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.
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!
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).
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:
* 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.
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).
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.
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.