Is there still a place for the workstation in the computer dominated studio of 2008? Korg certainly think so, and they're making a compelling case with their brand-new, touchscreen-equipped M50, offering much of the power of the acclaimed M3 for around half the price. Our world exclusive review digs deeper...
I'm sure most Sound On Sound readers don't need reminding that cash is far from abundant right now. Prices are rising, credit is being crunched and getting to work on horseback could soon be a serious proposition. In this climate, few of us would risk sneaking an ultra-expensive new toy past the other half. The drive to get more bang for your buck was never more acute.
Korg's budget TR series of workstations was arguably a tad dated when introduced in 2006. I remember ending the TR88 review by suggesting the Triton cow had been milked to death and it was hopefully time to move on to pastures new, perhaps to a spin-off from the mighty OASYS. OK, this sentiment arose more from greed than from any pre-cog ability, but if the TR series was 'Triton Lite', then its replacement, the brand spanking new M50 range, can justifiably be tagged 'M3 Lite' (the M3 workstation was sourced from OASYS technology). Before we begin, you might (as I've just done) enjoy a quick recap of the M3's prowess by revisiting last July's SOS.
When briefed of the existence of a mystery synth from Korg, it was seriously hush-hush — even Google didn't know it existed. From what I was able to piece together from whispered conversations, intercepted carrier pigeons and my trusty crystal ball, the M50 was to be blessed with the high-quality sounds and effects of the M3. Add an onboard sequencer, twin arpeggiators and a dedicated drum arpeggiator, plus a touchscreen, bundled software and computer integration, and it promised much of the M3's considerable charm — but at a dramatically reduced price. Thus, should you be on the brink of selling your firstborn to finance an M3, it might be a good idea to hold off for a moment and consider the M50.
Having been sworn to secrecy, I snuck the box into the house under cover of darkness, and into my lair. Resembling a more slimline relative of the workstation that started it all — Korg's M1 — the rounded black plastic panel (tilted to a workable angle) and glowing red buttons appeal far more to my taste than the M3's white 'home keyboard' style. The eye-catching central screen, backlit joystick and bare minimum of knobs for real-time tweaking (is there any other kind?) impart a certain minimalistic style. Less endearing, the M50's lightweight plastic shell will need careful protection if exposed to a life on the road. I doubt the rather bendy span of plastic placed beneath the keyboard would survive a serious knock unscathed.
The rear connections didn't inspire massive confidence either, especially the wobbly external power supply which, fortunately, can be rendered secure by looping its lead around the integral cable hook. Oh, and Korg's ongoing quest to produce the world's most varied collection of power adaptors shows no sign of running out of steam either.
There are two models of the M50 available at the moment. The synth-action 61-key version (under review here) uses a semi-weighted 'Natural Touch' keyboard, while the M50-88 incorporates Korg's top-of-the-line Real Weighted Hammer Action 3 (RH3). I found the review model's keys pretty good but was disappointed (if not surprised) to find no aftertouch present. Korg rather sneakily suggest in the synth's MIDI implementation chart that aftertouch (poly and channel) is transmitted and received; however, the small print admits that this only applies to sequencer data.
Consistent with its 'affordable' status, the M50 sports just a single pair of audio outputs, along with a headphone socket. MIDI Thru has been abandoned too. Pedal inputs fare a little better: there are two assignable offerings, plus a dedicated damper pedal input. This latter can make use of Korg's 'half damper' DS1H pedal, which would doubtless pair up well with the 88-note version's piano action. USB connectivity is present (about which more later), as is external storage for your data, courtesy of an SD card slot. Cards of up to 2GB can be used.
As you can see from our photos, knobs are rather thin on the ground. In fact, apart from the sequencer's tempo control, there are just four of them in total, their functions determined by a set of buttons. They control the ubiquitous filter cutoff and resonance, plus envelope amount and release time. Or, at the push of a button, they will perform four user-programmed functions instead. Push another button and they transmit the MIDI control data of your choice to external devices. Up to 128 different external setups can be maintained for the knobs and chord trigger switches, which definitely felt like overkill to me. More button pressing and yet another alternative role springs into life. In this mode the knobs vary parameters of the arpeggiator, such as the octave range or gate time.
