korg_ms20

It’s 1978 all over again. Only 35 years have made it lighter and more compact – not a bad way to age.

And the result: a $599 analog synth with its original manual and circuitry that’s a pleasure to own. Speaking as a product of 1978 myself (yes, I share the same birthday as the MS-20), I’d say ’78 is holding up just fine in 2013.

The Korg MS-20 synth needs little introduction. Combining a versatile set of sound sources with accessible front-panel controls and patch cable options, it is even today one of the loveliest ways to create sounds with synthesis. It has become rare and expensive, then, partly because it has withstood the test of time.

Korg has mined its back catalog heavily here before, releasing versions for Mac, Windows, iPad, and Nintendo DS, and even repurposing and releasing the filter circuit. But for the first time, Korg is reissuing the entire synth.

News of the MS-20 Mini made quick rounds on the Internet when the story leaked – ironically, via Korg themselves. But CDM has gotten first access to the actual hardware. We’ll have a full review, video, and sounds in the coming days. First, I want to provide some hands-on impressions and share what this instrument is like, having spent some time with it myself.

Reissues are a tough business. Generally, when synth classics reemerge, they’re remade and modernized – sometimes successfully updating the design, sometimes alienating the people who loved the original. The MS-20 Mini is unique in that it is actually a faithful recreation of the original. In fact, without some sort of reference to scale, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the Mini from the original in a photo. (Only the slightly different jack radius, keybed details, and ridges on the mod wheel are giveaways.) The Mini is 86% of the size of the original, but in weight and scale, it feels far more minimal. Even the patch connections and audio output now use an 1/8″ minijack.

The MS-20 Mini itself, though, sounds, feels, and acts just like the MS-20 original. Korg says they have reproduced the 1978 circuitry, down to the internal power specifications. The only modification is the Voltage-Controlled Amplifier, which now improves on signal-to-noise ratio for a cleaner sound. I haven’t been able to A/B the new MS-20 with a maintained elder MS-20, but let’s forget about authenticity for a moment. The synth sounds just fantastic, and the signal-to-noise improvements make it seem as though someone wiped a bit of dust off the classic, letting it shine.

An image from 1978. Yes, you can make an MS-20 sound sorta kinda like a banjo, if you really want.

An image from 1978. Yes, you can make an MS-20 sound sorta kinda like a banjo, if you really want.

And here’s what it sounds like, in a collage of noises we made while shooting the first hands-on video and unboxing. (Warning: we made like ramen, and noodled. Thanks to synthesist Easton West for most of the sounds. All dry, straight out of the MS.)

You do get MIDI input (via DIN), and MIDI input/output (via USB), plus a modern power adapter. The MIDI implementation is useful, if minimal: channel is fixed to 1, and the MS responds only to notes. (It also transmits notes, but only notes, over USB from the keyboard.) But then, the MS is all about twisting knobs and connecting patch cables. And it’s not hard to imagine someone fairly new to analog having loads of fun with just the MS-20 Mini and a knob or two – no credit card-busting modular needed.

Otherwise, the MS-20 Mini would be so home in 1978 that Korg has reproduced the original Owners’ Manual and printed-out set of patch cords. Just reading the manual is a heart-warming experience, so I couldn’t resist providing some photos here while we work on our full review and video and samples. (In fact, a sobering moment is picking up the poor typography of the modern Korg manual insert. Not all the “progress” since 1978 has been an improvement – though more on that in the review.)

So, you have essentially a real MS-20, at a fraction of the price (used, let alone the 1978 list in 2013 dollars), with none of the ownership headaches, less weight, and the ability to send and receive MIDI.

And, as such, we get to reproduce 1978 specs here these 35 years later. What’s changed: these are now things that more people care about and love than they did in the 70s.

  • 2 oscillators, ring modulation
  • Original VCA design, improved for better signal-to-noise
  • Original filter design (Korg notes that the MS-20 received a filter modification halfway into its production life, but opted for the more aggressive, distinctive original)
  • Use pitch or volume from an external source, like an electric guitar or mic. (Or, as the ’78 manual suggests, a boom box!)
  • Patch like crazy. Modulation in and out, trigger, sample and hold, and noise generator can be patched together for custom sounds and even sound effects.

