With its limited processing power and compact interface, the Nintendo DS is an unlikely platform for digital music production, typically the domain of PCs and laptops running powerful software like Ableton Live. But in 2008, Japanese publisher AQ Interactive released Korg DS-10, turning the little Nintendo into a versatile pocket synthesiser.
Development studios Procyon and Cavia Inc collaborated with Korg engineers to create DS-10, which largely emulates the Korg MS-10 synthesiser released in 1978. As executive producer Yasunori Mitsuda later explained, the Nintendo DS platform presented some technical challenges: “It was extremely difficult to put such a high quality synthesizer into such a small device with a limited data capacity.” Even so, the development team managed to design a highly capable emulator, summarised in the Korg DS-10 instruction booklet as “a music tool that makes extensive song writing possible using two analogue synthesizer emulators and one drum module, as well as a 6-track/16-step sequencer and three types of audio effects.”
Simply put, the Korg DS-10 enables users to create entire electronic music tracks with a vast degree of control over the sounds being generated. House, trance, DnB, ambient soundscapes – all can be crafted using the Korg DS-10, with the warmth and depth of sound that would be expected from a physical synthesizer. Yasunori Mitsuda, who had previously composed soundtracks for prominent JRPGs such as Chrono Trigger, toured Japan with Korg DS-10 designers Nobuyoshi Sano and Michio Okamiya to showcase the software’s potential. The “Korg DS-10 Trio” performed its debut concert at the 2008 Extra: Hyper Game Music Event in Tokyo, earning a rapturous reception from the audience:
Indeed, the Korg DS-10 was both critically and commercially well-received. Though it lacked the immediate universal appeal of a first-party Nintendo title, the DS-10 nevertheless developed a strong following. Korg DS-10 Plus, released in 2009, utilised the more powerful hardware in the Nintendo DSi and effectively doubled the software’s production capacity, resulting in some sophisticated compositions – and even entire albums.
Canadian producer Anthony Seeha composed his debut LP Transcend exclusively using Korg DS-10, and has also performed his music live, albeit to a “mixed” audience response. “People enjoy the music, even if they have no idea what I’m doing,” Seeha says. “I’ve had a lot of other musicians come up to me asking about how I did everything, but most people would just wonder why I’m playing with a Nintendo DS on stage.” Releasing a purely DS album was a defiant demonstration of the Nintendo’s capabilities as a musical instrument: “I feel like people still think that DS-10 is just a toy that makes baby synthesizer sounds,” Seeha says. “I’ve been trying to prove people wrong, so my internal goal is to make Korg DS-10 sound the best it can be.”
With a high degree of capability comes a steep learning curve, however. The DS-10 interface is imposing for the uninitiated, a dense array of virtual knobs, plugs and buttons that are marked with cryptic symbols and shorthand: LFO, VCA IN, CUTOFF. While the 55-page manual gives a good overview of these functions, for a user without previous experience in synthesiser production and terminology, learning to create music on the DS-10 can be an opaque exercise in trial and error, spinning dials and linking oscillators in an experimental manner. As Nobuyoshi Sano told Ars Technica, however, this is a valid part of the experience: “I think one of the joys of DS-10 is to go with your instinct and have fun with the tone and sound, and before you know it you have a song on your hands.” Even so, Sano reiterated, the Korg DS-10 “is not a game, but a professional music creation software tool that just happens to be on a gaming platform.”
Yet the argument could be made that the Korg DS-10 does constitute a game of sorts, a by-product of the complexity that makes it such a potent tool. For an inexperienced user, there’s a journey to be had in playing around with the default tones – a hollow 4/4 kick drum, a sharp synth buzz on the first beat of every bar – and twisting these sounds into something meatier. Then adding more building blocks – more percussion, more notes with the keyboard – and developing a 4-bar loop. From there: filters and effects, drawing a noisy rollercoaster with the KAOSS Pad, structuring everything piece by piece into a coherent whole.
There are still rules governing this freeform play, dictated by the modest number of synths on offer – but these limitations form part of the appeal, according to Anthony Seeha: “Creating a song in such a tight space is very fulfilling when the job is done,” he says. “It’s like solving a puzzle.” The challenge with Korg DS-10 lies in decrypting the synthesizer’s language and layout, and developing the knowledge to turn a simple monotone into a lush Vangelis pad. The end game is relative: for some it may be a satisfying wander through the infinite sounds, for others it may be completing another track for an album.
Videogame or not, perhaps the most important aspect of the DS-10 is the way it exposed a whole new audience not only to electronic music instruments, but music creation in general. Indeed, DS-10 was Anthony Seeha’s first synthesizer, exposing him as a teenager to the creative pleasures of music composition. “Korg DS-10 ignited my passion for producing music and it continues to make the flame bigger,” Seeha says. “I’ve made a lot of good friends because of it and it has given me a lot of wonderful opportunities with my music.”