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Attack editor Greg Scarth goes behind the scenes with Minilogue creator Tatsuya Takahashi and principle sound designer Yuki Ohta to discover how Korg’s new analogue synth was born.

Since the release of the Monotron less than six years ago, Korg’s analogue synth department has grown into one of the most exciting stories in music tech. At one point, analogue hardware seemed like it was no longer on Korg’s agenda, but with products like the Volca series, the MS-20 reissue and now the excellent Minilogue, the iconic Tokyo brand has reestablished itself as one of the most exciting names in analogue synthesis. Shortly after the release of the Minilogue, Korg Japan offered us a rare opportunity to speak to two of the key figures in its development, Tatsuya Takahashi and Yuki Ohta.

Although he would probably be too humble to take much credit, 33-year-old Takahashi (known to all as Tats) is responsible for much of Korg’s recent success in the analogue synth market. Having grown up in Britain, he moved to Tokyo to work for Korg in 2006. As chief engineer of analogue synthesis, he’s now responsible for overseeing product planning and hardware engineering, and has worked on the Monotrons, Monotribe, Volcas, MS-20M, SQ-1 and the reboot of ARP’s Odyssey.

39-year-old Ohta has also been at Korg just over a decade, having started out designing circuits for the company’s digital pianos before eventually moving to a role he describes as “pretty much everything related to sound” – in the case of the Minilogue, that means working closely with the synth design team (plus third-party sound designers Jimmy Edgar and Richard Devine) to develop its 100 presets.

In an extensive chat with the two designers, we discovered how Flying Lotus and Floating Points helped to inspire the design of the Minilogue, found out about original MS-20 designer Fumio Mieda’s advice to Takahashi, and learned why Minilogue owners should keep an eye out for new features that may arrive via firmware updates.

Tatsuya Takahashi (seated) and Yuki Ohta with the Minilogue

Tatsuya Takahashi (seated) and Yuki Ohta with the Minilogue

Attack: When did the idea for the Minilogue first come about? How long have you been waiting to design this synth?

Takahashi: All my life! It’s true. But when did it feel realistic that we could do a project like this? I guess when we were comfortable about mass producing analogue synths, around the time of MS-20mini. It’s always been on my mind – just a case of when it would happen.

It’s being spoken of as quite a personal project for you, Tats. Is it more personal than the Volcas?

Takahashi: All products are personal because you have to interact with the circuit and you have to try this and that to make it sound better – a bit like an ongoing conversation with the circuit. The Minilogue required more of this because it was a completely new circuit and it was very needy – the first prototype was a rebel. But we had a sit down and talked over what might be upsetting him and we realised that we both had to change our ways – now he’s not embarrassed to go to the pub with me, and I’m 33 years his senior.

And yeah, Minilogue is a he, although I know in French words ending in ‘ue’ are usually feminine. I hope he doesn’t get bullied.

serious respect to my fellow engineers for pushing boundaries – both technological and political. It’s hard in a Japanese company to stand up against quality assurance and convince them that a new way of doing something would be stable enough for mass production.

Who else has been involved in the development process? Is it a large team?

Takahashi: It depends how far I reach out. I would love to give big shouts to the guy who told me my flies were undone this morning if I knew who he was – you need some proper courage to point that out to a stranger. But serious respect to fellow engineers Yoshihito Yamada and Hideki Fujii because they are just so unbelievably good at pushing boundaries – both technological and political. It’s hard in a Japanese company to stand up against quality assurance and convince them that a new way of doing something would be stable enough for mass production. Also, preset voicing superstars Yuki Ohta and Tatsuya Okamoto. Oh, and industrial designer Kyosuke Kobayashi for coming up with that awesome design despite being hated by every single mechanical designer for it. And, oh, wait, just one more: Toshiyuki Gohto for being the one mechanical engineer who didn’t rip up the design and set it on fire!

In many ways it would surely have been easier to build and market a synth based to some extent on classic Korg circuit designs. Why did you decide not to do that?

Takahashi: We’ve done the MS-20 and ARP Odyssey so we’ve already done a bit of referencing the past, and other manufacturers are really going for it too. It’s really important to keep the history of synthesis alive, and people in general are eager to do so. I mean, don’t we all love raving about when it was better back in the day? But, with all nostalgia and pleasant anachronisms aside, it’s also super important to keep making new concepts and products that’ll hopefully be considered classics thirty years on from now.

