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Korg Poly-61

Sometimes, for whatever reason, a synth will stay off your radar. It could have nothing to do with the sound of the synth itself. Maybe it’s even (in the parlance of our times) a beast. But for whatever reason you haven’t given it the time of day.

This was my history with the Poly-61, Korg’s 1982 polysynth. Sandwiched between the famous and desirable Polysix, and the Poly-800, the synth that everyone loves to hate, the Poly-61 is easily forgotten. Nobody really talks about it, despite it having been used by big names of electronic music like Boards Of Canada and Com Truise. It also looks incredibly synthwave with its gray color scheme and grid-patterned front panel. I’ve been through more Poly-800s than I care to count, I have the Polysix iPad app, and I certainly wouldn’t mind a Mono/Poly, but a Poly-61?

I must not be the only person with a blind spot for the 61 because I managed to get one recently in decent shape for $150. And pleased as punch I am. It’s a 6-voice dual DCO analog synth with a whole lot of character. I was expecting something similar to the Poly-800 but the 61 has a lot more low end, for one. Underestimate its potential for bass at your peril. It also does great drones thanks to the hold button. It has a grittiness that is unexpected considering it employs DCOs and not VCOs. And lastly the filter resonance can get downright, well, impolite. It’s no MS-20 but your Juno-106 would certainly tut tut its impertinence.

The downsides? No knobs. It was Korg’s first to go knobless and after the one-two punch of the Mono/Poly and Polysix, well, I can see why people might turn their heads away in shame. It also suffers from low resolution in the parameter settings, with audible steps between filter and resonance stages and other limited programming options. Given these things I can understand why someone might not want a Poly-61 but to me it’s just part of the synth’s character. Not every synth has to be a Jupiter 8. Not every synth can be a Jupiter 8. And I can’t afford a Jupiter 8 anyway. So I got a Poly-61 and I love it.

But it wasn’t as easy as all that, actually.

I bought it on Yahoo Auctions, as I do most of my synths. After a week of waiting and having to call an old guy in Gunma Prefecture because it wasn’t shipped when it was supposed to be, I finally had it in my possession. After a brief visual inspection, I plugged it in to see what I could hear. There was no horrible noise or any other telltale sign of battery leakage. The problem was that I was only getting sound out of a few keys. There were many more dead keys than the “one” mentioned in the listing.

Don't worry, I removed that electrical tape later.
But the first order of business was the battery. Korg’s synths from this time are notorious for having nickel cadmium batteries that are prone to bursting out their insides like Mr. Creosote in a high class restaurant. The insides leak out and destroy the components around them. They sometimes even explode, apparently. I opened mine up and was treated to the site of a clean PCB and unexploded original battery. Thanks, old guy! It was only a matter of time though so I carefully snipped it out and replaced it with a modern, non-exploding type. Isn’t progress wonderful?

I always like to take my new synths back to factory-fresh status, especially after changing the battery, so I tried a factory tape dump that I found online. Having had a number of Poly-800s as well as a DW-8000, I’m familiar with the Korg tape dump procedure. Usually when playing the file from my iPhone the synth’s tape volume switch needs to be set on high and the phone’s volume almost all the way up. But no matter how I tried, I kept getting the dreaded ERROR message. On a whim, I tried it on low and almost immediately it changed to GOOD, so quickly I thought maybe it was wrong but nope, it was most definitely GOOD.

I couldn’t really enjoy it yet though, what with only 10 or so working keys. I’ve had enough vintage synths to know that the keys often go, but usually they just need a good cleaning to get the contacts friendly enough to pass electricity between them again. I got the contact board out from under the keyboard, cleaned all the gold contacts with isopropyl alcohol, gave a quick little swab with a Q-tip to the black nubbin on the inside of each rubber plunger, and put it back together, but there was not much change. They really hadn’t been all that dirty to begin with but I was hoping that the easy way would fix it. No such luck.

After being advised to do everything from check for dry solder joints, cracks in the PCB, and loose wires, to draw on the contacts with a pencil, I went with the pencil option because it was the easiest. I pulled the contact board out again but this time I followed a hunch and, leaving it plugged in, tried depressing a plunger with the handle of my screwdriver. Sound came out! I tried another. More sound! I tried them all and they all worked. Some were fiddly and required a lot of pressure but they still fired. GOOD indeed! This meant that it wasn’t an issue with the board but with the contacts themselves.

