Over the 40 years of their existence, Korg have produced a huge variety of groundbreaking music gear, from electronic percussion to industry-standard synths, and from guitar tuners to digital recording workstations. This month, we look back at how it all started...
When the history of electronic keyboards and synthesis is written, a handful of names will feature prominently. Laurens Hammond, for example, whose electromechanical organs dominated the 1940s and 1950s, and Robert Moog, who made synthesis recognisable and acceptable in the 1960s and early '70s. Next came Alan Pearlman of ARP, Tom Oberheim, Dave Rossum of Emu, and Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits, whose microprocessor-controlled Prophets introduced fully programmable polyphonic synthesis.
As the electronic music industry became more commercial in the '80s, the role of the eccentric developer slipped away, to be replaced by the R&D divisions of the music corporations. Foremost of these were Yamaha, who, from 1983 onwards, produced digital FM keyboards at such a rate and price that they precipitated the demise of many existing synth companies. Then, in 1987, the Roland D50 reinvented synthesis in the shape of S&S (sample & synthesis) technology. But Roland's reign lasted barely a year before something remarkable happened.
The people behind Korg were probably unaware that, in launching the M1, they were setting out on a path that would keep the company at the forefront of its field for the next 15 years. What's more, far from being a huge corporation, Korg were the creation of just a handful of men... not so far divorced from the entrepreneurs of the '60s and '70s. In fact, these men were the entrepreneurs of the '60s and '70s; their first product predated the Minimoog and the first ARPs by nearly a decade. So, when our descendents read the history of music technology, two names will appear prominently. The first is that of Tsutomu Katoh (pronounced 'Car-toe') and the second is that of his company, Keio Electronic, now renamed Korg. This is the story of the man, the company and, in particular, the products that have made them famous.
From Battles To Rhythm Boxes
Katoh's background has been the subject of much speculation. Born in Japan and brought up in Nagoya, he trained during World War II to be a submariner in the Japanese Imperial Navy... a job with a terrifying attrition rate. It's not clear whether Katoh saw action, but another apocryphal story attests that he saw the blast from the Hiroshima bomb. Given his long life and good health, one can assume that this was from a great distance!
After the war, aged just 20 or thereabouts, Katoh travelled to Tokyo, and began working for the Odakyu train company. It's rumoured that he even spent a short period living in a boxcar circling Tokyo. Given the destruction all around him, this seems quite plausible.
Very little information exists about the next 15 years of Katoh's life, but by 1960 he owned and ran a nightclub in Tokyo, as well as a discount store and a music store called Sound Box. These businesses were located in Shinjuku, an area famed for its nightlife. Keen to encourage live music, Katoh frequently arranged for leading performers, including top accordion player (and engineering graduate) Tadashi Osanai to play at his nightclub. Osanai performed using a Wurlitzer Sideman rhythm machine, but found this to be too limiting for his purposes. Convinced that he could improve upon the Wurlitzer, Osanai decided to build his own machine, and approached Katoh for financial backing. So, in 1962, Katoh leased a factory in central Tokyo, and Osanai and a team of four employees set to work there.
Milestone — The DA20 DoncaMatic
The Chamberlin Rhythmate, released in 1949, was perhaps the first commercial drum machine. This used loops of quarter-inch tape, and reproduced the drum sounds on them using a series of tape heads. Physically, the Wurlitzer Sideman appeared similar, but it did not use tape.
Instead, it had a rotating wheel that forced metal brushes to touch contacts that completed individual voice circuits. Designed by Keio employee Tadashi Osanai to replace his Sideman, the DA20 DoncaMatic used a similar rotating disc system to generate its rhythms.
Major Product Launches
- DA20 DoncaMatic rhythm machine.
- DC11 DoncaMatic rhythm machine.
- DE11 DoncaMatic rhythm machine.
- DE20 DoncaMatic rhythm machine.
- MP5 & MP7 Mini Pops rhythm machines.
Located alongside the Keio railway line, the new company was named Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo Limited (although this was later changed to Keio Electronic Laboratories) and in 1963 the Keio Gijyutu Kenkyujo DA20 DoncaMatic Disk Rotary Electric Auto Rhythm Machine became its first product. Apocrypha suggests that the name was chosen because the sound it made went "donca... donca... donca". Like Osanai's abandoned Wurlitzer, this used a disc to trigger the various sounds it generated, but it was the first such machine produced in Japan, so it proved to be very successful. Consequently, Osanai and his growing team set about developing improved models for the domestic market.
