Korg 01/W FD Workstation
The problem with building the most popular keyboard in years is having to follow it. Simon Trask test drives the successor to the Korg M1 and likes what he finds.
Korg have updated the concept and technology behind their best-selling workstation synth to produce its successor - but has the 01/W FD got what it takes to become another M1?
HOW DO YOU follow an act like the M1? The phenomenal success enjoyed by Korg's sample-based synth workstation since its release in 1988 has set the company a tricky task. Like the Minimoog, Prophet 5 and DX7 before it, the M1 captured the instrument-buying public's imagination by providing the right sound and the right concept at the right time and for the right price. Essentially it's the combination of these factors, giving a synth its particular identity and locating it at a particular moment in history, which determines its fate - which determines whether it's a Prophet 5 or a Prophet 10, a DX7 or a DX9, an M1 or a T3. Ultimately, however, no manufacturer can be sure that a new instrument is going to capture the public's imagination - or that, if it does, it isn't going to be eclipsed by another manufacturer's instrument before it has a chance to take root and flower.
Presumably, Korg didn't expect the M1 to capture the public's imagination to the extent that it did, otherwise initial demand wouldn't have outstripped availability so drastically. However, with their latest synth workstation they appear to be more on the ball, with a September public launch synchronised worldwide ensuring that the instrument was in the shops from a specific date. Korg have also learnt from their experience with the M1 by bringing out two versions of the new synth: the 01/W and the 01/W FD, priced at £1645 and £1795 respectively. The two are the same in almost every respect, but there are a few key differences. While the 01/W has no onboard disk drive and only a modest 7000-note sequencer memory, the 01/W FD adds an onboard 3.5" 2DD disk drive (hence the FD tag) and a no-frills MIDI Data Filer mode which allows it to store multiple SysEx data dumps from other MIDI instruments up to a maximum of 64K per File, and has a much more generous 58,000-note sequencer memory. The FD version loses out over its cheaper companion in one respect, however: the contents of its sequencer memory are wiped whenever you switch it off, whereas the 01/W's battery-backed sequencer RAM allows its sequence data to be retained through power-down.
The 01/W, then, is better suited to musicians who use computer-based sequencing and SysEx librarian software or a stand-alone sequencer, the 01/W FD to musicians who prefer the keyboard workstation approach to sequencing. However, with the M1 selling (and it is still selling) for around a grand while the T-series synths sell for upwards of two grand (recession-inspired price-slashing notwithstanding), both versions of Korg's new synth help to plug a considerable price gap for the company.
As such, they should answer the prayers of any musician who has wanted a more sophisticated version of the M1 but hasn't been able to afford a T-series synth. In some respects the T-series synths offer more than the 01. There's the 88-note and 76-note keyboards of the T1 and T2 respectively (the 01 has a 61-note velocity and channel-aftertouch sensitive keyboard), while all three T-series synths provide 32-channel MIDI output via two pairs of MIDI Outs (the 01 provides 16 channels via a single Out), 1Mb sample RAM (the 01 has none), 20 Songs/200 Patterns (the 01 has 10/100) and a 50,000-note sequencer memory (a marginal improvement over the 01/W FD). However, it could be said that these advantages pale into insignificance when balanced against the advantages that the 01 has over the T-series, let alone the M1.
IF YOU'RE FAMILIAR with either the M1 or one of the T-series synths, you'll soon feel at home with the 01. Its architecture, terminology, front-panel layout and user interface have all been kept as similar as possible, the consequence of a deliberate policy on Korg's part to emphasise continuity over novelty - gradual evolution rather than sudden revolution, you could say. The danger in this approach is that the similarities between a new instrument and its predecessor(s) can be more apparent than the differences.
The 01 is certainly descended from the M1 via the T-series, but it moves significantly beyond them in a number of ways, both quantitative and qualitative. Polyphony has been doubled from 16 notes to 32, the number of sequencer tracks has been doubled from eight to 16, and the maximum sequencer resolution has been doubled from 48ppqn to 96ppqn. The 01 keeps to the Program and Combination format of the M- and T-series instruments, but has 200 Programs and 200 Combinations onboard (organised in each case as Banks A and B) compared to 100 of each on the M1 and a 200/100 split on the T-series. It can also read a further 200 of each on a 512Kbit SRC512 RAM card (Banks C and D).
