Hands On: Korg M1
The Korg M1 is one of the best and most popular keyboards around. David Mellor explores some of its prime features.
As I have said before in these pages, if you wanted just one really good keyboard around which to base your MIDI set up, then you need not look any further than the Korg M1 or its more recent offspring, the 01/W and 01/WFD (the latter having a very handy floppy disk drive). There may be other equally good keyboards from the other major manufacturers, but in my opinion none of them has such a full range of high quality basic sounds. When you start looking for your second synth then there are plenty of keyboards which can add a glorious range of extra exotic tone colours, but for bread-and-butter voices the M1 can't be beaten.
The purpose of the Hands On series is to look at equipment which is well respected and commonly found in professional studios. In the studio situation, equipment is used for its best features and, generally speaking, as a tool to produce music not as an amusing toy. Accordingly, the following paragraphs will show you how to unlock the most powerful features of the Korg M1. The M1 has plenty of ancillary features which you might get around to experimenting with late at night as an alternative to a rendezvous with Super Mario, but I personally would rather use equipment than play with it, and I suspect you would too.
At its launch the Korg M1 was advertised as a 'workstation' rather than just a keyboard. The idea was that it contained an effects unit and sequencer, as well as a particularly good multi-timbral synthesizer, so in theory a Korg M1 is all you need to produce a finished piece of music. The good news is that, yes, this is possible. The bad news is that the sequencer in the M1 isn't the best in the world. In fact it doesn't even come near the top 10, and I can't stress too strongly that any would-be Korg M1 owner ought to budget for an Alesis MMT8, a secondhand Yamaha QX5, or preferably an Atari plus software such as Creator or Cubeat. This of course doesn't detract one iota from the high esteem in which the M1 deserves to be held because there is no earthly reason why you ever have to use the sequencer, unless there is no alternative. Like all musical equipment, the M1 is best used for its strengths not its weaknesses.
In an age of software control, LCD screens and nudge buttons, the physical features of any piece of equipment are sometimes thought to be less important than the power that the equipment contains, but if you can't get at that then it's pretty useless. Korg's user interface for the M1 is, by the standards of mainstream equipment, very logical. The more recent 01/W has a bigger LCD which is an immense improvement, but the M1 is still comparatively user friendly.
The controls fall into three groups: on the left are the Mode Select keys which allow you to select Program or Combination modes — more on these later — or Edit, Sequencer or Global modes. If you are lucky enough to have an M1 in front of you right at this moment, power it up and press the 'Combi' (Combination) button. Now you have access to the 100 richest and most complex sounds ever heard from a synthesizer, via the up/down nudge buttons just to the left of the display. You can also select Programs and Combinations with the numeric keypad over on the right. When you have finished experimenting with the Combinations, press the 'Prog' button and listen to the 100 basic Programs, the building blocks from which the Combinations are created.
The 'wow' factor of the M1, when it first came out, was high, and even now it's hard not to be impressed by what's on offer. The sound source for all of the Programs and Combinations is 4MB of ROM (Read Only Memory) which holds samples of basic instrumental sounds and synth waveforms. These are not just ordinary samples, as you would find out if you listened to them in their unprocessed state, but they have obviously been carefully designed to be the optimum raw material for the synthesis capabilities of the instrument.
Now you have gotten over your state of awe and you are on the way to becoming blase, it's time to find out about the excellent easy editing facilities the M1 has to offer. (If you have an M1 in front of you, stay in Program mode for the time being.)
Earlier classic synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 and the Roland D50 were unfortunately comparatively difficult to program. If you were really determined to do something, then you would do it, but most of the time their owners only used the standard voices or those supplied on voice cards, unless they had been wise enough to invest in a software editor. I find that there are two parameters I want to alter more than any others on synthesised and sampled voices: high frequency cut-off, and release time. My personal wish is for all equipment to have knobs dedicated to these functions, as it would save me hours. I am sure that most users have their own, probably different, favourite parameters, but the Korg M1 goes a long way towards providing a truly usable editing interface.