I didn’t actually have a pencil so off I went to the 100 yen store and came back with some and a sharpener. This was to be a first. I had never actually drawn on a synth before. But someone on Facebook said it was a good idea and that was good enough for me. And if it didn’t work, I figured I could always erase it after. I decided to start with one. I gently rubbed lead across a metal contact and added some to the corresponding plunger nub for good measure. I put the plunger strip back, pushed on it with the screwdriver and GOOD God it sounded great! I dutifully did the rest of them, got it all put back together and hallelujah, I had a fully functioning keyboard. (I have often read that this is a temporary measure. I have no idea what the permanent solution is but just in case a dollar-store pencil proves to be too temporary I ordered a nano carbon pen and a tube of electric paint for the nub to try next time. I drew the line with a sketch pad though.)

The other thing the listing had mentioned was a few sluggish buttons. As with any old machine, the buttons tend to wear out over time and my 61 was exhibiting the signs of having old tactile switches. If you have to press hard, or you get those annoying double presses, it’s time to swap out the switches. The Poly-61 uses the same switches as the DW-8000, and like that lovely hybrid synth, the caps on the new switches are just a little too big for the old buttons. Last time I used a cheapo file from the 100 yen store (they love me there) to make them fit so this time I decided to treat myself and ordered the cordless Dremel I’d been hankering for. Buzzing down the caps was fun and helped relieve the stress of accidentally ordering two full sets of tact switches from different online retailers. The buttons fit, the new switches work, and I have an entire replacement set ready to go for when these wear out around 2050.

This wasn’t the end of the fun though. At some point, my poor Poly-61 had been dropped by the looks of it, and the wood around the left rear foot was slightly caved in. I say wood but it’s just particle board and made worrying cracking noises when I pushed on it from the inside. Back to the 100 yen store I went and came home with some fast-drying wood glue, which went onto the cracks on the inside after pushing the foot back out. It’s not perfect but it’ll do.

Then there was the tuning issue. Yes, the poor guy was playing a little flat. Really hoping it was a global tuning issue and not a problem with individual voices, I attempted to calibrate it using the internal global tune trim pot. I was happy to see that the pot, which is on the clock board, is accessible from below as well, which meant I didn’t have to unmount the board from the top panel. At first I was afraid to stick a screwdriver in the pot with the machine on, terrified of ending my life at age 45, but turning the machine off, making a tiny adjustment, turning it on, testing it with the tuner app on my iPhone, cursing it for being 15 cents off, doing it again, yelling more, etc., I decided to just take a chance, figuring electrocution to be preferable to endlessly overshooting the mark with an unbelievably sensitive trim pot. The DCOs oddly seem to take a second to warm up as well, the pitch drifting about 5 cents before stabilizing. With the machine on, I got it tuned in literally seconds, and didn’t even have to ride the lightning. I tested the notes individually, cycling through them to check the tuning of each voice. They were all the same. And thank God because trying to calibrate them using separate tuning pots for low, medium and high sounded like a nightmare.

Lastly, the Poly-61 was a little stinky so I left it out on the balcony in the sun with its insides exposed to the elements for a few hours to let it air out. It wasn’t the stinkiest synth I had ever owned but its former owner was definitely a smoker.

In tune, smelling fresh, and with functioning keys and buttons, I could finally fully enjoy my Poly-61. That first play with a synth after nursing it back to health makes all the flux headaches worth it.

Although the Poly-61 is limited, it still has a few tricks up its wires. Thanks to its arpeggiator sync, it can be locked to a drum machine or SQ-1, and so its tempo can be set the same as your DAW. I also found that when using the SQ-1, if you sync it to gate you have more control over how the arpeggiator steps advance. GOOD stuff. The chord memory is nice as well, but what isn’t apparently obvious is the unison mode, which is actually the chord memory’s default mode. From fat to fatter. And finally, you can use the joystick as a second LFO, thanks to the separate LFO amount knob.

I’m really enjoying the Poly-61 as it is now but I know at some point I’m going to want to add MIDI. If and when I decide to go for that mod, I’ll be sure and document it here.


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