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Korg Electribe

Music Production Station
Published April 2015
By Paul Nagle

Korg Electribe

Sixteen years after the first one was released, Korg have completely revised and redesigned the Electribe.

The reign of the Korg ESX1 and EMX1 Electribes couldn’t last forever, but in rapidly changing times for technology, a decade (and counting) is a remarkable run. Electribes earned acclaim for their direct and intuitive control over sound engine and sequencer. By topping them off with effects, motion recording, valves and a brace of individual outputs, Korg set the bar high.

Their would–be successors, the Electribe and Electribe Sampler are lauded as ‘Music Production Stations’ and packed with Korg’s latest modelling technology. Tooled–up with an effect for every part, polyphony and velocity–sensitive drum pads, these ultra–slim pretenders to the throne will even run on batteries. Regardless of when and where inspiration strikes, your tunes can be exported, part by part, as loops to be arranged and elaborated upon in your DAW. A licence for Ableton Live Lite 9 is slipped into the package, along with additional functionality to export in Live’s own format.

Today we’re looking at the ‘Synth Electribe’, more usually called Electribe 2 but sometimes referred to as EMX2 — or simply Electribe. In this review I’ll be referring to it as the Electribe 2, just to avoid confusion with earlier models.

Fade To Grey

The Electribe 2 is grey. Its grey buttons and knobs are set on a grey background along with a grey Kaoss pad and 16 drum pads in a slightly darker grey rubber. The display is monochrome doing its best to be grey. The end result is a solid, sleek and heavy (1.6kg) slab of die–cast zinc that looks eerily like a soft synth rendering made real. The controls are a mixture of knobs and encoders and, though closely packed, inspire far more confidence than the too–small rubber buttons. The knobs avoid awkward value–leaps during live performance thanks to alternate modes Catch and Value Scale. In the latter, the values change relatively until the knob’s furthest extent is reached, after which normal behaviour takes over. Catch Mode is simpler and means no adjustment occurs until the knob passes the stored value.

The LCD is informative enough but at present has an annoying tendency for parameter adjustments to time out and revert, pointlessly, to the patch name. The encoders are illuminated, four of them constantly, which should hopefully reduce the accidental grabbing of the main value encoder. Unless you’re deep in a menu, such an accident will switch patterns in the background, a major downer in the middle of a long and satisfying tweak.

In low light conditions (ie. the conditions where Electribes are traditionally found) many of the controls become practically invisible. This is unhelpful (to say the least) to the row of buttons used to assign functionality to the drum pads. The active mode’s button glows red, but in a dark area of panel, it’s sometimes tough to tell ‘Part Mute’ from ‘Part Erase’. If I owned an Electribe 2, I’d consider invalidating my warranty and replacing some of the red LEDs with different colours. In a marked departure from previous models, there’s no dedicated Solo button.

In contrast to its sparsely illuminated panel, the Electribe 2’s underside is extravagantly lit. Four multi-colour LEDs change colour ‘in accordance with the playing pattern’ and the only way to turn them off is by enabling power–saving mode, which also dims the LCD. Looking around, it was clear that some immediacy has been sacrificed in order to reimagine the Electribe around dynamic pads and menus. There are way more menus than expected so it was some relief when, in the first OS update, Korg hastily added a series of shortcuts. Even so, opportunities for improvement remain and functions you’d ideally access directly and consistently (eg. part selection) often require multiple button–presses.

The drum pads are backlit with Red/Blue/Purple LEDs, so as well as note entry they act as status display. I found that, from a choice of four levels of velocity–sensitivity, a setting of ‘Heavy’ produced the most even spread of values from my wimpy technique. That said, I failed to generate any velocity below 27, despite playing so quietly the pad barely triggered. Dynamics mark a bold departure from the older generation which shouldn’t be underestimated. There are other departures but rather than get bogged down in comparisons, let’s see what’s the Electribe 2 has to offer.

Part Examination

With 16 parts and 24 notes of polyphony to share amongst them, the Electribe 2 can rightfully claim to be a ‘Music Production Workstation’. Drawing from a mixture of PCM samples and modelling technology, it features a broad complement of drum, synth and other instrument sounds. I could easily imagine myself on a plane making complete tracks with one — having first eliminated the unwanted groin–bling! The sequencer is even capable of pseudo–polyphonic recording; four notes on a step that share duration and velocity.

Patterns are a maximum of four bars long (half the length of a classic ’tribe) and as before the mute status of each instrument, plus the desired tempo, is stored in every pattern. The Electribe 2 could therefore be an ideal master clock. If you prefer a single tempo applied universally, this is possible too and set by the Tap button on the transport or via a handy shortcut to the bpm value.

The Electribe’s back panel includes stereo quarter–inch audio outputs and, all on 3.5mm sockets, an audio input sync I/O, MIDI I/O (via the included five–pin DIN adapters) and a  headphone port. At the far right is a  socket for the external PSU.The Electribe’s back panel includes stereo quarter–inch audio outputs and, all on 3.5mm sockets, an audio input sync I/O, MIDI I/O (via the included five–pin DIN adapters) and a headphone port. At the far right is a socket for the external PSU.There are no kits or even saved patches. Instead, you’re supplied with many individual components with which to assemble new sounds at speed for every part of the 250 available patterns. Some basic copy functionality is provided but there are significant gaps, eg. inter–pattern data copying. As on the classic models, you can write patterns during playback, but at the moment this isn’t always glitch–free. Even pattern switching is occasionally plagued by small but perceptible ‘jumps’.

When programming, there are no restrictions to the way parts are allocated. It’s your choice whether to build mega drum kits, layer 16 slightly different kalimbas or throw together any voicing combination that appeals.

I should probably address the idea of polyphony before we progress any further. The Electribe 2 boasts 24 notes but this comes with a few provisos. The overall count is eaten up in a number of ways; obviously by polyphonic recording, but also by the more processor–intensive picks from the selection box of oscillator type, filter and insert effect. It’s not always easy to predict the biggest resource sponges, so discovering the impact on your tunes is a case of suck it and see. In dense patterns, the most important parts can be flagged as high priority to make them less likely to have voices stolen.

In fact the Electribe’s synth engine is paraphonic rather than polyphonic because each part shares a common filter, envelope and velocity. As on my Korg Poly 800, you can choose whether notes added to those already held should retrigger the envelope. Similarly, there are two corresponding voice-assign modes for mono operation, corresponding to single or multi–triggering.

Sounds Like

The sound creation process is divided into five sections: Oscillator, Filter, Modulation, Amp/EG and Insert FX. Starting with the first of these, there are a whopping 409 oscillator types in a list beginning with assorted percussion and ending with the audio input as source. You can leapfrog types by turning the encoder and holding the shift key, making it practical to reach any section very quickly.

All oscillator selections can be transposed and tweaked via a single edit knob that adjusts the most relevant parameter for the current choice. Starting the list are kicks, 56 raw and beefy PCM bass drums. In this case, the edit parameter tends to be distortion but later, when you reach some of the synth oscillators, there’s far more variety. The parameter might adjust pulse width one moment, oscillator detune or sync amount the next.

At the side, after briefly marvelling at it thinness, we can see the Electribe’s micro–USB B port and its SD card slot.At the side, after briefly marvelling at it thinness, we can see the Electribe’s micro–USB B port and its SD card slot.Having scrolled through the solid and serviceable kicks, next come snares, claps, hi–hats and so on. Classic drum boxes are well represented and I doubt anyone will be disappointed by their quality or variety. The choices aren’t exclusively dance music–related either; there’s a fairly diverse bag of percussion including four djembes, four darbukas, eight wavedrums and a whole bunch of Latin and synthetic instruments. Even before they hit the filter and effects, the drum samples provide a firm bedrock for your tracks.

Resisting a sudden urge to populate empty patterns with drum kits ‘ready to go’, I pressed on through the oscillator types, skipping past the inevitable voices, hits and sound effects to reach synth waveforms at type 326. From this point onwards, there are 50 different oscillator configurations and four types of noise to try out. Now’s an ideal moment to pause and locate the Keyboard button in order to play the pads melodically, but it’s equally practical to play (and record) the Electribe 2 from a remote MIDI keyboard on the channel corresponding to its part number.

Names such as Ring–Sine, Sync–Squ and Oct–Saw give a fair idea what to expect from the oscillators and, with so many combinations, having control of a single parameter didn’t feel too crippling. Korg have plundered their modelling catalogue to bring you representations of single analogue waveforms, dual-oscillator layers, pulse-width modulation, VPM (Variable Phase Modulation — similar to FM), oscillator sync, cross modulation, ring modulation and more. To keep it simple, the types are arranged by waveform and, other than disliking the scratchy sync, it was difficult to find any that sounded weedy or unusable. There’s no doubt the Electribe 2’s virtual analogue tones are head and shoulders above any in the EMX1, and that complex, multi–part melodic sequences are firmly on the cards. Or so I reflected after losing an afternoon and an evening.

Oscillator type 381 recalls Korg’s first workstation by offering a cut–down version of the M1 Piano. It’s followed by electric pianos, an organ, guitars, Korg’s patent breathy pads and solid basses of the acoustic and picked persuasions. The multisample compilation is far from exhaustive though. It lacks a choir and a choice of strings yet wastes precious memory on two dreadful saxophones. There’s more variety in the hits, orchestral and otherwise, some of which are surprisingly useful. The same can’t be said for the shouting voice samples, but even those clichéd human exclamations can become quite spooky once they’re filtered, modulated, effected and reduced to a distant moan by extreme transposition.

It’s an indicator of how much is crammed into this Electribe that I already have to press on, but before doing so I must briefly mention the last oscillator type, ‘audio input’. Incoming stereo signals are mixed to mono when used as an oscillator source, but with 16 parts to play with, there are countless gating, filtering and effect processing opportunities to explore. If you need a quick and easy submixer for stereo signals, it’s a case of navigating to the ‘Audio In Thru’ parameter deep in the bowels of Global settings. The input level control is more accessible though.

The filter’s section has a dedicated trio of controls including a smooth cutoff encoder and bi–polar envelope depth. The three mode choices are as you’d expect — low–pass, high–pass and band–pass — but within each mode, further filter models are revealed by repeated button presses. Thus, the ‘LPF’ button toggles the filter between six options (and ‘off’), their names giving an impression of target characteristics. There’s ‘electribe’, MS20, MG (Moog), P5 (Prophet 5), OB (Oberheim) and Acid (TB303) and of these, all bar the Moog appear as variants for HPF and BPF types.

Rather than ponder what a Prophet 5 with a band–pass filter might have sounded like, I found it better to concentrate on the (sometimes subtle) differences in tone and response while simultaneously wishing for overdrive to add some grit. The excellent Acid filter gets closest of all to ‘dirty’, its broken resonance a welcome departure from the pleasant whistle ever ready to break out in the others. Ultimately, although the tonal variety isn’t overwhelming, these are the smoothest and warmest filters on an Electribe yet and a major asset.

Quietly breaking new ground, the Electribe 2 sports a variable attack envelope. It’s a plain two–stage affair that’s enough for most percussion even if it won’t cover every desired synth shape. The output is either based on this envelope or a gated (on/off) organ type.

The Electribe measures 339 x 189 x 45 mm and weighs 1.6kg, which should make it perfect for impromptu jams on the tube. The Electribe measures 339 x 189 x 45 mm and weighs 1.6kg, which should make it perfect for impromptu jams on the tube.

The single modulation bus consists of 72 preset connections with control over the depth and speed. You’d typically choose the LFO or envelope as a source from a list organised by LFO waveform, bpm sync or envelope polarity. The available destinations include the usual pitch, filter, level and pan but also the current edit parameter for the oscillator or insert effect. Happily, the LFO has a wide–enough range to contribute more than just slow filter sweeps, although everything from these to manic wibbles are well catered for.