In 1966, three more DoncaMatics appeared, some with built-in amplifiers and speakers, and some without. There was also a version in a smaller, metal case, probably designed for guitarists rather than organists. But it was the introduction of the DE20 and the MP5 and MP7 'Mini Pops' drum machines that proved to be the year's most significant launches, because these were perhaps the world's first solid-state rhythm units.
Major Product Launches
- MP2 Mini Pops rhythm machine.
- Korg Organ prototype.
- MP3 rhythm machine.
- MP20S rhythm machine.
- MP Junior rhythm machine.
By 1967, the world was becoming interested in electronic keyboards and the new field of music synthesis, and it was in this year that an engineer named Fumio Mieda approached Katoh, asking for backing to develop an organ. Apparently, Katoh was impressed by Mieda's enthusiasm, so he offered to finance the development of a marketable instrument.
Some 18 months later, Mieda returned with his prototype. This proved to be unlike any existing organ because it offered programmable voices based on (what we now recognise to be) synth-style oscillators. But for the next 12 months, the company returned to its roots, bringing out a further Mini Pops rhythm unit, the MP3. It also changed its name to Keio Electronic Laboratory Company Limited, and recapitalised to fund a range of new developments, including several more Mini Pops machines such as the MP20S and MP Junior, which were released in 1971 and 1972. While moderately successful, these were not a huge leap forward from their predecessors. However, something of greater significance was just around the corner.
In 1970, Mieda had built a prototype dual-manual organ. This featured a number of new sound-generation ideas and, apparently, had a unique sound. Katoh asked a number of organ players to audition the instrument, and in response to their feedback, designed the positions and shapes of its controllers. Because these players were organists (there were few, if any, synthesists in Japan in 1970) the names adopted for these controls were rather unconventional: singing level and percussion, to choose but two. This was the first time that these names had appeared on any keyboard instrument, but it would not be the last...
Milestone — The Korg Organ
Keio Electronic produced and sold just 50 of Mieda's original organs, selling them in 1972 or thereabouts under the 'Korg' name (its first appearance), which was derived from the words Keio and Organ, as well as from Katoh's and Osanai's initials.
You may wonder (as many others have done before you) why the Keio Organ spawned the name Korg, but never became the 'Korgan'. However, a fluent Japanese speaker might be prepared to tell you which part of the male anatomy this name describes in that language.
1973 — Enter The Monosynth
Major Product Launches
- Minikorg 700 monophonic synth (Univox K1).
I recently contacted Mr Katoh in Japan, and asked him about the first 10 years of the company. In particular, I was interested to learn whether those years had been profitable, or whether (as I suspected) survival had been touch and go. He was remarkably open about this, and told me that "from the beginning of establishment of the company, we were in tough situation and I spent my money a lot to keep it going."
Fortunately for all of us, Katoh was very astute, and when a former student of the Berkeley School of Music told him about the similarities between Mieda's organs and the Moog instruments he had seen in the States, Katoh recognised the opportunity that this represented. Apparently, he had been worried for a while that Keio Electronic could not compete against the huge organ manufacturers of the time, but there was, at that time, no Japanese manufacturer of synthesizers, so, in 1973, Keio Electronic released its first monosynth, the Korg 700, or Minikorg.
Whether by luck or genius, Katoh and his team produced something truly innovative. Taking many of the concepts from the 1970 organ prototype, they broke numerous unwritten rules that decreed that synths should have multiple oscillators, self-oscillating filters, and variable parameters for all the functions on the panel. Instead, the 700 offered oscillator settings such as 'chorus I' and 'chorus II' (which produced rich, swirling tones), and its strange percussion/singing controls created envelopes quite unlike those of the competition. But the little synth's greatest strength was its 'Traveler', a low-pass/high-pass filter section that proved to be extremely intuitive and manageable. Sure, there were limitations, but to concentrate on these was to miss the point entirely. The 700 was stable, it was affordable and, most important of all, it sounded great, eventually numbering players as respected as Kitaro and Vangelis among its users.
