The Korg MS-10 was an entry-level monophonic synthesizer from the 70’s. It had a 32-note keyboard and a control wheel driving a single VCO, VCF and VCA.

Perhaps a little background may help here. The keyboard and control wheel each generated a voltage that could be fed as input to the various modules. The Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO) generated a number of different waveforms with a frequency dependent on the input voltage. So given the voltage from a particular key on the keyboard it would generate the relevant frequency.

The Voltage Controlled Filter (VCF) worked in a similar way. The voltage, from the Control Wheel for example, would effect the frequencies passed by the filter.

The Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) could vary the amplitude of its output signal depending on a control voltage.

Finally the Envelope Generator shaped the amplitude of a note through time. Imagine hitting a piano key. The amplitude of the note increases from zero to its peak very quickly as the string is struck. It then drops down to a level at which the note is sustained before finally decaying back to silence. The Envelope Generator is responsible for generating a control signal that models such an envelope. This can be fed into the VCA to simulate the sound of a conventional instrument.

Now the thing that really fascinates me about analogue synthesizers is that all the parameters of these modules are fully adjustable (there are lots of knobs to twiddle). The various modules can also be connected together in different ways via a patch panel. For example feeding the output of one VCO into the input of another will generate vibrato effects.

That was 1978. Fast forward to thirty years later and the introduction of the Korg DS-10 on the Nintendo DS. This is not a 100% perfect emulation of the Korg MS-10. But in many ways it is so much more. It emulates two mono synthesizers loosely based on the MS-10. In addition each has a 16-step sequencer, roughly equivalent to a Korg SQ-10. Finally there is a four pad drum machine with its own sequencer, a six channel mixer and an FX unit (delay, flanger and chorus).

Each synthesizer has a 24-note keyboard and a Kaoss Pad. This is an X-Y touch pad where the coordinates of a finger touching the pad generate an X and a Y voltage that can be mapped to parameters such as note, volume, pan etc. Sweeping a finger tip in patterns around the pad can produce control signals simply not possible from the keyboard.

So how well does the Korg DS-10 work in practice? Is is a toy or a serious musical instrument? Initial impressions are very favourable. Emulating two MS-10’s gives the possibility of richer, deeper sounds and for stereo effects. Add in the drum machine and reasonably complex compositions can be attempted. Incidentally the original MS-10 manual recommends combining two synthesizers for a richer sound.

Sound quality seems pretty good, though limitations of the DS hardware means that bass notes are perhaps not as good as they could be. With very complicated patches and absolutely everything running there were occasional hints that the processor was struggling to keep up. But this would not be a problem in normal usage.

What is a slight problem in normal usage is the size of the font used for the menus. The graphics are gorgeous but with my 48 year old eyes the menu text is quite hard to read in places.

Creating a song from a series of sequencer patterns is not particular intuitive for someone not used to sequencer programming. Here, the manual could have done with more examples and tutorials, including a walkthrough of a typical workflow. However once you have a mental model of how a song is built up the system is powerful, flexible and easy to edit.

In summary this is a fantastic software package. However it has a steep learning curve and is one Nintendo DS program where it really pays to read the manual in detail. You’ll need to do a lot of experimenting to get something really musical out of the DS-10, but the end result can be absolutely fantastic.