Korg's tactile effects processor benefits from a major overhaul - so is the third generation the Kaoss Pad you always wanted?
It's over six years since Korg's Kaoss pad — a quietly revolutionary device that liberated untapped performance potential from familiar effects — first appeared. The original model lacked a MIDI input and was rather noisy and easy to overload, hence the demand for a successor. The Kaoss Pad 2 was a welcome step forward in audio quality and also added enhanced synchronisation and MIDI control. If you are wondering what could possibly be still missing from the Kaoss or worthy of refinement, let me present the third incarnation of this hit series — the Kaoss Pad 3.
The KP3 is a little larger than its immediate predecessor and much of the KP2's colour has been drained away, leaving behind a moody, dark-grey exterior lit by the austere red glow of display and buttons. The central touchpad, beneath which is an 8x8 matrix of red LEDs, is at once practical and visually stunning. Only the backlit rubber buttons feel a little cheap, lacking the positive 'hit me' action that you'd ideally want for restarting loops or tapping in tempo.
Kaoss Pads are both tactile and intuitive; consequently the slender manual avoids wordy descriptions of the included effects algorithms, offering only the information needed to get you up and running. Having connected the KP3 to your mixer, CD player or synth and set the input source and connection type appropriately (the latter either 'direct' or via your mixer's send/return buss), you're ready to go.
At once, the smooth, responsive surface of the touchpad draws you in, its animated LED matrix following each finger movement as you dynamically transform the current effects patch. When the Hold button is activated, effects continue even when you take your finger away. In such cases, a single LED remains lit on the pad as a useful visual reminder of where you left off.
Power is supplied via the usual wall-wart and connectivity is little different from the KP2 except that the dedicated turntable jacks are no more. The KP3 manages just fine with rear-mounted stereo inputs and outputs — both on RCA phono jacks. On the front panel are quarter-inch jack sockets for headphones and microphone, each with their own level controls, and for direct connectivity with your PC or Mac, a USB port carries a copy of the data sent and received via the MIDI ports. Also included in the package is a CD containing USB drivers and an editor program.
Korg provide a CD containing an editor and USB drivers for your Mac or PC. The editor allows importing and transfer of samples, their conversion to 48kHz (Korg's preference over the more standard 44.1kHz), editing of the effects, defining the MIDI notes for sample triggering and assigning of MIDI Continuous Controller numbers. You can even specify a message to scroll across the pad matrix, up to a maximum of 13 characters.
If you connect via USB, you can drag and drop data to and from the onboard SD card as if it were a standard removable hard disk.
The KP3's single greatest advance is its sampling implementation — so that's a good place to start. Where the KP2 had the capacity to hold two six-second samples, the KP3 now deals with samples in musical measures instead. Sampling is in 16 bit 48kHz stereo and up to four simultaneous loops or one-shot samples can be held in memory at once.
Korg have made the process as uncomplicated as possible. You hit the Sampling button, at which point the four sample pads flash red and the display shows the number of beats available to record. The beats value may be set to 1, 2, 4, 8 or 16 — but no other intervals are offered. Plus, if you work with extremes of tempo, not all intervals can be selected. The lowest tempo supporting 16 beats is 74bpm — suggesting that the maximum sample time is about 13.2 seconds for each pad. Mostly you never even think about this stuff; all the calculations of loop length and sample time take place under the covers, which is fine by me!
Having set your sample length, recording begins as soon as you hit one of the four pads. Incidentally, there's no equivalent of the earlier Kaoss Pads' 'Auto Rec' function which ensured that sampling started on receipt of an audio signal. Having started recording, your loop will fill the maximum number of measures, with progress represented by the successive lighting of each of the eight Program Memory buttons. Once complete, the pad turns orange and looped playback begins immediately. Simply hitting the pad again stops looping and the pad glows green to indicate a loop is present.
Each sample pad is assigned a MIDI note. However, the pads do not respond to external note triggering during sampling. This is a pity, since it prevents you from initiating the process precisely, using a sequencer. To obtain a perfect loop, there's nothing for it but to master hitting the rubber pads in time. If you do find your loop isn't bang-on, hit the Shift key combined with the Tap / Range key to realign its start point.
