This synth/sequencer/drum machine with digital effects is the first instrument in Korg's new workstation series. Simon "Mansell" Trask takes it for a test drive.
Korg's latest synth serves up a fashionable cocktail of sampled and synthesised sounds, an eight-track sequencer and sophisticated digital effects. Does it represent the future of synthesisers?
COMPANY TAKE-OVERS SEEM to be all the rage nowadays, and among high-tech musical instrument companies Yamaha have shown themselves to be enthusiastic in this direction. Korg succumbed some while ago to Yamaha's advances, leaving a question mark hanging over their independence. With instruments like the DS8 and 707 FM synths and the Concert range of AWM electronic pianos, it seemed as if their design team was devoting ail its energies to producing variations (some would say improvements) on Yamaha's technology. Where were those uniquely Korg instruments?
With the benefit of hindsight it's now clear that other developments were taking place in Korg's R&D labs, as the company are about to launch three products which have decidedly professional graces and no obvious parallels in the Yamaha stable: the M1 Music Workstation, the S1 Production Workstation and the Q1 MIDI Workstation.
Korg's evident fascination with the term "workstation" does appear to have a basis in reality. My Dictionary of Computing defines a workstation as "a position for an operator that is equipped with all of the facilities required to perform a particular type of task". Substitute "instrument" for "position", "musician" for "operator" and "music" for "a particular type of task" and you should start to get the picture. Korg's claim to workstation authenticity is that the M1 combines an eight-track sequencer and sophisticated digital effects with a distinctly fashionable mix of sampled and synthesised sounds.
But if the "Music Workstation" bit is clear enough, where does the M1 come into it? Somehow I don't think Korg had in mind a certain British thoroughfare when they christened their latest keyboard instrument, but that hasn't stopped the motorway jokes, er, piling up in the MT office. Suddenly, road testing takes on a whole new meaning.
THE M1 CONTINUES Korg's relationship with chic design: rounded edges, rounded buttons and a minimalist front-panel layout give the instrument a suitably sleek appearance (the Porsche of the hi-tech instrument world, perhaps?).
Minimalist the front-panel controls may be, but the M1's numerous parameters require each function button to conceal a multitude of display pages (for instance, 30 such "pages" lurk behind the Edit Prog button); you can either step through these using the dedicated Page +/- buttons or tap in numbers on the numeric keypad to take you to a functionally-related group of pages (if you can remember the number). So much for minimalism.
Operation of the M1 centres around the 2X40-character backlit LCD and the eight general-purpose edit buttons beneath it which facilitate quick editing. The M1's five-octave dynamic keyboard (attack velocity and channel aftertouch) hold no surprises. It's pleasant enough to play, though a shallow action does make for an uneasy feeling when you really want to "dig into" a sound. And it really is about time manufacturers started taking the provision of polyphonic aftertouch and release velocity more seriously; the sonic quality of their instruments demands it.
Meanwhile, round the back of the instrument are MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, LCD contrast button, sustain pedal and two assignable pedal/switch inputs, four audio out jacks (1/L, 2/R, 3 and 4), a stereo headphone jack, and a slot for inserting a PCM data card.
This last feature is of crucial importance, because it allows a completely different set of source sounds to be accessed by the M1, effectively completely "refreshing" the instrument. If Korg support this aspect of the M1 properly, everyone else had better watch out.
WHILE ROLAND'S D50 has clearly set the agenda for synthesis in 1988, the origins of the M1 can be traced back to earlier Korg instruments - specifically the DW synths and the DSS1 sampler.
The former saw Korg taking advantage of DCOs - essentially just numbers in a wave table - to expand the range of source waveforms through their DWGS synthesis system. Subsequently they integrated the synthesis capabilities of the DWs into a sampling instrument to produce the DSS1.
But if the DSS1 is a sampler with synthesis capabilities, the M1 is a synth with sample (but not sampling) capabilities. Korg call their new system AI (Advanced Integrated) synthesis. More specifically, the raw sound material of the M1 consists of a mixture of 16-bit PCM multi-samples, DWGS waveforms created through additive synthesis, and aperiodic waveforms created through the extraction of harmonically-unrelated components of percussive sounds - 100 "multisounds" in all - plus 44 16-bit PCM-sampled drum and percussion sounds. All these are stored permanently inside the instrument, but, as mentioned above, you will be able to access completely new sets of multisounds and drum samples on plug-in data cards.
