Oldies but Goodies – Korg M1 Software Synth
Want a piece of electronic keyboard history for a miniscule fraction of the original price? Then maybe Korg’s software recreation of the storied M1 will satisfy that nostalgic craving.
by David Baer, Sept. 2015
The Korg M1 was manufactured between 1989 and 1996. It was destined to become the best-selling piece of synth hardware of all time. Some experts have speculated that there was one quarter of a million of these keyboards sold during the six years it was in production. It was the instrument that dethroned the then-ubiquitous Yamaha DX7, and the reason it was able to do so was, for its time, the breathtaking advances in sound production technology it had to offer.
The M1 was actually much more of a sample playback device than an actual synthesizer, although it had the filters and modulation one would expect in a synth. It sported 4M of onboard ROM memory, in which approximately 100 multi-sampled instruments and half that many drum/percussion hits were to be found. Although we would scoff at such stingy storage allocations by today’s standards, it was a marvel for its time. It was also a testament to the sound engineers that they could cram so much good-to-even-great sound into such a tight space.
The M1 also had slots into which expansion cards could be inserted to increase the sound palette. These offerings included three synth sound expansion cards, an orchestral sound collection, a dedicated piano card, and more. And like all complex MIDI instruments of the time, one needed a MIDI-attached computer running an editing program to accomplish anything but the most rudimentary of sound creation or tweaking.
By my guess, an M1 cost around $5000 in today’s dollars. The cards went for maybe a 100 bucks apiece (street price) and a software editor would probably set you back another 150 dollars (again, in todays dollars). For Korg to be able to sell a quarter of a million of these keyboards is a testament to how great they sounded in comparison to the competition of the time.
I never owned an M1, but I did own the M3R, a baby brother rack-mount version of the M1. In fact, I owned three of them and five expansion cards, since I was so into what they could do at the time. The M3R cost maybe $1800 (again, in today’s inflation adjusted dollars).
So, when I first started acquiring software synths and Korg came out with a software bundle that included the M1 plus the Korg Wavestation, even at an initial price of $200 and requirement for a hardware dongle, I jumped on it. Today, one can get the M1 software incarnation for an everyday price of $50 USD, and Korg wisely dropped the dongle in favor of software authorization. Korg also release a 64-bit version along the way and an iPad version after that. I have no experience with the latter and this review will ignore the tablet software version.
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but I should point out that the M1 software version includes all the original nineteen memory expansion cards. But wait, there’s more. A successor to the M1 called the T series had its own set of M1-compatible cards, and these too are included. Since it’s a soft synth, the editor is not an extra-cost add-on but part of the software. So let’s see, a $5000 keyboard, twenty-five (or so) $100 expansion cards and another $150 for the editor totals just over seven and a half grand. Now all of that can be had for $50. Ain’t progress a glorious thing?
The Software Recreation
The initial software version of the M1 was released around 2006, so it definitely qualifies as an oldie. But is it a goodie? The answer will probably depend in part upon your own age. Old timers who owned or perhaps lusted after an M1 back in the day, will more than likely be in the “goodie” camp. How could you not be for the price? But even for all its age, the software recreation is capable of producing some great sounds. Even young EDM whippersnappers may want to get in on this.
The original hardware was capable of 16-voice polyphonic operation. The software version has essentially unlimited polyphony. The original did not have the Multi mode of the software recreation, so that is a major enhancement. The hardware’s on-board sequencer was eliminated – for pretty obvious reasons, I think. We did get one little enhancement in the filter, for which resonance was added. But on the whole, the software version has the same capabilities of the original, but with things much more immediately accessible across the board.
In brief, there are two main modes in which the M1 software synth operates: Combi and Multi. In Combi, individual sounds, called Programs, can be stacked for a variety of purposes. There are eight slots which can be filled to create massively rich, layered sounds, or which can be assigned to discreet keyboard zones. Or one can establish velocity layers. The Multi mode also offers eight slots, but in this case, the programs in those slots respond to different MIDI channels, producing a bone fide multi-timbral capability.
