maxim

Sometimes the underground is a surreal place to be.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gear Change: Suzuki PK-61ex



In the mid-80s, my favorite synth manufacturer Siel found themselves in dire straits.  Their marketshare was dwindling after the digital revolution kicked off by the DX-7, and their product line was poorly received overall.  The DK-70 was an obvious knock-off of the Korg Poly-800, and they suffered from a somewhat deserved reputation for poor quality of manufacture, as did their fellow Italian brand Elka.  It was around this time that they began taking on contract projects for other companies, in this case the musical instrument division of Suzuki.  This isn't the same Suzuki who manufacture engines, but instead the company which runs music schools all over the world which teach the 'Suzuki Method', which is apparently a very regimented approach to learning to play a variety of instruments.  It's been well-known that Suzuki distributed the Siel MDP-40 under their own label as the Suzuki RPM-40, but it turns out that Suzuki actually contracted Siel to design and manufacture a series of PCM home keyboards with some fairly interesting (and distinctly Siel-esque) quirks.

The Suzuki Keyman PK series consisted of at least the PK-49, the PK-61, and the PK-61ex, although there may have been a PK-88 with full weighted keys, but I believe that model was created by a different company.  The initial shortcomings of the PK series were... interesting to say the least.  The keyboards were produced from around 1984 or 85, but there is so little information that I can't be sure.  The first models featured a standard array of sound outputs and a Siel-style 5-pin pedal input, as well as a switchable 5-pin DIN port which functioned as an RS-422 port, compatible with the serial port on the Commodore 64 among others.  When switched, the port would communicate with an external box (presumably sold separately, I've never seen one) which would give the PK-49/61 a MIDI IN and OUT port.  Apparently there was some learning software for the C64, which both trained you in the Suzuki Method and offered the ability to sequence your own songs with the internal sounds of the keyboard!  Of course, this software, as with the MIDI Box, would seem to be totally lost to the ages.

The internal sounds were PCM-based, although with the RPM-40, as with the PK-49/61, the bitrate was stunningly low.  The sounds of the MDP-40 I owned several years ago were so grainy and the sample time so short, they sounded roughly as close to a Roland TR-505 as a Boss DR-55 sounds to a TR-808.  These poor quality samples were omitted in the rhythm section of the first series PK keyboards, which actually feature a fairly nice analog sound, although unfortunately not externally programmable (at least, not without the MIDI interface, the capabilities of which I do not know).  On the other hand, the internal sounds are of the same vintage and the same strangely poor bitrate encoding standard.  This makes them oddly difficult to differentiate from many other lower quality synthesizers of the time (digital or analog), which could provide for some interesting uses were the greater production use of these keyboards not mooted by the fact that they cannot be controlled by MIDI outright.  The internal accompaniment patterns are excellent, not too over-orchestrated as Casio's tended to be, and the beat patterns are very similar to those of the MDP/RPM except more complex, perhaps owing to the larger ROM necessary for the accompaniment patterns.  There are also individual volume controls for the rhythm, accompaniment, arpeggiator (patterns vary based on the drum/accompaniment selected, sound doesn't seem to), and the master voice.  There is also a real-time two track sequencer, similar to the one in the DK-70.

The PK-61ex is a tremendous improvement over the first series, with internal MIDI i/o, higher quality PCM voices (definitely still 8-bit, but up there with the Mirage), and a fully PCM rhythm section with higher quality voices taken from the MDP/RPM.  The sounds are still somewhat staccato, and the cymbal/hats are probably the only digital drum cymbal samples which are worse than the Yamaha RX series, but the snare, kick, and various other percussion sounds are actually extremely warm and punchy.  There is even a separate output for the Drums!  The 61ex also offers a manual drum switch section, which turns the top octave of the keyboard into a drum kit.  I've yet to experiment with the MIDI to see whether the drum sounds can be played from an external source or if the internal patterns can be synched to MIDI clock, but I will update this post once I have.  There are 14 internal sounds with sustain and a 'duet/quartet' function which doesn't seem to actually change the sound at all (maybe it was intended to stack voices as one would on an analog synth?  sample based voices don't really seem to work like that though), and 14 rhythm/accomp patterns, with switchable percussion, hand claps, fill-in and break functions.  There are two variations on the accomp. for each pattern, each using a different sound, as well as two variations on the bassline which also uses two different sounds.  The arpeggiator would seem to just be the same somewhat analog blip sample.  When turned on, the keyboard split uses the note or chord played on the bottom two octaves to drive the internal accompaniment and the upper three (or middle two if manual drums are also on) to provide voices, which are limited to the upper octaves.  There is a Transpose function, but I don't know how it works as it doesn't seem to function on my 61ex.  The internal accompaniment also features a 'simple chord' function which acts similar to the old Casio Chord function while active, otherwise if off the accompaniment functions very, very well as a compositional aid.