All things considered, the technique of selecting from a pre–made modulation list is a workable compromise between choice and simplicity, but not every option is covered. It would have been nice to have velocity as a source, for example, but the main limitation is clearly the single modulation routing per part. For more movement than one bus can deliver, Korg’s tried-and-tested ‘Motion Recording’ is on hand. It’s invoked as easily as hitting ‘record’ then tweaking knobs, and up to 24 different Motion Recordings can be stored for the whole pattern, so you should use them wisely.

Effects

The final stage for each part is the insert effect, or IFX. On the surface, having an effect per part seems incredibly generous, and mostly it is. Amongst the IFX, old favourites such as chorus, flanger and phaser join overdrive, punch, bit crush, ring modulator, plus filters and EQs. The classic Electribe’s ‘Bandpass Plus’ filter is here too, along with numerous delays. I can’t say these are the best or the most versatile delays ever to grace an Electribe, but what they lack in class they make up for in numbers. Effects such as slicer and repeater are equally valuable, but I looked in vain for a reverb — even a nasty one. It turns out that only one instance of reverb can be active in the Electribe 2, as a Master Effect.

The Master Effect, or MFX, is available to any part at the press of a button and it’s where the real quality is found. Of the 32 MFX algorithms, three are reverbs (Hall, Room and Wet) and good ones too. This is where the Kaoss pad is brought into play, the reverb’s decay and mix parameters mapped across its X-Y plane ready to serve the whole pattern. Having found a position you like, it can be captured with the Hold button.

Perhaps the single biggest sonic limitation is having to sacrifice reverb in order to use some of the other MFX. The list differs from the IFX choices and includes superior delays, plus filters, direction switchers and step jumpers, some of which are so performance–enhancing you could easily fail a urine test after using them. Interestingly, you’re given several ‘non–audio’ effects that screw with the pattern’s playback order, reversing, doubling or stepping through only some of the steps. Given that Master Effects apply to selected parts, you can therefore shift some tracks but not others, leading to all manner of serendipitous fun. Some of the best audio–mangling of previous Kaoss pads is represented too, of which the Looper and Pitch Looper are fine examples — they continue to loop even after you hit stop!

Finally, I mustn’t forget an old favourite: Grain Shifter. If you’re unsure about the Electribe 2’s credentials for experimental music, you owe it to yourself to unleash this effect on a full mix, taking care to Motion–Record the Kaoss movements. Yes, you can do that too.

Modes & Music Making

Flexibility is a key Electribe 2 strength, not just in sound choice but in recording style. You’re free to record dynamic percussion and synth performances by bashing the pads or to opt for the more gentle step–time approach.

Hit the Sequencer button and you’re ready to enter notes in X0X step–time, selecting the bar to edit using the bar buttons. These four innocuous blobs of rubber display the current bar with a blue LED and the bar being edited by a red one. Enabling steps on the pads has always worked well for building percussive patterns, but is less successful for note entry, lacking a fast route to ‘drill down’ to the note or velocity value.

With no accent track, patterns produced in Sequencer mode are initially quite mechanical — until you start to tweak velocities. However (unless there’s a shortcut I missed), it takes eight button presses to reach the velocity edit page, although having adjusted the velocity of one step, selecting others is instantaneous. Further alternatives to a robotic feel include a flexible swing implementation and a selection of 25 Groove templates.

By gradually applying a selected template, your patterns shift towards the velocity and timing of the preset groove. Many templates are percussion–inspired to give your robotic shakers a believable Latin feel, but there are assorted crescendos, pushes and pulls too, all well worth a try. Unusually, the template choice and depth is set on a per–part basis so, although it’s true there’s no real–time or unquantised recording, there’s plenty of scope for the Electribe 2 to swing.

