Korg MS2000

Analogue Modelling Synthesizer

Published in SOS May 2000
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Reviews : Keyboard

Korg have been at the forefront of analogue modelling technology, but the new MS2000 is their first instrument to mimic the style as well as the sound of their analogue classics, right down to its incorporation of a virtual patching system. Derek Johnson powers it up.

The first reaction of some musicians on hearing that Korg were releasing a new analogue modelling synth, complete with vintage-style sloping front panel, loads of knobs, and real wooden end-cheeks may have been "so what?". The analogue-emulation bandwagon that had so few passengers just a couple of years ago is now fairly crowded with the likes of Roland (JP8000/8080), Novation (Supernova, BassStation), Yamaha (AN1x), Quasimidi (Sirius), Clavia (Nord Lead), and Korg's own successful Prophecy and polyphonic Z1. The MS2000 obviously harks back in name to the company's classic MS20 weird machine (see the Retrozone feature in SOS November 1996), while its appearance recalls their early '80s Mono/Poly. It totally looks the part, but are Korg just re-treading an idea that's getting a bit old? The answer to that question will be dictated largely by how good the MS2000 actually is. There's always room at the top, as they say!

Anatomy Of A Synth

The four-voice polyphonic, bi-timbral MS2000 follows a fairly standard classic subtractive synthesis design based around a pair of oscillators plus a noise generator, processed by a multi-mode resonant filter. The filter has its own ADSR (attack-decay-sustain-release) envelope generator, and another EG is dedicated to amplitude. Two MIDI-clockable Low-Frequency Oscillators are provided, and these are just the start of the modulation options: we'll investigate the so-called Virtual Patch system later, but suffice to say that the synth's essentially preset signal path can be subverted in limited but useful ways, and that various synthesis elements can be modulated both by on-board sources and incoming MIDI data, in a semi-modular fashion. Patches can also include two effects treatments and 2-band EQ.

KORG MS2000 £699
pros
Authentic analogue sound, and then some!
Very easy to use.
Fabulous step sequencer and decent arpeggiator.
Excellent vocoder.
Appealing vintage-style appearance.
cons
Only four-voice polyphonic.
Step sequencer doesn't output over MIDI.
More Virtual Patch routing options would have been nice.
summary
The MS2000 has to be one of my favourite modelling synths, brimming with easily accessible character, richness, clarity and warmth, and having the benefit of an exciting feature set. There's a spot in my studio for this one any time!

As befits any self-respecting 21st-century stab at pre-MIDI technology, the MS2000 features an arpeggiator, and then goes further than much of the competition with the 'Mod Sequencer', an analogue-style step sequencer offering similar functionality to Doepfer's MAQ16/3 and Korg's own SQ10. Both arpeggiator and Mod Sequencer can be active simultaneously, and can be sync'd to MIDI clock.

Even now I haven't summarised every MS2000 facility. Audio inputs offer the ability to treat external audio with the MS2000's synthesis system and effects, and the option to turn the MS2000 into a vocoder, though you'll have to furnish your own mic! MS2000 patches are saved as Programs, and there are 128 Program locations on board. Initially they're filled with a varied factory selection, some very good, which can be overwritten and restored later, individually or en masse. The MIDI side of the MS2000 is nicely specified, with knob movements and arpeggiator activity transmitted over MIDI. Multitimbrality isn't really an issue with this synth. When I say bi-timbral, that's what I mean: two sounds, each playable on its own MIDI channel.

The keyboard is a 44-note F-C design (like that of the Mono/Poly, but unlike the MS20, which offered 37-notes, C-C), with standard pitch and mod wheels. It won't transmit aftertouch information, but the synth responds to incoming aftertouch. In addition to the 35 knobs and 50 switches on the front panel there are assignable footswitch and footpedal sockets at the rear (a connected footpedal can be set to transmit aftertouch and to vary a limited number of synth parameters) for real-time control. A stereo audio output is also fitted back here — the headphone socket has thoughtfully been put at the front — and all that remains are MIDI connections and the external PSU socket. There's no power switch at the rear, since power switching is provided by the volume control. I haven't seen that in a while!

