Korg Minikorg Family (Retro)

Synthesizer

Published in SOS April 1998
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Reviews : Keyboard

It was 1973 and everyone was playing Minimoogs, and ARP Odysseys. So why did the Keio ORGan company produce a little synthesizer with the most unorthodox controls imaginable, call it the MiniKORG 700, and try to convince the keyboard cognoscenti that it was worth buying? GORDON REID explains...

My first encounter with a MiniKorg 700 was in February 1974, in a town in which knocking two rocks against each other (or, preferably, against somebody else) was considered musically sophisticated. Keyboards, especially synthesizers, were unknown. But I was entranced by the orphaned little Korg sitting unloved at the back of the shop. Ignoring parental disapproval, I scraped together the £160 I needed to buy my first second-hand keyboard, and thus satisfied my first really serious teenage craving. (Well, maybe my second craving, but this was the one I satisfied first...)

It was only later that I discovered that my pride and joy was not considered kosher by much of the keyboard world and, even in these analogue-crazy times, it remains almost totally unsung. Yet several top players -- Vangelis and Kitaro for two -- cut their teeth on a Korg 700. But why? It had just a 37-note keyboard, was neither velocity nor pressure sensitive, and lacked any performance controls. Even its programming controls were incredibly limited, with several vital parameters -- such as the envelope and filter resonance -- controlled by mere on/off toggle switches (see 'Architecture' box).

The answer was, of course, The Sound. Despite its limitations, the 700 was a remarkably capable little synth. Of the three (3) pages that comprised its manual, one was devoted to 13 patch charts that provided an excellent demonstration of the instrument's flexibility. The best of these was the 'Human Voice' patch, and its wonderfully nasal "aahhh" is instantly recognisable as a staple of early 1970s electronic music. Delving beyond the factory patches showed that the 700 could mimic many other analogue synths: its chorus waves captured the swirl of the earliest Rolands, and its dual filters imitated the thin tones of the first Yamahas without difficulty -- even though the Korg 700 pre-dated all these.

The quality and stability of the Korg oscillator was another good reason for liking the 700. For years I thought that complaints regarding the tuning drifts of other synths were the incoherent ramblings of chemically enhanced musos. Years later, when I discovered that these problems really existed, I simply wondered why no other company built synths that stayed in tune.

THE 900PS & M500 MICRO-PRESET

This story would be incomplete without a mention of three models that finished the line-up of Korg's first generation of monosynths. The first was the semi-preset 900PS, released in 1975. Korg designed this synth to compete against the preset pressure-sensitive (hence 'PS') synths sold by ARP and Roland. However, instead of allowing you to press a note harder to generate the desired effects, the 900 featured an unusual contact-sensitive rail. This, when touched, acted as an on/off switch for vibrato and four other 'touch' effects. Unfortunately, the 26 preset sounds were poorly chosen and (although this was to some extent compensated for by a few extra sound-generation facilities) the single-oscillator architecture, the single low-pass filter, and other short-cuts in the envelope and LFO ensured that the 900PS was never going to set the world on fire.

The final two models in this first Korg monosynth generation were the M500 Micro-Preset and its near-identical twin the M500SP (which was simply an M500 with a small speaker mounted on the underside of the case). These were ghastly little affairs that achieved brief notoriety in the 1980s when OMD used one for their hit 'Enola Gay'. To their credit, both Micro-Presets offered 30 sounds, with the bonus that you could mix any two simply by pressing two selector buttons simultaneously. But, again, the limited voicing let the synth down. Indeed, many fundamental voice-creation sections -- the filter, the envelope and so on -- could only affect a handful of the sounds. Despite their brief flirtation with success, the Micro-Presets are best forgotten.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for buying a Korg 700 was its price. At under £350 it cost less than half the asking prices of its contemporaries, the Minimoog, the ARP Odyssey, and the ARP Pro-Soloist. This gave the 700 a huge advantage, and for a year or so it was perhaps the most popular synthesizer in the world. With a 700, a long blonde wig and a flowing cape, the world was at your feet!

THE KORG 700S

Early in 1974, the blank panel to the left of the 700's keyboard vanished, and a second control panel appeared in its place. Korg called this the 'Effects Section', and it marked the evolution of the 700 into the 700S.

At £499, the 700S was a somewhat more expensive, but altogether more powerful, synthesizer. It had a second, independently tunable oscillator; white and pink noise sources; filter modulation (which Korg called Travel Vibrato); and a 'Sustain Long' switch that multiplied the envelope times by a factor of 10. Most impressively, the Effects Section also added three modes of ring modulation. Two of these modes tracked the keyboard and were ideal for aggressive lead and bass sounds, whereas the third did not track, so each key you played produced a different timbre.