In Program mode, along the bottom of the display there appears a horizontal list of eight parameters: Oscillator Balance; Filter Cutoff; Level; Keyboard Tracking; Velocity Sensitivity; Attack Time; Release Time; and Effect Balance. Notice that my two favourites are among these. Are yours?
You can do so much with these 'easy edit' controls — and you can save the results — that I'm going to dive straight in and explain what they can all do. The internal workings of the M1 will become clearer in the process.
• Oscillator Balance
This appears in the display as 'OSC Balance'. The M1 has two 'oscillators', which really means that there are two elements in the digital programming that retrieve sounds from the 4MB of ROM. So, in your basic sound you could layer an acoustic guitar on top of a string section. Obviously you would want to be in control of which was the louder of the two, and by pressing the appropriate button and adjusting the data slider you will get the balance you want almost instantly. To do this via the editing pages would take much longer and you probably wouldn't attempt it if the producer was cracking his whip.
• Filter Cut-Off
The display shows 'VDF Cutoff'. This is more than a tone control, since the cut-off frequency is scaled appropriately to the pitch of each note. This one control allows an amazing range of timbres to be obtained from just the one original voice.
• Level VDA Level.
I'll let you work this one out for yourselves.
• Keyboard Tracking
Deep inside the voice programming, someone has specified how the keyboard will respond in different octaves. For instance the lower notes may be dark in timbre and low in volume and the higher ones brighter but quieter. This quick editing control will apply an overall influence over this in either a positive or a negative direction.
• Velocity Sensitivity
This is a great control to have because sometimes you need to be expressive, other times you want your playing to sound even in volume and timbre. This function allows you to increase or decrease the velocity sensitivity easily.
• Attack Time
There are several ways in which attack time can be varied, if you want to go into serious editing. You may, for instance, want to alter the attack of VDA1 (a VDA is the equivalent of a Voltage Controlled Amplifier in old fashioned analogue synthesis). Or you may want to adjust the attack of VDA2, or VDF1 or VDF2 (filters). This easy editing function changes them all simultaneously! Maybe it's not ultra-subtle, but it's fast and it works.
• Release Time
This has the same effect as Attack Time, but on the other end of the sound, as you might expect.
• Effect Balance
Since the M1 has a built-in effects section, and a very good one at that, it seems reasonable that one of the easy editing controls should be related to this. The most obvious parameter to change would be the balance between the direct sound and the effect, and this is what you get here.
Although these eight easy editing functions are designed as temporary 'performance' controls, the changes you make can be stored, but you do have to go into the Edit Program mode which is slightly more complex.
There will always be those who say that the M1 sounds are cliched, but that's because they are so good and cover such a wide range that they have been very thoroughly exploited. In Combination mode you can bring together up to eight of those wonderful Programs. What more could a synthesist ask?
There are different types of Combinations available, some of which are more useful than others. I would tend to pass on Single, Layer, Split and Velocity Switch, although many M1 users will find them invaluable. The type of Combination that interests me is the one where you can have two or more programs sounding simultaneously — MultiCombi. To do some easy editing, find a MultiCombi that you like by scrolling through with the up/down buttons in Combination mode. The MultiCombis have the program numbers they contain displayed along the bottom of the screen. If you want to be adventurous, try changing the program numbers by pressing the buttons below the screen and operating the data slider. Notice that the programs can be turned off if you wish. Obviously you also need to have control over level and this is available by toggling the display with the Page+ and Page- keys. You will never exhaust all the possibilities here, and you haven't even started proper editing yet.
