Invision Plus One
Sound Upgrade Board For The Korg M1
Korg's M1 is a perennial favourite — so much so that almost six years after its launch, third-party support is still plentiful. Derek Johnson takes a look at a high-quality upgrade board which extends the life of the M1 still further.
In its relatively short life (born 1988), Korg's M1 has achieved the status of classic. And just like those other recent classics of Japanese digital synthesis, Yamaha's DX7 and Roland's D50, it has been the object of hot-rodding over the years. All three instruments were produced in the early days of MIDI, before manufacturers had really got to grips with what the new technology had to offer. Hence the majority of third-party hardware for the DX7 has been in the form of modifications to the operating system and patch memory upgrades, the D50 has seen a mixture of system expansion and sound expansion, and the M1 has been the recent recipient of sound add-ons — Korg produce a board (the EX) which brings the M1 up to T3 status, and we reviewed Double Dutch's M1 sample expander in November 1992.
The latest modification for the M1 comes from American company InVision, perhaps best known for the acclaimed Protologic board for Emu's Proteus 1. The new PlusONE board works in a similar way to the Protologic, in that it fits inside the M1 (but not yet the M1R) and adds 4MB of 16-bit sampled waveforms to those already present. The board offers 45 new multisounds (they appear as numbers 100-145 when editing) and 40 new percussion sounds. The sounds were chosen as a result of extensive research amongst M1 users: InVision asked what they wanted, and tried to come up with sounds that would please the widest range of people. Number one request was for a TR808-style kit, and InVision have provided a number of 'analogue' drum kit percussion sounds; other percussive sounds include human body noises — grunts, hits and yells. Better organs, electric pianos, strings, flute and guitar were also high on M1 users' wish lists, as were off-the-wall synth waveforms: all of these requirements have been satisfied in some way. Those of you familiar with Korg's own EX board may wonder why InVision didn't provide a similar number (80+) of samples. The reason seems to be that the samples provided on the PlusONE board are longer, which means better simulations, cleaner loops and so on; I should mention at this point that loops are almost universally excellent.
Physically, it's hard for me to comment on the board: it came ready-installed in an M1 provided by Zone Distribution. However, it's not necessary for a potential user to be familiar with the appearance of the PlusONE, since installation is by approved service engineer only. This might sound restrictive, but the M1 was not meant to be hot-rodded, and installation involves, amongst other things, track cutting on the M1's main circuit board. Also,there is a difference between early and later M1s in that the main chips are socket-mounted in vintage machines (good for hot-rodders) while the most recent machines have their chips soldered directly to the board (bummer for hot-rodders).
The PlusONE comes with a free ROM card that contains 100 Programs (Korg-speak for patches), 100 Combis and some demos. The surprising thing is that although the majority of Programs do show off the new Multisounds, many mix old Multisounds with new, or provide new patches using old Multisounds, forging a link with the synth that your M1 used to be, and showing how compatible both sets of waveforms are. The old, 12-bit samples have a mellow, dark edge to them, while the new, 16-bit, samples are sparkly and clean. Even through the M1's DACs, the sound of the new board is still very clear; note that the little quantisation noise that is present is probably a result of the M1's slightly elderly technology.
The resulting patches are a good selection; I can't think of one that I disliked or found musically invalid, and many are very impressive. New programs that particularly stand out include the 'Acoustic Guitar' (Program 00 on the ROM card). Once you've heard this sound, the M1's original acoustic guitars will no longer sound so realistic! Program 29, 'Velo+Gated Drums', is a very processed kit, with volume and pitch control via velocity; a lot of fun to play. Number 37, 'Industrios', is an "industrial pad sound", and is very big and impressive — rather like playing a tuned factory. If electric guitars are your bag, you'll love number 75, 'Power Chords', one of the best such patches I've heard — it plays in fifths and has a lot of guts. One enjoyable sound with a slightly dodgy loop is the rock organ, with rotary speaker; the dodgy loop actually adds to its character when playing chords. Percussion is good: vocal and body hits are a great addition, and the patch based on a Chilean instrument, 'Rainstick' is worth a play — the instrument is like a rattle, made out of hollow bits of cactus filled with pebbles, and offers a fairly unique sound. My absolute favourite new sound, though, has to be 15, 'Harpeleik', which is apparently a zither-like instrument. The sound is just gorgeous—bright, shimmery and other-worldly.
The quality and convenience of the PlusONE board both rate highly, but how about value for money? Well, the £349 asking price (plus fitting, which should add no more than £50) seems quite reasonable compared to upgrading to another synth, and you don't have to get rid of your M1. I think InVision's new board is great, and I don't care who knows it; but if that's not good enough for you, take note of the fact that Korg themselves will be selling new M1s with the InVision PlusONE board already installed. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.
InVision PlusONE £349, plus fitting, inc VAT.
Zone Distribution, (Contact Details)
Review by Derek Johnson
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