Lovers of polyrhythms will be drawn inexorably to the Last Step feature employed to reduce any part from its default 16 steps. It’s slightly awkward when dealing with multiple bars, though. If you’re partial to interacting with the notes of a single sequence, say one that’s five steps long, it becomes impractical to do this on the Electribe 2 because those five steps are replicated in every bar. That specific sequencer perversion aside, Last Step is a brilliant way to break away from standard drum-machine repetition.

Finger–drumming takes you where no Electribe has gone before, but when you’re done tapping in percussion, the next stage of making tunes will probably require Keyboard mode. Select this and the pads operate like a chromatic keyboard; as far as is feasible given their layout. The four ‘bar buttons’ are now used to shift the playable range of the pads over an impressive eight octaves.

In Keyboard mode I had to finally concede that menu–diving can enrich your life, because each pattern can be assigned a scale and each part can opt in or out of it. There’s a generous selection of preset scales, each inspiring fresh riffs without the chance of hitting a wrong note.

Continuing through the modes, the Chord button turns the pads into preset chord inversions within the current scale. The density parameter determines how many notes are included, making this feature simple but effective even if you’ve never played a chord in your life.

Step Jump is a performance mode for temporarily redirecting playback to a specific step, or between as many steps as you have pads. One of my favourite new Electribe features, Step Jump can transform pattern playback by interactively mixing things up, adding repeats or inviting endless diversions into percussion and sequencer solos.

Lastly, when ‘Pattern Set’ is engaged, the pads select patterns rather than trigger notes. In conjunction with the four bar buttons you can navigate directly to 64 chosen patterns out of the 250 on board in a potent alternative to selecting patterns by encoder. The function could be made more exciting if it were possible to chain patterns, or switch on the next step rather than always at pattern end.

Of the factory patterns, the last 50 are initialised, ready to overwrite. The rest are a mixed bag of dance–based beats, bleeps and yeahs ripe for overwriting.

Finishing off

This Electribe is all about performance, which is another way of saying it doesn’t have a song mode. Having never liked the traditional Electribe song mode myself, I won’t complain, but for those who feel differently, Korg offer compensation in the form of extended functionality. First and foremost amongst the ‘bonus’ functions, patterns (and ranges of patterns) can be exported as WAV files, or as complete Ableton Live sets. A licence for Ableton Live Lite 9 is included in the package and it’s interesting to note that the export process creates two Live sets. One is suitable for the Lite version you’re given (which has just eight tracks), but the other is ripe for exploitation in the full version. Possibly this could be intended as temptation — I definitely felt it!

Fortunately, dragging the loops into Logic worked perfectly and it should be equally straightforward in other DAWs. The export process presents few obstacles and the results are dumped into an appropriately named folder on your SD card. The exported audio is in 48kHz 16–bit WAV format, but is created with little finesse. Specifically, many loops contained clicks due to the audio ending abruptly on non–zero crossing points. In an ideal world you could choose the format and instruct the render to produce click–free loops, all neatly trimmed at zero crossing points. Even so, I can’t stress enough how useful the feature is and although it doesn’t make up for the lack of individual outputs, it means your Electribe–sourced loops can become intricately produced songs arranged in your DAW. Incidentally, the MFX is not included in the exported mix, although it would have been a nice option to have it.

Perhaps acknowledging the missing MFX, there’s a further option, that of exporting a whole performance. This is written directly to card and contains the complete output of a session in which you freely mute tracks, play the Kaoss pad or grab knobs and encoders. Annoyingly, the feature is limited to a proprietary format which can only be played back by the Electribe 2, so you can’t treat it in the same way as the regular pattern export. In another anomaly, although you can back up patterns one by one, there’s no means (at present) of backing up the whole contents of the machine in a single operation.

Conclusions

Any successor to the Electribe range comes with high expectations, but in a sense the Electribe 2 isn’t so much a progression as a move sideways. If I seem to have been overly picky, it’s probably because Electribes are the standard by which I’ve judged everything for many years — so I can hardly stop now! In the Electribe 2, the emphasis has shifted from speed and spontaneity to preparation, performance and production. The inclusion of drum pads marks the most significant departure, but there are less obvious deal sweeteners, such as the Volca sync jacks or the sequencer’s ability to drive external MIDI gear.