Control Peek

The layout of the MS2000 is tidy and commendably logical, with the controls pretty much arranged according to the flow of the synthesis signal — which is illustrated in a helpful front-panel graphic. Further screen-printing provides a comprehensive parameter list. Korg have given virtually every parameter its own control, so multi-layered operation is minimised.

  Module Elation  
  If you cut off the bits of front panel either side of the MS2000's control area — and I don't recommend that you do — you'd have something that would fit into a 19-inch rack. Enter the 4U-high MS2000R rackmount, virtually identical in features and operation to the MS2000. Unfortunately, the fact that it's physically derived from the 2000 means the location of its sockets isn't ideal for rackmount use. When racked up, the 'R' has its connections at the top, necessitating at least a 1U gap above the synth. A plus point to balance this niggle is that its 16 patch-select buttons can act as a simple keyboard for auditioning sounds. It's also £100 cheaper than the MS2000.  
For precise editing, Program naming, general housekeeping, and accessing the handful of parameters lacking dedicated knobs, a small LCD and handful of switches allow OS surfing in familiar parameter-access fashion. However, even Program selection can be done independently of the LCD and parameter-access buttons: a pair of bank-select buttons and 16 illuminating patch-select buttons make accessing the eight banks of 16 patches a doddle. (In a nod to nostalgia, the manual even includes blank patch charts! Since this is a MIDI synth, however, patches can, naturally, be saved and loaded via MIDI.) If you do edit using the LCD menu, the illuminating buttons double as selectors for the main parameter groups. In addition, they flash funkily when a step sequence is playing, adding considerably to the MS2000's visual appeal. LCD menu editing is made even more painless by the fact that the name and value of a knob's parameter appear in the display when the knob is tweaked. An edited parameter's original value can be easily ascertained with the help of the 'Original Value' LED: it lights when the knob reaches its value as saved in the current Program.

The MS2000's manual details its three operating modes: Program Play and LCD Edit are self-explanatory, while Global is where general synth parameters such as tuning, user scale (for the alternate tuning option), pedal assignments and MIDI settings are changed. Programs come in two mutually exclusive varieties — synth and vocoder — leading to an initially baffling labelling situation on an otherwise clear front panel. Many controls are labelled twice — once in straight text, once reversed — to differentiate between synth and vocoder Program parameters. However, many synth controls have the same function in a vocoder Program, so they get the same name twice!

  MS2000 Brief Features  
  • Analogue modelling synthesis system.
• 4-voice polyphonic.
• 2-part multitimbral.
• 128 memory locations, overwritable.
• 44-note keyboard with pitch-bend and mod wheels.
• Modulation and delay effects, 2-band EQ.
• 3-row x 16-step analogue-style sequencer.
• 16-band vocoder.
• Arpeggiator.
• Inputs: Audio In 1 jack (line); Audio In 2 jack (mic/line).
• Outputs: L/Mono, R (jacks); Headphone jack.
• Control inputs: assignable pedal, assignable footswitch (jacks).
• MIDI In, Out, Thru.
• Display: 16-character x 2-line backlit LCD.
• Dimensions: 737.8(W) x 371.3(D) x 147.7(H) mm.
• Weight: 7.1kg.
 

Get With The Program

A synth Program consists of one or two Timbres. Programs made from a single Timbre have 4-voice polyphony, while those made from two Timbres can be layered or split, with the 4-voice polyphony shared between them as desired — two each or one and three. You could, for example, layer two Timbres for a really powerful, complex sound but only 2-voice polyphony, or assign a monophonic bass sound to the left side of a programmable split point and a three-voice chord patch to the right, for more versatility and four voices in total. Whatever the type of synth Program, it's also routed through the effects and includes an arpeggiator setting.

