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Korg iM1 Synthesizer for iOS

Review by: Jason D. Buchwald

WIHO Award -- Wish I Had One!
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Korg iM1 Virtual Synthesizer for iOS

It’s no secret that at we are long time users of Korg products (our editor-in-chief founded the very first Korg users group back in the ‘80s). And for this reviewer in particular, we purchased an actual M1 back in January 1989. That sleek, black keyboard literally changed the musical landscape… and that same M1 proudly remains in use in our studio to this day.

A few years back, Korg delighted us with their Legacy Collection plug-ins, which happened to include an excellent, virtual re-creation of the M1 (it even featured a few nice upgrades from the classic hardware).

Now, Korg has released the iM1, an app for your iPad that makes your “upgraded” M1 incredibly portable. Even better, the entire PCMCIA card sets of the M1, M1ex, and T series are available as libraries, so you can finally access the entire collection in one place. And how is this for awesome? The patches and SYSEX data are compatible not only across the iM1 to the Legacy plug-ins, but to the original hardware M1 as well! Korg really did this one right.

So, let’s get to some of the basic specs first. The iM1 will run on as old a tablet as the iPad2 (requires iOS 8), but with only 32 voice polyphony instead of 64 voices that you’ll find with the latest models. Given the original M1 only had 16 voice polyphony, though, this is still a good thing. We ran it on an iPad2, and while it took a minute to load, it worked well, without any sound hiccups or other issues. We purchased the additional sound card waveforms, which gave us over 3,300 sounds to choose from.

Sounds, like those on the genre-defining workstation, are organized into Programs (single sounds), Combis (multi-sounds, up to eight programs in splits/layers, and also a new type called Multis. Fortunately, pressing the “info” button brings up a manual, so according to Korg:

“Multi mode and Combination mode are structured almost identically, but have the following differences.

• Default MIDI channel setting for each track (track 1 is channel 1, track 2 is channel 2, ...)
• In Multi mode, the master effects are used as send effects. The send levels, return levels, and return destinations will determine how the signal is routed. If you lower the send levels to 0, the signals from the insert effects will be output directly, bypassing the master effects. If you raise the send levels, the direct sound will be mixed with the signals from the master effects and then output.

Except for the points listed above, Combination mode and Multi mode have the same structure. You can use Combination mode as a multi-timbral sound module, or use Multi mode to create a single sound just like a combination.”

The original M1 helped define what a workstation was, and by definition, this meant that it had a sequencer. Of course, the original M1 had an eight track sequencer, while the iM1 does not have a sequencer of any kind. It can, however, be recognized as a sound module in Garageband and Korg’s own Gadget iPad DAW. Multi mode enables you to set a different MIDI channel for each program, enabling you to use the iM1 as a multi-timbral sound module for external sequencers. Back in the day, we had our real M1 in sequencer mode connected to a Mac SE running Master Tracks Pro, which (functionally) appears to be the same as this new Multi mode! 

One thing about these modes: in the original hardware, if you edited any program, those same changes would be reflected in any combi that used that program. Interestingly, in the iM1, these have become independent. So, if you change a program’s parameters, it does not update the combi that happens to include the edited program.

Speaking of programs and combis, tapping on whatever preset name is showing brings up the various libraries, shown as the PCMCIA icons on top, with patch names listed on bottom. Happily, all of the preset numbers are the same as found the original hardware. A search function also enables you to find a sound by genre and character, a nicety found in many modern synths and plug-ins featuring hundreds of sounds to choose among. While there’s no “favorites” per se, you can write Combis and Programs to virtual cards, essentially creating your favorites that way. Besides all the original PCMCIA cards, there’s also the KLC card (legacy collection sounds), the M1ex presets, a new “Best of M1” card, and all of the T1 sounds represented by floppy disk icons.

We couldn’t help ourselves. We had to find out… How does the iM1 sound compared to a real M1? We fired up our trusty M1r (the rack version of a full M1, still going strong after 26 years in our studio) and played some typical presets that made the M1 famous: Universe, Piano 16, Organ 1, just to remind ourselves of the original sounds (not that we needed the refresher course). We then went to the iM1 and chose the same presets, which happily were in the same memory positions as the originals. To our ears, they not only sounded identical, but in some cases a little better! There was a little more clarity and spaciousness somehow—and in some cases slightly more brightness. Having used our M1 since 1989, we’d be hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between these two products in an actual music mix.

