Review: Korg DSS-1

Korg DSS-1
Hybrid Synth Keyboard

Wow! All I can say is that if you have never tried a keyboard with true, honest to goodness analog filters, you need to! This keyboard is a hybrid synth which uses 12-bit samples in place of the traditional analog VCO or DCO (like the Juno-106), but the synthesis signal path is all analog, including a 2 or 4 pole analog filter for each voice. This is one truly underrated synth. Before replacing the disk drive with a cheap $5 one, (see my post here) I was using it as a pseudo analog subtractive synth since I am waiting for a floppy disk drive replacement. Yes, good old fashioned 720k 3.5″ floppies. These are hard to come by, but standard 1.44Mb ones work if you tape over the hole. Without a drive though, I had to setup patches manually each time I turned it on. The keyboard can “create” sounds internally by either harmonically synthesizing it, or drawing it in manually. The shapes you can create for your oscillators are virtually limitless. It even has a great harmonic synthesis generator which allows you to set the level of each of the 128 harmonics to a tone. This is great for creating “glassy” type sounds that you might get on a true digital synth like a Yamaha DX-7.

Well, the specs are already out there, but this keyboard has 8 voices. Each voice can have 2 oscillators/ samples plus noise. You can detune the second oscillator and even sync it to the 1st for cool sync’d synth sounds, although this really only works for single cycle waveforms. None, either or both oscillators can have a pitch bend. None, either or both oscillators can have pitch modulation. The osc modulation (osc LFO) has a delay setting too so the pitch modulation will wait a specified amount of time after the note has been played to kick in. The osc LFO intensity is controlled by midi CC1 which can also be controlled by upward movement on the modulation joystick.

The 8 filters are true analog Low Pass Filters and are switchable between 2 and 4 pole. The filter has its own LFO which also has a delay setting on it, allowing you to set the LFO to kick in only after a specified amount of time. The VCF LFO intensity is controlled by midi CC2 which can be controlled by downward movement of the modulation joystick. The Filter has an envelope with Attack, Decay, Break, Slope, Sustain and Release. The Break and Slope might need some explanation. Basically the Attack and Decay work as you might expect, but the Decay only decays down to the value set as the Break. If the Break is set at 63 (maximum) then the maximum value never decays lower. If the Break is set for 32 then after the initial Attack, the value Decays (based on time setting of Decay amount) to the value of 32. From there, the Slope is like a secondary Decay leading to the Sustain value. It is also a time setting to tell the Envelope to adjust its setting to the Sustain amount over the specified time. This can actually be a positive or negative amount, if for instance the Break is set at 32 but the Sustain is set at 63. In this scenario, the initial attack happens, decays to 32, then slopes back up to 63. The VCF Envelope can be switched positive or negative.

The VCA has the same type of 6 stage envelope as the Filter as well as decay key tracking. This basically lets you assign how much longer the low notes ring than the high notes. For creating more authentic Rhodes or piano you can use this so the higher the note, the shorter the decay and the lower the note the longer the decay.

Velocity information can control:
Oscillator pitch bend intensity
VCF cutoff
The attack, decay or slope of the VCF envelope
The VCA volume
The attack, decay or slope of the VCA envelope
Velocity switching (which allows you to switch between OSC1 and OSC2 based on velocity)

The keyboard has aftertouch which can control:
OSC Modulation intensity
Either VCF Cutoff or VCF Modulation intensity
VCA level

The joystick (pitchbend) can be set to control the VCF filter cutoff, but you need to disable its pitchbend range first. The keyboard also has 3 modes of note play. Unison is where all 2, 4, 6 or 8 synth voices are stacked and play the same note with a definable amount of detune. There is a mode to re-trigger the same voice when the same note is played (good for Piano like performance) or the trigger a new voice when the same note is played.

A built in basic 2 band EQ is adjustable to add nice low end or sparkle. And the “piece of resistance”, a Dual Digital delay with modulation. Basically there are 2 modulators which can effect either of the two digital delays. Maximum 500ms and minimum 0 ms for flangey goodness. The modulator rates are adjustable and the amount of modulation from each modulator to each delay is adjustable as well. They can be set up in stereo or cascading mono.

A word of warning, the DSS-1’s operating system is clunky and a little difficult to understand at first. It also makes using a PC seem like a piece of cake, because sampling and setting up a program can take some time whereas dropping a sample into Kontakt or EXS can take less than a second.

All in all, this keyboard is a steal since they are going for around $200 often. Just beware that they are huge, but if you get a nice one where the midi output works (not like mine) then you have a nice 61 note master keyboard to boot.

This keyboard has some pretty cool stuff in it, and there are other great sites dedicated to it, such as Glen Stegner’s, Vintage Synth, as well as a Yahoo Group, Wiseguysynth and others.

Check out my DIY article on fixing the keybed and my DIY article on replacing the floppy drive.

Here are some sounds from it…

and a youtube video with the same sounds: