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KORG MS 2000R

August 1, 2000
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Synthesizers that digitally model analog synthesis are nothing new. Instruments such as the Yamaha AN1X, Roland JP-8080, Nord Lead, and Access Virus have made analog modeling almost commonplace in the electronic-music studio. Korg synthesizers such as the Prophecy and Z1 have been capable of emulating analog synths for years, but the MS2000 ($1,100) is Korg's first instrument to model analog synthesis exclusively.

The MS2000 is a 4-voice instrument with a 16-step sequencer, arpeggiator, and 16-band vocoder. It can play up to two timbres simultaneously, either split or layered. It stores 128 programs in eight banks of 16 sounds each. All the memory locations are user-programmable, so you can replace all the factory programs with your own original programs.

The MS2000 includes a 44-note keyboard, whereas the MS2000R is 4U rack-mount; both feature a distinctive metallic aqua-blue front panel. For this review, I spent a month with the MS2000R. With the exception of a keyboard, the two units are virtually identical. The only other significant difference is a Keyboard button on the MS2000R, which lets you play the row of 16 Select keys as if they were a keyboard with fixed Velocity.

A primary idea behind the MS2000 is a modernization of three classic analog devices rolled into one. It's touted as the reincarnation of the MS-20, Korg's diminutive analog synth introduced in 1978, combined with the Korg VC-10 vocoder and SQ10 analog sequencer. These three items are still in demand among the retro-techno crowd, and Korg hopes to capture part of that market with the new offering. Unlike many instruments marketed for dance music production, the MS2000 is a well-rounded, versatile virtual analog synth for almost any electronic musician.

GETTING AROUNDThanks to a wealth of front-panel controls, the MS2000R's user interface is superb. A total of 49 buttons and 35 knobs gives you plenty of real-time control to reach out and grab the sound. A backlit yellow-green LCD shows 32 alphanumeric characters, and a multitude of red LEDs indicates the status of various buttons.

Finding your way around is a breeze. The panel is divided into functional sections, much like a vintage analog synth. These sections include Audio In, Oscillator 1 and 2, LFO 1 and 2, Mixer, Filter, Amp, Arpeggiator, Portamento, Effects, and so on. For the most part, the buttons and knobs provide an abundance of visual feedback.

There are two primary modes in addition to Global mode. Performing is done in Program Play mode, and you can edit most sound parameters on the fly. As with traditional analog synthesizers, changing sounds in this manner is part of the performance. In LCD Edit mode, the LCD displays the value of the parameter being tweaked whenever you turn a knob anywhere on the panel. It also displays a series of edit pages that you step through with the Page buttons or select directly with the Select keys. Of course, Global mode lets you adjust tuning, assign pedals, and perform various utility functions.

PATCHING THINGS UPThe signal flow within the MS2000 is pretty straightforward (see Fig. 1). Both oscillators generate basic synthesizer waveforms, including sawtooth, pulse, and triangle, and the shape of these waveforms can be altered manually or by any of the available modulators. Oscillator 1 also offers a sine wave, which can be used as the carrier and be cross-modulated by the sawtooth, pulse, or triangle wave from oscillator 2. Both ring modulation and phase sync are possible by applying oscillator 2 to oscillator 1. These effects can be combined using a technique called RingSync, which yields some pretty interesting results.

In addition to the basic waveforms, oscillator 1 provides a Vox wave that resembles a human voice, 64 different DWGS waves (which I'll explain in a moment), and noise. Unlike a sampled voice, the Vox wave maintains its formant structure as it changes pitch. Its harmonic content can be altered manually or be modulated by applying an LFO or any other modulator. Going a bit beyond traditional analog synthesis, the DWGS (Digital Waveform Generation System) waves are single-cycle PCM wavetables. These waves are a carry-over from the DW-6000 and 8000, which Korg made in the early '80s. DWGS waves can be stepped through manually by turning a knob or be wave-sequenced with the Mod Sequencer.

The other sound source is a pair of Audio In jacks. One accepts line-level signals, and the other can be switched to accept either line-level or mic-level signals. This means you can use the MS2000 to process other instruments or audio recordings. Audio In also provides a source for the vocoder's carrier and modulator signals.

Like many synthesizers, the MS2000 has two envelope generators, which are both of the ADSR variety. EG1 is normally routed to the filter, and EG2 shapes the amplitude. However, both EGs can be disassociated from their default assignments, and they can also be routed to modulate other parameters.

There are two types of resonant lowpass filter with slopes of 12 and 24 dB/octave to simulate the most popular analog filters, as well as 12 dB/octave resonant bandpass and highpass filters. In addition, the resonance can be cranked up to self-oscillation. Filter cutoff can be modulated by EG1, Velocity, keyboard tracking, and any other modulation source. The envelope can be applied with positive or negative polarity, effectively raising or lowering the cutoff frequency. Keyboard tracking also tracks notes played by the Mod Sequencer.

Two LFOs can each generate one of four waveforms, including sample & hold. The LFOs can be synchronized to the internal clock, which also controls sequencer tempo, or an external MIDI source. The phase of the LFOs can be synched to the onset of each note, phrase, or MIDI Clock. If LFO frequency is controlled by clock tempo, it can cycle once or twice every beat or every four beats.

Where other synthesizers have matrix modulation, the MS2000 has something called Virtual Patch. This is simply a means of routing modulation sources to modulation destinations. A list of eight sources, including envelopes, LFOs, and Velocity, can be routed to eight destinations, including pitch, filter cutoff, and LFO frequency. This list is silk-screened on the front panel, and LEDs indicate the selected items. Four knobs are dedicated to setting modulation depth in the Virtual Patch section. Turning a knob instantly lights the LEDs to show you its associated modulation routing, and all Virtual Patch settings can be stored in a Program.

There are two effects processors-modulation and delay-followed by a 2-band EQ. Modulation algorithms include chorus/flange, phaser, and ensemble. You can specify the modulation LFO speed and depth or feedback, depending on which effect is selected.

The MS2000 offers three types of delay. Of course, there's a simple stereo delay. In the CrossDelay algorithm, the right and left feedback paths are swapped (see Fig. 2a), and in the L/R Delay algorithm, the delayed sound is output to the left and right alternately (see Fig. 2b). Delay time can be synchronized to MIDI Clock, and the depth can be varied for more or fewer repetitions. Reverb is conspicuously absent, but I didn't miss it.

UP, DOWN, AND AROUNDFor any instrument that hopes to make a dent in techno music, an arpeggiator is practically essential. The MS2000's onboard arpeggiator is pretty basic-the patterns are straightforward, and there are no user- programmable patterns. Arpeggiator settings can be saved as part of any program, and a pattern can be applied to either or both timbres in Split or Dual (layer) mode.

There are six arpeggio types: up, down, random, trigger, and two alternating patterns. Alt 1 goes from the bottom note to the top note in a chord and back down again. Alt 2 does the same, but it repeats the notes at the top and bottom before changing direction. The Trigger pattern plays up to four notes in a chord simultaneously and repeatedly, all triggered by the clock.

The Arpeggiator section sports two knobs. One controls tempo and has an LED that flashes in time with the clock. The other is Gate, which adjusts the length of each note. A Latch button determines whether an arpeggio keeps playing when keys are released, and a Range button determines the pitch range of the arpeggio from one to four octaves.

In Program Play mode, you can't tell at a glance what type of arpeggio you've selected or what its range is. Fortunately, you can display these parameters in LCD Edit mode, even while playing the instrument and running the arpeggiator.

STEP IN TIMEThe 16-step Mod Sequencer is one of the coolest features of the MS2000. It's very reminiscent of analog sequencers from the 1970s, but with several enhancements made possible by digital technology. Each program can include one 3-track sequence, which can play forward, in reverse, or alternately forward and reverse, and it can play only once or loop continuously. Korg refers to the three tracks as Sequence 1, 2, and 3, and each one controls a different parameter that is selected from a list of 30. These include all the parameters you can control in real time using the front-panel knobs, as well as pitch and step length.

When the Sequence Edit button is pressed, each of the 16 knobs and buttons at the bottom of the front panel represents one step in the sequence; turning a knob changes the selected parameter for the associated step. For most applications, one track controls the pitch to play a short melody. This is useful for repeating riffs or ostinato bass parts. Playing a note on the keyboard transposes the pitch of the entire sequence as it plays, and holding down several notes triggers several parallel sequences that are identical but transposed. You can use another track to establish a fixed interval between the two oscillators, making it possible to play a harmonic line along with the melody. Normally, each step is equal in duration, but it's possible to play notes of varying duration by letting one track control step length.

If oscillator 1 is playing DWGS waves, one track can play a different waveform at each step. With this technique, each note played on the keyboard can quickly step through a series of up to 16 different waveforms. This is true wave sequencing.

