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Ask any chiptune artist and they’ll tell you: Music just sounds better when it’s piped straight out of the headphone jack of a gaming device and into a cranked PA system. Classic Game Boys may be the preferred tool among many such musicians, but the Nintendo DS is proving to be an increasingly strong platform for music creators. Mixing a touch of the ’80s with the portability and stylus-input of Nintendo’s latest handheld, the KORG DS-10 Synthesizer is an awesome new weapon to add to your audio creation arsenal.

Toshio Iwai’s delightful Electroplankton first tested the waters of music creation on the DS, with very limited song generation elements that emphasized experimentation over actual composition. Still, users found ways to work the game’s sounds into songs and recordings. Last year, Jam Sessions turned the DS into a fully functioning, portable acoustic guitar that spawned a flood of creative and goofy ballads. Though both of these games let users dabble with music making on the DS, AQ Interactive takes things to the next level with the KORG DS-10, an upgraded pocket version of the KORG MS-10 synthesizer produced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Not only is it easily the most robust officially released music creation software for the handheld to date, it’s seriously fun to just noodle around with.

The DS-10 is more of a tool than a toy, so don’t expect to find any real gameplay elements here. The “play” component is found in the act of making music. This alone is engaging enough to consume entire days of your free time once you get familiar with how things work. The DS-10 gives you a four-channel drum sequencer, two separate keyboard synth channels, a 16-step song sequencer and a handful of neat FX gizmos to craft your tunes with. Alongside these core elements from the classic synthesizer are plenty of minor updates and tweaks to the DS that make it a lot easier to create tunes on the fly.

What’s great about making music with DS-10 is its flexibility. Instead of piecing together lamely pre-recorded and condensed samples, you create your own synth sounds that you can play through the on-screen keyboard or by manually inputting notes into a sequencer. In either case, the stylus is a perfect tool for manipulating knobs, adding notes and tapping keys. Each synth channel starts with a basic sound that you can tweak and modify with various FX. It’s possible to create a broad range of tones, from smooth bass lines and retro blips to jagged shrieks and cheesy Atari-sounding sweeps. Overall, the sound quality is extremely impressive, and the KORG emulation is near perfect. Other tools like FX patches and the real-time modulation KAOSS Pad let you throw down some far-out noises amidst more structured synth lines. Even better, the DS lets you store these custom sounds for later access – a feature that wasn’t possible on the original KORG hardware.

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Once you create the synth tones you’re going for, it’s very easy to craft melodies by poking around the virtual touch keyboard or inputting them individually into a sequencer. You can also tap a record button on the fly to have the program loop any cool improvised riffs you’ve thrown together. Switching back and forth between the two separate synth channels lets you program a foundation melody on one and then jump back to the other to jam along to it. Add in some rhythm and things start to shape up nicely.

The drums sounds are pretty basic (think ’80s drum machines), but you can individually adjust each of the four channels to create new beats. Programming the actual rhythms is as simple as tapping the grid where you want to the beat to go. Tapping a note once will fill it, while tapping it again will erase it. This, coupled with four touch pads for manual drum fills, makes rhythm programming effortless. You can adjust the tempo to suit your needs as well. Playing around and manipulating a single loop is fun, but you can also save numerous patterns and input them into a larger grid to create an entire song from the ground up.

The DS-10 eschews a bright and colorful design for one that very closely resembles the physical KORG hardware it’s based on. It’s comprised of dark, gloomy grays and menus filled with industrial looking knobs, grids, switches, input jacks and wires. The interface makes the most of the DS’s two screens – you can swap all of the menus between the top and bottom screens with a quick tap. As a result, you can navigate the menus with the stylus very quickly, which makes it less cumbersome to switch between the different elements while you’re playing a song.

Other functions afforded by the DS’s technology substantially extend the synth program’s usability. The ability to save almost two dozen complete songs is simply glorious, and you can wirelessly exchange saved data from one DS to another. Also, you can sync up to eight DS systems together wirelessly to greatly expand the performance possibilities. Check out this guy here for a taste of how it works.

For all its greatness, the program does have its limitations. The DS-10 can perform a meager level of sequencing and song creation, but it’s definitely not as expansive as full-blown software. It primarily excels as a pocket instrument. Like any musical tool, the more time and effort you put into it, the more rewarding the experience becomes.

Bottom Line: The KORG DS-10 is an amazingly fun musical program with a great amount of depth. Musically inclined users will be able to squeeze a lot from this package, and casual dabblers should have no problem coming up with some cool tunes (after reading the manual).

Recommendation: Buy it if you can find it. This item is a rare treat.

Nathan Meunier can’t shake the sudden urge form an ’80s pop supergroup.

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