Evidence of Jack Hotop’s fingerprints (and golden ears) can be found throughout the Korg product line. A consummate musician and a tirelessly curious sound engineer, he was present at the birth of some of the company’s most celebrated workstations and synths. If you play keys, the chances are very good you’ve used voices developed by Jack and his many collaborators at Korg. With many years in the business, Jack retains the enthusiasm of a hobbyist, merging it with the experience of a touring pro and the taste of a sound designer willing to push boundaries in the eternal search for musicality.

We spoke to Jack at Winter NAMM 2019 in Anaheim.

The HUB: Jack, tell us about your early history and how you got your start with Korg.

Jack Hotop: My father was a great musician and I started piano lessons at seven. Then in the sixties, at age 14, I started gigging in bands, which was a lot of fun. I went on to study arranging and composition at Berklee, and in the process I got curious about synths. So I went to Boston School of Electronic Music where Roger Powell was teaching at the time. ARP was nearby in Newton, Massachusetts, and so I got my synth ABCs with the Odyssey, the 2600, 2500, and the EMS Synthi. When I first saw the word “Attack”on a synth, I thought that made all the explosions. I didn’t know what an “envelope” was, but I sure wanted to find out about that stuff.

After Berklee, I did world tours with The Drifters, Gloria Gaynor, and Silver Convention, which was fun. I was a musical director, so I was playing, conducting strings, doing all that. I was playing in some local bands too, and I bought a Korg PolySix, probably in 1982 or ’83. I didn’t sleep for thirty-six hours. I reprogrammed every sound in it, and then I called the company because I wanted to hot rod it, modify it. I wanted to expand the preset locations, and add a noise generator, sync, ring mod, all the exotic stuff.

So, I got on the phone with an engineer for about three hours, invited him to a gig, and then he invited me to come to the office to show everyone what I had done reprogramming the PolySix. Right after that, Korg USA (then Unicord) offered me a job!

Korg Polysix Synthesizer

Released in 1981, Korg's Polysix was a 6-voice polyphonic synthesizer.

The HUB: Tell us about those early years at Korg.

JH: I started programming a few sounds for the Poly-800. After that, I went on to do the DW-6000 and DW-8000, the Poly-800MKII, the DS-8, the DP-2000/3000, and most of the DSS-1 and DSM-1 sampling libraries. I also worked on libraries with outside developers that Korg released. That all led to the M1.

I went over to Japan about eight times for the M1. Prior to the M1, Korg distributors used to load their own preset cassette tapes for their own preloads. Korg decided it’d be smart to get some guys from the U.S. and Europe all working together. So Korg let me handpick a team of guys: Peter Schwartz, Robby Kilgore, Ben Dowling. We worked with Michele Paciulli and also Athan Billias, who was living in Japan at the time.

The HUB: Where did it go from there? 

JH: Following the success of the M1, we built out the team even further. We developed this international voicing team, which we call the “MPBs.” We added John “Skippy” Lehmkuhl and Steve McNally as well as Michael Geisel, from Germany. We were all very close, and we all worked on the T-series. From there, we split off to work on different projects when Korg acquired the original Sequential Circuits from Yamaha and formed Korg R&D.

Skippy, Ben Dowling, John Bowen and I went to work on developing the Wavestation, which was a very fun project, completely different from the M and the T-series. After that, we added Stephen Kay to our voicing team; this is well before he had developed KARMA. Stephen was working on the Sound Genesis library, which Korg licensed for the 01/W, X-series and N-series products. So, that was a fun development period.

Around the time of the X-series, some of the team split off to do the I-series work, while I stayed on the “pro” side of things. After that, I worked on the SGproX piano and other related products. The larger team came back together later on to collaborate on the Trinity, which was great.

The Trinity saw the return of the resonant filter, introduced a touchscreen, and we got to work with modeling tech with the MOSS expansion board. From there, we went to the Triton, which was another fun project. I worked on the internal sounds and six of the expansion boards.

Then the KARMA Music Workstation came out, which had the Triton sounds, but instead of arpeggiators, we used the KARMA architecture, which Stephen Kay had been developing.

Then it was time for the OASYS.

The HUB: That must’ve been a pretty exciting time to be at Korg.

JH: The OASYS was a big jump. At that point, we were replacing the two arpeggiators we were using on the Triton with the KARMA technology, which gave us generated effect algorithms to work with.

The OASYS was exciting because we were also using different modeling engines. Instead of just having a MOSS expansion board, the OASYS had additional engines built into it. We added the AL-1 analog synth modeling engine, and the CX-3, which modeled tonewheel organs. After that, we added STR-1, which did plucked string modeling, as well as the MOD-7 engine, which uses VPM synthesis (similar to Yamaha’s FM synthesis).

