Korg lovingly recreate a ’70s synth classic.
Regular readers of this tome will know that I love early Korg synthesizers — the 700, 700S, 770, the 800DV and even the funny little 900PS. The 700 was my first synth, the 770 was so damn cute, and the 800DV is the monster on which I first learned how to detune oscillators and play Tarkus, but the one that remains best known today is the 700S. Sometimes dismissed as ‘merely’ a 700 with a second oscillator, it’s an often underestimated synth that made some of the classic sounds of the 1970s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that this was the iteration that Korg decided to recreate.
Its first reincarnation appeared as a soft synth within the Korg Collection 3 bundle. I reviewed this in Sound On Sound in February, and found that it was a great little synth, although not entirely accurate when compared with either my MkI or MkII originals. If we assume no unnecessary compromises, mistakes or oversights by Korg’s software engineers, there are two possible reasons why these differences exist; either they modelled the soft synth on a 700S that was differently calibrated, or my 700Ss have drifted away from the ideal in the same ways over the past 48 years. Since both of mine sound the same and the soft synth was the outlier, I concluded that the former was true. But now there’s the 700FS too, and the chance to compare this against two vintage 700Ss and the soft synth was far too good to miss.
It’s far from the most powerful of monosynths, but rather a simple instrument with a distinctive character that screams ‘play me!’
The review unit arrived in a box that was considerably heavier than I had expected. All was explained when I opened it because, rather than an inner box, the 700FS comes in its own dedicated case. Following on from Korg’s ARP Odyssey, ARP 2600FS and ARP 2600M, this demonstrates a pattern to the company’s thinking, and very welcome it is too. So I removed this from the box, opened it and... Oh my word! It’s gorgeous! The 700S was always a beguiling little synth, but the 700FS looks even nicer than the original did in 1974. There’s just something, well, classy about it. This was a very good start.
A quick inspection showed that all of the functions of the original are recreated here but, not content with building a clone, Korg have incorporated many important new facilities into the 700FS. Perhaps the most visible of these are the 14 memories, selected using the Bank and Program buttons found behind the Effect panel. Nonetheless, given the number of bytes needed to store a patch — remember, many of the parameters are just on/off switches requiring but a single bit of storage — this seems incredibly parsimonious and suggests that Korg have used a tiny area on an existing device rather than dedicated memory.
Another update is revealed when you realise that there are nine toggle switches on the front panel rather than eight. The new one controls a Hold function that does exactly what you would expect, holding a note (depending, of course, upon the value of the Percussion/Singing slider) indefinitely after you release the key. The next addition is an arpeggiator with seven modes: repeat, as played, up, down, two forms of up/down, and random. You select between modes using combinations of the Bank and Program buttons and, although this is arcane, it works. Having done so, you turn it on and off using the Repeat switch which, with the first option selected, recreates the Repeat function of the original. However, my experiments showed that only eight notes are stored, so if you’re hoping (as I did) to use the ‘as played’ mode to create extended sequences, you’re going to be thwarted. Nonetheless, the combination of Repeat and Hold opens up a lot of possibilities that were not present before.
Two more features are revealed by the addition of a small joystick in the Effect panel and the Spring Reverb slider alongside the volume control. Apparently, these were considered for the original 700 and 700S but didn’t make it to the final design because of space considerations, so it’s good to see them reinstated here. The left/right action of the joystick always affects the pitch with a range of ±2 semitones, but you can program the destinations and amounts of the ‑Y (toward) and +Y (away) movements independently. Again, you do so using the Bank and Program buttons, selecting the parameter that you want to control as well as the amount and polarity of the effect that the joystick has upon it. Since the joystick can only be routed to sliders, the range of destinations is small, but the modulation speed and depth, the second oscillator’s tuning (which is important when creating complex tones using the Effect section), as well as the high‑pass and low‑pass filters’ cutoff frequencies (the ‘Travelers’) are all available. The reverb is another nice addition. You might think that an all‑singing, all‑dancing digital reverb would have been more useful but, just as a spring reverb is right for many electric guitar sounds, the one in the 700S enhances its sound in exactly the right way. What’s more, despite it having enough gain to make a significant difference to the sound, I wasn’t able to make it howl, which was nice.
