There is no doubting that Korg is a company with a rich heritage. Its products have gone on to define the sound of countless records and musical genres. While the Korg name is now synonymous with synthesizers, it’s formative years were primarily concerned with the development and manufacture of drum machines and organs. Founded in 1962 in Japan by Tsutomu Katoh and Tadashi Osanai (under the original trading name Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo Limited), the company’s first product was an electro-mechanical rhythm device called the Donca-matic DA20. Its first keyboard product, an organ prototype developed by Fumio Mieda, came nearly a decade after the release of the Donca-matic. The organ deviated considerably from traditional organ designs, offering programmable voices based on synth-style oscillators. This design concept coupled with Katoh’s recognition of what Moog was doing in the USA and a growing public interest in synthesis lead to the company’s decision to enter the synthesizer market and in 1973 Korg released it’s first synth, the miniKorg 700.
The miniKorg was unconventional and differed considerably from other synth offerings from Moog and Arp. As Gordon Reid writes in his article ‘The History of Korg‘:
Instead, the 700 offered oscillator settings such as ‘chorus I’ and ‘chorus II’ (which produced rich, swirling tones), and its strange percussion/singing controls created envelopes quite unlike those of the competition. But the little synth’s greatest strength was its ‘Traveler’, a low-pass/high-pass filter section that proved to be extremely intuitive and manageable.
In the following years Korg would continue to refine and develop its synthesizer designs. The release of the miniKorg 700s and the duophonic 800DV where huge milestones for the company; the foundations for Korg’s ascendance to synthesizer royalty where well and truely laid.
However, those familiar with the brand will know that Korg’s product range now extends well beyond synthesizers and drum machines. One staple of the range, although uninspiring, is the humble tuner. In 1975 it was Korg who released the world’s first handheld, battery powered electronic tuner, the WT10; a technology that musicians now take for granted. This was an exciting development for the time as it meant that musicians could now tune their instruments anywhere with close to perfect accuracy.
Up until 1976 all of Korg’s synthesizers where monophonic. After experimenting with polyphonic ensembles to little commercial success, Korg finally added the first true polyphonic synthesizers, the PS3100 and PS3300, to its range in 1977. The PS3100 was a giant slayer, offsetting its ‘divide-down’ oscillator architecture by offering independent filters, envelopes and amplifiers for every note. If the PS3100 was David then the PS3300 was surely Goliath; a monster of a polysynth, essentially combining 3 PS3100s’ in the one chassis. Both synthesizers received high praise from the industry’s elite and have attained cult status to the present day.
A history of firsts: Korg’s early products
The following year Korg released the MS series of synthesizers and complimentary modules, the most prominent being the MS-20; not an initial success but now a household name amongst synthesists. Notably the MS-20 has been re-released in several variations since its initial inception: the MS20i controller and soft-synth bundle; the smaller MS20 mini; the MS20 fullsize and MS20 module kits which let owners build an MS20 themselves; and an soft-synth version for the ipad.
With advancing technologies and the popularity of synthesis exponentially growing, the 80s provided the perfect backdrop for taking synth in a new direction. In the early part of the 80’s Korg did just that, ‘zagging’ while everyone else ‘zigged’. Rather then produce a synth that went head-to-head with the flagship synths of the day, Korg aimed at providing a powerful and great sounding synth at an affordable price point. The result was the Polysix and its smaller brother, the Mono/Poly. Both synths were an instant hit with the Polysix outselling any other Korg keyboard.
In the coming years Korg was unable to match the success it had with the Korg Polysix and Mono/Poly. Synths such as the Poly800 and Ex800 were the few bright spots in a series of sub par and mediocre releases. Along with the growth of microprocessor technology came the popularisation of FM and digital modelling synthesis, two areas dominated by Yamaha and Roland. However, Korg was determined to not be defeated and responded with one of the decades most notable synths from any manufacturer, the M1. The M1 incorporated a sample-based sound engine, two digital effects units, a multitrack sequencer and was 16-part multitimbral. While its feature set was impressive, it was the sub £2000 price which separated it from the competition. The M1 was the first workstation to combine such comprehensive features at such a low price point and subsequently defined expectations of what a workstation should be.
The next few decades saw Korg expand its product range to include everything from multitrack recorders to guitar stomp boxes. Fast forward to today and the Korg offering is as expansive as it ever has been. The brand’s range now comprises of synthesisers, pianos, workstations, music production stations, tuners, audio interfaces, DJ products, midi controllers and FX units. The last two decades has seen the resurgence of Korg. From the worlds best selling synth (the microKORG) to the ultra portable VOLCA series range of synths and drum machines, Korg’s ability to innovate and evolve has seen the brand elevated back to the pinnacle of synthesis.
In 2016 Korg changed the game again bringing polyphonic sysnthesis to the masses with the $700 Minilogue. The feature set and value for money of the Minilogue harks back to the ideals that brought the M1 into fruition way back in 1988. In 2018 Korg continues its rich synthesiser legacy with the release of the Prologue series; an 8 & 16 voice polysynth with power and flexibility reminiscent of the PS3100 and 3300 of yesteryear.
Yes Korg’s ‘tip of the hat’ to its own history can be seen throughout the product range. Some things are subtle (like the humble portable tuner, a Korg invention) others like the 2018 KR-55 are a clear homage to its legacy (see 1979 KR-55). For good or bad Korg has always attempted to push the envelope with innovative technologies. It is this ideology that has kept the company at the forefront of synthesis and electronic instruments since the 1960s. Korg’s next chapter is now upon us and i for one can’t wait to keep reading.
P.S: This year Korg celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first synth, the Prototype I.