Korg M3R & RE1
Korg AI Synthesis module & remote editor
Korg's M1 workstation has already become an industry standard; now the same AI synthesis system is available in the cheaper M3R. Simon Trask checks out 19" of pure pleasure.
Since it appeared, Korg's M1 has set the standard against which other workstations have been judged; now the company's M3R makes Al sounds available in non-workstation form.
EVER SINCE THEY brought out the M1, Korg have been in no hurry to move into the sub-£1000 price bracket. While other companies concentrate on repackaging their innovations in ever-cheaper versions for the masses, Korg are, if anything, moving upmarket with their new T1, T2 and T3 synths. Until now the M1R (a rack-mount version of the M1) has been the cheapest option for anyone wanting the M1's particular angle on sound synthesis, but even that will be gradually replaced by the ExM1R, an M1R with twice the amount of onboard sample ROM, which will sell for around £1800 (existing M1R owners will be able to get their unit upgraded for a fee).
But now with the M3R, Korg have come up with a unit which looks set to please all those musicians who've been longing for a budget expander version of the M1. While forgoing the M1/M1R's onboard sequencing, the M3R retains most of its more expensive relatives' features. However, it has only one oscillator (and therefore one sound) per Program, compared to the M1/M1R's two, and 75% of the latter's onboard ROM sample memory. Furthermore, its sample memory can't be upgraded like that of the M1R and (provisionally) the M1. But the polyphony remains the same (16 voices), as does the number of parts (eight), and the M3R has the same digital effects capability as the M1/M1R (and consequently the same audio output arrangement). It's also compatible with the series of M1 PCM ROM Sample cards, so you're not confined to its onboard samples.
Coming in a 1U-high 19" rack-mounting casing, the M3R is operated from a set of eight buttons on the front panel, with a modest 2x16-character backlit LCD window taking care of the display facilities. Realising that this might not be to everyone's liking. Korg have also come up with a more user-friendly alternative in the form of the RE1 Remote Editor, a dedicated M3R hardware editor which connects to the M3R by means of a special ten-foot cable. The RE1 is an optional extra, with the combined price of an M3R and an RE1 coming to £1174.
As well as the aforementioned LCD window and eight editing buttons, the front panel contains a volume knob, stereo phones output jack, power on/off switch, and two card slots for PCM ROM data cards and Program/Combination data cards respectively. It's worth noting that the M3R cannot load M1 Program/Combination data cards, so Korg have been busy reprogramming their existing library specifically for the M3R.
Each of the eight edit buttons also has a red pinpoint LED which lights whenever a note is received on the corresponding Timbre's MIDI channel, resulting in quite a lightshow when you're running the M3R multitimbrally off a sequencer. On the rear panel, meanwhile, are MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, the Remote socket for connection of the RE1, and four audio output jacks a stereo pair and two mono outs).
THE M3R'S INTERNAL sample ROM contains 89 Multisounds and 45 Drum sounds - all 16-bit. The Multisounds are a mixture of multisampled instruments, attack transients and DWGS-synthesised waveforms. Korg have included a healthy variety of familiar instrumental sounds such as electric pianos, clavinet, harpsichord, acoustic and electric guitars, a variety of basses (acoustic, fretless, picked and synth), flute, clarinet, vibes, choir, ensemble and solo strings, tenor sax and trombone, and - familiar at least in terms of African and Asian music - marimba, kalimba, koto and gamelan. Personally I'd like to see Korg provide a much more comprehensive selection of African and Asian instruments on future plug-in PCM ROM sample cards - there are a wealth of such instruments just waiting to be sampled. How about, for instance, a complete gamelan orchestra on a card?
However, along with the instrumental sounds onboard the M3R, go a range of more unusual metallic, percussive sounds and noises, many of them digitally synthesised, with names like 'Lore', 'Pole', 'Metal Hit', 'Pop', 'Spectrum', 'Wire' and 'Digital'. These play an important part in defining the distinctive character of the M3R's sounds. Korg have also included DWGS-synthesised sine, square, pulse (10% and 20%) and sawtooth waves for more traditional synthesis.