I’m curious to know how the development process starts. When you sit down with a blank sheet of paper, what comes first?

Takahashi: Because I’m a hardware designer, maybe a few schematic doodles. I like to use 0.7mm HB and I’ll draw on the back of an envelope if I’m feeling really pretentious. The sound of a synthesiser can be made worse by a million different factors in a circuit, so those bits need to be right, but I can worry about them later. The bits that make a circuit sound good are a few essential clusters of components, like the capacitor discharge circuit of the VCO, or the non-linear limiting elements of a VCF. These parts are only a few discrete bits and pieces that will have an enormous impact on the sound, so I start there.

Yuki, when does the process of designing presets start? Do you wait until the synth’s completely finished, or start earlier than that?

Ohta: It always depends, but for Minilogue I remember we shipped the very first prototypes for voicing to the US and started to program sounds in fall 2015. Honestly, the firmware development wasn’t really finished at that time. Even some new sequencer features were added while we were making sounds.

Are you involved at all in giving feedback about the synth architecture and features? I can imagine you calling across the lab: “Hey, Tats, I’m working on this sound but I need another LFO!”

Ohta: I remember one day I was asked by Tats to review his very early alpha proto – bare circuit boards and wires and all. The synth architecture was basically fixed and already great, but since then we discussed the behaviour and feel of the knobs, and also the software-controlled stuff such as the sequencer a lot. I guess I gave a lot of additional work to the team!

Tats, do you have any specific personal interests within electronics? In the sense that particular musicians might be fascinated by melody whereas others might focus on rhythm or just texture and colour, do you have a main focus? Perhaps that’s a silly question.

Takahashi: No, not silly at all. It really depends on the product. If it’s the Monotron, the efficiency of design would be a big driver. For the Minilogue it would be the challenge of coming up with a new structure that pushes boundaries. If it’s something I’m working on at home for my own gig, it’s chance happenings like the power supply being too weak and you get weird interactions, but if it sounds good then I guess that’s a good discovery.

So it really depends on the situation. I bet that although Shed can make the most amazing killer dance tracks, he could strum a harp or something for a newborn baby or whatever. I don’t know – I’m just guessing and I’ve never spoken to him – but I’m trying to say we all have the capacity to be in tune with a situation and change what we do accordingly, while finding the experience fascinating.

Once the hardware has been developed and you’re working on the presets, how important is it to strike a balance between classic sounds and new, original sounds that people have never heard before?

Ohta: The balance is one of the most important parts. Before getting started we often spend weeks discussing the synth’s capabilities of sound design, and – more importantly, in my opinion – how well it matches with the whole concept of the product.

How much guidance do you get from the synth designers? Do they point out some of the less obvious features and explain how they think you can use them?

Ohta: Features could be less obvious at the beginning but translating them to the actual sound is the fun part – I guess the voice mode featured on the Minilogue was one of the examples. Being close with the team, it was really easy to share and discuss our thoughts and ideas – after all the discussions and experiments I believe it all got pretty neat with the voice mode depth knob!

A Volca is not a jack of all trades... It’s simple machines doing simple things so your mind is free to enter a creative space. That’s at the root of the Volca concept: liberation through limitation.

The Volcas have been embraced by house and techno producers. How important has that been to your plan? There are obviously house- and techno-focused presets added towards the end of the development process but how much do you think about that early in the design process, when you’re deciding on the basic features and sound characteristics?

Takahashi: Very important. House and techno were born from using second-hand gear that was affordable at the time and by actually embracing the limitations, including financial ones. It fuels your creativity, and the Volcas are in that vein. A Volca is not a jack of all trades, they are each good at one thing, and this is something in common with the comeback of hardware in general. It’s simple machines doing simple things so your mind is free to enter a creative space. That’s at the root of the Volca concept: liberation through limitation.

Yuki, do you pay much attention to recent musical trends when working on a synth?

Ohta: Yes and no… I do research a lot on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, where many fresh and inspiring ideas are there for me – or sometimes even Billboard and iTunes charts – but at the same time I try not to be influenced too much.

