A pro-level synth workstation.
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Read about the Korg M3's user interface, sequencer, editing software, KARMA, storage, and expansion topics

Web Clips: listen to audio examples of the M3's Combis and KARMA-generated sounds

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FIG. 1: It''s been almost 20 years since Korg introduced its first professional music workstation, and the M3 is the very latest. It encompasses synthesis, sampling, sequencing, effects processing, and algorithmic control capabilities.

The M3 is the latest in a long succession of pro-level synth workstations from Korg. It borrows much of its technology from the groundbreaking OASYS, for well under half the price. Both the M3 and OASYS have a color touch screen, second-generation KARMA, an onboard control surface, user sampling, tons of effects, and a primary synthesis engine based on 16-bit, 48 kHz sample playback. Both have two stereo oscillators for each voice. The M3's maximum polyphony is a very reasonable and generous 120 voices, though polyphony is halved for Programs that use both oscillators. And if you like the OASYS's collection of factory timbres, the M3's sounds are guaranteed to please your ear.

Although it lacks the OASYS's open architecture and multiple synthesis engines, the M3 breaks some new ground. To integrate easily with computer-based recording setups, it comes with M3 Editor software that runs standalone and as a plug-in. Each Program and Combi is paired with an independent, user-programmable Drum Track (see Web Clip 1). At 480 ppqn, the M3's 16-track MIDI sequencer actually improves on the OASYS's note resolution. It doesn't record audio tracks, but recording and playing back audio samples at specific locations is easy, so you can still incorporate vocals, guitars, and acoustic instruments in your sequences.

An instrument like the M3 is so deep, I could easily fill this magazine describing it and detailing its operation. Because page space is limited, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com to read more about the M3's user interface, sequencer, editing software, KARMA, storage, and expansion options as well as other topics.

For Here or to Go

Four M3s are available: 61-, 73-, and 88-note keyboards, and the rackmount M3-M module. The keyboard versions, including the 73-note model that I received, incorporate the new Korg Komponent System (KKS), which allows you to detach the surprisingly lightweight M3 module from the keyboard section. The 61- and 73-note models have an all-new key bed designed by Korg, and the 88-note model has a progressive weighted-hammer action called RH3, similar to the OASYS 88's RH2. All three keyboards have a joystick, a ribbon controller, and two assignable buttons.

The M3 module, which is identical in all four editions, contains all the controls, displays, and I/O (see Fig. 1). Mounted in the keyboard housing, it can either lie flat or tilt at a comfortable angle. The front panel is quite similar to the OASYS's, but with fewer knobs, fewer indicator LEDs, and a much smaller display that doesn't tilt independently. The 5.7-inch-diagonal, 320 × 240-pixel touch screen is the same size as on Korg's earlier workstations, the Trinity and the Triton, but with color.

When you press the adjacent X-Y Mode button, the touch screen functions as a two-dimensional control pad. You can control parameters such as filter sweep or oscillator balance by sliding your finger across the display, which changes color to reflect real-time changes (see Web Clip 2). Pressing and holding the Motion button records your movements into the M3's motion sequencer, and simply pressing the button plays them back in a loop.

Beneath the display are eight 1-inch-square, Velocity-transmitting pads for triggering drum sounds and up to 8-note chords (see Web Clip 3). You can easily assign notes or chords to each pad and even merge assignments from two or more pads to a single pad. Each Program, Combi, and Song retains its own set of pad assignments.

The M3's control surface section has eight assignable sliders and eight assignable buttons, as well as illuminated buttons for changing modes, selecting scenes, starting and stopping Drum Tracks, and so on. Five Control Assign buttons allocate the eight sliders and buttons to alter real-time performance or patch parameters, control KARMA functions, change mixer levels and mute status, or manage parameters on external MIDI devices.

In addition, the front panel furnishes buttons for tasks such as operating the sequencer and sampler and selecting banks, modes, and pages. A slider for scrolling through parameter values flanks two buttons for stepping through them. There's also a numeric keypad for entering values directly, a data wheel for scrolling, and a tempo knob with a Tap Tempo button.

The rear panel supplies a complement of I/O connectors (see Fig. 2). Four assignable audio outputs supplement two main outputs and a stereo headphone jack. Two unbalanced ¼-inch audio inputs have a level knob and a mic/line level switch; they're fine for guitars and line-level sources, but an XLR input would preclude the need for an external mic preamp. A pair of Toslink ports handle S/PDIF I/O. MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports sit alongside two Type A and one Type B USB 2.0 ports. Three control jacks accommodate a damper switch, an assignable footswitch, and an assignable expression pedal.