I've lost track of the number of 'different' varieties of S&S synthesis that have come and gone over the years, but as each one seems to last typically two or three models, this perhaps isn't a conclusive sign of my impending dotage. Korg's latest is EDS (Enhanced Definition Synthesis), the very same method of tone generation found in the M3. There is also a generous splodge of REMS on board too, which is not related to dream exploration or the BASIC computer programming language, but rather the acoustic modelling of microphones, speakers, tubes and transistors. (REMS stands for Resonant structure and Electronic circuit Modelling System.)
Wacky acronyms aside, the M50 houses an impressive 256MB of wave memory, serving up a total of 1077 multisamples (seven of which are stereo) as well as 1609 drum samples (116 of these are stereo). Mono is fine for the majority of the instrumental samples; the raw waveforms are teeming with life and serve as impressive starting points for Korg's latest synthesis engine.
While the M3 can boast 120 notes of polyphony, the M50 runs to a still-healthy 80 voices in single mode. It drops to half of that when two oscillators are layered and falls further when stereo multisamples and velocity crossfading are brought into play. Each voice contains an oscillator section capable of handling up to eight stereo multisamples with up to four filters, two amplifiers, five LFOs, and five envelopes. Admittedly not revolutionary in any way, this form of synthesis is more than capable and offers some juicy tone-mangling extras such as amplifier drive and low boost.
The filter section incorporates two 12dB filters for each oscillator and all the standard types are on offer — low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and band-reject modes. They can be employed individually or, if two filters are used, routed in series, in parallel, or combined into a rather spiffing 24dB mode.
Modulation is more than adequately covered too: each LFO features 18 waveforms, with scope to vary them further by shifting phase and amplitude. Special mention must go to the AMS (Alternate Modulation Source) function, with its wealth of possibilities, such as its two mixers, ideal for blending multiple sources for use with a single destination. AMS takes you beyond typical fixed routings and, by offering multiplication, smoothing and quantisation in its processing, lets you transform the already generous list of input sources quite radically. Here lies lots of fun!
Stand-alone workstations are no longer expected to be as insular as once they were. So the included M50 Editor and plug-in software is for those who prefer to do the heavy-duty tweaking via a computer instead of the M50's touchscreen. Additionally, the M50 may be incorporated as a plug-in instrument in your favorite DAW host application, Korg's hardware eagerly taking the strain. VST, Audio Units (Mac), and RTAS formats are supported. The editor will run stand-alone but the plug-in mode requires the supplied USB driver. I point this out because, having tried and failed to get this driver working with Korg instruments I already own, I wasn't too surprised when my PC refused to play ball once more. Since allocating time to debug Windows driver issues is on my 'to do' list just after bungee jumping the Avon Gorge in a pink tutu, I had to forgo this particular USB pleasure. Instead, I ran the editor stand-alone using MIDI. Apart from being teasingly slow when it came to synchronising the many patches, Combis, drum kits, arpeggios and drum patterns, this worked just fine.
The supplied CD contains the complete set of manuals (the lengthy and informative Parameter Guide is PDF only) and the External Setup Template software, plus those USB drivers — for everyone who doesn't have a Korg-intolerant PC.
We've grown to expect big numbers when it comes to onboard patch storage, and the M50 doesn't disappoint. Those round, friendly buttons offer five banks of user Programs and four banks of user Combinations, each consisting of up to 16 individual Programs for multitimbral or layered use. Perhaps because this keyboard is so new, not all its banks are pre-populated but there are still 608 Programs and 384 Combinations loaded and ready to entertain you, as well as 32 drum kits (out of a possible 48). Strangely, and almost a lost relic amongst all the cool stuff, 256 preset GM2 programs and nine GM2 drum kits are present.
The factory patches are of a very high standard. They are organised so that the first bank contains pianos, clavs and organs, and the second is oriented more towards bells, strings, choir and brass. Bank C features woodwinds, guitars and basses, while bank D is packed with some of Korg's lushest pads yet (which is saying something), alongside a wealth of usable solo synthesizer patches. The final bank houses tempo-synchronised material and drum kits.
Other than a rather ghastly Uillean Pipe and a few indifferent Mellotrons (well, compared to my Nord Wave, anyway), the quality and attention to detail is top notch, with some of the best strings and pads these ears have encountered. I've long been a fan of Korg's pianos, and the velocity-switched stereo samples are up there with the very best. I'd love to have auditioned them with the M50-88, especially as the lower end of some patches felt a bit overcooked when served up via the synth-action keyboard. With a tweak of the amplifier's velocity response and some rapid familiarisation with the versatile keyboard tracking, I soon had the bass end under better control.
