Korg M1

The last of the Big 5

The M1 was the last big-bang in the evolution/revolution of synthesisers. Next to the Minimoog, Prophet-5, DX-7 and D-50, the M1 was a groundbreaking instrument. The magnitude of its success has not been seen since. Just like the DX-7 and D-50, the M1 was soon to be heard on lots of recordings from 1988 through to the mid 90’s. 

The strength of the PCM based synthesizer was that it was expandable through the use of ROM cards. Whatever sounds were trending, chances were they would be released on a PCM card. However expensive these cards were at the time, it gave people an extra reason to hold on to the instrument. The M1 was no exception, with a total of 19 PCM cards released over its 6-year lifespan.

Somehow you would still always hear the classic factory presets, especially in Dance productions, such as Organ2, which was used on the classic Robin S track “You Got to Show me Love” and “Gipsy Woman” by Crystal Waters. The acoustic piano sample was also a staple in Dance music, due to its bright and punchy character.

Personally I loved the more etherial and ethnic sounds, like the Pan Flute and Mallet sounds. These were often used on Jazz Fusion albums.

Why was it so successful?

There had been some attempts by manufacturers to create a self-contained instrument before the M1, like the Kurzweil K250 (1984), which was astronomically expensive, or the Ensoniq ESQ-1 (1986), which didn’t include drums and an FX processor. There wasn’t yet a device that combined all those elements into the one unit. The M1 managed to be the first to bring all that at an incredibly affordable price. Priced similar to the DX-7 and D-50, the M1 provided even more bang for the buck. Especially as a performance instrument the M1 was an all-in-one workhorse. The piano at that stage was still considered the mother of all instruments and if a synth was close enough to reproducing a decent piano sound, then the deal was pretty much sealed. As a performing keyboardist all bread and butter sounds needed to be represented well enough to take the instrument on a gig. Roland had attempted to do the same with the much cheaper D-20, but this instrument was still using LA synthesis to mimic real instruments, which didn't quite cut it. The instrument did however have an onboard sequencer with drum samples and a 2.8-inch floppy drive (Quickdisk), but the onboard sounds were weak and lo-fi. Because it was released in the same year as the M1, there was no way it could compete with the 16-bit fidelity of the M1. 

Expanded (EX)

About 2-years after the M1 was released, Korg introduced the T-series, which essentially was a repackaged M1, but with the same sounds and an extra bank of PCM samples. The internal 4MB of PCM samples were doubled to 8MB. 

Because M1 users felt that Korg had let them down, by introducing a completely different design keyboard, Korg decided to release the extra 4MB’s that were included on the T-Series as an option for both the M1 keyboard and M1 rack version. Mine is an Expanded version.

Rack 'm Up

As with almost every synthesizer from the 2nd half of the 80's, a Rack version would soon follow. The M1 rack version was called the M1R. Keyboard and Rack versions of synthesziers usually differ from each other, but the M1R is identical in functionality and features, apart from the keyboard of course. On most synths sometimes the keyboard version was more feature rich and sometimes the Rack version was more favourable. To give some examples, the Roland D-50 rack version (D-550) lacked the joystick that was used to mix the different partials. The Rack version of the DX-7 series II, which was the TX-802, was multi-timbral, which the keyboard wasn't. This made choosing a keyboard or rack version sometimes difficult.

I bought the M1R at Hight Tech Hilversum in 2012 for 120-euros. The synth had been sitting in a tall 19” rack full of redundant gear for many years. The owner of the shop didn't want to sell any of that stuff, but sometimes he would get into a funny mood where he'd want to sell everything. I had been asking him many times how much he wanted for the M1R. This time he said he wanted 100-euros. I gave him 20-euros extra for a fund raiser he had. 

The unit was in immaculate condition. The factory presets were wiped, as the memory battery had run on empty. I was given the factory presets on a ROM card. There were no additional ROM or RAM cards included with the unit.

Have Here or Take Away

I have used the M1R a lot on my 2015 album “Have Here or Take Away”. This album was recorded during 2013 and got completed 2-years later due to a lack of funds.

Two tracks on the album “Suspended” and “Relocation” feature a Combi I made of a Flugel Horn stacked three times and pitched to form a Suspended chord. The 5th and 7th were lowered in volume and a substantial amount of reverb was added from the internal FX section.

Zawinul

One of the most famous keyboard players of all time, who used the M1 till the last day was Joe Zawinul. He had been a Korg endorser since 1984. Joe Zawinul was always playing the standard M1 piano and modulated the pitch vibrato with aftertouch. He didn't reaslly use it as a piano, but more like a different instrument. This just shows that an established jazz pianist like him had no problem using a poor quality piano sample. 

Relevance 

For some inexplicable reason I gravitate towards technology of yesteryears. I have always had this desire. When the M1 came out, I bought a Jupiter-6, not feeling this new technology yet, as I knew that everyone would be using it. Now that analog is more popular than ever, I am rediscovering these Preset machines again. It took me a long time to re-appreciate the old digital workstations, like the M1, O1/W and SY-99. I thought they sounded rubbish at the time, but now they intrigue me. 

At the moment of writing (2018) digital PCM synths are probably the least wanted item on the 2nd hand market. This is because there is so very little you can do to manipulate the sound and altering sounds is also very tedious. No knob per function, instead lots of parameter jumping using cursor buttons. Analog synths do not have nearly as many different wave forms as PCM synths do, still creating different sounds is a lot quicker on an analog synth. It seems nobody has really bothered exploring new sounds on PCM synths, as the factory presets were already impressive enough. 

To me these old workstations have relevance, as they produce a quality of sound that nothing else offers. Amongst the pristine sampled instruments and analog sounds, these lo-fi sampled sounds can offer a different flavour to music production. 

The Organ-Bass and the Piano are still being used today, especially in Depp House music. These sounds could be either coming from the Korg Legacy software, or even the iPad app, maybe even the real M1. It’s interesting how these sounds have become classics, just like the Hammond, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Clavinet have become classics.


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