Now, the price. The Internet was wrong. Street price is US$599.

Learn how to use the MS-20 Mini by opening the 1978 manual - nothing has changed.

Learn how to use the MS-20 Mini by opening the 1978 manual – nothing has changed.

Korg doesn’t really need me to sell this thing at that price, so any love I express is my own.

My video crew responded similarly. I think if we didn’t have other things to do, we would have kept playing all night. An intern appeared – sworn (successfully) to strict secrecy – and got lost in the keyboard. You can get carried away even before you whip out the patch cords.

So, assuming we can drag ourselves away from the MS to the far less-fun world of Final Cut, yes, we’ll have a proper video and review from Berlin soon.

Korg’s video, featuring the original creators of the MS-20:

Party Like It’s 1978

Here’s a browse through the beautiful, often-quirky manual from 1978. Compare this to poor, Microsoft-style typography today, and dry documentation, and I’d say there’s something to be learned – not only nostalgia, but a way to make our synth experience better.

ms20manual_15

ms20manual_14

ms20manual_13

ms20manual_12

ms20manual_11

ms20manual_09

ms20manual_08

ms20manual_06

ms20manual_05

ms20manual_04

ms20manual_03

ms20manual_02

ms20manual_01

For more fun, here’s an ad from ’78 from a wonderful blog of the same. Everything in it is, of course, still true. (I wish Korg’s typography still looked like this. Korg, can we request that you just run your old editorial, please?)

ms-20_keyboardmag

  • http://twitter.com/pomfmaster2000 Eugene

    SWEET JESUS

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=765835808 Tony Scharf

    There is one question that hasn’t been answered. Are the voltages compatible with eurorack standards? Can I actually patch this thing into my big rig and get all the perks and benefits that would bring?

    • Bojan

      They say it in the video – all the voltages in the synth are exactly the same as the original. If the original MS20 worked with eurorack modules this one will, too.

    • ZooTooK

      Here’s the spec from Korg.com
      VCO:

      VCO-1 + VCO-2 external frequency control input (OCT/V) (-5V – +5V)

      VCF:

      External signal input (3Vp-p max.)

      External High pass filter cutoff frequency control input (2OCT/V) (-5V – +5V)

      External Low pass filter cutoff frequency control input (2OCT/V) (-5V – +5V)

    • http://twitter.com/certaincreature Certain Creatures

      euro is v-trig, v/oct while korg is s-trig, hz/volt. harvestman is coming out with a utility module called English Tear, which will convert the signals: http://trashaudio.com/2013/01/harvestman-english-tear-namm-notes/

  • Joe

    I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this! So psyched so see one in the flesh.

    That’s what I was wondering too, Tony. If it’s faithful to it’s father then it will be Hz/v and euro is 1v/oct, so I imagine tuning would be all out of whack if that is the case.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      That’s what’s topping our list for testing — working out how to integrate this with modulars.

  • gLOW-x

    Oh no ! Once again…a killer affordable hardware synth. I tried so hard to take my hands away from hardware synths like this one, because i know if i touch one…they are going to grow like mushrooms in my room.
    It is so hard to resist :D

  • Jason

    How is the build quality of the unit? Does it feel like cheap plastic or is it solidly built, tight knobs, nice feel on the keys etc… Thats the only thing that I’m on the fence about!

  • Aaron

    been waiting this day for 20+ years… finally no more “its too expensive” or… “I dunno if I can trust this ebay dood from japan that has 50 ms-20s” – excuses. best synth release in over a decade … at least… IMO!

  • guest

    Wait. KORG released a miniature MS-20 back in 2004 which was a USB controller. I guess there’s a warehouse in Japan that was still full of unsold units. Putting replica guts in the box sounds groovy but I seem to remember people weren’t that keen on the form factor back then.

    • Ed

      The reissue is slightly bigger than the legacy usb controller apparently but yes, I’m sure most people would prefer full sized keys, personally I’m so pleased that they’re even doing this and at such a good price that the size isn’t really a concern.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I really don’t have a problem with the mini keys on this kind of monosynth. I found it eminently playable, and it makes the overall form factor feel really right – the original MS-20 is a bit bulky.

