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Korg Monologue

Analogue Synthesizer
Published January 2017
By Paul Nagle

Korg Monologue

The Monologue may be a cut-down version of the Minilogue, but it offers a few features its polyphonic big brother can’t match.

To follow the popular four-voice Minilogue synth, Korg could have gone either way — larger or smaller. Perhaps concerned for the UK and its shrinking pound, they chose the latter. The Monologue is a trimmed-down, single-voice version of the Minilogue, itself not exactly huge. The filter and envelope implementation has been simplified, the delay is gone and the keyboard reduced to a mere two octaves. Despite the trimming process, there’s a surprisingly gutsy synthesizer left; it consists of dual VCOs and a sequencer with a few tricks that could inspire envy in Minilogue owners. The 100 memories contain both patch and sequencer data and if you enjoy a touch of the exotic with your monosynth, you’ll be pleased to learn that micro-tuning is incorporated.

Externals

The Monologue is a chip off the old block, even down to its wooden rear and the tiny screen for displaying waveforms, sequencer data or information such as patch names and parameter values. The oscilloscope functionality is no mere gimmick either since it promotes a wider understanding of the actions of the filter, of waveform shape movement and of the new drive circuit.

Probably the best thing that can be said about the mini keyboard is that it deviates from the C-C ‘standard’ usually imposed. In what might be an attempt to lure guitarists to the dark side, Korg have opted for a 25-note E-E range instead. The keyboard transmits velocity (but not aftertouch) and while it’s perfectly fine for tapping notes into the sequencer, the Monologue becomes far more pleasurable when an external controller is involved. If you prefer to remain compact, a total of eight velocity curves are offered, so even though you won’t fancy pounding the keyboard too vigorously, you should be able to find a response that suits both your strength and the synth engine’s basic velocity routings.

Instantly neat and jammable, the Monologue has a similar footprint to the average laptop (approximately 35 x 28cm). Despite its reduced scale, it’s fitted with full-sized audio connections throughout — ie. the main output, headphone socket and the input, which is suitable for processing (line level) external gear through the filter and drive. If for some reason the standard silver faceplate doesn’t grab you, other models are available, in anodised black, dark blue, gold and red! While it’s wonderful to have so much choice, they’d all have looked classier without the protruding screws that litter the panel.

Korg omitted any form of CV/Gate interfacing but have fitted clock I/O and sync options suitable for Electribes, Volcas or any source of 5V pulses. MIDI is on hand via (regular-sized) in and out sockets or USB. Finally, half a dozen AA alkaline batteries are supplied, reputed to last between six and eight hours, or three afternoon sessions in my case. Alternatively, a 9V power adaptor is available, but as an optional extra.

The Monologue’s wooden behind contains a socket for the optional power supply, a  USB port, MIDI I/O ports, 3.5mm sync in and out sockets and, all on quarter-inch jacks, audio in, audio out and headphone sockets.The Monologue’s wooden behind contains a socket for the optional power supply, a USB port, MIDI I/O ports, 3.5mm sync in and out sockets and, all on quarter-inch jacks, audio in, audio out and headphone sockets.

Exploring The Synthesizer Engine

Having paused only to insert the batteries and scan the ‘Quick Start Guide’, I was soon lost in a realm of dirty acid homages, noise grooves and bass to wobble tectonic plates with. I flirted briefly with the keyboard before hitting Play on the sequencer, after which I never looked back.

Impressively, the sequencer continues to flow smoothly as new patches are selected, and by spinning the Program encoder, I was treated to a non-stop demo of wicked sounds and associated sequences. Before touching even a single knob, I’d gained a pretty comprehensive idea of the Monologue’s range thanks to a better than average set of edgy, glitchy factory patches.

If you’ve spent time with a Minilogue much will be familiar, from the angled performance slider to the tiny, pin-sharp OLED screen. It trumps the larger model in at least one respect: that row of 16 buttons taking pride of place, optimised for your sequencing comfort. The buttons are also used to access pages of the menu system, summoned at a press of the Edit Mode button.

Having satisfied myself that navigation would be relatively painless, my first instinct was to check the filter, which is an updated two-pole low-pass design described as having “more bite”. Korg did a great job here and fortunately the filter’s bite doesn’t come at the expense of the bass end, which is reassuringly warm and full. The addition of drive lends the Monologue a rougher, darker character than its larger sibling, one that becomes an overdriven roar at its maximum. Yet even fully cranked up, drive never becomes too much, nor does it excessively boost the volume.