Major Product Launches
- Minikorg 700S monophonic synth (Univox K2).
Keio Electronic soon had worldwide distribution for the Korg 700, and its success enabled the company to develop an improved version, the 700S. Superficially similar to the 700, this was far more powerful, thanks to a second control panel called the 'Effects Section'. This added a second oscillator, white and pink noise sources, filter modulation (which Keio Electronic called Travel Vibrato) and a 'Sustain Long' switch that multiplied the envelope times by a factor of 10. Most impressively, the Effects Section added three modes of ring modulation. Two of these tracked the keyboard, and were ideal for aggressive lead and bass sounds, whereas the third did not track, so each key produced a different timbre.
Major Product Launches
- 800DV 'Maxi Korg' duophonic synth (Univox K3).
- 900PS 'Preset' monophonic synth.
- 'Mr Multi' phaser/wow pedal.
- SyntheBass 100 mini-synth.
- V-C-F filter and envelope follower (including remote pedal/switch).
- WT10 tuner.
The 700S's additional facilities increased its range of sounds enormously, but Katoh and his team continued to find ways to exploit their unique sound-generation ideas, and in 1975, the company launched one of the greatest monosynths ever built: the duophonic Korg 800DV.
The power of the 800DV lay in the way it could create and play sounds. In essence, it was two Korg 700S synths in a single box, so you could treat it as two distinct synths, creating two different sounds, and then playing them independently. Some other mid-'70s synths allowed you to play two notes, but these used the same patch parameters for both. Only the 800DV could produce two sounds that you could play as a composite, or as two independent synths. Yet this was only half the story, because the 800DV allowed you to allocate the voices in a huge variety of ways. This made it possible to program more realistic, more expressive, or more off-the-wall sounds than was possible on other monosynths. The 800DV was, and remains, one of the most impressive, flexible and articulate synths ever built.
The other Korg keyboard launched in 1975 was far less impressive, and was designed in response to other manufacturers' preset, pressure-sensitive synths. However, instead of allowing you to press a note harder to generate the desired effects, the 900PS featured a contact-sensitive rail that ran the length of the keyboard, just in front of the keys themselves. This acted as an on/off switch for vibrato and four other 'touch' effects. Apart than this, the 900PS was very basic, although I doubt that any synth before or since has worked in quite the same way.
But perhaps the most important product launched in 1975 was also the smallest. The Korg WT10 was the world's first handheld, battery powered electronic tuner, freeing players from the tyranny of the tuning fork, and allowing them to tune to pitches ranging from A435 to A450 with an accuracy approaching 1 percent. Although it was unimpressive by today's standards, we should not overlook the importance of the WT10, because it dramatically extended and widened Keio Electronic's market, bringing many thousands of musicians into contact with the Korg name for the first time. It wasn't long before Korg tuners became a fixture in the gig-bags of guitarists and bass players all over the world.
1976 — Going Polyphonic
Major Product Launches
- Korg 770 monophonic synth.
- Mini Pops MP120 rhythm machine.
- Mini Pops MP35 rhythm machine.
- SR120 rhythm machine.
- PE1000 polyphonic ensemble (Univox K4).
- PE2000 polyphonic ensemble (Univox K5).
1976 was to be another huge year for Korg-branded gear. Firstly, there were two Mini Pops rhythm machines, the SR120 rhythm machine, and numerous foot pedals. There was also the Korg 770, a superb (and often overlooked) little monosynth that extended many of the ideas embodied in the 700 and 700S. Nonetheless, it was time for Katoh and his team to take the next step...
Up to this point, every synth bearing the Korg name had been monophonic. But polyphonic synthesis had appeared in 1974, with instruments such as the Yamaha GX1, the Oberheim 4-Voice and the Polymoog pointing the way to the future. By 1976, it was clear that a manufacturer needed to embrace polyphony if it was to be taken seriously.
At the time, it was very expensive to build a true polysynth, and although string ensembles or string synths had existed for a handful of years, these were far less flexible than true synths. So Keio Electronic adopted a novel approach, adding the basic facilities of a simple monosynth to the polyphonic sound generation system of an ensemble. Other manufacturers had suggested this approach by passing the output of an ensemble through a separate synth, but Keio were perhaps the first to offer two, affordable polyphonic ensembles with rudimentary synthesizer controls. The first was the PE1000. The second was the PE2000, the first Korg keyboard without a 'Traveler'.
