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Absolute Kaoss: The story of Mike and his Korg DS-10 (Part Two) August 20, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
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Everyone occasionally feels that the world hates them.  Such was the case today when I found out that my Dell desktop has a known problem with Line-In recording.  As in: it’s claimed that Dell likes to disable it on many of its Vista machines due to some kind of piracy concerns, but actually I know it’s a conspiracy to screw me over, the one time I actually want to use the bloody thing.

So unfortunately, even though I have one tune ready to upload that is the zenith of analogue synth achievement (or a borderline C grade in GCSE music coursework, one or the other), it has to remain confined to my DS for now, repetitively going through its sixteen patterns, wondering when it’s finally going to make its bow in front of an audience.

When you left me at the end of my last piece, I was contemplating my wishes to make music, and the Korg DS-10’s possible shouts of “I am the Holy Grail” to this immortal quest.  But the initial post on PSO was light on detail about how the program actually works, and since then I’ve at least partly got my head around it.

The first feeling when you make your way across the various screens in the DS-10 is one of mild horror, as you can see so many knobs that you think you must have accidentally found your way into a Paul Danan Fan Club convention.  However, the way the program works is surprisingly simple – it’s just the intricacies of creating the sound you want from each synth that baffle, but also reward experimentation.

You can create sixteen separate musical “patterns” to make up a song.  Each of these is made up of two analogue synth parts, plus four drum parts.  Each pattern can be in a sequence of up to sixteen beats, and these are either laid down live in a virtual keyboard controlled by the stylus, or at your leisure on a matrix grid set up to represent the notes and the timings, or (where the drums are concerned) live on the four touch-sensitive drum pads.  This is the easy end of the spectrum.  Simply create a tune on Pattern 1, copy it to Pattern 2, and then change an element – for example, increase the drum frequency to make it sound like the track is starting to build up – and as you carry on throughout the sixteen patterns, you can make something that sounds coherent, but which probably isn’t very exciting.

This is where the other stuff comes into play.  Finding out exactly which turn of which knob or slightly different setting will produce weird and wonderful sounds was part and parcel of the myth of the original MS-10 synth, and this is also very much the case with the DS-10.  There really is something magical about finding a sound you had no idea existed, and then realising with a heavy heart that it’s so good you’re going to have to retcon it back through all the patterns you’ve already created.

But that’s nothing compared to the Kaoss pads.

Once a particular synth pattern has been laid down, it can be modified in real-time (and the recording updated, if you wish) on the virtual, touch-sensitive Kaoss pads.  These are configurable to enable many different note-altering variables to be selected, and just one pattern is perfectly capable of being noodled with on the touch screen for absolutely ages.  It’s easy improvisation – ridiculously enjoyable solo noodling – and a lovely extra that wasn’t on the original MS-10 synth.  It’s one of the things that, when locked onto a particular pattern, can either turn a song to genius, or mess it up completely.  I love it.  Musical maths theorists out there can also adjust the Kaoss pads in whatever pre-set grid arrangement they wish in the advanced sections of the sequence controls.

This is the genius of the DS-10.  It’s simple enough to enable the easy creation of a tune, yet the options available are very deep for a piece of software that’s much cheaper than a “real” synthesiser/sequencer.  For example, remember how I said you can have two analogue synths plus four drums per pattern?  Why not try sacrificing a drum track in order to load up another synth and treat it as a drum, configuring notes for it as you would for a synth, which enables a three-on-three combination?  And how about ditching the pre-set song patterns, and using the patterns screen plus D-pad shortcuts to the various effects options to play your tunes live?  The patterns screen allows you to mute various parts or play one single track on its own, meaning that instead of having to use three or four patterns to build up the beat of a track, you can play it live and build up a particular line yourself in just one, enabling you to free up more pattern memory for creativity.

In many ways the DS-10 reminds me of the SID chip on the Commodore 64, which is interesting because, just as with the programmers who worked on that computer, the trick to producing something potentially memorable is to improvise your way around the memory issues.  The sixteen pattern memory per song really isn’t that much once you get going, but after you learn a few of the ways in which you can stretch this out using the tools available, you start to realise that, while the DS-10 is never going to be better than a $300 program on a PC, you are only ever going to be bound by your own ingenuity up to a certain point.  And, for me, the challenge of learning to reach and then push that boundary is rather compelling.

Next time: More skirting around the issue of what the various knobs do.  And, hopefully, a song link.

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Comments»

1. Joe - November 30, 2008

Very well said. I’m just starting to play around with mine, and I really wish I knew what all those knobs did!


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