The filter’s resonant whistle is effective over a broad range too, from its initial onset up to its loudest shriek. To track the whistle across the keyboard you’ll need to take a trip into Edit Mode where, after a few presses of the fourth illuminated button, you reach ‘cutoff keyboard tracking’. Tracking is offered at 0, 50 and 100 percent. The same menu is used to access velocity control over the filter cutoff and amplitude.

It was while relishing the filter’s sweet spots that I noticed the controls offer 10-bit resolution. No wonder those sweeps are so smooth; they cover a range from 0-1023! The resolution is halved for some controls, eg. LFO or EG modulation depth, both of which switch to a negative range when the intensity knob is paired with the shift key.

If the filter shines, its task is made easier by the presence of a pair of versatile VCOs. The first has sawtooth, triangle and square waves, the second drops the square in favour of white noise. It’s debatable whether losing the square wave was the optimum choice but that aside, all waves (except noise) are modified using the Shape knob. So as well as regular pulse width adjustment, you’re treated to a (slightly crackly) wavefolding of the triangle waveform, while the sawtooth acquires odd harmonics and a more hollow tonality. All waves gain welcome extra fuzziness when their shape is modulated either by the LFO or by the sequencer’s motion recording.

VCO2 features a four-way switch for octave shifts, plus a knob offering a further octave either way but in fine resolution. The detunes are pretty lush and even when the pitch offset is at zero, a gentle phasing remains. If you require a perfect lock, oscillator sync will deliver it — and more besides. With sync active, VCO2 becomes the slave of VCO1 and checking through the limited modulation routings, you’ll see that the envelope can be routed to the slave’s pitch — the typical path to tearing sync lead tones. Robbed of a square slave, I found that using a sawtooth produced the most pleasing (or at least the smoothest) results, ready to benefit from a dash of grit from the Drive knob. For ‘Prodigy-like’ performance control, you can assign the sprung slider to control VCO2’s pitch — marvellous!

The ring modulator replaces VCO2’s output with a signal containing the sum and the difference of two oscillator frequencies. Ring modulators famously generate metallic, atonal and bell-like sounds from irregular intervals and are a source of distinctive percussive material for sequencing purposes.

You may have noticed that the Monologue lacks the VCO cross-modulation of the Minilogue but the LFO, at its ‘fast’ setting, offers modulation well into audio rates. It’s only partial compensation because the LFO doesn’t have an option to track the keyboard, but it is used to great effect in some of the factory patches, where formant-like tones are achieved by modulating the filter cutoff frequency at high rates.

The LFO has three waveform choices (saw, triangle and square) and three operating modes: fast, slow and one-shot. The last of these turns off LFO cycling so it becomes a second envelope to be directed at its usual destinations: pitch, VCO shape or filter cutoff. Except for the omission of a random (S&H) source, the choices are spot on, with inverted modulation turning the sawtooth into a handy ramp wave. For further rhythmic delights, the LFO will sync to the tempo.

Not quite so delightful, the envelope is limited to just two stages: attack and a combined decay/release. This is absolutely no substitute for a full ADSR, even acknowledging the three-way switch that coaxes a few more shapes into existence. Percussive sounds are catered for by the switch’s top position in which the attack rises to its maximum level before the decay/release stage kicks in. In the switch’s middle position, the envelope gains a preset sustain, so won’t fade away as long as you hold a key. In either case, if you play a new note during the release phase, the envelope is reset to zero, resulting in an uncomfortable silence when combined with a slow attack. In the lowest position, the VCA gains a gate-type envelope and the attack/decay shape is applied to the filter.

Were this a hardware envelope, it would start from the current level and those uncomfortable silences would not happen. After all, this is how every classic monosynth works. The peculiar ‘reset to zero’ behaviour has found its way into many of Korg’s software envelopes since the days of the Prophecy, but I haven’t lost hope it could be addressed in a firmware update. To better understand this issue, I recommend an envelope refresher course via Gordon Reid’s Synth Secrets (Part 7).