The internal sounds themselves leave quite a lot to be desired, even with the higher sample quality.  The organ sounds are superb, as are the music box and vibes patches.  The 'Harmon.' sounds a bit like a cross between strings and a chorus, but not intentionally.  The trumpet, flute, clarinet and violin are absolutely terrible.  The El. Guitar and Synth are both mediocre.  All sounds have vibrato which can't be turned off, but is quite musical for the most part.  The internal speakers are surprisingly warm and powerful, and they make the keyboard sound absolutely amazing for a mid 80's PCM home keyboard.  Through the phones output, on the other hand, the sound is bizarrely different and extremely disappointing.  I've yet to test the stereo and drum outputs through a mixer, and they may be run through some kind of resistor in the circuit.  My PK-49 arrived with a short, which required you to pull the AC adapter input down in order to get power to the drum machine & accompaniment, but the PCM section worked fine!  Classic Siel design, be prepared for it if you find yourself faced with one of these old keyboards.

Gear Change: Korg RP-100



The RP-100 Rhythm Programmer is an odd, obscure little device, produced around 1983/84 by Korg just prior to the transition from the Poly series (Six/61/800) to the DW series.  Apparently it was only produced for about a year, and there is next to no information on it online aside from a quote from a scanned promotional pamphlet.  The RP-100 is part of a series which included the even more obscure MP-100 Chord Programmer and possibly the SQ-8 MIDI Sequencer.  The RP-100 itself is essentially a programmable metronome, with some simplistic drum machine features added in.  The button format and case is the same for the RP/MP-100 and the SQ-8, although the SQ-8 is a far more complex piece of equipment, and its' two little sisters each have a different color scheme.  The functions of the RP-100 are very simple, with a basic metronome with variable tempo from 40 to 208 BPM, selectable only in 4 BPM increments (an odd shortcoming for a metronome), a functionality to 'step write' a bar of blips one beat at a time (capable of adding 1 to 8 blips per beat, and also of subtracting individual blips with the rest function), a 'chain play' which allows you to play back the steps you've written in a time signature ranging from 1/4 to 8/4, and a 'swing' mode which is unfortunately not applicable to the chain play mode, and simply allows you to use the basic metronome with one of 8 drum machine swing settings.  There is also an A440 tone generator, and a tap-tempo input.  A curious feature of the RP-100 is a DIN Sync I/O port, which allows it to either drive another DIN Sync instrument (48ppn) or apparently to accept a "tap" input.  Unfortunately, the only available sounds are four harsh analog blips consisting of the 2 basic metronome blips plus a click and an accent, output through either the internal speaker or the phones port.  The output volume is loud enough that it may be capable of driving an analog arpeggiator, which when taken in tandem with the DIN I/O would open up some extremely interesting possibilities given the swing function and the ability to program blip-numbers on a given beat.

If anyone has any information, or better yet, is interested in selling an MP-100 unit, I'd be very interested in buying it.  As best I can figure, it's a simple MIDI sequencer similar to those which were being included in home keyboards in the early 80s, and possibly something similar to the internal sequencer of the Korg PSS-50 accompaniment machine (which itself does not have any way of synchronizing with any external equipment, which was a very odd shortcoming for a device produced alongside the Poly-800 and the DDM-110/220).

