its voicing, but in the way that it was implemented. On the other hand, the company must have agreed with at least some of the comments, because I now have in front of me the Kross 2, which appears to have addressed many of the questions raised about the original.
Like many of Korg’s earlier releases, the Kross 2 offers four primary modes of operation. The first is a Program (patch) mode, the second is a multi-timbral Combination mode, the third is Sequencer mode and, finally, there’s a Global mode that takes care of the internal drum kits and housekeeping duties.
Programs are based upon a pair of four-part, velocity-cross-faded, multi-sample oscillators that draw from approximately 112MB of ROM. This is considerably smaller than the 256MB ROM in the M50 and the 512MB in an expanded M3, let alone the massive 3.8GB inside the Krome, but there’s an as yet unused 128MB of RAM into which you’ll be able to load expansion libraries that, Korg say, “will be released following the Kross 2”, so we’ll have to wait to see what these offer. The outputs from each of these oscillators are passed to dual 12dB/oct multi-mode resonant filters that can be configured in series or in parallel or as a single 24dB/oct filter, and then to an audio amplifier. At every stage, a huge range of modulation options is provided, with contours, tracking generators, LFOs and Alternative Modulation Sources galore. Similarly, the Kross 2’s drum kits use up to four velocity-switched and cross-faded samples per instrument, and you can play these forward or backward with start offsets if desired. You can define the level and transposition of each instrument, sustain each after the trigger is released so that the sound is completed naturally, and there are additional parameters for filter cutoff and resonance, an AD contour that offsets the Program contouring, triggering modes, exclusive groups and more.
Nonetheless, the Kross 2 lacks some of the more sophisticated voicing features of the company’s more expensive workstations, including Wave Sequencing and Vector Synthesis. Also absent is KARMA, although I don’t think that many of Korg’s target users will miss this. Instead, there’s a sophisticated, programmable, polyphonic arpeggiator that’s far removed from the up/down/random devices of traditional synths. Sure, these simple patterns are available as presets, but there are a further 1280 rewritable pattern memories, and a wide range of parameters — octave range, resolution, gate length, steps per beat, velocity, flamming, swing and more — make it more of a mini-sequencer than an arpeggiator. You can even set things up so that a limited area on the keyboard will define and trigger the arpeggio, allowing you to play along with it.
Each Program also includes a drum track into which you can load one of 772 preset patterns, and a 64-step sequencer for creating your own patterns. Again, an extensive range of parameters is available and, on playback, you can synchronise the results with the other sections of the synth. Drum tracks also have access to the full effects structure of the Kross 2 with each instrument independently routable so, if you want your snares to suffer... sorry, I mean benefit from compression and gated reverb while your kicks are enhanced and your cymbals are flanged, that’s all possible.
The effects structure comprises up to five stereo Insert effects (the maximum number is determined by the ‘size’ of the effects selected) plus two stereo Master effects, although the M3’s and M50’s Total Effect slot has been lost as have 36 of their algorithms, the number of which in the Kross 2 is therefore reduced from 170 to 134. As usual, you can determine how the insert effects are chained, how their outputs are sent to the master effects, how the control busses provide the signals necessary for vocoding and the side-chained dynamics effects, and how they’re synchronised (or not) to the arpeggiator, the sequencer or MIDI Clock. The effects are, as always, based upon Korg’s REMS algorithms and, in my view, they’re often of sufficient quality to preclude the need for outboard gear.
Once you’ve completed your Program, you can decide whether to add it (or not) to your lists of favourites. You can also set up a Quick Layer or Quick Split with control over the volumes of the two component sounds and, in the case of the Split, their octave transpositions. If you save either of these, the results are stored as a Combi, but without the player having to understand how Combis are configured.
Combi mode is a powerful tool that you can use as the basis of multi-timbral setups or for creating the complex sounds for which Korg’s workstations are rightly famed. As usual, a Combi is a composite of up to 16 Programs (here called Timbres) each with its own volume, pan, pitch, scale, crossfade-able keyboard and velocity zones, and MIDI settings. It also includes two arpeggiators and a drum track. You’ll find all manner of interesting ways to assign and trigger these, and I rather like the way that you can assign the arpeggiators to Timbres, and velocity-switch between them when applied to a single Timbre. You can also use the pad samples (see box) and the step sequencer within a Combi and, if selected, these occupy Timbre slots 15 and 16. So, while the Kross 2 isn’t in the same league as a fully fledged arranger keyboard, you can configure Combis that come pretty close to sounding like complete backing tracks. Unfortunately, it has lost the individual Timbre EQs found on the M3 and M50, although it retains a limited version of their Tone Adjust feature. Here, this allows you to affect each Timbre’s filter cutoff and resonance as well as its filter contour and its velocity sensitivity without altering the underlying Program. This means that, if you need a particular Timbre to be a bit brighter or to speak more quickly (or whatever), you can achieve this without affecting other Combis. For a long time, this was one of the holy grails of multi/combi modes and, although only eight parameters are offered, it’s very welcome.
In common with Korg’s previous workstations, you can’t import Programs into Combis complete with their individual effects. Instead, the same effects structure is available for Combis as for Programs, and you have to determine where each Timbre is inserted into the routing map. This means that you have to plan ahead, deciding which sounds will benefit from which effects, and find ways to make complex Combis sound as close as possible to what you had intended. It’s also worth noting that, while the Kross 2’s maximum polyphony has been increased to 120 voices (the maximum on the original was 80) this can only be achieved when using the simplest sound in Program mode or a single Timbre of the simplest sound in Program mode. If you increase the complexity and start layering Timbres, the polyphony will drop considerably and, as on all such instruments, it can drop all the way down to single figures in the most extreme cases.
Although I would never use it in place of a DAW, the Kross 2’s 16-track sequencer could prove useful as a note pad and for replaying compositions. Its specification may not be up there with the most powerful devices of its type, but it’s no lightweight either, holding up to 128 songs comprising 16 instrument tracks and a tempo track, each of up to 999 measures, with an absolute ceiling of 210,000 MIDI events. For novices, it offers 16 template songs with preset instruments and their effects already allocated, or you can use Auto Song Setup to copy any of your Combis into it. Then, once you’ve recorded something, the usual range of editing functions are provided: inserting, copying, repeating, looping, moving and erasing measures, modifying notes, quantising, creating and modifying control data, and so on. You can also record SysEx as part of the performance, which provides myriad possibilities for automation.
As you would expect, each track in the sequencer can drive external sound sources as well as the Kross 2 and, again, you can allocate the Pad Sampler to track 15 to spin in audio such as guitar parts and vocals. Many years ago I used my Roland S770 in this way, recording guitar parts as extended samples and then triggering them from my sequencer. You’ll find that there’s much that you can achieve this way although, if you need true audio/MIDI integration within a keyboard, you should be looking toward the Kronos or one of its competitors. But perhaps my favourite sequencer function is something that we’ve already discussed. As in Combi mode, Tone Adjust allows you to tweak the Timbres inserted into the tracks without affecting other songs. Bravo!