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KingKORG NEO: Return of the King

Tracing Korg History Towards a New Monarch

Chris Hadley · 01/18/24

Today Korg has released a new addition to their long history of powerful virtual analog synthesizers in a compact form factor - the KingKORG NEO. Boasting the impressive timbral range and depth of control available in the original KingKORG, the KingKORG NEO’s space-efficient footprint is a surprising feast of synthesizer power. Offering an exciting realm of diverse sonic possibilities from its many analog-modeled oscillators, filters, and effects, the KingKORG NEO is versatile enough to excel as the first synthesizer in a burgeoning home studio, yet deep enough to inspire veteran synthesists to tweak away at its flexible sound engine.

Before exploring this compact king in depth, we’ll revisit the history of Korg royalty to unpack how we arrived at our new monarch.

Starting Small

Looking back into Korg’s catalog of classic synthesizer designs, it is clear that the company has a consistent record of releasing powerhouse synths in compact packages. In contrast to Yamaha and Roland, the other two giants of Japanese synthesizer design, Korg’s contributions to the class of small and powerful keyboard synthesizers are the models most synonymous with the brand at large. If one were to ask the first synthesizers that come to mind for each brand, it's not hard to see how Korg stands out.

The name Roland conjures up the lush pads, spritely arpeggios, and snappy envelopes of synths like the Jupiter-8 or Juno-106. Mention Yamaha in the right company and there’s a good chance you’ll soon be talking about a certain sci-fi score of legendary status, and naturally, Yamaha’s CS-80, the polyphonic monster/masterpiece used in the score’s creation. Giving Korg a chance at this synthesizer Rorschach test, we find ourselves remembering the smaller units of yesteryear that made their mark with iconic character rather than blow-out spec sheets - synths like the MS-20, and the illustrious MicroKORG.

In charting a course towards our new king, the MicroKORG’s naming convention (and familiar vocoder microphone) reveals it as an important part of the KingKORG NEO’s synthesizer ancestry. However, Korg’s legacy of powerful little synthesizers goes all the way back to its earliest designs. Released in 1973, the MiniKORG 700 was a portable analog synthesizer designed to rest atop an organ. A single oscillator monosynth, the 700 was a straightforward unit with a handful of parametric controls and no presets, giving keyboard players a versatile additional sound source for lead lines and basses. While limited even by the standards of early 70s synthesizers, the MiniKORG was capable of dulcet and musically useful timbres, with a combined low-pass/high-pass “traveler” fader that showed Korg’s knack for designing creative and approachable interfaces with meaningful musical applications.

The 700 was iterated upon with the dual-oscillator MiniKORG 700S in 1974, which in addition to the added oscillator, boasted a handful of improvements and added features. In 1975, Korg combined two of these units for the powerfully duo-phonic Maxi-Korg 800DV. While the MiniKORG and Maxi-Korg share the same synth architecture, this pairing of a streamlined mini-synth and expanded unit featuring all Korg has to offer is a pattern that echoes throughout the company’s catalog of revered audio tools.

For the next two years, Korg would continue pushing the boundaries of polyphonic analog synthesizer design with their over-the-top 48-voice PS-3100 and PS-3300 before releasing their next legendary compact powerhouses, the MS-10 and MS-20. Both monophonic synths are a lap-full of raw, squelchy, analog subtractive goodness, but the dual-oscillator MS-20 is by far the most beloved of the series. Recreations of its iconic, dirty filter are abound in the modern synth market, and Korg themselves have re-released the MS-20 in all its semi-modular glory via the MS-20 Mini. Cementing Korg’s ability to design powerful and character-rich synthesizers aimed at musician’s with limited space and budget, the MS-20 remains one of the best examples of Korg’s small-synth oeuvre.

The 1980s and 1990s saw Korg continuing to release synths exploring the newest technologies available. While their full-size analog polysynths weren’t as captivating as other offerings of the time period, Korg achieved success in the transition to digital synthesizers with their large and highly capable workstations and sample-based synths, notably the M1 and Triton. These studio workhorses took advantage of the latest in digital synthesis technology, also featuring sequencing and a wide array of digital effects to deliver a whole studio in one keyboard - all thanks to the magic of digital computing. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the century that Korg would release another hit maker in its class of compact synths, but the lessons learned in forging a name for themselves in sample-based synthesis and digital modeling would be crucial to its next big, little synth.