By the way, these units really aren't worth anything.  Unless you'd like to experiment with the internals of it, or just have a rare display piece, they're not worth seeking out.  I paid about ten dollars for mine, plus shipping.  They're a great example of a device which is rare not because it was unknown, or because it has become sought-after, but because it's really just not very interesting or useful outside of extremely specific applications.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Gear Change: Kawai PHm




New gear to talk about, hopefully I'll get around to all of it.  First up is the Kawai PHm "Pop Synth Module", a small half-rack rompler module in the vein of the Casio CSM-1.  Where the CSM-1 was a midi module version of the massively popular MT-540/CT-460 home keyboard, the PHm is a module version of the less popular PH50 Pop Synth.  It's got two hundred patches which have been pulled from the Kawai K1, which itself was a sample & synthesis instrument based on the K5 additive synthesizer.  The K1 itself has been thoroughly documented by the Deep Synthesis site here, if you need a quick primer on its capabilities.  You can find a more general review of the PH50 at the always excellent TableHooters home keyboard review site, although the PH50 is slightly different in interface and the reviewer's interest is focused more towards the circuit bending end of things and the physical interface.  Since most of it's covered there, I'll just speak about the patches.

The PHm can be had for about $25 on ebay, although it goes for as much as $50 at times which seems to be a bit too much to me since you can get an actual K1 for a little more.  The PHm offers 200 patches, but really it's more along the lines of 50 patches with a few variations as was the usual practice at the time.  The patches are actually quite usable, in fact there are several which I believe I've heard on some classic tracks.  Tone 58, "arrangement," is a short, rather odd digital string progression which lasts for a moment or two.  When played as a chord, it strongly resembles a sound from the classic bleep track LFO - LFO.  There are an assortment of somewhat usable digital basses (110, "Round Bass" is straight out of a late 80s industrial rock record, and 111 "Kick Bass2" sounds like something from an amiga game soundtrack), some excellent string sounds, and a surprisingly good handful of Oberheim emulations for some reason.  Also included are some interesting sound effect-type pads which I would guess were largely created on the K5, such as 45-47 and 145-150 (the variations tend to show up every 100 patches, as discussed by TableHooters).  Other patches are clearly samples, and since the PHm was created in the era before sampling became regulated they include one or two samples clearly lifted from classic sources such as 154, which is straight from a kung fu movie, or the fairlight ahh sample which appears as number 85.

The PHm also features 4 part multi-timbrality plus a drum kit on channel 10, but also at least a dozen percussion patches among the 200 primary patches which are of varying usability.  Many of them play only one note across the keyboard, which is extremely frustrating because they're already rather low quality samples and frankly the bit noise added by transposing them would have only made them more interesting.  The FingerSnap patch, for example, sounds like the pop a speaker makes when you take the cable out while it's still powered on.  On the other hand, the BongoCowb split has a very 808-ish analog bongo/tom sound on one half of the keyboard, and a very un-808ish cowbell on the other.  The Tambourine patch is really rather awful, as pretty much every rompler tambourine patch tends to be, while the Single Hit patch is probably the best orchestra hit I've ever heard.

Not all patches are useful, in particular the guitars are about as awful as rompler guitar sounds ever sounded (was there ever a situation where these types of sounds didn't ruin anything they touched?  bleah) and the horns are invariably oozing with cheese.  If you want to do a patch-perfect '87 freestyle track, you could do a lot worse than 161 "Lotsahorns".  The pianos, the test of any rompler worth it's salt, are mostly disappointing and a bit thin, although perhaps passable in a certain style of piano house.  The built in rhythm patterns don't really provide anything of use, although the Echo pattern might actually find its way into a track of mine in the future.

Frankly, the PHm excels at certain things like sound effects and oddball digital synth sounds, but fails to hold up to anything even remotely approaching professional quality.  The price is extremely low, though, and with two hundred patches it's certainly worth having one around.  It's best suited to old school style dance music production or strange-life-esque soundtrack work.  If you're looking for a proper synthesizer, the K1 upon which this is based is available for between $50 and $100 and is fully programmable.  However, if you just want another set of classic rompler sounds and you'd rather not pay the $75 for, say, a U-220 or 05/rw then keep an eye out for the Kawai PHm, and don't bother if it costs more than $30.


Kawai is one of the best companies on earth when it comes to making their manuals available, and the long forgotten PHm is no exception.  You can get the user manual here and the patch list here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

4 80s J-pop albums

These are some rips I've had sitting around for a while. A few years back, every time I would go to Academy Records there would be a couple of old japanese LPs, either enka, J-pop, or anime-related. I expect they were parting out some estate sale they'd picked up. I'd pick up a couple of them on the cheap whenever I saw them, and that was the source of the synthesizer fantasy records I've posted previously. I've got about twenty records from that estate, I figure, but the only ones I've posted have been the truly strange ones. These four LPs are some of the more average ones, but they're also some of my favorites (not hard, I think there's four or five Yamato soundtrack/drama LPs in the mix). There's a great blog here if you're interested in finding more or finding these in better quality: http://tsuzilla.blogspot.com/

Akina Nakamori - Third
Kyoko Koizumi - My Fantasy
Marina - Evergreen
Creamy Mami - Last Curtain

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gear Change: SYSEX Bonanza!

This time around, I've got a special treat for you guys. I've finally gotten around to dumping some custom patches from a few instruments I've had around, essentially the only ones that have bulk-dumping (or any kind of MIDI dumps at all, damned late-model Siel synths). Most of these aren't actually ones that I've made, I've sold off most of the synths that I used to tweak. On offer here is a sysex dump of an E-mu Proteus/1 (mostly factory patches but I've done some nice solid basses, might be worth a look), a Roland Alpha Juno 2 which was passed around the south Brooklyn Rave scene throughout the 90's and went through the hands of several big names, supposedly including Beltram, and the 3 Hoovers definitely lend some credence to that. There's some other absolutely great patches for the Juno 2, very soundtrack and dance oriented, with some evolving pads and moody drones. Finally, there's the custom patches from the Matrix-6R that I got for free when I picked up another keyboard last year (he thought it didn't work, turns out it was just that one output was dead). Some big custom leads, the usual strings, and some odd experiments, but the big sell on this set of patches is the tweaked upright bass preset, which he turned into one of the biggest, most gut shaking bass tones I've ever heard from any analog synth. You can drop these into a Matrix-1000 too, should work fine, and they blow away any of the presets on that box.

I did two dumps of the Alpha Juno 2 since it didn't belong to me and I couldn't confirm that they were correct. If anyone uses it and can confirm in the comments, that would be a big help! Thanks.

A Few Bits and Peices for E-mu Proteus/1
South Brooklyn Rave SYX for Roland Alpha Juno 2
Toolkit 6R SYX for Oberheim Matrix-6 or Matrix-1000


Should work in any SYSEX dumper just like normal, they were dumped to a Peavey Data Streamer and then copied onto an old laptop from the floppy disk though, so any confirmation would be welcome.

As always, remember to dump up your patches to a SYSEX file before loading any of these, because they will overwrite any custom patches you already have on your synth!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gear Change: Korg DDD-1



The DDD-1 is the second to last piece of gear from my old studio, and likely the last one I'm going to wind up letting go of. The reasons would be lack of space and necessity, since I've just started to move into computer-sequenced sampler-based production (Roland S-550 + the CTS-2000 of the first review, an FB01, an E-mu Proteus 1 and a Matrix-6R controlled by an old pc laptop running cakewalk pro 3 in win95: Still got that 92 hardcore cred to build). I picked up the DDD-1 when I bought an Ensoniq Mirage from a keyboardist who was cleaning out his basement of leftover gear from his touring days back in the 80s. He gave it to me for free, since he thought that some of the outputs/sounds were dead. Don't make this mistake yourself! Make sure that all of the sounds are routed to the main stereo outputs instead of the individual outs when testing if you are selling one, since I don't believe they show up even on the headphones when routed to individual outputs. If you're buying, then take any claim that the machine has broken sounds with a grain of salt. It's nearly impossible to kill these 12-bit machines barring noticeable physical damage.