In an effort to keep the sampled aspect of the M1 as transparent as possible, all the samples (apart from the percussive one-shots, of course) come ready-looped. In truth the loops aren't always ideal, and though the worst potential problems have been overcome there is a noticeable (but by no means overbearing) thinning out and lack of motion in, for instance, sustained acoustic piano sounds on the M1. Ultimately, we're not talking the realism of SAS or AWM modelling here.
Korg have provided a very broad range of samples, which reflects in the broad range of sounds that the M1 is able to handle with equal facility. We're talking piano, electric piano, electric and acoustic guitars, all manner of horns, electric and acoustic basses, and a variety of tuned percussion, together with DWGS recreations of a variety of keyboard and tuned percussion waveforms and, of course, the "classic" synth waveforms. Particularly impressive is the obvious are that Korg have taken in capturing the attack characteristics of their sampled instruments (notably with the horn sounds).
The 44 drum sounds are sharp and clean, much closer to Roland- and Yamaha-style drum sounds than to the rough-edged, beefy sounds of the company's DDD drum machines. If you select the M1's Global mode you can define four "drum kits" ie. arrangements of up to 30 drum and percussion sounds across the keyboard. Each sound can be given its own tuning (+/- 12 semitones), volume level, decay time and - perhaps most impressively - pan setting.
Incidentally, Global mode also gives you access to master tuning and transposition, pedal assignments, MIDI global input/output channel, MIDI filtering and data dump, RAM card data transfer and (the Yamaha influence showing itself) alternative tunings.
All of the M1's sounds can be used as source material for synthesis, and - perhaps most importantly - they can all be filtered.
Single multisounds can be assigned to each of two "oscillators" in a Program (the basic patch of the M1, which utilises the familiar oscillator-filter-amplifier configuration). The M1 can store 100 Programs onboard and a further 100 on a RAM card.
An "oscillator" on the M1 is a flexible concept, as it could contain a DWGS waveform or a multi-sampled acoustic piano. In many instances, then, one oscillator is enough, in which case the M1 is 16-note polyphonic. Unlike multisounds, a drum kit can't be combined with any other sounds within a Program (there again, you've got an "oscillator" which consists of 30 different sounds).
As its name suggests, Combination mode allows you to combine Programs in various ways. Korg have gone all out here, providing programmable single, layer, split, velocity switch and multi configurations (the latter allowing up to eight Programs to be active at once). As with Programs, you can store 100 Combinations onboard the M1 and a further 100 on a RAM card.
The final stage in the sound chain consists of two stereo Multi Digital Effects. The M1's sound processing takes place entirely in the digital domain until the final output stage where, as mentioned earlier, Korg have thought to provide four audio outputs. The organisation goes like this. There are four inputs to the MDEs: A, B, C and D. These inputs are "hard-wired" to audio outs 1/L and 2/R (a stereo pair), three and four via the MDEs, with the exception that inputs C and D can be panned across to outputs one and two for a composite stereo image. Programs in Program mode are automatically panned to A and B (and thus out of the stereo pair), while individual Programs in Combination mode and Sequencer mode can be panned to any one of A, A:B (9:1 to 1:9), B, C, C+D or D.
The two MDEs can be configured in two ways: serial and parallel. Serial configuration places both MDEs in the A:B path, in which case panning a Program to A and/or B allows you to send it through, say, delay followed by reverb. Parallel configuration places MDE2 in the C+D path, allowing different programs to be passed through different effects.
There are 33 programmable stereo effects available, providing not only reverb, but delay, chorus, flanging, phasing, tremolo, equalisation, overdrive and distortion. Also included are some combined effects organised as left channel/right channel (such as reverb/delay, delay/chorus and delay/flanger). Many of the effects also feature simple but effective high/low EQ. All are of a high quality, sounding clear and crisp - though the reverbs do exhibit some graininess when the drum sounds are put through them.
AS MENTIONED EARLIER, Programs are the basic patches of the M1. You can select single or dual oscillators, and define VDF (Variable Digital Filter) and VDA (Variable Digital Amplifier) envelope and level settings for each oscillator. Other Program components include pitch and VDF modulation generators, while velocity, aftertouch, keyboard tracking and the joystick can all be set to dynamically modify various aspects of the sound (for instance, velocity can modify volume as well as VDF and VDA envelope times, while aftertouch can modify pitch, volume, and the amount of pitch or VDF modulation). It's particularly interesting to start with a familiar acoustic sound and see how you can stretch and modify it using the M1's synthesis power.
A neat touch is the ability to quick-edit such features as VDF cutoff point, VDA attack and release times and effect balance from the main Program page. In this way it's easy to, for instance, darken or brighten a sound, or completely alter its envelope shape. The results of this editing can be stored, or you can enter Edit Prog mode and "fine-tune" your efforts.