The PE1000 was, in essence, a 61-note electronic piano with seven voices differentiated by preset values of the Traveler and envelope. Some control was available, but with a single oscillator per note, no touch-sensitivity, and just a single filter and envelope for the whole keyboard, it was very limited. Nonetheless, the PE1000 was soon to be seen in some respected company; Vangelis used one, as did Jean-Michel Jarre.
The 48-note PE2000 was a traditional string synth, with a richer sound produced by eight organ, brass, chorus and string presets. With a claimed three oscillators per note (or, more likely, three delayed and detuned versions of a single oscillator) and an integral phaser, it soon made friends among the keyboard cognoscenti of the day, including Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Hawkwind.
Given the nature of their sounds, it's likely that Keio saw the Ensembles as a matched pair; one for percussive sounds, the other for sustained sounds. Unfortunately, neither was a commercial success. No matter... Katoh had a plan, and it went way beyond the bounds of any existing method of synthesis.
Milestones — Korg Tape Echo Units
While its quirky monophonic synths and huge polysynths are Keio Electronic's most memorable early products, their tape-echo units, the SE500 and the later SE300, are also achieving 'cult' status.
Released in 1977 and 1978 respectively, these offered multiple playback heads that allowed you to create simulated reverbs, multi-tap delays, and long echoes. With sound on sound (the feature, not the magazine), you could layer performances, thus creating the famous Brian May multiple guitar effect. The SE300 also incorporated a true reverb that you could mix into the direct and delayed signals at different levels.
Major Product Launches
- PS3300 polyphonic synth.
- PS3100 polyphonic synth.
- M500 monophonic synth.
- M500SP monophonic synth.
- SE500 stage echo.
In 1977, Keio Electronic announced the PS3100 and PS3300 Polyphonic Synths, two instruments almost universally regarded with reverence, and rightly so.
The PS3100 was the smaller of the two, but it was no baby. A true polyphonic synth, this used the 'divide-down' oscillator architecture that Keio Electronic had adopted for their Polyphonic Ensembles, but enhanced it by offering independent filters, envelopes and amplifiers for every note, rather than just one set for the whole keyboard. You could play every key on its integrated 48-note keyboard simultaneously, and with its powerful selection of modules, plus an Ensemble effect that produced excellent strings and pads, the PS3100 was a superb synth. But it was the patch panel to the right of the controls that set it apart. In an era when the words 'polyphonic synthesizer' implied huge instruments that weighed 100kg, the PS3100's patchbay offered no fewer than 32 inputs and outputs that made it far more flexible than its small size suggested. The PS3100 could have taken the world by storm. However, it had a big brother...
If ever a polyphonic synth deserved cult status, it's the PS3300. This is, in essence, three PS3100s offering three independent oscillators, plus multiple filters, envelopes and amplifiers for every note on its keyboard. With over 60 patch points and a fourth panel adding sample & hold, a global envelope generator, two voltage processors, independent channel outputs, and mixing for the three synth sections, the PS3300 was fantastically powerful and flexible. It's little wonder that even Bob Moog declared it to be "the best synthesizer for fat sounds", and that major stars such as Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre and Keith Emerson were soon using and endorsing it.
Of course, the PS3300 was far from cheap, but Keio Electronic had not deserted its less wealthy customers. The M500 'Micro-Preset' monosynth and its near-identical twin the M500SP (which was an M500 with a 600mW amplifier and a 10cm speaker mounted inside the underside of the case) were cheap and flimsy, with lightweight keyboards and rudimentary controls. Nevertheless, the 30 preset voices they produced were recognisably 'Korg' sounds, so the M500s became popular with players who wanted synth sounds without the hassle of learning how to use a synth. It achieved brief notoriety at the turn of the 1980s when Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark used one, multitracking it and playing it through numerous effects and amplifiers to create a wide range of sounds.
1978 — The MS Series
Major Product Launches
- MS10 semi-modular monophonic synth.
- MS20 semi-modular monophonic synth.
- MS50 expander module.
- MS01, MS02, MS03, & MS04 expander pedals.
- SQ10 analogue sequencer.
- VC10 vocoder.
- PS3200 programmable polyphonic synth.
- SE300 stage echo.
- Quartz tuners.
If 1977 had been a good year for Keio Electronic's growing reputation, it's fair to say that 1978 was the year in which the company really arrived. It's also fair to say that the MS series of synths and related products launched that year remain some of the most sought-after in the whole world of electronic music.
For those of us who had seen a PS-series synth (and there weren't many), the MS series looked rather familiar, sharing many design features with their forebears, and even sporting the same control-panel hardware. The dual-oscillator MS20 monosynth was the keystone of the range. In addition to its standard controls, this also provided a patchbay that allowed you create new, complex routings to modulate the sounds of the oscillators, filters and amplifier. Although the patchbay did not interrupt the audio signal path, it allowed players to create sounds that were previously the domain of expensive modular and semi-modular instruments.
Milestone — The Korg MS20
With its knob-festooned control panel, dual oscillators, dual, resonant low-pass and high-pass filters, dual contour generators, and the patchbay that dominated the right of its control panel, the MS20 was a very attractive and powerful synth. In addition, its External Signal Processor provided a comprehensive pitch-to-voltage conversion system and envelope follower that, within limits, enabled external signals to drive the whole of the MS20's architecture.
Perhaps the rarest production synth that Korg ever produced, the MS20 'Blackboard' version (shown here) is electronically identical to the standard MS20, but it is flat, and about four times the size of its common twin. Designed for use as an educational aid, Korg's dealer support staff used this to teach its dealers the principles of synthesis.
Milestones — Korg Quartz Tuners
In 1978, Korg produced four Quartz tuners: the 440, 441, 442, and 443. Worn as a pendant and inscribed with the words 'Give me an A' (no, honestly!) these produced a single pitch through a tiny, integral speaker.
Its little brother, the MS10, offered just a single oscillator, a single envelope generator, and a shorter keyboard, but it had one thing that the MS20 did not: pulse-width modulation. Then there was the MS50, an expander module that offered numerous additional features provided by neither the MS10 nor the MS20: multiples, an inverter, and patchable ring modulation. Unlike Keio's earlier synths, which used the less common Hertz-per-Volt pitch standard, the MS50 also ran on the Volt-per-octave standard, which meant that you could patch a Korg to the other mainstream synths of the day for the first time. With an MS20, an MS10 and an MS50, the world of monophonic synthesis lay at your feet. Using a handful of cables, you could hook the synths together to create huge patches with four oscillators, multiple filters, multiple envelopes, and multiple modulation sources.
However, Keio Electronic had additional tricks up its corporate sleeves. The VC10 Vocoder looked like an MS10 with a microphone growing out of its top panel. You could use this and the VC10's internal sound generator for simple vocoding, but the instrument's ability to process external signals was much more interesting, hugely extending the range of sounds that you could obtain from it. Best of all (and alone in this series of instruments), the VC10 offered the PS-series' Ensemble effect, which could turn the most boring sounds into lush textures.
The SQ10 was the other major product in the range. This looked like a 12-step, three-row sequencer, but you could chain two of the rows to create sequences of up to 24 steps. With an external clock input for synchronising to drum machines and other sequencers, it provided an impressive package of features. Finally, there were four pedals in the series. The MS01 was a CV pedal. The MS02 converted the Hertz-per-Volt pitch CVs of the MS10 and MS20 into the Volt-per-octave systems used by other manufacturers. The MS03 was in many ways the MS20's External Signal Processor in a box, and the MS04 was a modulation pedal that provided a multi-waveform LFO and a pedal-controlled CV generator.
The MS series should have been Keio Electronic's big commercial breakthrough, but it is only in the past few years that it has achieved its current status. It was also overshadowed — technically if not in terms of unit sales — by the last of the PS-series polysynths, the wonderful PS3200. This was the first Korg to offer patch memories and, to this day, it remains the only analogue, semi-modular, fully polyphonic, microprocessor-controlled synth.