The basic building-block of a Program, the Timbre, is like a miniature synth containing two oscillators, noise generator, mixer, resonant filter, filter EG, amplifier, amplifier (amplitude) EG, two LFOs, four Virtual Patches (more later), and a Mod Sequencer setup.

Oscillator 1 is by far the more sophisticated of the two, offering seven waveforms: sawtooth, pulse, triangle, sine/cross modulation, vox wave, DWGS (a simulation of the sample-based Digital Waveform Generation System from Korg's '80s-vintage DW8000), and noise. The tonal palette of each waveform is expanded by the first of two 'Control' knobs, Control 1, which usually alters a waveform's 'response' (on the pulse wave, for instance, it modifies pulse width). In the case of the sine wave, however, Control 1 becomes a cross-modulation control which causes Oscillator 2 to modulate the frequency of Oscillator 1 — the classic Frequency Modulation method, producing a rich, complex FM sound. The Control 2 knob alters the extent to which LFO1 affects the amount of cross-modulation effect in this example. In fact, Control 2 is generally a depth control for LFO1, which is hardwired to modulate various parameters of Oscillator 1, depending on the waveform being used.

One exception to this rule occurs when the DWGS wave (a DSP-produced wavetable of 64 tiny waveforms — including basses, bells, voices, guitars, clavinets, pianos and generic synth waveforms) is in use. In this case, Control 2 simply selects a waveform, while Control 1 does nothing.

In the case of the noise source offered by Oscillator 1, which comes equipped with a low-pass filter, the Control 1 knob alters filter cutoff frequency, while Control 2 controls resonance: just like real analogue, the LPF can be tweaked into self-oscillation, generating a pure sine wave.

The other Osc 1 waveform worth special mention is the voice wave, which has a pure, human texture and a frequency spectrum that remains voice-like when its pitch is changed; Korg recommend adjusting the cutoff frequency of the band-pass or high-pass options in the main filter section to create vowel-like textures. Careful use of the LFO, when the voice wave is selected, can produce interesting nonsense speech-like patterns. Before leaving Oscillator 1, I should mention that signals from the MS2000's audio inputs can be routed through it, taking the place of a waveform, to be treated with synthesis features and effects.

The MS2000's second oscillator is much simpler, offering just three waveforms — sawtooth, square and triangle — all with an unusually wide (in analogue terms) 8-octave tuning range. Oscillator modulation can be set up as part of Osc 2's parameters; both ring modulation (where sum and difference tones are created by the interaction of the two oscillators, producing clangorous and bell-like textures), and oscillator sync (where the phase of the oscillators is locked, producing classic cutting lead sounds) can be chosen. Both options are selectable at once, which can be fun.

Sound Shaping

Once the outputs of the two oscillators and the main noise generator have been mixed, they're routed to the multi-mode filter, offering 12dB and 24dB/octave low-pass, 12dB/octave band-pass and 12dB/octave high-pass filter types — not a wildly exotic set of options, but more than enough for most needs. As you'd expect, cutoff frequency and resonance controls are provided, as is the essential dedicated EG. In addition, filter cutoff frequency can be modulated by velocity or position on the keyboard (tracking). I was pleased to see that the EG's depth control allows positive and negative values, so you can create negative envelopes if desired. Also interesting is that, like the Osc 1 noise LPF mentioned earlier, the filter will self-oscillate if required — it's nice that Korg's design is faithful enough to reproduce these chaotic little side-effects of analogue circuitry. The effect seems slightly tame, but the resulting sine wave has a pleasingly pure tone. Overall, the filter is fat and responsive, and as capable of helping to create screaming lead sounds as it is of producing fat kick-drum sounds from the noise generator.

