We get hands-on with Korg's touchy‑feely new synth.
From humble beginnings over a decade ago, Korg's Kaoss pads have gone from strength to strength, thanks in no small part to their welcoming, tactile nature. The latest model, the Kaossilator Pro, concentrates on a subset of the Kaoss Pad 3's features, with sound generation taking precedence over processing. Accordingly, its 200 patches are heavily biased towards synths, basses, sound effects and percussion. With a four-track loop recorder, a neat little arpeggiator, and a vocoder to boot, this grown-up Kaossilator delivers far more than just finger‑generated whooshes.
Blessed with the same durable metal construction and positive controls of the Kaoss Pad 3, the Kaossilator Pro abandons that model's moody red LEDs in favour of gorgeous emerald green. When not being touched, the 8x8 pad displays a choice of animated patterns or a user‑defined text message. Whenever a finger makes contact, LEDs follow it like curious goldfish.
The four-character display is occasionally cryptic, but is often supplemented by text scrolling across the pad — naming patches, for example. Only the feel of the rubbery buttons caused me a moment's pause. They have a slightly disquieting stickiness that, I expect, protects against live slippage. However, had I been at a trade show getting my first hands-on experience, there would have been suspicious glances towards the previous user.
There's nothing too radical on the rear panel, just MIDI In and Out and a USB port, plus a switch that controls arpeggiator behaviour. In common with other Kaoss Pads, the Kaossilator Pro's stereo audio inputs and outputs are phono connections. Power arrives via one of Korg's 9V adaptors but, unlike the earlier Kaossilator, there's no battery option. Spin it around and you'll see the quarter‑inch microphone input located at the front right‑hand corner, along with a gain control. At the opposite corner sits the headphone socket, adjacent to its dedicated volume knob.
Increasing its versatility slightly, the Kaossilator Pro can serve as a controller for external MIDI gear and responds to external control of most — but not all — of its functions. Be aware that there is no transmission of MIDI notes, though; the pad generates only continuous controller information, which felt, to me, like an opportunity missed.
Browsing through the 200 preset programs, you quickly get a feel for the Kaossilator Pro's forté. The majority are sound generators — generally dancey and synthy — with only the last 15 slots given over to effects processing. For simplicity, the horizontal (X) axis always controls pitch and the vertical (Y) axis is used for parameters such as filter cutoff, modulation or effects depth. This 2D approach inspires riffs you'd be unlikely to play with a more conventional keyboard and mod-wheel arrangement.
Lead and bass patches take pride of place, with some convincingly ripping sync solo patches and wet, resonant basses as highlights. Instruments such as the Theremin translate rather well to single‑finger performance and even those that shouldn't work at all — like electric piano and guitar — become strangely playable, despite the Kaossilator Pro's limitation of being monophonic.
With both modelling and PCM sound sources, the percussion voices are more instantly impressive than those of the older Kaossilator. Triggering percussion hits from the X/Y pad takes a little practice, but if your dexterity is lacking, over 20 of the program slots are filled with drum patterns. This isn't a huge amount, but even a big selection of patterns — if preset — can become boring. To help stretch them further, pattern variations plus effects or filter parameters are mapped across the green matrix, ready to enhance your beats.
Pad performance is easy enough to master, because there's hardly anything to it. The playing surface is less than 10cm wide and capable of just eight different notes, so you need to make them all count. To this end, 31 preset scales are provided, a generous collection that includes Ionian (major), Aeolian, Locrian, Japanese and several raga scales but, alas, none are user‑definable. There is no way to customise any of the programs either; the only tweak you can make is to override the note range Korg have built into each one. The available ranges are between one and four octaves, or 'Full' — a maximum value that varies depending on the program chosen. 'Full' is ideal for moments of wild excess, but for repeatable melodic intervals I preferred a range of one or two octaves. Having set the scale and range, all that remains is to decide the root note of your song and you're ready to slide or bounce some fingers!
In the heat of performance, the program encoder isn't the most direct way to locate a squelchy bass or screaming kitten effect, so eight buttons offer fast access to your favourite programs. These eight slots also store the range, scale and root note. It's a shame there is no way to associate a few alternate scales and roots with each program, but given the obvious orientation towards dance music, that might be overkill.
As well as being a miniature synthesizer, the Kaossilator Pro has 10 vocoder patches and five effects algorithms. The vocoders actually surpass those of the Kaoss Pad 3, being more varied and better chosen. Some incorporate decimators, delays, reverb or Korg's glitchy grain shifter, and all are under intuitive pad control. Take your finger off the pad and the vocoder is instantly deactivated, leaving you free to sing or speak. The final five programs contain audio processors such as pitch shifter, delay and filter. While hardly a massive selection, they're well worth having.
If you're not confident of achieving accurate note timing and pitch, you can delegate timing duties to the built‑in arpeggiator. This chugs along at the current tempo, leaving you free to find the right notes. The arpeggiator's ancestry can be traced back to Korg's two king Electribes, the EMX1 and ESX1, and is ideal for performing anything from sequenced bass lines and super‑fast riffs to mad robotic-voice solos if the vocoder is brought into play.