In common with the PS3100 and PS3300, the 3200 used 'divide-down' oscillators, lacked velocity and pressure sensitivity, and was nowhere near as sleek and transportable as the synths released that year by other manufacturers. But with extensive modulation capabilities, voltage processing, a graphic EQ, a lush Ensemble, far-out sections such as the General Envelope Generator and Adding Amplifier, plus nearly 50 patch points, it offered many more sonic possibilities than the other instruments of the era. Indeed, the PS3200 has a depth and a character that still sets it apart from other instruments, offering a combination of sounds and facilities that remain unique, and in many ways unequalled. Even today, nothing else sounds quite like a PS-series polysynth.
Major Product Launches
- CX3 organ.
- Delta paraphonic synth/strings.
- Lambda polyphonic ensemble.
- Sigma monophonic synth.
- KR33 rhythm machine.
- KR55 rhythm machine.
By 1979, Moog's and ARP's stars were waning, and the Korg brand was becoming far more recognised. Nonetheless, after the amazing innovations of the previous two years, it was perhaps inevitable that the company would need a bit of a breather. Its next family of synths proved to be less memorable than the MS and PS series.
There were three instruments in the family: the Sigma, a pressure-sensitive monosynth; the Delta, a paraphonic string machine and simple polysynth in one keyboard; and the ES50 Lambda, a preset keyboard offering string and piano-type voices, which was in some ways a combination of — and successor to — the PE1000 and PE2000.
Of the three, the Sigma was the most interesting, combining an Instrument section of 11 semi-preset voices, and a 'Synthe' section of another eight. In isolation, the voices were not memorable, but you could mix multiple voices within each section, and even ring-modulate one section against the other. The sounds thus generated could be monstrous, so the Sigma proved to be a curious mixture of limitations and powerful synthesis. It was endorsed by Rick Wakeman (who replaced his Minimoogs with four of them) and used by Keith Emerson, but it never caught on, and within a few years it had vanished.
More successful were the KR33 and KR55 rhythm units, which replaced the ageing Mini Pops series. These were more sophisticated than their predecessors, generating analogue sounds that were far more realistic than the noise-based thumps and hisses offered by the earlier DoncaMatics, Mini Pops, and units from competitors. But it is the CX3 organ for which 1979 should be remembered. By far the most realistic of all analogue emulations of the Hammond organ, this was the perfect antidote to shifting a few hundredweight of organ and speaker in the back of a van. In fact, the CX3 was probably destined to become one of the most sought-after keyboards of its generation, had it not been for what came the following year.
Major Product Launches
- BX3 organ.
- LP10 electronic piano.
- Trident multi-keyboard.
- X911 monophonic guitar synth/expander.
With its twin 61-note manuals, an optional pedal board (the BPX3), and the distinctive styling of the original B3, the BX3 shrieked "play me". Offering variable overdrive, percussion and key click, the expected chorus/vibrato and rotary speaker effects, a footswitch to flip between rotor speeds, and an effects loop to add reverb or other effects, the BX3 was the first electronic keyboard capable of emulating the classic Hammond tonewheel organs. Yet a number of players were unimpressed with the BX3 when they first heard it, claiming that the chorus/vibrato and Leslie effects were rather unconvincing. In my view, they were right, but there were a number of trimmers inside the BX3, and these allowed you to obtain precisely the sound you wanted.
The other big launch in 1980 was a multi-keyboard of the type already produced by numerous other manufacturers. Nothing too innovative here, then... but the Trident was nonetheless an impressive (and heavy) chunk of hardware, with brass, strings and polysynth sections that you could layer to produce very thick analogue sounds.
Next, there was the LP10, Keio Electronic's first electronic piano. The company claimed in the brochure that the LP10 was the first "to successfully reproduce the acoustic piano's natural sound" but, without even velocity sensitivity, it was far better at splitting infinitives than it was at sounding like a Bösendorfer.
Finally, to complete a rather unfocussed set of product launches, 1980 saw Keio Electronic jump into the stormy waters of guitar synthesis. The X911 could be used as a guitar synth (at which it was far from successful, glitching like crazy) or as a Hertz-per-Volt synth expander. With six preset sounds and a rudimentary 'Synthe' section, it did little to justify the respect that it now seems to command.
Major Product Launches
- Mono/Poly monophonic synth.
- PolySix programmable polyphonic synth.