Newly-developed PCM ROM sample cards can hold 1Mword of sample data (Multisounds); these cards come paired as XSC two-card sets with ROM data cards which provide 100 Programs and 100 Combinations. Additionally, XPC Series ROM cards provide 100 Programs and 100 Combinations programmed by the likes of Sound Source Unlimited and Voice Crystal using the onboard PCM sample data. The 01 can't read M- or T-series sample cards or Program/Combi data, which is rather unfortunate and not at all in the spirit of continuity, but the first XSC card set to be made available will be a "Best of M & T" - providing, apparently, various popular Multisounds, Programs and Combinations from the 01's predecessors. Hopefully, one sound which will find its way onto the "Best of M & T" card is the M1's acoustic piano. The 01's acoustic piano sound is richer and more full-bodied than the M1's, but I'd hesitate to say that it's better. In absolute terms maybe, but although you can sit down and pick faults with the M1's piano sound, in real-world usage it's a remarkably usable sound.
Other card sets already scheduled are Orchestral, Piano/Keyboard, Dance, Synth Design and Ethnic. You won't have to wait until the Program/Combination cards come out to get a decent set of patches, though. The programmers have come up with a solid and remarkably consistent set of Programs and Combinations, enough to keep you busy for quite a while - it takes long enough just to play through them all. This quality and consistency is a vindication of Korg's policy of continuity: instead of having to grapple with a completely new programming system, the programmers have been able to work from a familiar base, making it easier for them to get to grips with the new samples and the new Program parameters on the 01.
On a practical note, I'd have preferred to see the 01's card slots on the front panel rather than the rear - not only would they have been more accessible, but any inserted cards would have been less prone to damage.
"The M1 brought a new vibrancy, clarity and sparkle to synthesis - the 01 goes a step further with what can only be described as a new sense of realism."
The 01 adopts a similar minimalist front-panel layout to that of the M1 and T-series synths, with the same basic structure of a small number of modes selected by dedicated buttons to the left of the central LCD, software pages within each edit mode selected by page up/down buttons and numeric keypad buttons, individual parameters within a software page selected by eight function buttons and cursor up/down buttons, and parameter values selected by a data slider and data increment/decrement buttons. The onboard sequencer is controlled from Start/Stop, Record and Reset buttons, but there are no dedicated fast-forward and reverse buttons as on Yamaha's SY77 and SY99 synths. Nor do you get dedicated track buttons as on the Yamaha synths, which is a shame as their omission means that you can't drop combinations of tracks in and out while a Song is playing.
Like the T-series synths, the 01 has a 64 x 240-dot backlit LCD rather than the M1's more constricted 2 x 40-character backlit display; in turn, it has also adopted T-series graphic features such as the optional listing of Programs and Combinations in groups of ten and the VDF and VDA envelope displays.
One excellent editing feature carried through from the M1 and the T-series synths is the ability to select edit pages directly using the numeric keypad buttons, which allows each page to be no more than a single button-press away. It doesn't take long to learn which page is called up by which button; the fact that button eight calls up the Effects page in the Program, Combination and Sequencer modes helps. The flip side to this immediacy is that individual page layouts can appear rather dense, and consequently there's only room to identify a parameter by its full name when it's selected.
The 01 also implements another valued editing feature of the M1, namely the ability to access eight Program parameters at the Play level via the function buttons, allowing quick and easy editing of, for instance, filter cutoff point, volume level, attack and release envelope times and dry/effect balance. Similarly, you can select a new Program for, and edit the volume level of, each Timbre in a Combination from the Play level. It's a shame the 01 doesn't take this immediacy a step further by including eight sliders for interactive editing of Play-level parameters - particularly as you can interactively edit the levels of the eight Timbres in a Combination on the much humbler (and much cheaper) M3R rack-mount using the sliders on its RE1 remote editor. Let's have more interactive real-time editing on digital synths.
Let's also have an end to active voices being cut dead whenever you select a new patch or go in and out of edit mode. The 01 doesn't improve on its predecessors in this respect either. I don't know about you, but I find this sort of thing very irritating and unmusical - you can't, for instance, switch from a bass/piano split to a piano/sax split and hold a piano chord over the change, or switch from a swirling atmospheric sound to a harp sound but have the harp part overlap a slowly-fading atmospheric part, or try out a sustaining sound with a variety of different effects by holding a note down on the keyboard and switching through different patches, or sustain your swirling atmospheric sound and go into edit mode to do some live edits (admittedly the 01's Play-level editing helps you out here)... Need I say more?
AS WITH THE M- and T-series instruments, samples lie at the heart of Korg's new synth. Only the 01 has even more of them than its predecessors: 255 Multisounds consisting of 220 one-shot and looped single samples and multisamples and 35 waveforms, and 119 Drum Sounds consisting of drum, percussion and effect sounds (a number of which are actually drawn from the Multisound list, as you can only select sounds assigned to the Drum Sound list in an 01 Drum Kit), all contained in 6Mb of ROM. Korg have put a lot of effort into enhancing the quality of the samples, but basically in their range the 01's Multisounds give you what you're already familiar with from the M- and T-series synths, with the usual combination of acoustic and electric pianos, basses and guitars, various organs, wind and brass instruments, strings, choirs, tuned and untuned percussion, and various metallic and atmospheric sounds - only more of them, and therefore more variety. Also noticeable are more loops, intended to be used in combination with other sounds. There's a slight reference to the Wavestation in the inclusion of some VS waveforms alongside the traditional synth waveforms and a (reduced) number of DWGS waveforms (from the old DW6000 and DW8000 days); although the 01 has more waveforms than the M1 they actually represent a smaller percentage of the total number of Multisounds.