To create a one-shot sample instead of a loop, you must end the recording prematurely by pressing the pad before the loop is complete. Having done this, the pad turns red and the sample will be played (in full) each time you trigger it. Korg have covered all the bases pretty well, although I did miss a fast means of wiping sample memory. However, it's not exactly laborious to sample again over the top, should you make a mistake.
At any time, you can fade your samples in or out using the dedicated Level slider. Should you require individual level control of each sample, press the Shift key and the relevant sample pad to engage Loop Edit mode. Oddly, the moment you do this, only the sample you have just selected remains audible; the others are silenced until they're selected for editing or you exit from this mode. The level of each sample is set using a bar-graph that materialises on the matrix above each pad. Hit the pad and push your finger along the matrix to set its level — very Star Trek. You'll also notice that the main display changes to indicate 'Shot' if the sample is a one-shot or '0.0' if a loop. This latter figure represents the loop start point and is adjustable in steps of 1/32 of a beat, with a maximum range of plus or minus a whole beat.
Loop Edit has one last trick — and it's a corker! Initially, each loop is divided into eight equal slices, represented by illuminated Program Memory buttons. Individual slices may be switched on or off via these buttons, as seen previously on Korg's sampling Electribes. But the results here are very different. With the Electribes, deactivating a slice will silence the loop for the duration of that step. The KP3 simply skips any steps that you turn off, as if snipped neatly out. Therefore, you can dynamically and non-destructively re-order your loop during playback. This technique is also interesting when isolating sections of very short loops as it generates a series of buzzing, 'stuck CD'-type noises. Instant granular synthesis, anyone?
And this still isn't all. The Sampling button teams up with the Shift key (how did the other KPs cope without it!) to reveal the exciting world of resampling. When resampling, the KP3 captures its entire audio output, complete with any loops, incoming audio and effects. It's very much like boucing down multitrack audio and, in theory, could be done ad infinitum — leaping from pad to pad, warping your audio with different effect treatments each time. If you are the sort who agonises over the 'cool results to hard effort' ratio, brace yourself for a flush of embarrassment.
In the past, there was no way to back up your KP samples — they were as ephemeral as a politician's promise. The KP3 breaks this limitation, offering backup courtesy of an onboard SD (Secure Digital) card slot.
In common with the earliest sampling Electribe (the ES1), samples don't have names, just two-digit numbers, and a card can hold up to 100 of these (00-99). Similarly, up to 100 WAV or AIFF files can be stored too (with the same naming restrictions) and can be imported, with the limitation that if a sample is too long it will be truncated. And, for general storage purposes, up to 10 'All Data' dumps can be held on each card; the first of these is loaded automatically on power-up. Since loading in a new set takes only a few moments, it might even be something you would do live. Card capacities of between 16MB and 2GB are supported.
There are now 128 programs to choose from, selected via the chunky Program knob. Eight memory locations are provided to store your favourites, along with any Pad Motion recording, pad Hold status and position, plus values for FX Depth and FX Release. When you select a program, the small four-character display offers an abbreviated name for it while a longer version of the name scrolls across the touchpad for good measure. Faster effects selection is achieved by holding down the Shift key then turning the Program knob, which hurtles through the effects in related groups.
When you're sending audio directly through the KP3, the FX Depth knob determines the amount of effect. This can be a useful performance tool, ideal for plunging a track into a sea of reverb or an acid bath of distortion!
With so much exploring and fiddling to get to grips with, the effects themselves can often seem secondary. The new algorithms are the classiest yet to grace a Kaoss Pad, and with 24-bit convertors, fidelity is top-notch too. There is a greater awareness of tempo than before and some excellent loop and sample manipulation tools are included. The complete list is long: it contains numerous delays, several 'grain shifters', lots of slicers, gates and LFO-based effects plus combinations such as filter with reverb, flanger with delay and so on. There are a couple of nifty equalisers where the pad matrix is used to set the EQ levels, while four 'crossfade' effects offer blending of your samples in combination with filtering or sample-length adjustment. Then there are vocoder algorithms offering the usual means of transforming a voice or other audio input. Plug a microphone into the front-panel jack, set the level, then spout all the profound stuff that vocoders always inspire in us. Finally, perhaps as a throwback from previous Kaoss pads, there are a number of drum patterns and synth noises on board. These aren't my cup of tea, although with resampling and a little ingenuity, there's no reason they can't be transformed into something interesting.
