KORG M01D Review
Posted by Jon Wahlgren
Blast from the past
3DS has amassed a curiously robust library of music creation software for a chunk of hardware built to play video games. The KORG brand in particular has made itself comfy on Nintendo's handhelds in the past few years, starting with an emulation of the classic MS-10 synth in KORG DS-10, and now the M1 gets the software treatment with KORG M01D. Originally released to retail in Japan, M01D arrives in the West as an eShop exclusive.
The KORG M1 is a music workstation released in 1988 whose popularity rolled it on to become the top-selling synthesizer of its time, in large part propelled by the stellar quality of its sounds and a relative ease of use. You've likely come across some of its samples without even realizing it: The synth was a staple in 90's dance music, and acts like Depeche Mode, The Cure and Pet Shop Boys all jammed out with it. Even the Seinfeld theme song owes its jazzy slap bass to the M1. How 'bout them pop culture bona fides?
Anyone who has futzed around with a step sequencer will find M01D's interface familiar. Songs can have up to eight tracks (individual instrument slots) and are broken down into "scenes" with up to 64 "steps" — i.e. notes — in each. Adding a note is as simple as tapping where you'd like it to go. However, creativity doesn't always suit a grid layout, which is where the Kaoss Pad comes in: Sliding the stylus around the bottom of the screen allows performers to play and improvise melodies and chords, and tapping Record will save a performance to a scene. The same can be done using a keyboard layout. Notes can be tweaked on an individual level for things like velocity and gate, and individual scenes can each have their own settings for reverb, delay, feedback, tempo and level. There is less nitty-gritty control over notes than found in Rhythm Core Alpha 2, but there is plenty on offer to help bring a song to life.
The three sound banks carry across them a total of 342 sounds and instruments, which all sound fantastic. The waveform data from the original M1 occupies its own bank, in addition to one compiling sounds from KORG's 1991 station 01/W as well as an extra bank with samples unique to this release.
As M01D emulates the M1, musicians still have to work within the workstation's original limitations and quirks. Songs can only hold so much information so a handy percentage meter shows how much room is left to work with, and there is a maximum of 24 notes able to be played at once — exceeding this limit will cause notes to be dropped. In addition, the original M1 could expand its sonic library by inserting data cards, but no such functionality is emulated for this release — while the 342 sounds on offer is not an insignificant amount, there are some gaps that could stand to be filled, most notably in the vocals department. Finding a specific sample isn't as easy as it could be as sounds are sorted by bank and then by type, and there is no way to search for one by name.
The interface emulates the M1's 40x2-character LCD screen, and navigation involves pressing five softkeys at the top of the screen to get around. It's not the most intuitive interface at times, but as the workstation's functionality isn't insanely extensive the learning curve isn't as overwhelming as it may first appear. However, the interface can feel a little cramped, with lots and lots of information crammed into the bottom screen. The top screen is used to emulate the body of the workstation itself and is, for the most part, space that could be used more efficiently.
Sharing a magnum opus is easy: Songs can be exported in MIDI form to an SD card, sent to a friend over local WiFi and transmitted to a stranger via StreetPass. Furthermore, up to eight systems can connect over the internet to share tracks with 3DS friends. As for harnessing the unique features of the host hardware, M01D makes completely novel and inessential use of stereoscopic 3D by adding depth to the synth's body on the top screen. It's a nice touch, but you'll hardly notice it after the first hour or so.
KORG M01D doesn't attempt being a single solution for music creation. In fact, it does exactly one thing, but it does it very well: it offers as accurate an emulation of the classic M1 synth as you're going to get for the price, even if the interface translates in quirky fashion to the 3DS. There are more fully-featured music suites out there, but the M01D's versatility and the quality of sounds on offer more than make up for the feature gap.