There are dozens of other possibilities. By controlling noise level, one track can play noise-based percussion to accompany the pitch track's melody. Assigning another track to control filter cutoff can produce more complex percussive sounds. By assigning the pan-pot parameter to a track, you have precise control over the panning of each note. As you can imagine, creative applications are plentiful. I only wish there were more than three tracks per sequence, but I'm not complaining.

Unfortunately, turning knobs is the only method for entering data into the Mod Sequencer. For pitch, this is a little clumsy because the knob's range spans four octaves. Specifying the pitch from a keyboard isn't possible with the MS2000. As a result, entering pitch data is much slower than it would be if you could simply play the notes you want each step to play.

However, you can record front-panel knob movements in real time using a technique called Motion Rec. For example, if you press the Mod Sequence Record button, trigger the sequence, and then turn the filter- cutoff knob, the knob's position is recorded into each step as it plays. The actual knob movement isn't recorded, but its value at the moment each step begins is entered.

SINGING SYNTHIn addition to playing Programs, the MS2000 provides a Vocoder mode that lets you modify the sound of the synth and/or an external sound source connected to audio in 1 with external signals from a microphone or other sound source connected to audio in 2 (see Fig. 3). This produces the popular effect of making the synthesizer talk or sing. The sound that's modified is called the carrier, and the modifying sound is called the modulator.

The vocoder sends the modulator through a bank of 16 bandpass filters; the entire bank is called the analysis filter. An envelope follower responds to changes in loudness within each band and controls another bank of 16 bandpass filters; this bank is called the synthesis filter. The carrier signal is routed through the synthesis filter, which imparts the modulator's characteristics onto the carrier.

The center frequencies of the 16 bands in the synthesis filter can be shifted manually or under the control of any modulation source to alter the sound of the vocoder, and you can specify the amount of resonance for these filters. There are also four preset formant shapes that interact with the center frequencies to further modify the sound. In addition, you can "remix" the levels of all 16 bands to emphasize different frequency ranges. If the modulator signal is rhythmic, such as a signal from a drum machine, the carrier signal plays rhythmically, because the vocoder responds to changes in loudness as well as timbre.

The MS2000's vocoder can be used to modify external sounds, not just sounds from the synth itself. For example, if you play a sample of a string ensemble into audio in 1 and talk into a mic connected to audio in 2, you should theoretically hear the sound of a choir of strings. When I tried this, I could tell the mic was shaping the strings, but it took a lot of tweaking to find the right combination of parameter settings to achieve satisfactory results. Once I found the right combination, processing other sounds took much less time.

BETTER SOUNDSo how's it sound? Fat! Some might even say "phat." Pardon my blasphemy, but I'm starting to prefer the sound of virtual analog over real analog synthesizers. To my ears, the MS2000 sounds much better than the original MS-20. The resonant filters are thicker and juicier, and the extra waveforms give the MS2000 an added dimension of timbral complex-ity compared with a real analog synth.

The factory programs provide so much variety that it's easy to forget there are only 128 of them. The majority of sounds are slanted toward techno music, but there are plenty of shimmering new-age tones along with various bread-and-butter analog timbres. Great pads, sweeps, and sound effects are in ample supply, and there are a few very nice vocal sounds, too. There are six vocoder programs, ranging from a synthesized choir to the voice of the devil.

Emulations of traditional instruments are in short supply, but that's to be expected in a synth like this. There are a few electric pianos and Hammond organs. For synth bass, look no further-these are some of the best I've ever heard. And don't forget that you aren't stuck with any of these programs. If you don't like something, replace it with something else.

ANALOG HEAVENKorg has another winner on its hands. The sound is great, and the real-time control is even greater. There's not much to dislike about the MS2000 and MS2000R. It would be better if it had more polyphony. Four voices are barely enough, but this instrument makes a mighty big sound as it is.

If you need a vocoder in your rig, this one should do nicely. If you're looking for a new approach to creating melodies, you might like using the Mod Sequencer. If you're trying to re-create sequencer music from days gone by, you might just love it. However, I wish it would let you enter notes in some way other than turning knobs. Still, its faults are few and its pluses are many. The MS2000 and MS2000R should make a welcome addition to just about any electronic-music production arsenal.

Now that Geary Yelton has made Charlotte, North Carolina, his home, he is excited about connecting with the local music community.

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