The interface of the DDD-1 is extremely intuitive, based on the same grid-matrix idea from Korg's SQD-1 sequencer (a favorite of Juan Atkins up to the early 90's). The menus are laid out in a grid printed on the front of the machine, with buttons for each row and column. One simply selects the column and row of the desired function or setting and uses the number pad or +/- keys to change the settings. It's a very shallow learning curve and provides for a fairly fluid editing process for an 80's drum machine, although I wish they would have included an alpha-dial type knob instead of relying on +/- buttons. There's always something to be said for the physicality of programming sounds via movement, even on a 128-step (or less) digital interface.

The internal sounds of the DDD-1 are passable 12-bit samples which have a surprisingly good tune-ability range, as one would hope from Korg. They're a bit flat, with a usability range that stretches from fairly good (shaker, bass, tambourine) to utterly hilarious (the claps, which must rank among the top ten worst samples ever put to ROM). Thankfully, Korg provided several options for adding sounds, including 4 ROM card slots, a Sampling option which allowed for (I believe) 4 0.8 second 12-bit samples within a total 3.2 seconds of memory and a RAM card slot to save your samples and sequences (sequences are stored internally as well, of course, and while I think the sampling board has battery-backed RAM, I don't own one and therefore can't be sure). The Korg ROM cards were actually fairly good, with several latin percussion cards, the usual fusion/pop/rock drums, and various others including some basses and other sound effects. There are also some 3rd-party cards which feature samples from other drum machines, most notably the extremely rare Linn Drum card. The built-in sequencer, with memory for 100 patterns and 10 songs, is extremely flexible for the time. It allows you to program changes in pitch, decay, pan, velocity, roll & flam, and the usual tempo change-ups and swing variations. It also provides 12 pressure-sensitive pads for real time or step-time input. The flexibility of the sequencer, along with the 6 individual outputs (in addition to the dual-mono stereo outputs) and the ability to alter the pitch, decay, and other settings of the internal samples make the DDD-1 a very respectable alternative to similar drum machines of the time such as the TR-505 and TR-707, especially given the very reasonable second-hand prices, which range from $50 to $100 dollars and often undercut a TR-505 of similar condition.

The MIDI implementation is solid, the timing is bang-on and I believe the DDD-1 accepts sysex changes for all of the functions the sequencer offers. When paired with a cheap 8-input mixer (I recommend the Yamaha KM802, which usually goes for $50-$75 secondhand and has three independent stereo effects loops for reverb/compression/eq/etc), the DDD-1 becomes a very powerful old school drum machine for house, industrial, and minimal synth-style music. The DDD-1 also features a metronome/click out and a programmable trigger output which should work with any pre-MIDI sequencer/arpeggiator/gate gear you should care to throw at it.

The real beauty of this machine, and what makes it a total steal right now, is the availability of new ROM cards which feature samples that were, if not impossible, at least extremely hard to find for the DDD-1 in the past. This Brit techie has begun releasing homemade ROM cards with socketed sound-chips for prices which at least match (if not undercut) the prices of the rarest DDD-1 cards. The 3rd-party Linn Drum card for the DDD goes for between $75-100, while his £42 deals on two chips plus the socketed card, at present currency conversion rates, go for $70. I have the 909/808 set, and the samples are impressively clear and highly usable, although the pitch and delay configurability is somewhat less than one might wish. It's a homebrew project though, reverse-engineered and built from scratch, so the sound quality he's achieved is honestly leagues beyond my expectations. The sounds from a ROM card inserted into a DDD-1 are assigned to a given pad/note by the user, and the DDD-1 allows for up to 15 different drum sets to be created, which allows for a wonderful amount of flexibility when you're working with more than one card. This means that if you buy a set of ROMs from korgdddmods plus an extra socketed card, you can mix 808 and 909 sounds (or the CR-78 etc sounds of their Analog Percussion chip, the SDS-5 chip, or the Mattel Drum Box chip) with the internal DDD-1 sounds to create your own kits, making the DDD-1 not only an extremely flexible yet inexpensive studio machine, but also allowing it to act as a highly reliable alternative for more delicate and expensive analog gear. Were it not for the limited production runs of korgdddmods' chips/cards, I would recommend the DDD-1 as the most desirable live performance drum machine for anyone making or performing synth-based music with old school hardware given the extraordinary price/feature ratio shown above.

