|Alesis ION Hands-On Review|
October 15, 2003
Q: What do you do when you want that fat analog sound, but don't have a fat stock portolio? A: The Ion. Yeah, that simple!
Not that long ago, Alesis built an instrument that, like the unicorn, became the stuff of legends. The instrument is the Andromeda (also code-named the A6), and few people have ever laid eyes on it. Here was the end result of decades of analog synthesizer evolution. Unfortunately, much like the earliest analog synths, the steep price tag keeps it out of the hands of most keyboard players, though it still sells well among those with deep pockets (and good taste). But the company saw the need for an affordable polyphonic analog synth with a down-to-earth list price, so they turned to the new modeling technologies to build an "affordable" Andromeda clone.
When the new Alesis Ion synth arrived on my doorstep, I'll admit I was expecting to see an interesting instrument, but with lots of corners cut to meet the low list price ($999, but naturally, your Sweetwater price will be much lower). Once the box was open, I was astounded to find a solid metal case, literally bristling with knobs, buttons and three wheels - one pitchbend and two assignable wheels, labelled M1 and M2. In most factory patches, M1 controls modulation, while M2 controls timbre, a sensible setup, though you can use them in any way you see fit when creating your own presets.
Looks good, feels good.
As looks go, this doesn't appear to be a budget instrument at all. In fact, the soft, warm feel of all the knobs and controllers give the unit high marks for tactile response. Even higher marks for the little touches: For example, as soon as you move one of the controller wheels from its default position, it is backlit with a soft reddish magenta glow. Backlit arrows light up when you move the oscillators or master octave control up or down, so you can immediately see which of the three onboard oscillators is pitched up or down.
Personally, I own two classic analog synths, both of which I thought I would never imagine parting with. But comparing the Ion to these two (one is a keyboard, the other a rackmount module) I found that the Ion was much more versatile (i.e. three oscillators per note vs. two on the other instruments), and while the Ion is capable of great warmth, it's also capable of delivering a bit more "slice and dice" high end. Correctly programmed, the Ion simply has more "firepower" than my old analog synths, including a 40-band Vocoder onboard!
The arpeggiator is a hundred light years beyond the primitive "Up", "Down" and "Up & Down" patterns available on my classics. You can actually access a wide range of onboard patterns that range from "Random" to "Acid Bass" and far beyond. The Alesis team clearly put plenty of blood, sweat and tears into these patterns, all of which are musically useful, not simply novelties. I cannot possibly stress how much inspiration is at your fingertips with this one feature alone!
The only fly in the ointment here is that the data knob works backwards: Turn it right to move down in value, left to move up. Huh? This is so counter-intuitive that I've actually asked Alesis if it's possible to change it. Still, if this is my only criticism, that says a lot about the instrument's quality.
A great display! Lots of knobs!
While my analog keyboard has plenty of knobs, it has no display. The analog module has a good display, but few knobs. In contrast, the Ion has everything, and it's all laid out to make perfect sense. LEDs tell you at-a-glance what is being edited, what octave range is being used and the highly legible display, though not huge, is quite serviceable and gives you plenty of feedback when building your own sounds or editing the effects.
Before I move away from the effects- which include all manner of fattening choruses and string phasers, flangers and the aforementioned 40-band vocoder - Alesis wisely chose not to include any reverb algorithms, since just about everyone has one or more excellent reverbs in their setups (I personally have two, both of which sound great). This little omission saves a chunk of change and probably made the difference between coming in under the $999 mark or running over, so while some may wish for an onboard reverb, most of us are happy not to have to pay extra for something we already have. Don't own a reverb? There are lots of great reverb units at prices that start at about $80 (street) for the donut-sized, 24-bit Alesis PicoVerb.
"Get yer programs here!"
The Alesis sound design team did a very good job of programming the Ion, but as we know from past experience with instruments like the DX7, factory presets are simply "jumping off" points. The longer you work with any instrument, the more creative options you will discover, and the Ion literally begs you to start twisting knobs and tweaking parameters with its intuitive user interface. I'd be shocked if Ion users hadn't filled up the user bank within weeks (or even days) with an incredible selection of custom programs.
Still, even given that the programmers probably didn't have as much time to come up with the factory presets, I have to say they did a bang-up job! Each Ion owner will find plenty of patches that are perfect right out of the box, which for me is a huge selling point. There are even convincing versions of old analog drum machines! When I audition any keyboard, I judge it first on how many patches make me want to keep playing before moving on, and the Ion has plenty that, well, just made me smile and want to keep playing.
From fat, throbbing basses to silky smooth pads to classic mono lead tones, the Ion delivers the goods. As a good friend of mine likes to say, "Score!"
It's the little things.
One particular feature really caught my attention: Hit a note on an analog synth with voltage controlled oscillators and you'll hear that each time you press a key (like middle C), the waveform sounds a little different. This is often referred to as "drift," and is part of the analog synth's charm. This is a very subtle thing, but it's also something that might have been easy to overlook when modeling an analog waveform.
Fortunately, the creative geniuses at Alesis (oh, I sure hope that doesn't go to their heads) saw fit to include a parameter that allows us to duplicate this particular characteristic. In fact, the default position on the Ion (and rightly so) is "on." Meaning you have to consciously want it to sound less analog. You might want to disable this when building a preset using the FM (frequency modulation) feature. Yes, the Ion has some FM capabilities. And while it's not going to duplicate a DX7, it's still a great feature to have available.
One other item that's really great, but isn't really explained very well in the Ion documentation, is Setups. These are several programs that are either layered or split across the keyboard, and they are amazing fuel to light your creative fires. There's a buttom below the display that says "Recall Setups," which most people would think means recalling a setup they built. A better label would be "Access Setups" as they already exist. In any case, scroll through these for a whoppin' dose of inspiration. If at least two or three don't have you punching the record button, you seriously need to check for a pulse! Once again, the program team did a tremendous job here, laying a solid foundation for further creative forays of our own.
Have we reached a verdict?
If you haven't guessed by now, all-in-all, I think the Ion is a fantastic bargain. If I didn't know it was an analog modeling synth (geez, it's in big letters right on the box), I'd swear I was hearing a real analog synth, the sounds are so rich and buttery. Clearly the Alesis engineering team learned an awful lot from building their highly acclaimed - and much sought-after - A6 Andromeda analog synth and that experience shows up here in spades!
Questions, comments, rants, suggestions, unwanted '59 Les Pauls and any other form of correspondence can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.