Korg began as a venture between unlikely business partners Tsutomu Katoh, a successful nightclub owner, and Tadashi Osanai, Japan's premier accordion player. Osanai had been frustrated by the limitations of his Wurlitzer Sideman with which he had been accompanying himself while performing at Katoh's club. Convinced he could build a superior instrument by drawing on his engineering skills learned at Tokyo University, Osanai approached Katoh to provide financial backing. In 1962, Katoh secured a factory in central Tokyo where Osanai and a team of four employees began work. The company was initially dubbed Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo Ltd. by virtue of its being located alongside the Keio railway line but was later amended to Keio Electronic Laboratories. It would not be until 1968 that the name Korg would appear - which was arrived at by combining elements of "Keio" and "organ" and which also happened to contain the first letters of each founder's surname.
In 1963, the fledgling company introduced its first product. It was described as a "disc rotary electric auto rhythm machine" and was named the Donca-Matic DA-20 (legend has it because it produced the sound "donca, donca, donca"). Though a relatively simple instrument, it was groundbreaking in its day and sold well in Japan. Later versions, including the all electronic solid state Donca-Matic DE-20, introduced in 1966, and subsequent drum machines such as the Stageman and Mini-Pops series, were equally successful.
Katoh's entrance into the keyboard market was induced by engineer Fumio Mieda in 1967. Mieda sought backing for development of keyboard products but Katoh wanted to see a prototype first. Eighteen months later Mieda returned with an organ of his own design. A unique feature of his prototype was the programmability of its voices aligning it less with traditional organs and more with the relatively new synthesizers of which Katoh was unfamiliar with. Fifty of the organs were eventually produced and marketed and had the distinction of being the first products to bear the Korg name. Unsure of Korg's viability in the organ market long dominated by only a few giants, Katoh saw an opportunity when a Japanese musician and former Berklee School of Music student informed him of the similarities between his organ and a synthesizer.
Feeling he would fare better in the nascent synthesizer industry, Katoh introduced the Mini-Korg 700, a monophonic synthesizer which retained many of the basic design features of Mieda's organ, in 1973. Inspired by the success of the Mini-Korg in Japan (which was distributed by Unicord as the Univox K-1 in the US), in the following years the company focused their efforts on strengthening their position in the synthesizer marketplace and released dozens of additional keyboards. In 1974, Korg introduced a dual oscillator version of the Mini-Korg 700, the Mini-Korg 700s, followed a year later by the Maxi-Korg 800DV (marketed in the US as the Univox K-2 and Univox K-3 respectively). Also in 1975, the company's first polyphonic, preset synthesizer, the 900-PS, was developed. In 1976, the PE-1000 (Polyphonic Ensemble) and PE-2000 (Polyphonic Ensemble Orchestra) were released followed by the modular PS-3300 in 1977. Both the MS-10 and the highly coveted MS-20 were unveiled in 1978.
In 1981, Korg released the Polysix as an answer to Sequential Circuits' Prophet 5 which, when released two years earlier, was the first programmable, polyphonic, and easy to use synthesizer. The Polysix was not only polyphonic (taking its name from its six voices) but also fully programmable, a first for Korg. The Polysix was also significant for its price tag of $1995 which put it within reach of many more musicians than the Prophet 5 which retailed at $5000. In 1982, the Polysix was phased out in favor of the expanded Poly 61. The following year saw the release of the Poly 800 which served to further increase the accessibility of synthesizers. With a list price of $795, it became the first fully programmable synthesizer available for under $1000. The price of the Polysix and Poly800 were undoubtedly factors which led to them being Korg's first major international successes.
Korg's biggest success, however, came in 1988 with the release of its M1 Music Workstation. The M1 was unique in its combination of a keyboard, realistic PCM-ROM-based sounds, drum machine, sequencer and digital multi-effects in a single compact unit. With sales of approximately 250,000 it has become not only the world's best selling synthesizer but also defined a new category of musical instruments: the music workstation. A year after the introduction of the M1, Korg unveiled the T-Series Music Workstation which incorporated larger displays, disk drives, additional sequencer memory, an optional RAM area and two pairs of MIDI outputs.
Shortly before the release of the M1, a large portion of Korg's stock was acquired by Yamaha. The relationship was amicable and the details were drawn up by Katoh himself. The agreement insured that both companies remained independent entities free to continue competing in the realms of design and marketing. In 1989, less than a year after Yamaha bought California's Sequential Circuits and subsequently released its former employees, Korg took on several members of Sequential's former design team. They established a research and development center in California's Silicon Valley and debuted their first product, the Wavestation, in 1990. The Wavestation was a landmark in its utilization of technologies such as Advanced Vector Synthesis and Wave Sequencing.
In the course of its history Korg has been responsible for many innovations recognized and later adopted by their peers. The key transposer (also born out of necessity from Katoh's nightclub - this time prompted by a keyboardist who was unable to accompany a singer in a different key), effects parameters on a synthesizer, and sample synthesis were all initially used on Korg products. The company also found time to invent the hand-held electronic tuner, the WT-10 in 1975, and venture into the digital piano market with its Concert series in 1987.