The most recent in an increasingly long line of resurrections, Korg's MS-20M brings the legendary MS-20 synth to your desktop in all its glory—minus the keyboard. It’s nearly identical to the original, with the same analog oscillators, first-generation filters, and a VCA that’s been tweaked to reduce noise. There are handy new additions to integrate it into more modern workflows as well, including MIDI In and USB connectivity, as well VCO sync for added harmonic content, patchable PWM, and FM. It comes bundled with Korg’s own SQ-1 sequencer for Volca-style pattern generation, and all in all is the beefiest, most versatile version of the MS-20 ever created.
How It Looks
With solid metal construction and stained black wood ends, the MS-20M is a beautiful instrument. It’s also a kit, meaning you’ll have to put the thing together yourself: open the box and you’re greeted with bubble-wrapped circuit boards, a chassis, and a motherload of screws, nuts and washers. Assembling the MS-20M is a bit fussy, and will take you a few hours; though there’s no soldering, it can be frustrating—sort of like assembling a piece of Ikea furniture, with a somewhat abstract manual to match. Fortunately, once it’s finished, the results are anything but Ikea: build quality and finish are great, and the machine certainly feels sturdy enough for the long haul (you’ll also feel weirdly bonded with the hardware after putting it together yourself). It’s worth noting that the module is heavy, flat and long—nearly 9 pounds and two feet in length—so you’ll either want to make sure you’ve got the desk space for it.
How It Sounds
Fortunately, this relatively large footprint pays off: Unlike the MS-20 mini, the MS-20M’s patch bay uses full 1/4” jacks, and they’ve all got plenty of space to breathe. This makes the user experience an amazingly comfortable, almost luxurious one, and makes the knob-twiddling workflow fast and fun. Like its ancestors, the MS-20M excels at producing dirty, thwonking bass, but it’s also great for making drum sounds, leads, and plenty more. The frequency range of the LP and HP filters is vast, and you can go from skittering, screaming highs to dubby lows in a heartbeat. In general, the synth has fantastic sonic character; the fact that it sounds simultaneously modern and authentic to the original speaks volumes about the staying power of the MS-20 design.
Korg has added oscillator sync, which sounds great, and FM adds yet another level of sonic drama to the proceedings. For the first time, you can now flick between the dirtier, noisier 35 filter and the more hi-fi sound of the LM13600 filter with the flick of a switch.
The Bottom Line
As mentioned, the MS-20M comes with Korg’s SQ-1 sequencer, which, among other things, works great as an LFO. It's tiny, battery-powered, and works with all sorts of analog setups as an intermediary; while it would be nice to have the option to buy the MS-20M on its own (especially if you’ve got other sequencers in mind), it makes a nice compliment to the synth itself. The package isn’t particularly cheap, but you’re looking for that MS-20 sound—and can handle a few hours of build time after your ceremonial unboxing, perhaps while foaming at the mouth—you really can’t do better than this.
Pricing: MSRP $1700 (street $1199)