This was the era of the Digital synth, the Workstation and the MIDI Sound Module.
Also by some described as the Dark-Ages of synthesizers.
It was all about PCM sample based synth engines.
Sample memory had become cheaper and it was the easiest and quickest way to convincingly reproduce acoustic sounds on a keyboard instrument.
Analog and even digital synthesis like FM, Additive Synthesis and Wavetable synthesis, were old hat by that stage.
Every Japanese and American synth manufacturer (or what was left of them) were treading their heels in trying to get in on the action.
Yamaha had the SY-77, Ensoniq the TS-10, Emu the Proteus, Kurzweil the K2000, Roland the JV-1000 and Korg had the M1 and T-series.
The M1 was really what started it all in 1988.
It was the first of its kind; a 5-octave keyboard with onboard samples of a wide array of instruments, drums, multitimbrality, a multitrack sequencer and an effects processor.
Every sound that one needed to produce a musical idea with was crammed together in a 4MB chip.
30-years later, workstations are still around and have evolved into powerful beasts, such as the Korg Kronos.
Even though technology has improved significantly in those 30-years, one can still detect much of the M1’s DNA inside every workstation.
Korg have managed to keep a firm grip on the workstation market, with many classic models between the M1 and Kronos.
In 1995 they released the Trinity, which was the first synth ever to feature a Touchscreen.
After the Trinity came the Triton, Triton-Studio, Triton LE, Triton Extreme and M3, which combined Karma technology with workstation features and was eventually developed into the astronomically expensive and now rare Oasys.
So where does the 01/W fit in?
In 1991 the workstation war was in full swing.
Most models were exceeding the features of the M1, but the M1 was still one of the most popular keyboards, with Korg releasing new PCM cards and even an expansion board.
This expansion board came from the T-Series.
The T1, T2 and T3 were merely expanded M1’s, with more ROM and a redesigned look.
To keep M1 owners happy, Korg released the second bank of 4MB samples from the T-series as an option.
However, it was time for Korg to come with a more radical change, hence the 01/W, but was it really that radically different?
The name seems a bit odd and a departure from the M and T naming conventions.
It got its name by mistake.
The design team had called it the M10, as it was meant to be the true successor to the M1 and 10-times more powerful.
When the team presented the design in a meeting to the head of design, they had put the design proposal upside down on the manager’s desk.
When the manager took a first glance at the paperwork in front of him, he read “01W”.
He liked that name so much, he decided to go with it.
I was playing drums in a cover band in 1993 and the keyboard player and the singer both had an O1W.
At the time I was not interested in new synth, as it was all starting to sound the same.
Factory presets drowning in effects and lazy sales people pressing demo buttons, it was all too unimpressive.
Especially the Combination-patches sounded silly, with another two master effects on top, making it all sound very drowned out.
I just felt that the market had become very homogenised and saturated.
In 1994 I was asked by the singer of that band to produce his solo album.
His demos were all done on his O1/Wfd and I reluctantly took the synth to my studio, where I redid the arrangements on my MPC-60 using my own rack of synths.
This gave me the chance to get to know the instrument and I started to appreciate it more.
Especially when stripping down the factory patches, removing the effects, I was pleasantly surprised with its sonic character.
Eventually the synth got used a fair bit on the album.
After completing the album and returning the synth, the 01/W was again off the radar.
The workstation market kept marching on and I got bored with it all.
Until Korg introduced the Trinity in 1995, which finally managed to impress.
Fast forwarding to 2016, I started to get a bit nostalgic towards classic workstations.
The entire synthesizer market was obsessed with analog.
Even though I love analog as well, it was getting a bit too one-sided, with companies like DSI now even going back to VCO chips, trying to please analog purists.
Whenever I feel that a market segment is starting to get too obese, I will walk the other way, but which way do you go when that market segment is the only segment?
What happened with the workstations in the 90's, is now happening with analog.
Usually things happen in cycles, but this analog craze is persistent and a classic workstation revival is highly unlikely.
Perfect, this means classic workstations are abandoned, thus sold at bargain prices.
I spotted a clean looking 01/Wfd for sale and I was not disappointed when I picked it up.
Flat-top synths such as these are usually used as workbenches or stands for other gear, but this one had barely suffered from such abuse.
However, a few common issues were to be expected.
The LCD backlight was gone, some sticking keys, an empty memory battery and a buzz coming from the display.
The easiest thing to fix was the memory battery.
The sticky key issue required the instrument to be gutted.
In order to get the keybed out, all the main boards have to be removed.
The 01/W also uses the same keybed as the DX-7, which was supplied by Yamaha.
Korg was even acquired by Yamaha during this period.
Cleaning the keys and reassembling takes about 4-5 hours, but it’s absolutely worth doing, as this keybed is the best ever made.
The stickiness is happening under the keys, where the rubber posts collect dust.
Because the rubber posts are greased, to keep things moving smoothly, the grease collects dust and moisture over time turning to gunk.
The LCD backlight and buzz are still not dealt with.
The floppy drive still needs testing too.
The sounds the 01W mostly excels in are the string patches and exotic & ethnic sounds like mallet & bell sounds.
These sounds can be found on software synths such as Absynth and Sculpture, but the 01W has more character and doesn’t tax your CPU.
That character is mainly due to the fact that all PCM samples used on the 01W are compressed.
Memory was still not that cheap and abundant in 1991.
The quality of the DAC’s, low sample rates (32kHz), sample compression and the instrument’s output stages colour the sound in a way that characterises the sound.
Spectrasonics and Native Instruments libraries will not give you that character, however impressive they are.
I think that these limiting aspects of the 01/W can blow a fresh breeze through a mix.
The sound of the 01W cannot be heard on any current productions, as no one really wants these crappy synths from the dark-ages, but one sound that it inherited from its granddad the M1 is almost worth buying the synth for and that's the bass-organ sound that can still be heard a lot in House music styles.
Other than that, you need to get your hands dirty to create surprises.
Programming is easy to understand, just tedious, but you can quickly end up with surprising results by just combining programs.
The standard 61-key model came with and without a Floppy-Drive.
This was another trend of the time, which was first introduced by Yamaha on the DX-7II series.
The workstation was pretty much a combination of a synth and a sequencer, so a floppy-drive was considered essential.
All patches and sequences could be saved to floppy.
This was especially useful when someone else owned the same unit and only the floppy needed to be carried to a session.
Floppy drives had also become standard on PC’s, so mass production made them cheap to implement on synths.
Of course a rack version was released as well.
Korg also started another new trend with the T-series, where the instrument came in different keyboard sizes.
All together there were 6-versions of the 01/W:
- 01/W (61-keys)
- 01/Wfd (built-in floppy-drive and larger sequencer memory)
- 01/Wpro (76-keys version of 01/Wfd)
- 01/WproX (88-weighted action keys built in a large wooden cabinet)
- 01R/W (rack-version of 01/W)
- 03R/W (stripped down rack version)
There was an 05R/W micro-module, that suggests it was related, but this was a 9,5-inch rack version of the X5 keyboard.
Specs: (compared to the M1).
- The 01W had 48-MB worth of PCM samples instead of the standard 4-MB on the M1 (8-MB on M1ex).
- The 01W had double the voices, so 32 instead of 16.
- This allowed the 01W to stack 16-sounds in a performance instead of 8 on the M1.
- The sequencer could hold 4x the amount of number of events.
- This allowed the sequencer to be 16-track compared to 8 on the M1.
- The FX types were further expanded.
- User programs were doubled from 100 to 200.
- The filter was still digital (VDF) and there was no resonance.
Possibly one of the most forgotten synths in history, because it didn’t quite make an impact and this combined with the fact that it’s a workstation, gives it very little appeal, but that little appeal might just be what you’re looking for.
Pretty much every form of synthesis has been explored over the years.
Pretty much every type of synthesis is still being used today and each type has been improved to some degree.
The only form of synthesis that has made a major leap in sound quality is sampling.
Because the 01/W comes from an era where sampling was still an adolescent, the sound of the 01/W is pretty Lo-Fi.
This Lo-Fi quality can be used as an advantage, because nothing else new on the market will give you that.
If you already have a wide plethora of synths and you’re still missing something, something with character that pokes out, then the 01/W can be an amazing new discovery, that can be acquired for a bargain price.
Initially you might scratch your head wondering why you bought such cheesy sounding synth, with its awfully dull grey looks, tediously hard to program buttons and perhaps even inhibiting some issues, but the more you’ll find yourself puzzled, the more intriguing this instrument becomes.
It may take a while before you start appreciating this synth, but you will eventually grow to love it and discover its uniqueness.
Just make sure that before you enter this love relationship, to do a thorough health check.
Digital components are not as common as analog components.
If you are looking for the best synth-action-keyboard, this is it.
There is no other keybed that can even get close, because these keybeds were expensive to make, due to the amount of led used in them.
For me it holds quite a bit of the nostalgia factor, because I later discovered that it was used a lot on early 90's Fusion records. One of my favourite keyboard players "Russel Ferrante" used it on a few Yellowjackets albums and it travelled with him on live gigs throughout the 90's.