From Micro to Macro and Back Again

In the early 2000s, public favor towards the power of computer music and away from hardware devices was beginning to subside. Musicians were thoroughly convinced that computing offered a great deal to their workflow, but started to miss the hands-on immediacy of playable keyboards and other devices. Thankfully, advancements to the scale and availability of embedded computing allowed for the perfect combination of these once oppositional desires. That solution was the virtual analog synthesizer, which leveraged the low-cost and high-powered capabilities of digital audio to produce synthesizers that modeled classic analog timbres. Compared to their analog counterparts, these units were affordable for both manufacturers and consumers alike, and offered incredibly flexible synthesizer platforms for use in a variety of musical contexts.

The year 2000 brought us the monstrously powerful MS-2000, with loads of analog modeling capabilities, PCM samples and single-cycle waveforms, a large keybed, and plenty of tweakable knob controls. However, it wasn’t until this massive virtual analog behemoth got the shrink ray treatment that Korg truly struck gold. The MicroKORG, released in 2002, paired down the expansive synth capabilities of the MS-2000 into a user-friendly interface focused on genre-oriented presets rather than limitless tweakability. Still in production twenty-two years later, it is clear that musicians continue to value Korg’s ability to deliver massive synthesizer capability in easily digestible formats.

As a young drummer wandering into the synthesizer section of my local music retailer, the MicroKORG was the synthesizer that inspired me to explore electronic instruments. Its trademark vocoder microphone curving wildly in an inviting wave “hello”, the little MicroKORG felt approachable, fun, and quirky. As a novice, I could quickly explore its vast sonic capabilities through musical terms I already knew. Though at the time I never dared go deeper than what was available on the front panel, the surprisingly versatile sound set hinted at a whole world of sonic possibilities awaiting behind the straightforward controls.

Korg would go on to produce the MicroKORG XL and later our former virtual analog king, the original KingKORG, expanding the deep and flexible design of the MicroKORG while keeping the interface and preset system streamlined and clear. Of course, the vocoder has hung around too, with the series continuing to be some of the best options for people interested in the classic synth technique.

Without the legacy of the MicroKORG we wouldn’t have our new king, and it’s fair to wonder what this newcomer brings to the table. In the present, the KingKORG NEO offers the advancements made to the MicroKORG’s basic operation as seen in the original KingKORG, distilled into a potent, compact, and user-friendly form-factor reminiscent of the MicroKORG. Much like in the early 2000s with the dawn of virtual analog synths, the increasing ease at which manufacturers can pack big feature sets into tiny spaces has offered a solution for musicians looking for generous synthesizer potential without compromising expression and accessibility. The KingKORG NEO is emblematic of Korg’s historic ability to do just that.

With this context established, it's time to dive into what makes this new monarch a supreme ruler of synthesizer capability.

The KingKORG NEO Overview

Those familiar with the original KingKORG will notice this new arrival to the throne shares the characteristically flexible feature set of its closest predecessors. An extremely versatile engine is provided that allows for modeling the rich tones of analog synths as well as digital and physical modeling algorithms for maximum timbral range. This world of sonic possibilities is conveniently accessible through a clear and distinctive panel layout with 200 diverse preset patches, creatively empowering even the novice user to quickly dial in sounds for any musical or sound design application.

Employing their eXpanded Modeling Technology, or XMT synth engine to virtually model classic synth analog sounds, Korg has imbued their new king with a deep and flexible synthesis platform that is infinitely tweakable, yet inviting and accessible. Choose from 138 oscillator types for each of three oscillators, with convenient knobs for tweaking oscillator parameters. These types include classic analog waveforms and noise sources, digital waveguide synthesis (DWGS) and pulse code modulation (PCM) for modeling acoustic sounds and more, and a “MIC IN” oscillator type for utilizing the KingKORG NEO’s included vocoder microphone.

