Last update: 8 April 2010
The Korg PS3200
It may seem strange, especially following the rip-roaring success that the company has enjoyed since it launched the M1 in 1988, but Korg was a late developer in the polyphonic school of life. Its first efforts emerged in 1976, the same year that Yamaha revealed the wonderful CS80. Conceived as partners to the MiniKORG 700S, 800DV and 770 monosynths, the PE Polyphonic Ensembles were little more than organs with primitive envelopes and filters. When compared with the awesome racket generated by the Yamaha, the PEs simply weren't in the same game.
The PS3100 and PS3300
Two years later Korg launched two new ranges of instruments. These replaced the MiniKORGs with the MS- (Monophonic Synthesiser) series, while the PEs gave way to two impressive Polyphonic Synthesisers: the PS3100 and PS3300.
The former of these shared much of the MS10's architecture: a single oscillator per note and reasonable, if somewhat limited, patching capabilities. The latter was a monster that bore little resemblance to any other Korg or, for that matter, any other anything. Its front panel had four sections. Each of the first three was a patchable 48-note polyphonic polysynths with each note boasting a VCO, a low-pass filter, two modulation generators, EQ, and a weird envelope generator. The fourth was a mixer that offered another envelope generator, a couple of voltage processors, and an additional bunch of patching options. This was much, much more than a simple synth with three oscillators per note. With 36 octave-divided oscillators, 144 dynamic filters, and 144 envelope generators, there had never been a synth like it. The sound was, as you might expect, awesome, but there was one thing that the PS3300 lacked... memories. You could program the world's most desirable patch one day, and never be able to recreate it again. Something had to be done.
That something was the PS3200, which proved to be the last, and greatest, of Korg's semi-modular synths. Released in 1978, this was a ‘two oscillator per voice' polysynth, and in many ways a competitor to, as well as a direct contemporary of, the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBX. But with its 16 memories (compared to the 40 of the Prophet and the 32 of the OBX) and storage-heater looks, it didn't stand a chance in the popularity stakes. Moreover, at 37Kg, the main synth module and separate keyboard seemed to weigh about the same as a storage heater. There were other limitations: the Prophet was the first synth to store every voice creation parameter in memory, but the PS3200 stored the positions of just 32 of its 48 primary knobs; there was only one ADSR envelope generator; and no obvious poly-modulation (which many players claimed was the best bit on the Prophet). Lastly, while the Korg filter was meaty enough, it would not self-oscillate. The rasping filter sweeps that made the Prophet the instrument of choice were missing from the Korg's sonic palette.
So, nearly twenty years later, the PS3200 is an undesirable piece of junk that nobody wants. Well... no, it isn't. A recent advertisement in the UK music press was asking £6,000 for a PS3200, and last year a British synth specialist sold a PS3300 to a German collector for over £7,000. But why?
Part of the attraction is undoubtably the size and shape of the beast. Undesirable in 1978, the looks of a PS3200 add hugely to its kudos in 1997. The patching also helps and, although nowhere near as extensive as the digital matrix available in, for example, a Korg Trinity, it elicits almost uncontrolled lust in analogue fans everywhere. Furthermore, the patching overcomes many of the limitations of the Korg's internal architecture, allowing you to modulate almost anything using almost anything else. (Unfortunately, like the MS20 and in contrast to, for example, the ARP2600, you cannot modify the audio signal path of the PS3200 by patching.) Other interesting quirks include a 7-band equaliser, an early appearance for Korg's ensemble circuit, independent tuning of each oscillator and, like the PS3300, a second envelope generator that is triggered when you play or exceed a user-defined number of notes. Quirky, but cute!
Eclipsing all of these, the PS3200's biggest draw is undoubtably its polyphony. Once again, Korg had made the instrument fully polyphonic, so you can play all 48 notes simultaneously. Not just a huge improvement on the five and eight note polyphonies of the Prophet or Oberheim respectively, this means that each of the 24 octave-divided VCOs, 96 filters and 96 independent envelopes, makes its own contribution to the character of the sound. The result is a synth with infinitely more depth than your average philosopher. Coupled to the PS3010 keyboard, the PS3060 remote controller, and the PS3040 dual foot controller (which provides four control voltages simultaneously) the PS3200 offers far more than any other polysynth of the late 1970s.
The instrument's manual includes several patch charts, covering string ensembles, brass, pianos and harpsichords, clavi, organ, guitars and basses, harp, flute, choir, chimes, xylophone, plus the inevitable synth and sound effects. It's tempting to say that the PS3200 excels at strings and brass (which, of course, it does) but all of these patches have their qualities. And, since few use the patching facilities of the synth, they merely scratch the surface of its capabilities. Maybe this is why, when Moog started to lose its shine, players such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman not only played PS-series synths, they actually endorsed them. But only Brian Chatton is remembered for using one live, which he did while touring with John Miles.
Nowadays, any surviving PS3200s are starting to reach the end of their reliable lives. Mine recently needed a spell in intensive care because of a fault that had been lurking since its manufacture. I was mighty grateful to service-maestro Paul Bundock at Korg UK when it returned home in one, fully working, piece. Had the fault lain in some esoteric components or the oscillator blocks (for which spare parts are, apparently, no longer available) there may have been a less happy ending. In the same vein, former synth collector Bob Williams had to contact Japan to resurrect his last PS3200 and, apparently, Korg's Tokyo factory sold him the last spares they had.
Furthermore, the PS3200's place in the modern studio is far from assured. It's a devilish instrument to MIDI and, since the only external way to tap the system is through the 60-way military connector that joins the keyboard to the main unit, it's unlikely that you'll be able to pop along to your local service centre for a £250 upgrade.
It's rumoured that Korg only assembled 200 or so PS3200s, and that each was a hand-built labour of love, so treat them with reverence. On the other hand, if you have the opportunity to play one, take advantage of it. It may be your last chance.
Copyright ©1997, Gordon Reid.