In terms of house, my recommended buys for the DDD-1 ROM cards would be a Latin percussion card, whichever of the korgdddmods 2chip+card deals you prefer (and if possible, definitely buy a second socketed card), and whichever of the other available cards you like (for me, ideally the Linn Drum card, although the synth basses are nice and second latin perc card couldn't hurt). An external dedicated mixer is definitely a smart buy if you lack the mixer inputs otherwise.

Some other sound examples and programming tips can be found here and individual sounds as well as a manual can be found here. VSE page here.

Pirate Radio: DJ Tat on SCR (Sheffield) 15-3-93

This one of those pirate radio tapes that I've had on rotation for the last year and half, which is quite a long period for me to keep revisiting a 128k rip of a tape with a ground loop issue throughout. Sound quality is alright aside from that though, but the real reason I keep coming back to this tape is the tracks. The best thing about pirate radio tapes from 86-94 is that they provide a window into the real sound of the time. You can get best-of's like the Soul Jazz comps or some of the older hardcore CDs, or bootlegs like the 'Where are those ... Crazy Times' series, but for the most part, you'll never hear the real limited release stuff, which is usually the most interesting (white labels, dubplates, side releases from major groups that never got officially dropped). If you're just getting into pirate radio tapes, 808 State has a phenomenal archive up of nearly every show they did from 1988 onwards here. I recommend starting around 1989-90, where they were playing a lot of their own unreleased tracks and were popular enough to be getting a terrific amount of white labels & etc. They were also quite good at radio, which is rare among pirate DJs since they were primarily live DJs just trying to get their name out there rather than maintain a public image or something like that.

Anyway, this tape is actually part of a countdown of DJ Tat's favorite tracks from 1991. It features a mix of some amazing classics and some truly mental bits of hardcore from way way back. Still trying to figure out what some of them are, if anyone can provide a tracklist in the comments I'd be terrifically grateful.

Find it here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gear Change: XoXBox


If you're at all into synths and house music (and, really, why else would you still be reading this blog?) you'll have heard of the XoXBox. I pronounce it "zox-box", please inform in comments if you've heard another way of saying it. It's always interesting to hear people's takes on something that exists, essentially, as a wholly internet-based phenomenon.

The XoX is the apotheosis in a long line of TB-303 emulators, starting with the rackmount bass monosynths of the 90's like the Novation BassStation and the FreeBass FB33 (the latter the more explicit 303 emulator, the former more generic and closer to an SH-101). A friend of mine recently bought an old Roland Alpha Juno 2 from an old skool Brooklyn techno producer (greets to 8-bit, need to get a round and hear more stories one of these days). The Juno 2 has enough proper hoover stabs in memory to back up the claim that it is the original Alpha Juno which Beltram sampled for Mentasm, and the pics he pulled up when I mentioned that I had a XoX (on 8-bit's site, sadly down for maintenance this week) were very interesting. Apparently, there was an earlier attempt at a XoX-style 303 emulator in the early 90s, which was hand-built and almost entirely transistor-based synthesis (think Jupiter 4). The builder passed one over to a brooklyn producer friend who didn't quite know what to make of it, and it languished in his collection for a few years until someone realized what it was. The story ends there, since I, like a fool, never followed up, and dude's site is down. EDIT: hold on a minute, Check This Out.

The XoX itself, however, is effectively the be-all, end-all TB-303 emulator. The design requires the original chips from a 303 or NOS of the same[1], and the sequencer is designed to act similarly to the original 303 sequencer, though slightly better in the basic version. The arduino(?)-based OS/sequencer can be upgraded via a USB connection built into the basic design of the XoX, which also includes MIDI I/O/T as well as independent DINSYNC, switchable in/out, and CV + Gate outputs. This utterly outclasses the Acidlab Bassline 1 I owned a few years ago, which had severe difficulty syncing via MIDI to my TR-707 and would only work when synced via DIN, and I won't even mention the hilariously terrible programming method (hint: it involved two knobs and an INPUT button). The XoX drops in beautifuly with a MIDI setup, and performs like a dream. Compared with the TB-303, it's a bit like getting an East German BMW from the 60s vs getting a newly produced BMW today. The old one looks nicer, but the new one performs just as you'd like it to.