Tats, what role does tradition play in your design process? Do you feel that it’s important to consider Korg’s history?

Takahashi: Tradition is huge. Come on – I’m using techniques that are 40 years old! I furthered my knowledge of electronics through being schooled in engineering, but it was only after trawling through old synth schematics and knowing the circuits behind the sounds that I started to grasp how to make circuits sound a certain way.

Also, Fumio Mieda, who is the inventor of the original MS-20 circuit and so many other essential Korg circuits, sits a bogie shot away from me – not that I would ever, ever, ever dream of doing that. Never. Anyway, he saw my circuit and said to me, “Takahashi-kun, your circuits are functional, but they are not musical. Musical instruments do not need perfect waveforms and correct operating points. You need to use the transistor for what it is. As long as it sounds good, it’s OK.” Damn, that was an eye-opener seven years ago. I threw the circuit away, studied Mieda’s circuits again and started over on what became the Monotron. I mean, I guess my engineering ego is big enough to think I can take a shot at building my own new synth, but this kind of inspiration never rubs off. There’s always going to be that piece of Korg in whatever I do.

People maybe don’t realise that even though Korg stopped making analogue synths for some time, that doesn’t mean the original designers like Fumio Mieda weren’t still around. How important has that been in the process of developing the new generation of analogue instruments?

Takahashi: I’ve talked about how looking at old schematics is one way to decipher old circuits, but really you need to talk to the designer and we’re very very fortunate to have the original minds working closely with us. We didn’t have that with the Odyssey, which is why we consulted David Friend – the original designer. It was invaluable to have that conversation to get behind the intent of the design. It’s so important to know why something was designed rather than how.

What’s the attitude within Korg to its analogue synths of the past? There are synthesisers like the Mono/Poly and Polysix that you’ve emulated in official plugin versions, there’s the MS-20 that you’ve reissued as a faithful imitation of the original, then there are cult favourites like the Poly800 and Trident. How much do you think about the fact that you’re responsible for continuing the company’s legacy, stretching back many decades?

Takahashi: Like I said, referencing and keeping the history of synths alive and keeping those legends relevant today is really important. I mean, the MonoPoly, Polysix and Trident are older than I am, and whenever I’m looking at the schematics I feel like a historian archiving these old scripts – everything should be in black and white and fuzzy. But in reality it’s actually not that old, and a lot of the people who designed them still come into work every day and the sounds are still alive in music today. So do I feel the responsibility for the history? Probably not, because the history is part of the environment I work in and the world is very welcoming to the stuff we do with it.

I’m curious to know your personal favourite synths, whether you admire them purely as instruments or from an electronic engineering perspective. If you had to pick one synth from Korg and one from another manufacturer, what would you go for? Why?

Takahashi: MS-20 and Minimoog. Standard – and what a boring answer – but just look at the schematics for the two transistors on the MS-20 rev1 filter and the all-discrete oscillators on the Minimoog. They’re beautiful circuits with killer sound.

How much attention do you pay to what other manufacturers are doing?

Takahashi: A lot! There’s so much good stuff around – it’s a great time to be making synths. Did you check the Make Noise 0-Coast?

Not yet, but it looks really interesting. Given that the Minilogue is an all-new synth, you presumably had much more freedom with the design of the electronics than you would if you were recreating old circuit designs. Aside from the obvious (such as surface-mount technology), were you able to make use of any particularly modern techniques or components?

Takahashi: Yes, absolutely. If you’ve seen Markus Fuller’s teardown, there is an ARM microprocessor for each voice. These generate all the control voltages and gate signals and they’re also smart enough to self-calibrate all of the parameters so we don’t need time-consuming and expensive adjustments at the factory. You can get a lot of processing power for your money these days and this means we can spend the money on things like real analogue VCOs, wave-shaping and ring modulation. All those wouldn’t be possible if we had to spend loads of time adjusting pots at the assembly line.

The first thing that struck me about the Minilogue is that it has that Juno-106{-like quality of feeling like it’s very easy to create great sounds – and, indeed, quite hard to make it sound ‘bad’. Was ease of use an important design consideration? What did you have to do in order to achieve that without sacrificing features and versatility?

