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Korg Electribe Sampler

Music Production Station
By Paul Nagle

Korg Electribe Sampler

The Electribe Sampler may well be Korg’s best Electribe yet...

You know how it is: wait a decade for a new Electribe then a brace pop up in quick succession. Hot on the trail of Korg’s Electribe 2 is the much–anticipated Electribe Sampler. It combines analogue modelling, PCM playback and user sampling in yet another small and stylish metal box. Apart from the sampling angle, the two models are so alike in layout and operation that almost everything from the previous review applies. With that in mind, it would be helpful to scan through April’s Electribe 2 review for a refresher, which will leave us more space to examine the Sampler’s unique attributes, draw comparisons and list the recent improvements that make both more attractive.

In quick summary, each machine has 250 patterns of up to four bars to capture performances recorded directly from the pads or via the X0X–style sequencer. There are 16 parts with an effect for each, plus a master effect available to any or all. With no song mode or pattern chaining, you’re driven to create musical structures completely on the fly, making creative use of the 24 notes of pseudo–polyphony, a small X–Y pad, knobby control panel and Korg’s motion recording. If you wish, you can export your efforts and arrange them in your DAW or in the included Ableton Live Lite 9.

With the release of the Sampler, now might be the time that fans of the earlier machines ponder the inevitable question: how many Electribes do I need?

Back In Black

In the colourful, carefree naughties, Korg’s X–marked Electribes, the EMX1 and ESX1, (blue and red respectively) were easily differentiated by appearance and function. Such distinctions are less obvious today and where the current ‘Synth’ version is grey and prone to blending into shadows, the Electribe Sampler, which I’ll refer to as just the Sampler or ES2 from now on, is a cool, velvety black.

In keeping with the theme of brooding minimalism, all knobs and encoders are as black as the panel, but if you prefer to see where the knobs are pointing, you could fill in the indents with a bit of putty without damaging the aesthetics too much. At least the buttons aren’t black, but I stand by my previous assertion that they are too small for speedy, accurate use. Happily, the die–cast zinc body and battleship grey rubber pads feel as robust as ever and, unless it’s my imagination, the Sampler’s kaoss pad is slightly more responsive. Again, the underbelly is colourfully illuminated during playback but can be taste–adjusted with a spot of gaffer tape.

With the exception of the two audio outputs, all rear–panel connections are mini–jacks — even the headphone jack and MIDI In and Out. It’s hard to fully acknowledge a device as MIDI–compatible when you can’t plug a MIDI lead directly into it, and be careful not to misplace Korg’s adapters or you’re out of the MIDI game entirely. Even comparable accessories from Arturia won’t do. Given this compromise and the lack of MIDI Thru, it would have been a placating gesture had Korg offered soft-thru functionality.

Oscillators & Filters

Leaving aside the obvious functional difference between the grey and black Electribes, what else sets them apart? To best answer this, we should begin spinning the backlit Oscillator encoder. The first 16 oscillator types are familiar from the E2 and cover the essential analogue waveforms, ie. saw, pulse, triangle and sine. Each is present in single, unison and sync variations, plus there are four flavours of noise to finish off. As before, you’re given control of a single parameter in each oscillator model via the Edit knob so while the exotic cross–mod, VPM, ring modulation and chip oscillators of the other model are absent, I was so pleased to have the regular waveforms I hardly mourned them at all.

Past the waveform models are options that transform the mini–jack input into a potential oscillator source. You can choose either mono– or stereo–sourced operation, an improvement on the mono–only E2. If you select a stereo source (and you’re on an odd–numbered track) a second track lights up to indicate that both parts are required, accessed via a single set of controls. After that, it’s just a matter of triggering notes as usual and processing the incoming audio via the filters and effects.

The Electribe Sampler’s back panel is exactly the same as the Electribe 2’s, with everything but the audio outputs on mini–jack sockets.The Electribe Sampler’s back panel is exactly the same as the Electribe 2’s, with everything but the audio outputs on mini–jack sockets.Next around the oscillator encoder’s orbit we enter percussive territory. It’s not precisely the same drum collection this time; there are a number of new PCM samples, including at least one stereo entry per category. Of the fresh material, I was particularly taken by the TR606 hi–hats and several of the plush, produced hits, along with useful stereo cymbals, tympani and oriental percussion. Inevitably, not everything is going to be indispensable and the heys, hos and yos, plus cheesy sound effects and musical phrases, were all of debatable value. Here’s where the Sampler puts distance between itself and its sibling because any samples you don’t like can be deleted and the freed space put to better use.