The M1's default Programs very effectively display the synth's competence with a broad range of sounds, both synthetic and realistic. Acoustic and electric guitars, tuned percussion, horns, choirs, strings, acoustic and electric pianos, acoustic and electric basses, woodwind, atmospheric new age-ish sounds... You name it and the M1 has a good imitation or recreation of it (well, almost - the sitar and the harpsichord aren't so hot, and I didn't discover an Outer Mongolian noseflute). Best of a fine bunch are, to my mind, 'Piano 16'' (01) and 'Piano 8'' (41), 'Guitar 1' (04), 'Fretless' (06) and 'Acoustic Bass' (26), 'Angels' (43), 'Choir' (23), 'Symphonic' (07), 'Pipe Organ' (47), 'Dream Pad' (20) and virtually all of the brass sounds. A particularly neat feature of some of the guitar and bass sounds is the inclusion of harmonics at the top end of the keyboard - the proverbial icing on the cake.
Combination mode is where you can really start having fun. Basically, Korg have provided just about all the flexibility you could possibly wish for in organising multiple Programs (internal and card) on the keyboard and via MIDI. Needless to say, voice allocation among Programs is dynamic.
Single offers no advantages over Program mode other than the speed of being able to call up individual Programs as Combinations, and the ability to pan the Program to any output. Fairly obviously, Layer allows you to layer two Programs across the keyboard. You can also specify sustain on/off and pan position for each Program. Additional parameters allow you to specify the volume of each Program together with interval and detune values.
Split allows you to define a single non-overlapping keyboard split, again with separate volume level, panning and sustain on/off settings for each Program, while Velocity Switch allows you to switch between two Programs on the basis of a programmable velocity split-point (0-127), with volume level, sustain on/off and panning once again programmable for each Program.
So far so good, but Korg's Multi implementation is the real biz. Basically it's a glorified version of all the other Combination modes put together. You can select up to eight Programs and give each one its own MIDI channel, note range, velocity range, output level, transposition, detune and pan values. Additionally you can individually enable or disable reception of patch change, sustain pedal, aftertouch and controller messages for each Program. Programs are placed on the keyboard (as opposed to just being accessible via MIDI) by assigning them to the current global transmit channel.
Using Multi Combinations, you can step through up to eight Programs on a single key (which, quite apart from anything else, is great for developing your touch), spread up to eight Programs across the keyboard using any overlapping or switch textures you want, and specify any combination of MIDI and keyboard control of Programs. In many ways the Multi Combination is more flexible than the M1's onboard sequencer (but I'll come to that later).
As with the default Programs, the Combinations which come with the M1 are uniformly excellent. Many of the Combinations concentrate on building up fuller, more complex sounds by layering Programs across various areas of the keyboard, but there are also useful split textures. Massed choral and string sounds abound, but there are also plenty of delicate, shimmering atmospheric sounds, warm bass sounds, and dynamic acoustic guitar, horn and piano sounds. Well worth checking out are the 'Club Date' (55) combination of acoustic bass, piano and tenor sax, the 'Bass & Horn' (59) combination of, er, acoustic bass and 'Tubaflugel', the pseudo-Oriental 'Fuji-san' (04) combination of classical guitar, flute and tremolo koto, the stately orchestral strings of '3 Strings' (52), the warm fretless bass of 'OctaveBass' (97), the appropriately celestial chorus and strings of 'ThePlanets' (80), the icy-still 'Luna-Pad' (89) and the hushed vocal tones of 'VoiceChoir' (41).
As with the individual Programs, what distinguishes these Combinations is their tremendous presence and clarity (even without the digital effects), and an overall perfect balance between the synthetic and the realistic.
THE M1'S EIGHT-TRACK sequencer can store up to ten songs at a time (each up to 250 bars long), and has either a 4400- or 7700-note capacity, depending on whether you choose to have 100 Programs plus 100 Combinations or 50 Programs plus 50 Combinations.
Whichever option you choose, that's not a lot of notes, but Korg have alleviated this shortcoming to some extent by providing both track-based (continuous) and pattern-based recording. You can record up to 100 patterns, each of which can be up to eight bars long, and then chain them together in each of the eight tracks. Unfortunately you can't record patterns within the context of other patterns (or tracks), but it is possible to copy pattern data into a track, and conversely to copy any portion of a track (up to eight bars in length) into a pattern. You can also copy or bounce (merge) one pattern to another and one track to another, while any number of bars within a track can be copied to any position in the same or another track in the same or another song. Other functions allow you to insert, delete and erase bars from individual or all tracks, and to post-record quantise any section of individual or all tracks. You can't get much more flexible than that.