  Spot The Difference?  
  I was excited by the news of the MS2000's launch. One of the first synths I ever bought was Korg's Mono/Poly, an instrument which seems to have been largely overlooked by posterity — a great shame, because it has a unique and wonderful sound quality. Looking at the first photos of the MS2000 it was obvious that Korg had taken their cosmetic inspiration at least partly from this misunderstood classic: they're virtually the same size and shape, and the Mono/Poly's blue-screened knob area has been translated into an all-blue top panel on the MS2000. There are broad similarities in terms of sound character and architecture too.  
After the filter, it's time to contour and set the level and pan of a Timbre, via the amplifier section — what would be the VCA on a real analogue synth. There's nothing remarkable here, save that you can choose between the amplifier's EG and a straight on/off gate option, if a full envelope isn't required or if the EG is being used in a Virtual Patch. Korg have also provided a distortion switch for grunging up Timbres. (The amount applied depends on the levels of the oscillators and noise generator.) The EG seems quite responsive, if not quite as fast on the attack as my speedy Roland SH101; the maximum release time seems to be about 20 seconds or so.

Next on the agenda are the two LFOs — not directly in the signal path as such, but an important part of sound creation in that they help to add extra movement and interest to a sound, by modulating amplitude, frequency, filter cutoff and so on. The LFOs are nearly identical: one offers sawtooth, square, triangle, and sample and hold waveforms, while the other offers sawtooth, positive square, sine and S&H. Both can be sync'd to MIDI clock, with a wide choice of note value sub-divisions. These values are shown in the LCD as fractions, which takes a little getting used to. (If the relationship between fractions and note values isn't obvious to you, there's a chart buried among the manual's appendices.) The LFOs' rates can be altered with dedicated knobs, and LFO1's depth is controlled by Oscillator 1's Control 2 knob (as detailed earlier), while the depth to which LFO2 modulates the amplifier is controlled by the mod wheel.

Patch Work

The Virtual Patch section can be seen as a sort of a simple modulation matrix, as found on Emu samplers and sound modules, but is also clearly Korg's attempt to build in some MS20-style patching flexibility. The choices appear somewhat restricted: you can only make four patching choices per Timbre, limited to a handful of 'sources' (both EGs, both LFOs, velocity, keyboard tracking and two globally-assigned MIDI controllers) routed to modulate a handful of destinations (pitch, Oscillator 2 pitch, the Control 1 functions of Oscillator 1, noise level, filter cutoff frequency, amplifier level, pan and LFO2 frequency).

The Virtual Patch section has its own self-contained area on the front panel, with individual LEDs for sources and destinations, plus a depth control knob for each Patch, to regulate the intensity of the patching effect — making it extremely easy to comprehend and use. One would have liked more sources and destinations, of course, but those provided allow comprehensive real-time control, and can add significant movement to a Timbre. A sound can be drastically reinvented with just these few options.

Fairy Dust: Effects & EQ

At the end of the synthesis signal path come the MS2000's effects: a modulation processor and a delay processor. The output of one or both Timbres is patched to the input of the modulation processor, which is patched to the delay. Finally, this output is routed to the 2-band EQ. The routing is fixed — there are no send controls — but if you don't require one or other of the effects, you can simply turn down their parameter knobs.

  Bonus!  
  One particularly useful feature of the MS2000's MIDI spec is that, because its knobs transmit their movements as MIDI controller data, they can be used as generic real-time controllers for other MIDI instruments or software synths. If the target instrument's controller map can't be customised, you can define on the MS2000 which controllers the knobs will transmit. Fiddly, but definitely a plus  

The effects are refreshingly simple: the modulation processor offers chorus/flange, (a thickening effect) and 'ensemble' phasing, with speed and depth controls, while the delay processor has stereo, cross and L/R delay options, is sync'able to MIDI clock, and has delay time and feedback controls. There's not a lot of sophistication, but they sound just great. When it comes to effects, Korg are thinking, in my opinion, like people who use and enjoy analogue synths. When you've programmed a killer sound, something that's as easy to do with the MS2000 as it is with real analogue, you don't need to drown it in reverb or complex treatments. A little delay or phasing is quite enough.

The one problem with the effects is that the delay doesn't seem to have enough RAM. Setting the tempo delay to a whole note and sync'ing the MS2000 to a very slow tempo causes the resulting delays to be slightly chopped up and curtailed. At normal tempos, there's no problem.

