Korg M1/M1R (1987)

Korg M1R

Inside Korg M1

Inside Korg M1

Inside Korg M1

Inside Korg M1

Inside Korg M1

Inside Korg M1


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The Korg M1 (and its rack version, the M1R) is probably the most well known and popular synth in the synthesizers history. It has been an incredible commercial success … And it’s not really due to chance. Korg is the first workstation characterized by several sections :

  • A multitimbral synthesizer section (several different sounds can be played simultaneously)
  • A sampled battery section
  • A sequencer section (editable via several advanced functions)
  • An effects section (also editable and routable)
  • The ability to save sounds & sequences as well as to use other

I admit that I never had to worry about the « sequencer » section because I always used an external sequencer on a computer to drive my sequences, including even my arpeggios. Neither did I have to use possibilities of backups of the sequences.

Historically I came to the Korg M1 about 1990, while my Jupiter-8 was getting seriously tired because of incessant electronic breakdowns, and the deep desire to get out of the constraints related to pure analog sounds. I had the urgent need to explore other forms of sounds, impossible to create with my analog synths.

So, the Korg M1R was my first totally digital synthesizer … which I used almost all the time in all my older projects. It is probably the machine which was the most often put to the test. The M1 comes close to a samples player … kind of sampler but without the audio input in short. Its synthesis proposes a kind of subtractive synthesis but without resonance for the filter. So editing the sounds is rather limited finally because it’s all about to select a « PCM » sound (a sampled sound) among the existing 99 and to place it in the oscillator (there can be up to 2 Oscillators by sound). Thus there are various parameters to change its height, its volume curve, etc … then the section « filter » but which is very poor since it only has the envelope to modify the cutoff frequency, without the resonance. Then avery classic VCA section also. We find quite complex envelopes in the 3 sections VCO-VCF-VCA which will nevertheless modify the behavior of the sound, but not very deeply unfortunately.

All the art here lies in combining the right « samples » between them, combining them, and especially playing with the effects (there are 2 effects processors using 4 audio outputs) to create interesting sounds.

Fortunately there is a mode « COMBI » which allows to load up to 8 sounds (a sound consists of 2 oscillators maximum). Here it opens up real possibilities because for each of the 8 « slots » one can use an individual midi channel number, adjust the volume, as well as the response range of the keyboard.

So you can mix a piano sound with a choir/voice sound and a pad sound and from those three different sounds, you may combine them to make one. Pay attention to the 16 oscillators limit, which means that you can play up to 8 notes maximum, if the sound is composed of 2 oscillators !!! By using different sounds simultaneously in the « COMBI » mode, we would reach quickly the 16 oscillators limit !!!

This synth is therefore not at all oriented for sound research nor sound design, since we basically mix existing samples, filter them pretty slightly and apply some effects … The M1 and its synthesis A.I. (Advanced Integrated) is not the best thing for sounds research! Far from there !!!

But I must say that there are 5 or 6 sounds that really appeal to me enormously and that I use regularly, sometimes very clearly, sometimes in a more discreet way. The drum sounds are excellent and I have long used hihat, kick and some toms in my productions. The sounds are very aggressive, very clear, beefy, stuffed with dynamics! Like all the M1 sounds.

The M1 has been the technology that killed the « DX » series of Yamaha. Indeed Yamaha explained that if the synthesis FM was complicated to use, it allowed on the other hand to create instruments using a timbre infinitely more realistic than those obtained by the subtractive synthesis. And they were right … But Korg pushed the concept further by proposing true sounds from real sampled instruments … And it’s pretty difficult to do more realistic ! Moreover, unlike the FM synthesis, it is extremely simple to program a sound of piano or copper, saxophone, …. on the M1. Just take the corresponding sound and then program some envelopes, possibly tweak a bit the cutoff frequency …. and you get the desired sound instantly !

Having a true sampled battery and an impressive effects section make the DX7 sounding like a toy compared to those on an M1/??M1R.

This « workstation » will therefore impose itself in every categories. Like rock, electronic, even jazz (because of its sounds of pianos, vibes, organs, bass fretless …), in film music production also because of some interesting special effects … In the early 90’s , The Korg M1 was everywhere. The many PCM sounds cards available (so sampled sounds) made it possible to extend the possibilities of the synth (this is the only way since the timbre in is almost impossible to modify.

It’s a very robust machine, and if some sounds are very « typed » and have been heard thousands of times, some other sounds are quite timeless and always fit very well in the music that i like the most, electronic music . By slightly modifying the pitch of the drum sounds, and modifying their envelope, you can use them at will for trance, techno, industrial music / ebm too! Depeche Mode has used the M1 enormously.

Under the hood, we can see that Korg has designed its own DSP … And there’s a bunch of them ! Note also all the rom circuits aligned on the right containing the 8Mo of sampled sounds! The Korg M1 quickly competed with the Roland D50 which had to react. But in my opinion these two machines are very different and I do not see too much interest to compare those two machines that actually lie in totally different registers ….

It’s interesting to mention that among the sampled sounds are found basic waveforms such « pulse » / « square » / « sawtooth ». We can therefore generate some sounds reminiscent of old analog sounds … However we are very far from having the warmth and rendering of those old analog synths … And it is not the poor filter that will catch up with things ! On the other hand, it is possible to make some nice analog sounds, for instance mix up a sawtooth to a real electronic bass sample … With some adjustments, it can give a convincing and very dynamic sound !