Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: AQ Interactive
Release Date: 11/11/2008
Well, it looks like I have recently given up the title of sole resident musician here at DHGF, but I will now claim the title of sole resident synthesist. I love me some synthesizers. Analog, FM, digital, wavetable, and, of course, the ever-ubiquitous digital analog modeler. That’s the current trend in mid-level synths these days, of course – and, they do have advantages: stable oscillators AND analog sound. …Sort of.
Making music on a Gameboy is nothing new, of course. There are a ton of music programs out there as far back as the original Gameboy, but they largely sound the same: video gamey. That is, they all do little more than replicate the 8-bit square wave characteristic to all of your childhood memories. All of my childhood memories, anyway. I forget that I’m old now.
Now that Nintendo has beefed up their portable processors, the homebrew coders have responded with several newer iterations to the old guard of low-tech synthesis. Inevitably, a commercial version is finally come to market: the Korg DS-10.
I’ve always felt that the old, 8-bit homebrew Gameboy synths were little more than an amusing gimmick, so the important question here, I think, is: Is this new toy any good? Can it be used for anything beyond Gameboy concerts in some fellow geek’s basement?
Read on to find out…
Well, the short answer is yes. For a “toy”Â synth (We collectors are condescending toward anything that isn’t true analog and/or costs less than a grand. Sorry.) this thing packs some versatility. The somewhat misnamed DS-10 is essentially a software platform containing 2 models of the old, analog Korg MS-20 synths, a 4-sound drum machine, and a mixer with some effects plugins. The synth sections contain 2-oscillator, monophonic synths, each with fully patchable integration and an LFO. Oh, yeah, and there’s a KAOSS pad.
The synths themselves are fairly straightforward – you have your four basic wavetypes (square, saw, sine, and noise) on each of 2 oscillators, a selectable filter (low pass, high pass, band pass), and a basic ADSR envelope. You can detune the second oscillator a bit, and the amplifier has some overdrive built in. Where this puppy gets interesting is in the back-end. Korg gives you the full bevy of modules you’d want in a true analog right at your fingertips – virtually anything can be used to modulate anything else. There’s the standard LFO with selectable wave types, sample and hold (always a favorite), and the whole thing is patchable with virtual cables. This is a trick I always loved when I first saw it on the Nord Modular’s computer interface and, though more limited, it is no less fun here. The sonic possibilities with a self-modulating signal are amusingly endless. These synths may not be as rumbly as, say, a nice Moog, nor are they as bitey as a Nord Lead, but they definitely get the job done, and almost as well as the $500 analog modelers out there now.
Similarly, the drum machine is a straightforward and customizable representation of standard analog modeled kits. Basic, sine-derived kicks, noise-based snares and hi-hats should all sound familiar to anyone with a modicum of electronic music exposure. The overall sound of the preset kits is somewhat thin compared to, say, an 808, but that’s what postproduction is for, isn’t it? Honestly, I would use this solely as a supplemental drum kit – for my preferences, I need a deeper kick and a crisper snare, but the lo-fi customizability of each individual sound is a welcome approach and a bit of multitrack layering fixes those shortcomings. And, hey, if you want to sound like Crystal Castles, this is one way to do it.
Now, how to sequence this stuff? Well, the DS-10 does come with some basic sequencer options that should look like arithmetic does to a theoretical physicist – that is, recognizable on sight and old as the hills. A basic six track (one for each of four drum parts plus two synths) 16-step sequencer should look like old news for anyone that’s ever used Reason. Or Rebirth. Or any of Korg’s newer desktop synths. Or any of Roland’s nearly 30 year old line of drum machines, synths, and sequencers. It is easy and intuitive to use, and – best of all – the sequences can be linked together in song mode so that simple loop-derived music can be naturally expanded a bit. The whole thing is run off an internal MIDI clock, alas, so no external sequencing. BUT – you can wirelessly link together up to 8 DS devices running the software and just use one as your master “Ëœplay’ button, or use them all individually. And there is ALWAYS a home-brew MIDI hack out there somewhere…
Mixing and effects are, again, straightforward and light on complexity. Some basic, though editable, effects are included – namely, delay, chorus, and flanger. These sound like your typical entry-level Alesis multi-effects unit and, in my opinion, the sounds would be a bit more exciting if effects were run in post on something with a bit more muscle. But, hey, I like my reverbs…
Ahhh, but now we come to the tipping point for the DS-10’s viability: the KAOSS pad. Korg’s line of KAOSS pads operate pretty simply in theory. They are a simple, X-Y grid with two different axes to affect different parameters – pitch, cutoff, resonance, modulation, etc. They work based off of a touch-pad that you use to control the amount of the effects. Now, what is that second screen on the DS if not an excuse to throw in a KAOSS pad? Make no mistakes, the DS version doesn’t hold a candle to the versatility and raw energy of its bigger brothers, but it allows for some excellent real-time manipulation of a variety of parameters, which would make this an excellent tool for live performance or a great tweaking method for recording.
All of this is laid out extremely well. There is a concise, logical flow to the setup and you can easily switch to the detail screens with the direction pad, and then edit parameters with the stylus while the second screen keeps track of where you are. I’ve used a lot of synths that would be a lot more useful if they had an interface half this intuitive.
The overall sound quality is excellent for such a cheap synth – $160 or so including the DS – and the real-time tweaking on the KAOSS pad is better than even some of Korg’s entry level synths! Of course, it lacks MIDI and a keyboard interface beyond the simple DS touch-screen, but a thorough knowledge of 16 step sequencers can side-step those problems easily.
In short, anyone that already owns a DS and is interested in learning synthesis would do well to pick this thing up. For people like me, though, with an entire room devoted to synthesizers, can still find some interesting uses for this thing. Its more than a toy – it’s a usable musical instrument. Not bad for $40.
Modes: Classic. I will translate this as “synth architecture” – Excellent synth architecture.
Graphics: Below Average. There is an innate, utilitarian beauty to some synths. Not this one.
Sound: Unparalleled. Absolutely excellent use of the sound modules.
Control: Classic. Easy, intuitive knob twiddling.
Replayability: Great. Its a great, quirky little workhorse synth.
Balance: Classic. The setup doesn’t favor one synth section over another – everything can be tweaked.
Originality: Classic. There were Gameboy synths before this, but nowhere near this in-depth and creative.
Addictiveness: Great. Its hard to stop twiddling knobs!
Appeal Factor: Poor. Its accessible enough for anyone to use, but niche enough for few to love.
Miscellaneous: Mediocre. The KAOSS pad is an unexpected addition, the lack of MIDI is detrimental.
Final Score: Very Good Game.
Short Attention Span Summary:
The Korg DS-10 offers surprising versatility for what should be, for all intents and purposes, a toy. Compared to the other “toy” synth this year, the Gakken EX-150, there is no contest. The DS-10 is powerful enough to be of some actual use in a professional setting – I fully intend to use it in a few tracks of my own. For $40 retail, you could not ask for a better synthesizer.