These additions hugely increased the type of sounds obtainable, and a range of complex atonal and percussive patches appeared in the manual. But, mindful that it would be useful to be able to jump between the more elaborate noises of the 700S and the simpler sounds of the original 700, Korg provided an on/off switch for the Effect Section, thus making it trivial to leap from a basic 700 sound to a more powerful 700S patch (and back again).

THE KORG 800DV

This was all very neat, but Korg hadn't finished finding ways to exploit the 700's strange architecture. Later in 1974, the company launched one of the greatest monosynths ever built. This was the Korg 800DV, which I first heard on a rainy August Bank Holiday Saturday in 1975, in Rumbelows' music department in Reading. (Don't laugh: Rumbelows was a significant music store in 1975, and it was Reading Festival day, with Yes headlining.) Store manager Martin Lawrie (whom I met again 21 years later when he worked for Korg) was showing a customer how he could use the 800DV to play both parts of ELP's 'AquaTarkus' simultaneously. This was synth heaven!

The power of the 800DV lay in its unusual architecture -- not the layout of its knobs and sliders, but the way in which you could create and play sounds. Disregarding the Volume, Key Transpose and Repeat controls on the far right of the synth, you could take a hacksaw and horizontally cut its control panel into two equal and almost identical halves. You then had, in essence, two Korg 700S synthesizers -- one represented by the Upper half of the panel, the other by the Lower. And with two distinct synths, each replete with its own oscillators, filters, and envelopes, you could create two different sounds and play them independently.

Now, before you leap in, shouting that other mid-'70s dual-voltage synths allowed you to play two notes simultaneously, I should point out that instruments such as the ARP Odyssey used the same sound-shaping parameters for both voices. None of the 800DV's competition could produce two completely independent patches that you could play as either a complex composite or as two completely independent synthesizers. But this was still only half the story, because the 800DV's unique Key Transpose and Repeat panels offered 20 voice-allocation modes that allowed you to deploy the voices in a huge variety of ways. Key Transpose offered four modes:

THE PRICE YOU PAY

Synth S/H bargain (£) S/H rip-off(£)

700 50 150

700S 75 200

770 100 200

800DV 100 300

M500/M500SP 25 75

900PS 25 100

* AC was the most conventional of these, playing both Upper and Lower synthesizers together if you pressed one key, and allocating them to the highest and lowest notes if you played more.
* BC, the second mode, played only the Upper voice if you pressed one key, introducing the Lower when you pressed a second.
* AD operated as BC, except that the Lower voice played during monophonic passages.
* BD was the most curious mode, in which no sound was produced unless you played two notes or more simultaneously, at which time the two voices were allocated appropriately.

The Repeat panel offered five further modes, each of which could be used in tandem with any Key Transpose mode. These were:

* Repeat the Upper voice only.
* Repeat the Lower voice only.
* Repeat the Upper and Lower simultaneously.
* Repeat the Upper and Lower alternately.
* Execute a single shift from Upper to Lower.

In retrospect, it is the fifth of these that is the most interesting. Why? Because it's the forerunner of the 'partial'-based synthesis re-introduced on the Roland D50 more than a dozen years later. For example, you could set up a 'chiff' on the Upper section, and a sustained sound on the Lower to synthesize a far more realistic flute than could be produced using a conventional monosynth. But my favourite 800DV patches were, again, the 'vocal' sounds created by setting all four filters to emulate the formants produced by the human larynx. Instant Vangelis!

As you'll have gathered, I became a life-long fan of the 800DV. Over and above two 700Ss, it offered a generous 44-note keyboard, extra waveforms, and extra footages (including a super-deep 64'). It also had separate outputs for the Upper and Lower sections, plus independent effect sends and returns for each. With its four oscillators, duophonic structure, wealth of instantly grabbable controls, and all manner of strange synthesis capabilities, it remains one of the most impressive, flexible and articulate synthesizers ever.

THE ARCHITECTURE

The Korg 700 was perhaps the strangest mass-market synthesizer ever. Very little conventional synth terminology made it onto its front panel and, as a result, many players felt lost when faced with one.

The 700's single oscillator was, perhaps, the most conventional thing about it. It offered five waveforms: sine, square, sawtooth, and two forms of PWM called Chorus I and Chorus II. Footages ranged from 32' to 2'. In contrast, the envelope was limited to Attack, plus an unconventional Percussion/Singing control. These roughly, but not exactly, imitated the 'A' and 'D' of conventional ADSR envelope generators. There was also a toggle labelled Sustain, but this was, in fact, a 'release' switch, the time of which was roughly proportional to the Singing level.

