Motivation (to go to War)

A small, battery-powered hi-fi sampler with mini-keys, sequencer and effects.

Sounds like quite a weapon for fun and creativity.

I’m in !

Why didn’t I find out about this when it was at it’s just-discontinued, blow-out-pricing cheapest !

After finding one for cheap through Reverb.com, I’ve spend a month dragging this device from basement to studio to stage and all the way to the beach.

After spending over a month wrestling through the manual, the feature set, the (oh-so-dated) internal ROM sounds, and a whole spectrum of emotions (from “Ugh” to “Eureka”), I now (hopefully) bring you some information that would be more useful than the solicitous flattery of most of it’s short-lived, hype-filled documentation would provide.

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Sleek-yet-rugged, flat-yet-clunky, well-festooned with hands-on controls and menu-diving labels, the design of the Korg MS1 is…what it is.

Levels of Experience.

Let’s explore and summarize (in turn)

  1. the objective side of the feature set of (the Environment),
  2. the superficial  side of the (greatest) short-comings of the physical interface (the Platform),
  3. and some psychological considerations of how a I, as a  User, am developing a relationship with such an unevenly elegant machine.
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hierarchical model o  “usability” seen in physical and virtual interfaces, from w3.com

The Lean, Mean Feature-set of this Machine’s Environment

I cannot deny, the Korg MicroSampler blurs the line between fun toy  and inspiring gear.  On one hand, it’s quick-and-dirty feature set offers a lot of instant gratification (without sounding horribly “dated” or “genre’ed”). There’s something elegant in it’s limited, straight-ahead feature set…

  • MS1 loads 1 RAM Bank (of 8) at time, where each bank 90-ish seconds of 48kHz/16-bit sound at a time (in each of 8 RAM banks),
  • on the Sample layer, each of 36 key triggering a single sample/slot (affording you to mix/match drum maps or manual-multi-sample-mapping, slices/chops/etc as you please.
  • on the Keyboard layer, one can choose 1 sample to be chromatically pitched across the 3 octave keyboard (instant tune-work)
  • a sample Patter Sequencer allows 16 patterns (1-99 bars, always 4/4 time) of Sample and Keyboard layer note-events (on their respective MIDI channels. Performances can be captured with or without Quantization (at beat values from 64th notes up to quarter-notes).
  • each bank stores recall of 1 Effect (and it’s settings), ranging from utilitarian things like Compressor, Reverb, Delay, and a surprisingly flexible multi-mode Filter (with LFO)…to more esoteric (and hip-genre’ed) effects popularized by Korg’s  Kaoss Pad units, such as Grain-shifter, and Decimator (sample-rate/bit-depth reducer).
  • each Sample slot has adjustable level, pan, and detuning (+/- 24 semitones), with a simple Decay/Release (amplitude) envelope, and other trimming/tweaking tools, and front-panel controls for it’s Loop, Reverse, and Effect send settings.
  • Sampling (Recording) into memory can be triggered by pushing the big Sample button, an input-level threshold, or the next keyboard key triggered (from your hands or the Sequencer).
  • additional buttons modify key-triggering of samples:
    • the Hold button latches any key(s) held when engaged. Works to latch drum-loops or drones on Sample layer, or sustain chords in Keyboard mode. You can easily un-latch single keys (by pressing hold and re-touching the held key) or all keys (by press-and-release-ing Hold without touching any keys).
    • the Mute button stops not the sound of a sample slot, but prevents it from being triggered by the Sequencer. Allows you to create breakdowns/variations/etc within few individual patterns.
  • several Sampling-modes allow direct access to…
    • specific type of sample playback…
      • Loop samples automatically repeat, but do not automatically re-start at re-cording end.
      • One-shots play the whole sound once, for drums and phrases
      • Gate slots loop and sustain only while key is held, good for pitched sounds where duration is to be key-ed.
    • …or even specific modes of sample-recording…
      • Auto-next: allows you to arm a range of keys, and automatically record sequentially into them.
        • Use threshold-triggered recording to automatically populate keys by “roll call”…
        • …or set sample lengths to beat-values to chop individual beat-slices of a some melody or pattern into your own keys (to be re-mixed by re-playing).
      • Key Gate arms all 36 key to start and stop (re)recording into their slots by pressing and releasing keys.
    • …where all of these apply to sampling input or re-sampling the output !
  • Sample playback can be tempo-agnostic, or match any changes between at-sampling-time tempo and new tempo by Speed/Time changing (detunes samples) or  Time-Stretching (holds pitch, getting grainy at extremes).
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a close-up of the direct-control side of the MicroSampler’s main panel.

