Pro Audio

The KORG MS-20: the unfinished story of a legendary monosynth

The KORG MS-20 is one of the most recognisable synths of all time. Released in 1978, the synth was somewhat of a pioneer for semi-modular synths due to its accessibility in size and price. Its compact and solid build allowed accessibility and portability for the modern experimentalist.

The world was ready for a new approach to crafting sounds from outer space and the KORG MS-20 was somewhat of a gateway to the world of synthesis for many. Yet it wasn’t until at least another decade had passed that the synth reached its potential. Korg MS-20

Released in 1978, the MS-20 didn’t make its lasting impression until the analog revival of the 90s. Its popularity has only grown ever since.

The MS-20 boasted similar features and design to the classic ARP 2600 and attracted the attention of both fans of the legendary synthesizer and those who were just being introduced to the synth world. At the time of release, perhaps, the world was not ready for what was to come.

The MS-20 was one of the first major success stories for the monolithic KORG brand, as it introduced the world of modular synthesis to those who may not have dared to open that pandora’s box. The best part: it was affordable.

This compact monophonic synthesizer features two analog Oscillators, two VCAs, hold and sample, a mod wheel, hard-wired patchable connections and two incredibly aggressive and unique VCF filters.

A rough patch

The MS-20 was notorious for being difficult to use and sounding too harsh, noisy and aggressive. Put simply, many thought it was worlds away from the ARP 2600 or the Moog Minimoog, which were leading the pack at the time.

Its initial slow response in the retail market also led to the product’s resale value to drop substantially. There are countless stories of people finding dusty MS-20 units out the back of thrift stores or under piles of junk at garage sales throughout the 90s.

The MS-20’s potential was only fully realised and acknowledged by the wider public during the analog-revival of the mid-to-late 90s. This propelled it into the mainstream market, beginning the synth’s second life. It was one that would not go unnoticed.

The weird squelchy UFO-like tones of the MS-20 was heard by many for the first time in a commercial spot for Levi’s. The 30 second advertisement features Flat Eric thrashing to the track Flat Beat, produced by Mr. Oizo, which shot the artist into legendary status allowing him to gain a cult following and allowing the MS-20 to be heard by many.

Encouraging creativity

The VCF filters and ESP module are what made the MS-20 stand the test of time. The VCF filters are extremely resonant and offer a unique take on high-passing and low-passing with an added ‘peak’ control. These filters create a unique resonant self-oscillation and an unrivalled saturation when pushed to extremes.

The External Signal Processor (ESP) allows users to control the synth via an external audio source’s pitch or volume, meaning you can run your guitar or a microphone through the MS-20. These features along with the patching flexibility encouraged creativity and experimentation. Unique in its functionality, sitting in front of a KORG MS-20 meant you had to try new things to get results.

Goldfrapp has claimed to have used an MS-20 to effect Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals on much of their work. Hear this unique and experimental use of the MS-20 to filter a vocal solo on their album debut album, Felt Mountain. Listen in at 1:15.

The KORG MS-20 allowed a whole new world of possibilities for the modern sound designer with an infinite potential for crafting bass sounds, leads, textural noise and even kicks and snares.

The MS-20 was heavily featured throughout Air‘s debut album, Moon Safari. Hear it front and centre in this classic track, as it can be heard running through a talkbox, wielding a very memorable bass line.

Heard around the world

Daft Punk brought French house to the world in 1997 with their debut album, Homework. The fourth track on the record, Da Funk boasts an iconic lead characterised by the unique saturation, VCF filters and modulator effects on the KORG MS-20.

The original model released in 1978 features a ‘type 35 filter’, which features a uniquely rich and harmonic distortion. In the demo below, you can hear the synth in action as it wanders through its trademark otherworldly aggressive and growling sounds.

In recent years, the MS-20 has gained attention within the experimental, ambient and techno scenes due to its unparalleled ability for experimentation and sonic manipulations. So much so that the company has released, the MS-20 mini, a shrunken replica of the original – faithful to the original model’s circuitry at just 86% of the size.

KORG has also released the MS-20M Kit, an unassembled module kit sold without a keyboard but instead in conjunction with the SQ-1 sequencer. Lastly, as part of the KORG Legacy Series, the company has released the MS-20EX VST, which features an addition of 32-voice polyphony and can be controlled by an external module.

With its popularity gaining traction in the 90s, the MS-20 has had a lasting appeal ever since. And due to its accessibility and signature tone, it’s one of the icons that helped shape modern electronic music.