How closely does the Behringer K-2 sound and function the same as the classic Korg MS-20?
The K-2 is yet another synthesizer in Behringer’s reproductions of classic instruments made in the 1970s and ’80s. K-2 is the closest the company could come to the original name of Korg’s MS-20, which Korg introduced in 1978. Korg recently relaunched the MS-20 in two formats, FS (full-size) and mini, both with 37-note keyboards. For the K-2, Behringer chose to release a keyboardless desktop module. Like many of the company’s synths, you could lift it out of its chassis and install it in a Eurorack case, taking up 80HP in width.
With the original MS-20, Korg aimed to make the facilities of a modular synth system more compact and affordable. The MS-20 is a modestly sized, two-oscillator, semi-modular, monophonic analog synthesizer. Other instruments in the range included an even more affordable single-oscillator synth (MS-10), a single-oscillator expander module (MS-50), a sequencer (SQ-10), and a keyboard vocoder (VC-10). But the MS-20 was undoubtedly the most versatile instrument in the range.
As usual, Behringer provides all the original’s facilities, adds some modern touches, and sets a very reasonable price. For the most part (for those insistent on that kind of thing), the K-2 is genuinely analog internally. It will appeal either to previous owners of the original or to anyone interested in its wide range of possibilities.
The K-2 is marked up on its control panel as if it were fully modular. It isn’t, but its many patch points allow you to override almost all of the internal connections. It has two voltage-controlled audio oscillators with pulse-width modulation; one has a noise setting, and the other has ring modulation. It also has one LFO, two envelopes (one with onset delay and one with a Hold stage before the Decay stage), a white noise source, a voltage-controllable resonant lowpass filter, and a voltage-controllable highpass filter. The oscillators’ ranges are 32‘–4‘ and 16‘–2‘.
The layout is ideal for playing simple monophonic lead or bass lines. If you want crazier noises, start inserting patch cables. For example, try modulating VCO 1’s pitch with audio frequencies generated by VCO 2. Most parameters have Ext as an option, meaning you can insert an alternative, external control voltage if desired. Being able to modulate resonance, for instance, or sequence the highpass filter’s cutoff makes the K-2 more than a simple monophonic synthesizer. Such capabilities take it deep into the territory normally occupied by fully modular systems.
Craftily added betwixt all the other controls is a front-panel MIDI input, so the K-2 can find its place in MIDI-controlled as well as voltage-controlled setups. In fact, it can act as a bridge between the two, accepting MIDI notes in and sending control voltage and gate signals out. Thus, it doubles as a MIDI-to-CV converter.
The K-2’s headphone output is independent from the main audio output. On the rear panel, a MIDI Thru jack with DIP switches lets you set MIDI channel and chain as many as 16 instruments polyphonically. You’ll also find a USB connector to link to your computer and an input for the small external power supply.
The K-2’s patching area reveals even more extensive possibilities. You can divert voltages and triggers from their normal destinations and patch them (using minplug cables) to new ones. For example, a falling envelope can modulate an oscillator’s pitch. You can patch external audio through both filters and send keyboard control voltages out to external instruments. A switch trigger allows you to manually trigger the envelopes—say, for percussion effects.
Along the base of the patching area is another section that interfaces the K-2 to the outside world, the External Signal Processor. This feature was poorly understood in the old days, but some adventurous musicians did achieve very interesting things with it. Basically it’s a frequency-to-voltage (FV) convertor with an envelope follower. Let’s say you play a single note on an electric guitar routed to the audio input; the K-2 will try to analyze the pitch and produce a voltage representing that pitch. At the same time, it creates a trigger and generates a voltage representing the volume, which decreases as your note dies away.
The possibilities of this setup are endless. You could create a simple monophonic guitar synthesizer, which if played cleanly (the section having low-cut, high-cut, and signal-level adjustments to help get this right) will create bass or lead lines following your guitar. You could process a human voice, too. If you shout loudly enough, you could trigger synth notes with either the same decay characteristics as your voice or quite different ones. You could process drums to create in-time synth patterns, perhaps incorporating the white noise section to create a more Syndrum-style effect. The most tangible limit is your imagination.
Anyone who’s used the original Korg MS-20 may wonder whether the Behringer K-2 sounds convincingly like the original. The MS-20’s sound changed over time, with at least two filter designs during the product’s lifetime. Here Behringer gives us the best of both worlds, with switchable early- or late-style filters.
How would I describe the MS-20’s lowpass filter? It’s rather dirty, certainly very powerful, and it fully self-oscillates, making it possible to set up high-pitched, abstract, modulated sounds. It could have an enormous effect on drums, with the companion highpass filter attenuating bass if required. The oscillators are strong and buzzy—best for producing cutting, nasal effects, but also capable of creating smooth, lilting sounds.
Like its inspiration, the K-2 will probably find most use in strong, high-impact techno, ambient dance, experimental, and abstract music. It’s not one to take on stage to jump from one solo sound to another, though it’s not difficult to control. It has no digital effects or built-in sequencer as some other Behringer synths do. On the other hand, it responds well to external control, and you can patch in anything from drum pads to sequencers.
A Budget-Minded Choice
As usual with Behringer, one of the highlights is the price point. It costs $388 in the U.S. or £300 in the U.K. By comparison, vintage Korg MS-20s fetch from $1,300 to $1,900, while the new full-size model goes for $1,400 (£1000) and the mini for $530 (£470). Although it has no keyboard like those do, Behringer’s K-2 gives you a lot of synthesizer for your money.
The Behringer K-2 is a good bet whether you’re into experimental music, looking for a good strong voice for a bass line, or interested in learning about modular synthesis without the expense and complication of a modular system. In fact, a small desktop modular would probably be the K-2’s closest competitor, but that could be difficult to assemble for less than twice the price. Among the K-2’s closest competitors, if you want to take slightly different approaches to synthesis, are Behringer’s own Pro-1, Wasp Deluxe, MS-1, and the forthcoming Cat. It’s nice to be spoiled for choice, isn’t it?