Following the OASYS, I worked on the M3 and the M50, and that led to the Kronos, building on the OASYS platform. We added the PolySix engine and the MS-20 engine. We were able to retain a lot of the technology and core framing that we had done in the OASYS and were able to add the SGX-1, and EP1 engines. I worked with artists shaping some of the pianos, the electric pianos, as well as some of the organs...Over the years I got to help and work with many of my idols including Herbie Hancock, Keith Emerson, Joe Zawinul and Brian Auger. That was a tough job, but someone had to do it!

The HUB: It might have been easier to ask you what you didn’t work on, rather than what you did work on…

JH: There really are a lot of sounds when you consider all the M1 PCM cards, T-series discs,  Wavestation cards, 01/W cards, Trinity options, Triton EXP boards, and Kronos EXs & KRS libraries. I have been at Korg for a long time...I often tell people, “I really love what I do and do what I love.” I absolutely love the people that I work with.

You know, I have these wonderfully close relationships with the programmers, developers and engineers, as well as the artists that use Korg instruments. I’ve become very close with them over the years, and I’ve developed bonding relationships with some of the most talented people on the planet!

Korg Wavestation

Korg's Wavestation, which offered wave sequencing and vector-based synthesis, was released in 1990.

The HUB: You’re an idol to a lot of them, too, because they’re hearing the sounds of a lot of your work. 

JH: We play, write, compose and perform music to make other people feel good. Of course, we feel good in the process too. But that’s also based on seeing somebody moving, smiling or reacting to what we’re doing; we know that there’s a connection there. So that’s a very important part of the process. Some musicians choose to do everything themselves, and others collaborate within groups and bands, duos, trios, all the way up to ensembles and orchestras.

The HUB: How does it feel for you…when you hear sounds and instruments that you’ve worked on end up on a hit record? That’s got to make you feel excited and proud.

JH: Certainly, it feels gratifying and it makes me feel that I’m hitting the ball the right way and that I’ve achieved my goal. I’ve put something out there that someone’s used in a good and creative way. Maybe I wasn’t in the room when the tracks or the production were being sussed out, but I was maybe on somebody’s shoulder as added inspiration. So that makes me feel happy and gratified. 

The HUB: Going back to the M1, what were some of the limitations that you faced?

JH: When the M1 came out, we were at a crossroads. We were also going to develop a sampler with effects and separate outputs. But we decided to put all our eggs in one basket and concentrate on the M1. The M1 was quite innovative at that time, it had an incredible PCM ROM with digital multi-effects including flanging, phasing, chorusing, distortion, rotary speaker simulation — and RAM and PCM program cards for storage and expansion. There was also an internal sequencer. But, the M1 did not have a resonant filter. 

The HUB: Oh, right.

JH: When we were voicing a lot of the sounds, we were aware that we couldn’t create resonance, but we could lean in that direction by use of effects, EQ, and by manipulating PCM in unusual ways to make up for not having a resonant filter. The resonant filter is a great thing, but it’s most useful in analog synthesis. You know, that’s where it’s best suited and most formidible. Our emphasis was on a wide, eclectic variety of PCM samples, all assembled in one instrument. Even though the M1 and the T-series didn’t have resonannt filters, we found other directions in order to compensate.

The HUB: You had space limitations, too. I’m sure you had more sounds that could have gone into it. Was it hard to narrow the samples down, even though you could do expansion cards?

Korg's M1 Workstation

Korg's M1 was a new class of keyboard: a workstation. 

JH: It was hard, getting everything to fit. The art of truncating and mastering single-cycle and multi-cycle loops and, of course, cross fade looping — they became really important because there were so many things we wanted to include. But in order to make the grade, the M1 had to get down to what we called lean, mean, slim, fighting, training weight. On the evolutionary scale, we learned a lot about sampling from working with the DSS1 and DSM1 samplers, but also we were checking out what other companies were doing. We were looking at the Kurzweil 250, the Fairlight Series 1 and Series 2, the Synclavier and certainly all the other companies that had samplers: Akai, Roland, Yamaha and E-mu. There were lessons to be learned by studying the techniques being used with sampling instruments – mapping them, looping them and doing all kinds of tricks.

We were learning as we went along. But everybody, all the manufacturers, kind of look at what each other is doing and go, ‘Oh, that’s clever. That’s creative. That’s innovative. Maybe we can incorporate some aspect.’ Not verbatim, but it can germinate or suggest an idea for development, just by looking around and comparing.

The HUB: Jumping ahead to Kronos and Krome where you have a lot more capabilities and functionality, what are some of the interesting features in the Krome EX?

JH: The EX stands for expanded PCM memory. In addition to the new PCM, it has additional program banks and combi banks that feature new PCM, all incorporated with the other preexisting sounds that were in the Krome.

