Hands-On Review: Korg M3 Workstation Synth/Sampler Keyboard
Re-Mventing the workstation
By Dave Allen
Korg M3 Workstation
Korg defined the concept of the all-in-one workstation when they introduced the M1 back in the late 80’s, and have been refining it over the years with some of the most popular keyboards of all time, including the Trinity and TRITON. Now the latest edition is here: the Korg M3. It may be part of a legendary bloodline, but it’s the fresh genes running in its DNA that will get most musicians’ interest. The M3 has inherited features from the high-end OASYS and Karma workstations that take it an evolutionary leap beyond the competition.
The 61-key M3 I received for this review looked modern and hip in its sleek aluminum chassis with wood accented end caps. It also has a very unique modular setup with the sound engine and controls in a separate chassis that mounts onto the back of the frame of the key bed. There are also 73-key and 88-key models, with the 88 featuring hammer action. With the modular setup, the larger models allow you to use additional Korg synth modules. With the 73-key version, you can have an M3 and a RADIAS on the same frame. The 88-key frame can host two M3 modules. The module also comes as a tabletop design by itself and includes the whole M3 system—synthesis, sampling, sequencing, and all.
Korg M3 Workstation and Synth Module
The Korg M3’s modular design allows you to add additional Korg synth modules and the M3 is also available as a standalone tabletop synth.
If you’re like me the first question you have is, “Is this just another extension of the TRITON, or is it really new?” Let me clear that up—this is a significant step up from the TRITON in fidelity, sounds, and capabilities. The M3 inherits a lot from the OASYS, although it is a chip-based instrument, as compared to the Pentium-powered, open architecture design of that uber-flagship model. But the M3’s engine—which Korg calls EDS (Enhanced Definition Synthesis)—is similar to the OASYS’ HD-1. Each oscillator can play back stereo waveforms, with four-way velocity switching and crossfading, a big step up from the TRITON. All new filters, more detailed envelope generators, advanced modulation mixers, and much more signify this is a serious synth for programming. Of course, it has sounds to inspire you and make you want to work too.
The first acoustic piano program on the M3 is a four-way switched version of the Steinway from the OASYS and it was a pleasure to play—I’d gladly use this piano live and for tracking in the most critical applications. A number of the other acoustic sounds were just as impressive; the guitars had extra sampled effects like finger slides and fret buzz that made them sound realistic. The various drum and percussion voices also stood out, with natural-sounding velocity switching for the snares. The organ sounds were outstanding. My favorites were JazzPerc Org (A008)—a smoky and warm Hammond that just reeked of jazz club attitude—and Rock Perc (B104)—an overdriven sound that could stand up to the loudest wall of guitar amps.
Every program in the M3 also has a drum track: a drum groove preprogrammed to match each sound in feel and sonics. Call up a program, turn on the drum track and you’ve got a great beat to play along with. While it may not be innovative, it’s inspirational and fun. There are over 500 drum patterns with many played by live musicians, but I found it a snap to sequence my own little groove, save it as a pattern, and assign it to a sound. I was even able to import a favorite sample loop from an Akai CD, create a trigger for it, and use it. Sweet!
Combination mode is another area where Korg always shines. These automatic setups give you multiple sounds layered or split to make functional performances like left-hand bass splits, right-hand leads with left-hand comping, and complex splits and layers that give you an expressive orchestral ensemble or modern remix groove under your fingertips. The M3 ups the ante with up to 16 parts per Combi—double that of previous Korg workstations. When you call up a Combi, you have great sounds and effects programmed, and when combined with a drum track and KARMA, it’s easy to spend hours just jamming along with one sound.
Korg M3 Workstation
Its large color touch screen offers full control of the M3’s power including some unique effect controls derived from the KAOSS PAD.
KARMA is the cool phrase-generating technology Korg introduced in the Karma Music Workstation and further developed in the OASYS. The M3 has the complete OASYS-based version of the technology. There are thousands of KARMA phrases covering everything from drum grooves, bass lines, and guitar strumming and finger-picking to totally outrageous chopping effects and arpeggiators. What makes KARMA arps different is their capacity for real time customization using the onboard sliders and switches. It makes it super easy to add musical patterns to your sounds and ideas without relying on stock arpeggios. It’s a little hard to explain but the instant you try it you’ll see how cool KARMA is.
The M3 has some other tricks up its sleeve, and one of the most addicting is that you can use its color touchscreen as a KAOSS PAD to control effects and other aspects of the sound by moving your finger around on it. And when you do, the screen changes colors—it’s trippy and way cool! The key bed has a fantastic new action with a fast response that also feels really solid and slightly weighted. But the standout aspect was the aftertouch. It was extremely easy to control and add expression. I walked away from my few days with this monster synth totally excited and completely convinced. This is THE synth workstation on my wish list, and should be turning players’ ears for years to come.