Korg M3 (Bonus)

Electronic Musician reviews the Korg M3, Korg''s latest professional-level music workstation.

This online bonus material supplements the Korg M3 review in the November 2007 issue of Electronic Musician.

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FIG. A: It won''t win any beauty contests, but M3 Editor and its identical plug-in counterpart, M3 Plug-In Editor, reveal every M3 parameter on your computer screen.

Korg M3 Kontinued

Almost no one disputes that Korg popularized the synthesizer workstation. It is certainly the company most associated with the term, beginning with the wildly successful M1 in 1988 and eventually progressing from the popular Trinity and Triton lines to the sought-after (but pricey) OASYS in 2005. Whether you''re performing onstage, composing at home, or recording in the studio, workstations offer an in-the-box solution for keyboardists of every musical stripe. It''s no wonder that combining a keyboard synth with an onboard sequencer and effects has been a formula for success. The challenge for any synth manufacturer these days is to seamlessly integrate a standalone instrument with a computer-based recording studio.

Like the OASYS, the M3 has enough onboard storage for 14 banks of 128 Programs and 14 banks of 128 Combis. One Program bank is reserved for EXB-Radias sounds, and another for a General MIDI 2 bank in ROM. Other than those two, the M3 ships from the factory with only four Program banks and three Combi banks filled. Given Korg''s history of dynamite sound programming, though, it''s no surprise that every one of them is top-notch.

Korg developed the M3 in parallel with the OASYS. As Korg programmers were compiling their innovative ideas about the future of synthesis on the OASYS''s hard disk, they were writing code that would eventually make its way onto the M3''s custom silicon chips. The M3 does a lot of what the OASYS does, though Korg had to make compromises to hold down costs.

Most significantly, because much of its programming is etched in silicon, the M3 is not as thoroughly upgradable as the disk-based OASYS, which has an open and expandable synthesis architecture (see the February 2006 issue of EM for my OASYS review. Still, you can update the M3''s operating system, as I did at least twice during this review, by downloading the update from Korg''s Web site, copying it to a USB flash drive, and inserting the drive into one of the M3''s USB ports. And you can add the EXB-Radias card to expand the synthesis engine.

Although I''d hardly say the M3 falls short of features, the OASYS has several that the M3 lacks, including a much larger display, a CD burner, Wavestation-style wave sequencing and vector synthesis, and, in part because there''s no internal disk drive, hard-disk audio recording. Whereas the OASYS''s sliders and knobs have LEDs to indicate their positions, the M3 does not. Unlike the OASYS, though, the M3 does have a USB Type B port to connect to your computer; it also has two USB Type A ports for connecting flash drives and other mass-storage devices.

Orchestral Maneuverability

You find your way around the M3''s architecture by pressing buttons, tabs, and pull-down menus displayed on the touch screen, in conjunction with using the physical front-panel controls. That kind of user interface has been around since Korg introduced the Trinity in 1995, and it was subsequently refined on the Triton and OASYS. Perhaps I''ve just grown accustomed to touch screens, but I never had any problems with selecting the wrong object on the M3''s, and I know my fingers haven''t grown any smaller since I reviewed the OASYS.

What appears onscreen depends on which of the six modes—Program, Combi, Sequencer, Sampling, Global, or Media—you''ve selected. Each mode has numerous pages you quickly access by pressing the Page button. In the Combi Play screen, for example, you can select Programs and solo or mute each of the 16 parts, though you can access only 8 at a time because of the display''s size. Pressing tabs lets you select additional parts, access level and panning for those parts, change KARMA parameters, reassign control surface controllers, and so on. In essence, then, the user interface is conceptually identical to that of previous flagship Korgs.

Workstation Meets Computer

Like a handful of other recent synths, the M3 comes with interactive software for editing parameters and integrating it into a computer-based setup. M3 Editor runs standalone, and M3 Plug-In Editor runs in AU, RTAS, and VST hosts in Mac OS X (PPC or Intel) and in VST and RTAS hosts in Windows XP. I successfully used it on my Power Mac G5 with Digidesign Pro Tools LE 7.3, Apple Logic Pro 7.2, Ableton Live 6, MOTU Digital Performer 5.12, and Steinberg Cubase 4.

M3 Editor appears onscreen in a window about the size of a typical instrument plug-in (see Fig. A). I appreciated being able to quickly scroll through its pages and see everything going on inside the M3, but I''d like it even more if the editor could fill my computer screen. The best approach might be user-defined window sizes, like Native Instruments Kontakt 2 offers.

Every time you run M3 Editor or M3 Plug-In Editor, it runs through an initial routine of searching every MIDI port in your system. At first I thought I had to download the M3''s contents at the beginning of each editing session, but then I discovered in the manual that I needed to set up preferences to recall the M3''s contents as the default. It would have saved time if that default had been set at the factory.

Effects Collection

Korg was never a slouch in the effects-processing department, and the M3 offers plenty of excellent algorithms. You get five insert effects, two master effects, and one Total effect—all in stereo—for each Program or Combi. The 170 algorithms were culled from the OASYS''s collection of 185. Most are practical, useful effects that run the gamut from multitap echo, 7-band graphic EQ, and bass-amp modeling to harmonic chorus, grain shifter, and simulated 3-head tape delay. One algorithm simulates the resonance of a piano''s soundboard and the sympathetic vibration of unplayed strings with the damper pedal depressed, greatly adding to the realism of sampled pianos. My only disappointment was that two of my favorite OASYS effects, O-Verb and Wave Shaper, are missing.

