There are some boxes in the depths of the cabinet that are tiny slivers in the effects timeline; among the certified classics, there are the pedals nobody remembers but should, or other pieces you may have never known. Some of these include the Lemon Studiosound Sound Stretcher, Schulte Compact Phasing A, Frogg Comp-U-Sound and others, and I will get to them one day. But for now, let’s talk about one of my favorite effects boxes of all time, from a time when pedal names needed only a cool combination of letters and numbers: the Korg X-911.
In the dark ages (okay, the ‘70s), analog synths became affordable for the working musician, and not just studio fixtures. Not long after that, guitarists got jealous—extremely jealous. Oberheim and Maestro co-authored the USS-1, a slapdash guitar synthesizer cobbled together from all the elements of a synth but using guitar-based nuts and bolts. Though it was finicky, unreliable and somewhat comically conceived, it became the synth pedal blueprint for years to come. That blueprint called for the symbiosis of fuzz, envelope filtering, ADSR generation and whatever else, with the desired outcome being “sort of” sounding like a synth. Korg did away with all that and designed the X-911 from the ground up.
And to be honest, why not? Roland or Moog weren’t particularly keen on designing real synth equipment for guitar players, and Oberheim’s turn at the wheel gave us the USS-1. Korg took on the task and excelled beautifully.
Korg was founded in 1962, but settled on the name Keio Electronic Laboratories. For five years, Keio focused on primitive rhythm machines, but started building organs in 1967, graduating to powerful synthesizers with the Minikorg in 1973. Just one year prior, Keio released its only guitar pedal, the Synthesizer Traveler, otherwise known as the “Singing Geisha.” Though it was a fuzzed-out filter pedal, it had synth DNA coursing through its veins. Korg tinkered with a few other foot-operated effects, but the worlds of strings and synths collided in 1980’s X-911.
Unlike other “synth” pedals, the X-911 gave players real synth controls to play with; things like portamento, voltage-controlled filters and real ADSR generation were built right in. And unlike many other synth boxes, these actually worked, and worked well.
The heart of the X-911 lies within its mixer; a crossfader between the “instrument” section and the “synthe” section. The former bank of knobs and switches transforms your guitar into six polyphonic voices: Electric Bass, Tuba, Trumpet, Distortion Guitar (!), Violin and Flute. Each of these voices gives you a tone knob, while the Violin setting offers up an attack control. Those of us that caught wise to synths early on knew there was no chance on Earth that your guitar was going to magically turn into a Mellotron and spit out a pristine violin or flute sample, but the X-911 got decently close. However, it was a lot easier to digest the idea of your guitar pumping out floor-thumping bass rather than emulating a tuba, so most of us gave it a pass and saw it for what it was.
The Synthe section is where the X-911 earns its money, serving up several stackable waveforms along with the ability to sculpt your own custom ADSR envelope for a complete synth experience. Frankly, it’s what synth pedals should have been from the get-go. Other offerings include extra synth touches like analog octaving, touch sensitivity and a slick portamento knob to easily and seamlessly glide between notes without so much as a hiccup. The front panel let you control the various parameters with a variety of foot-controllable extras, letting you use the X-911 as a brain for your entire setup. This thing was serious.
Strangely, it’s one of the most unsung Korg units, even though it should be celebrated far outside of its brand, category and segment of history. Frankly, the X-911, despite its at-times questionable tracking (just put a compressor in front) is the yardstick to which all other guitar synth units should be measured. Yes, even 50 full years later.