Like many other items of hi-tech equipment, the M1 uses a system of display screens, in this case divided into a number of Functions, each Function having a number of pages. The Functions are numbered 0 to 9 in the Edit Program mode, and the pages can be identified as 0.1, 0.2, 0.3 etc., all the way up to 8.5, 8.6 and 9.1. You select a Function number via the numeric keypad, and the page with the Page+ and Page- buttons. All this is a lot easier to do than describe, by the way, so rest assured that you will soon get the hang of it. Perhaps it would be an idea to have a list of these functions handy rather than having to wade in at the deep end every time you want to make a small but meaningful parameter adjustment, so I have included a separate panel that should help speed things up. It's in the manual by the way, but it can be a good idea to have notes like this stuck in convenient places, even on the instrument. Now let's look at some of the more important functions.
The first item, and the most important, is Function 9.1, which is where you save your brilliant new programs. If you have created a new sound using the quick editing functions outlined above, then you will probably want to go straight into Function 9.1 to store it for posterity. Be careful not to erase a program you might prefer to keep.
One of the easiest ways to develop new sounds on the M1 is to use an existing program but change the raw sample from which it is made. Enter Edit Program mode and on Functions 0.2 and 0.3 you'll find that you can select the waveform of the two oscillators. (If you can't see two sets of parameters displayed, you are in Single Oscillator mode. Just change this to Double Oscillator mode in Function 0.1). The sounds of the M1 are constructed from two elements: the source samples, and the synthesizer-style treatment through which they are put. Change the source sample and you'll get a completely new sound. It may not always be wonderful, but it's always worth a try. I would reckon that you would find 10 or 20 really useful sounds this way in an hour. I hope you have a RAM card in the slot to save them all! (You may have to format the card under Global Function 9.2 first).
If you can find a new sound you like using the techniques you know already, probably the next most telling alteration you can make will be in the selection and parameter adjustment of the effects section. Functions 8.1 to 8.6. The effects unit on this instrument is extremely good, the only drawback being that it doesn't have its own inputs and outputs to enable processing of external sounds! The choice of effects algorithms is very comprehensive, as the list in the accompanying box shows, and you can use two at the same time.
The best thing about the effects section is that the effects are all of very high quality, and a good deal of control is offered. The reverberation programs, for instance, have the following parameters: reverb time; predelay; early reflection level; high frequency damping; low EQ; high EQ; and dry/effect balance. If you can't get the effect you want here then I'll be impressed, although there's nothing to stop you cutting the effects and using an outboard unit if you wish.
"The 'wow' factor of the M1, when it first came out, was high, and even now it's hard not to be impressed by what's on offer."
Since there can be two simultaneous effects you may want to place them in series so that, for instance, your program is chorussed and then has reverb added, or in parallel so that you can have a wash of reverb with distinct repeat echoes butting their way in. The effects placement is something that needs a little mental effort, since Korg didn't manage to make this quite as easy to understand as most of the M1's other functions.
Effects can also be applied to Combinations. Note that the programs that make up the Combinations do not retain their own effects; that would be a little too much to ask. In Edit Combi mode, the effects section is accessed under Function 8, just as in Edit Program.
So, do you now know almost all there is to know about the Korg M1? Obviously not — there's a lot more to it than that, and you will need the manual or a real sense of adventure to master it all. I've only covered the essentials, and I would encourage a thorough exploration of all the Program and Combination editing features. As I said earlier, you need not feel that you're wasting part of the M1's power by not using the sequencer. You are just being sensible and — hopefully — using a sequencer which is a little more versatile and friendly. If you're looking for a great synth, then a Korg M1 may be the one you need. A few individuals are foolish enough to sell them secondhand, and though they will undoubtedly regret it later their loss may be your gain. The more recent 01/W and 01/WFD may not be as elegantly named but, they bring the M1 of the late '80s right up to 1992 standards with extra ROM and extra voices. Also just announced are a rack version of the 01/W, a smaller 03R/W module, and two up-market 01/W-derivative keyboards. At a higher price level the Korg T-series is also worth exploring. If your need is for one good all round synth, get close to a cuddly Korg soon, and get your hands on.
Gear in this article:
Feature by David Mellor
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