The return of Korg


The year is 1988, Yamaha had been and gone with the DX7, removing the filter from the synthesis section and created sounds by adding sine waves together, making a cold sounding synthesizer, unless you liked deep bass sounds. Roland were now ruling the roost with the D50, a synthesizer that not only brought filters back into synthesis, but also made effects such as reverb integral to the sound, as without the effects, the sound was just as cold, and that bit thinner than the DX7. Many thought that no one would now really release a synthesizer that would beat the D50, especially another synthesizer without a filter.

They were wrong on both counts...

August 1988, Korg released the M1 music workstation, based purely around sampled sounds, this synthesizer combined clear and accurate samples (For the time), with an 8 track onboard sequencer and onboard effects, and what was more, unlike the flagship synthesizers from Roland (D50) and Yamaha (DX1), the M1 could play 8 different sounds at once, either over MIDI or via the onboard sequencer, and had a very comprehensive drum and rhythm section to go with the accomplished sound set.


Up until this point, Korg had become a small 'bit player' in the digital synthesis age, releasing some small F.M. synthesizers and the occasional drum machine to little fanfare, even though some of their kit (Most notably the hybrid DW series of synthesizers) are worthy of mention in their own right. Sadly the world passed these synthesizsers by, but overnight the M1 became the fastest selling synthesizer the market had known, and this continued for quite a few years, even though it once again removed the filter section from the sound generation path.

The actual synthesizer engine of the M1 is really remarkably simple, and because of this is a little inflexible compared to it's contemporaries, however it had 2 benefits in that the sound remained remarkably clear and different sections of different sound sources could be mixed and matched to create new exotic sounds, however the lack of filter also meant that more exotic sounds were not easy to do, unless the waveforms you needed were onboard or available in an add on ROM card.

The M1 generated sound in a similar way to the D50, in that a single sound could be made up of 1 or 2 sound sources. The source for these was either the onboard ROM (4MB) or an additional ROM card in the ROM slot. These sound sources each had their own envelope generator to shape how the sounds behaved over time, and a delay value, so that one sound could fade into the other (If 2 sources were used) over time. Now, many say the M1 has no filter (Including me above), however there was a simplistic low pass filter, but this only had basic parameters and only really served to alter the 'brightness' of the sound, from here it went to the amplifier section, and on to the effects. As there were only 16 sound generators to share between all the sounds, if all sounds used 2 sound sources then the maximum number of notes possible is 8. But, as the M1 was multitimbral (Could play a maximum of 8 different sounds at once), and each of these could have either 1 or 2 sound sources (Oscillators if you prefer), then the maximum number of notes you could play would vary, and you could run out very quickly if you liked to produce complex overlaying pad sounds with equally complex rhythm sections. This however did not stop he M1 selling by the thousand almost every day.

Indeed, many of the M1's sounds are still in use today, but like the D50, the M1 has a weakness, its effects unit. Listening to the sounds on their own and not in what Korg call a Multi (A group of sounds to be played multitimbrally), each sounds rich and vibrant, however disable the effects and the sound once again becomes thin and quite static. However, this is not the only problem, as once a sound is loaded into a multi, it can change, even though you have not changed anything about it. This is because the effects will have changed, even though the M1 can play up to 8 different sounds, they all have to share a single effects path and the effects used in the multi are dictated by the first sound within that multi. If all subsequent sounds use the same effects in the same way, the sound will be the same, however, if it uses different effects, of the same effects in a different way to the first sound, it will inevitably sound different. You can however, override the effects settings, and edit the effects as part of the multi settings, thus potentially changing ALL the sounds in a single stroke. Regardless of what you do, sounds within a multi more often than not, sound different to when they are played solo.

The basic synthesis design of the M1 remained mostly unchanged through the T series and the O series, apart from the addition of more notes available for playing, and in the top of the O series range, the addition of a waveshaper. The waveshaper can be thought of as a simplistic distortion device, adding subtle distortion to the wave to give the impression of a warmer sound, reminiscent of analogue synthesis, along with a more advanced (But still simplistic by comparison to Roland) filter section. This continued up until the launch of the Trinity workstation, which took the building blocks of the M, T and O series, and enhanced them to the point that the sound was much cleaner and vibrant thanks to better samples, more synthesis options, an enhanced filter section and an effects unit that allowed more flexibility when using multi's. It also had options to add another form of synthesis via an expansion board (More on this in the next entry), and in later models, digital recording and sampling was also an option, allowing users to make their own sounds to add to the synthesis engine to create truly unique sounds. This continues today with the Triton range, which in some models has added a valve based output amplifier for additional warmth and depth that had been missing for some time.

During this journey though, Korg made another synthesizer, which did not necessarily need an effects unit to make dynamic sounds, but is often overlooked when people look for a new sound to add to the synthesis arsenal. The Wavestation was the result of Korg's rescue of the old Sequential team when Korg split from Yamaha. Sequential were makers of quirky, but sought after synthesizers from the analogue era, though their last synthesizer was probably the most innovative system of it's time, but the company folded and was bought up by Yamaha before the world could really appreciate the Prophet VS and it's vector synthesis. The Wavestation brought the Prophet VS bang up-to-date with a more reliable joystick for manipulating up to 4 different sound sources over time, more sounds to create with, and wave sequencing, allowing sounds to evolve over time by changing the actual sound sources by chaining samples and/or sound waves together and using cross fades to allow the sounds to blend into each other. The Wavestation series was one of the few synthesizers since 1986 that didn't rely on effects to make it's sounds dynamic and interesting, the effects enhanced the sound, they didn't make the sound as they did on many of the other big synthesizers of the time. While it did not set the synthesis world on fire, the Wavestation series can still be heard in many film and television scores today, and the only other synthesizer that can compare with this one at all is the Morpheus from E-mu, another synthesizer that is used in film and television scores)

Samples were now an integral part of synthesis from all major manufacturers, even Yamaha had joined the fray, initially with the SY77, a monster synthesizer that combined sampled sounds with an advanced version of FM synthesis, which also included filters, and the ability to use samples to act as part of an FM sound in a synthesis Yamaha called Real-time Convolution and Modulation, or RCM.
yamaha-sy77 While this allowed the creation of some truly huge sounds, the process was so complex and in-depth that most SY77 owners (Myself included) rarely use the system, though I have tried on occasion. Roland enhanced the synthesis engines in it's synthesizers, improving the sound and introducing new ways to generate sounds, with some remarkable synthesizers created along the way, such as the JD-990, but the most remarkable thing about the new synthesizers from Yamaha and Roland was the return of filters, and these were what are termed “Multi-mode” filters, where the character and the depth can be changed.


From the early 1990's, the sound of Synthesizers was converging, and apart from the odd exception, most models from most manufacturers sounded similar to the others available, the time was ripe for another synthesis revolution, and this one was the one to start the synthesis world coming around to a full circle and the fulfilment of a prophecy...