FX Release is a new parameter added to address a particular shortcoming of earlier models: previously, when you took your finger off the pad, the effect stopped abruptly. Korg have had a stab at fixing this with FX Release. However, it isn't exactly as you might suppose. FX Release is a preset, tempo-based delay that gradually dies away when you break contact with the pad. The decay time is programmed into each effect algorithm but can be adjusted using the ubiquitous Shift key and the Sample Level slider. I initially found it disconcerting when using, say, a subtle reverb, to remove my finger and hear a decidedly unsubtle digital delay kick in. It seems to me that what you'd really want would be a gradual fade-out of the effect, as if turning down FX Depth. Ultimately, the results are better with some effects than others and perhaps most effective when used in the context of an entire mix, DJ-style. If your effect is a delay in the first place, the preset delay is overriden by the current algorithm, sensibly enough.
A simpler, yet more welcome enhancement involves the Pad Motion function. This means of recording short finger movements was accessed on the KP2 via a sprung lever. So after capturing your performance, you still had to maintain hold on the lever, to engage the motion. This rather defeats the dream of hands-free tweaking — in fact I often resort to blobs of Blu-Tak to keep mine running. Happily, the KP3 needs no such assistance: to loop your recorded Pad Motion, activate the button and leave it that way until you want it to stop. Even though Pad Motion is fun, there were times when I wanted to record for longer. Fortunately, this is where the KP3's MIDI implementation comes to the rescue.
Becoming increasingly fascinated with Pad Motion and the touchpad's LED animation (I don't get out much), I realised that external MIDI generation could offer even more complex patterns. Thus, I programmed my Sequentix P3 sequencer to generate the appropriate MIDI continuous controllers, then sat back to watch. At first, I generated patterns that ran across the pad sequentially, then diagonally from corner to corner and finally, randomly. All this was done purely for its visual impact, but I found it was a great way to audition the different effects algorithms; it certainly threw up some wild and amazing sounds!
The KP3 serves as an effective MIDI controller in its own right, capable of transmitting MIDI data from the touchpad, from the level slider, the FX Depth knob and some, but not all, of the buttons. The touchpad's on/off and hold status may be controlled remotely via MIDI but, unlike the Kaoss Pad 2, the Mute button may not, nor may the individual sample levels.
At any time, you can push the Program knob to view or adjust the tempo. Naturally, you can synchronise to external MIDI clock and even transmit clock to other devices, although sample loops run regardless of any MIDI stop commands received.
If a program is 'tempo aware', a helpful bpm indicator flashes as a reminder. You can also synchronise using Tap Tempo or the Auto bpm functionality. The latter analyses and attempts to set the tempo according to that of incoming audio. I found Tap Tempo to be pretty reliable but Auto BPM slightly less so, although it coped fairly well when presented with a regular, uncluttered beat. If Auto bpm falters, you can come to its aid with the Tap Tempo button. And to tell the KP3 which beat denotes the beginning of a measure, press Shift then the Tap button at the right moment.
Overall, the dance-music bias makes perfect sense given the likely use of the Kaoss Pad by DJs, but there are enough synchronisation options to keep everyone else happy too.
The Kaoss Pad 3 exudes an air of professionalism and seriousness that should in no way mislead you over the amount of fun it can provide. In the KP3, Korg have delivered sampling (and resampling) that is free of fuss, yet with enough functionality to serve up addictive audio manipulation again and again. The KP3 even strays into the world of the interactive looper, all of which puts it in a different league than its siblings. You can save and restore samples now, and onboard USB connectivity, paired with the bundled editor, ensures that managing samples couldn't be easier.
Clearly, user experience has shaped the KP3's functionality and if some of the effects feel a tad gimmicky, there are always plenty of others to try. If you've never yet experienced the joys of Kaoss, I recommend starting with this one. Owners of previous models may be tempted too — I've got both and I'm already making space! That said, my wishlist isn't wholly fulfilled. I'd like a means of controlling the mute function and the levels of each sample via MIDI and I found the 'FX Release' parameter lacking in refinement, although it's a worthy step forward from the abrupt cut-off of previous Kaoss Pads.
I confidently predict that the KP3 will go down a storm with DJs — and anyone else searching for an intuitive way to manipulate live audio. The KP3 can serve as a loop construction kit, effects processor, MIDI controller and even a performance instrument in its own right. Highly recommended.