For an analog mono synth, the Korg MS-20 has enjoyed an archetypally topsy-turvy ride during its 20-year history. Launched the same year as the Prophet-5, when all eyes and ears were on microprocessor control, program memory, and polyphony - none of which the MS-20 offers - this military-looking synth still enjoyed relative success due to its unusual patch-bay panel design and its interesting range of sonic possibilities. By the mid-1980s, of course, you would have been lucky to get a third of what you paid for an MS-20. In the heyday of polyphonic synths and keyboard workstations, the MS-20's busy, almost academic look was well out of fashion.
Now it's an entirely different matter. The MS-20's unique look and, to some extent, sound has propelled it to the top of the must-have tree in 2000. In fact, Korg is now leveraging mileage out of the MS-20 concept with its new MS-2000 and MS-2000R (reviewed in the August 2000 issue of EM).
Two things set the MS-20 apart. First is the patch bay, which lets you make custom patches (in the traditional sense of the term, using patch cords) so that you can, say, hook up pink noise as a modulation source and the like. Second, it offers several cool but rarely seen items, including sample-and-hold, ring modulator, footpedal filter control, and pitch-to-voltage control.
The bones of the MS-20 are two oscillators with independent waveforms and pitch control. There's good separation between the oscillators, and you get a nice range of control options, including a ring modulator, two envelope generators (EGs), and an LFO.
The resonant filter can be either lowpass or highpass (or even bandpass if you use the patch bay), with multiwaveform LFO or EG modulation. The filter has a 12 dB/octave slope, so it is by no means as fierce as a Minimoog filter. But thanks to the MS-20's creative modulation possibilities, producing effects such as wah-wah and filter vibrato is pretty straightforward. You also get portamento with a time/speed variable. The ring modulation and white/pink-noise features compensate for the less-than-steely filtering by adding bags of character to what could have been a thinnish timbre.
The two EGs offer further variety. EG1 is internally routed to the oscillators and features delay, attack, and release parameters. EG2 can be applied to the filter or amplifier and includes attack, decay, sustain, release, and hold.
The MS-20 employs an unusual hertz-to-volts (as opposed to volts-per-octave) paradigm. At one time, Korg made a converter interface to enable connection with synths using a more conventional approach.
In the past few years, the look and sound of the MS-20 has grown steadily more popular. Long admired by such technoboys as The Shamen and Aphex Twin, this synth has found more recent favor with the likes of Apollo Four Forty (for ghostly squeals on its live performances) and Portishead.
If you need an MS-20 owners' manual, one can be obtained at www.acrylnimbus.de/manual.