In part the Drum sounds occupy familiar territory, including bass and snare drums, open and closed hi-hats, congas, timbales and cowbell. But they've also included a number of sounds which appear to have been taken from the metallic, noisy end of the Multisounds spectrum - perhaps because, unlike Roland's L/A synths, the M3R's Drumkits can't incorporate sounds from outside the Drums list. Whatever, the inclusion of off-the-wall percussive sounds in the Drumkits can greatly enhance the sonic vocabulary of your M3R rhythm parts, and that's no bad thing nowadays.
Multisounds put through the M3R's synth section are known as Programs; there are 100 of these onboard the expander, while a further 100 can be stored on RAM card. Multitimbral combinations of Programs are, logically enough, known as Combinations, and again there are 100 onboard and 100 on RAM card. A Drumkit can be selected for a Program in place of a Multisound. You can program four Drumkits into the M3R's onboard memory, each kit consisting of up to 30 drum samples assigned across the keyboard, each with its own tuning, volume level, decay time and effect/output routing.
Whereas oscillators traditionally presented a limited number of harmonically rich waveforms, on the M3R you can use any of its samples (including a Drumkit) as the starting point for synthesis. The M3R's Program structure follows the familiar pattern of oscillator-filter-amplifier (all digital, of course), with separate five-stage pitch, filter and amplifier envelopes (which can be modified by keyboard tracking and by velocity) and pitch and filter Modulation Generators (LFOs by any other name, with a choice of triangle, saw up, saw down and square waves, and frequency, delay, intensity and key sync on/off parameters). In addition to attack velocity, the M3R will respond to channel aftertouch, which can be routed to pitch, pitch modulation, VDF (Variable Digital Filter) cutoff, VDF modulation and VDA amplitude. Additionally you can determine how MIDI pitchbend will affect pitchbend (logically enough) and VDF cutoff, how MIDI controller 1 will affect pitch modulation, and how MIDI controller 2 will affect filter cutoff modulation. All in all, then, a flexible but not over-complicated set of synthesis parameters. If there's one thing I would like to see making its way onto today's all-digital instruments it's filter resonance; to date only Roland seem to have sussed this, on their W30 sampler workstation and S330 rack-mount sampler.
"The RE1 offers essentially the same panel editing facilities to be found on the M1, but with the significant addition of the eight data sliders."
For the most part the M3R's factory Programs don't change the Multisounds all that much, even adopting many of the Multisound names as Program names. Remember, as I said earlier, unlike the M1/M1R the M3R's Programs only have one oscillator, so to pair up samples you need to use the Combination memories.
Tuning enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the M3R allows you to select alternative scale types. Equal Temperament 2 is equal temperament with a randomised fine-tuning for each note, while Pure Major and Pure Minor provide just intonation (complete with programmable tonic, or root, note) and a user-definable scale allows you to specify pitch deviations (+/-50 cents in cent intervals) for each semitone in the octave. Not as flexible as Ensoniq's EPS sampler and VFX synth, perhaps, but welcome nonetheless.
You can select and play Programs in Program Edit mode, but digital effect settings can't be stored as part of a Program. At most, if you select Effect Interlock in Global mode then the Programs will be routed through the effect parameters of the last selected Combination. The preferable way of playing individual Programs on the M3R is as part of a Combination, with Single texture selected; in this way you'll also be able to set a playback level and effect/output routing. Because the M3R only has one oscillator per Program, you're much more likely to work in Combination mode anyway, as it's the only way of combining two sounds.
Combination mode allows you to select one of five textures which govern the number of Timbres used: Single (1), Layer (2), Split (2), Velocity-switched (2) and Multi (8). For all five textures you can define Program, volume level, pan position and sustain pedal on/off per Timbre, while additionally for Layer you can define interval (+/-24 in semitone steps) and detune (+/-50 in cent steps), for Split you can set the splitpoint (C#1-G9), and for Velocity switched you can set the switch point (2-127).