Last in line before the audio output is the EQ, which is set up via the LCD. It's a simple device, offering low (40Hz to 1kHz) and high (1kHz to 18kHz) frequency bands with 12dB cut or boost.

This Mod's A Rocker

One of the most diverting aspects of the MS2000 is its Mod Sequencer, which has more scope than its name might lead you to expect, as it can play pitches — or more correctly, pitch offsets to whatever note is currently being played — in addition to, well, modulating!

This MIDI-sync'able sequencer apes the facilities of a pre-MIDI analogue step sequencer. Essentially, it's a three-row device, with up to 16 steps per row. At a global level (rather than per-row) you set a sequence length (in number of steps), a playback type (forward, reverse, or forward/reverse), run mode (one-shot or loop), and timing resolution (relative to the global tempo control in the arpeggiator section). It's a shame none of these parameters can be set on a per-row basis; I'd have liked the option to play with independent row lengths and resolutions, for a polyrhythmic feel. Perhaps this could be added in a software update.

Each row can be assigned to alter pitch (±24 semitones), step length, and nearly any synth parameter editable by a front-panel knob. The manual is a bit shy here, but poking around reveals that anything you can tweak can usually be assigned to a row. That includes all EG parameters, LFO frequency, filter cutoff and frequency, pan, Oscillator 1 controls, Oscillator 2 pitch, and the Virtual Patch depth controls. Each step's value can be set with the 16 knobs above the keyboard and checked, if necessary, in the LCD. In the case of a row that's controlling synth parameters, however, the smart way of assigning values to steps is 'Sequence Record': press the Mod Sequencer's Record button and tweak a knob. If it's a valid control it will be automatically assigned to the current row, and your tweak will be recorded in real time with up to
16-step resolution. You can edit later if it's not quite right. Individual step values can be changed in real time, while a sequence is running, and you can also record a new knob movement during playback.

The Step Length option deserves some discussion. Timing resolution is set, as mentioned earlier, at the global level for the sequence, but the Step Length option allows each step to be given a positive or negative length offset to that resolution. This basically lets you have shorter and longer notes in a sequence, a prerequisite for creating a tune if another sequencer row is assigned to pitch. The trouble is that Korg don't relate the Step Length parameter-value range (expressed simply as ±6) to real-world note values. Of course, it all depends on sequence resolution, but one example would have helped. So here's my example: a value of zero is equivalent to the current global step resolution — no offset. Assuming this resolution to be quarter-note, the Step Length offsets produce the following note values: -1 changes a quarter-note to a dotted eighth; -2, quarter-note triplet; -4, dotted 16th; -5, eighth triplet; -6, 16th; +1, half-note triplet; +2, dotted quarter; +3, half note; +4, whole-note triplet; +5, dotted half; +6, whole note.

The Mod Sequencer is great for traditional analogue sequence-style riffing, but also for producing textural effects reminiscent of Korg's Wavestation. Altering pitch with one row while changing filter cutoff with another and pan position with the third can create amazing effects, especially when combined with a second sequence in a split or dual Program, or the arpeggiator. Unfortunately, the Mod Sequencer doesn't transmit data over MIDI. Korg's engineers apparently investigated adding this facility, but MIDI limitations made it too difficult.

Now to the uncomplicated but decent arpeggiator, which has a wide tempo range of 20-300bpm and offers six types of arpeggiation: up, down, two types of up/down, random and trigger. The last rapidly repeats the held notes, as a chord, at the chosen resolution and within the available polyphony. In terms of resolution, there are quarter, eighth, and 16th note options, with triplet variants of each. There's also a gate time control, so you can set up anything between a spiky staccato and a rolling legato arpeggiation, and, if you wish, spread the arpeggiation over one to four octaves. A swing parameter adds a triplet feel with positive values, and a grace-note effect with negative values. Like the Mono/Poly, the arpeggiator can be latched, but there's no 'one-finger' transpose control, which I would have appreciated. Though there's only one arpeggiator in a layered/split Program, you're free to assign it to one Timbre or the other, or both.