On a similar topic, the Monologue ordinarily operates in multi-triggering mode, meaning that its envelope is restarted for every note played. If you introduce portamento it switches to single-triggering instead, ie. the envelope is not restarted when you play legato style. Please be aware that tweaking portamento has no effect at all on the envelope’s ‘rtz’ behaviour, despite the many mistaken claims made online (in relation to the Minilogue).

The Sequencer

If anything, the sequencer is an even more integral part of the Monologue’s charm than that of its big brother. This is partly due to fact it can be easily transposed from the keyboard, but mostly it’s because the step keys and their three modes make the toggling of notes, slides and motion recordings instantaneous.

Naturally, I was curious to discover whether the sequencer is pleasurable to use, with the Roland SH101’s inevitably springing to mind as a standard to aim for. Before attempting a recording, I tried a few experimental key combinations and discovered that Shift and Rest clears the current pattern. If the sequencer is stopped, you then simply hit the Record button and you’re in Step Record mode. Notes are entered by playing the keyboard until the last step is reached, when it drops out of record. Rests are added as you go using the Rest key or by removing notes later using the step keys (note row selected), all of which feels pretty slick.

When the sequencer is running, you can drop into real-time record at any time. Again, if the note row is selected, each active step is represented by a lit button, so even during recording you can easily remove notes. Flip the switch to add slides from one note to the next — a must for acid patterns. Best of all, when the switch is in its last position, motion data may be recorded. This translates to four lanes of knob or switch action with the automation displayed graphically — and pretty effectively too given the size of the screen. Other than the main volume knob, all controls are fair game for motion recording, including the slider.

The monologue’s main panel measures 350 x 276mm.The monologue’s main panel measures 350 x 276mm.

To mute or clear individual motions or wipe all data ready to start over, you need to delve into the menu. Ditto for turning on the smoothing that’s available to each row. For more instant results, motion muting via the step keys is always helpful, but a few extra shortcuts would be great. Of those that are implemented right now, I quickly learned to avoid Shift plus Record. The combination invokes the Monologue’s tuning process, which has the unfortunate side-effect of stopping any sequence dead in its tracks — not ideal during performance! Less drastic is the Shift and Run shortcut; this replaces the current patch data with the panel settings. It therefore proves that the Monologue can do WYSIWYG, although having knobs with more visible position lines would have helped there.

A pattern can be from one to 16 steps long, with length yet another parameter accessed from a menu. I don’t want to suggest that menu-diving is a major issue because, generally, the sequencer is intuitive, interactive and right up there with the SH101 for working at speed. But there are a considerable number of options spread across six edit pages. For example, as well as adjusting pattern length, you can set the default gate time and the swing, the latter offering a generous range between -75 percent and +75 percent. Interestingly, you can also modify the pattern’s step resolution, taking it down in stages from the regular 1/16 to a sedate 1/1.

Slow patterns can be a massive bonus, which becomes obvious when you ignore the keyboard and simply record some knob movements, or alternatively strip the notes from an existing pattern. Either way, those motion rows really boost the Monologue’s (fairly modest) modulation connections, and turning knobs isn’t the only way of setting them up. Korg have extended their motion recording concept to include ‘parameter locks’, a term well-known to Elektron users. It’s a technique for grabbing data directly into individual steps, by the simple act of holding a step key while turning a knob or flipping a switch. Within the four row limitation, it’s an excellent way to add precise, stepped changes that would be almost impossible to replicate by recording knob movements. In the same way, you can lock notes into steps by holding the relevant step key and playing — superb stuff!

Perhaps the most popular wish for the Minilogue’s sequencer was for keyboard-based transposition, here readily available via the Key Trg button. When the mode is active, the sequencer starts (and is transposed) whenever you hit a key. Ordinarily, it only remains playing as long as the key is held, but you can keep it running by holding the button until it flashes.

The sequencer’s output can be manually ducked by the keyboard, which is just the job for throwing in non-destructive pattern variations. All of which nearly wraps it up for the sequencer, other than to mention that it transmits notes over MIDI but not motion data. The only function I looked for in vain was a means of copying patterns between patches.

If externally synced, there’s a useful parameter to consider: via a global switch you can optionally ignore external transport commands. In other words, you can start and stop the sequencer manually at any time and be pretty confident the Monologue will stay in sync with the rest of your gear. I didn’t find this so easy with Key Trg active though, presumably because in this mode, the sequencer becomes key-sync’ed.