The Multi texture allows you to use from 1-8 Timbres at once. Necessarily you have to define a MIDI channel for each Timbre, but you can also set a note window and a velocity window (as low/high values in each case, with each Timbre independent of the others). In this way you can create a wide variety of textures, with combinations of layered, split and velocity-switched Timbres, or up to eight independent Timbres. You can define semitone and cent transpositions for each Timbre as per Layer, and set MIDI patch change, sustain pedal, aftertouch and control change on/off selectively for each Timbre, while patch changes received on the Global channel select new Combinations.
Only two of the M3R's factory Combinations use a Single texture: 'GrandPiano' (01) and 'Fretless (77). The others vary from two to eight, and provide excellent examples of the ways in which Programs can be combined. One of my favourites is 'TouchRoads' (11), which velocity-switches between soft and hard electric pianos to produce the best recreation of the Rhodes sound I've heard this side of Roland's new digital Rhodes pianos. On the other hand, 'Jhanda' (60) is an example of an eight-way keyboard texture which makes use of velocity-windowing and semitonal tunings with such Programs as 'Voices', 'DigiBell2', 'Marimba', 'Music Box' and 'Spectrum2' to create the sort of atmospheric, pseudo-oriental sound collage that the M1 is so well known for, 'Rock Organ' (81) is in fact a gloriously cheesy Sale of the Century organ sound, courtesy of a fast rotary-speaker effect (see below), while breathy sounds are present courtesy of such sounds as 'VoiceChoir' (17) and 'BellVoices' (75). String pads are well catered for with the likes of the imaginatively-named 'String Pad' (03), the suitably Baroque 'Vivaldi' (07) and 'Sonata #1' (37), and 'Concerto' (43). There are plenty of eerie atmospheric sounds, such as 'Aurora' (10), a combination of 'MagicOrgan'. 'Spectrum2', 'Choir', 'PanDrops' and 'WindBells', 'Nocturnal' (20), which mixes 'Lore', 'Spectrum3', 'Voices', 'Harmonics', 'Vibe' and 'Sine', 'Timp'; and 'Inner Space' (50), which mixes 'Spectrum1', 'PanFlute', 'Spectrum3' and 'SoftBell'. Meanwhile 'Kit1+MIDI', 'Kit2+MIDI' and 'Kit3+MIDI' all provide eight-part multitimbral combinations of drumkits with sounds like bass, piano, guitar, and sax.
The M3R's voices are assigned dynamically to the active Timbres, but there are no voice-reserve or Timbre-priority facilities. Remember that you've got a relatively modest 16 voices to play with: in contrast, Roland's U110 and E-mu's Proteus (both possible alternatives to the M3R) have 31 and 32 voices respectively. The M3R does implement an Overflow facility which allows the polyphony to be effectively doubled if you connect another M3R to its MIDI Out, as it passes on incoming MIDI notes whenever its onboard 16-voice capacity is reached. Still, it's an expensive way of getting 32-note polyphony compared to the U110 and Proteus.
However, the M3R scores with its sophisticated onboard digital effects (in comparison, the U110 has digital chorus and tremolo, while Proteus has no effects at all). Like the M1/M1R, the M3R offers you a choice of 33 programmable effects, eight of which are paired. Here you'll find six reverbs (hall, ensemble hall, concert hall, room, large room and live stage), early reflections, stereo and cross delays, stereo chorus, stereo and cross flanging, phasing, tremolo, EQ, overdrive, distortion, exciter, rotary speaker, and pairings of delay with most of the above. These are all perfectly usable effects, on a par with much that is available today in the way of the cheaper multi-effectors, and so score highly in the value-for-money category.