As such, there’s a lot of room to play within these limitations to explore sounds freely within the different facets available. The lines between “goal-oriented beat-making workflows” and “aimless zen practice sound-design” can blur.

Sample sounds…re-sample them through n’th generation of different effects (one pass a a time)….keyboard-mode pitchy sounds melodies, capture such motifs into the Sequencer… re-sample Sequencer playback as a time-stretched loop…time-stretch that WAY out of range and resample the grainy result… reverse that and soak it in reverb… 

I can see why many people laud (and hoard) the MS-1 as their “secret weapon.”

The Blessing(s) and Curse(s) within a limed physical Platform.

The fluidity (and lucidity) of the above-described “play” feels only really limited by the clumsy feeling user-interface

Yep, the UI is the most obvious and consistent drag for me. Not a show-stopper, but a fun-slower. The blocky plastic body keeps all knobs and soft-rubber buttons recessed (making it feel ok to toss into luggage), but I always feel like I have to claw into the unit’s panel, and this nixes fluid finger-work and button-combinations. Makes me REALLY wish the back-panel had some assignable foot-switch jacks so I could trigger sampling

Diving in for a swim in this mini-key’ed world, unfortunately involves a fair amount of menu-diving, and the two editing knobs, Page and Value end up getting a lot of work. It’s nice that an Edit button allows the 37 keys to jump to many useful pages, but the lack of Previous/Next or Decrement/Increment buttons mean that sub-menus with lots of pages can be annoyingly twitchy.

Thank Korg almighty that the MS1 comes with a dual-platform software editor that not only allows you hand-on-mouse control of each “knob” within every layer and page of a bank, but also allow you to copy and paste sample slots and/or patterns within their respective contexts.

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Screenshot of Korg’s MicroSampler editor/librarian software. Easy to drag-and-drop audio files into sample key-slots and assign MIDI sequence files into the Pattern slots.

The Korg editor/librarian software can also make it easy to pick and tweak the effect processor to be recalled within each Bank, and what the two front-panel knobs will control (when not diving into some Edit menu).

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Screenshot of Bank Effect tab in editor/librarian, showing all 21 algorithms available.

Lastly, the editor/librarian’s Pattern page allows you to handle various aspects of the 16 patters (some of which are otherwise unaccessible from the MS1 hardware).

  • set names, and bar-length of each Pattern
  • Load and save a set of 16 patterns.
  • Import MIDI sequences into pattern slots (supporting data on 2 channels which must match the assignment for Sample and Keyboard layer respectively)
  • Export patterns to SMF files to drop into other hardware or software.

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Bravo to Korg for the MS1 supporting Standard MIDI Files; this really opens up the ability to “sketch” on the go and translate these into other platforms.

Building Empires of Inspiration as a User

Even though I spend multiple hours combing through the user manual PDF before ever purchasing, the real learning comes from putting in hours using it. Like learning to touch-type, any skilled-interface requires practice to develop muscle memory and a mental model to get beyond “pecking through”, step-by-step, though-by-though, and be able to work fluidly the technology without having to stop and think about what you’re doing.

I can see, for me, learning and wielding this feels less like a “tool” and more like a weapon.  Sometimes I even feel like I’m battling the clunky UI for the stakes of some sweet, satisfying “a-ha moment” of discovering some sound or technique that is uniquely easy on this odd little machine.

I feel like I’m not so much “fighting” (to create) so much as “sparring.”

I am reminded of a saying by Napoleon Bonaparte.

"Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense and there stand empires."

While I initially learned this from eponymous (and delightful) fellow-Tulsan band …And There Stand Empires (and not WikiQuote or this Napoleon guide), it feels relevant.

After over 2 months “keeping at” the with the MS-1 like it were a book (keeping it near the couch, dragging it on vacations with in-laws, carrying it on a plane), I  keep finding (and then seeking more) nooks and crannies within it’s small circle of features that allow me discover new ways of creating or manipulating sounds and motifs.