Patterns can be recorded in familiar drum-machine style - loop-in-record. This method isn't limited to the M1's drum and percussion sounds, though; any of the synth's sounds can be used. However, patterns aren't assigned their own sounds, but play the Program of the currently-selected track.
Another feature familiar from drum machines is the ability to erase specific notes, in this case by selecting Remove and holding down the relevant keys on the keyboard as the pattern cycles in record. Strange nobody thought of it before.
Individual tracks in Sequence mode are assigned a single MIDI channel (1-16), and can be set to off, on (internal and MIDI), internal (non-MIDI) or external (MIDI-only). Additionally, each track can be assigned its own Program (internal or card) together with volume, transposition, detune, pan and protect on/off settings. As with Programs and Combinations, each song can have its own effects settings, with individual tracks being routed through the effects according to the pan values you assign them. The M1's voices are allocated dynamically across all the tracks, but there's no voice reserve feature to ensure that certain tracks don't have voices snatched from them at embarrassing moments. Real-time recording includes automatic punch in/out (any bars are specifiable), and record quantisation can be set to values from 1ppqn (a crotchet) to 48ppqn. The latter value represents the sequencer's highest resolution, and no doubt won't be high enough for some people.
Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the M1's sequencer is that it doesn't allow you to use Combinations within its tracks. You can layer two or more Programs by setting the relevant number of tracks to the same MIDI channel (data is recorded into the lowest-numbered track), but of course you lose tracks which you might need for other parts. Similarly, if you've been playing split-texture Combinations (for instance the acoustic bass, piano and sax of 'Club Date') you could always record each part separately onto different tracks, but it's still a compromise. Ultimately, if you want to get the most out of Combination mode you'll need to turn to external sequencing.
On a brighter note, selecting multi-channel recording allows you to record incoming data from several MIDI channels together with data from the M1's keyboard (so that, for instance, you could record a duet with another keyboard player). Multi-channel recording also helps speed up the transfer of data from another sequencer.
Korg haven't neglected step-time recording, which is available in both Pattern and Sequence modes. In fact, the procedure is the same in both modes, with the exception that you can keep cycling around a pattern, adding notes on each pass.
For each step you can choose a duration from 1/1 to 1/32 (including dotted and triplet values) which can be notes or a rest. Notes can be further modified by specifying staccato or tenuto values. The sequencer won't advance to the next step as long as at least one note is held down, so it's an easy matter to enter all manner of chords and textures. Additionally you can specify that notes be tied over to the next duration; by holding down one or more notes and then playing new notes after each tie, you can create drone notes with chords and melodies around them. The M1 doesn't record note velocity in step mode, but does give you the option to choose one of eight dynamic values from ppp to fff for each note within a step (if you enter notes consecutively).
The M1 allows event editing of patterns and sequences, again with the procedure being the same for both. You can insert, delete and alter note, velocity, pitch-bend, aftertouch, patch changes and controller data, and slide the position of events to 48ppqn resolution. Korg have included six controls which are specified as MIDI controllers 102-107: VDF cutoff point, effects one and two on/off, effects one and two wet/dry balance, and tempo change respectively. Korg can chalk one up to their sequencer here, because with the exception of tempo changes (which are specified globally by MIDI clock rate) these creatively-useful controls sadly aren't available if you choose to play the M1 from an external sequencer. Why? Well, they aren't official MIDI controllers, and are neither sent nor received via MIDI.
The M1's sequencer can send and receive the standard MIDI sync data, including song position pointers. Sequence data can be saved either to a Korg MCR03 RAM card or via MIDI to an external storage medium (MIDI transfer of the full memory amount takes around ten seconds, while of course card transfer is near-instantaneous). A combination of the two methods is best, but those musicians who don't already possess an external storage setup (whether dedicated or computer-based) might wish that Korg had followed Ensoniq's lead with the SQ80 by kitting the M1 out with a disk-drive for patch and sequence storage.
I FIND IT hard to overrate the M1. To my mind it represents the most exciting combination of sampled and synthesised sounds yet produced - and that's not even taking into account the potential suggested by the instrument's sonic open-endedness.
Although in my opinion the onboard sequencer is ultimately limited by lack of memory, lack of tracks, and a sound-to-track assignment which doesn't match the flexibility of the instrument, on the whole it is well thought out, powerful and easy to use. There's no denying it's a nifty songwriting tool. Finally, the plentiful assortment of stereo digital effects are the icing on this particular cake. Am I impressed? Damn right I am.