The Korg M1 and the sound of the 90s

If you think of rave pianos in the 90s, you think of one instrument. This is the story of the Korg M1.

The Korg M1 and the sound of the 90s

It's huge and clunky and limited and slowly falling apart. But it is also iconic and unique and memorable and utterly essential to much of the music created in the 1990s that formed the basis for western Pop and, especially, House music. The Korg M1 is a classic synthesiser and deserving of its recent revival. Released in 1988 by the Japanese company Korg, the M1 was a music workstation that combined a synthesizer and a MIDI sequencer in a single package. It was a revolutionary product that would go on to shape the sound of electronic music for decades to come.

The Birth of the M1

The Korg M1 was the brainchild of a team of engineers and designers at Korg Inc., a Japanese electronic musical instrument company founded by Tsutomu Katoh and Tadashi Osanai in 1962. The company had already made a name for itself with innovative products like the MS-20 synthesizer and the Donca-Matic rhythm machines. However, the M1 represented a significant leap forward in terms of technology and concept.

The development of the M1 was led by Tatsuya Takahashi, a visionary engineer who would later go on to play a key role in the development of other iconic Korg instruments. Takahashi and his team set out to create a synthesizer that could handle multiple notes simultaneously, a feature known as polyphony. This was a significant departure from the monophonic synthesizers of the time, which could only produce one note at a time.

The M1 was also one of the first synthesizers to use digital sampling, a technique that involves recording a sound and then playing it back at different pitches to create musical notes. This allowed the M1 to produce a wide range of sounds, from realistic acoustic instruments to otherworldly electronic tones.

Impact on Music

The M1's versatility and innovative features quickly made it a hit among musicians. It was used by a wide range of artists, from pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson to electronic music pioneers like The Orb and The Future Sound of London.

One of the most iconic sounds produced by the M1 is the "M1 Piano" sound. This bright, punchy piano sound became a staple of house music in the late 80s and early 90s, and can be heard on countless tracks from that era.

Famous Music Made with the M1

The Korg M1's unique sound palette made it a popular choice among musicians across various genres. Its iconic "M1 Piano" sound was used extensively in house music, most notably in tracks like "Show Me Love" by Robin S. and "Ride on Time" by Black Box.

In the realm of pop music, the M1's "Universe" patch was used in the intro of Michael Jackson's "Black or White", while the "16' + 2'2" Organ" preset formed the basis of the organ riff in Madonna's "Like a Prayer".

Electronic music pioneers also embraced the M1. The Orb used the "M1 Choir" sound in their ambient house classic "Little Fluffy Clouds", while The Future Sound of London used several M1 sounds in their seminal album "Lifeforms".

The M1's sounds have continued to be used and referenced in music to this day, a testament to their timeless appeal and the enduring legacy of this iconic synthesizer.

Emulation and Modern Versions

As technology advanced, the sounds of the M1 have been preserved and emulated in various forms. Korg itself released the M1 software synthesizer, a plugin that reproduces the M1's sounds for modern music production environments. This plugin allows musicians to access the classic sounds of the M1 on their computers, without the need for the original hardware.

Other companies have also created their own emulations of the M1's sounds. These range from faithful recreations to more creative interpretations that use the M1's sounds as a starting point for new sonic explorations.

In 2020, Korg released the M1-inspired Opsix, a digital synthesizer that takes the M1's FM synthesis capabilities and expands upon them. While not a direct reissue of the M1, the Opsix represents a modern reinterpretation of the M1's innovative spirit.

Technical Explanation

The Korg M1 was a 16-voice, 8-part multitimbral, music workstation synthesizer. It featured 4MB of PCM samples, and its sounds could be shaped using digital filters, envelopes, and low-frequency oscillators.

The M1 was one of the first synthesizers to use digital sample-based subtractive synthesis. This means that it used recordings (samples) of real instruments as the basis for its sounds, which could then be modified using subtractive synthesis techniques. This allowed the M1 to produce a wide range of sounds, from realistic acoustic instruments to synthetic tones.

The M1 also featured a built-in MIDI sequencer. This allowed musicians to compose and arrange music directly on the M1, making it a complete music production tool. The sequencer could handle up to 8 tracks at once, allowing for complex, multi-layered compositions.

The M1's sounds were organized into Programs and Combinations. Programs were individual sounds, while Combinations allowed you to layer up to 8 Programs for more complex sounds. This, combined with the M1's polyphony and multitimbrality, allowed for a great deal of sonic versatility.


The legacy of the Korg M1 is a testament to its revolutionary design and the timeless quality of its sounds. Its influence extends far beyond the realm of electronic music, permeating various genres from pop to rock to hip-hop. The M1's sounds have been sampled and reused in countless tracks, a testament to their enduring appeal.

The M1's "Organ 2" preset, for instance, was the foundation for the iconic organ riff in Robin S.'s classic house anthem "Show Me Love". The "M1 Piano" sound, as mentioned earlier, is another staple that has found its way into numerous house and trance tracks.

The M1's influence is not just limited to its original sounds. Its design philosophy (that of a versatile, all-in-one music workstation) has become the standard for modern synthesizers. Today, the idea of a synthesizer that combines a wide range of sounds with sequencing capabilities is taken for granted, but it was the M1 that pioneered this concept.


The Korg M1 is a testament to the power of innovation and the enduring appeal of great sound design. It's a piece of music history that continues to inspire and influence musicians to this day. As we look back on the M1's storied legacy, we can't help but marvel at the timeless magic of this iconic instrument.

In the end, the Korg M1 is not just a synthesizer. It's a symbol of a transformative era in music, a tool that helped artists realize their visions, and a testament to the power of technology to shape the sound of our lives.