[DOJO]: Making Chiptunes: Korg DS-10 (by Asperkraken)

So, as an autistic person, I have also been trying to compile a list of devices and programs used to write chiptunes so that if other autistics perhaps want to express themselves through electronic music, that they can visit the Dojo here and get some ideas. We also have several experts who have contributed to our Chiptunes 4 Autism compilations that will also give insight through this series! So here goes.


Hi, it’s er…. me…. Asperkraken. The guy who runs this blog/charity/weblabel. Ahem. And Chiptune making program of choice is Korg DS-10. Now take this with a grain of salt – the software you use shouldn’t matter – it ultimately comes down to many things like melodies, rhythms, recording quality and more when it comes to writing music. But by knowing what’s out there, maybe you yourself, if you want to express yourself in this format, know which things do what in this genre that, for a beginner, can be vast and full of rabbit holes when it comes to making chiptunes.

What is Korg-DS 10?

Korg DS-10 is a piece of music software made for the Nintendo DS family of consoles in 2008, with an updated version, Korg DS-10 Plus with DSi-enhanced features, released in 2010. The cartridges both work as fully functional synthesizers, inspired by the classic Korg MS-10 but with dual VCOs, and as workstations (places to write whole songs). The software has also been made available in a mobile version as Korg iDS-10 and has a downloadable follow-up for 3ds as Korg M01D. For clarity, this article covers the versions for the Nintendo DS and DSi.

Where Do I Find It?

Korg DS-10, in cartridge form, can be found at several shop through the internet, but be warned: its growing popularity in underground music circles has made Ebay and Amazon vendors mark it up to Collector prices, making it easily 40 to 50 bucks a cartridge. Now, if you can find a good vintage game shop near you in the flesh, they usually sell these carts for way less. I know Gamestop for instance will carry these for roughly $15 to $20 USD a piece, depending on the version, not usually with an original case, but hey, you won’t be carrying that around. And as I said, there are versions for iOS and 3DS that are cheaper and downloadable if you just want to mess around with them

Why Use Korg DS-10?

There are many reasons I personally prefer Korg DS-10. For starters, the interface is closer to that of classic synthesizers and looks more like a workstation. Many of the more genuine chiptune programs are a form of homebrew or DIY projects that have spread like wildfire, meaning their interfaces can have a learning curve. Now that’s not saying there’s no curve to DS-10 – it just means it looks more like music software, cosmetically.

The synths on here work great. Squares, sawtooths, triangle waves and noise are brewed in a flash, with full ADSR envelope integration, three types of filters as well as delay, overdrive, chorus and flange effects for both channels and the master bus. You can have two synthesizers, each with two VCOs a piece, meaning, in layman’s terms, you have two noises to craft your bloops and bleeps with on each channel, and a set for each of the four drum channels. So at its core is a very solid sounding synthesizer. In simpler terms in case you are not hyperfocused on synthesizers like myself, this means you can make a lot of really cool noises. You can even save your favorites for later in the tone bank.

Also, this is built on DS, meaning you get stereo mixers to channel out your noises, but with adjustable knobs, meaning you can put each sound in separate places. This means when you go to record or perform, as long as you’re in stereo, you can make recordings that sound quite good.

In addition, you also have a KAOSS pad, which allows you to use a X/Y arrangement to freeform melodies, filter sweeps and even volume and panning to fine-tune your sounds. If you’re not as good with the pad, there’s also a 16-track sequencer and a keyboard screen for recording and tracking melodies, and the same sequencer can also be usually to manually edit KAOSS pad parameters. Throw that in with a SONG arrangement station to auto-cue patterns as well as full simulated patch board that you see on all the awesome real-life vintage synths and you’ve got one mean little workstation for under $50. Korg DS-10 Plus on DSi is even better though – it allows you to take two tracks and combine them to give you four synths and eight drum noises total.

Why Not Use It?

There are a few limitations to Korg DS-10. Firstly, the synths are monophonic, meaning that each synth can only play one note at a time. It means whenever you place the next note, the last one ends. Now there are ways around this. One, you can use the two-VCO to create chords of a sort, but a lot of times these can sound a tad off as it requires you to turn off the sync feature that makes the two noises stay in key together. You can also crank the peak on the filter to get a “bonus” noise that can come off as a chord if you tweak it just right – but that can be frustrating or worse, sound whiny. You could also take the same note, copy it, and put it on both synths, but this means losing a synth channel.

The 16-step sequencer works great, but 16-step is pretty basic. To get more intense rhythms, you either have to throw delays on the drum noises, which sometimes get buried in the mix, or write at a higher tempo and cut your segments in half as you craft them.

Also, you can only have 16 patterns per track. While you can mute channels on the fly for more variation, the 100-part song limit can be a bit frustrating. It will keeps most songs maxed out around 4 to 5 minutes tops on slower tempos. I imagine more people will use it in real-time than the song mode. And while I highly prefer Korg DS-10 Plus, using the four-synth mode requires you to use two tracks together, meaning you essentially use two parts of memory instead of one.

And that leads to a big limitation – you can save 18 tracks and that’s it – and that cuts in half if you want fuller sounding tracks on Korg DS-10 Plus, which whittles you down to 9. You can also only save 24 tones across all channels across all tracks. Which means, essentially, you can use this as a cut and paste palette for tones, but if you run out of room, something’s gotta go. So in the end, the memory limits mean you have to get creative. Now, you can get two DS systems and two carts and sync them together – which is a blast – and you can transfer track data between carts as well. But this is cumbersome.

Is It For Me?

If you’re a vintage synth fan and willing to get creative with the memory limits, Korg DS-10 can be quite fun, especially the Plus version. Also, if you have a bit of trouble with some of the more rustic chiptune interfaces, Korg DS-10’s clean presentation is a breath of fresh air. Plus, that stereo sound, core synths, great filters and the excellent patch bay allow for a wide array of sonic potential – provided you know anything about synthesizers. If not, this can be a great lesson.

Thanks for reading! If you want to submit your own DOJO entry or just have comments, feel free to add them below.



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