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Korg M50

VIEWS: 85 PAGES: 8

									Korg M50
Synthesizer Workstation
                                                           Published in SOS October 2008


Reviews : Keyboard workstation

Is there still a place for the workstation in the computer dominated studio of 2008? Korg
certainly think so, and they're making a compelling case with their brand-new,
touchscreen-equipped M50, offering much of the power of the acclaimed M3 for around
half the price. Our world exclusive review digs deeper...
Paul Nagle
I'm sure most Sound On Sound readers don't need
reminding that cash is far from abundant right now.
Prices are rising, credit is being crunched and getting to
work on horseback could soon be a serious proposition.
In this climate, few of us would risk sneaking an ultra-
expensive new toy past the other half. The drive to get      Photos: Mark Ewing
more bang for your buck was never more acute.

Korg's budget TR series of workstations was arguably a tad dated when introduced in
2006. I remember ending the TR88 review by suggesting the Triton cow had been milked
to death and it was hopefully time to move on to pastures new, perhaps to a spin-off from
the mighty OASYS. OK, this sentiment arose more from greed than from any pre-cog
ability, but if the TR series was 'Triton Lite', then its replacement, the brand spanking
new M50 range, can justifiably be tagged 'M3 Lite' (the M3 workstation was sourced
from OASYS technology). Before we begin, you might (as I've just done) enjoy a quick
recap of the M3's prowess by revisiting last July's SOS.


                                      On the M-way

When briefed of the existence of a mystery synth from Korg, it was seriously hush-hush
— even Google didn't know it existed. From what I was able to piece together from
whispered conversations, intercepted carrier pigeons and my trusty crystal ball, the M50
was to be blessed with the high-quality sounds and effects of the M3. Add an onboard
sequencer, twin arpeggiators and a dedicated drum arpeggiator, plus a touchscreen,
bundled software and computer integration, and it promised much of the M3's
considerable charm — but at a dramatically reduced price. Thus, should you be on the
brink of selling your firstborn to finance an M3, it might be a good idea to hold off for a
moment and consider the M50.
Having been sworn to secrecy, I snuck the box into the house
under cover of darkness, and into my lair. Resembling a more
slimline relative of the workstation that started it all — Korg's M1
— the rounded black plastic panel (tilted to a workable angle) and
glowing red buttons appeal far more to my taste than the M3's
white 'home keyboard' style. The eye-catching central screen,
backlit joystick and bare minimum of knobs for real-time
tweaking (is there any other kind?) impart a certain minimalistic
style. Less endearing, the M50's lightweight plastic shell will need
careful protection if exposed to a life on the road. I doubt the
rather bendy span of plastic placed beneath the keyboard would
survive a serious knock unscathed.                                     The M50's orange-
                                                                       lit joystick control
The rear connections didn't inspire massive confidence either,         makes it very
especially the wobbly external power supply which, fortunately,        unlikely that you'll
can be rendered secure by looping its lead around the integral         not be able to locate
cable hook. Oh, and Korg's ongoing quest to produce the world's        it in the dark.
most varied collection of power adaptors shows no sign of running
out of steam either.

There are two models of the M50 available at the moment. The synth-action 61-key
version (under review here) uses a semi-weighted 'Natural Touch' keyboard, while the
M50-88 incorporates Korg's top-of-the-line Real Weighted Hammer Action 3 (RH3). I
found the review model's keys pretty good but was disappointed (if not surprised) to find
no aftertouch present. Korg rather sneakily suggest in the synth's MIDI implementation
chart that aftertouch (poly and channel) is transmitted and received; however, the small
print admits that this only applies to sequencer data.

Consistent with its 'affordable' status, the M50 sports just a single pair of audio outputs,
along with a headphone socket. MIDI Thru has been abandoned too. Pedal inputs fare a
little better: there are two assignable offerings, plus a dedicated damper pedal input. This
latter can make use of Korg's 'half damper' DS1H pedal, which would doubtless pair up
well with the 88-note version's piano action. USB connectivity is present (about which
more later), as is external storage for your data, courtesy of an SD card slot. Cards of up
to 2GB can be used.

As you can see from our photos, knobs are rather thin on the ground. In fact, apart from
the sequencer's tempo control, there are just four of them in total, their functions
determined by a set of buttons. They control the ubiquitous filter cutoff and resonance,
plus envelope amount and release time. Or, at the push of a button, they will perform four
user-programmed functions instead. Push another button and they transmit the MIDI
control data of your choice to external devices. Up to 128 different external setups can be
maintained for the knobs and chord trigger switches, which definitely felt like overkill to
me. More button pressing and yet another alternative role springs into life. In this mode
the knobs vary parameters of the arpeggiator, such as the octave range or gate time.
                                         Synthesis

I've lost track of the number of 'different' varieties of S&S synthesis that have come and
gone over the years, but as each one seems to last typically two or three models, this
perhaps isn't a conclusive sign of my impending dotage. Korg's latest is EDS (Enhanced
Definition Synthesis), the very same method of tone generation found in the M3. There is
also a generous splodge of REMS on board too, which is not related to dream exploration
or the BASIC computer programming language, but rather the acoustic modelling of
microphones, speakers, tubes and transistors. (REMS stands for Resonant structure and
Electronic circuit Modelling System.)

