There's more to Korg's dinky kit synth than meets the eye. Much more...
The NTS‑1 is a programmable digital synthesizer kit that's the first in a forthcoming line of Nu:Tekt 'DIY-Focused' products from Korg. They've squeezed a powerful customisable synth and multi-effects engine into a tiny box and all you've got to do is put it together. And then there's the small matter that the oscillator can load the same 'logue-SDK'-compatible custom oscillator and effects firmware as the Minilogue XD and Prologue synthesizers...
The NTS‑1 is a DIY kit, but the build is not really any more bother than grappling with some seriously small screws. The only scary bit is the snapping of the boards as they all come as a single piece. But it's fine, just apply some pressure and they break along the predetermined lines.
To turn it on you need to plug in the supplied micro-USB cable to either a computer, USB power pack or socket — it doesn't take batteries. It all lights up, volume roller on the back, built-in speaker and off you go. The little speaker is surprisingly chunky and tempts you to play for more than a few seconds before rooting around for some headphones.
First impressions go along the lines of feeling it's pretty weeny and then not caring because it sounds so good. The mini touch-strip keyboard is as challenging to play as it appears but that's quickly bypassed by enabling the Arp, and is immediately followed by the relief of discovering that if you hold the Arp button down for half a second it latches, so you no longer have to keep your fudgy fat fingers in play.
The simple control system of tapping a button and then using one knob to switch between different types of whatever it is you've selected and the other two to control two parameters works perfectly well up to a point. The four-digit display keeps you updated on what you're doing with creative shortenings and they don't need much guesswork or explanation. You move around adjusting and tweaking, back and forth between the modes and parameters. Having everything laid out with individual knobs like a 'proper synth' would be awesome, but in this tiny format it's enough.
You do run into the problem of parameter lurch when moving between modes. These are not encoders and so their value is wherever you left it last. So, you might have turned up the Shape on the oscillator and then move to the filter to find that it leaps all the way open as soon as you touch the knob. This is the curse of a multi-function interface.
The NTS‑1 has a single monophonic digital oscillator, a multi-mode digital filter, a multi-mode envelope, three LFOs, three stereo effect processors, a multi-mode arpeggiator and a teeny tiny keyboard.
Out-of-the-box the oscillator can generate virtual analogue Sawtooth, Triangle and Square waves and VPM waveforms. Variable Phase Modulation (VPM) is Korg's take on FM synthesis found originally in the Prophecy and Z1. In the Prologue the VPM oscillator has 16 types whereas here we appear to have the one carrier/modulator algorithm. It starts with a really throaty sound and then clangs its way to crisper tones as you dial in the overtones. And then there's the last oscillator type which is the Custom/User Multi-Engine Oscillator/Effect engine widget, which we'll come to later.
Using the button and the three knobs it's possible to access a number of parameters and modes, some of which are obvious and others that are somewhat hidden away. The buttons let you select either Oscillator, Filter, Envelope, Modulation effect, Delay or Reverb for editing. The left-hand knob always selects the 'Type' of whatever button you've selected, so oscillator type, filter type, etc, and the other two knobs change the parameters. Holding the button reveals some modulation possibilities for that part of the synth.
There are six filter types which include 2- and 4-pole versions of low-pass, band-pass and high-pass. Knobs A and B become cutoff and resonance respectively. They sound perfectly reasonable with some high resonant peaks, although they can't be pushed into self-oscillation. Holding the button reveals a Sweep modulator that sweeps the cutoff like a single slope envelope either up or down depending on Knob B and the speed set on Knob A. It's more obvious than it sounds.
In the Envelope section we get an ADSR, AHR, AR, AR Loop and Open types. The two knobs affect Attack and Release so you have no control over the Decay speed or Sustain level on the ADSR which appears to drop to about half the peak level. The AR envelope is really nice and snappy and the looping AR gives you a very pleasing rise/fall-style LFO. Holding the EG button reveals a Tremolo with frequency and depth controls.
Moving onto the effects section we have Modulation, Delay and Reverb to play with. All three start off bypassed. The Modulation section has Chorus, Ensemble, Phaser and Flanger with time and depth controls. There's no frequency control over the time, you just dial between smooth and wobbly, and there's no extra parameter available while holding the button. The Ensemble effect is particularly gooey, but they all sound excellent.
On the delay side we have Stereo, Mono, PingPong, HighPass and Tape. The maximum delay time goes up to about 500ms and at full depth they will go on repeating forever. We also get access to a Wet/Dry Mix parameter when we hold the Delay button down. All of them drag the pitch around when you fiddle with the Time knob, but it's the Tape delay that's particularly delicious as it wobbles and deteriorates.
At the end of the effects engine we have the Reverb section. Inside is a Hall, Plate, Space, Riser and Submarine. All of these sound amazing. The Hall and Plate work in sensible, expected ways and then the other three just take you off to unexplored places and you find yourself tripping back through delay, modulation and the filter into a wistful world of synthesis noodling.
If you find the interface a little bit cumbersome you can always map a MIDI controller to all the parameters and work it like proper synth. This gets around the problem of parameter lurch as well as giving you better hands-on control. I built a touch-screen controller for it in Chameleon from Hi.Computer and you can do similar things with iPad apps like MIDI Designer. I imagine a VST plug-in editor for it will be along soon to make automation a bit simpler and maybe even store presets.
One of the super-powers of the NTS‑1 is the Audio In on the back. This lets you route external audio through the effects section. Normally audio inputs on synths are all about the filter, but not with the NTS‑1; this is all about the effects. And what's remarkable is that they sound even better on your posher bits of gear. The reverb is huge on the output of a modular synth, the delay plays beautifully with my MS-101 and the Ensemble is good in any situation.
The only downside is its stereo mini-jack input with no mono-to-stereo normalisation. So if you plug in a mono source, say the output of the MS-101, it only comes out of the left side of the NTS‑1 output. There is another downside and that's that when you start running other synths alongside the NTS‑1 stock oscillators you start to hear the £99$99 price, just a little.
The last button is the Arpeggiator, which is useful considering the keyboard, and also a lot of fun. Press to enable, hold it for a second to engage the latch, touch a couple of notes and let it go. While holding the Arp button the other six buttons become chord selectors; Octave, Major Triad, Major Suspended, Major Augmented, Minor Triad and Minor Diminished. You can use the keyboard to transpose if you try really hard. Continuing to hold the button down the Type knob selects between 10 different arpeggiator modes including Random and Stochastic. Knob A sets the pattern length from one to 24 steps and knob B handles the tempo or step duration if externally sync'ed. There's no opportunity as yet to edit the Arp chords or add your own but this may become possible via a firmware update or software editor. But as it is it's comprehensively fun to use.
The versatility, the effects, the price and the fun to be had with the NTS‑1 are pretty unbeatable.
Right, now here's the part that you've all been waiting for; that magical Multi-Engine digital oscillator and effects engine. This is the same Multi-Engine digital oscillator that's found on the Prologue and the Minilogue XD and is compatible with all the third-party oscillators and effects that have been written for them. But there are some caveats. Due to limitations in the hardware interface you may not get access to all the physically available parameters. Also, it will allocate parameters on a first-come-first-served basis, and so if the custom oscillator hasn't been tweaked for the NTS‑1 then it might not select the most helpful ones. And lastly, remember that this is a monophonic synthesizer and many of the lovely demos you see on the Prologue and Minilogue XD use their polyphony with great effect. With those things understood, let's jump in.
The NTS‑1 comes with Waves; a morphing wavetable oscillator made up of two wavetables of 46 waves. Select wave A and B and you can morph between the two. The controls are accessed via a special edit menu that you get to by holding the Osc button and moving the Type knob. You can then release the button and its LED flashes to show that you're in Edit mode. The Type knob now selects various parts of the oscillator and knobs A and B alter the parameters — the equivalent of 'Shape' and 'Shift+Shape' on the bigger synthesizers. With Waves you have a Sub you can mix in, or you can use it as a Ring Modulation source, and then there's a Bit Crusher. Knob A remains steadfastly the Shape control which in this case morphs between the waveforms and can be modulated from the oscillator LFO.
To load your own or third-party custom oscillators you'll need a computer and the NTS‑1 Digital Librarian. It gives you 16 slots into which you can load oscillators, but first you have to find them. All the talk about these custom oscillators gave me the impression that they would be easily found, or automatically sucked into the Librarian from some central server. But no, you have to find them yourself. Korg do direct you to a few key developers from the website but these are all premium oscillators from people like Sinevibes and DirtBoxSynth that can cost about as much as the NTS‑1 itself.
I admit that I was initially a bit sceptical about the Multi-Engine oscillator. I was frustrated by the expectation that I was supposed to be comfortable searching GitHub for open-source oscillators and annoyed that I might be shelling out more cash than the synth was worth. But after I pulled the lid off some of these more premium options, all of those negative feelings melted away. This thing is phenomenal. I mentioned how, when running other synths through the effects, they showed up the less than stellar sound of the included oscillators. That is not the case once you start working with custom oscillators. It becomes a whole other synth or a dozen other synths with multiple forms of synthesis, wave generation, bending, folding, resonating and modulating. It's fantastic!
And we're not done yet because you can also fill up the 16 Modulation, eight Delay and eight Reverb slots with a whole range of custom effects. And these are good, the sort of effects that can bring you a lot of happiness while playing with the NTS‑1 but also on your other gear. You could Velcro it to the side of your modular rig, or Blu‑Tack it to the top of your synthesizer as a multi-effect unit. In fact, Korg could release just the effects engine in a little box and it would be an awesome thing.
In physical terms the NTS‑1 is a bit light and flimsy and is not going to survive being trodden on or dropped off the table. As yet it doesn't have any way to save presets, which is slightly odd for a digital synth. It also lacks any kind of initialising or reset. Because many of the controls are behind button presses you can lose track of what's enabled and modulating and it would be nice to be able to return the NTS‑1 to a nominal state. You can do this by pulling the power cable out and replugging it, but it's not very elegant and I've had a couple of Blue Screens because the MIDI driver was connected to a DAW or the Librarian at the time and it really didn't like the sudden loss of power.
However, considering we're talking about a sub‑100 pounddollar monosynth then the criticisms seem a little bit petty. Korg have done something remarkable here in producing a fun synth with amazing depth and possibility. It will give a huge boost to the custom oscillator community which will no doubt have a very positive and buoyant impact on the Minilogue XD and Prologue — I know I want one. The versatility, the effects, the price and the fun to be had with the NTS‑1 are pretty unbeatable. And if this is just the start of a range of Nu:Tekt products, then I'm looking forward to what comes next.
- Remarkable effects engine.
- Multi-engine custom oscillators.
- Multi-engine custom effects.
- Cool arpeggiator.
- A bit flimsy.
- No patch saving.
- Terrible keyboard.
- No batteries.
The NTS‑1 is a fun little pocket synthesizer with an unreasonably awesome effects engine and a ridiculous amount of sonic potential. It's also really good value for money and even if you spend the same again on additional oscillators and effects, it'll still be worth it.