I’m not trying to stir up model envy, but I’m afraid there’s more. The Sampler possesses a sample type not available to the E2: sliced loops. The selection of factory phrases and loops come pre–sliced so they can be played back at any tempo or treated to the Sampler’s shuffle or to its available grooves. Unusually, every individual slice is accessible and can be treated just like a regular sample. A single loop can therefore become a rich sonic resource.

Slices are a blessing, but they can slow down navigation slightly due to the extra (sub–)entries in the oscillator list. It ought to be possible to skip past them, except for a small shift–key–related bug that sometimes interrupts the flow. Shift, when used in conjunction with the Oscillator encoder, is a helpful means of leaping categories or avoiding the individual loop slices.

We haven’t quite reached the end of the included samples. Oscillator type 391 is an acoustic piano and while it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Steinway’, it’s fun to have, even if played paraphonically. The remaining electric pianos, organs, guitars, strings, choir, etc, are all pretty good too, and appear to constitute a more balanced ‘workstation’ collection than the previous machine. This is slightly ironic given that you aren’t forced to keep any of them.

Unlike the E2, all the PCM samples offer reverse playback. The oscillator Edit control combines the sample start point and direction in a single bi–polar knob. As this is one of the possible modulation destinations, you’re duly awarded powers the older generation couldn’t match — not without external sequencer help anyway. These include having a random source pick the sample’s start point or having an LFO flip it into reverse. There’s even a useful offshoot from the Korg Microsampler slipped in: if you set the envelope release time to its maximum, the sample plays to its end regardless of length.

I was starting to wonder if the Sampler would completely overwhelm its grey counterpart, but there’s one area in which it is clearly the poorer relation. The three filter buttons only offer the low–pass, high–pass and band–pass filters of the venerable Electribe ‘X’ series. And while these are OK, filter modelling has improved significantly in the intervening years. It seems a weird decision to include only these and not a single one of the new and better filters. You don’t even have the handy Bandpass Plus filter of the ESX1 to treat your samples, except as an insert effect.

The Electribe That Samples

Of course what really separates the two ‘tribes is sampling — and sample editing. On the E2, if you’re unable to nail your ideal decay curve or obtain a squidgy enough resonant squelch, you have no choice but to settle for an approximation. Armed with the Sampler model instead, you could fire up your favourite synth, grab the perfect note and endow your pattern–in–progress with extra class.

Looking around, it isn’t instantly obvious how sampling is achieved, but a skim through the (skimpy) manual soon reveals all. It’s a shift operation (as you’d probably have guessed) involving shift and record. You can sample in either mono or stereo, from the mini–jack input or by resampling the internally generated audio. Resampling offers, amongst its many tricks, the printing of effects onto individual samples or the capturing of a whole pattern to make a loop. User samples are written from oscillator slot 501 onwards and it’s likely you’ll run out of memory long before you reach the last slot, 999.

Sampling is a big deal, so it’s odd that, as shipped, the ES2 has a mere 99 seconds of free sample memory. If that doesn’t sound an overly generous figure to spread over those 500 slots, now might be the time to judge (and pass sentence on) the factory samples. I happily purged the voices, saxophones and loops, but many of the instrument samples and a goodly proportion of the drums were too generally useful to discard, at least at first. If you go ahead and delete all the samples (a long and unfriendly process), you’ll have approximately 273 seconds available. Which is about 4.5 minutes.

The Electribe Sampler is black rather than grey, but otherwise it looks identical to the Electribe 2. The Electribe Sampler is black rather than grey, but otherwise it looks identical to the Electribe 2. Memory is an area where you might reasonably have expected to find a wide gulf between the generations, but actually the RAM isn’t far off what the ESX1 offered more than a decade ago (approximately 24MB). It isn’t even quite as friendly to use. For example, when you write a sample on the ESX1, you’re done and can get on with your life. The Sampler is more needy. It requires an extra step before your hard work is truly preserved. After sampling, you must navigate to the ‘export all samples’ option in order to write a power–up file on your SD card (not supplied). While this is often a nuisance in the middle of a session, it’s an important habit to acquire. Put it off and you might forget later and lose those new samples.

