Korg M3 Synth/Sampler

Workstation & Sampler

Published in SOS July 2007
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Reviews : Keyboard workstation

Keyboard workstations have always been something of a Korg speciality, ever since they created the concept almost 20 years ago with the M1. Does their latest offering, the M3, live up to its pedigree?

Gordon Reid

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Photos: Mark Ewing

About once a decade, Korg rewrite the rules for making music on affordable keyboards. In 1988, the M1 defined what we call a workstation. Nothing that it embodied was new: PCM samples, sequencing and effects had all been used in keyboards from other manufacturers, but the 'AI' architecture of the M1 did it more elegantly and more affordably than it had ever been done before. Then, in 1995, the Trinity introduced the combination of touchscreens, genuinely multitimbral effects, hard disk recording and digital I/O to the mainstream keyboard world. Not only was the Trinity radical in the way that it combined these technologies, but the price — as it had been for the M1 — was remarkable for such a groundbreaking product.

Behind the scenes, both of these instruments took advantage of advances in hardware technology. The M1 was made possible by the emergence of VLSI chips and, once fabricated, these found their way into almost everything that the company made, from guitar effects units to recording workstations. Likewise, the Trinity's hardware would have been impractical before the mid-'90s but, once the barriers had been overcome, touchscreens and multitimbral effects began to be adopted.

In 2005, the OASYS appeared. Again, this recombined existing concepts to create a groundbreaking instrument, but it was not what you would call affordable, so it didn't really follow in the footsteps of the M1 or the Trinity. That honour belongs, perhaps, to the subject of this review, the M3, which marries a combination of OASYS-based software and innovative hardware in a radically new instrument. Korg have described the M3 as their 'third­generation workstation', after the M1 and the Trinity (and their respective descendants). But is this fair? Does the M3 herald the birth of a new generation, or is it the evolution of the OASYS into the mainstream of the workstation market?

First Impressions Don't Last

When I first saw the M3 in December 2006, I thought 'damn, that's ugly!' With its control panel flipped up into its inclined position, it looked like a top-of-the-range home keyboard, and I'm sure that I was not the only one to have whispered 'Technics?'. Go on... mentally replace the plastic panels at the sides with speakers, and you'll see what I mean.

I had become accustomed to the design by the time the review unit arrived, but when I removed it from its box I could still see why some people have dubbed it the 'iKorg'. The white plastic bits look particularly plasticky, and the apologetic bits of wood on the end-cheeks are plain daft. But while the M3 may look strange, many of Korg's design decisions make sense.

Firstly, the 61-key M3 shown here comprises two products: the Korg Komponent System (KKS) KYBD61 keyboard (which comprises nothing more than the keyboard itself, the ribbon, joystick and two assignable switches); and the M3M workstation engine.

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The M3's LCD touchscreen also doubles as an X/Y controller, much like that found on Korg's Kaoss Pad. Beneath the screen you can see some of the eight velocity-sensitive pads.
The M3's LCD touchscreen also doubles as an X/Y controller, much like that found on Korg's Kaoss Pad. Beneath the screen you can see some of the eight velocity-sensitive pads.
The M3's LCD touchscreen also doubles as an X/Y controller, much like that found on Korg's Kaoss Pad. Beneath the screen you can see some of the eight velocity-sensitive pads.

Korg's keyboards have stimulated much debate over recent years. The Trinities and the Z1 used excellent Yamaha keyboards, and the semi-weighted versions of these have perhaps the best 'synth' action of any workstations. More recently, Korg sourced their keyboards from Fatar, and many players found these to be rather light and shallow. For the M3, Korg have eschewed both these options and developed their own 'keybeds', all of which are velocity and pressure sensitive. The KYBD61 feels very responsive and solid, and I spent many happy hours with it before placing it next to my Z1, whereupon I realised how different the two feel. But I'm not going to praise one at the expense of the other; the M3's keyboard is a good one.

I believe that the KYBD73 has the same keybed, but with more of the black and white thingies sticking out the front. The KYBD88 is, however, a different matter. Again ignoring two other options, which were described to me as 'too expensive' and 'not adequate' respectively, Korg developed their own RH3 hammer-action keyboard, which is already to be found in their SP250 and C520 pianos. While I haven't had the opportunity to play the RH3, I know its predecessor, the RH2, because this is the keyboard in the OASYS88. I therefore have every reason to believe that the largest of the M3s will be very playable because the big OASYS, while somewhat lighter than the Broadwood in my living room, has a piano-esque feel, enhanced by the fact that the lower notes are heavier than the upper ones.

Secondly, there's the M3M sound module, which comprises everything else: power supply, synth engine, I/O, and the control panel. Available as a product in its own right, it plugs into the KYBD frame using a nine-pin mini-DIN cable and acts as a MIDI/USB module when disconnected from its host.

Korg watchers will know that this concept is nothing new, because the Radias already offers the same architecture. What is new, however, is that the larger M3 frames will be able to host two synth engines: an M3M plus a Radias R or, on the KYBD88, two M3Ms (but not, it seems, two Radias Rs). Of course, you can do the same (and much more) with a master keyboard and a selection of MIDI modules, but the key here is integration. The M3 might look a bit strange, and KKS is a lousy acronym, but the concept is an excellent one.

'To EXB Or Not To EXB?' That Is The Question
When I heard that I was going to review the M3, I asked whether it could be supplied as a KYBD73 with both an M3M engine and a Radias R engine installed. I've seen the two mounted next to each other, and though I don't like the aesthetics of the combination (the two control panels side by side look like a mish-mash of concepts), it intrigues me.
Unfortunately, there were no KYBD73s in the UK at the time, but the review model had the EXB-Radias board fitted within the M3M. This is an (up to) 24-voice MMT (Multi Modelling Technology) sound generator that retains the voice structure of earlier incarnations of MMT, but is not quite the same as the original Radias synthesizer, so installing the board is not the same as mounting the Radias R alongside the M3M.
Most obviously, a Radias R Program has four timbres, while an MMT Program in Korg's forthcoming R3 synth is bi-timbral, and an MMT Program in the EXB-Radias is only mono-timbral. However, you can place up to four EXB-Radias Programs — of which one can be a vocoder Program — into a standard M3 Combi or sequencer setup, which is arguably a much more powerful configuration than the original Radias. This is because, once placed in a Combi, you can treat an MMT Program as you would any other, taking advantage of the M3's multitimbral effects and using KARMA as both an arpeggiator/sequencer tool and as a wave sequencer. Compare this with the effects architecture on the original Radias, or compare the Radias's arpeggiators and step sequencers to KARMA and the M3's sequencer, and it's clear that the integrated solution has much to recommend it.
There's another reason why the integrated approach is so powerful. Not only will the EXB-Radias accept external audio from the M3's audio inputs, it will accept it from either of the auxiliary buses, thus allowing you to direct EDS Programs, drum tracks, and other sources to the Radias's oscillators or its vocoder section. Sure, you can do something similar by sending audio down a couple of cables from an M3M to a Radias R, but that ties up outputs and has none of the elegance of the integrated system.
So is it a foregone conclusion that you should choose the EXB-Radias above the separate synth engine? Not necessarily... If you choose the Radias R, it increases the polyphony of the instrument, whereas the EXB-Radias may not do so, leaving maximum polyphony at 120 voices. (The literature is very unclear about this, and it's hard to test conclusively!) Furthermore, the Radias R provides its own effects sections, so you're not tying up any of the M3's effects, which may be stretched to the limit in a complex Combi. Furthermore, if you liked the original Radias because its control surface gave you the illusion of using an analogue synth, there's no contest; while the EXB-Radias makes full use of the physical controls on the M3M, they are no substitute for a knobbier panel.
On the other hand, there's something attractive about having four virtual-analogue, DWGS and FM mono- and/or poly-synths within the M3's environment, all playable from a wide, splittable keyboard with pressure-sensitivity (which both the Radias and R3 lack). If you're comfortable with the touchscreen and editing model provided by the M3, I think it would be hard to overlook the benefits of the integrated approach, as well as the much lower price attached to it. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it might be daft to buy an M3 without the EXB-Radias board.
More information about the Radias and MMT can be found in the April 2006 issue of SOS.
The M3M Sound Engine

When Korg announced the M3 in January, it was described as the PCM side of the OASYS distilled into a chip and married to standard Korg workstation facilities such as sampling, sequencing and KARMA. To some extent this is true, but the M3 is not the OASYS's HD1 engine in an instrument costing under half the price of its predecessor. The M3 borrows or adapts many concepts from OASYS, and rather than reiterate those here, I would suggest that you take a look at our review of the OASYS in the November and December 2005 issues of SOS. The second of these also contains a digested explanation of KARMA.

To quote Korg's latest explanation, "the M3 utilises a new sound chip designed in parallel with the software that became the HD1". The company calls this 24-bit system 'Enhanced Definition Synthesis' (EDS), a name that differentiates it clearly from the 32-bit floating-point High Definition Synthesis (HD1) in the OASYS. At its heart, EDS comprises a 256MB ROM of compressed audio PCMs (1028 multi-samples and 1606 percussion samples), compared with the 314.6MB of uncompressed audio samples (1505 multisamples plus 1388 percussion samples) and up to 818MB of expansion samples that comprise the PCM element of the OASYS. Again quoting Korg's materials, the company calls this side of things a 'best of' from the OASYS, and a trawl through the sample list — which comprises many of the PCMs created for the OASYS, as well as a selection from the Wavestation and Prophet VS — confirms this.

In addition to the smaller ROM and the use of compressed samples, there are other areas of obvious compromise when comparing the M3 to the OASYS. Take Vector Synthesis and Wave Sequencing, for example. Well, you can't, because Korg have already taken them. EDS doesn't offer Vector Synthesis or Wave Sequencing.

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The M3's M3M engine can be set flat or at an angle of 20 degrees from the KKS keyboard, and also lifts up further to provide access to the EXB slot.
The M3's M3M engine can be set flat or at an angle of 20 degrees from the KKS keyboard, and also lifts up further to provide access to the EXB slot.

More truncation lies in the maximum polyphony, which is reduced from 172 notes to 120. The four-PCM, stereo voicing architecture is retained, although Korg admit that the envelopes and LFOs in the M3 are slower than those in the OASYS, and this seems reasonable given the lesser amount of processing power in the newer model. Don't worry — it seems to be of no great consequence; I noticed no lessening of snappiness in the sounds, nor did I run into any limitations when programming sounds with LFOs.

The M3's effects structure is a more significantly abridged version of the OASYS's which offers 185 algorithms that you can insert into 12 insert effects, two master effects and two 'total' effects slots. The M3 has fewer algorithms (170) and just five insert effects, two master effects and one 'total' effect slot. This is not a trivial reduction, and if, like me, you found yourself running out of effects on the Tritons, you'll continue to do so on the M3.

But does EDS really sound like HD1? The answer, to confound the cynics, is 'yes, very much so'. I had already suspected this when flicking through the M3's factory Programs, but when I placed the two synths on adjacent stands for comparison, I had to step only as far as Program A006 'Acoustic Bass 1' to discover two sounds that are identical not just in sound, but also in performance, responding in the same way to playing style and controllers such as the modulation joystick, ribbon, and switches. Others, such as A010 'Vibrato Flute', are similar and, although not quite the same, I think that they would be interchangeable for all purposes. Some Programs are not just different, but better. A007 'New Day Voices' uses samples present on the OASYS, but the Program itself has been created for the M3. I love it. It's an open-throated vocal sound that sounds as if it was inspired by the Trio Bulgarka (the Bulgarian female choir popularised by Kate Bush) and it sounds wonderful. It makes me want to stop writing words and start writing music to take advantage of it. There are even OASYS Combis duplicated in the M3, some all-but identical, some with audible differences, but many of which would work in the same context.

Sampling

I sometimes feel that the potential of sampling in modern workstations is shamefully overlooked, treated as just a way to resample sequences or spin in grooves from CDs and other sources. Perhaps this is because dedicated samplers continue to be used in live rigs, and because PC-based software samplers with huge amounts of RAM have all but taken over in the studio.

To some extent, the OASYS broke this mould, offering a 40GB internal drive, up to 500MB of sample RAM as standard, and memory expansion of up to 1.5GB or thereabouts. With the ability to read other manufacturers' sample formats and a full range of resampling capabilities, this meant that it became unnecessary to lug a computer and all its attendant bits and pieces onto stage or into the studio if you had your OASYS with you.

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The eight multi-function faders. You can also see from this photo why some have dubbed the M3 the 'iKorg' — the white finish and pink lights are especially reminiscent of a third-generation iPod.
The eight multi-function faders. You can also see from this photo why some have dubbed the M3 the 'iKorg' — the white finish and pink lights are especially reminiscent of a third-generation iPod.

With no internal drive, the M3 can't provide the all-in-one solution that the OASYS can. Furthermore, while mainstream workstations from elsewhere can host 512MB or even 1GB of sample RAM, the M3 — with just 64MB of RAM as standard (and a maximum of 320MB fully expanded with the proprietary EXB-M256 board) — doesn't quite deliver in this area. You can save audio as WAV files to external media such as memory sticks and USB drives, even editing the audio on the remote medium, but you can't stream it, so it's not the same as having a self-contained unit. Furthermore, the M3 retains the OASYS's choice of 48kHz operation, which means that you have to use analogue I/O or resample your audio as a 44.1kHz WAV file on an external USB device before you can burn an audio CD on yet another external USB device (a CD-R or CD-RW).

Such criticisms aside, the M3's sampler is extremely usable. It understands WAV and AIFF files, handles Creative Labs' Soundfont v2 files, and will read sample data in both Akai and Korg formats, although it won't interpret the associated Program (PCG) data from an older Korg because the synth engine is different. It also includes a full complement of tools, but I want to make particular mention of 'In Track Sampling'. When used within a sequence, this allows you to record up to 256MB of audio into RAM, whereupon the M3 turns it into a multisample, saves it in a Program, loads the Program into a sequencer slot, and then inserts a note into the sequence at the point at which you started sampling, to tell the M3 when to play the audio back. You can do this multiple times (until the RAM is full) and the M3 will keep track of each 'take', assigning the next available note to trigger each in turn. This is excellent. Back in the 1990s, before I bought my first hard disk recorder, I did the same thing manually using a Roland S770 to play guitar parts into MIDI compositions. Numerous pieces, including two on my Aliens soundtrack, could never have been composed without this, so I'm very pleased to see it implemented so neatly as a standard facility.

You may ask, therefore, whether it's fair to be critical of the sampler and audio-handling capabilities of the M3, but I think that it is. While it would be unreasonable to expect the M3 to include a hard drive and a CD burner, the RAM limitation places it behind competition from Yamaha and Roland, so you have to ask why Korg hobbled it in this way.

Expanding & Upgrading The M3
With regard to expansion, the M3 is very different from the OASYS and much closer to a Triton which, given its price point, is as it should be. Nonetheless, Korg's Stephen Kay has hinted that there will be OS updates in the future, and it seems sensible to assume that Korg have a mechanism for eliminating bugs and extending the M3's features in the future.
Regarding voicing updates, the literature refers to EX-USB-PCM libraries. A trawl through the manual reveals that these will be 'loaded' rather than 'installed', and a little further homework uncovered that they will be loaded into the sample RAM from USB memory sticks.
Without any information to the contrary, I suspect that the only place to install future hardware upgrades would be in the EXB-Radias slot, so if there is to be further development, it would be along the lines of the upgrade that marked the transition from the Trinity to the Trinity V3 (in which the MOSS-TRI board replaced the earlier Solo-TRI board).
KARMA 2

KARMA is far too deep to discuss here. It can be a sophisticated arpeggiator, it can be a powerful composition tool, it can be an auto-accompaniment system, but most of all, it can be impenetrable. Having said that, if you have the time to get to grips with it, by learning all about GEs (Generated Effects), Scenes, Random Seeds, Module Layers, Master Layers, KARMA Wave Sequences, Auto RTCs, GE RTPs, and Perf RTPs (see what I mean!) you can program it to create quite stunning results. One of the first things I stumbled upon when testing the M3 was Combi A127, 'Pointy Ears And Beard Epic' which, when played from the M3's touch-pads, generates a startling impersonation of the band that inspired it. (If you don't get the joke, I'm not going to enlighten you.)

Fortunately, KARMA 2 (first unveiled in the OASYS) is much more manageable than the original KARMA system. In part, this was because the large display made it possible to see what was going on, but it was also the consequence of a much-improved design. The M3 boasts KARMA 2 and, although the user interface is more restricted because of the smaller screen and the loss of numerous buttons and knobs on the M3, it is still a big step forward from the original KARMA workstation.

Unfortunately, KARMA 2 is not backward compatible with original KARMA GEs. Even Stephen Kay, who wrote both versions of the system, is unable to translate GEs reliably from the earlier version to the later, so some KARMA programmers are going to be a tad upset that they can't load their existing work onto the newer platform. But, to be fair, there have to be compromises when a system is updated this far. If there's an obvious limitation to KARMA 2, it is its inability to turn users' sequences into GEs that can then be used as the foundations of tracks whose content is determined more by the composer than the factory programmer. Happily, Stephen Kay has reported on his web site that he expects in a future upgrade to allow users to create GEs from the contents of the M3's sequencer.

The Ins & Outs Of It
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All of the M3's connections can be found on the unit's rear panel.
All of the M3's connections can be found on the unit's rear panel.
The M3 module engine is not short of I/O, with six quarter-inch audio outputs (left and right plus four individual outs), a stereo headphone output and two quarter-inch audio inputs with a level control and a Mic/Line switch. This isn't as extensive as the OASYS (10 outputs, four analogue inputs, and phantom powered mic inputs) but it will be more than adequate for most purposes. In addition, there is a 24-bit S/PDIF input and output.
You can route the inputs to the IFX busses, thus turning the M3 into a rather powerful, if somewhat expensive, effects unit. Unfortunately, there are two limitations here. Firstly, you can only direct signal to the analogue or the digital inputs, not both at the same time. Secondly, the S/PDIF input appears to be 48kHz only.
For computer integration, there are two Type-A USB2 sockets and a single Type B-USB2 socket, and the forthcoming EXB-FW expansion board will add two Firewire ports that will carry both audio and MIDI.
Finally, there's a single set of MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets, and three pedal inputs; one for a damper pedal, one for an assignable switch and one for an assignable pedal.
Sequencing & Drum Tracks

The sequencer within the M3 is very similar to that of the OASYS, although the smaller screen imposes limitations on how you use it. For example, the main MIDI Prog/Mixer page on the OASYS simultaneously displays all 16 tracks with pan and volume information. The M3 requires four tabbed pages to do this. The equivalent is true for all the other pages, where the OASYS can show 16 of everything, while the M3 can only display eight. Don't be deterred... the MIDI side of the M3's sequencer is close to the OASYS's, and equivalent, or superior, to those found on other mainstream workstations. In addition, Korg seem quite proud that the resolution has been increased from 192ppqn (pulses per quarter-note) in the OASYS to 480ppqn in the M3, although the capacity has been reduced from 200 songs to 128 songs and from 400,000 events to 210,000 events. In truth, I doubt that this will matter to the majority of users, but there's one huge difference that forever separates the OASYS and the M3: the latter has no hard disk recording capability. As you may recall, the OASYS can record up to four 48kHz audio tracks simultaneously, up to a total of 16 tracks, making it a true audio workstation. The M3 is simply a MIDI recorder although, as I said earlier, In Track Sampling overcomes this to an extent.

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Inserting the M3's editor in Plogue Bidule is a simple procedure.
Inserting the M3's editor in Plogue Bidule is a simple procedure.

OK, that's the negative. Here's the positive... In addition to the increase in the sequencer's resolution, Korg have added a new accompaniment feature to the M3. Drum Tracks are rhythm sequences attached to every Program, and can be started and stopped from the dedicated Drum Track On/Off button on the panel. Selecting the attached rhythm and drum kit is carried out on each Program's 'Main' page, rather than being buried in the menus, so if you select Program A000 ('Stereo Grand 4-Way') and find that the attached Funk Fusion 112bpm Drum Track is inappropriate, you just poke the screen in the appropriate place and select another rhythm. Likewise, if you don't like the kit being used, just change it to one of the others on offer. There are 522 preset Drum Tracks, and space for a further 1000 user-defined ones, which you fill by converting sequences to Drum Tracks. You can also use Drum Tracks within Combis, and combine them with KARMA in both Program and Combi modes.

Korg say in their literature that Drum Tracks, when combined with KARMA, "make a Program a complete sonic adventure that is sure to inspire". For once, I'm going to let the perpetrators get away with some hyperbole. I love the simplicity, accessibility and quality of Drum Tracks, and they make the M3 as useful an 'instant composition' tool as any other I have encountered.

Studio Integration

The M3 comes complete with powerful PC and Mac editor software that can display far more information at any given time than is possible on the M3 itself. Just connect the M3 to the computer with a single USB cable, and the two will talk to each other without further ado. The editor will run as a stand-alone application, but also as a VST, RTAS or Audio Units plug-in, which means that you can use it in most music production environments. I tested it as a stand-alone application and within my VST/AU host of choice, Plogue Bidule. Having loaded the software and connected the M3, Bidule created four components: a MIDI Devices Input, a MIDI Devices Output, an AU Plug-in Editor, and a VST Plug-in Editor. All I then needed to do was connect the virtual MIDI I/O of the M3 to an instance of the Editor, and the audio output from the Editor to an audio output, and the M3 became controllable within the host environment. All of this was completely intuitive, and I had the system loaded and was editing and producing new sounds and effects before even peeking at the manuals.

Computer-based editing is far from the limit of the M3's capabilities in this area, and Korg describe its extended facilities as 'Virtualised Hardware'. In short, if you link the M3 to the computer via a Firewire connection (which requires the optional EXB-FW board) rather than a USB cable, it will appear as a software plug-in inside the host application, but one that requires almost no CPU resources. Given the incredible hunger of some modern soft synths, this is a bonus, combining most of the best features of the plug-in concept without the worst of its limitations.

Although the review unit did not have the EXB-FW installed, I have no reason to believe that this hook-up will be anything other than straightforward, and it will be a huge step forward from Korg's previous families of workstations. For people who prefer to work in a computer-based environment, it renders products such as the Triton obsolete. The only risk is that the Editor or hardware drivers could be made obsolete by Apple or Microsoft, at which point Korg will have to decide whether to rewrite them or to move on. But, given that the M3 is just appearing, I don't think that we should worry about that for a while.

The Competition
If you're in the market for a 61-note workstation at around the £2000 mark, the obvious alternatives to the M3 would be Korg's own Triton Extreme, the new range of Yamaha Motif XSs and the Roland Fantoms.
The Tritons are outclassed. They offer the same polyphony as the M3, but a smaller ROM, fewer memories, a similar effects structure with fewer algorithms, a similar sampler with less RAM, and so on. Neither do they have the sound of EDS, or KARMA 2. Unless there's an overriding reason why you would want one of the Tritons, I think it's fair to say that they have been superseded at a stroke.
In many ways the Motif XS6 is comparable to the 61-note M3, offering 128-voice polyphony, sampling, powerful sequencing, and so on. However, the user interface is a bit of a beast when compared with the M3's, and KARMA stands head and shoulders above the Yamaha's arpeggiators. Then there's the sound; there's something that I find a little un-engaging about Motifs. Consequently, I can't see the Yamahas competing, even though they have advantages in other areas, such as a larger ROM, a larger sample RAM, excellent studio integration and Ethernet. Having said all that, Yamaha have just updated their Motif range with the release of the XS7, so look out for a review in a forthcoming issue of SOS.
Drawing a comparison with the Fantom X6 is harder. On the surface, it's a less capable instrument: its 128-voice engine is based on a much smaller ROM (albeit with the option to add up to four SRX boards), it has many fewer memory locations, and its effects structure is much less capable. It also lacks the majority of the M3's goodies, lacks the degree of studio integration offered by both the M3 and the Yamaha, and has nothing to rival KARMA. But what it has got is character, and Roland aficionados will look no further.
In Use

In 1995, I bought one of the first Trinity Pros in the UK, and I still use it on almost every composition. In 2001, I bought a Triton Pro, and within a few months I had sold it. The reason for this was the recessed position and angle of the screen, which pointed almost vertically, making it very hard to use the instrument on the bottom tier of a closely packed stand. I'm telling you this so that you understand the significance of the M3M's tilting panel, which can be used flat or at an angle of 20 degrees, or thereabouts. This is a huge boon.

Players' views of on-screen GUIs can vary wildly, with some people loving what others hate about the same instrument. With that in mind, I'll throw my M3 hat into the ring: I find that all the most important things fall to hand, with not too much depth or confusion in the more esoteric functions. The main reason for this is, of course, the 320-pixel x 240-pixel touchscreen. Despite being much smaller than the OASYS's LCD and requiring a physical 'Page' button because it can't display the dual rows of tabs the OASYS can, it still simplifies programming considerably.

M3 Pricing
Model Price Availability
M361 £1879 Now
M3M £1644 Now
M373 £2232 June
M388 £2584 July
EXB-Radias £258 Now
EXB-FW £156 September
EXB-M256 memory £99 Now
Prices include VAT.

The performance controls provided by the KYBD module are the same as on the OASYS, but the vector joystick has been discarded. Likewise, the eight velocity-sensitive pads have been retained (and I far prefer the white ones on the M3 to the dull, grey ones on the OASYS), as have the eight multi-function faders, but the eight knobs and a host of buttons have been discarded. If you've not used an OASYS extensively, you won't feel the loss of any of these, and the M3 has a special trick up its sleeve: the LCD doubles as an X/Y pad in the style of a Z1 or a Kaoss product. You can drag your finger across it (while still displaying the editing system) and modify myriad voicing and performance parameters as you do so. It even changes colour from corner to corner, which seems like a gimmick until you latch it and remove your finger, after which you can still see the state you left it in. You can even record the movements you make across the screen using a Motion recorder, thus allowing you to replay performances at a later date. This is good stuff.

As shipped, the M3 seems a little light on factory sounds, with just 512 Programs, 384 Combis and 32 drum kits. However, there's room for a total of 1664 Programs, 1792 Combis and 144 kits, so there will be plenty of incentive for new owners to start filling up all those slots with their own creations. To keep everything organised, the M3 has adopted the OASYS's categories and sub-categories management structure, which is a fast and intuitive way to keep track of all your sounds.

So what of the sounds themselves? I've already said that EDS sounds very much like HD1. It's bright, and it has great presence... I could almost eulogise. Orchestral sounds, pads, basses, electro and techno sounds, percussion; all sound superb. The only areas in which EDS falls a little short are its acoustic pianos and its lead synth sounds. Which bring us to the question, how does MMT (the Radias's 'Multi Modelling technology; see the 'To EXB or not to EXB?' box) sound within the M3? I don't have an original Radias here for direct comparison, but if you have any worries that the character of the MMT engine has been lost, you can dispel them. Within the limits of its modified voice structure, it may or may not sound identical, but I suspect that it does, and this means that — in addition to its other strengths — an expanded M3 can undertake the majority of 'analogue' lead and bass duties.

After All That, A Simple Conclusion

I'm confident that I have barely scraped the surface of the M3, and that there are bugs and benefits that I haven't uncovered, and which owners will have the joy (or not) of discovering. Nonetheless, it's an instrument with a strong identity, and that makes it easy to reach firm conclusions, even after a relatively short period of use.

Firstly, let's be clear that the M3 is not a poor man's OASYS; there are far too many differences. The OASYS has a much larger ROM and far more sampling RAM, it offers Vector Synthesis and Wave Sequencing, it has an integrated hard drive and a 16-channel audio system, it features a CD drive/burner, and it has the capability to load numerous expansion instruments. But neither is the M3 a direct descendant of Korg's previous mainstream workstations. EDS as a synthesis system is too different from the AI, ACCESS and HI systems for this to be true, the Korg Komponent System idea is an interesting twist, and the jumps to the OASYS-style sequencer and KARMA2 are too large for the M3 to be considered merely 'son of Triton'.

So if you were about to buy one of the larger Tritons or an equivalent workstation from another manufacturer, should you now switch your focus to the M3? In my view, you should. Why? It could be for easily quantified reasons such as the size of the ROM, the number of effects algorithms, the touch-screen, or any of a host of other tangible improvements. But for me those are not the real reasons. It's because of the sound. If you're looking to buy a digital workstation for the first time or to upgrade from an earlier instrument, the M3 is the business. I still think it looks a bit like a top-of-the-range home keyboard, but I'm getting rather fond of it, and if I shut my eyes and just listen, I don't care anyway. 

Korg M3
pros
It sounds superb.
It's the first affordable workstation with KARMA 2 and OASYS-style sequencing.
The Drum Tracks accompaniment system is just the ticket for composing.
The EXB-Radias extends the range of sounds considerably for a very modest outlay.
The KKS concept might permit owners to fit alternative synth engines as and when they are developed.
This degree of computer integration points the way to the future.
I like the keyboard, touchscreen and GUI.
cons
By modern standards, expansion capabilities are limited.
There is too little sample RAM.
It offers 48kHz digital I/O only.
summary
The M3 looks radical, and the innovation is more than just skin deep. The sound quality is excellent, and the compromises in the specification that were necessary to reduce the price from the flagship band (more than £5000) to the mainstream band (less than £2000) are well chosen, so that the M3 is a superb workstation without rendering the OASYS in any way less attractive. If you're in the market for this type of instrument, I believe that the M3 has to be top of your list.
information
See 'M3 Pricing' box.
Korg UK Brochure Line +44 (0)1908 857150.
+44 (0)1908 857199.


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