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Korg Trident

Polysynth (Retro)
Published July 1995

Vintage synth collector and self‑confessed Korg fanatic Alex Clarke waxes extremely lyrical about the early '80s Trident — a hybrid of polysynth and string machine.

Korg are one manufacturer who have, over the years, and in one way or another, kept the interest in their early instruments alive. It's only when you put the company's achievements into a list that you can really appreciate the work they have put in to keep musicians entertained and content. All sorts of Korg synth milestones spring immediately to mind: the Mini 700 series, the PS3300/3200/3100s, the MS10, MS20, and MS50, the Delta and Sigma, the BX/CX3s... — and these only take us up to 1983. The other special reason why I have personally always held an interest in Korg equipment is that you don't have to be up at supergroup status to obtain one!

In amongst my collection of instruments is an underestimated and undervalued but nevertheless trusted friend, my Korg Trident, and I feel it's deserving of a mention. I have found that because the Trident doesn't fit into any immediate category, it's been a little overlooked, even though it is physically huge, weighing in at nearly 24Kg. I know it's not quite the kind of instrument one would build a temple for (unlike the Oberheim Matrix 12, which I don't possess... yet!), but it does nevertheless have its place, and this page of SOS will do just fine.

Trident History

First, a little history. The Trident is not just a synth, but a multi‑instrument machine divided into three distinct sections: strings, polysynth and brass, all of which have an output mixer.

Born in 1981, the first Tridents have 16 patch memories (arranged in two banks of eight), three preset sounds, 8‑note polyphony, a 61‑note splittable keyboard, and a whole array of jack socket Ins and Outs for connections to other Korgs (such as the MS20, the PolySix, and so on). The synth section has dual VCOs independently tuneable to settings of 16', 8' and 4'. VCO1 has plenty of waveforms (including PWM), and the VCF has standard functions (cutoff, envelope generator and resonance) — although a lot of the bass response tends to drop out of the filter when the resonance is turned up too high.

The string section has the same pitch options as the synth (16', 8' and 4'), an envelope and equaliser, and vibrato, ensemble, and bowing effects — although the so‑called bowing effect just seems to give the attack a subtle brightness.

Finally, the brass section has only 16' and 8' pitch options, but does sport a full VCF and ADSR. Any of the three sections can be assigned to the flanger, which is the only real effects system on the Trident, and is jolly useful for those really complex phased sounds. Talking of which, it's time for some words on just that subject.

The Sounds

The Trident can generate a wide range of sounds. My favourite 'Fat Pads' tend to be a mix comprised of outputs from the synth and string sections, with a light flange on the strings, and the ensemble effect in action. Using just the string section and flanger, you can re‑create some of the sounds used in Ultravox's 'Vienna', Visage's 'Fade to Grey', and many tracks by OMD and others from the early '80s synth pop era.

For me, though, the Trident is useful for creating the sort of large and complex string, brass, and surreal synth sounds that other instruments struggle to achieve with enough solidity and depth. I have the String Pad From Hell stored in memory location three on mine, but it's the silky string and synth combinations that I like most of all about it. Furthermore, although it's an instrument with a lot of scope for sonic creativity, it still manages this without being festooned with knobs. When external effects are added, the sky is the limit, but as with many analogue beasties, you really shouldn't expect instant aural gratification from the Trident — the programmer has to really get to know the machine before it will realise its full potential. Like a lot of aged units, the Trident also has its days when it will only play F#m sus 13 — but a light thump on mine usually corrects the problem!


Every keyboard has its foibles, and this one is no exception — but then, I haven't encountered a keyboard yet that hasn't. Many of my older synths have one hang‑up or another, and some of them can be terribly unstable during long recording sessions. I've heard many tolerant, worldly musicians lose all self‑control when their synths decide to adopt a surreal alternative tuning, or find the lost chord right in the middle of a gig. These anomalies we must endure.

Neither MkI or MkII Tridents have MIDI, and I've not heard of one ever being retrofitted... but then, why would you want to? The best and easiest way is sample the sound you've created, and use it over MIDI that way — and you don't get any tuning problems then either.

Summing Up

The Trident wasn't regarded as a world‑beater, but then I don't think it was designed to be one. All synths are instruments in their own right, and have different functions to perform. Any synth will do some things well and others badly, and this is certainly true of the Trident. It excels at producing heavy pad sounds and phased string sections, but won't be much cop at producing a Rhodes piano or ethereal bells. There are other synths for those tasks — but then they can't do what the Trident can!

Trident Guidance

If you are looking for a Trident for musical purposes, check potential purchases over thoroughly. Some problems are simple and some can be highly expensive. I've found it's worth waiting for a good Trident to appear — I took over three years to find mine! Some have unstable tuning when hot, so it pays to leave one switched on for a while when examining it before a possible purchase. If you find one with the odd broken or missing key, don't worry — that's easily fixable. Prices vary; I've seen both versions going for as low as £300, but as high as £800. Finally, it's worth mentioning that some stands have difficulty with the bulk of this hulk. 'X' stands are best — without the extensions fitted. Happy Hunting.

The Mkii

In 1982, the MkII version of the Trident became available, featuring some subtle differences. Editing sounds on the MkI meant starting with one of the sounds already in memory. The MkII allows you to start with a 'blank page', and gives you 32 patch memory locations, arranged in four banks of eight, exactly as on the Korg PolySix.

A moderate amount of extra heat‑sinking and a slightly beefier power supply were added, which put a stop to some of the original system's thermal problems. The MkII is a lot more stable, but sounds generally the same.