In addition to the visible enhancements, there are several invisible ones. For me, the most important of these is the addition of aftertouch. Programming this is achieved in the same way as programming the joystick, and with the same range of destinations. Only one destination is possible in any given patch, but even a single parameter of pressure sensitivity hugely enhances the synth as a performance instrument. At the other end of the scale, the 700FS can also store its master tuning but, since this has a range of just ±1 semitone and is immediately available from the front panel using the Pitch slider, I’m not sure why Korg bothered with it.
Then, of course, there’s MIDI. The 700FS only has one 5‑pin MIDI socket and that’s for MIDI in. If you want MIDI out, you’ll have to use USB, and this requires that you download and install the appropriate driver because the synth isn’t class compliant. But once it’s sending, you’ll discover that the keyboard and the MIDI output are polyphonic. I had great fun using the 700FS to play polyphonic patches on the 700S soft synth, especially since most of the 700FS’s controls map directly to the soft synth’s, or can be made to do so. The only exclusions are Volume (because it doesn’t send a CC) and Hold (because there’s no direct equivalent on the soft synth). Furthermore, the +Y and ‑Y movements of the joystick send CC1 and CC2 respectively, the +X and ‑X movements send pitch‑bend messages, and channel aftertouch is also sent. And, of course, all of these messages are understood when you send them back to the synth. This means that you can program and play the 700FS remotely and automate it without difficulty. However, there is a restriction; the 700FS only understands incoming MIDI note messages ranging from C3 (one octave below the bottom note of its physical keyboard) to C7 (the highest note on its physical keyboard). I have no idea why Korg limited it in this fashion.
The 700FS doesn’t pander to modern society’s lust for everything to be thin and insubstantial; it’s a chunky lump that you would be ill‑advised to drop on your partner’s toes. Nor does it conform to standard ideas regarding how a synth should look, operate and sound. Most analogue synths are based to a greater or lesser degree upon the layout and signal path of the Minimoog, but early Korgs were different. Their designer, Fumio Mieda, has since stated that their unusual form was intentional because he didn’t want to imitate American and European instruments so, if you haven’t already used a 700, 700S or 800DV, it may take a while to get used to the 700FS.
I set it up next to both of my 700Ss and made some detailed comparisons. I soon found that — even ignoring the additions — the 700FS is not an exact clone of the original. I started (as always) by checking the oscillators. While the static waveforms are very similar, the two Chorus (PWM) waves slightly differ from the originals’ in both rate and depth. Sometimes this was of little consequence, but there were occasions when I found the modulation depth on the 700FS to be too deep. If there’s a trimmer inside that allows owners to reduce this by a tad, I would certainly wield my screwdrivers after buying one.
Secondly, the filter characteristics are not the same. The comparison isn’t as simple as saying that the maximum and minimum cutoff frequencies are different, although the low‑pass filter in the 700FS clearly has a higher maximum cutoff frequency than that of the original. Nor is it that the slopes are different, although the 700FS seems to attenuate high frequencies more powerfully. Nor is it as simple as saying that the resonance is slightly different, nor even that the Travelers respond differently. All of these statements are true, but the consequences manifest themselves differently in each patch, sometimes having little effect, but often rendering it impossible to make the two synths sound identical. Similar, yes. Identical, no.
Another difference in the filter section is intentional; on the 700S, the design of the Traveler knobs made it impossible for the cutoff frequency of the low‑pass filter to be lower than that of the high‑pass filter. This was because, in theory, crossing them would result in little or no signal passing because the width of the pass‑band would be less than zero. Nevertheless, some owners chopped the lugs of the knobs so that they could cross the filters, discovering an additional range of sounds that could be wrung from the synth. So the 700FS is supplied with two pairs of Traveler knobs — one with the lugs and one without. That’s a nice touch.
