Korg M3: Sequencer vs Combi in a DAW environment


  • You want to learn some general conceptual principles about how the Combi and SEQ modes work and what they do and when to choose one verses another.
  • You are wondering whether the M3 has any other use than as a keyboard and how can it be used in a personal or professional studio.
  • You are wondering how to build a setup around the M3 for use with your band.

Closely-related articles


Some of the viewpoints about using combi versus sequencer mode for recording in external sequencers are different from those presented in the closely-related article Korg M3: Recording 101 for all external sequencers. This is okay and simply reflects the diverse experience and opinions of this wiki community. Understanding these differing viewpoints helps you to form your own strategy and workflow for recording the M3 in external sequencers.

Master or Slave?

There are 2 modes of using a synth like the M3. Master or Slave.

I wanted to start with this idea because this separates the 2 complete different applications, work flows and uses of any keyboard / Synth including the M3 (all versions).

Combi/Program mode when the M3 is a MASTER device

When you are a keyboard player doing your improv or whatever and using the M3 as your primary work desk then you would tilt towards Combi or the program mode.

You are keyboarding and all the things available inside are being controlled by you through 1 keyboard and the buttons and the sliders on the hardware etc etc. You want the various internal virtual accompaniments / voices to be automated and playing for you. Cool that’s Combi mode. Multi part orchestra under one set of buttons and 1 input keyboard.

Sequencer mode when the M3 is a SLAVE device

The synth is listening to instructions that are being streamed in real-time through MIDI cables and it is generating the sounds as the instructions come in. The physical keyboard is located elsewhere and the Synth is acting just as a sound engine or the tone generator.

Now why do this !! Let’s understand what SEQ mode is really and what is Combi mode. This is the root cause of people's confusion.

In simple terms COMBI is SEQ Mode but with presets. You can take any Combi and go to SEQ Mode and start with a blank song and re-build the COMBI. This should explain people why you can even copy a Combi to a SEQ at all, which you do in M3.

The architecture of the synth like M3 is multi track MIDI Sequencer. And all your stuff like Combi and Drum track are all happening OVER THE SEQ. Except that the Combi is with presets and pre-automated so you don’t know what is being done for you by the synth.

So to one extent, arguing whether Combi mode is "better" than Sequencer mode for DAW-based recording is somewhat pointless. They are 2 different applications of the same thing.

Also help you understand you might have to leave Combi mode because you are not loosing anything BUT gaining more control !!! But only if you want to. If you are ok with playing the presets and "tweaking" a little bit with Combi's and making something out of it then too it is ok. Hey it’s your art and you decide that works for you. But it is not better or bad.

Benefits of Combi mode

If you made a multi part song and now you have to go on the stage for a performance and you are the Lead keyboardist, then you HAVE to make it a Combi. This is because in any reasonably professional song you will have to turn the individual instruments on and off or turn the effects like Reverb on and off or cut or boost any other things like that. You being only one person need the assistance of triggers and switches while you are at the stage.

Having said that remember that you don’t have to start by making a Combi, You can start by making it a SEQ based song and then convert it into Combi by programming the triggers for various parts.

Admin: accuracy of this last statement is questionable. Clarification and and explanation of how you convert a Song into a Combi would be helpful.

Benefits of Sequencer mode

First let’s make one thing clear. The difference between MIDI Tracks and Channels. MIDI Channels are individual channels which will let you have 1 instrument / voice per channel. With total isolation from others, unless you want to have them linked.

Track is related to recording. The term comes from the tape-days where you had tape decks with invisible "tracks" on the ribbon.

In the DAW environment we want to maintain a strict clarity on those 2 terms. Because if someone told you "go open a new track" it doesn’t not mean go and occupy another MIDI Channel. You will eat away one instrument placeholder.

You can have multiple Tracks for 1 MIDI Channel. In fact in any professional work you will invariably have that.

This simply means there would be 2 tracks where the signal will be recorded, which could be by one keyboardist or 2 keyboardists or 1 keyboardist doing in steps and acting as 2 keyboardists. Just an example.

This kind of setup is not a strain to a professional Synths like M3. M3 is a pro grade machine and M3 by its specs supports the recent MIDI specs which are made to support the multiple notes etc. As long as you stay within the polyphony and other specs which btw will let you bang around 32 notes simultaneously during any given moment in the song. (BTW I divide the polyphony number 120 in case of M3 by 4 generally for calculating the limits of simultaneous notes sent to the synth.)

DAW for composition:

Why do you need that (multi-track) !!! For lots of reasons. Most important being the economical use of MIDI Channels. Like drumming for example. If you have your main beat going but you need the cymbals playing on and off, then you don’t want to use 2 MIDI Channels and have 2 drum sets loaded.

But you can simply open 2 tracks and work you way through your creative process and cut paste things. Delete things and not damage the perfectly good main beat.