Given Keio's rather unfocussed product launches in 1980, the world began to notice that — with the honourable exception of its Hammond organ emulators — the Japanese company had done little since 1978 to push forward the boundaries of music creation. In particular, the company produced no modern, polyphonic synth and, although the PS-series was still available, this was looking decidedly dated. Nonetheless, the importance of microprocessor-controlled synths had not escaped Katoh, and unbeknown to the world at large, his company had been designing the first Korg to offer dynamic voice allocation in the manner pioneered by the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX. The result was to be the most successful Korg yet developed... it was the PolySix.
Milestone — The Korg PolySix
The PolySix was a significant milestone in synth history, breaking the 2000-dollar price barrier in the USA, and the 1000-pound price barrier in the UK. This proved to be an astute move, and the PolySix become so popular that, years after the company stopped building the synth itself, there was still an optional MIDI retrofit available for players who were determined to keep using them. I asked Mr Katoh why he chose to address the lower end of the market rather than develop a true competitor to the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX. He told me:
"It is necessary to consider market trends, technical issues and the company's situation at the time before making a decision on the rights or wrongs of a product proposal. Within Korg, we pursue the ideal of making good musical instruments, but we are not going to produce the same products as other companies, or products that compete on specifications with other companies' products."
Rather than compete head-to-head with the flagship synths of the day, the PolySix proved to be a cutdown, and much more affordable instrument. Nonetheless, its powerful oscillators and SSM filters, chorus ensemble, arpeggiator, 32 memories, and total programmability proved to be a winning formula. Of course, none of this would have mattered had the synth sounded poor, but it didn't... it sounded superb. Soon dubbed 'the poor man's Prophet', the PolySix was a huge success, and sales rapidly outstripped those of any other Keio keyboard.
Its sibling, the Mono/Poly, did nothing to dilute this success. Marketed as a very limited four-voice paraphonic synth, it excelled as a four-oscillator monosynth, with a host of weird and wonderful assignment modes. Since there were no other integrated quad-VCO monosynths on the market, this alone made the Mono/Poly one of the most versatile and most desirable of all monophonic synths, a status that it has retained for over two decades.
1982 — Zeros & Ones
Major Product Launches
- KR55B rhythm machine.
- Poly 61 hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth.
- Symphonic Piano 80.
- Symphonic Piano 80S.
- Trident II multi-keyboard.
For nearly a decade, Keio Electronic had been riding a rollercoaster of critical and commercial success. But in 1982, the bubble seemed to burst, and many players were disappointed to see the company's major releases for the year.
The KR55B was a satisfactory rhythm machine, and the Symphonic pianos were a big step forward from the LP10, but none of these was to set the world alight. Likewise, the Trident II offered double the number of memories and an improved editing system, but was out-of-date even before it hit the streets. Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment was the Poly 61.
Designed to augment and replace the PolySix, the Poly 61 doubled the number of oscillators, but it lost the depth and warmth of its predecessor. Many players blamed this on the shift from VCOs to DCOs, but Keio Electronic had also sacrificed the SSM filters and, for the first time, adopted a digital parameter-access programming system, with many important parameters quantised far too coarsely. OK... I'll admit that the Poly 61 was moderately successful, but the magic was gone.
Major Product Launches
- EPS1 electronic piano and strings.
- EX800 hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth module.
- KPR77 programmable rhythm machine.
- PME modular effects system (14 modules plus central unit).
- Poly 61M hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth.
- Poly 800 and Poly 800 MkII hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synths.
- RK100 'sling-on' controller keyboard.
- SDD3000 programmable digital delay.
At first, it seemed that 1983 was going to be another disappointing year for Korg enthusiasts. The first products to appear were the EPS1, SDD3000 and KPR77, an unlikely combination that was never going to place the Korg brand at the top of the music technology league.
The EPS1 was usable, but its only claim to fame was that its strings section was velocity sensitive, possibly making it the first ensemble to offer dynamic articulation of the string sound. More interesting in retrospect, the KPR77 ('Korg Programmable Rhythmer') was a big step forward, overnight making all preset-pattern drum boxes obsolete. Yet the SDD3000 was perhaps the only star of this line-up, bringing programmable digital delay, chorus and flanging within reach of many musicians. Sure, it had only nine memories, but with numerous control inputs (including an analogue CV input), it was well ahead of its time.