Wacky acronyms aside, the M50 houses an impressive
256MB of wave memory, serving up a total of 1077
multisamples (seven of which are stereo) as well as
1609 drum samples (116 of these are stereo). Mono is
fine for the majority of the instrumental samples; the
raw waveforms are teeming with life and serve as
impressive starting points for Korg's latest synthesis
engine.

While the M3 can boast 120 notes of polyphony, the
M50 runs to a still-healthy 80 voices in single mode. It
drops to half of that when two oscillators are layered
                                                             The front-panel controls of the
and falls further when stereo multisamples and velocity
                                                             M50 are mostly based around
crossfading are brought into play. Each voice contains
an oscillator section capable of handling up to eight        buttons, a control wheel and
stereo multisamples with up to four filters, two             the unit's four assignable
amplifiers, five LFOs, and five envelopes. Admittedly        knobs — but don't forget that
not revolutionary in any way, this form of synthesis is      you have the touchscreen as
more than capable and offers some juicy tone-mangling        well.
extras such as amplifier drive and low boost.

The filter section incorporates two 12dB filters for each oscillator and all the standard
types are on offer — low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and band-reject modes. They can be
employed individually or, if two filters are used, routed in series, in parallel, or combined
into a rather spiffing 24dB mode.

Modulation is more than adequately covered too: each LFO features 18 waveforms, with
scope to vary them further by shifting phase and amplitude. Special mention must go to
the AMS (Alternate Modulation Source) function, with its wealth of possibilities, such as
its two mixers, ideal for blending multiple sources for use with a single destination. AMS
takes you beyond typical fixed routings and, by offering multiplication, smoothing and
quantisation in its processing, lets you transform the already generous list of input
sources quite radically. Here lies lots of fun!
Additional Software & Plug-in Implementation

Stand-alone workstations are no longer expected to be as insular as once they were. So
the included M50 Editor and plug-in software is for those who prefer to do the heavy-
duty tweaking via a computer instead of the M50's touchscreen. Additionally, the M50
may be incorporated as a plug-in instrument in your favorite DAW host application,
Korg's hardware eagerly taking the strain. VST, Audio Units (Mac), and RTAS formats
are supported. The editor will run stand-alone but the plug-in mode requires the supplied
USB driver. I point this out because, having tried and failed to get this driver working
with Korg instruments I already own, I wasn't too surprised when my PC refused to play
ball once more. Since allocating time to debug Windows driver issues is on my 'to do' list
just after bungee jumping the Avon Gorge in a pink tutu, I had to forgo this particular
USB pleasure. Instead, I ran the editor stand-alone using MIDI. Apart from being
teasingly slow when it came to synchronising the many patches, Combis, drum kits,
arpeggios and drum patterns, this worked just fine.
The supplied CD contains the complete set of manuals (the lengthy and informative
Parameter Guide is PDF only) and the External Setup Template software, plus those USB
drivers — for everyone who doesn't have a Korg-intolerant PC.

                                         Sounds

We've grown to expect big numbers when it comes to onboard patch storage, and the
M50 doesn't disappoint. Those round, friendly buttons offer five banks of user Programs
and four banks of user Combinations, each consisting of up to 16 individual Programs for
multitimbral or layered use. Perhaps because this keyboard is so new, not all its banks are
pre-populated but there are still 608 Programs and 384 Combinations loaded and ready to
entertain you, as well as 32 drum kits (out of a possible 48). Strangely, and almost a lost
relic amongst all the cool stuff, 256 preset GM2 programs and nine GM2 drum kits are
present.

The factory patches are of a very high standard. They are organised so that the first bank
contains pianos, clavs and organs, and the second is oriented more towards bells, strings,
choir and brass. Bank C features woodwinds, guitars and basses, while bank D is packed
with some of Korg's lushest pads yet (which is saying something), alongside a wealth of
usable solo synthesizer patches. The final bank houses tempo-synchronised material and
drum kits.

Other than a rather ghastly Uillean Pipe and a few indifferent Mellotrons (well, compared
to my Nord Wave, anyway), the quality and attention to detail is top notch, with some of
the best strings and pads these ears have encountered. I've long been a fan of Korg's
pianos, and the velocity-switched stereo samples are up there with the very best. I'd love
to have auditioned them with the M50-88, especially as the lower end of some patches
felt a bit overcooked when served up via the synth-action keyboard. With a tweak of the
amplifier's velocity response and some rapid familiarisation with the versatile keyboard
tracking, I soon had the bass end under better control.
Otherwise, it's hard to single out individual patches for praise because so many are highly
playable. There are magical electric pianos, sonorous woodwinds, and drums that range
from groovy to kick-ass. If the single patches are a treat, then the Combinations are a
veritable feast, featuring imaginitive deployment of drums and arpeggiation. I could
easily have lost whole days jamming — if I didn't have this review to write.
Combinations are blessed with an independent three-band EQ for each part, which is
useful when putting a mix together.

If any Combination takes your fancy, you needn't scratch your head wondering how to
port it into the sequencer. Simply press Enter and the sequencer's Record button
simultaneously and 'Auto Song Setup' is engaged. This thoughtful time-saver copies the
current setup into a new song exactly as is, priming it for instant recording. In seconds
you can start to capture an entire performance — even down to interactions with the
Drum Track and arpeggiators — with no recourse to menus or manual.

A Touching Display

Central to all M50 operations is the monochrome
touchscreen, which is bright and clear with concise
graphics, and subtle shading where appropriate. I
found its response took some getting used to. I'm a big
fan of touchscreens generally, zipping my way round a
Triton or V-Synth by speedy prods of my finger. Alas,
my technique didn't impress the M50 at all. Only when The M50's touchscreen is a
I slowed down and made very deliberate touches did          welcome control bonus.
the screen acknowledge each action reliably. It took
about a day before I adapted to it, but then things improved — although (even after
calibration) I still experienced occasional 'accuracy frustration' when selecting the
smallest fields.
Having touched an on-screen object, its value can be adjusted using a slider, increment
buttons, the numeric keypad or the alpha dial. Those should cover most of the methods
you've encountered — the main omission being that you can't drag on-screen objects with
your finger as you can on some touchscreens. Ultimately, these 320x240 pixels are a
welcome bonus: your window into pages of mix information, synthesis parameters,
sequencer data and more.

Sequencer

Workstation sequencers are either relished for their convenience or bypassed in favour of
computer-based alternatives. With 16 MIDI tracks and an extra time/tempo track, the
M50's version is capable enough. It offers up to 128 songs, a capacity of 210,000 notes
and a maximum recording resolution of 480ppqn. If you insist on precision, you can
record in step time or may prefer to quantise recordings made in real time. Needless to
say, there are extensive editing operations — down to individual events if necessary —
which is all you'd expect from the company that popularised the workstation concept in
the first place.
For live use there are a number of handy utilities. A cue list of up to 99 songs can be
specified to be played in a chain; you can even program the number of times each song
should repeat. Standard MIDI files created elsewhere can be imported and played back,
and the sequencer can act as a System Exclusive data filer for other gear.

Even in the studio, working fast is the name of the game. Sixteen template songs are
provided in a variety of styles, which you can tweak and re-save to user locations as
customised starting points. Working from scratch isn't exactly a chore, though. I
especially enjoyed setting a whole song to loop, then overdubbing drum or bass tracks to
get things moving. Those starter tracks can then be looped individually — over any range
of measures you specify — as you expand your song with further tracks. Sadly, you can't
change loop points during playback. In fact, the sequencer needs to be stopped for a
variety of operations, which was somewhat unexpected. While regular stopping is a
minor annoyance, the biggest limitation of all is by design: the M50 lacks any form of
audio sequencing. Having been impressed with the audio-capable sequencer of Roland's
similarly-priced Juno G, the M50's implementation feels a bit lame in comparison,
especially as it doesn't feature MTC and MMC, which would enable painless sync'ing
with external audio hardware or software. Finally, as songs are lost on power-off, don't
forget to save them to SD card or to a computer.

Arpeggiator & Drum Track

The dual polyphonic arpeggiator is a throwback to Triton days rather than the KARMA 2
implementation seen on the M3 and OASYS. Having owned a KARMA synth for a
while, I realised that even here in gloomy England there simply weren't enough rainy
days for me to sit down and fathom it all out. Although I've not had the pleasure of
exploring the improvements of KARMA 2, I don't find it a serious omission. The M50's
arpeggiators do their job with no fuss or bother; indeed, there are features here that I
think should be present in all arpeggiators — particularly the key sync and keyboard
trigger options. Turning key sync off avoids unwanted and annoying interruptions to the
pulsing flow of an arpeggio, while activating keyboard trigger enables you to blend
normal keyboard performance with arpeggiated notes, again without causing hiccups in
their flow. Further pluses include an ability to set keyboard and velocity zones — so you
can, for example, generate bass arpeggios with your left hand and play natural solos with
your right, all within a single patch.

Going beyond the typical modes of Up, Down and so
on, the M50 sports the polyphonic arpeggiator seen on
previous Korgs. This covers everything from drums
(using the Fixed Note Mode) and bass lines to
sequencer-like patterns and complex backing phrases.        The M50's rear panel with
Basically, the arpeggiator rocks — so it's wonderful that   MIDI I/O, pedal sockets,
you can store up to 1028 user patterns, with 900            stereo outs and headphone out.
preloaded ready to start exploring!                         Also found on the back, but
                                                            not shown here, are the USB
If all that isn't sufficient, Stephen Kay's KARMA           port and the SD card slot.
software is available for the M50, but as an optional extra. If KARMA is your thing, you
can add it to the M50's armoury; the main difference between that and the M3
implementation is that the software to spawn the KARMA trickery runs on your
computer and not the synth itself.

The Drum Track is a dedicated drum arpeggiator offering 671 patterns instantly poised
for action — with space to store up to a thousand of your own! Korg boast that this will
"stimulate and support your real-time performance and song production", and for once I
have to agree wholeheartedly. You can program original drum patterns in the sequencer
or start from an existing pattern. Then simply assign the drum kit of your choice and
you're done. You can do this for every patch, meaning that there will always be
something appropriate waiting in the wings. As for standard arpeggios, drum patterns can
be activated in specified zones of the keyboard or by playing a note strong enough to pass
a velocity threshold.

In Combination and Sequencer modes you can take advantage of dual arpeggiator
functionality and a Drum Track. Instant arrangements of surprising complexity and
subtlety can therefore be summoned at your command. I've already expressed the opinion
that the arpeggiator rocks — but in Combination mode the package becomes almost
irresistible. Like many of life's vices luring you to wallow in indulgent, effortless
pleasure, all this will probably become illegal one day.

Conclusion

Close your eyes and the M50 could easily pass for an M3, which is itself capable of
mimicking the PCM sound engine of the OASYS. This alone might be sufficient to dispel
your lust for either of these high-end instruments. The M50's plush, cultured tones are an
absolute joy to play and the Drum Track, paired with those powerful arpeggiators, could
be the perfect catalyst to get you hammering out fresh ideas.

Once I adapted to it, the touchscreen rendered the bulk of navigation and patch editing a
pleasure, and on an instrument in this price range it is a definite bonus. Less inspiring was
the lightweight plastic construction: should you be considering an M50 for extensive
gigging, a sturdy flightcase and careful handling will be important.

In the earlier Korg TR series, sampling was offered as a user option. Sadly, this option is
not found on the M50, and I can only surmise that very few of these must have been
purchased. Lack of any form of expansion means that you have to be content with what
you've got — but, fortunately, 256MB of waveforms translates to plenty!

If it's not just a versatile synthesizer that you need but the total workstation experience,
you'll have to decide whether the M50's MIDI-only sequencer cuts the mustard. It is
certainly simple and powerful, but Roland's Juno G offers MIDI and audio and could
prove to be stiff competition, especially given its superior polyphony, sample playback
and expansion options. But it's a close-run race, the M50 countering effectively with
hordes of M3-class Programs and Combinations, with its touchscreen and with its more
advanced effects provision.

Once again, Korg have raised the standard against which all affordable workstations will
be judged. Any thrifty musician going workstation shopping should ignore the M50 at
their peril.

M50 Effects

Korg have long understood the importance of a solid effects implementation to add final
colouration or drastic processing, whether to individual patches or complete songs.
Taking the format, if not the algorithms, from the Triton series, the M50 contains up to
five insert effects, two master effects and a blessedly straightforward means of putting
them together. One 'total' effect is provided as well: ideal for processing the entire mix.
In addition to delays and reverbs, there is a plethora of excellent chorus, phaser and
flanger effects, including compressors, limiters, and amp modelling driven by the REMS
technology mentioned in the main text. I was pleased to find lots of tempo-sync options
and impressed by the innovative presence of two common FX LFOs — perfect for
synchronising modulation across multiple concurrent effects.
With 170 different high-quality algorithms to choose from, this is an area where the M50
puts similarly priced workstations into the shade. Sixteen of the algorithms are 'double-
size' and are thus only available as insert effects. Unsurprisingly, double-size algorithms
take up two effect slots, but with careful deployment of what you have, plus the EQ for
each multitimbral part, you should be able to produce some slick-sounding mixes. As
there are no individual audio outputs available on the M50, this is just as well.

Published in SOS October 2008

								
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