Happily, the response of the 700FS’s contour at given Attack and Percussion settings is much more accurate. What’s more, the pleasing bump at the start of notes with rapid Attacks — while not quite as pronounced as on my 700Ss — is more prominent on the 700FS than it is on the soft synth. I like this bump so, for me, this is a move in the right direction.
Moving on to the Effect section, I found that — with careful setup — the sounds obtained from the Duet, Modulation 1, Modulation 2 and Modulation 3 options were pretty accurate and that Noise 1 (pitched noise) is closer to the original than it was on the soft synth. The only setting that showed any significant difference was the unpitched Noise 2, which is considerably ‘bluer’.
I don’t think that you’ll ever complain about the sound quality, which is extremely classy and just reeks of the 1970s.
At this point, I could have continued to dissect the 700S, but I would have had to ask myself (and ask you to ask yourself) whether it was worthwhile. There were times when I had to check which synth I was playing and, were I not spending my time conducting forensic examinations rather than making music, I suspect that these differences would have been immaterial. Either way, I don’t think that you’ll ever complain about the sound quality, which is extremely classy and just reeks of the 1970s.
So I moved on to the factory patches instead. These cover a small range of the silky leads and powerful basses that detractors claim that early Korgs can’t produce, with a few effects thrown in to give you an idea of the wider range of sounds that the 700FS can generate. But I found that I had soon overwritten them. It’s not that they’re bad (indeed, one or two are really rather good), it’s just that they weren’t precisely what I wanted and, with so few onboard memories, it was inevitable that they would be replaced. Consequently, I was pleased to find that Korg have supplied a free librarian (see box) to expand the number of patches at our (almost) immediate disposal.
If I have a concern, it’s a minor one, and nothing to do with the sound; the actions of the large toggle switches on the front panel are somewhat rougher than those of the original, although I suspect that they had already begun to smooth out during the course of the review. (Or maybe that was just wishful thinking!) But let’s end on two more positives. Back in the mid‑’70s I wondered why my friends kept complaining that their synths went out of tune, and it wasn’t until I started buying Moogs that I understood. After nearly 50 years(!) my 700Ss remain completely stable, and so is the 700FS. Furthermore, the 700FS is more playable than the 700S for an important reason that I haven’t mentioned elsewhere. The original has only one key priority: single‑triggering with high‑note priority. The new one also has just one, but it’s single‑triggering with last‑note priority. I dislike high‑note priority because my playing style is ill‑suited to it, so I often find myself playing fast solos poorly on monosynths that are limited to this. It isn’t as much of a problem with low‑note priority synths but, for the smoothest and most accurate performances, last‑note priority is almost always the way to go. It’s a shame that Korg didn’t implement multi‑triggering at the same time, but maybe the designers thought that this would be a step too far.
The 700FS remains faithful to its designer’s original vision of a simple synthesizer that offered something different from anything else available in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, there were times when I found a sound on a 700S that I loved but couldn’t replicate on the 700FS, whereupon the purist in me wanted to kick and scream. There were others when I created something gorgeous on the 700FS that I couldn’t on the 700S, whereupon the adult in me reasserted itself, at the same time reminding me of the benefits of memories, aftertouch, a joystick, an arpeggiator, and connectivity. Fortunately, peace broke out between the two before the end of the review; I realised that the 700FS is very closely related to the 700S but, rather than being a precise clone, it’s more like an identical twin, sometimes hard to distinguish from its sibling, but with differences if you know where to look.
But what of the cost? In recent years, Korg have offered various flavours of MS20 as well as the wonderful ARP 2600FS, and companies such as Moog, Oberheim and Sequential have also released enhanced clones of their classic synths, all of which have cost less than the hyperinflated prices being demanded for the originals. In contrast, the 700FS is much more expensive than a well‑preserved example of the synth that inspired it. You might question, therefore, whether there are sufficient aficionados out there who are prepared to look beyond a ‘features‑per‑pound’ ratio that, on paper, seems completely hopeless. But there are. Sure, it’s far from the most powerful of monosynths, but rather a simple instrument with a distinctive character that screams ‘play me!’ You won’t use it for everything — far from it, in fact — but there might be times when it’s simply the nicest instrument for the job.
The rear panel of the original 700S sported nothing more than quarter‑inch high‑ and low‑level audio outputs. That of the 700FS is much more interesting. It starts with a USB port that transmits and receives MIDI but not audio. When I created a USB and audio loop between my MacBook Pro, the synth and my mixer, I obtained the expected hum as well as a regular ticking noise, but this was at a significantly lower level than that generated by many other products that I’ve reviewed. Nevertheless, I would make sure that I broke any such loops before performing or recording.
Next comes a 5‑pin DIN MIDI in (there’s no MIDI out or MIDI thru), followed by a pair of 3.5mm sockets that transmit and receive sync, plus another pair to receive a 1V/oct pitch CV and gate to allow you to integrate the 700FS within an analogue setup.
There are four audio connections. A quarter‑inch input allows it to filter external audio signals but, since you can’t switch off both of the 700FS’s oscillators simultaneously, you’re always going to hear some sort of sound generated by the synth when processing external audio. Next come stereo outputs that allow the reverb to generate a pleasing spread across the soundfield. The fourth is an output for stereo headphones, and this has its own volume control.
Power is supplied by an external 12V DC PSU, and a cable relief hook is provided to reduce the danger of the barrel plug being kicked out accidentally. This is very disappointing; at this price, I think that we have every right to expect an IEC socket and an internal universal power supply, but perhaps Korg’s decision can be excused on the grounds of reducing the risk of hum from the reverb. I’ll leave you to decide upon that.
Surprisingly, the 700FS has a Global menu — accessed by holding the Patch 1 button while switching on — that allows you to set up various functions. These include the auto‑power‑off status, the keying mode (whether shallower or deeper travel is needed to trigger a note), and the knob/slider mode (jump to value or pass‑through). A second set of functions determines the MIDI input source, the clock source, how the synth generates and how it handles incoming sync pulses, and how it interprets incoming gates. The final parameter is a local on/off switch.
The 700FS is a simple synthesizer, but there’s enough subtle variation — especially in the Effect section (VCO2) modulation options — to discourage you from setting up every patch from scratch each time that you want to use it. So, given the paucity of memories in the synthesizer itself, a librarian is vital if you want to build an extensive selection of sounds. Happily, using the dedicated librarian couldn’t be simpler; you can send and receive individual patches or the complete memory, rename patches, name the author of each, and reorder patches manually, but you can’t sort in any way (not that that matters with so few in each library).
The manual states that it runs on Macs running OS 10.14 and later, and on PCs running Windows 8.1 and later, but I also ran it successfully on Mac OS 10.13. It’s possible that even earlier operating systems will support it albeit (I suspect) without support from Korg.
- It captures the soul of one of the great, underrated synths of the 1970s.
- It also adds a simple arpeggiator, a spring reverb, a programmable joystick, and connectivity.
- Yes, yes, yes... aftertouch! Yippee!
- It comes with its own case.
- It’s a work of art.
- It has patch memories...
- ... but only 14 patch memories.
- Its sound is not entirely accurate to the original’s.
- It suffers from the dreaded USB/audio loop noise (albeit quietly).
- There’s no 5‑pin MIDI Thru or Out.
- It uses an external PSU.
- It’s expensive.
The 700FS is incredibly limited when compared with many much cheaper monosynths, but what it lacks in power it makes up for in character. If you can’t see what all the fuss is about, just ignore it. If you can, and if you can afford the extravagance, I suspect that you’ll love it.