Sounds Like...

Of the factory patches, 80 are already-populated, and with a set of slick, squelchy, wobbly, dirty sounds you might not wish to overwrite. The collection includes a set of excellent beats and grooves, superior basses and a wider range of contemporary monosynth sounds than anything this small should be capable of. Within an afternoon I’d started to wish for the full 128 patch memories that the MIDI spec allows, and in less than a week I was yearning for multiple banks.

Maybe I’m an atypical user spending too long making endless variations of sequencer patterns, but if this were an app I’d be seriously ticked off to only have space for 100 patches/patterns before having to dump them off. I’m not sure why, in 2016, expectations should be so much lower where dedicated music hardware is concerned — I could happily fill 1000 memories!

Conclusion

On the day the Monologue was announced, there were the usual online wails that Korg should have made a Polysix or ARP 2600 instead. Admittedly, another small monosynth is not the most radical idea and another mini keyboard is unlikely to win converts either. But if you take the time to listen to the Monologue and play with its rather nifty sequencer, it’s really very likeable. If you think of it as a potential acid classic in the same vein as a TB303 or SH101, it starts to make a lot of sense. The dual oscillators have far more scope than either of those Rolands, the bass end is lovely, the filter is great and with drive factored in too, you’ve got a seriously capable synth — one that runs on batteries!

It is always disappointing to encounter a ‘reset to zero’ envelope, exposed here whenever a slow attack is used. Software envelopes are perfectly capable of simulating their hardware counterparts and with ‘monophonic analogue synthesizer’ clearly stated on the panel, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Monologue to behave like one. Fingers crossed Korg will revisit this.

While the Monologue is appealing for its sound engine alone, for me the deal-clincher is the sequencer. The step buttons, parameter locks and transposition give it the edge over the Minilogue, itself no slouch. The sequencer is such a treat, you might find those 100 memories don’t stretch very far. Apart from that and a grumble that a power adaptor isn’t included, the Minilogue is hard to fault. It’s fab, affordable and a potential companion for Volcas, Electribes and a host of other portable fun machines.

Alternatives

The main rival is surely the Novation Bass Station 2, which is a little more expensive but boasts a full-sized, aftertouch-enabled keyboard, versatile filters, two complete ADSRs, a pair of LFOs and a sub oscillator. However it’s quite a bit larger, its sequencer is less sophisticated and it has a mere four patterns. Other alternatives that spring to mind come from Arturia in the form of two single-oscillator machines, but with subs and cool waveshaping. The choice involves tiny keys and a CV patchbay from the Microbrute or the slightly larger, control-rich Minibrute, but neither feature patch memories.

Micro-Tuning

On a patch-by-patch basis, you can choose the regular well-tempered scale or any of 20 alternatives, from Kirnburger, Werckmeister and Slendro to Pelog, Aeolian and even ‘reverse’. I confess to understanding only a few of those on sight, but you won’t be surprised to learn that reverse turns the entire keyboard upside down and across the full range of transposition. A certain Richard D James was involved in the micro-tuning implementation and has contributed some of his own tunings, specifically AFX001-006. These throw notes around not only within the scale but with variations across different octave ranges.

If this kind of thing gets your juices flowing, there are eight user scales to experiment with. Each note in the scale can be retuned within a range of -50 to +49 cents or even remapped on a note by note basis. Even if you have no immediate urge to try alternate tuning, it’s brilliant fun to switch notes around — eg. you could trigger a G4 each time C4 is played but have a C5 generate an Ab4.

MIDI Control

Although there are no CV/Gate connections, the Monologue is blessed with both five-pin and USB MIDI ports. When checking the data in MIDI-OX, I realised that the higher internal resolution isn’t replicated at the output — the controls transmit regular 7-bit MIDI CCs.

The knobs offer the same ‘jump’, ‘catch’ and ‘scale’ modes seen in the Electribes and this is much appreciated for avoiding awkward transitions between values stored in a patch and the actual knob positions. And as with the Minilogue, the slider can be programmed for all manner of roles on a per-patch basis, examples being LFO intensity and speed, portamento amount, the gate time of the sequencer and much more.

Published January 2017