The 01's enhanced collection of samples is one part of what Korg refer to as their AI2 Synthesis System, a development of the AI system which the company developed for the M1 and all its derivatives. AI2 synthesis also improves the quality of the filtering (though there's still no resonance parameter) and adopts the Wavestation's effects processing in place of the M1's, adding a Symphonic Ensemble effect to give a total of 47 effects and effect combinations (compared to 33 on the M1 and T-series) which can be assigned individually to each of the two effects processors (with quite a few limitations on the effects that Symphonic Ensemble can be used with, due to its heavy processing requirements). In addition to the familiar serial and parallel configurations of the two effects processors, Korg have provided an alternative parallel configuration employed on their S3 drum machine which is well suited to use with drum tracks, where you might want to effect one sound and then send it to direct out C or D but effect another sound and then pan it across to effect one and the stereo outs. The inclusion of the Wavestation's effects also means that you have dynamic modulation of selected effect parameters for the first time within an M1/T-series instrument. Typically this involves modulation of a single, preset parameter - usually dry/wet balance, but also sometimes more interesting parameters such as the Mid Frequency of the Parametric Equaliser, the speed of dynamic modulation on the Rotary Speaker and the Hot Spot (centre frequency for the wah filter) on the Distortion or Overdrive. For an example of how effective dynamic modulation of the Hot Spot can be, look no further than the excellent Program A64: JStick Wah, which allows you to add a live wah wah effect to a distorted electric guitar sound by flicking the joystick controller in its +Y direction. Truly cosmic, man.
"Owners of Korg's M1 and T-series synths should be able to get a lot out of the new synth without having to go through much of a learning curve."
The synthesis architecture of the 01 is essentially the same as that of its predecessors, but there's the odd small change: the addition of a random waveform for the pitch modulation generator and, more significantly, the introduction of independent panning for each oscillator within a Program. You can also route each oscillator through its own Emphasis by setting an Emphasis Intensity parameter, and control the amount of Emphasis from velocity by setting velocity sensitivity amount and polarity.
But the most significant addition to the 01's synthesis capabilities is undoubtedly Wave Shaping. One of the problems presented by sample-based synthesis is how to transcend the "PCM realism" of the sampled sounds. Filtering isn't enough because it only removes harmonics from what's already there. Wave Shaping, on the other hand, changes the PCM sample in more fundamental ways by adding harmonics - quite often non-integer ones - that aren't present in the source sample. Each oscillator within a Program can be routed through its own Waveshaper; all you have to do is select one of 60 "waveshapes" or "effects" and define how the intensity of the effect changes through time by programming Start Level, Decay Time and Sustain Level parameters to create a simple envelope. Each of these "waveshapes" is actually a mathematical transform function, but Korg have sensibly given them all descriptive or evocative names which have a musical rather than a mathematical relevance - Resonant 1, Zinger, Reptile (honestly), Soft Curve, Boww Bass and Booster. Not every effect produces a good result, and you can find yourself getting very similar results from a number of different effects. Nonetheless, while Waveshaping appears to be to an extent a "suck it and see" process, there's a much higher degree of predictability in it than there is in Roland's Differential Loop Modulation system as employed on their D70 synth - another modulation process which sets out to make a new sound from a PCM sample before it reaches the filter stage.
The 01's Waveshaper has a wide variety of uses, and I can only touch on them here. For instance, it can be used to "rough up" the 01's drum and percussion sounds in a quite spectacular way, to add a decidedly FM-y clangorousness to piano sounds, to add body to bass sounds, to add resonance to all manner of sounds, to add breathiness to wind and brass instrument sounds... in fact, to make changes which range from the subtle to the extreme. There's a lot of exploring to be done here.
AS ON THE T-series synths, the 01's Combis are of a single, eight-part multitimbral type. Each part is known as a Timbre, and can have the following parameters programmed for it: transmit/receive mode (Int, Ext, Off), MIDI transmit/receive channel, a Program number, a volume level, transpose and detune amounts, pan position, note and velocity windows, and reception filtering of patch change, control change, sustain pedal and aftertouch data. If a Timbre with a Combination is set to Ext, the Program number and volume level set for it are transmitted via MIDI when you select the Combination, so not only can you incorporate specific MIDI'd sounds at specific volumes within a Combination, but you could also reserve specific Timbres for calling up effects patches on external processors (which could be hooked up to the 01's C and D direct outs, for instance).
