Korg’s original hardware MS-20 was released in 1978 and, in the world of analog synthesisers, became a bit of a classic. As a two-oscillator monophonic synth, it shared some similarities with the more up-market ARP 2600 including the ability to re-patch the signal in various ways. This, along with a shed load of knobs, made for a very flexible synth that offered some excellent options for keen programmers, without being so over-the-top, that novice users would be too intimidated. With a ‘who’s who’ list of users including William Orbit, Daft Punk, Portishead, The Shamen and Jean-Michel Jarre, the MS-20 certainly made its mark.
Given its obvious popularity, Korg’s decision to recreate the MS-20 in software will be welcomed by those who were fans of the original. And while the iPad iMS-20 music app version might seem expensive in app terms at £22.99, as a decent working example of the original hardware MS-20 can now cost over £1000 (or the equivalent €/$ price), if the app is even a half-decent recreation of the original, then it would represent something of a bargain.
Of course, if you were so inclined, you could get into some sort of geeky debate about how accurately the software recreates the features and sound of the hardware instrument. However, I suspect the closest the vast majority of potential purchasers of the iMS-20 have ever come to the hardware version is through the listening to the music produced by the types of artists listed above (myself included). So, interesting though it might be to compare the software recreation with the hardware original (and if anyone want’s to point us to an authoritative opinion that’s been published then please do), let’s forget the comparison for now and consider something a little simpler. Is the iMS-20 a good virtual analog synth?
The iMS-20 app is built around its main synth engine that provides a single monophonic sound source. This is complemented by 16 step pattern-based sequencer allowing you to create multiple patterns within a project and then sequence those patterns to create a song-like structure. In addition to main synth, you also get a six-part drum machine so you can add analog drum parts to your patterns. In addition, you can assign synth sounds to any one of these drum slots so, if you use (for example) a bass sound in one slot, you can add a bass line to your overall production. Given this is an emulation of an analog synth, the sounds can get very rich sounding so, with the main synth, drums and a bass line all going at once, it is perfectly possible to create a full arrangement using just using the iMS-20.
Other features include the virtual keyboard (the size of the keys can be adjusted to suit your finer size and playing abilities), a mixer, a collection of effects units and, for an alternative sound control and playing approach, a pair of X-Y control pads – the Kaoss Pads. Thankfully, Korg have made it easy to get your finished compositions out of the iMS-20 – both SoundCloud and AudioCopy are supported and it is also straightforward to get WAV files (in a 16-bit, 44.1kHz stereo format) over to your Mac or PC either of your whole song or of individual patterns. Control via external MIDI hardware is supported. All in all, this makes for quite a feature list
Have I seen you before?
The iMS-20 doesn’t just try to sound like the original hardware synth – as shown in the screen shots (click on any of these to see a full size version) in its main windows, it also emulates the look of the original. On start-up, you get a fairly busy view featuring the keyboard, main synth controls, patch panel and, if you click somewhere not on an actual control, you can drag downwards to see the main step-sequencer controls for the synth.
Permanently displayed at the top of the screen are buttons to access the supporting functions. So, for example, the Session Browse button allows you to load a pre-existing session containing and sounds, patterns and pattern sequencing, while the Sound preset section allows you to load or save specific synth sounds. The Components section allows you to switch between the synth, drums, mixer or song/ptn (pattern) views (see the respective screen shots below) while, if you find the synth controls a little to small for sausage fingers, the Synth Edit Zoom MS-20 button provides a zoomed-in view for both the main synth controls and the Patch Panel. Also in the Synth Edit group is the Effect button and this allows you to select and configure a single effect to be applied to the synth. The selection of available effects includes the usual delays, reverbs, modulation, EQ, compression, filters and bit manipulation options. While you then only get two tweak-able parameters for each effect, they sound good and provide some extra creative options.
Under the Controllers section, you can open a different view on the keyboard with three possible key widths (again, useful for those sausage fingers) or the Kaoss Pads. The Global button provides access to some general settings that control things such as the mode the knobs operate in and the audio latency.
Of course, all these features will only be so much froth if the basic synth engine doesn’t do the business. As shown in the main screen shot of the synth screen, the key features of the hardware original are modelled here so, the synth engine is based around two VCO, each of which have four waveform options available. The VCOs can be detuned using the Pitch control and their respective levels set via the VCO Mixer knobs. The VCF provides both high pass and low pass filters with peak controls while the VCA and EG provide familiar options for controlling how the volume of the sound changes with time.