    • Aaron

      the mini keys on this also appear to be more like the ones on things like the Micro-X which are much closer to fullsized keys rather than the uber-tiny keys found on things like the microkorg or the legacy controller.
      I wouldn’t try to equate this to the usb/vst midi controller either. that was a small run one off for a vst. This is the MS-20, remade. Apples and Oranges.

  • larry9

    Four years ago I was in the theater when avatar got a standing ovation; I had never felt so alienated. Now the entire internet is is happy about the korg ms-20. It feels good.

  • Guiltin

    Roland should learn a few lessons with Korg…

  • Chris Sciurba

    That looks like so much fun.

  • crazy4keys

    how much does it weigh?Does anyone know?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chromatouch Leon Trimble

    they will sell out.

  • Steve G

    FINALLY!!! This is exactly what the synth buying public wants…give us true reproductions of the most time tested, inspiring and beloved synths of all time. Roland…take note and give us a Jupiter 8 full analog reissue that cuts no corners in tone or quality and it would be the biggest seller in decades! We want to buy it so please listen to your customers.

  • Curtis

    THANK YOU KORG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This is what the synth buyers want these days and that’s a return to the beautiful simplicity and ORGANIC feel and ease of knobs, sliders, patch bays etc…we’re tired of lifeless, digital sounding crap and endless menus to scroll through that take too long and stifle creativity. We ant to have fun twisting knobs in real time and not simulated knobs on a touch menu that drive you nuts! It needs to be human, immediate, easy and sound organically analog and rich. Everyone wants these old classic synths because they got it right the first time and it inspired us. Those of us who either did not have the money or were not around at the time want our shot at owning these classics to see how they might inspire us…we want to have fun again. These are some of the classic ones that would be great reissued as hardware synths. Keep the same look and layout and just add updated connectivity and more preset storage. Why is guitar companies like Fender and Gibson have no problem with reissuing their most iconic, classic and desired products with exacting production details but the the Synth Manufacturers have been so resistant to give keyboardist what they want? Why can’t they both forge ahead with new designs while offers reissues of their best classics? Celebrate and be proud of these synths that made your companies famous by giving us faithful reissues.
    Next up….Roland Jupiter 8, OB-8xa, Prophet 5?

  • Greg Lőrincz

    I got sick and tired of my own (and other people’s) gear-lust until now. I want one. Now.

    • wardtf

      Me to :-) Haha

  • ushaped

    As an owner of an original MS20, I’m going to need a lot of pin-to-quarter-inch adapters!

  • ndkent

    Great to see this out (or out again). I am curious about the dilemma that the original poses in interfacing with other gear, namely both the control voltage and gate are different standards (Hz/V and negative gate vs 1v/oct and positive gate that just about all current analog gear uses). Have they preserved the old interfacing standards to make it behave the same at the expense of pitch and gate interfacing with other stuff?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dougwgough Doug Gough

    Now they just need to rerelease the analog sequencer to go with it :) I’d like that.

  • wardtf

    Moog and Dave Smith are still doing it right, i hope this is Korg’s first step in joining them….

    • Bill

      Dave Smith is no longer doing it right; his new architecture is mostly digital and sounds like it. His analog days are in the past.

  • slabman

    It’s 19.41″ wide including the end plates. That at least raises the possibility of a rackmount version.

    @Doug Gough I hope not just for Korg releasing a sequencer, but for the availability of compatible DIY cases. Be great to put together one’s own take on an MS50 expander

    Re the Hz/Volt issue – this could be a shot in the arm for sales of PAIA’s Fatman kit synth. which is also Hz/Volt

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.kitanodelre Benjamin Kitano Del Re

    I’d like to know if this makes the MS-20 Legacy Controller obsolete since it seems reasonable to assume that this MS-20 clone with USB MIDI can send controller information to the Legacy software.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Not at all. The MIDI implementation covers only note events – the knobs and such communicate only with the analog circuitry inside the MS, and don’t send MIDI. So, as a controller, the MS-20 Legacy Controller remains one-of-a-kind. (I still wouldn’t mind if they kept making that, though now it’d cause some confusion!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.kitanodelre Benjamin Kitano Del Re

      Ah too bad. Can’t have everything, I suppose.