So what were Korg actually selling whilst they were developing the legendary M1? It’s quite a good question actually, which can raise a few umms and ahhhs. You might hear the odd reference to 1985’s DW8000 and DW6000, which were, despite their analogue elements, the beginning of the descendency line for the Korg M1, and indeed S&S (Sample and Synthesis) synths in general. The monotimbral but mighty-for-its-time Korg DSS-1 expanded on the essence of the DW duo in 1986, once again integrating samples with synthesis. This is another keyboard frequently mentioned as a precursor to the M1.
But there was an extra step between these early (partial) S&S machines and the M1. An extra step which broke the line and had nothing whatever to do with samples. In fact, the engine around which this ‘alien’ stepping stone was built, was not even a Korg product. It was 100% Yamaha, used under licence. The answer, then, is that whilst they were developing their game-changing M1 synth/workstation and preparing it for market, Korg were selling Yamaha FM synthesizers with added, user-friendly features and re-styled casings.
The Korg 707, launched in 1987, was basically a multitimbral Yamaha DX27 with a ‘Performance Editor’ on the front panel. At £599 the 707 was noticeably more expensive than the DX27, but to me the Korg looked cheaper, and it had a shorter keyboard. With the Korg 707, you were getting the advantage of multitimbrality, and the placing of filter and envelope controls at the user’s fingertips was a huge benefit, but Korg would clearly not have wanted to shout about the sound engine they were using. It was the most basic of the FM implementations used in the DX range of synths, featuring 4 sine wave operators, and even powering the lowly £349 DX100.
So what you got with a Korg 707 was the expected range of plinky, untreated FM sounds. The 8-part multitimbrality was a plus, allowing layering, which would give some much needed scope for tonal thickening. But given that the polyphony of this particular Yamaha sound engine was only 8 notes, you’d be down to 4 notes with two layers, and in monophonic territory when using all 8 parts. The remainder of the decision on whether the Korg 707 was really worth the money came down to how much you valued real time control. This, remember, was 1987, so the hankering for hands-on filtering wasn’t vast, and anyone who was into heavy control synthesis at that time would probably just buy old analogues, which were out of fashion and cheap.
What the 707’s Performance Editor really achieved in its day was a quick route to editing and creating presets. That was a big thing, because people hated the Yamaha DXs’ convoluted, mathematical programming system. They just wanted to make patches quickly and intuitively like they used to, and the Korg 707 gave them the means.
The Korg 707 had a big brother called the DS-8, which was also introduced in 1987. It had a longer keyboard, a less cheap-looking design, and some onboard effects, which were always eminently useful on 4-operator FM synths. The DS-8’s list price was £899. Not expensive as synths of the day went, but the introduction of Yamaha’s DX11 at £679 in early ’88 was a big blow to that. The DX11 had a much improved version of the 4 operator FM system, plus the multitimbrality, onboard effects… It was a hard synth for the entire market to compete with, but for the more expensive DS-8 – a fellow FM using an older, less powerful implementation of the technology – it was a near fatal blow. Fortunately, by then, the Korg M1’s introduction was not far away.
The 707 and DS-8 did fill a gap for Korg, and commercially they were very useful in an environment where synths were now made or broken by the mass market. The mass market was not, realistically, going to pay the £2,259 the company had been asking for their previous synth the DSS-1, so Korg had to occupy that sub-£1,000 territory whilst developing the omnipotent, landmark M1.
But it should be noted that whilst the Korg DS-8 was featured in specialist musical equipment dealer ads, the 707 generally wasn’t. Whether the problem was its rather ‘home keyboard’ appearance, or its value as compared with other basic FM synths (particularly the DX100 which was being discounted down to £275 by 1987), I don’t know. But the 707 was the kind of synth you’d find in what I used to call “parent shops”. They were the places your parents would go to buy an instrument, because they didn’t like the thought of being served by a bloke with long hair.
"Parent shops" were nicely fitted out, their displays were always attractive, and they occupied very visible locations of the high street. But they’d usually be run by old-school insurance men who fancied a move into retail. The staff would know where to get a nice suit and haircut, but absolutely nothing about music gear, and they’d invariably charge the full RRP for everything – rounded up to the nearest tenner. The Korg 707 probably gave those places many a happy sale, and many a satisfied customer.