Depending on your taste, the grey on grey appearance is either drab camouflage or subtle minimalism, but the main UI drawback isn’t the colour, it’s the amount of button pressing and menu scrolling. On a minor note, I can cope without individual outputs, but dearly missed a proper set of MIDI ports. There were also more bugs and oversights than I’ve come to expect from Korg, from glitches on saving patterns to blatant omissions such as a full backup facility.

On the other hand, picking options from a list proved less restrictive than I’d feared and can’t be dismissed merely as ‘synthesis by numbers’. Processed by the latest filter models and an effect for every part, there’s no reason the Electribe 2 shouldn’t sound fresh for years to come. Certainly, its master effect outshines anything the earlier models could deliver, even if it does demand a choice between Kaoss–based audio mashing and plush reverb. Still, with no tubes, the output is spookily hiss free.

Korg have packed a lot of imagination into this lap–sized, battery–powered groovebox and whenever I caught myself grumbling over omissions and limitations, a reminder of the price usually shut me up. Quirky inclusions such as Step Jump, Groove Templates, polyrhythms and exotic scales broaden its appeal considerably and, whatever your tastes, the export function is a valuable first step towards studio–polishing those jammed creations.

A tambourine–bashing advocate of earlier Electribes, I admit I was slow to embrace the new direction. Yet within a few short weeks the fun factor, combined with a tangible productivity boost, had won me round. I guess that means there’s plenty of Electribe DNA still present and that these will soon be seen and heard everywhere.

Alternatives

With its 16 parts, 24–note polyphony and multiple synthesis engines, Korg’s Electribe is a drum machine, synth and sequencer without direct rival at the price. When challenged to think of alternatives or comparisons my mental search engines leapt between unlikely rivals the Teenage Engineering OP1 and the DSI Tempest before eventually timing out.

Slim Shady

The Electribe’s minimal design brief extends to the connectivity. Gone are the individual audio outputs, MIDI Thru and regular–sized input and headphone jacks of earlier models. The only standard quarter–inch connections are the left and right outputs, for which I suppose we should be grateful.

In total, half a dozen 3.5mm jacks provide sync (in and out) for Korg’s Volca range, MIDI In and Out (via small adapter cables), a stereo audio input and headphone socket. A 9V power adapter is supplied too but for making music on the move, the Electribe 2 can run on six AA batteries, promising five hours from a full set of nickel–metal hydrides.

A micro–USB B socket on the side is your route to direct PC or Mac MIDI connectivity, although you’ll need to source the cable yourself. Next to the USB connection is an SD card slot with which to back up projects (once Korg write that feature into the OS) and export patterns and Live sets. SD or SDHC cards of up to 32GB are supported.

Kaoss Reigns

The small (50 x 65 mm) Kaoss pad isn’t exclusively about MFX control; it can trigger repeated notes and chords. Activate the Gate Arp function and the pad becomes a repeater of a part (or parts). However, despite a choice of 50 different patterns, none of the Gate Arp options include regular musical arpeggiation nor will any threaten Aphex Twin in a high–speed challenge. The pad offers access to gate length and repeat speed, but if you crave faster repeats, any pattern can be set to double–speed, triplets, etc.

A secondary pad function, Touch Scale, is a means of generating notes (in the current scale) from the Kaoss pad, over a range between one and four octaves.

MIDI

Apart from its blatant lack of MIDI Thru, the Electribe 2 has little to be ashamed of in the five–pin department. Its sequencer sends note data and invites potential uses as a brain controlling up to 16 channels of external gear. For any Electribe die–hards still struggling with aspects of the interface, the new boy could even serve as a multitimbral MIDI module, although I realise that’s rather a perverse suggestion.

The knobs and encoders send and respond to MIDI CCs, each part tied to its numerical MIDI channel. When sharing a MIDI port with other gear or just when sync’ing up, you can globally disable note reception.

Published April 2015