To the M3 system it absolutely doesn't matters weather the signals are coming on 1 MIDI channels from 1 track or 20. Those things are hidden from the Synth and the signals are combined by the DAW before they are put on the MIDI. DAW and M3 communicate with each other through MIDI Channels.

NOW Why DAW and why not Synth only or the M3 only !!

Sometimes on forums a concern is raised about the limitations of M3 in that the internal sequencers has only 16 Tracks. Well the M3 is a Synth and if someone is expecting a Synth to be a multi tracking recording machine and an infinitely wide Mixing table with more than 5 effects and only 6 Audio outputs then !! You are expecting too much. It is a Synth and I wouldn’t expect Korg or Yamaha or Roland for that matter to sell you an entire Studio in one box.

I wouldn't buy it if that was the case simply because I want Synth to specialize in being a Synth.

Those things that you see in M3, the MIDI Tracks are a just a song storing environment, and I wouldn't recommend them to be treated like a composition environment where you need a workspace.

No wonder people are hitting the limit on the internal sequencer and wishing it had more than 16 Tracks !!!

Those are some of the reasons the DAW was invented. For a comfortable workspace where you need a lot of room to maneuver for cutting pasting and storing and archiving the tracks that you may want to go back to. But don’t want to use up a MIDI channels.

The M3's 16 MIDI Tracks are really MIDI Channels. And you should look at it more like Channels than Tracks because otherwise you would expect it to give you what the track recorders give you, lots of tracks. They are only for playing so that you could move your work ONCE you have finished composing and want to go out on your performance.

At the final stage you can take the combined tracks from your DAW and make it 1 Per MIDI Channel and download it on your M3 and you are ready to go. Program the M3 with triggers etc and plan out your performance and note down where you would touch which button in performance and hit which trigger key and bingo. You have a COMBI.

What?!? I thought I was making a SEQ !!! How did I end up having a COMBI !!!!

The MIDI Tracks in M3 should be treated as deployment tools not development tools, at least from professional point of view. They can still do a reasonably good job of making a song if you use the track manipulating features available inside M3, but there is a limit that you can hit soon if you want to go in advanced applications.

STUDIO Applications

Well in Studio we do all that except for the last stage that I described above. We continue to "Drive" the Synth through the DAW and use the Audio outputs and go to the next stage of mixing and mastering.

The role of Synth gets over there. And the work continues in the DAW. There we would have to mix with a Guitarist who might be so purist that he is unwilling to accept the Synth's guitar. Or the vocalist which is of course irreplaceable by synth. How about Chorus for that matter !!!.

We do not need to merge the tracks on to the MIDI channels because that is taken care by the DAW for us. The net result is same, and we are better off leaving the parts as separated for modifying only those things that we may need to later.

The big perception difference between the Studio and Live performance is that on stage you could be a keyboardist and be an individual and play with guitarists and vocalists or other instrumentalists. The combined effect is felt only by the audiences.

In Studio we have to take all the combined effect in our work. Including even the feel of the hall for the acoustic effects. Then comes of-course the other things that we all know like arranging with combined inputs. Again DAW wins there.

For Hobbyists / Garage bands:

The main benefit the DAW offers to the hobbyist and individual Keyboardists is that it is a wide screen environment, where you can move around the clips, copy paste them etc. Store them using your hard disk space which is huge these days. And not be limited to 16 tracks.

The work that you might have to do with Audio is much better handled with DAW. It is excellent recording environment with mixing capabilities. This applies to Guitarist's inputs and vocalists that are the most common elements of a typical North American band.

The hardware for sampling the Vocals and the DAW Software itself is getting very affordable AND high quality simultaneously. Put 300-400 US$ in sound card and about 300 in the Software, and you have professional quality sound sampling and mixing environment. 96 Khz/24Bit sampling and file handling is easy to get these days in that price range. That kind of sound card will support 2 or 4 simultaneous inputs so that’s enough for a small band with 2 guitarists and vocalists. You can simultaneously stream in the MIDI from your M3 on the USB. And Voila!! You have the entire performance in 1 take. Brilliant ! You guys must be pro.

I didn’t add the speakers in the cost because they are common expense if you have M3 with other hardware based setup. But I do recommend spending good money on those. Get something like Mackie or JBLs or KRKs or M-Audio or Genelec, depending on your budget and needs. They are all good companies.

For software I can recommend Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, MOTU Digital Performer, Logic or Garage band (Apple). FYI most of these companies have multiple versions and the one that support limited tracks like 48 are also very good enough. 48 Track per song with 16 MIDI Channels playing 16 instruments on M3 can be enough for a decent and professional work and very good for anything like a Garage band. The sound quality is professional and almost all of them process sound on 96 Khz/24 Bit or higher.

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