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Korg PME 40X

Picture this: It’s a cold morning in anytown, USA. You wake up before your parents and sneak into whichever room in your house has the TV. You shove Super Mario Bros. 3 into your NES, press power and (if you’re lucky) the game fires up. You bask in the TV’s glow as you sink into a euphoric state. The year is 1988, and cartridge-based console gaming has taken the world by storm. Video games are back and in a big way, with home systems existing harmoniously with bustling arcades. It’s a good time to be a fan of video games.

This is the essence that Korg attempted to capture when it released the PME 40X, a radical new system that relied on cartridges stuffed into a box that tied it all together. And much like the NES, the PME 40X’s library outpaced the system’s limitations, with Korg really digging into this exciting new format and releasing a stunning array of mostly good cartridges for the main unit.

Before I continue, you should know that in the coming years, several companies tried their hand at some type of connectable apparati, from Alesis’s ModFX line to Line 6’s Tonecore line, to the current Cooper FX Arcades. Even Yamaha got in on the act in parallel with Korg, though the lineup was quite a bit less robust. Korg actually produced 15 cartridges for the PME 40X (16 if you count the blank “Filler Box”), which is an absolutely stunning amount of devices to support such gimmickry.


And with such an expansive lineup, one would think that Korg would broaden the base model to include more slots, a “super” version if you will. As it stands, the PME 40X can accommodate up to four cartridges. In the late ‘80s, this may have flown as pedalboards were typically much smaller back then, but giving players 15 options with only four slots seems like a bit of a misstep. The truth is, some options are redundant (there are two chorus devices, this was the ‘80s after all) but there are some genuine gems that Korg really threw themselves into. Probably the best example of this is the Octave V, which might be the best analog octave pedal ever made.

Korg PME 40X

Featuring 12 sliders (yes, twelve), the Octave V delivers more punch than pedals Vtimes its size. Until this point, almost all analog octavers worked exclusively in the “down” realm, from MXR’s Blue Box to Electro-Harmonix’s Octave Multiplexer. Octave-up designs were relegated to transformer-equipped fuzzes and other magical circuit bits found in fuzz boxes. However, the Octave V not only serves up one- and two-octave-down effects, but an octave up, a dry slider, and distortion effects across all of them. That is to say, you can distort just one octave effect and keep the others clean, or you can turn up the dry slider and its corresponding distortion for a truly great overdrive effect. As you might expect, cranking the distortion on all channels spits out some gnarly stuff, replete with noise. Well, Korg has you covered with a noise gate control. They really thought of everything. 

Korg PME 40X
 Cracking this thing open displays a master class in analog circuit design, as I’m not sure Korg could have fit any more components on the board. Aside from the host of standing resistors and SIP ICs, the edges of the board are fortified with specially designed ICs by Rohm Semiconductor, flush with handfuls of gooped components. Throughout the board, wires encased in plastic connect distant points. It would take a dedicated trace artist to tackle this one.
Korg PME 40X

It’s tempting to write the PME 40X stuff as gimmicky cartridges but it’s clear that Korg really went the extra mile with these; other noteworthy entries that have no contemporary are the Dist Wah, a dirty envelope filter, and the Wave Shaper, which is a punishing fuzz circuit that lets you morph the output waveform with a handy mids boost to keep you present. There are some misses (the Overdrive circuit is pretty not great) but overall, there’s a lot to love. It’s a shame that playing any module involves tracking down the dock. Finding individual modules is somewhat difficult; most of the devices come pre-loaded into the dock, which is often priced higher than you might expect. If you do find an individual Octave V or Wave Shaper, prepare to pony up.

Part of curating such a cabinet is searching out new and exciting tone tools wherever they may be, and sometimes that extends to esoteric realms such as this. But let’s be honest, digging through cartridges and plugging them into a machine is sometimes as therapeutic as the music you make from it.