Takahashi: We started analogue because we wanted to make stuff simple again. So you could pick up a synth and find your way around it without needing to be a complete geek to get some good sounds. Analogue was the best because it’s inherently simpler and if you do it right, the sound is amazing. But seven, eight years ago, the analogue synth world was completely up itself. If you were a really rich person with shelves and shelves of the best and most esoteric vintage analogue gear in pristine condition it was alright, but if you weren’t, you just couldn’t join in. With the deteriorating condition of vintage gear and the extortionate prices for maintenance, we didn’t have a future. That’s why we make synthesisers that are approachable, reasonably priced and good at sounding great. It’s all about the democratisation of synthesis.

It’s why I started building synths in the first place, back in London when I had a bar job. That wasn’t going to pay for a decent synth, so I built one instead. I ended up taking a whole year to build this thing and it cost like two grand. So I guess I could have just bought a Virus or something instead, but then I wouldn’t be here.

As for making it easier to sound good, it’s all about picking the right parameters for the knobs, the layout and loads of curve checking and adjustments. I am hugely indebted to the voicing guys for their expertise on this, especially the last part.

When designing a synth from scratch, how do you ensure it has a Korg character? What do you think are the factors that contribute most to that character?

Takahashi: Well, the age range of the team goes from 27 to 63, so we have older Korg engineers with decades of experience designing the Korg sound – who have wonderful brains for picking – and a younger generation who are great at looking at a product in today’s context and knowing how a certain design feature or a menu display might feel. Basically it’s about the outside having the right relationship with the inside.

If you had a mug of black liquid and drank it thinking it was coffee, but it was actually Coke, it’s all of a sudden cold and all of a sudden sweet and it would just knock you off where you were going mentally, which isn’t nice. But sometimes we use these juxtapositions to surprise in a positive way – like with the oscilloscope on the Minilogue – because it’s not the usual feedback you get from twisting a knob on a synth. It’s all about building expectations and assumptions, then answering them in expected and unexpected ways. In ways that urge the user to explore the sounds and interact with the synth and it becomes part of the creative flow. This is the experience a synth should provide.

I find the Minilogue to be versatile and ‘classic’-sounding, but not to have an overly dominant character. Did you have a specific sound in mind as you developed it?

Takahashi: I didn’t have a particular synth in mind, but I was listening to Floating Points and Flying Lotus a lot at the time so maybe that had an influence. Although not in a gotta get that sound! kind of way – I was more blown away by their organic use of synthesised sounds.

Speaking of sounds, Jimmy Edgar was called in to create some of the Minilogue’s presets. As far as I know, this was the first time he’s been directly involved with a Korg product. Why did you pick him in particular?

Ohta: Yes, this was the first time for us to collaborate with Jimmy. It was actually a coincidence that while I was asking Richard [Devine] about his availability we found that they had collaborated on an EP before. We all love their music and style, so we were all like, “Why not ask Richard if Jimmy would also be interested?” So that was the start.

What do third-party sound designers add to the process?

Ohta: They add their own unique artistry, character and colour to the factory sounds. I believe they helped us in the exact way we wanted.

How do you make sure they aren’t just coming up with similar sounds to you?

Ohta: Actually I didn’t really make sure this time, on purpose. Of course, we always share our concepts and thoughts, try to stay in touch as closely as possible, and for some products we give directions in detail on the sounds to make, but this time I basically left it in their hands to make sounds that would be actually be used in their own music.

Finally, I just wanted to answer a couple of outstanding questions about the Minilogue. A few people have noticed some strange empty spaces on the PCB. Can you shed any light on that? Were some features considered and then removed before production?

Takahashi: Well, exercise your imagination as to what feature we might have dropped! No, really, there’s nothing interesting about those – they’re just provisional places for components that weren’t needed in the end.

These days, it’s quite common for manufacturers to make significant updates to the firmware after a synth or drum machine is released. Do you expect to be able to develop the Minilogue much further with firmware updates?

Takahashi: Minilogue is an analogue synth that’s controlled digitally, so yeah there are possibilities for an update.

OK. How about a hold button for arp mode?!

Takahashi: I’ll pencil that in!

15th March, 2016

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