Members of the original Korg M1 developer team: Tomoko Itoh & Junichi Ikeuchi
Korg’s M1 workstation keyboard was introduced in 1988 and went on to become one of the best selling synthesizers of all times, second only to Yamaha’s DX7. The workstation integrated sequencing, sampled waveforms and effects into one piece of equipment – thus it allowed for sketching out arrangements with several parts with different sounds assigned to each. Its set of presets is as wide-spread as the instrument itself: not just major pop hits like Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” feature its sounds, but entire genres of “piano house”, the infamous piano breakdowns of early UK rave anthems and classics of Detroit techno have made extensive use of M1’s presets. It is one of the most significant examples of an instrument and its presets shaping the sound of an era. While entire documentaries have been filmed and books have been issued on other classic Japanese gear like Roland’s 808 and 909 drum machines, the story of the M1 has remained somewhat oblique. It might be this ambiguous status of being “in and out of culture” simultaneously that recently inspired multidisciplinary artist Cory Arcangel to devote a cycle of compositions to the M1’s famously artificial piano sound.
The workstation concept has had a lasting influence on the keyboard market. Also integrating other developments by Korg in automated accompaniment, it has spawned a range of arranger keyboards that has kept developing and is produced until today – see the interview with Dimitar Kotev for a glimpse into their current use.
I was able to submit a set of questions to the original development team of the M1: chief engineer Junichi Ikeuchi, today manager of Korg’s EX Project, and Tomoko Itoh of Korg’s Product Planning Department, whose director she is today. An international marketing executive also submitted an answer, but preferred to remain anonymous.