Over the last decades, I programmed and played several synths. Nowadays, I have less time for this hobby. Nevertheless, I bought a used Korg Z1 last year. This synth commercially was unsuccessful, thus it soon has been discontinued and now is available as a used instrument at a reasonable price.
So why the heck did I buy this instrument? Well, it simply is an excellent and outstanding synthesizer. To explain this, let’s have a look back in synth history.
During the 70th, analogue synthesizers like the Moogs and the Oberheims dominated the market. In the 80th, Yamaha was very successful with its digital Dx series of synthesizers. Furthermore, a lot of sampleplayers (“ROMplers”) entered the market. Smaller companies like Waldorf have been very successful with the Microwave Wavetable synthesizer, released in the late 80th.
Sampleplayers have been capable of creating realistic reproductions of natural instruments. In short, you record an instrument, put it in a Sampleplayer as a “sample”, and on demand (aka key press) this sample simply gets played like an audio cd track. Producing excellent results, this approach has some disadvantages, though:
- You need to take many recordings of the instrument to sample. One sample is not sufficient, especially on instruments with dramatic changes in timbre depending on the dynamics level.
- For the very same reason, you need a lot of memory space in the rompler to store all those samples
- The sample usually always starts at the very same point of the waveform, giving you a “boring” sound. On a Hammond organ, for example, you never know where in its cycle the tone wheel actually is when you press the key. This will give you a slightly different sound at each keypress. Sampleplayers miss this kind of “living” and “breathing” in their sound
- Playing, say, 6 “strings” of a guitar sample at the very same time will not take into account that the 6 strings will influence each other on a real instrument. The 6 samples are just added, without any further processing.
Yamaha and Korg both believed in a solution for those problems: “Virtual Acoustic Synthesis” (VA-synthesis). As a result, Yamaha released its VL series of synths. Korg first released the Prophecy, a monophonic keyboard synthesizer. After that, Korg finally released the Z1, an improved and polyphonic successor of the Prophecy (which was, unfortunately, not patch compatible, meaning that sounds developed on a Prophecy cannot be loaded into the Z1).
What makes both the Prophecy and the Z1 excellent is the fact that you get several instruments in one. For example, the Z1 provides virtual models of traditional 70th style analogue synths, a VPM model (similar to Yamaha’s successful DX series of synthesizers), an organ model, an E-piano model, brass, reed and string models, where the latter is divided into plucked and bowed string models.
So, by purchasing a Korg Z1, you got an excellent analogue synth, a DX-7 like synth, a (simplified) organ, an excellent E-piano, some basic brass sounds, excellent and realistic reed sounds and, finally, superb emulations of plucked and bowed string sounds.
All this has been spiced by a 2-bus-mixer, a nice multimode filter with various routing capabilities and an FX section. Not to mention the excellent user interface, the famous button rotaries and the x-y-pad controller.
Unfortunately, the instrument was not a success. Why? I can imagine the following reasons:
- The factory presets have been poor and didn’t really reflect the capabilities of the instrument
- Some of the models are very dynamic, but for the very same reason require musicians who are capable of playing such sounds. The other way around: To really get the max out of the instrument, you need to train yourself. And frankly, musicians are lazy people and don’t want to train
- The Z1 had a great number of models. But what it misses compared to its sampleplayer competitors is an acoustic piano model. I guess this was a missing “killer feature”. Musicians are less interested in technologic details (aka synthesis methods) or programming synths. They are just interested in playing the devices.
What then happened was just frustrating. Korg continued its successful workstation series based on samples. All the efforts put into the development of VA-synthesis was reduced to an optional expansion board for the workstations. The Prophecy was the only monophonic, the Z1 the only polyphonic VA-synth that Korg ever shipped. Yamaha dicontinued its VL-series of synths as well.
Has VA just been a mayfly? It’s up to you to judge. Listen to recordings of Joe Zawinul starting in the late 90th. Listen, for example, to “Indiscretions” of the “Syndicate World Tour”, CD 1. What a phantastic sound, probably created using the Prophecy’s string model. Excellent sound programming. Excellent synth playing. And that’s why I wanted to experiment with the Z1 as well.