So, for those who have read this far, I want to share some of my “weird trick”s I’ve found one the Korg MicroSamper:

  • Push the MS-1’s polyphony of 14  stereo) voices. Slots using Time-Streched pmay cost double, but the device rations those 16 ram-playbacks freely between Sample and Key layer. There is a lot of sound-design to be finessed out of the keyboard.
    • Any sounds can be thickened by stacking and re-sampling a “polyphony” of triggers. Play clusters in Keyboard notes for de-tunes, off-time “clap-clusters” (as shown here in Korg’s product demo), or…
    • If you want thicken sounds by dialing in settings; Start with a sample phrase (like a violin riff) with Sync turned off, copy-by-resampling that sound into a range of new slots, but change the Bank’s tempo each time, so each un-trimmed version gets born with a different Original Tempo. Then, experiment by trimming them to length by Beat, and play them together. This creates a smear of time-and-pitch variation that cannot be achieved by normal Chorus effects.
    • Any range of empty key-slots in the sampleLayer is automatically populated by a chromatic re-pitching of the first occupied slot above that empty range. This lets one use more than one “chromatic” sound at a time.
    • With clever use of the sequencer and/or Hold key, you can blend intervals of two seperate voice-timbres…to, for instance, resample a flutey arpeggio over a major-5th vocal done into a new slot in one go.
    • Use Hold in Keyboard mode to stack up chords of thin, pitchy sounds in to thick tonal constructs. Use velocity-sensitivity for volume-control per-part, and get something akin to the draw-bars of individual harmonics on an organ.
  • While it’s easy and obvious to use Tempo-sync mode to get cleanly trimmed samples to lock together and/or follow tempo, there’s happy accidents in perverting this aspect for its own sake;
    • Sound slots can be trimmed (not just by sample or percentage), but by timing of Beat (at present tempo), from all of 1 to 8 quarter notes, and (non-triplet) subdivisions down to 1/64th note. Chop (copies of) straight into odd lengths (say, a 4 beat, a 7 -beat, and a 8th-note), and re-trigger them together into some free-running poly-rhythm. Beat-sync’ed slots of stayed together impressively well regardless of disparity of length.
    • Record something short while tempo is set high, trim it down to a small fraction of a beat, and then pull Bank Tempo down to push this tempo-Sync’ed “grain” loop into a unique quivery texture. Explore the tonal difference between “re-pitch” and “time-stretch” options of Sync in this case.
  • Want to adjust “Attack” on your Decay/Release envelope?
    • Reverse slot 1 and resample into slot 2. Apply envelope Decay to taste, and-resample onto slot 3. Re-reverse (pro-verse) the sound to hear the nuanced onset-fade of your “Attack”.
    • …or just use the Editor/Librarian software to select a region of the sound-byte and use the Edit menu to Fade In the sound’s onset to taste.
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Take advantage of the MS1 software’s Wave Editor both to Edit samples and Process them (resample to different resolutions to ration memory).
  • The Pattern Sequencer can playback while sampling; that makes it possible to sample Patterns back into phrase samples….but, this also allows:
    • Pattern events can trigger Sampling (if Record mode is set to Note), making your microSampler (re-)sample rhythmically (…every 3 bars…)
    • Run a melody on the Keyboard layer while keeping the Sampler hot (ready to sample) to re-sample and re-place the sound manually (such as every time you sing a new word) into the slot used as Key Sample by that pattern. This become something between beat-repeater and arpeggiator.

Many of these techniques, especially the last two, make the MS1 feel like an option to be a poor-man’s OctaTrack real quick…

….and as one who owns an Elektron Octrack (and fights a similar-but-different wars of creative-sampling with the OT’s much-steeper learning-curve), I must say that giving the “lucid sampling” part of my brain the the options of battery-powered and a native keyboard leads to a strong…

Verdict:

The Korg MS-1 MicroSampler (or “mee-cro-thampler,” as my fiancee and I started calling it) is a solid KEEPER. I’m event starting to dream of how I could hack it’s controls with my MIDI-controller (following others who have explored its reception of NRPN MIDI messages) or my soldering gun (as others show the options of wiring witches to the well–labeled circuit-board within ).

Makes me deliberate if the price-point and value would be worth the risk of the latter.

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