MS2000 is the tool

Some people like fancy sportscars and slick telephony devices. I like my synthesizer. And while I have had many synths over the years — including a brand spanking new Moog Sub 37 that you’ll be hearing from — there’s only one I could possibly call my true love. That’s the Korg MS2000 that I got seventeen years ago when I first outfitted myself to be a real performing musician, and the instrument that has been with me ever since. I have modified and switched up the sounds so many times and for so many different projects over the years that the stored patches are an archaeological history of my development as a synth player. All the sounds I made for “Scatter My Ashes” and “The Night Bus” and Let The Night Fall are still right there in the patch suite, plus others a listener might recognize from Consultants and Palomar recordings or My Teenage Stride shows or the lost Kapow! album or a bunch of less permanent projects, too. It’s fair to say that my MS2000¹ is now more Tris McCall than Tris McCall is. I don’t know where the machinery ends and the rest of my artistry begins, and yes, I do think I have a song about that.

The MS2000 was the most affordable analog modeling synthesizer on the market around the turn of the millennium. It was meant to emulate (sort of) the MS20, an instrument I’d fiddled around with in college but didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I opted for the MS2000 because of the price — a cool thousand bucks cheaper than the Waldorf Q, which was then state-of-the-art — and because of its physical resemblance to the Korg Mono/Poly, a really good analog synth I owned briefly in the early ’90s. I bought a beat-up Mono/Poly that was on its last transistors from Rogue Music on 30th Street, and though I didn’t know anything about synthesis at the time, I knew how to crank dials and press buttons and marvel at the changes in the sound. As it turned out, the MS2000 was much more like the Mono/Poly than it was like the MS20 — not only did it offer partial polyphony, but its internal signal chain was similar to what I knew, or thought I knew. The MS2000 didn’t get the greatest reviews upon its release, but I have since had the opportunity to play around with the competition, and I think I lucked/cheaped into the best decision of my musical life. I notice I almost never see those more expensive analog modeling synthesizers² onstage anymore; the only band I ever saw with a Waldorf Q was My Favorite. Indiepop bands do still use the MS2000 or the MicroKorg, which is just the MS2000 in a smaller body. Sarah Martin of Belle & Sebastian played a MS2000 at Radio City last summer. I felt validated.

I’m aware of the problems. For instance, the synthesist is limited to four notes at a time (this was true for the Mono/Poly, too.) There are other synths that allow you to make grand polychords, though, and the MS2000 isn’t really about that anyway. The built-in memory is awful; you’re required to erase a patch if you want to design and save a new one, which has led to a great deal of frustration and a few disasters. It is somewhat cheaply built, too — the knobs are plastic and puny and have a habit of coming off and rolling around the stage. It’s hard to do one of those great Moog-style filter sweeps when you’ve only got a few millimeters of diameter on the dial to work with. That said, I come from the Keith Emerson tough-love school of synth-handlers, and in sixteen years of rough play, I’ve only sent the MS2000 to the shop a couple of times. This unit is sturdier than it looks. Korg might be Moog’s pale step-sister, but the company doesn’t make junk. The clock on the arpeggiator won’t sync reliably to or through MIDI, which would give me fits if I ever wanted to create jacktastic electronic dance music. Fortunately, nobody expects the screwy music I make to be played in time anyway. I have never ever used MIDI onstage and probably never will.

So if you don’t care about getting the arpeggiator perfect, or jacktastic industrial dance music, or RAM, or making nine hundred keys sound at once, I encourage you to give this instrument a shot. Or just respect. Because if you’re the sort of synth player who just wants to treat your instrument like a guitar — quarter-inch cable into willing amplifier and maybe even a stompbox or two — there’s very little like it. The trip from the initial signal through the filters to a radical outcome is the quickest I’ve ever experienced in nearly two decades of playing analog modeling synthesizers. My MS2000 affords me the kind of expressive latitude that would, on comparable instruments, require me to page through screens of parameters to achieve. In order to get the same immediacy, you’d probably need to get a real analog device, and those come with their own distinctive suite of drawbacks, including an irritating propensity to drift out of tune. It could be that I’m just used to the MS2000, and I’d have the same identification with a different analog modeling synthesizer if I’d gotten it around the same time. Somehow I doubt it, though. Everything about the MS2000 interface is intuitive, and everything about it calls you to, ahem, express yourself with your organ. I don’t even really mind erasing old saved patches when I make a new one: it forces me to economize, and treat each experiment as a meaningful one, and shed old ideas that have gotten stale.

I’m using the Sub 37 on my new recordings, and boy, has it ever been a thrill. I don’t feel worthy of it³. One of its ten million cool features: MIDI actually records the data of every knob-turn. I expect to spend the rest of my life unlocking the secrets of this amazing new instrument. But at least in the short run, the synthesizer you’re most likely to encounter on my new recordings will be the MS2000. After sixteen years, I know just how to get what I want from it; if there’s a sound in my head, I can usually realize it in an hour or so of fiddling with the oscillators. When Mr. Flannery’s Try Your Hardest comes out (any day now), and when The Well Tempered Overlord comes out (any day now), the instrument you’ll hear me play on those albums is the MS2000. I could play it on your record, too. All you’ve got to do is ask.


¹Since I’m a cutesy character, all of my instruments have proper names. The MS2000 is named after Miwako Fujitani, a Japanese actress. I’m calling the Moog Yolanda Watts, which is a cross between Yolanda Adams (the gospel singer), Rolonda Watts (the anchorwoman), the color yellow, and wattage. I give this stuff serious thought.

²My guess is that synth players don’t like to bring really expensive pieces of equipment out on the road with them, so they keep those upmarket analog modeling synthesizers safe in home studios, sample the sounds or use MIDI or whatever. Which is understandable. I’m just glad I was never precious about the MS2000, because it’s nice to have a blue friend with you when you’re far from home. Possibly unwise, but always fun.

³Then again, now that Keith is gone, we’ve all got to pick up the slack. I promise to reach beyond my grasp if you will, ok?