Each Timbre can be routed to A, B, C and D inputs to the digital effects, with the following options: A, 9:1-1:9 (stereo placement within A/B stereo outs), B, C, C+D, or D. The M3R has two effects generators which can be organised in one of two configurations: serial or parallel. Inputs A and B are "hardwired" to effect one, and C and D to effect two; similarly, effect one goes to outputs 1 and 2 (the stereo pair) and effect two to outputs 3 and 4. However, inputs C and D can alternatively be routed to outputs 1 and 2 - to A, B, or a stereo placement 99:1-1:99) - if you only want to use the stereo outs.
"What really matters is that unique vibrant sound quality of Korg's AI synthesis, and that the M3R retains the most significant features of the M1."
In this way you can route each of your Timbres through one of two independent effects (serial configuration), or through both effects or effect two only (parallel configuration). What's more, by using two of the eight combination effects Korg have provided, you can route your Timbres through up to four effects. Additionally you can program a dry:effect balance for each of the two effects within a Combination, or switch out one or both of the effects altogether.
The Drumkits are a special case, in that each of the 30 drum sounds per Drumkit can be given its own effect routing. In this way you can not only spread your drum sounds across the stereo image, but selectively route a couple of sounds via Outs C and D for separate (even external) processing.
As well as being able to save the M3R's entire memory to RAM card, you can transfer it via MIDI SysEx, either as a single bulk memory dump or else by category - Programs, Combinations, Drumkits or Global. Incidentally, the factory Programs and Combinations are stored permanently in onboard ROM and can be recalled at any time - always a handy facility, especially when, as here, the factory sounds are worth keeping.
THE RE1 IS a compact, fairly lightweight optional stand-alone unit, which provides an alternative front panel for the M3R. It has no power socket of its own, instead deriving power from the M3R via the Remote cable which connects the two units. The RE1 "takes over" the M3R as soon as you plug it in - the message "Remote Control" appears in the expander's LED window and the edit buttons are locked out (except for indicating active notes).
The RE1's purpose in life is to make operation of the M3R a great deal easier, a task which it succeeds in admirably. For a start, it provides a 2x40-character LCD window with a soft blue backlighting which is much easier on the eye than the M3R's garish yellow. Underneath the LCD are eight buttons, labelled A-H, which select various parameters depending on which screen you're on. The RE1 uses the same type of buttons and sliders as the M1, but goes one better with eight data sliders for editing the parameters. You can use the data sliders without first having to select the relevant parameter - pressing the A-H buttons allows you to use the +/- edit buttons to the right of the LCD window, tells you what each parameter is, or, in some cases, instigates actions (for example, Program Write yes/no).
The operational principles of the RE1 mirror those of the M3R, with function buttons to the left of the sliders selecting operating modes, and a pair of buttons to the right of the display stepping in either direction through the pages of the currently-selected mode. Below these are numeric buttons for directly moving to pages within the current mode, and a pair of buttons for selecting Internal and Card memories.
Thus the RE1 offers essentially the same panel editing facilities as are found on the M1, but with the significant addition of the eight data sliders. These are particularly useful when you're editing parameters (eg. volume) for the eight Timbres of a Multi Combination.
IT'S TEMPTING TO say that the M3R is what the M1R should have been all along - a sequencer-less version of the M1 with a few compromises which are adequately justified by the budget price. The lack of onboard sequencing isn't any great loss on an expander, while I for one can live with the reduced sample memory and the single oscillator per Program. The M3R's 1U-high 19" casing does mean that editing from the front panel is a drag (man), and although you can get by without the RE1 Remote Editor it soon becomes a very tempting proposition. Full marks to Korg for providing the option, but I can't help feeling that at £275 the RE1 is overpriced. Just think, that amount could go towards another piece of sound-generating gear.
But what really matters is that unique vibrant sound quality of Korg's Al synthesis, and the fact that the M3R retains the most significant features of the M1/M1R, such as 16-voice polyphony, eight-part multitimbrality, sophisticated onboard digital effects processing (a gift at this price), four audio outputs, and the ability to access Korg's growing library of PCM ROM sample cards and Program/Combination data cards. How can you resist?
Prices M3R £899; RE1 £275. Both prices include VAT.
Review by Simon Trask
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