Armchair musicians rejoice! After a lengthy set of localization- and supply-based delays, the KORG DS-10 synthesizer app for the Nintendo DS has finally made the leap to the U.S. market.
Based upon 1978’s MS-10 analog synth (get the name yet?), XSEED Games’ software adaptation of the classic entry-level KORG hardware marks a significant push forward in console gaming’s largely-ignored side quest to be taken seriously in non-gaming arenas.
Far from simply the next generation of Mario Paint’s "Composer" mini-game, DS-10 is a full-fledged piece of music creation software. With two analog synth emulators, a drum module, a six-track/16-step sequencer, and a set of audio effects available to each of the app’s 18 save slots, DS-10 provides a faithful translation of its predecessor to the unlikely handheld platform.
Roughly translated, these audiophile-oriented specs place DS-10 in the realm of music somewhere equivalent to the Brain Age series’ place in the realm of memory training. As DS-10 is based upon a professional-grade hardware setup (albeit an antiquated one), it is definitely not for those who aren’t at least interested in being musically inclined. Although the Internet will gladly teach you everything you need to know about the ins and outs of DS-10, the software itself seems designed not to care how far over your head it goes.
Luckily, the platform’s relatively simplistic interface is well-utilized, and DS-10 makes composing a surprisingly smooth experience. Most of the input functions are handled by the DS’ touchscreen, with a handy swap button available at all times to maximize the screens’ usability. Virtual dials turn, virtual keys press, and, perhaps most entertainingly, the virtual “KAOSS” modulation pads synced to each synth allow for a variety of real-time distortions to patterns in progress.
Despite its trendy new digs, DS-10 is an unquestionably retro piece of software. Like the ports of N64 and SNES favorites which pepper the DS lineup, DS-10 is less about bringing cutting-edge technology to the handheld market and more about using tried-and-true programming tricks to make yesterday’s UNIVACs into today’s iPhones. Though utilitarian in function, the interface hearkens back to the Cold War era from which its precursor sprang. A work in grayscale and sans serif, it seems built to evoke the East German sensibilities of its original adopters. “I am a worker’s machine,” it practically screams. “The proletariat will build with me.”
At first glance, serious-minded potential users might balk at DS-10’s Spartan appearance. Compared to modern digital audio workstation applications, DS-10 is a barren expanse of code, providing fewer features and a less-intuitive interface than its younger brethren. Although it utilizes its hardware as best it can, its step sequencer is limited, its effects are rudimentary, and without native MIDI support from both hardware and software, exporting finished projects from the DS is left to the user’s skills at winging it with the DS headphone jack.
Amazingly enough, DS-10 pulls off playing these drawbacks off as integral parts of the whole. DS-10’s combination of relative affordability, its comparative ease of use, and the quickness with which some of its best functions engage the user make it a great choice for budding composers who already own the console and have a penchant for electronic music.
It’s the crappy first car we all had growing up, the cheap guitar that our parents bought us when we decided we wanted to be rock stars. It’s a great trial version (if a limited one) of the real thing, which will, for better or worse, introduce uninitiated users to the very technical aspects of digital composition. Even though the interface is daunting to the musical newcomer and the advanced functions are esoteric by the “what you see is what you get” standards of modern synths, DS-10 makes more sense as a musical investment that might end up gathering dust inside a week than your average $100 guitar or $300 drum kit.
Guitar Hero this isn’t; DS-10 isn’t designed to make a game of music, but instead to make music on a platform utilized for gaming. If you’re looking for something more suited to a casual theme, Nintendo’s Wii Music might be more your speed. But if the novelty of its creation or the opportunity to dabble cheaply in the music applications of a bygone era appeal to you, DS-10 might be the potential sleeper hit you’re looking for.