Otherwise, it's hard to single out individual patches for praise because so many are highly playable. There are magical electric pianos, sonorous woodwinds, and drums that range from groovy to kick-ass. If the single patches are a treat, then the Combinations are a veritable feast, featuring imaginitive deployment of drums and arpeggiation. I could easily have lost whole days jamming — if I didn't have this review to write. Combinations are blessed with an independent three-band EQ for each part, which is useful when putting a mix together.
If any Combination takes your fancy, you needn't scratch your head wondering how to port it into the sequencer. Simply press Enter and the sequencer's Record button simultaneously and 'Auto Song Setup' is engaged. This thoughtful time-saver copies the current setup into a new song exactly as is, priming it for instant recording. In seconds you can start to capture an entire performance — even down to interactions with the Drum Track and arpeggiators — with no recourse to menus or manual.
Central to all M50 operations is the monochrome touchscreen, which is bright and clear with concise graphics, and subtle shading where appropriate. I found its response took some getting used to. I'm a big fan of touchscreens generally, zipping my way round a Triton or V-Synth by speedy prods of my finger. Alas, my technique didn't impress the M50 at all. Only when I slowed down and made very deliberate touches did the screen acknowledge each action reliably. It took about a day before I adapted to it, but then things improved — although (even after calibration) I still experienced occasional 'accuracy frustration' when selecting the smallest fields.
Having touched an on-screen object, its value can be adjusted using a slider, increment buttons, the numeric keypad or the alpha dial. Those should cover most of the methods you've encountered — the main omission being that you can't drag on-screen objects with your finger as you can on some touchscreens. Ultimately, these 320x240 pixels are a welcome bonus: your window into pages of mix information, synthesis parameters, sequencer data and more.
Workstation sequencers are either relished for their convenience or bypassed in favour of computer-based alternatives. With 16 MIDI tracks and an extra time/tempo track, the M50's version is capable enough. It offers up to 128 songs, a capacity of 210,000 notes and a maximum recording resolution of 480ppqn. If you insist on precision, you can record in step time or may prefer to quantise recordings made in real time. Needless to say, there are extensive editing operations — down to individual events if necessary — which is all you'd expect from the company that popularised the workstation concept in the first place.
For live use there are a number of handy utilities. A cue list of up to 99 songs can be specified to be played in a chain; you can even program the number of times each song should repeat. Standard MIDI files created elsewhere can be imported and played back, and the sequencer can act as a System Exclusive data filer for other gear.
Even in the studio, working fast is the name of the game. Sixteen template songs are provided in a variety of styles, which you can tweak and re-save to user locations as customised starting points. Working from scratch isn't exactly a chore, though. I especially enjoyed setting a whole song to loop, then overdubbing drum or bass tracks to get things moving. Those starter tracks can then be looped individually — over any range of measures you specify — as you expand your song with further tracks. Sadly, you can't change loop points during playback. In fact, the sequencer needs to be stopped for a variety of operations, which was somewhat unexpected. While regular stopping is a minor annoyance, the biggest limitation of all is by design: the M50 lacks any form of audio sequencing. Having been impressed with the audio-capable sequencer of Roland's similarly-priced Juno G, the M50's implementation feels a bit lame in comparison, especially as it doesn't feature MTC and MMC, which would enable painless sync'ing with external audio hardware or software. Finally, as songs are lost on power-off, don't forget to save them to SD card or to a computer.
The dual polyphonic arpeggiator is a throwback to Triton days rather than the KARMA 2 implementation seen on the M3 and OASYS. Having owned a KARMA synth for a while, I realised that even here in gloomy England there simply weren't enough rainy days for me to sit down and fathom it all out. Although I've not had the pleasure of exploring the improvements of KARMA 2, I don't find it a serious omission. The M50's arpeggiators do their job with no fuss or bother; indeed, there are features here that I think should be present in all arpeggiators — particularly the key sync and keyboard trigger options. Turning key sync off avoids unwanted and annoying interruptions to the pulsing flow of an arpeggio, while activating keyboard trigger enables you to blend normal keyboard performance with arpeggiated notes, again without causing hiccups in their flow. Further pluses include an ability to set keyboard and velocity zones — so you can, for example, generate bass arpeggios with your left hand and play natural solos with your right, all within a single patch.