Each Combination can be given its own effects processing, which is common to all eight Programs being used. As well as Write and Rename functions, there are a couple of very handy functions which allow you to Copy an effect from any Combination, Program or Song into the currently-selected Combination, and Copy or Swap effect settings between effects processors one and two within a Combination.
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT developments on the sequencing front are the doubling of tracks from eight to 16 and the doubling of the resolution from 48 to 96ppqn. In fact, before you record a Song you can specify whether you want the higher or the lower resolution as your maximum resolution. Each of the 16 tracks in a Song can be assigned its own MIDI channel, Program number (you can also insert Program changes at any point in a track), pan position, play/mute status, MIDI status (off/int/ext/both), transpose and detune values, protect on/off status and note and velocity windows, and each Song can have its own effects processing which is applied to all the tracks. You can Copy Combis into either tracks 1-8 or tracks 9-16, with successive Timbres spread across the tracks (a feature introduced in v2 software for the T-series synths). In this way it's easy to play and record anything from a bass/piano split to a complex atmospheric texture within a Song - something you can't do on the M1. Still, if you want to use more than two Combis at the same time within a Song you have to combine two Combis within tracks 1-8, say, by Copying them as tracks, so freeing up tracks 9-16 to Copy the next Combi into.
"The 01/W should answer the prayers of any musician who has wanted a more sophisticated version of the M1 but hasn't been able to afford a T-series synth."
The 01 also introduces a dedicated Tempo track which allows you to program tempo changes in bpm values - a big improvement over the T-series, on which tempo changes have to be programmed as MIDI controller 107, with the result that controller values bear no relationship to the actual bpm value they represent. A similarly convoluted feature of the T-series is the representation of pan data by SysEx data. On the 01 there's a very useful feature called Create Control Data which, as well as allowing you to create and edit the Tempo track, allows you to add bend, aftertouch or any controller data (0-102) to or delete it from any of tracks 1-16. You do this by specifying start and end locations and an end value, following which the 01 interpolates a gradual change from the start to the end value.
The 01 follows the tape-machine model of sequencing, in which you can start and stop recording at any location in your Song (up to 999 bars). The sequencer gives you a two-bar count-in before it starts recording. There's a choice of five ways to record in real time: Overwrite, Overdub, Auto Punch In/Out, Manual Punch In/Out and Loop (drum machine-style overdubbing). You can also step record, entering notes in step time from the keyboard. Event-list editing is included, and is clearly organised and very easy to use, not least because you're given the option to remove various types of continuous controller data from the display so that you can see note data clearly.
Erase, Bounce and Copy Track functions provide "coarse" level operations, but there are also plenty of editing functions which operate at the bar level, working within horizontal and/or vertical regions. You can Delete, Copy, Erase and Insert any range of bars, Quantise various types of data selectively within a bar range, impose a velocity curve on note data in a track over a specified bar range, and transpose notes within a specified note and bar range in a track in semitone steps within a ±2 octave range.
The 01's Quantisation function includes offset and intensity parameters which allow you to time-slip a track or any section of a track (but not, unfortunately, within a note range - so you can't work on specific instruments within a Drumkit) and specify the percentage of quantisation accuracy.
You can also Put/Copy Pattern data to anywhere in any track - Put just inserts the Pattern number, Copy copies the actual data from the Pattern into the track. Equally, you can extract data from a track into a Pattern - useful if you come up with a bassline or a chord sequence that you simply want to repeat. You can also record Patterns from scratch, of course, and use many of the editing features of the tracks.
Multi recording can be selected as an option for track recording and is particularly useful for recording multitrack sequences across from another sequencer.
KORG HAVE EXPERTLY balanced similarity and difference on their new workstation synth to come up with an instrument which both appeals through its familiarity and excites through its originality. As such I'd say the 01 is an ideal next step on from the M1, or even the T-series, as owners of these instruments should be able to get a lot out of the new synth without having to go through much of a learning curve, and yet will also be able to discover a freshness and verve in it which won't disappoint.
The 01 is a state-of-the-art current generation instrument rather than a next-generation instrument, as it basically fine-tunes existing concepts and technology. To fully appreciate it, however, you've really got to hear it in action. The M1 brought a new vibrancy, clarity and sparkle to synthesis. The 01 goes a step further with what can only be described as a new sense of realism.
As for the two versions, there's enough that's fresh and exciting about AI2 synthesis to make the 01/W appealing as a synthesiser, while the sequencer aspect of the 01/W FD represents a significant enough advance on the M1 to make it appealing as a workstation synth.
Prices 01/W £1645; 01/W FD £1795; XPC ROM Program/Combination Card c.£39; XSC PCM Card and Program/Combination Card c.£145; SRC RAM Card c.£90. All prices include VAT.
More from Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask