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The Korg M1
|Dates||1988 - 1994|
|Synthesis type||Digital Sample-based Subtractive|
|Keyboard||61-key Aftertouch + Velocity|
|Left-hand control||Spring-return Joystick (Pitch and Modulation)|
The Korg M1 is the world's first widely known music workstation. Its onboard MIDI sequencer and palette of sounds allowed musicians to produce complete professional arrangements. Outselling the Yamaha DX7 and Roland D-50, the M1 became the top-selling digital synthesizer of its time.
In its six-year production period, more than 250,000 KORG M1 synths were sold, making the M1 Korg's most successful synthesizer until the release of the Korg Triton and the top selling synthesizer of all time, the record that hasn't been broken yet (and probably never will with widespread of computer-based software synths today). It's even more remarkable because M1 made through all 250,000 units production run literally unchanged, while nearest competitor, Yamaha's DX7 160,000 units production consists of five different DX7 models. Though the M1 was not the first music workstation on the market, it was the best implementation in its class: simple, powerful and extremely easy to use. The volume of M1's sales allowed Korg executives to buy back Yamaha's share of the company, a deal which had originated in the mid-1980s (though Yamaha kept making keyboard assemblies for KORG, the entire keybed is the same in M1, DX7 and several other KORG and Yamaha synths). The M1 was so popular that it was produced until the end of 1994, long after its successor T-series (the more advanced T1/T2/T3 workstations) were discontinued.
The huge success of the M1 lies primarily in the quality of its sounds. Korg expanded on the S&S (sample and synthesis) idea, initially implemented by Roland in the D-50: instead of classic analog subtractive synthesis where simple analog waveforms (square, triangle, saw, etc.) are produced by tone generators (oscillators) it uses overtone-rich complex digital samples of actual acoustic instruments and classic synths of the past, and applies full subtractive synthesis processing: filters, LFOs, envelope generators, digital effects, etc. The resulting sounds were rich, colorful and natural. The ability to layer up to 8 different tones (sounds) on top of each other, split them over the keyboard in any combination, and instant realtime access to crucial parameters such as attack, release, filter cutoff, LFO timing, etc., made the M1 easy to use.
The S&S synthesis, under different names, is used by many major synth makers today, but of course the lower cost of electronic memory and faster processors allow current models to store much higher quality and longer samples and apply more signal processing. Roland's SuperNatural, Yamaha's AWM (advanced wave memory) and KORG HI (hyper-integrated) are some recent examples.
The M1's synth engine consisted of one or two digital oscillators per patch with sampled acoustic waveforms are stored in memory. A total of 16 oscillators were offered, leading to a maximum 16-note polyphony (using only single-oscillator patches). This reduced to 8-note polyphony when using double oscillator programs. The basic sample sound was then processed by a simple digital low pass filter, and then fed into the digital amplifier. Envelopes and LFOs, along with keyboard tracking, were the main controllers for those blocks. Because no interaction between the oscillators was provided (unlike Roland's 'structures,' for example), dual-oscillator patches essentially ran the two oscillators in parallel.
The filter did not offer resonance, but the need for a dramatic filter was diminished by the onboard sample library's wide variety of acoustic, synth, and exotic sounds. The M1's internal 4 MB waveform ROM was a huge amount of memory by 1988 standards, when the typical amount of RAM memory in desktop PCs was 512 or 640 Kbytes. Waveform ROM contained sounds which are still in use even today, especially the compressed acoustic piano (used on countless records of the time and later adopted by the dance producers), pick and synth basses, strings, realistic vocal samples, brasses, and acceptable drum kits. For the first time, ethnic and exotic sounds from world locales (particularly Asian) were offered as standard. Two presets from the M1 were used extensively in 90's house and rave music, namely "Piano16" and "Organ2."
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The M1 offered the ability to combine up to eight programs (patches) to play simultaneously on various key and velocity zones. This arrangement is called a 'Combi,' and allowed more complex sounds to be assembled and played via keyboard or MIDI.
The integrated MIDI sequencer allowed up to eight polyphonic tracks to play internal or MIDI sounds simultaneously. The sequencer memory could be shared with the user sound area, allowing 100 user "Program" sounds and 100 user "Combination" sounds with 4,400 sequencer notes or a reduced 50 Program and 50 Combination user sounds with 7700 notes. The sequencer's pattern structure permitted memory saving by using patterns for repetitive regions. Though paltry by current standards, the M1's sequencer offered full track editing and quantization, making it possible to produce high-quality songs entirely within the machine. The combination of the patches with the sequencer functionality led to the M1's near ubiquitous presence in late '80s and early '90s.
The M1 offered 2 independent effects engines featuring reverb, flanger, chorus, delay, etc. Previously, most synthesizers offered fixed-function effects blocks, such as chorus or delay, and rarely reverb. When using multiple patches at the same time (in Combi or Sequencer modes), all patches share the same effects blocks. This problem also affected workstations from nearly all manufacturers.
The workstation featured minimalist physical controls, including a 40x2 character LCD, softkeys, a data slider, data entry buttons, and a 4-way joystick. The joystick combined two modulation sources and pitch bend: left/right adjusts pitch bend, up emits MIDI controller 1 messages, and down emits MIDI controller 2 messages. No arpeggiator was offered (a common omission until mid-90's) and the synth enforced patch-based programming instead of performance controls. No disk drive was integrated, so only MIDI SysEx dumps and memory cards provided methods to save sequences and programs outside the keyboard.
All M1 models include 2 slots for expansion - one for sample ROMs and the other for patch/combi ROMs or RAM cards for saving sounds or sequences. Korg offered the MCR-02 128 Kilobit card and the MCR-03 256 Kilobit card for around $80–$150 list, as well as the 4 bank MCR-04 MegaRam card with a capacity of 1 Megabit (128 kilobytes). These cards and the M1's internal memory all use 3V lithium cells which last ~5 years without needing to be replaced (CR2032 in the M1, and CR2016 in the memory cards). If the battery dies, sounds and sequences would be lost. Factory Programs and Combinations are not stored in ROM, so the loss of battery power in the keyboard necessitates a data dump from a RAM card, a Factory Preload card, or a MIDI sysex data dump to restore the factory patches.
Due to the M1's ability to add sounds via data cards, many voice cards were made especially for the M1, such as the well-known Synth cards. Original KORG cards came in two-card sets, one PCM containing waveforms (initial tones, or building blocks) and another programs and combinations, finished sounds. These sets extend way beyond internal PCM waveforms, although existing set is more than enough. Many aftermarket cards (Valhala and VoiceCrystal for example) produced single Program cards utilizing internal waveforms only. M1 was recently released as software synth, where all original M1 circuitry was meticulously modeled and lets you program it the same way as hardware M1 synth. It's even better than original, since it has resonant filters and increased polyphony (no longer limited to 16). It also includes waveforms and programs from all cards ever produced by KORG for M1.
Because of the success of the M1's sales, an entire market grew around supporting this synth. This included the production of 3rd party manuals, new sounds, training videos, and hardware modifications. "We had more than 50 companies making aftermarket accessories and sounds in 1988" said Korg USA's Dave Goldberg, who then managed the Third Party Developers. "One such product was the Frontal Lobe by Cannon Research", which added more memory for sequencing and a floppy disk drive. Another was the M1 PlusOne, which added an additional 4mb of onboard sample memory.
Rackmount versions of the M1 were available. The M1R was a 2U rack with the same ROM and patches and combis as the M1. The M1EX keyboard and M1R-EX (rack version) included an additional 4MB block of waveforms in ROM. The M3R was a cut-down model in 1U form factor that had similar sounds and its own line of ROM cards.
The M1's synth engine remained nearly unchanged until the Korg Trinity's breakthrough in 1995, with minor improvements concerning polyphony, more control sources, and more effects algorithms. The T series (1989: T1/T2/T3) built upon the M1's success, offering more keyboard alternatives (88, 76 and 61-key versions), a disk drive and more ROM samples, more sequencer capacity, and a better screen. However, the polyphony stalled at 16 notes and the effects blocks were untouched. A 1 MB sample RAM option allowed users to load a handful of samples for use with the synth sections. The T1 series is able to read memory cards (RAM and ROM) that work in the M1, and can also load M1 patches and Combi's from SysEx files.
The 0 (zero) series (1990: 01/W,01/WFD,01/W Pro,01/W ProX) maintained the improvements of the T series (despite losing the sample RAM) but doubled the polyphony and offered several refinements over the previous machines, mainly effects and audio outputs routing. The Pro version had 76 keys and the ProX used the 88 weighted keys of the T1 and SG88 sampled grand piano. A non-linear waveshaping technology was also integrated in the synth section, but it didn't seem to cause a major impact. The 01/WFD, the 61-key version with disk drive, was also a bestseller, but did not surpass sales of the M1. Rackmount versions of the 0 series included the 01R/W which featured a sequencer, a rare feature not found on most such models. Also Korg produced the 03R/W (1U) and 05R/W (1/2 U) which had similar architectures but could not use the same sounds. The name for this line came from a Korg executive who showed his boss a paper upside-down—it had been intended to be called the M10 in order to build from the success of the M1. Sometimes these models are mistakenly referred to with the letter "O" instead of a 0 (zero).
The X series (1993: X2/X3, 1995: X5,X5D) was a cost-effective derivative of the 0 series, adding General MIDI compatibility and more samples to the internal ROM. However, the graphic LCD was replaced by a cheaper, smaller character-based one, the keyboard feel was downgraded, and the waveshaping removed. A welcome addition was the disk drive, now compatible with MS-DOS machines.
Throughout the series from T to X, the M1's digital filter remained unchanged, limiting the synthesis possibilities due to its non-resonant architecture, especially when attempting to recreate analog-style sounds such as sweeps. This shortcoming was shared by other manufacturers at the time such as Alesis and Ensoniq. Resonant digital filters were offered by Roland and Yamaha on most of their machines from the early 90's through today.
The M1 helped pioneer the baseline features that other music workstations eventually offered, such as: good synth and acoustic sounds, drum samples, sequencer and effects processing. Following the M1's release, many manufacturers sought to offer competing products. Workstations like the M1 soon became widely available.
In 2004 Korg released the Legacy Collection Digital Edition, which includes software versions of the Korg Wavestation and Korg M1. The M1 software runs as a VST or AU plugin and includes all of the original Korg-manufactured ROM sounds. Additionally, this software can import System Exclusive files (.SYX) exported from the original hardware-based M1. This functionality permits 3rd party ROMs to work with the software version. Korg has added a resonant filter to the software version, adding functionality that the original model did not have.
In 2010, Detune Ltd released a softsynth based on the Korg M1 for the Nintendo DS called the Korg M01. This product is currently available only from Amazon.co.jp, the Japanese-localized Amazon.com affiliate. Notable users include DS-10 Dominator and JordyVision.
Notable users of the M1 include:
- 808 State
- Banco De Gaia
- Mike Barson
- Bomb The Bass
- Craig Burrows
- Celebrate the Nun
- Jodie Christian
- Vince Clarke
- The Cranberries
- The Cure
- Daz Dillinger
- Death in June
- Depeche Mode
- Thomas Dolby
- Dream Theater (the preset Choir used in the intro of A Change Of Seasons)
- Electro Reverse
- Greg Phillinganes (on Michael Jackson's Dangerous World Tour)
- Jerry Garcia (M1R/Roland GR-50)
- Olivier Gröll
- Jan Hammer
- Susumu Hirasawa
- Bruce Hornsby (uses the electric piano and Orchestra presets)
- Hue and Cry
- IC 434
- Ken Ishii
- Bon Iver
- Jean-Michel Jarre
- Quincy Jones (on the album Back on the Block)
- Bradley Joseph
- The KLF
- Jon Lord
- Madonna (preset Piano 8' used in Vogue)
- Robert Miles
- Gary Numan
- Mike Oldfield
- The Orb
- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
- Pet Shop Boys
- Queen on the album Innuendo (preset Universe was used in Don't Try So Hard, preset Orchestra used in the beginning of The Show Must Go On)
- Snap! (piano in Rhythm Is a Dancer)
- Terre Thaemlitz
- Rick Wakeman
- Jonathan Wolff (Patch 46,"SlapBass" Used for Seinfeld Theme)
- Joe Zawinul
- Dr. King Cobra Heal the world Cd
- Alien Nation
- Koto (Michiel van der Kuy)
- Harald Juhnke
- The Moffats
- East 17
- Take That