I’ve been playing videogames for as long as I’ve been playing the piano. At the keyboard, I use the composer’s rules as guidelines to transform my own impulses into music. When I’m playing a videogame, I immerse myself in a programmed world where my decisions become the game. In both cases, I take advantage of whatever freedom I can find to express myself and my desires. I am playing — creating games and symphonies from lifeless, silent codes.
The KORG DS-10 Plus is an instrument for play. As one of the oldest and most respected brands in electronic music, the KORG series of synthesizers has been around since 1973, and the software that has been ported to the Nintendo DS is a handheld iteration of one of the greatest instruments of all time — the 1978 KORG MS-10. Anyone who has heard electronic music during the past 40 years will recognize the sounds — they occur in everything from Britney Spears pop to underground chiptunes.
The designers have taken full and inventive advantage of the DS’s dual-display and touch screen. Players can improvise by tapping and sliding the stylus on the synthesizer’s keyboard, drumpads and dials; then they can record the results in real time. It’s a much more intelligent system than the recent Beaterator’s music-game style of live mixing. And assembling a song in the KORG is as easy as building a Tetris-like grid of beat and melody blocks — much as with the PlayStation 2’s MTV Music Generator, but simpler and conveniently portable.
Music can be complex, especially as the layers of sound begin to accumulate. But the KORG DS-10 Plus streamlines the process. A “solo” button eliminates all sound except the single track that is under construction — be it a melody or a beat — and then restores the entire composition with another click. And a master flowchart almost always appears on one of the DS’s screens, allowing players to see how their beats and melodies synthesize. They’re free to tap whatever part of the process they want to visit, assembling a song in bits and pieces that come together both logically and aurally.
The KORG DS-10 Plus is not exactly a videogame. But it does the same things that the best videogames do. It awakens imagination. It takes an abstract, invented world — in this case, a galaxy of beats and beeps — and gives them an interactive, visual form. The KORG DS-10 Plus hands players tools with which to play, and through that play it allows them to expose and express themselves. I would call it a classic, but I’m going to save that praise for the music that someone makes with it.
THE GOOD: The KORG DS-10 Plus is surprisingly intuitive for such a complicated little synthesizer. But great assistance is provided by the concise, can-do manual, and years of KORG insights are available online from musicians and electronics geeks alike.
THE BAD: I can trade Pokémon with people in Japan thanks to the DS’s wireless hookup, but I can’t share my KORG DS-10 Plus compositions online unless I record them through an outside system.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A simulated synthesizer, the KORG DS-10 Plus is limited only by its size and its players’ imaginations.