And on that note- we really went for it. Back in the day, our setup consisted of a Korg M1r connected by MIDI to a Macintosh SE running Master Tracks Pro, a great MIDI sequencer of the time. We decided to recreate this setup in a small back area of our studio for nostalgia. We resurrected an old Mac SE (and hot-rodded it, but that’s a story for another time) and got an M1r to fit in the space (which also enabled us to leave the full M1 keyboard in the main room). This setup worked perfectly to run our old 1980s and 1990s MIDI files… but what if we tried using the iM1 as the sound source? We Frankensteined our way to it… and it worked! Check this photo out:

State-of-the-art meets state-of-the-classic... and it actually works!

Our Mac SE has a serial connector for MIDI cables by Opcode (remember them?), and the MIDI cables were then connected to IK Multimedia’s iRig MIDI connector on the iPad, running iM1. This worked perfectly!  And as expected, it worked flawlessly when the iM1 was running in Multi mode, which allowed the correct presets to be called up by our old MIDI files. It was here the iM1 really shined with more clarity than the original sequences. We were thrilled with the results… and pretty proud of ourselves for actually getting this crazy setup to work!

But this soft synth isn’t only about recreating the M1—it’s also about making it better and more applicable to today. Korg has added filter resonance as well as VDA modulation, something not possible on the original. The M1 originally could have only two master effects, whereas the iM1 can utilize up to eighteen insert effects, including a compressor (which the original lacked).

A neat feature is that while you can have a graphical keyboard on the bottom of the screen, pressing the Kaoss Pad button replaces the virtual keyboard with two virtual Kaoss Pads, based on Korg’s Kaossilator. These are essentially a pair of X-Y axes to perform live, real-time changes to your sounds.

This feature is particularly useful when contrasting the iM1 with the original M1. The M1 had a single slider and a set of up/down buttons. If you wanted to change a filter setting in live performance, you had to navigate tediously onto the right menu and then use a single slider for that single parameter. This was not practical for live use, though it could be done without any obvious audio glitches.

On the iM1, however, you get a pair of Kaoss pads the enable you to easily (in real time) change parameters with a touch of your finger. In particular, there is a “filter” button, which assigns the left Kaoss pad to resonance and cutoff along the axes.  This was smooth, easy, and very expressive. It would be cool if the pads were a little bigger, but they are certainly very usable as they are.

Of course, most players would prefer to control their sounds via a physical MIDI controller. Core MIDI and Bluetooth MIDI are both supported, so you can go wired or wireless if you prefer. We tested out the iM1 app with an IK Multimedia iRig Keys Pro, which worked well. We then got greedy and decided to try using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit with an Arturia 61-key Keylab controller attached via USB. The first time, we received a message that it drew too much power, but after cycling power on the Keylab, it worked great—and we never received the warning again.

We found that for every five percent of battery power life used, we got about 25-30 minutes of use. So, using half of our iPad2’s power would likely give us close to five hours of time with a Keylab. Not bad! We were so impressed that this rig has moved from the studio to the live venue. We’ll actually make use of this setup at an outdoor gig in downtown Tempe, Arizona, where there is no option for power. Between the iPad, Keylab, and a Roland Cube battery powered amp, we no longer have to miss out on our band’s acoustic/unplugged gigs!

On the software/app side of things, the iM1 supports Audiobus 2 and Inter-App Audio (IAA), so it becomes pretty easy to use the iM1 as a sound source for other programs such as Apple’s Garageband or Korg’s Gadget.

There is one taken-for-granted feature that is not to be overlooked. The original M1 had a two-line LCD display, and while well organized for the time, it’s certainly a bit cumbersome to navigate compared with today’s large LCD color touch screens. With the iM1, you not only gain a large screen, but also touch sensitivity. Touching the OSC or VDF button brings up those functions in a graphical manner—and you can draw in the lines with your finger. That simple ability, while inherent to any iPad application, is one of the great things about putting the M1 engine in an iPad interface. Sound editing was never so easy.

As we always ask… is it worth it? Simply… hell yes! iM1 delivers all the greatness of an M1 condensed to the iPad format, for only $29.99. Further, for only $4.99, you can get the entire M1 PCMCIA card collection (and another $4.99 for the T-series collection). Getting all those cards back in the day would have cost you well over $1,000!

Korg has done the M1 proud with this app, and we’re looking forward to checking out more of their highly portable, virtual recreations (like the PolySix). Now how about an iOS version of the Wavestation? DW-8000? Or even better, the Triton with KARMA techonology? Just asking…

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Overall Rating - Product Summary

Category Value Rating
Features 20% 4 Stars
Usability 25% 3.5 Stars
Sound 25% 3.5 Stars
Documentation & Support 10% 3 Stars
Price 20% 4 Stars

OVERALL RATING = 3.7 Stars, which earns it a WIHO Award!

3.6 stars or better: Outstanding, WIHO Award
3 stars or better: Worth considering
2 stars or better: Suited to specific needs
1 star or less: Not recommended


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