Sound Engineering

The M3 is powered by Enhanced Definition Synthesis (EDS). It is very similar to the OASYS's sample-playback engine, HD-1, and a sizable leap ahead of the Triton's HI synthesis. In fact, Korg developed EDS in parallel with HD-1. Each voice has two oscillators that play stereo samples from the M3's 256 MB of waveform ROM. Each sample has up to four Velocity layers, and you can crossfade between them. Each voice also has two resonant multimode filters. Because you can configure each filter as two filters in parallel or in series, they can function like four filters, offering maximum flexibility for specifying custom curves and responses.

Each voice has four envelope generators: one for amplitude, one for pitch, and one for each of the two filters. Envelopes let you specify four levels and four transition times between them, as well as the curvature of each segment. Each Program, Combi, and sequencer track has three bands of EQ, and the middle band lets you sweep its frequency from 100 Hz to 10 kHz. AMS mixers, like those in the OASYS, add versatility to the M3's modulation routing.

The M3 contains 522 factory Drum Tracks, each with a name suggesting a matching kit, in dozens of musical styles. If you'd rather create your own patterns, the M3 can store 1,000 of them. You can convert your own sequencer patterns to Drum Tracks or import Standard MIDI Files. Dozens of kits are available for use in Drum Tracks, or you can build your own using ROM samples or samples you've recorded or imported. Because you can set any Program's category to Drum, you can use any M3 sound in a Drum Track to explore some exciting timbral territory.

Read about the Korg M3's user interface, sequencer, editing software, KARMA, storage, and expansion topics

Web Clips: listen to audio examples of the M3's Combis and KARMA-generated sounds

Sample It Yourself

The M3 employs the Open Sampling System first developed for the Triton and later refined for the OASYS. Along with standard do-it-yourself sampling tasks, it can resample itself to capture KARMA performances or record through effects. The M3 can also load samples in AIFF, WAV, SoundFont 2.0, or Akai S1000/S3000 format, even importing entire Akai and SoundFont programs complete with program parameters and key and Velocity maps. If you connect a CD or DVD drive, it can rip tracks from an audio disc.

The M3 comes with only 64 MB of sample RAM installed, but adding the optional EXB-M256 expansion board ($99) brings it up to the maximum of 320 MB — more than three times the maximum of the Triton Studio or Extreme, but far short of the RAM available for sampling in the OASYS.

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FIG. 2: All the ins and outs are mounted on the detachable M3 module. In addition to 2-in/6-out analog audio on unbalanced jacks, it supplies rear-panel ports for S/PDIF, MIDI, USB 2.0, and an optional FireWire card.

Once you've recorded or imported your samples, you can graphically trim and truncate, define loop points, execute crossfade loops, invoke time slicing, change tempo without affecting pitch, and so on. The Convert MS To Program command saves your edited multisample to any vacant Program location.

Object of Desire

The M3 is a giant step up from the Triton and incorporates many of the OASYS's most musically useful features. In fact, if not for the over-the-top OASYS, the M3 would be Korg's flagship synth, and I'd put it up against top-shelf workstations from any of Korg's competitors. Thanks to an army of talented sound designers from around the world, the M3 supplies a wealth of factory timbres and effects that cover all the bases and inspire creativity. Your ability to interact with the onboard sounds is remarkable, but the bottom line is that the M3 sounds awesome. If you want even greater variety, the optional EXB-Radias expansion board ($350) adds virtual analog, VPM, and other forms of synthesis.

With its red-only illuminated buttons and stuck-on wood side panels, the M3's appearance may not appeal to you. Nonetheless, its tilt-up synth module is a very practical design, and the new Korg-constructed key bed has the best synth action I've ever played. It not only feels musically responsive, but it also lets you control Aftertouch to an extent I've never experienced; you can actually step through values one by one as you press down.

You should have no problem finding an excuse to seriously consider buying an M3. Your creative life might revolve around a music workstation from the 20th century, and you feel it's time to move up. Maybe you've been lusting after an OASYS but can't justify the expense. Or perhaps you've been waiting for a keyboard synth that will integrate seamlessly with your computer-based recording setup. Whatever your excuse, you should give the M3 a try and decide with your ears.

EM associate editor Geary Yelton wrote his first book, The Rock Synthesizer Manual, in 1983 and has been writing for EM since its first issue in 1985.


5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology

4 = Clearly above average; very desirable

3 = Good; meets expectations

2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable

1 = Unacceptably flawed


M3 synthesizer workstation
M3-M, $2,375
M3-61, $3,000
M3-73, $3,475
M3-88, $4,000



PROS: Spectacular sounds. Impressive versatility and interactivity. Stereo sampling. Excellent effects. Terrific keyboard.

CONS: No audio tracks. Maximum 320 MB of sample RAM. No internal drive. No XLR input.



Read about the Korg M3's user interface, sequencer, editing software, KARMA, storage, and expansion topics

Web Clips: listen to audio examples of the M3's Combis and KARMA-generated sounds