Korg M1

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Korg M1 (2017-02-10 22.06.29 by deepsonic) (minor filter).jpg
The Korg M1
Price$2,166 US
£1,499 GBP
¥248,000 JPY
Technical specifications
Polyphony16 voices
Timbrality8 part
Oscillator16 bit 2MWord (4MB) PCM waveform ROM (100 multisounds + 44 drum sounds)[1]
Synthesis typeDigital sample-based subtractive
FilterVDF (Variable Digital Filter), low-pass velocity sensitive (non-resonant)
Attenuator3 independent AADBSSRR[2] envelope generators
Aftertouch expressionYes
Velocity expressionYes
Storage memory100 programs / 100 combinations / 4400 sequencer notes or 50 programs / 50 combinations / 7700 sequencer notes depending on global settings, and 10 songs + 100 patterns[3]
EffectsReverb, delay, phaser, tremolo, exciter, ensemble, overdrive, EQ, chorus, flanger, rotary speaker
Keyboard61 keys
Left-hand controlSpring-return joystick (pitch and modulation)
External controlMIDI IN/OUT/THRU

The Korg M1 is a 16-voice, 8-part multitimbral sample-based synthesizer and music workstation, manufactured by Korg from 1988 to 1995.[4] The M1 features a MIDI sequencer and a wide palette of available sounds, allowing for the production of complete musical arrangements. Outselling the Yamaha DX7 and Roland D-50, the M1 became the top-selling digital synthesizer of its time.[4][5]


In its six-year production period, an estimated 250,000 Korg M1 synthesizers were sold,[4] making the M1 Korg's most successful synthesizer until the release of the Korg Triton. 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 1995, long after its successor T-series (the more advanced T1/T2/T3 workstations) was discontinued.

The huge success of the M1 lies primarily in the quality of its sounds. Korg expanded on the Sample & Synthesis idea,[4] formally implemented on Korg DSS-1 in 1986: 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.

Another important aspect to its success is that it was the first synth to offer a drum machine, sequencer and an effects module in a single easy to carry package. It made the one-man-band possible as you could program a drum and chord track and play along yourself on the for the time very realistic piano preset. The drums were really great for its time and on par with separate units like the Roland R8 or Yamaha RX-5.

S&S synthesis, under different names, is used by many major synthesizer manufacturers today. The lower cost of electronic memory and faster processors allow current models to store much higher quality and longer samples, and to apply more signal processing. Roland's SuperNatural, Yamaha's AWM (advanced wave memory) and Korg HI (hyper-integrated) are some recent examples of synthesizers that use some form of S&S synthesis.

The M1's synthesizer engine consisted of one or two digital oscillators per patch with sampled acoustic waveforms 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 when using double oscillator programs or multi-oscillator combinations. The hard limit is 16 oscillators, so one can use for example a single 8-oscillator detuned unison combination program together with 4 single oscillator drum sounds and 2 dual 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), multi-oscillator programs essentially ran the 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. Also the exciter could be used to mimic filter resonance. 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. The M1 was controlled by a 16 bit NEC V50(70216) CPU (a Intel 80186 compatible) running at 16 Mhz. Input from the keyboard was handled by a custom subprocessor. I/O to the control panel and large 40X2 LCD display was handled by another custom PIO chip. An A/D convertor handled input from the analog joystick and aftertouch sensor. The wave samples were played by a custom tone generator chip with further processing by two custom digital filter chips, followed by a digital effects chip. A 16 bit PCM54 D/A convertor followed. 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 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 90s house music, namely "Piano16" and "Organ2."

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) yet it is easy to setup arpeggio's as sequencer pattern. 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 four-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 are 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 enough to play the popular M1 programs. Many aftermarket cards (Valhala and VoiceCrystal for example) produced single Program cards utilizing internal waveforms only. The successor to the M1, the T-series, has a 8MB ROM including some of the PCM card samples, but not all. So the M1 PCM cards can still be used to extend the sounds of the T-series.

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[citation needed], who then managed the Third Party Developers[clarification needed]. "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.

In 2004, Korg released the M1 in software form as part of the Korg Legacy Collection. The Legacy Collection allowed for several older Korg synthesizers to be utilized within digital audio workstations as plugins or as standalone software synthesizer programs. In May 2015, the M1 was re-released again as a software synthesizer called the iM1, this time for the iPad. The original M1 circuitry[clarification needed] is modeled and can be programmed in the same way as the hardware M1 synthesizer, including the importing and exporting of patches between the software and hardware versions of the M1. The software products add new features such as resonant filters and increased polyphony (no longer limited to 16 notes). The software versions also include waveforms and programs from all expansion cards ever produced by Korg for the M1 (included with the Legacy collection product but offered as an in-app purchase on the iM1 product).


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 M1R was a 2U rackmount version of the M1. It sold in a basic 4MB ROM version that had an exact copy of the M1 PCM ROM, and in an EX flavour with 8MB of ROM similar to the T1/T2/T3. The EX model has slightly different presets loaded in bank A compared to the original M1 and misses preset 00 "Universe" by default. The M3R was a cut-down model in 1U form factor that had similar sounds and its own line of ROM cards.

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 remained unchanged at 16 notes and the effects blocks were untouched. It did introduce MIDI overflow, so you can add polyphony by adding more T-synths or the M1R rack version of the M1. 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 routing of audio outputs. 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) which had a similar architecture 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.[citation needed] 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. One-half U rack versions of the X5 were also made. The first, confusingly, was called the 05R/W and had 32 voices. This was succeeded by the X5DR, which was nearly identical, but with 64-voice polyphony.

The N series (1996: Korg N364/264, 1997: NS5R, 1998: N1/N5/N1R, 1999: NX5R) was the final Korg series to use the M1's AI2 synthesis method. The N models featured larger sound ROMs and improved displays over the earlier models, but the filters were still non-resonant and many classic M1 and 01R/W sounds were retained in nearly original form. The later models were actually sold alongside the newer Korg Trinity series.

Throughout the series from T to N, 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 and expanded polyphony to the software version, adding functionality that the original model did not have. A nearly identical software edition of the M1 is also available for the iPad as the iM1, though the expansions in this version are available as an additional in-app purchase.

In 2010, Detune Ltd released a softsynth based on the Korg M1 for the Nintendo DS called the Korg M01.[6]

Notable users[edit]

Notable users of the M1 include:

In addition to these, the M1 was used in several movies, including Little Red Riding Hood, and television, including music for the main BBC jingle in the 1990s and the soundtrack for Italian TV show Ultimo minuto (aired in 1993-1997 in Rai 3).


  1. ^ Korg M1 Super Guide, The Next Generation in Sound Synthesis --- The AI Synthesis System, p13, Multisound List, Korg Inc. Japan
  2. ^ Korg M1 Super Guide, The Next Generation in Sound Synthesis --- The AI Synthesis System, p14, VDF EG, Korg Inc. Japan
  3. ^ Korg M1 Super Guide, The Next Generation in Sound Synthesis --- The AI Synthesis System, p44, Specifications, Korg Inc. Japan
  4. ^ a b c d Vail, Mark. "Korg M1". Sound On Sound (February 2002). Archived from the original on 2013-10-20. ",
    "Released in 1988 at a UK retail price of £1499, it was manufactured until 1995 ...",
    "In a marketplace ... one that reportedly sold 250,000 surely exceeds a manufacturer's wildest hopes. Such an instrument was the Korg M1 ... Although Korg won't verify the quarter of a million figure I've just mentioned, they do tell me that 100,000 were manufactured during the first two years of the M1's life, serial number 100,000 having rolled off the production line in November 1990.",
    "Korg M1, the widely-beloved Sample + Synthesis workstation that can rightly be called the most popular synth of all time.
  5. ^ Colbeck, Julian (June 2001). "Korg M1". Electronic Musician. Archived from the original on 23 Sep 2004.
  6. ^ Korg M01 - Amazon.co.jp
  7. ^ "Banco De Gaia: Last Train To Learning". Sound On Sound. May 1997. Archived from the original on 6 June 2015.
  8. ^ "N-Trance: Do You Think I'm Sexy?". Sound On Sound. December 1997. Archived from the original on 10 January 2012.
  9. ^ http://www.polynominal.com/site/c64.htm
  10. ^ Neal, Meg (December 29, 2015). "A Beginner's Guide To The Synth". Retrieved November 30, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]