In today's world of powerful home computers and affordable music production software, the idea of an all in one workstation can seem a little peculiar.
Most of us already have a computer DAW running a dedicated audio sequencer, loads of instruments and effects and a sampler that can use endless gigabytes of hard drive as its available memory.
All of which leads us to ask, what use can inevitably compromised versions of these functions be within a workstation?
Such cynicism is clearly not shared by leading music tech manufacturers though, as competition in this area is rife.
Alesis is the latest company to jump onboard the workstation wagon and the fruits of its labour is the Fusion 8HD workstation.
Make no mistake, with this box offering various synthesis types, sampling, onboard audio recording and sequencing at a hugely competitive price, the Fusion is here to give the other workstations a run for their money.
The onboard synthesis engine is comprehensive, with four separate sound modes packed into the machine.
Sample Playback, turns the Fusion into a kind of hardware ROMpler for the onboard sample library and Virtual Analog is Alesis' take on classic subtractive synthesis with a number of waveforms available as starting points
Full FM synthesis mode makes use of the Fusion's intuitive onscreen display to render the complexity of traditional FM synths a thing of the past, while Physical Modelling is capable of some impressive real-instrument simulations.
All these modes add up to a wealth of sound-making options, mirrored by the onboard presets, which demonstrate each approach effectively.
Straight out of the box, these sounds don't quite do the Fusion justice, but once you start noodling, you can tweak the presets to produce some stunning results.
Some sounds sparkle immediately, whereas others need a little work – which is potentially a good thing, as it'll force Fusion owners to get their hands dirty with some programming.
There's probably a little too much reverb on some of the presets but that's easily rectified. One sound worthy of note is the really excellent sampled piano. Every workstation needs one, but few have one of this quality.
Sounds begin as programs, constructed from pieces relevant to the synthesis type. Thereafter, they can be arranged into a performance-type master program, which Alesis calls 'Mix'.
Here, sounds can be assigned zones, effects, arpeggiators and the like. All of this means you can have some monstrous noises available across the keys at any one time.
The 8HD has 88 keys and is fully weighted. One word of warning – 'fully-weighted' is an apt description. It's a wonder the 8HD doesn't arrive with it's own JCB for installation in your studio.
Once you've spent some time with the programs, you can start building arrangements by channelling those sounds into the sequencer.
The sequencer must be the hardest design element of any workstation trying to compete with standalone software programs and the many visual tricks they afford their users.
How do you get a multi-track sequencer to fit comfortably and attractively on a small screen, no matter how impressive and clear it is?
To Alesis' credit, this is something the Fusion achieves quite well. Once you've selected Song mode, you simply start adding tracks, picking sounds for each in turn from the program list and then jumping into Record mode.
You can pre-select a quantise resolution before you begin, so if you're a keyboard player, you can throw arrangements together in real-time very quickly. For those less dainty of finger, Pattern mode is available, too.
Editing options are nicely comprehensive, there are copy/paste, quantise, velocity editing and lots of other parameters available for each track, with left/right locators available to specify which section you want to edit.
Of course, the Fusion's 'Digital Audio Workstation' tag means that Song mode needn't just mean sequencing MIDI tracks. This neatly introduces us to the Fusion's audio capabilities.
Audio and sampling
The Fusion is capable of recording up to eight tracks of 24-bit audio simultaneously, meaning that it rivals pretty much any digital multi-tracker straight out of the box.
Eight inputs lie in wait round the back and each has a software digital trim to enable you to adjust gain levels.
To make a recording, simply select Song mode, create eight audio tracks, plug in and record. The audio tracks rub shoulders with any MIDI tracks seamlessly, so you could pre-prepare a MIDI backing and then record a full audio session thereafter.
Audio editing options are relatively basic, as you'd expect, but this isn't to say that features such as copy, paste and fade in/out aren't useful. Fusion even extends to offering a waveform editor, which is useful when you're sampling.
Somewhat surprisingly, the sampler's inputs are entirely separate from the multi-track ones. Indeed, the stereo audio ins feature their own gain control on the rear panel.
Once you've got all of your MIDI and audio recorded, you can then mix your completed track by setting levels, pans and assigning EQs and effects.
The mixer screen crams all of these parameters into the Fusion's display window. It's a lot of data in a small place, so this takes some getting used to.
Although Alesis has designed the visuals well, one gripe here is that the 'soft' edit keys, which flank the screen on both sides, don't lie next to their onscreen function.
To ensure that the buttons aren't too tiny, they're staggered from top to bottom, meaning only the central ones lie adjacent to the parameter they control.
Effects & Features
Other features on offer include a comprehensive effects section, with up to 50 insert effects available within a song. Effects routing is split between these insert effects and two bus sends, available on each program.
The insert effects tend to focus on chorus-type effects, such as chorus, phasing and flanging, while the bus effects introduce reverbs and delays.
This is a massive generalisation, though, because all in all, there are a huge number of programs. The manual lists 118 effects types, including inserts and buses, so you shouldn't run out of choice too quickly.
The Fusion is also designed to communicate with the outside world, on a number of levels. Audio-wise, it ships with main, auxiliary, headphone and digital outputs, while it also features a USB connection, a Serial ATA connector for connecting directly to an external hard drive and a CompactFlash card slot for saving programs, mixes, samples or pretty much anything else you might like.
Feature-wise, it's hard to fault the Fusion. It's a multi-tracker, a sampler, a multi-synthesiser and a sequencer, plus it features a comprehensive effects section.
It isn't perfect, and inevitably such extended functionality has pushed the onboard screen to the limit, and a little beyond.
That said, the sheer number of features at this price make it a no-brainer. If you're looking for a workstation, you simply must try the Fusion.