Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Korg iMS-20 Review

Korg just released an iPad version of their classic MS-20 analog synth. It is amazing. The only thing is, I don't know what I am going to use it for...

The Overview
The virtual hardware included in the iMS-20 consists of an analog monosynth (the MS-20), an analog sequencer, a drum machine based on MS-20 patches, a drum step sequencer, a song sequencer a virtual keyboard, two virtual kaoss (x-y controller) pads and a mixer.  I guess the word I would use to describe this setup is cool. It all looks and acts like you have a classic monosynth sitting in front of you. However, I wouldn’t exactly describe this as utilitarian. Just as with the iElectribe and even Rebirth (which was also just released as a dedicated iPad app) sometimes the decision to emulate analog hardware in an electronic touchscreen software environment is questionable. For example, the analog sequencer is totally cool, but it would have been much more conducive to songwriting and workflow to use a real multi-touch based sequencer. I understand that Korg is trying to keep it real, so to speak, but I want something that I can use more than something that is just totally cool.

The Step-Sequencer
The Step-Sequencer, Fruity and Good
One place where they got it right is the drum step-sequencer. I have been anxiously waiting for someone to put in a button based step sequencer on the iPad. I am a big fan of FL Studio and the drum sequencer on the iMS-20 will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used FL before. Rebirth kind of hits it with their drum sequencer, but the iMS-20 totally nails it. One thing that isn’t apparent when reading about the iMS-20 is the amount of control the step-sequencer gives you. It would appear from the description of the app that you only get access to one MS-20 synth but in reality, each track of the drum machine hides almost completely controllable MS-20 for its sound source. As you dig in to the interface it is revealed that you can actually load in synth patches, tweak them and then control their parameters including pitch through the step sequencer. This essentially gives you 7 instances of the MS-20 synth to layer. In addition, each drum track has an independent FX unit, which gives you even more control. Unfortunately, using the drum tracks as synths requires a lot of extra work compared to the main synth and can be pretty frustrating. Still the fact that such deep editing is available was like getting a free bonus anyway and really added value to the app.

Too much Fruit can make you sick

The Song-Sequencer This is the real let down in the app that will limit my use of it as an actual song writing tool. The analog/step-sequencer approach works great for drums, but for sequencing parts it is a real let down. I hate to say it, but I am grid obsessed. Give me a touch-controlled grid where I can layer and move song parts around easily and I am totally satisfied. Make me move numbers around on a linear interface and I get bored, frustrated and annoyed. iSequence and Rebirth both have similar song construction schemes and it is for this reason I will again find myself running to the beloved grid of Nanostudio for my song constructing needs. It is a real disappointment too because if we could combine the sounds of the iMS-20 with the editing and control of Nanostudio it would be an amazing production environment. This really makes me long for a plug-in based architecture on the iPad, but for now and probably for a long time, that is just a pipe dream. Also, as far as I can tell, there are only 16 different patterns available which is also quite limiting. For these reasons, as a song creation tool the iMS-20 just isn’t going to cut it. However, the sounds are unbelievable…

The sequencers are archaic but inspirational. Just give me a grid.

The Sounds
This is obviously the real draw of the iMS-20 app. Anyone who has used the Korg Legacy plug-in will know what they are in for and the fact that you can grab patch cables and route them using the touchscreen is almost mind-melting. Like a childhood fantasy come true. The huge sound of the MS-20 is totally there and I couldn’t stop making Daft Punk patches for the first few hours using the beast. Using the MS-20 to make drum sounds is a little dicey but it works. I could do with some sort of sample import for the drum sequencer, but as I said earlier, I don’t really see using this thing for a song creation tool so that may not be necessary. In defense of the analog sequencer, since the sounds are so amazing it can really be fun tweaking their parameters using the knobs on the sequencer.  Adding gate variation and portamento gives crazy 303 sounding melodies. Again, this totally reminds me of FL Studio. The first record I ever released was basically just a bunch of random loops generated by turning knobs and hitting buttons on the built in synths on Fruity Loops. The same effect is achieved here and you can get some crazy sounding stuff by randomly using all the tools provided here to sculpt sounds.

Who would've guessed I like Kaoss so much?

One feature I wasn’t too excited about that turned out to be really fun is the dual Kaoss Pads. The Korg version of the X-Y controller allows control over just about any 2 parameters on the left pad. But more importantly, the right controller allows control over gate and pitch of the synth. The key can be selected from a dropdown menu and there are a bunch of scales available, most of which I will never use. However, the end result gives you a controller akin to the beloved Bebot, but you are controlling an amazing, infinitely configurable synth! I played with this for about 3 hours last night and I will probably waste way too much time just messing around with this feature in the future.

So what am I going to do with this thing? I am still not sure. Nanostudio is still going to be my go to sequencer on the iPad and it will also provide my live rig since I have pretty much refined it to the point of perfection. But I REALLY want to use these sounds in my iPad work. A lot of grumbles about lack of audiocopy have already been surfacing and of course, its implementation would be VERY appreciated. I can only assume Korg is working on this, but they are hard to read. More than this however, I am really hoping for some sort of external MIDI support either through the new framework being introduced in iOS 4.2 or even better (for me at least) MIDI Mobilizer support.

Even without this wish list being fulfilled this app is fully worth the $15.99 Korg is asking. Apparently it is going to go up to $32.99 at the end of the year. I could still see paying that much since it sounds so great, but hopefully by that time the introduction of iOS 4.2 will result in an update of the app with some more utilitarian functionality. I am definitely in love with iMS-20 and it will take a prominent #2 position on my list of favorite apps.

Korg iMS-20


  1. thanks for the review. eagerly waiting for some tunes now (on youtube, especially).

  2. guys, have you figured out how to reset synth channel? i cannot make it, it drives me crazy, after some synth recording i would like to reset it and for example record once again from the scratch, but FAIL.

  3. Listening to the Tron Legacy soundtrack makes me think you could do a lot of this with the iMS-20.

  4. What prodeus said... any ideas on how to reset synth channel?

  5. Some iMS20 tunes here, just started messing with it. Can spend all night just playing with "Swoosh" noises. Sad I know.