Going beyond the typical modes of Up, Down and so on, the M50 sports the polyphonic arpeggiator seen on previous Korgs. This covers everything from drums (using the Fixed Note Mode) and bass lines to sequencer-like patterns and complex backing phrases. Basically, the arpeggiator rocks — so it's wonderful that you can store up to 1028 user patterns, with 900 preloaded ready to start exploring!
If all that isn't sufficient, Stephen Kay's KARMA software is available for the M50, but as an optional extra. If KARMA is your thing, you can add it to the M50's armoury; the main difference between that and the M3 implementation is that the software to spawn the KARMA trickery runs on your computer and not the synth itself.
The Drum Track is a dedicated drum arpeggiator offering 671 patterns instantly poised for action — with space to store up to a thousand of your own! Korg boast that this will "stimulate and support your real-time performance and song production", and for once I have to agree wholeheartedly. You can program original drum patterns in the sequencer or start from an existing pattern. Then simply assign the drum kit of your choice and you're done. You can do this for every patch, meaning that there will always be something appropriate waiting in the wings. As for standard arpeggios, drum patterns can be activated in specified zones of the keyboard or by playing a note strong enough to pass a velocity threshold.
In Combination and Sequencer modes you can take advantage of dual arpeggiator functionality and a Drum Track. Instant arrangements of surprising complexity and subtlety can therefore be summoned at your command. I've already expressed the opinion that the arpeggiator rocks — but in Combination mode the package becomes almost irresistible. Like many of life's vices luring you to wallow in indulgent, effortless pleasure, all this will probably become illegal one day.
Close your eyes and the M50 could easily pass for an M3, which is itself capable of mimicking the PCM sound engine of the OASYS. This alone might be sufficient to dispel your lust for either of these high-end instruments. The M50's plush, cultured tones are an absolute joy to play and the Drum Track, paired with those powerful arpeggiators, could be the perfect catalyst to get you hammering out fresh ideas.
Once I adapted to it, the touchscreen rendered the bulk of navigation and patch editing a pleasure, and on an instrument in this price range it is a definite bonus. Less inspiring was the lightweight plastic construction: should you be considering an M50 for extensive gigging, a sturdy flightcase and careful handling will be important.
In the earlier Korg TR series, sampling was offered as a user option. Sadly, this option is not found on the M50, and I can only surmise that very few of these must have been purchased. Lack of any form of expansion means that you have to be content with what you've got — but, fortunately, 256MB of waveforms translates to plenty!
If it's not just a versatile synthesizer that you need but the total workstation experience, you'll have to decide whether the M50's MIDI-only sequencer cuts the mustard. It is certainly simple and powerful, but Roland's Juno G offers MIDI and audio and could prove to be stiff competition, especially given its superior polyphony, sample playback and expansion options. But it's a close-run race, the M50 countering effectively with hordes of M3-class Programs and Combinations, with its touchscreen and with its more advanced effects provision.
Once again, Korg have raised the standard against which all affordable workstations will be judged. Any thrifty musician going workstation shopping should ignore the M50 at their peril.
Korg have long understood the importance of a solid effects implementation to add final colouration or drastic processing, whether to individual patches or complete songs. Taking the format, if not the algorithms, from the Triton series, the M50 contains up to five insert effects, two master effects and a blessedly straightforward means of putting them together. One 'total' effect is provided as well: ideal for processing the entire mix.
In addition to delays and reverbs, there is a plethora of excellent chorus, phaser and flanger effects, including compressors, limiters, and amp modelling driven by the REMS technology mentioned in the main text. I was pleased to find lots of tempo-sync options and impressed by the innovative presence of two common FX LFOs — perfect for synchronising modulation across multiple concurrent effects.
With 170 different high-quality algorithms to choose from, this is an area where the M50 puts similarly priced workstations into the shade. Sixteen of the algorithms are 'double-size' and are thus only available as insert effects. Unsurprisingly, double-size algorithms take up two effect slots, but with careful deployment of what you have, plus the EQ for each multitimbral part, you should be able to produce some slick-sounding mixes. As there are no individual audio outputs available on the M50, this is just as well.