The configurability of the XoX with new firmware is fairly impressive, although hampered by the original design of it. There are OS upgrades which allow arpeggiation and various other sequencer-oriented re-purposing mods, check this thread on SOKKos (the oldest and most advanced) for more info. There are also several hardware mods which mirror the basic modifications which were often added by 303 users in the 90s, such as the overdrive knob and the filter expanders. However, in a 303 emulator, the most important issue is the accuracy of the sound.

XoXBoxes are known for their variation in sound, just as the original 303s were (though, if you bought a 303, you usually wouldn't question the variation quite so much as with those who buy a XoX). Some of the XoXen have a sound which is very mild even compared to other unmodified XoXes, so you should keep that in mind when shopping for one. There's no way of knowing what the XoX you buy will sound like, no matter who builds it. My XoX was built by a Taiwanese hobbyist who no longer sells them, but it sounded the closest to a vanilla 303 of any XoX I've ever heard. The pop in the filter-envelope reaction to the accents was the most beautiful I've ever heard from anything approximating a 303. The knobs on my XoX were, unfortunately, a bit too slow for my taste. Ideally, they should be like the original 303 knobs, and fast spins shouldn't feel any resistance. Luckily, the standard design of the XoX requires that the circuit boards be fitted well, so the varying button or knob resistance doesn't mean an increased level of wear to the top interface circuit board, and barring truly homebuilt versions, should stand up to a reasonable amount of live performance wear-and-tear as well as whatever you may throw at it in the studio.

One interesting issue I ran into with my XoX lies within my recording setup, which is MIDI-based and relies on a Roland MC-50 hardware sequencer and a Yamaha MJC-8 MIDI router: On two different tracks where I attempted to record the MIDI output of the X0X to the MC-50, there was a strange sense of lag, possibly introduced through lag from the MJC-8 (though I doubt this). The X0X syncs perfectly to a MIDI clock input for it's internal sequencer, which is more than capable of providing for 303-type sync usage. That is, when syncing the internal sequencer in tandem with a MIDI setup, it is bang on to the timing of the track. However, when I recorded the XoX sequence into my MC-50 and set the XoX to MIDI Play, it would drop notes in a strange (but highly usable) way. I think this might have more to do with the firmware than with the ability of the XoX to comprehend MIDI messages when played with an external keyboard. Mine was never upgraded after I got it two years ago, nor did I upload any second party OS to it, so your mileage may vary. Like I said, though, this strange issue of slightly mistimed sequencer messages can be very usable in certain situations, especially when the recorded XoX sequence is sent to another synth with a 303-ish patch.

Though I've sold my XoX recently (for reasons which have nothing to do with the sound/hardware), I'm hopeful of future projects with the same mindset as the XoXBox team had, such as the MB-808. It's a phenomenal approximation of the 303, and no other emulations have come so close to not simply reproducing the sound of the 303, but the interface as well. Drums are another story though, and I think that the next review I'll write up will be on the Korg DDD-1 plus some thoughts on the add-on cards available to it, both the old ones and the newer models which should place it heads and shoulders above the other similarly 12-bit generic drum machines.



[1] I have a theory that at least one plant in China has devoted a few lines to stamping out limited new chips, backed up by the fact that several of the original chips were literally the faulty versions of chips intended for more professional Roland synthesizers (18db filters? really? I've read several sources over the years claiming that either they are all faulty 24db filters or were based on the faulty versions, but given the short production life of the 303 that seems unnecessary) and thus can't possibly be that hard or expensive for an aging through-hole chip factory to replicate on the side.

Further note: The demonstration tracks I've included are my own music, and I'd be happy to describe the synths accompanying the XoXBox for any of them for those who are curious or confused.