Review: Korg DS-10+ (Nintendo DS)

Korg DS-10 Plus
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: AQ Interactive
Genre: Music
Release Date: 2/16/2010

Hey hey hey! Remember that Korg DS-10 review I did a long while back? No? Anyone? Ok. Well. See, there was this awesome little synth that came out in November 2008 for the Nintendo DS. It was cheap, fun, and easy to use and it sounded way better than a $40 synth should. It quickly went out of print and used prices on Amazon turned it into a no-longer cheap alternative to an entry-level analog synth modeler. Lucky for us, then, that XSEED has released a beefed up version for the Nintendo DSi that actually doubles the synth and drum tracks. So, how does it stack up against the old version?

Read on to find out…

The short answer is: almost identically. All synth production modes, sounds, effects, etc., are the same as the old DS-10. The real difference comes through on the DSi, where the increased computer power allows 4 synth tracks instead of 2 and 2 drum tracks instead of just the 1. This shouldn’t be viewed entirely negatively, however – when you have an already gorgeous synthesizer, why muck with it?

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 kit is somewhat thin compared to, say, an 808, but that’s what post-production 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, Rebirth, any of Korg’s newer desktop synths, or any of Roland’s nearly thirty 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 eight DS devices running the software and just use one as your master “Ëœplay’ button, or use them all individually. New additions to the Plus edition of the DS-10 have added a few new features to the tracking, too. Individual track muting is available during live playback, as is synth patch editing. This allows quite a bit more versatility to the live playback modes, turning the DSi into a usable live instrument, even if it still can’t be MIDI sync’d. (I suspect local Minneapolis synth outfit The Trapezoids may be attempting this live very soon…)

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 or $200 for the DSi and twice the tracks – 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 sixteen 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. It’s more than a toy – it’s a usable musical instrument. Not bad for $40.

The Scores:
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: Unparalleled. Easy, intuitive knob twiddling and versatile live tweaking.
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: Good. This is a beef-up of an existing synth, but the DS-10s are still the only ones out there.
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+ is an improvement over the previous version, but not a substantial one for the DS. For the DSi, on the other hand, I would call this a must-have. The doubling of tracks is reason enough to go drop another $40, and the slight tweaks to playback are just icing on the cake. If you’ve already got a DS and the DS-10, don’t bother, but otherwise, go get it. This thing is versatile and powerful enough for use live or in-studio but, for the love of Moog, SOMEBODY MAKE A MIDI INPUT!



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3 responses to “Review: Korg DS-10+ (Nintendo DS)”

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