While this is all fairly standard fodder, you can still coax an impressive range of analog style sounds using just these controls. However, things get even more interesting if you turn to the Patch Panel. Here, you get a Reason-esq view of the original MS-20’s hardware patching options and, by touching and dragging with your finger, you can insert virtual patch cords between the various inputs and outputs of the sub-modules within the synth engine. Korg’s online documentation offers little by way of advice here so experimentation is the order of the day. Thankfully, some of the preset sounds supplied include some patch cord work so you can use these examples to try and unpick what the various patching does to create the overall sound.
Recording a pattern for the main synth can be done via either of the Controller screens; the Keyboard or the Kaoss Pads. Both of these include a record button and, as you cycle through the pattern, any new notes you play replace the existing ones. The synth pattern editor controls for pitch/octave and (if using the Kaoss Pads) gate also change to reflect what you have played. You can then, if required, tweak the controls to adjust aspects of the pattern playback. Controls on the left-hand side of the pattern sequencer allow you to select which controls are displayed with the Parameter switch allowing you to define three synth parameter controls that can also be programmed within the pattern. The Sequence Mode button allows you to vary how the sequence is played back (forward, backwards plus a few other options).
The Kaoss Pads are worth a few words. The right pad provides a means of note entry, controlling pitch and gate simultaneously so you can enter notes of different lengths and pitches just by sweeping your finger around the pad. As you can limit the notes to particular notes within a scale via the Scale button, this is quite a fun way of creating a performance even for the non-musician. Hats off to Korg for including this option although, in its current form, it is perhaps not quite as easy to use as Figure’s Touch Pad. The left pad allows the user to define a pair of parameters to be controlled. These can be used in conjunction with the Parameter button in the synth step sequencer section described above. So, for example, if you define Parameter 1 and parameter 2 to control the low pass filter cutoff and peak parameters within the step sequencer section, you can then also configure the left Kaoss Pad to control Parameter 1 and 2 so that moving your figure across this pad while recording produces real-time control of the same filter controls. This is a lot of fun and this type of sound shaping can add a lot of movement to the sound – the Kaoss Pad makes performing and recording these parameter changes easy – certainly much easier than it might be by trying to adjust virtual knobs.
Indeed, adjusting the knob-like controls within the synth is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the main synth section of the iMS-20. They all look very cool but, even in the ‘zoom’ view, it takes a little practice before you can adjust then accurately.
In contrast to the main synth, the Drum module is a much more straightforward looking beast. Up to six drum sounds can be selected and patterns can be programmed via the grid of 6 by 16 buttons or in real-time via the six drum pads as the base of the window. Pressing the Sound Edit button for any drum slot switches to an instance of the synth screen and, from here, you can use the Browse button to access the preset sounds and then tweak those sound (or create you own) via the synths controls. You can also select a single effect to be applied each of the drum sound. Once you have the sound as you want it, pressing the Back button (in the Drum Edit group, slightly right of centre), returns you to the main Drum module screen.
For more detailed pattern programming options for a single drum, pressing the Seq Edit button switches to an instance of the Sequencer module where you can use switches, knobs or the Kaoss Pads for performance creation. There is plenty of flexibility here and, whether you like to program your beats or to play them, the tools are available to get the job done.
In terms of the preset drum sounds, the selection is modest but forms a good basis for your own programming. Given that all these sounds are produced by the synth engine, this is very much an ‘analog’ drum selection but there are some very useable kick, snare, hi-hat and clap sounds as various tom, cymbal and FX-style sounds. Of course, because you can vary the pitch of the sound within your patterns, the Drum module isn’t just useful for drums – load a bass sound into one of the slots and you can create a bass line as part of your pattern – so, without too much difficult, iMS-20 can be used to create a full instrumental track with drum, bass and melody.
The iMS-20 organises your work in sessions (= project). Within a session, you can create 16 different patterns and these can then be sequenced into a song of up to 256 patterns in length. All this arranging is done within the Song/Ptn screen. Here, you can audition patterns using the pads and, using the step-like buttons towards the top of the screen, choose which pattern plays back for a particular step. Sixteen steps can be shown at any one time and the small slider-style knob can be used to advance though the possible 256 pattern ‘steps’ in the sequence. You can also programme in a loop point (so a series of patterns just loops continuously) or a stop point.
As your pattern sequence plays back, you can use the mini-mixer at the base of the screen to change levels or mute/solo parts in real-time. This is great fun to use as part of a performance but the changes cannot (in the current version at least) be recorded as automation-style data. Do note though that sounds are pattern specific – pattern 1 might use the ‘lead 1’ preset while pattern 2 uses the ‘arp 1’ preset – and on playback, iMS-20 switches seamlessly between these different sounds.