Samples are recorded at 16–bit 48kHz and there are no options to substitute lower rates, either to gain more time or add ‘character’. The no–frills process is manual and zen–like, lacking even a level indicator. Given there’s no normalise function either, it’s worth spending time getting the levels reasonably hot. If you don’t there’s an optional 12dB sample playback boost, but that’s your lot.

Instead of sampling, you might prefer to import pre–trimmed and level–tweaked audio straight from card. The current import process is rather laborious and involves individual samples — how lovely it would have been to import a whole folder! I couldn’t even discover a way to audition each sample prior to import, nor does the manual specify the preferred formats. In practice, the latter wasn’t a problem because all the 16– and 24–bit WAVs I attempted to load were accepted without a hitch. Another reason to favour importing over sampling is that lower sampling rates are supported for imported audio. This can be a useful way of cramming in more of what you need to the limited RAM. Importing falls under the same ‘export all’ requirement as freshly recorded samples.

However you choose to stock your Sampler, each sample can be renamed, trimmed, looped and so on in the Sample Edit menu. Despite a reasonably sized LCD, there are no waveform displays or graphics of any kind. Trimming a sample is therefore a matter of adjusting numeric start and end points whilst repeatedly hitting the pads. I gave up trying to coax musical, click–free loops by guessing numbers though. Without crossfade looping or an equivalent feature, the best bet seemed to involve trimming and perfecting loops offline. Ditto when it came to sample tuning. The pitch can be adjusted but only in semitone intervals, which is too coarse for pitched samples. A fine-tune is definitely needed, and I wouldn’t complain if a master tune appeared also.

You might have assumed the micro USB connector would be a bridge between computer and Electribe, and that samples could be dragged across that way. I’m afraid this isn’t the case: USB is intended for MIDI traffic only.

Finally, as with the Electribe 2, a licence for Ableton Live Lite 9 is included in the package along with the functionality to export patterns as WAVs or Live’s own format. You can therefore work directly on hardware then apply production magic in Live or your DAW later.

Recycling Technology

Slicing found its way into the very first sampling Electribe, the ES1, and here the implementation is much the same in that only mono samples can be sliced. However, unlike the ES1 and ESX1, you aren’t restricted to a single slice track — you can have multiple slices running simultaneously. Therefore, with a spot of external editing you could work with stereo loops after all, providing you split them and allocate them to separate parts.

The slicing process calculates how many slices the sample is going to be carved into, up to a maximum of 64. You can reduce or increase the figure, which has the effect of compressing or expanding the loop relative to the pattern. You can also adjust the threshold used to recognise transients. It defaults to 10 but lower figures will create denser patterns, higher will result in more gaps.

Since Korg built this generation of Electribes on the foundation of dynamic drum pads, it invites comparisons with other pad–based instruments. It feels like an opportunity missed that the Sampler has no means of mapping the slices chromatically across the keyboard and therefore can’t equal the Akai MPC’s capability of rearranging slices in performance. As far as I can work out, the only way to accomplish this is to pick a different slice for each part which, apart from being very wasteful, limits you to just 16 slices.

I can’t move on without mentioning a surprise omission compared to the classic ESX1. The red Electribe’s ‘stretch parts’ are able to deliver either a single stereo, time–stretched sample or two mono samples. This served as an effortless way to handle stereo loops but was also a sure–fire way to produce glitched–out weirdness if you took liberties with the process. That the Electribe Sampler doesn’t include this functionality is a shame.

Effects

The only difference between the effects implementations of the E2 and ES2 is in application. They have the same choice of 38 insert effects for every part and while I won’t pretend the algorithms represent the peak of audio processing achievement, they add vital production sheen to every track. This might be anything from a dash of EQ, filtering or overdrive to splurges of delay, flange, chorus or gating. The master effect remains the only source of reverb, but as the Sampler is capable of resampling with reverb, perhaps this will encourage more adventurous use of effects such as looping, note shifting and grain shifting.