The HUB: Did you hit any limitations with Kronos and Krome EX or does technology today give you pretty much what you want to work with? 

JH: If you look at the Kronos, that’s our high-end Music Workstation versus the Krome, which is our mid-end Music Workstation, and the Kross is our lower-end Music Workstation. So they all have significant differences. Certainly you look at the displays that are different between the products. You look at the variety of memory that’s dedicated to PCM, and then you look at the different engines that are available to you. This is obviously a real big difference comparing the Kronos to those other instruments. But I don’t see it as a limitation because these keyboards can do so much. There isn’t enough time in the day. You could take any one of them and make it your desert island instrument and not be bored. You know, I think there’s no shortage of ideas. What there is a shortage of is the time to realize them.

Korg's Kronos Synthesizer/Workstation

Korg's Kronos offer nine distinct synth engines, offering plenty of sound design options. 

The HUB: Hybrid synths have been out for a long time, but it seems to be a trend lately. What do you think are the limitations or benefits of a hybrid versus an all-analog or an all-digital instrument?

JH: I don’t know if the term hybrid is clearly defined. When we talk about the Kronos we talk about nine different engines. Kurzweil has V.A.S.T, the Montage has got their FM engine in it. So you could certainly say they qualify as hybrid instruments. Or even the Kronos’ expansion libraries, you can use Vector Synthesis and Wavesequencing on samples and manipulate them. When necessary, the Kronos can also function well as a fat analog beast. And so I think, in a sense, hybrids are like Swiss Army knives. They have a lot of different tools and blades on them and it’s, like, ‘Well, I didn’t think I was going to use the leather punch, but I think I need it today.’ ‘Oh, my God, the magnifying glass and the tweezers saved my life today.’ The thing I like about hybrid machines is they increase the sonic possibilities of what you can achieve compared to non-hybrid instruments, which are still cool and valid.

The HUB: But from a sound-design standpoint, like you said, a Swiss Army knife full of utensils to use at your disposal...

JH: Yeah. I love to boldly go where no programmer has gone before. Create a sound where somebody says, ‘I never heard anything like that before.’ Then I feel like I’ve done my job. Right after that, someone will come along and listen like Nipper the RCA dog, tilt their head sideways and go, ‘I have no idea how I would use a sound like that.” So you have to know your audience. Whether you are aiming the instrument for someone who plays at home, somebody who goes out and gigs, or somebody who plays with a band. I try to put something on the palette that will be applicable and helpful.

The HUB: There’s been a surge in Eurorack and module synthesis lately. What do you feel about it?

JH: I really like that stuff. My first synth was an EML-101. I added a second panel, an additional 5 octave keyboard, the first Poly-Box, and a patchable Mod Wheel. So I grew up with modular synths.

The HUB: You were modding on your own.

JH: Yes, I have a sweet spot for that stuff. I really love the Korg Volca series, even though I didn’t work on any Volca projects. Additionally, I didn’t work on Minilogue, Monologue, Prologue stuff either.

The HUB: That was all in Japan, right?

JH: Yeah. There was some voicing that was done by other people, but, yes, they were developed in Japan. I really love the Volca Modular.

The HUB: I had a chance to check it out.

JH: It’s just brilliant. It’s innovative, unique and different, and fits well into Korg’s Volca family. It also fits into all the other modular families that are out there; it’s like a friend to everyone. Korg has been most successful when we offer something completely different. And I have to say I’m a fan of that.

The HUB: Are there any sounds or sampling sessions that stick out for you? Maybe something that you ran into trouble with?

JH: At that very end of the M1 project, getting down to the last minute, we needed a slap bass. We went into a studio in Japan with Robby Kilgore, who played keys, bass, and everything. He’s a super-talented guy. The strings on the bass were old and dead, and Robby said, ‘You know what? Forget about the slap bass,’ and he pulled out a pick. ‘If we play these dead strings with a pick it will sound like the theme from Gunsmoke! — and that’s how we got the M1 pick bass. The strings were dead, but the pick gave it its top end character. The sound wasn’t too dull, wasn’t too bright, it was “Goldilocks pudding.”

We also wanted to have some breathy, airy synths. So we’re in Yokohama one day and walking around an outside market, and I said, ‘Oh, my God. There’s a pan flute.’ That became the pan flute in the M1. So there were some funny accidents, just spur of the moment things...

The HUB: Now those sounds live on.

JH: You have to be ready to react when that stuff happens. I love what I do in my role as a sound designer, but I still like to play out. In the 80s and 90s I played with the John Entwistle Band, and with Leslie West from Mountain. Korg graciously gave me some time off to do some short tours. More recently I was able to do some gigs with the Robin Zander Band, which was a a lot of fun. So, yeah, it’s good old rock and roll, and it’s good for the soul.

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