Mixing it Up
The main Mixer screen offers a channel strip for the main synth and each of the six drum sounds as well as a master volume control. At the top-left you can select a single ‘master’ effect from the same selection as available for the individual synth and drum sounds. Within each channel strip you can control the send level of this master effect for that sound for toggle it on/off for a specific channel. Other controls are pan, mute, solo and level – nothing too sophisticated but enough to get the job done and, again, perhaps the most significant limitation is that you cannot automate the mixer (I know, we are all spoilt by modern DAW software which allows you to automate almost everything).
While the effects are pretty much what you would expect, the Valve Force effect is worth a further mention. This simulates processing the sound through a tube-based audio circuit. The result adds some analog warmth, distortion and seems to provide some compression. Anyway, used in moderation, it fattens things up nicely and serves as a useful mastering-style processor.
And the rest
Having invested any amount of time creating your analog masterpiece, it’s nice to know that you can then get is out of the iMS-20 and into the wider world – whether that’s another mobile app, a desktop computer (let’s add some vocal and re-arrange!) or the wider world via SoundCloud. From the Global menu, you can choose to bounce (= render) either the whole song or the currently selected pattern. It is also possible to engage the Real-Time Recording option here. In add a small additional REC button and, once this is pressed, you can playback your song, riff over the top of it and make adjustments to the mixer – all of these are recorded in real-time – and the final WAV is completed when you press the REC button again to stop recording. While this is not editable automation, it does provide a way of capturing a performance.
Whichever route you use to generate the audio, it is saved as a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz stereo WAV file and can be accessed via the Session Browser’s Audio Export section. Once yu select one of your WAV files here, the icons at the bottom of the screen allow you to plyback the file, rename it, trash it as well as upload to your SoundCloud account, move it directly to certain other popular music apps or use AudioCopy to move the WAV to any other app that also supports AudioCopy. You can also use iTunes on your Mac/PC to move files to your desktop computer. All these options seem to work in a very straightforward fashion so, if you have created something worth sharing, iMS-20 makes it easy to do so.
It you like the sounds but are not so keen on playing the iMS-20 via the touch screen, the app seems to work well with external MIDI hardware. Indeed, with a suitably configured keyboard and controller surface (that is, some real hardware knobs), the iMS-20 becomes even more of a joy to use. If you happen to have access to two iPads, the v.1.5.0 update introduced what Korg call WIST (Wireless Sync-Start Technology). This allows you to sync two iPads together if they are running suitable apps and, for example, this lets you to lock together two instances of the iMS-20 or an iMS-20 with Korg’s iElectribe. This communication via Bluetooth so no Wi-Fi is required and, in my own testing with an iPad 2 and an iPad 3rd generation, it worked a treat. In sonic terms, the combination of iMS-20 and iElectribe is a pretty powerful one.
The truth is out there
Finding your way around all of the iMS-20 features does take a good while and this is particularly true in terms of the synth programming options. Unfortunately, Korg don’t really produce much by way of ‘how to’ documentation. There is an online reference guide on the korguser.net site and, while this is a very useful start, it simply describe the functions available rather than giving examples of how they might be used. Still, worth checking out. One useful feature, however, is the list of the parameters available for editing with each of the effects units.
Another useful resource is the user created compositions that are available via SoundCloud. Some of these can be auditioned directly from the app via the Session Browser. Simple select SoundCloud under the Sharing section and you can audition an extensive list of tracks. While there are some bad (and even ugly) examples, there are also some good (indeed very good!) to inspire you and demonstrate just how good the iMS-20 can be made to sound.
To buy or not to buy?
So, given that the iMS-20 comes with, in app terms at least, quite a hefty price tag, who might buy it? I suspect the app will not appeal to the more casual user; the likes of GarageBand and Figure are more likely to fill their particular needs. However, for the more serious musician – and particularly those with an interest in electronic music styles – iMS-20 really ought to get your attention. It packs an awful lot of punch for a piece of software that comes in at under £25 (or the €/$ equivalent).
For the musician in me, Korg’s iMS-20 works of two levels. First, it is a brilliant compositional tool for electronic/dance music. It is possible to squeeze a very big sound out of the main synth and the drum module combined and the pattern-based sequencing is executed in a format that most synth/DAW users will either find familiar or easy to grasp. Second, I think the sonic capabilities of the app have considerable potential as a genuine performance instrument in a live context. Provided you are happy to depend upon you iPad on the road (or perhaps down the pub), hooked up to a decent master keyboard, this is a very serious virtual analog synth. Connected to a keyboard amp or PA, the iMS-20 can sound absolutely brilliant. If you can overcome the associated logistical issues or fitting an iPad into your live rig, sonically, the iMS-20 is more than up to the task.
In summary, if you are an electronic musician who likes to compose on the move or who is brave enough to slot an iPad into your live performance keyboard setup, then the iMS-20 more than justifies its price tag. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a bargain and it comes highly recommended.