September 13, 2008 Inspired by their mighty MS-10 monosynth, Korg have teamed up with AQ Interactive to deliver the Korg DS-10 software application for the Nintendo DS. It borrows the simple, effective semi-modular synth design of the Korg MS-10 and MS-20 and re-invents it to exploit everything the Nintendo DS has to offer.
Korg DS-10 is a dual voice synth with four analogue drums, effects and an on-board mixer. The sound is surprisingly good. It’s not quite the caliber of something like Reaktor, but there’s plenty of detail there and the analogue modeling sound is warm and convincing. If anything, the sound chip inside the Nintendo DS running the DS-10 software gives the resulting sound it’s own unique quality. The audio that’s output from the Nintendo DS’ internal speakers is near useless, particularly in the bass department, but that’s to be expected for an application like this. Suffice to say, headphones or a cable to an external amp is essential.
The interface looks quite deliberately reminiscent of Korg’s MS synth range. Everything is controlled with the touch screen and stylus and is extremely easy to use. From the launch screen you have the option of single play, multi play (wirelessly linking up to 8 DS’) and data exchange to send and receive song data. From the main program screen you have access to all your edit/controller screens and basic functions like BPM, (adjustable from 10-250) step (length of each bar in a pattern) and swing amount for introducing a more organic feel to sequences. It also shows the signal path through to the mixer so you never feel lost, helping those new to synths jump right in, (which will probably be a large number, given the fact that most users will be gamers first and foremost). Knowing a bit about synths will help you get the best from Korg DS-10, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite and complete beginners will find themselves making 70’s sci-fi sound effects in no time.
Note information for the synth voices can be input in a number of different ways: step sequence – entering notes onto a matrix grid, keyboard input, and Kaoss Pad note entry – X,Y style matrix input again, for those unfamiliar with Korg’s Kaoss Pad system.
With the exception of step sequence, all note info is input in real-time while in record mode. When you finish recording a sequence in real-time though, the note info appears in the matrix grid in your step sequencer should you need to make changes.
From the step sequencer screen you can edit note info like length, (25, 50, 75, 100% and legato) volume, panning (50, 100% left or right, or centre) and there’s Kaoss Pad X/Y automation control edit screens should you want to edit any controller knob movement (more about that later).
The keyboard input screen gives you one octave of a neat little virtual keyboard with octave +/- buttons to go up and down the scale, and the Kaoss Pad screen allows input by mapping note and gate time to X and Y. With some note information in our sequencer we can head to the synth edit screen where the fun begins.
Each synth voice is fed by two oscillators. Each oscillator has a choice of three waveforms or a noise source (triangle, sawtooth, square wave or white noise). There’s an ON/OFF switch to sync the two voltage contoled oscillators (VCO) together for some nice thick lead sounds. With a knob to control the balance between VCO 1&2 and the option to control the pitch of VCO2, some very nice detune effects can also be achieved by letting the oscillators run free.
Global controls for each synth voice include pitch, portamento and feed amount to the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) envelope. The voltage controlled filter (VCF) can be tweaked to be as savage as you want, but is easy to tame and has high-pass, low-pass and bandpass filters on offer.
The patch editor is where Korg DS-10 really shows it’s versatility. Each synth voice is patchable, with it’s own LFO (which again, can be synced to the BPM or run free) offering triangle, sawtooth, square wave and sample & hold (S&H) waveforms.
The LFO can be patched to modulate master pitch in, VCO 1&2, cutoff and VCA (voltage controlled amp) and each of these parameters has a knob to control modulation amount. The envelope generator and VCO 2 can be patched to any of the modules that the LFO can also be patched to… In short, if frequency modulated madness is something you like in your synths, Korg DS-10 delivers in spades.
While the synth and patch editor are very versatile, there’s no way to record any automation info (knob movement) from their respective edit screens. This is where the Kaoss Pad comes into effect.
Aside from the note/gate input screen mentioned earlier, you also have a second screen to input volume and panning info, and a third screen that is fully assignable to any of the editable parameters. Sadly the Kaoss Pad only allows you to record one set of automation parameters to X and Y. While this is limiting, at least you can still carefully edit any automation info in a snap thanks to the X and Y edit screens in the synths step sequencer.
The drums are truly analogue. No samples in sight. Each drum sound is driven by two oscillators and the edit screens for these are identical to the synth voices, including the patch screen. This allows you to generate unique drum and synth-like sounds from the drum voices with ease.
The drum sequencer window gives you all the same edit options that the step sequencer for the synths offer, with the exception of the Kaoss Pad X/Y edit screens as there is no Kaoss Pad control for the drums.
The main drum window (that you see before you access the edit screens) also gives you four drum pads, allowing you to improvise over the top of your sequenced patterns while they play, (and can even be recorded!)
The effects that Korg DS-10 offer are limited. There’s delay, flanger and chorus, but only one of these FX can be applied at a time! They can however be applied to either synth, both synths, the drums, or the whole mix. One nice touch is the fact that in the drum edit screen you can assign this one effect to just one drum sound, meaning you could for example put a little chorus on your hi-hat, without it affecting the punchyness of your kick drum.
The pattern screen is where Korg DS-10 shows it’s versatility in live applications. Up to 16 patterns can be programmed to different pattern “pads.” There’s an option to “lock” the patterns so that one will play out before the next one starts, so you can compose a song with your programmed patterns on-the-fly. Add to this, basic mixer controls at the bottom of the screen to mute and solo tracks within each pattern and it’s versatility becomes clear. Song mode allows you to string together patterns to make, well, a song. You can’t however access any of your edit screens or patterns while in this mode so you can’t improvise with any of the controls while in song mode, making it rather limiting.
While Korg DS-10 is a miniature marvel, it’s not without it’s limitations. Firstly, there’s no way to sync it to any other external gear. No MIDI, no time code, nothing. At best, you could use a DJ mixer with a BPM counter and sync it that way, but even with steady beats or a bassline the results would be sketchy at best.The hardware limitations of the Nintendo DS running the Korg DS-10 application are also obvious with the FX, automation, pattern length (1 bar) and song mode.
But to harp on that would really be missing the point. Given the platform it’s running on and the resulting sound it outputs, the limitations of Korg DS-10 pale in comparison to it’s ability.
Will it be the start of more applications like this for the Nintendo DS? Only time will tell, but I for one, certainly hope so.