Many effects parameters are MIDI controllable, and you can automate changes by recording them on sequencer tracks. All time-dependent effects provide independent LFOs, but you also get two Common FX LFOs, which allow you to sync multiple effects to a single clock or to sequencer tempo.

KARMA Chameleon

Developed by musician and programmer Stephen Kay, KARMA (Kay Algorithmic Realtime Music Architecture) is a Korg-exclusive collection of algorithms that enhance your musical performances with thousands of MIDI phrases and patterns. KARMA can automatically generate complex arpeggios, drum patterns, bass lines, chords, and other musical sequences and effects, but it goes way beyond the auto-accompaniment features found in some keyboard instruments. KARMA allows real-time musical expression that would otherwise be impossible. It also serves as a kind of musical collaborator to suggest ideas and extend your creativity (see Web Clip 4).

The M3''s second-generation implementation of KARMA is exactly the same as the OASYS''s, incorporating features such as Note Remapping, rhythmic wave sequencing, standardized control-surface parameters, and the ability to individually manipulate layered KARMA Modules. It incorporates 2,093 Generated Effects (GEs), each assigned to one of 13 standardized Real-Time Control (RTC) Modules or one custom Module. The assigned RTC Module determines the functions of the control surface''s buttons and sliders, which you can use to control as many as 32 GE parameters in real time. Combis and sequences can have as many as four KARMA Modules, each directed to a specific MIDI channel. That means the patterns and parts that KARMA generates allow you to create live performances that sound like an ensemble of players.

As with most aspects of music, the more you learn about KARMA, the more you can do with it. The M3 Parameter Guide does a good job of teaching the intricacies of using and programming GEs. Another useful resource is Kay''s Web site (www.karma-lab.com), which provides tutorial videos, support documents, and other helpful information.

Song Construction

Korg has been designing sequencers for quite a few years, and its experience is evident in the maturity of the M3''s sequencing environment. Thanks to the touch screen, using the M3''s 16-track MIDI sequencer is a lot like working with a computer-based sequencer. It doesn''t record audio tracks, but it does allow you to incorporate audio events using In-Track Sampling. You can actually define punch-in and punch-out points and then record an audio part while playing back MIDI tracks. In-Track Sampling automatically creates a MIDI Note to trigger the sample you''ve recorded during playback.

The M3''s sequencer lets you record in real time or step time, loop individual tracks, link preset and user patterns together, and overdub notes and control data, including SysEx. Like previous Korg synths, the M3 also features Realtime Pattern Play/Recording (RPPR) to trigger sequenced patterns when you press individual keys. You can define up to 20 cue lists, each containing as many as 99 songs, which allows you to assemble and experiment with song arrangements pieced together from smaller sections. When you''ve finished sequencing, you can connect a CD burner to a USB port and create an audio CD using sequencer commands.

Modulator, Alligator

Like the OASYS, the M3 employs a control-routing scheme that Korg calls Alternate Modulation Sources, or AMS. Any modulation source is an AMS; it could be a physical control such as a slider, a control signal from an LFO, or MIDI data from a sequencer track. AMS signals are freely assignable throughout the M3, but not all sources are available to every destination. Every destination has one or more AMS inputs, and you can combine sources using the M3''s two AMS mixers. These mixers also let you scale one modulator relative to another or use one source to modulate another. AMS significantly expands the M3''s range of control possibilities.

Radias on Board

The lower back edge of the M3-73''s keyboard housing is a slotted rail with a sliding support for tilting the M3-M module. The rail is wide enough to install a Radias-R module alongside the M3 module, and the M3-88 has enough room to install a second M3-M (either installation requires some additional hardware that should be available from Korg USA soon). Conceptually, the design is very similar to that of the Korg Radias''s keyboard.

If you want Radias-type synthesis but don''t want to spring for an entire synth module, you can install the EXB-Radias synthesizer expansion board inside the M3 module. The EXB-Radias expands the M3''s sound engine to include the Multiple Modeling Technology (MMT) synthesis found in the Radias and R3 synthesizers. MMT gives you a whole new architecture that encompasses eight oscillator algorithms ranging from virtual analog and sample playback to Variable Phase Modulation (VPM, Korg''s variation on FM). The EXB-Radias also features two resonant multimode filters, a waveshaper, modulation sequencing, and a 16-band vocoder with 16-step format-motion recording. A Virtual Patch page lets you set up modulation routing intuitively, and the expansion can process audio from the aux bus as well as from the external audio inputs.

Like the Radias, the EXB-Radias has a maximum polyphony of 24 voices and is 4-part multitimbral. Whereas the Radias lets you split or layer as many as four timbres in a single Program, the EXB-Radias allows only one timbre per Program, but you can use as many as four Radias Programs in a Combi.

Along with the Radias board, I received the EXB-M256 sample-RAM expansion. Other than having to completely detach the M3 synth module from the keyboard (which involved removing two screws and disconnecting a cable), installing them both was a snap. The EXB-FW expansion board should be available soon, too. It promises to give the M3 a FireWire interface that will enhance its integration with computer-based sequencers.