Both the Mod Sequencer and arpeggiator are used to good effect in several factory Programs, where they help create an instant, chunky dance loop vibe that could be coming from a Z1. Analysing these Programs is very instructive.

  Speech Therapy: The MS2000 Vocoder  
  Through their appearance on novelty records that instantly date the effect, vocoders have been the unfortunate victims of fashion, but they can be used for much more than creating comic or sci-fi voice treatments, so there will always be room for them in the creative synthesist's sonic swag bag. Basically, a vocoder imposes the frequency spectrum of one sound on another: vocoding a speaking voice makes the voice appear to sing the tune or chords being played on the keyboard at the same time. For more background, see the feature in SOS January 1994.

Much of what has been covered in the synth Program section applies to the MS2000's vocoder Programs, though Oscillator 2 is disabled, there's no layer/split option and filter function changes slightly, Virtual Patching isn't available, and the Mod Sequencer isn't operative, since its controls are used to alter the level and pan position of the vocoder's 16 filter bands. The arpeggiator is retained, however.

Oscillator 1 provides the vocoder's carrier signal, which is modulated by audio from audio input 2. Typically, this would be your voice speaking through a microphone, but it could be anything. Drums and rhythmic loops are excellent material for vocoding, for example. Additionally, because Oscillator 1 can itself be fed by audio-in 1, any audio plugged here can be a carrier, which can then be vocoded by whatever you plug into input 2.

The vocoder's filter bank consists of two sets of 16 band-pass filters (which is a very respectable number in vocoder terms), one for analysis and one for synthesis, with an envelope follower for each band that affects how rapidly the vocoder responds to incoming audio. Frequency bands were chosen by the designer after referring to classic vocoders, including units from EMS, Sennheiser and Roland, as well as Korg's own VC10, and the result sounds fantastic and authentic. Cutoff frequencies for the 16 bands range from 125Hz for channel 1 to 5kHz for channel 16, and the synthesis filter frequencies can be shifted with the filter cutoff control (resonance is also available), so that the overall range is 65Hz-8.1kHz. Analysis filter frequencies are fixed. The filter control section offers formant-shifting options (one or two octaves up or down), and though this doesn't quite allow gender-bending the resulting texture has something of that effect.

In a word, the vocoder is great. The full range of traditional effects is possible, and it can easily be used for creative work. The preset vocoder Programs show it off reasonably well, from scary voice effects (rather like the Nome King in Disney's Return to Oz!) to straight-ahead choral sounds, a la ELO.

 

Future Classic?

It's a great pleasure — and something of a relief! — when one concludes a review having almost unreservedly enjoyed using the instrument in question. This is certainly the case with the MS2000. Sure, I don't like external PSUs, increased polyphony would have been nice, and how much more fun (but more expensive!) three rows of sequencer control knobs or real patching sockets, like the MS20's, would have been. And if Korg really wanted an edge in terms of appearance, using the MS20's distinctive shape would have been an idea. These are all pretty trivial suggestions, though, in light of the fact that the MS2000 has caused me to look speculatively at my three real analogue synths and debate sacrificing one in favour of this persuasive 'vintage Korg' knock-off! (Or maybe just cram in the MS2000 as well...?) The bottom line is that this is a wonderful, versatile instrument, with a great sound that can vary from luminously subtle and delicate to screaming and in-your-face, by way of fat analogue warmth, spiky FM textures, and any number of other characterful timbres. The real-time control angle aims the MS2000 squarely at anyone after a hands-on experience, instant gratification and quick sound creation, and the combination of synth, vocoder, analogue sequencer and arpeggiator is unbeatable in terms of value for money.

Returning to what I said at the very start of this review, there's always room at the top and I spot a little MS2000-shaped niche right up there.

 information
£699; MS2000R £599
Prices including VAT.
Korg UK Brochure Line
+44 (0)1908 857150.
+44 (0)1908 857199.
www.korg.co.uk

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