The small switch at the rear determines whether the arpeggiator's slider is used to lengthen the steps of each note or to control arpeggio speed. In the case of speed, the divisions always fall within useful musical boundaries (i.e sensible multiples of the current tempo). If you use the slider to change speed as you play, complex phrases sync'ed to current tempo are effortless. As with the KP3, tempo is set either by the Tap Tempo button, by pushing and then turning the Program encoder, or via incoming MIDI clock. Sadly, the KP3's 'Auto BPM detection' from incoming audio wasn't included.
The Kaossilator Pro's loop recorder is a little different from the KP3 implementation. For a start, there's no way to resample loops and bounce them down to a single pad. On the positive side, it's harder to get loops running out of sync. The Kaossilator Pro's four loops stay magically locked together — unless you deliberately confuse them by changing tempo in the middle of a recording. Furthermore, recordings are always in 'loop overdub' mode, which took some getting used to for me, as a KP3 user. To grab loops of an exact length, you must exit record mode manually at the right time or the recording process continues overdubbing. Depending on the audio source, this overlap can quickly become mushy.
With the tempo set above 108bpm, there is enough memory to record a maximum of four measures (16 beats) in each loop. The pads have a simple colour code. When green, a pad has data but is not playing. Orange means the pad is looping, and red means it is looping and recording. With four loops to choose from, you'll soon be producing miniature performances, blending drum patterns, incoming audio and sounds you play or arpeggiate. Unlike some overdubbing loopers, there's no progressive fading of the signal post‑recording; instead, everything piles on top of what is already there.
One feature you look for pretty quickly is some kind of undo. Here you'll have to content yourself with 'Erase Loop', a button that wipes portions of recorded audio. So, assuming your mistakes don't directly overlap the good stuff, all you need to do is hit the button on time. This technique may also be used creatively to bite holes in loops.
There's no master level control for the loop bank. Instead, each loop's volume is mixed individually on the pad. The mixer is revealed by the Shift key and any of the pad buttons. Then, a stroke along the Y-axis acts like a virtual slider generating volume changes that are far smoother than the pads' resolution might suggest. When in mixer mode, you can adjust each loop non‑destructively — from four measures down to a 'stuck-CD'‑sounding 64th note. Shortening the loop length in this way while simultaneously riding the level fader offers novel performance potential. And after you glitch the hell out of it, return the loop back to its original length, confident there will be no loss of sync.
Having owned all three of the standard Kaoss pads, you might say I'm a fan. Even so, I was never attracted to the original Kaossilator. By including a wider selection of programs and offering control over the range and scale of notes generated, Korg have certainly made the 'Pro' a more serious proposition. I still wonder if there's enough variety for it to be an enduring hit, but I was certainly more impressed than I expected to be.
The audio looper and vocoder are no mere gimmicks, either. Using the loop recorder, you can quickly record pad performances, build chords note by note, then add percussion or crazily arpeggiated sound effects. If you keep a microphone close by at all times, throwing in a spot of vocoding or layered vocals becomes almost second nature.
To sum up, the Kaossilator Pro is a sturdy, fun and slightly odd little package. It isn't exactly cheap, but it does sneak past the boundaries of conventional musicianship, inviting anyone to have a go, regardless of experience. If you have an interest in unusual controllers, Theremins, D‑Beams and the like, you may find yourself drawn to its verdant charms. Ditto if you want to make synthesizer noises right away and have no interest in playing a keyboard. The Kaossilator Pro won't change the world, or even the price of fish, but in the right context it might be just the thing to pep up a DJ set or other live performance.
Outside Korg's own Kaoss range, there are very few attempts to bundle this particular set of features together into any kind of tactile, yet compact controller/instrument/looper/processor.
The contents of the Kaossilator's Loop Bank are lost on power off, so it's a good idea to buy an SD card and pop it in the slot at the front. (Incidentally, these are the older‑style SD cards of up to 2GB capacity.) The file system can address up to 100 loops per card, shown as simply 00‑99. In addition you can store up to 10 complete images of the entire Kaossilator and can automatically load one of these on start-up.
Committed to keeping our mice fully exercised, Korg provide free editing software for Windows (XP SP3, Vista or Windows 7) and Mac (OS 10.4 or later). After a quick web-site visit to gather the editor and USB driver, you're away. The software renders the job of managing Kaossilator backups or configuring MIDI controllers an absolute whizz. For those who can't immediately lay their hands on an SD card, it will also happily receive loop data over USB to store on your computer.
The KP Editor exceeds the capabilities of the Kaossilator hardware, as it can import a wider variety of data, including MP3 and 24‑bit audio files. Before transmitting to the chosen Loop Bank, you may also set the loop length, level, and even original tempo.
- Decent selection of contemporary sounds.
- Four-track audio looper.
- Good and usable vocoder.
- Suitable for any level of experience.
- Perhaps a little expensive for what is essentially a niche product.
- The sound programs and drum patterns are all preset.
- External power supply and no battery option.
Providing you're not prejudiced against making music with one finger, the Kaossilator Pro offers a healthy range of synth noises, basses, drums and sound effects for instant gratification. The vocoder is easy to use and sounds fine, while the loop recorder is a handy tool for capturing your efforts or simply jamming along to.
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