The vocoder capabilities of the KingKORG NEO are expansive, and the balanced XLR input and included microphone allow you to explore this vast sonic landscape right away. A high-quality 16-band filter bank puts this vocoder in league with other dedicated vocoding devices, providing maximum flexibility in creating custom timbres. From classic robotic vocals to ethereal resonant whispers, legendary vocoder sounds are easily achievable. Go deeper by dialing in the formant shift function to adjust filter frequency, and experiment with parameters of each band to sculpt radical tones that are all your own. Adding even further flexibility and depth, the KingKORG NEO can utilize any of its three oscillators in place of the microphone input, providing another avenue towards designing captivating and expressive timbres.

Of course, you can’t have the legendary sound of most fabled analog synths without a responsive and warm filter section for sculpting the oscillator timbre. Korg has been generous in this department, giving the KingKORG NEO a wide palette of frequency-shaping tools for your sound designing needs. 18 analog modeled filters are available, bringing the classic sounds of synths like the TB303, Prophet 5, Minimoog, and Korg’s own MS-20 to your signal chain at the turn of a dial. These filters are able to self-oscillate when pushed into high resonance settings, providing increased flexibility and timbral range in designing your sound.

Adding further depth to your tone shaping, the KingKORG NEO features three master effect slots – pre fx, mod fx, and reverb/delay – each with six options for sculpting the color, texture, and space of the synthesizer timbre. Pre FX explores the coloration possibilities of drive and distortion. Mod FX adds movement to your sound with phasing, chorus, and tremolo. Finally, Rev/Del effects give life to your sound with spatializing reverbs, echoes, and delays. Each of these effect slots features dedicated knobs for controlling effect parameters, so you can effortlessly adjust and tweak your sound on the fly during performance.

All this depth and flexibility in tone-shaping wouldn’t be useful without a solid amount of control and modulation possibilities. KingKORG NEO gives you masterful control over your patches from a variety of performative and automated modulation sources. First and foremost, a velocity-sensitive keybed gives you dynamic control over the 24-voice polyphony offered by the NEO, allowing you to take maximum advantage of its bitimbral capability. An 8 voice arpeggiator is included with a variety of switchable modes, turning a single chordal gesture into a spiraling and rhythmic flurry of tones. In addition to its many high-quality and clearly organized knob controls awaiting your tweaking fingers, there is also a joystick controller for classic mod-wheel style modulations of synth parameters. Two envelopes and two LFOs are available for modulation and amplitude control.

Taking things into the modulatory stratosphere, KingKORG NEO is equipped with a virtual patching feature that lets you route up to six of its modulation sources to a number of destinations. Harkening back to the flexibility of Korg’s famed semimodular MS-20, the ability to break normalled patch points and construct your own schema for deep modulation radically extends the capabilities of the KingKORG NEO. Importantly, all of this functionality is accessible from the panel interface of the synth itself, so diving deep into the engine is always intuitive and inviting.

In Review

The KingKORG NEO isn’t the only virtual analog powerhouse in its price range, but the aspects in which it excels will likely make it ideal for certain synthesists. First and foremost, the vocoder capabilities of our new Korg monarch are expansive and cost-efficient, making the NEO a perfect choice for synthesists looking to explore vocal synth effects and other modulatory capacities available from its flexible engine. Furthermore, Korg’s legacy of delivering compact and feature-rich devices that are easy and fun to explore for a variety of skill levels is on full display in the KingKORG NEO.

Whether you’re looking for your first synthesizer or wanting to add more functionality to your collection, the NEO has you covered with a deep and feature-rich engine that is no-less approachable and immediate for entry-level users. Baring the user-friendly size and sensibility of the legendary MicroKORG and the vast synthesizer power of one of Korg’s most decadent virtual analogs, the KingKORG NEO represents the latest in the dialectic struggle between feature set and form factor. Considering Korg’s storied history of producing powerful synths in compact and accessible packages, this new King is sure to inspire and empower a new generation of synthesists.