Milestone — The Korg Poly 800
The Poly 800 was a milestone not for technological innovation, but for its groundbreaking price/performance ratio. With eight DCOs that you could allocate to eight single-oscillator voices or four dual-oscillator voices, the Poly 800 was limited only by its 'paraphonic' use of a single filter and filter envelope for the whole instrument. Other facilities were first class. There were three six-stage envelope generators, a chorus unit, and a 256-step sequencer. Most important, it could sound excellent, with strong bass patches that were belied by its lightweight appearance.
The Poly 800 was augmented in 1984 by the EX800 expander module, and in 1985 was replaced by a Mark II version that offered a digital delay instead of the chorus section in the original. Such is the success of the 800 range that many are still in use today, some with modifications such as the 'Moogslayer', which adds filter cutoff and resonance knobs to the synth's digital parameter-access control panel.
You could say the same of the innovative PME (Professional Modular Effects) series of stomp boxes. There were no fewer than 14 of these, and you could insert any four into a PME40X central unit, which contained the power supply and on/off switches for each. The range of effects available was: overdrive, distortion, a compressor, a stereo flanger, a distortion/wah, a stereo chorus, a sub-octave generator (with options for one, 1.5 and two octaves down!), a phaser, a waveshaper, a noise gate, an analogue delay, a graphic EQ and, in 1985, a digital delay and digital chorus. It wasn't a bad range, but it had little impact in the marketplace.
So it was for the Poly 800 and its modular sibling, the EX800, that 1983 and 1984 will be remembered. With a UK street price of less than £500, the Poly 800 was both a conventional synth and a sling-on poseur's keyboard. It was also very light, and could run for a few hours on batteries, which endeared it to many players. Given that it would be a couple of years before other manufacturers would respond with similar features, the Poly 800 became the synth of choice for many cash-strapped musicians, and one of the company's greatest successes.
Designed to complement the 800s, the RK100 was Keio's sling-on 'remote' keyboard. Lacking velocity sensitivity, this still offered a goodly range of performance controls, and was supplied in a range of colours so that the poseurs could match their keyboard to their brightly coloured '80s suits. Still in use today, RK100s were a surprising success for Keio Electronic.
Major Product Launches
- DW6000 hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth.
- DW8000 hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth.
- EX8000 hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth module.
- MEX8000 memory expander.
- Poly 800 MkII hybrid analogue/digital polyphonic synth.
- SQD1 MIDI recorder.
- MR16 MIDI rhythm unit.
- DDM110 rhythm machine.
- DDM220 rhythm machine.
- DT1 digital tuner.
Despite the popularity of the Poly 800 and EX800, the company was entering the middle of the '80s with no flagship synth to its name. The Yamaha DX7 and its derivatives ruled the world, so it was no surprise that the next Korg synth proved to be another small, lightweight, low-cost instrument with limited polyphony.
Nevertheless, the DW6000 was important because it marked the arrival of DWGS — the Digital Waveform Generator System — derivatives of which are still used in Korg synthesizers today. In short, DWGS was Keio Electronic's first use of digital sound-generation technology, producing waveforms that Keio's engineers had designed using additive synthesis techniques to represent the timbres of real instruments, or to recreate traditional analogue sounds.
The first implementation of DWGS comprised eight digitally generated waveforms stored in a pair of 32kB ROM chips. With two digital oscillators per voice providing the basic waveforms, the DW6000 then provided a traditional VCF and VCA signal path, with two six-stage envelope generators per voice, an LFO, and chorus. Unfortunately, this instrument was hobbled by a basic MIDI specification, and its lack of velocity and pressure sensitivity. You could not say the same of its big brother, the DW8000, or its rackmount equivalent, the EX8000. With double the number of DWGS waveforms, eight voices rather than six, a programmable digital delay, an arpeggiator, and both velocity and pressure sensitivity, these synths deserved greater success than they achieved.
Elsewhere, the company had released a MIDI recorder and rhythm unit, as well as two further rhythm machines. But if the range now seemed to be getting quite large, it was as nothing to the explosion of new products that was to appear the following year. Indeed, 1986 was to be a significant milestone for Keio Electronic.
But that's a story for Part 2...
Sound On Sound would like to thank Junko Fukai of Korg Japan and Paul Bundock of Korg UK for their kind help in sourcing pictures for this article.