Read the Fine Manual
Although the M1’s operation and signal flow are reasonably logical, there is more than enough complexity here to warrant the admonition: RTFM. One can probably learn one’s way around through trial and error, but in the long run, I think the quickest way to a comfort level with the M1 is the old fashioned way of doing one’s homework. Most of the screens readily reveal up their secrets, but there are a few places in the UI where a less-than-intuitive design was embraced.
I am not going into tremendous detail here about all the nuances of sound programming in the M1, but we will look at a few aspects in some slight detail.
First, let’s get the browser, seen above, out of the way. It’s a decent facility, but not state-of-the-art. First, using the Search tab, we can look for either Combi or Program selections, aided by Instrument and Character filtering qualification, of which multiple selections can be made. One thing you’ll note right from the start: there is an ocean of sounds here. To audition them all would take many hours. Pictured below are all the M1 expansion cards now included in the software version of the synth.
Using the Card tab for program selection is the alternative. The first three cards are the original on-board content. The contents of these are a bit haphazardly organized, so you won’t easily find your way around right off the bat. The M1 expansion cards are more easily directly navigated, given they are instrument-specific (piano, organ, fretted-instruments, synth, etc.).
There are additional empty user cards available for storing custom user presets. In what follows, we’ll look a bit more closely at the various pieces of what makes up a program.
The image above shows the UI when the Prog button in the top row is selected. The right portion of the screen has six tab selections: Easy, Osc, VDF, VDA, Control and Insert FX. VDF and VDA stand for virtual digital filter and amp respectively. A program can be comprised of one or two basic sounds, each with their own filter and amp envelopes. Let’s start with the Easy tab, as seen in the above image.
Here we can select the sample sound, specify the mix level of the two component sounds, the cutoff and resonance settings of the low-pass filters (which can be linked), and the filter and amp envelopes for each of the two sounds. We can also specify what FX goes into the two available slots and their respective send levels. In many cases, everything one needs to throw together a sound is right on this page.
The OSC tab can be used to adjust tuning, pitch modulation and other modulation of pitch-related behavior.
The VDF tab is for fine adjustments of filter behavior, particularly as regards modulation. Envelope segment times can be influenced by key position and even allows for the specification of the pivot key. This was not only pretty advanced for its time, it’s a feature rarely found in the many of the more sophisticated instruments released in recent years. I would enthusiastically welcome more instrument designers to jump on this band wagon. I won’t bother showing the VDA tab, since the VDF tab gives an ample idea of what to expect.
Finally, we have the Insert FX tab. There are two slots within a program for inserting FX. The selections are the usual offerings: delays, reverb, EQ, and so on. Two more slots are available in the Master FX section, where two more FX can operate in a parallel or serial configuration. There’s nothing extraordinary about the FX compared to other contemporary synths. They are all serviceable. If you don’t find them of highest possible quality, we can do what we do in any similar situation. Use a dedicated reverb or delay or whatever as an insert in your DAW track.
Is the M1 Soft Synth for You?
You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a pretty big fan of this retro wonder. It’s an incredible bargain at just 50 dollars. As I’ve stated earlier, it’s going to be difficult for anyone who dreamed of owning an M1 back in the early 90s to not reflexively reach for their credit card. I hereby proclaim this to be a no-brainer.
Now, that’s not to say that the sounds will compare with today’s sophisticated offerings that have specialized focus. The sampled synths in the M1 are not going to sound as convincing or real as something like LuSH-101 or Zebra. The sampled orchestra sounds are certainly not going to be a substitute for a dedicated Kontakt library of similar fare.
But the sounds in the M1 do have their charm. Furthermore, they can be easily layered to create rich textures that are not immediately identifiable as “antique”. And most of all, there is the sheer number of sounds in the collection.
There are so many sounds, that preset-only musicians will have more than a sufficient selection from which to pick. For sound tweaker/designer enthusiasts, you will be confronted with a modest learning curve, but it’s nothing a few hours spent with the manual won’t satisfy. The documentation (the manual runs 80 or so pages) is not great but I’ve certainly seen much worse. For nostalgia lovers, Korg even makes the original M1 manual available.
I would venture a guess that the original M1 has appeared on more hit albums than any other keyboard ever. The only other one that might make that claim would be the DX7, but my money’s on the M1. So if you decide to add the software version to your collection, you aren’t just picking up a delightfully fun instrument, you’re acquiring an important piece of pop music history.
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