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Classic Gear: Korg Poly-800 – The affordable ‘80s poly


Korg Poly-800  · 

Source:
Eduard Muzhevskyi / Alamy Stock Foto, Adam Douglas

The Korg Poly-800 is about as ‘80s as they come. Here’s how it broke the $1000 price barrier and became a runaway hit.

Korg Poly-800

It might be hard to believe in these days of affordable synths but there was a time when you couldn’t get a poly for less than $1000. Korg changed all that with its Poly-800, an eight-voice analogue synth that sold for an astonishing $800 in 1983. Consequently, Korg sold bucketloads of them. However, you don’t hear about the Poly-800 nearly as much as other synths from the time.

An 80s instrument
Korg Poly-800

It’s time to change all that. Let’s take a deep dive into the Korg Poly-800, the unique chip at the heart of its synthesis architecture and how it primed the pump for today’s overflowing of cheap synths.

Poly Affordability

Korg’s first relatively affordable poly synth was the Polysix, a single VCO, six-voice keyboard released in 1981. They followed this up with underrated Poly-61, another six-voice, this time with two DCOs per. I’m a fan for the tone but the cost-cutting low resolution in the digital controls rubs some people the wrong way. The last in the series and the one to hit the sweet spot of price and voice count was the Poly-800.

Korg Poly-800
Korg Poly-800

Although the goal was likely to get the price down as low as possible, the lightweight all-plastic case made it popular with gigging musicians. You could also run it off batteries, which made it portable. And, taking a page from the Yamaha CS01, it even had pegs on the side for guitar straps. There was no mod grip like on the Roland SH-101, but the point was made. Judging by the beat-up condition of many surviving Poly-800s, it’s clear that it was a favourite with touring bands.

Another way that Korg was able to keep the price low was by squeezing most of the synthesis onto a single chip. Curtis Electromusic Specialties had this same idea with its CEM3396, which came out the following year. Longtime Korg engineer Fumio Mieda made smart use of an Oki Electric MSM5232, which was used in video games as well as television broadcast systems. By squeezing the chip hard, he could get it to act as dual DCOs, envelopes and even a filter.

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Poly Structure

The Korg Poly-800 had an unusual synthesis structure thanks to its reliance on the Oki MSM5232. Let’s break it down.

Is it plastic only?
Korg Poly-800

There were two DCOs, each capable of two waveforms: square and sawtooth. The sawtooth was actually a modified version of the square wave, which is unique among synthesizers. Some say the Poly-800 sounds like it’s always outputting square waves, even when its supposed to be a saw, but rather than focus on the negatives I like to think that’s it’s particularly good at square wave sounds, like basses and organs.

The next weird thing was, like an organ, it was additive. Rather than select the footage for each DCO, you could mix in varying amounts at 16’, 8’, 4’ and 2’. (This was not 100% unique, as Roland’s SH-7 had an additive oscillator as well.)

While the Poly-800 was capable of playing eight voices, this was actually only in single DCO mode. Using both DCOs at the same time reduced the voice count to four. While each DCO had its own envelope, there was only one filter, a 24dB/octave lowpass. Yes, the Poly-800 was paraphonic. Speaking of envelopes, they were actually ADBSSR envelopes: that’s Attack, Decay, Break, Slope, Sustain and Release. Pretty wild for 1983.

Other oddments included an analogue stereo chorus, a (rather clunky) step sequencer, a noise generator (which shared an envelope with the filter!), chord memory and MIDI, although no SysEx, sadly.

Expanding the Poly-800 Range

The Korg Poly-800 proved popular enough that Korg decided to expand its range. It offered a limited edition model with reverse colour keys as well as a desktop version, the EX-800 (which thankfully did have SysEx). 

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Korg Poly-800 MkII
Korg Poly-800 MkII

In 1985, Korg followed up the green and brown Poly-800 with the much more fetching blue and black Poly-800 MkII. Along with the new colour scheme (that brought it in line with the DW-8000), it also featured a digital delay instead of the analogue chorus and of course SysEx. For my money, this is the Poly-800 to get, as the delay is capable of some pretty wild pitch effects.

Mod Your Poly

Given the lack of hands-on control on the Poly-800, a number of mods have developed over the years for the Poly-800, EX-800 and 800 MkII. The most common one is the Moog Slayer Filter Mod, which adds two knobs for control over filter cutoff and resonance

Korg Poly-800
Korg Poly-800

Other mods include a switch to toggle the filter between 24 and 12dB/oct (yes, there’s an unused 2-pole filter hiding in there), audio in to process external audio through the filter, FM modulation of the VCF, and SysEx for the original 800. 

I did the Moog Slayer mod on my 800 and while fun, you have to be careful with the resonance as it can get punishingly extreme. (However “punishingly extreme” may be just what you want.)

A Very Poly Christmas

I have a very soft spot in my heart for the Korg Poly-800 as it was my first synth. I was tired of learning classical music; I wanted to play Prince songs. My parents were kind enough to get me a Poly-800 for Christmas in 1984 to help make my Dr Fink dreams come true.

Korg Poly-800
Korg Poly-800

It’s funny to think that I taught myself synthesis on the Poly-800, given how weird the oscillator section is. Plus those odd envelopes! But learn I did. 

I kept my 800 until around 1990 when I was fully onboard with sampling and EBM like Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. Had I known that Death In June were Poly-800 users, I might not have got rid of it.

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I picked up my current one cheap about seven years ago. It was part of the first batch, meaning it didn’t have an internal battery – remove the D cells and you lose your saved patches. I put one in at the same time that I did the Slayer mod.

Reconsidering the Korg Poly-800

For a while it was popular to bad mouth the Poly-800 (Polyester-800, anyone?) seeing as it wasn’t a “real synth” like the Polysix or Juno-106. Thankfully that’s mostly finished, with people now willing to embrace it for what it is, rather than what it’s not. Sure, it’s quirky as hell but that’s all part of its charm.

I would also posit that the Poly-800 is the first “low-cost” synthesizer. Like the Volcas and Behringer Mini synths of today, the Poly-800 managed to squeeze quite a bit of instrument into an affordable package. 

Get That Plastic Sound

If you’ve been wanting to add an 800 to your studio, a word of advice. There are lots of them around but oh so many got mistreated on the road, so give it the once over before you buy. Also, check the battery compartment. Too many have destroyed innards thanks to leaking, forgotten batteries.

No one has remade the Poly-800 – yet. It hasn’t even shown up in Korg’s software Legacy collection. The closest you can get is the neat (and free!) soft synth Fury-800 from Full Bucket Music.

If you’re after something in the spirit of the Poly-800, might I suggest a Korg Volca Keys or Behringer JT-4000 Micro? With their quirks and low price tags, they’re sure to be the Poly-800s of the future. And, although it’s not analogue, the MicroKorg is certainly in the cheap and cheerful spirit of the Poly-800.

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Image Sources:

  • Korg Poly-800: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Poly-800: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Poly-800: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Poly-800 MkII: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Poly-800: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Poly-800: Adam Douglas
  • Korg Polysix: Korg
  • pb: Plugin Boutique
Korg Poly-800

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John Smith

My John Smith is a seasoned technology writer with a passion for unraveling the complexities of the digital world. With a background in computer science and a keen interest in emerging trends, John has become a sought-after voice in translating intricate technological concepts into accessible and engaging articles.

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