Korg DS8 Synthesiser
At last, a keyboard that presents FM programming in a more accessible way, and at an accessible price. Simon Trask previews the great new hope of digital synthesis.
EVER SINCE YAMAHA acquired the rights to FM synthesis technology when it was in its infancy, they've maintained a monopoly over its usage. And as they've chosen to stick with essentially the same programming system on all their DX keyboards, FM has become inextricably linked in musicians' minds with one way of working.
Korg's latest synth, the eight-voice DS8, uses FM technology and clearly sounds like FM, yet presents the system in a different and altogether more accessible format which ensures that any would-be programmer should make friends with FM very quickly. (In case you're wondering how Korg have got their hands on FM, the answer lies in the fact that Yamaha have a majority share in the company.)
Gone is Yamaha's terminology of algorithms, carriers and modulators. No doubt they're lurking somewhere under the DS8's calm exterior, but what you get to work with instead are two oscillators, two timbre and two amplitude envelopes, one pitch envelope and one LFO for each of the DS8's voices.
Oscillator 1 offers a choice of sawtooth, square, bright sawtooth and bright square waveforms, while oscillator 2 restricts the choice to sawtooth and square waves but additionally allows you to select cross-modulation (in which case no sound is output from oscillator 1, since it's used to modulate oscillator 2).
Remembering that we are dealing with FM synthesis, the timbre section for each oscillator isn't about filtering in the usual sense. Rather, this is where you alter the relationship between carrier and modulator - as a fixed value, or dynamically with a four-stage envelope. Setting the "timbre" value to its minimum produces a sine wave, ie. an unmodulated carrier. Further FM timbral modifications are possible in the Oscillator sections, where you can set ring modulation (presumably FM-created) and "spectrum" parameters.
Korg have clearly taken the accessibility of the DS8 very seriously, and have included front-panel timbre and envelope sliders which allow you to alter "brightness" and the overall shape of the timbre/amplitude envelopes in real time when you're performing.
Now, I'll try not to labour the DX comparison (Korg don't even mention FM in their manual, let alone Yamaha's jargon), but the DS8's organisation suggests a four-operator configuration - which would tie in with the general perception around these offices that the DS8 sounds more like a DX9 than a DX7.
Meanwhile, patch-programmable effects are definitely this year's flavour in Japan, and the DS8 has a section called "multi-effects" which allows you to program any one of delay, doubling, flanger and chorus effects for each combi-program (see below). These appear to be digitally implemented, and can be switched in and out from the front panel.
The DS8 provides four keyboard modes: single, layer, double and multi. Layer is what we would normally call dual mode, while double is split mode with the ability to overlap the split-points. Double mode additionally allows you to specify the number of voices each side of the split (with the total not exceeding the DS8's eight-voice limit). Multi mode allows the DS8 to flower into multi-timbral glory: eight patches (known as groups) can be selected, each one assigned its own MIDI receive channel (1-16) and number of voices (again, within the eight-voice limit), with the first group additionally playable from the keyboard.
Handily, the DS8 allows you to store 10 "combi-programs" (performance memories under another name) which embrace the keyboard mode and related features like voice allocation in double and multi modes.
The DS8 has 100 patches onboard, while external storage is taken care of by a choice of three credit-card RAMs offering 100 patches + 10 combinations, 200 patches + 20 combinations and 400 patches + 40 combinations, and of course data transfer via MIDI.
The factory sounds offer much that is familiar in FM-land. Clanging pianos (there's even a patch called 'Clang Keys'), tinkling electric pianos, biting clavs, well-detailed organs and pipe organs, percussive vibes and marimbas, clangorous bells, weedy strings, warm horns, funky slapped bass... and the usual complement of wind, rain, birds and choppers.
Some of these are just fine, but more often they fall obviously short of the instrument's potential. Which is strange, given the expertise that exists in FM programming these days...
So, while the DS8's factory sounds may not bowl you over, a bit of DIY programming will help you to uncover the DS8's capabilities better - and you'll discover the benefits of the machine's simple architecture all the sooner.
With the DS8, Korg have certainly succeeded in their aim of making FM technology accessible - and more interactive in both editing and performance. It's a strange experience, editing FM sounds with the same ease that you would expect from a familiar analogue-style programming system.
However, it's a moot point whether Korg have actually improved the quality of FM (as Yamaha have done on the DX7II), and first impressions (which is what these are, after all) aren't as immediately encouraging as those created by either the D50 or the DX7II.
But spend a bit of time with it, and who knows what joys this flexible and undeniably well thought-out instrument will reveal?
Price £999 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask