Version tested: DS
Back in the old days, in the late eighties and early nineties, when I was a struggling young musician with more talent than money, all I wanted was a KORG synthesiser. The other spotty oiks and I would linger longingly in music shops before we were tazered out of the door by surly assistants, wishing we could scrape together the thousands of pounds the beautiful big KORG keyboards cost. The M1 was, and still is, the biggest-selling digital keyboard of all time, bigger even than the Yamaha DX7. Successive KORG keyboards introduced staggering new levels of sonic wickedness - every synthesised sound was like the opening of the soundtrack to Bladerunner, or Dune, or, hmm, Never Ending Story.
The trouble was that each sound was so distinctive that you could only really use it once. Which meant that, 128 songs later, you'd pretty much rinsed your keyboard.
While other companies pursued higher and higher fidelity samples (i.e. recordings of actual instruments) KORG pursued synthesising excellence. They got excited about manipulating sounds rather than emulating them. And they starting making weird new electronic instruments that didn't look like instruments, but looked like a table-top Pong game, or possibly a Magna Doodle. They took synthesising technology, effectively stuff from the sixties and seventies, and found new ways to present it. Hence the return of bleepy Moog sounds and fat analogue basses to dance music.
One of the most popular new pieces of kit was the KORG KAOSS. It was a flat tablet that let you tweak sounds in all kinds of ways. And that is, in principle, what they have stuffed into the KORG DS-10 Synthesiser for the DS, although it's based mainly on an MS-20.
In it you get a basic 3-track sequencer, which covers Synths 1 and 2 and four-part Drums. Everything's monophonic, so you can only play one note at a time on each part (but more on that in a bit). You can input notes via an on-screen keyboard, or on a piano-roll grid, either playing live or step-recording. Once you've done that, you get to play. You can pick saw waves, sine waves, portamento... There are filters, there's even a virtual patch bay where you can draw patch leads from one output to another input, just like in the good old days when a synthesiser looked like a GPO Phone Exchange and weighed about five tons.
If you've ever played about with Reason, this will all be gleefully familiar territory. If you haven't, and I confess I haven't very much, it all seems a bit nerdy, frankly. It's fun, and the interface is pretty easy to navigate your way around, but synthesising sound is not hugely intuitive. That said, it's all pretty robustly designed, and it's hard to completely destroy your work.
You build a Pattern - a one-bar phrase. You can then copy the pattern and modify it, and as you build them up, you can string patterns together one after the other to build a song. And you can save 18 songs, each containing 16 patterns.
All of which is clever enough, although I suspect processor-wise you could probably do much the same on a top-notch Blackberry. But the whole point of making it on the DS is the similarity between the DS interface and the KAOSS pad. Once you've got your groove on, you can start to really muck about with it using the inbuilt KAOSS window. As you wiggle your stylus, you affect two parameters, one on the X axis, and one on the Y. There are three different pads, affecting Gate & Note (i.e. which note gets played, and how short that note is), Volume & Pan, and Peak and Cutoff, which lets you do filter sweeps (like the way bass and treble is affected when you make the sound "Neeeooowwwwww").
After that, there's a mixer, with some nice effects; chorus, flange and delay. The delay is particularly handy in that it allows you to have more than two notes sounding at the same time, so you can almost build - gasp - chords. And with two people, you can share a piece of music wirelessly, with both people tweaking it collaboratively.
I was initially pretty ambivalent about this software. But I did find that I could start to put something together with comparative ease - and I really don't come from the knob-twiddling school of music-making. The interface is either wickedly retro, or shockingly poor, depending on your point of view. It's a big monochrome circuit diagram, basically, punctuated by the odd red blinking pixel. But then again, it's all about the sound, innit. And the sound is really not bad. Not too much noise coming off the filters, which happens with a lot of cheap freeware synths. You could, if you really wanted to, make something meaningful with this software. It's not like Electroplankton. It's absolutely not a toy.
It sort of leaves me wondering who it's for. A musician with enough knowledge to get the maximum out of the DS-10 probably wouldn't bother. They'd have their own, better kit. If you don't have a laptop and want to muck about on the train, I guess it would be fun. It sort of makes me think of those people who install Linux on an Xbox, or nutty despots who make supercomputers out of PS2s - just because you can, does it necessarily mean it's a good idea?
I'm now in a position where I have more money than talent (don't get jealous - I never had very much talent), and I would rather put the money towards a better microphone, or more RAM, or a tambourine, I think. That said, I have found I keep returning to it, I keep tweaking my tune... There is something cool about it. And it is undoubtedly a very powerful tool in the right hands.
If you've got the money, I'd suggest you got a Yamaha QY70 and a Zoom H4 recorder if you want to make music on the hoof. And if you want to sequence stuff in any depth or sample on the DS, you really should check out the excellent NitroTracker. But if you like the idea of mucking about, making little trancey bleepy bits of stuff, maybe just creating elements for a bigger project in your home studio, this is a nice little tool. If you had the patience, you could build something really impressive. I just don't know that I have the patience.
8 / 10
The KORG DS-10 Synthesiser for DS is out now.