Korg M1

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Produced: 1988-94
Made in: Japan Korg design team led by Jun-ichi Ikeuchi
Number produced: 250,000
Synthesis system: AI synthesis
Price new: $2,166

Today's prices: Like new $650 Like, it's okay for its age$475Like hell$350

When the Korg M1 was previewed at the 1988 winter NAMM show, noone predicted that it would become the world's best-sellingsynthesizer workstation. Subdued and unassuming with a roundedcasing, small display (by today's standards), and paucity offront-panel hardware, the M1 offers less than heart-stoppingvisuals. Fortunately, its layout is simple, and most operations areeasy to understand and execute. The onboard sounds are catchy,direct, and versatile. (If you're a product designer, reread thetwo previous sentences. In fact, cut them out and tape them to yourCAD system. They reveal the blueprint for a best-selling synth,then and now.)

At the heart of the synth, pulse-code modulation (PCM) —sampled and synthesized waveforms can be shaped using conventionalanalog-style editing techniques. As many as eight Programs on thesame or different MIDI channels can be linked into a Combination.Throw in a sequencer and a decent pair of digital signal processing(DSP) chips for good onboard effects, and there you have it: theKorg M1.

In 1988 the M1's factory programs — acoustic guitars thatactually sound like acoustic guitars; haunting oboes; meltingstrings; sonorous basses; and fierce, chunky pianos — tookthe world by storm. Even today M1 sounds are pleasantly direct yetfull of character. You can always count on an M1 to get you out oftrouble.

Programs use one or two oscillators generating sounds pluckedfrom the M1's 4 MB pool of waveforms. Single-oscillator Programsare 16-note polyphonic, and double-oscillator Programs are 8-note.Sounds range from full multisampled pianos to bells and pan flutes;snippets of recorded audio such as Koto Trem, Pole, and Lore (asample of a jack-in-the-box being wound up, courtesy of SteveWinwood's keyboard technician); and synth waveforms from the KorgDSS-1 and DSM-1.

Three independent four-stage envelope generators (EGs), eachcontrollable with Velocity and Aftertouch, modulate the filter,amplifier, and pitch. The pitch envelope is great for addinginterest to the beginning of each note. You can apply the amplifierenvelope to cut off all but the beginning of a ROM waveform andthen use the truncated waveform as the front end of adouble-oscillator Program; the koto multisample's initial tip is agood example of that technique.

The Velocity-sensitive lowpass filter offers keyboard trackingbut no resonance. Korg labored over the M1's filter; in theoriginal design, the filter's EG had no Intensity parameter. By thetime it was redesigned, it featured positive and negativeIntensity.

The M1 was one of the first synths to offer a serious collectionof premapped drum kits. For its vintage, the drum samples arefirst-class. They can even be remapped, which is handy because theM1's kits don't adhere to what has become standard General MIDI(GM) mapping. You can also apply Pitch Bend to drum sounds.

Perhaps the M1's most confusing aspect is its flexible effectsrouting, because the effects and the overall output routing areinextricably bound. You have a huge variety of choices, includingrouting the effects in series or parallel and sending each Programto a separate output.

A pair of digital multi-effects processors provide reverb,delay, overdrive, EQ, chorus, rotary speaker, and other effects.Effects can be applied to specific Programs within a Combination.The M1's effects are remarkable for their high quality andreal-time controllability; they're clean, powerful, and completelyeditable. You can assign a footswitch to change an organ Program'srotary-speaker effect from slow to fast in real time.

You can adjust many of the M1's basic parameters — such asfilter cutoff, envelope release, and effects level — bychoosing the parameter onscreen and moving the Edit slider or afootpedal, also in real time. Eight primary parameters are on themain Program page; you gain access to them by pressing one of theround function buttons beneath the display.

It seems that only die-hards still use the M1's sequencer. Itoffers eight tracks, full quantizing and editing, and the option tostore phrase patterns that can be inserted into a sequence. Butwhen compared with a modern workstation-based sequencer, the M1'snumber-based user interface is hardly inviting.

The range and quality of its building blocks give the M1character, which, in its time, resulted in substantial success forKorg. That success might be surprising when you consider that thefilter has neither resonance nor modes other than lowpass, thelow-frequency oscillator is basic, and no sync or cross-modulationexists between the oscillators. Fortunately, you can find PCMexpansion cards with more complex types of synth sounds.

When the M1 was au courant, Korg and an army of third-partydevelopers gave it royal support. Instructional materialssupplemented new collections of PCM samples and Programs, such asKorg's MSC-1S-16S cards, which contained raw PCM data andProgram/Combi data. Frontal Lobe produced the PCM Channel SysExkit, which let users load their samples into an M1. InVisionintroduced the M1 Plus One expansion board, which had 4 MB ofsparkling new samples such as organs, guitars, and flutes; thosesamples are preinstalled on the M1 Plus One. Some bloke namedJulian Colbeck even made a fine video called Getting the Mostout of the Korg M1.

The M1R is an otherwise identical rack-mount version. It wasupgraded to the M1REX (commonly called Mirex), and its ROM waveformcapacity doubled, with 275 multisampled sounds instead of the M1keyboard's 144. Korg implemented an overflow mode, providing twicethe polyphony by linking two instruments. The M1 can be upgraded toMirex status, giving it the same waveform ROM as Korg'sT-series.

In 2001 Korg's support for the M1 is limited to repairs andreplacement of the original patch data. Unfortunately, the M1'sannoying battery-changing routine wipes your Programs and Combisfrom its memory. If you externally back up your internal datathrough SysEx, though, you shouldn't have a problem. Luckily, theM1 is a reliable beast, with only the occasional sticky button tobeware of.

If you're ever stuck, the M1's Internet presence is massive,with endless newsgroups and Web sites devoted to it. Many of thesites are tiresomely fan based, but a few offer reprints ofmanuals, helpful tips, and downloadable Programs. I particularlylike Terry Little's Web site (www.geocities.com/tlittle72), which is succinct,relevant, and helpful.

Although other Korg instruments have superseded the M1, it stillholds its own on a dance track. The reggae fraternity would, nodoubt even today, be lost without the M1's skanking-friendly pianosand bubbling organ sounds. An M1 revival seems unlikely, though,because the instrument never went away.

Julian Colbeck has toured everywhere from Tokyo to SãoPaulo with artists as varied as Yes, Steve Hackett, John Miles, andCharlie. Thanks to Jerry Kovarsky, Leslie Buttonow, and Jack Hotopof Korg USA.