The dual 12dB/oct low-pass and high-pass filters were combined in the unique and extremely usable 'Traveler' (their spelling, not mine) arrangement favoured by Korg on most of their early instruments. The Traveler knobs were moulded so that the low-pass knob could not move to the left of the high-pass knob, thus ensuring that there was always a band of centre frequencies unaffected by the filters. Many players, however, hacked bits off so that the cut-off frequencies could cross. Ho hum! The controls for filter resonance and envelope modulation were particularly limited: an Expand toggle applied the amplitude envelope to the filter cut-off frequency by a fixed amount (or not), while the Bright toggle introduced a fixed amount of filter resonance (or not).

The rest of the set of eight toggles introduced performance-like effects: Bender started each note a few semitones beneath the correct pitch and then glided quickly up to the note played (to emulate 'tonguing'); Repeat offered trill effects; Vibrato featured controls for variable depth, rate and delay; and the 700 offered variable-rate Portamento.

THE KORG 770

Unfortunately, at nearly £900, the 800DV was way beyond my reach, so I persevered with my Korg 700 for another two years. Then, in 1977, I had my first encounter with a Korg 770. Released in 1975 and, therefore, getting a bit long in the tooth, it was on offer at just £399. But it sounded great and I fell in love at first twiddle. Indeed, I was ready to trade in my 700 right away (or as soon as I had sorted out the problems of transporting both synths 40 miles on the back of a Yamaha XS500).

A LARGE AND UNRULY FAMILY

In 1976, Korg produced two polyphonic instruments with 'travelers' (see 'The Architecture' box for explanation). The first was the PE1000, an electric piano with seven voices differentiated by preset values of the 'traveler' and envelope. Some control was available, but with a single filter and envelope for the whole keyboard, and no touch-sensitivity, it sounded horrible. Even chorus, vibrato and portamento failed to alleviate the tedium.

The second was the PE2000. With three oscillators per note (or, more likely, three detuned versions of the same octave-divided sources) and an integral phaser, this was somewhat more desirable than the PE1000. Its presets -- strings, chorus, brass, and reed -- support the view that Korg saw the PE1000 and PE2000 as a matched pair: one for percussive duties, the other for sustained sounds.

But there were better ensemble keyboards than the PE2000, while piano and harpsichord sounds vastly superior to those obtainable from the PE1000 lurk in even the cheapest and most basic MIDI modules. Don't pay more than £50 for either of them.

Part of the 770's appeal was undoubtedly its physical appearance: it looked like a baby Minimoog. But despite the radical redesign, the 770 retained the basic architecture that had made the 700S such a success. The twin oscillators offered 64' to 1' settings; 'chorus'; noise; two types of ring modulation; and, for perhaps the first time on a non-modular synth, an external signal input. The filters retained the 'Traveler' arrangement (see 'The Architecture' box), but were now called high-pass and low-pass filters, and you could cross their cut-off frequencies. The filters also offered two levels of resonance, two LFO modulation depths, and both positive and negative envelope modulation. The strange Attack/Singing envelope generator (see 'The Architecture' box) was also retained, but this was now enhanced by three envelope modes, three trigger methods, three EG ranges, and three sustain time ranges. A complex VCO modulation section rounded things off, incorporating auto-pitchbend (with delay) and a delayed vibrato that was independent of the main LFO.

It was another impressive package of features and, although the 770 lacked the bite of most American synths, it was warm, rounded, and very controllable. Unfortunately, in 1978 (and before I bought the 770) Korg replaced their first-generation synthesizers with what was to become an extremely successful new series of instruments: the MS10 and MS20 monosynths, plus the MS50 expander and the SQ10 sequencer. I fell for the potential-laden patch sockets of the MS20, and all thoughts of buying a 770 went right out of the window. I was blinded by the appearance rather than the sound of the new models, and I wasted my hard-earned dosh on an MS20. What a mistake that was! Yes, the MS20 had a million tricks up its programming sleeve, but for simple, powerful, and easily accessible synth sounds, it was (and still is) exactly the wrong choice.

A HAPPY ENDING

Korg never returned to the philosophies of the 700, 700S, 770 or 800DV. In retrospect, we can see that when they discontinued these and replaced them with the MS-series, they broke the mould that produced quirky and different little monosynths. But at least this story has a happy ending: it took me 15 years to track down another Korg 800DV, and 18 years to find another 770. On each occasion, they sounded as good as I remembered them... so I bought them.

SOS thanks Junko Fukai and all at Korg Japan for their help in supplying the photographs in this article.

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