Conclusion

The Electribe and the Electribe Sampler are so similar that it’d take a gear gynaecologist to verify whether they’re internally identical. Korg are remaining tight–lipped about this — and about potential software upgrades to further cross–pollinate the machines. So as of today, your choice could boil down to inherent preferences for synthesis or sampling. Since the new model can do both, it looks to be the most instantly versatile and had it been released first, I can’t help thinking the grey one would have struggled to make an impact.

It’s brilliant that you aren’t forced to keep all the factory samples and purging the waste to make room for your own home–made choices is highly liberating. Although there’s no multi-sampling, the samples are playable over a wide range and with 16 parts to play with, you can do complete arrangements very easily. It is surprising that the sample memory isn’t many times that of the older ESX1, though. The move to volatile RAM feels like a backwards step too, as does the omission of stretch parts. And while there have been major improvements in usability since the last review, the glitches during saving continue to be a performance pooper. With several other small niggles outstanding, there’s still more to do.

Fortunately, when you begin working with the Sampler, there are so many pluses that I have no hesitation in declaring this the best Electribe to date. For me, the pads, the clean output and, above all, the chromatic playback of my own synth samples puts it at the top of the tree.

The included oscillators are handy and I didn’t really miss the complex models, but having a restricted set of filters is disappointing. I guess Korg would recommend owning both E2 and ES2 to get the best of both worlds, and the idea isn’t without merit. Sharing the resources could make those 24 notes go a lot further and, as a bonus, you could swap some of the knobs around to break up the camouflage.

Ultimately, if you’re in the market for a petite, playable, sampling workstation that’s portable and great fun, the Electribe Sampler is all of those things at an attractive price. During the review of the Electribe 2, I became hooked on making new patterns — and haven’t lost interest yet. With the extra dimension of samples, I’m even more impressed.

Alternatives

There isn’t much to compare in the ES2’s price bracket and even much more expensive machines don’t win on every count. Perhaps the main challenge comes from older machines such as Korg’s bigger, heavier and noisier ESX1, or the more expensive Elektron Machinedrum UW, or possibly the Teenage Engineering OP1.

Evolving Electribes

Navigating the ES2 is exactly like the E2 but with improvements you soon learn to appreciate. The presence of a more mature operating system prompted the question: where are the equivalent fixes for the E2? The answer came a day later when an updated OS appeared bringing both machines into line. I was so delighted I threw caution to the wind and updated my Electribe 2 just a few hours before a gig to take advantage of the fixes and improvements of v1.1, which are as follows:

  • Using the shortcuts no longer interferes with other operations.
  • Tracks transition smoothly between pattern changes. (Note releases and effects tail off naturally, making live performance sweeter).
  • X–Y pad performance improved. (I wasn’t imagining it then!)
  • You can copy part data between patterns.
  • You can export all patterns in one operation.
  • The attack noise in Poly2 mode has been tamed.
  • The audio export process now produces a series of stereo WAVs, thus preserving track panning.
  • Low–level software bugs squashed.

While some of the excess button–pressing and operational clunks have yet to be tackled, the update addresses most of the issues that dampened my enthusiasm in the other review. At least one significant bug remains: writing a pattern during playback can lead to audible glitches on both models. This represents a backwards step from the previous Electribes, so hopefully Korg will continue ironing out the remaining creases. I don’t want to pre–empt the conclusion but these machines are too good not to get completely right.

Pros

  • Probably Korg’s best Electribe yet.
  • A choice of synth oscillator models, PCM samples and user samples for each of the 16 parts.
  • Parts can be played chromatically with up to four–note paraphony.
  • An insert effect for every part, plus a master effect controlled by a small X–Y pad.
  • Can run on batteries.
  • You can export your patterns to polish them in your DAW or the included Ableton Live Lite 9.
  • Excellent value for money.

Cons

  • No more sample memory than the 11-year-old ESX1.
  • None of the latest filter models are included.
  • Some glitches, inconsistencies and omissions.
  • No fine–tuning of samples.
  • Mini–jack MIDI with no Thru or soft–thru.

Summary

A versatile, affordable groovebox you can take anywhere. It combines analogue modelling, sampling and performance–oriented pads into a near–unbeatable package. While some wishes remain unanswered, there’s nothing to stop you doing great things with it.

information

£329 including VAT.

Korg UK +44 (0)1908 304600

www.korg.com

$399.99

Korg USA +1 631 390 6800.

www.korg.com

Published September 2015