Korg give their creative real-time effects processor a face-lift, adding new algorithms, extra sampling power, and tempo-matching facilities.
When the original Korg Kaoss Pad was launched, it offered a radical new take on multi-effects. Although only 60 preset effects patches were provided, the square touch-sensitive controller pad allowed effects parameters to be controlled creatively in real time. Furthermore, a single sample memory was provided, which could be recorded and mutilated in a variety of ways using a set of dedicated patches.
Since our review back in SOS August 1999, Korg have been collecting feedback from their users and have now introduced an improved version, the KP2, which leaves the original appearing rather lacklustre by comparison!
The moment you pull the new Kaoss Pad from the box you can tell that there has been a complete redesign — the lightweight plastic has given way to a much more solid aluminium casing. The Mic input has scampered round to the right-hand front edge, making it as reachable as the headphone socket, and both level controls have been enlarged and contoured so that even fingers as blunt as mine can adjust them easily. There's also a new MIDI In joining the MIDI Out on the rear panel, allowing operation of effects parameters under sequencer control.
Once you've powered up the unit from the wall-wart supply (no change there, sadly), the pad glows a subdued blue colour which brightens when you touch the pad, as well as changing colour according to where your finger lies on its surface. You get a range of colours from purple through to orange, and this dramatically improves the aesthetic appeal of the unit.
The controls of the original Kaoss Pad all appear on the new unit, and the buttons are now brightly backlit so it's easy to tell at a distance what's going on. However, things have been slightly rearranged to make room for a variety of additional features. For example, the memory buttons are smaller, allowing Korg to squeeze a couple extra in, and the Hold and Record buttons have shifted to the more accessible front edge. There's a new FX Depth control (which frees up the pad to control different parameters in some delay and reverb patches, for example), two new dedicated Sample trigger buttons, a Tap/BPM button, and a sprung lever labelled Pad Motion/Mute.
The sampling facilities have been expanded to provide two six-second sample storage memories which can now be recorded and triggered from within any effects patch, although only one at a time. Samples are recorded through the effects, if they are currently activated by the pad or Hold switch, and also play back through them — you can of course switch to a different patch for playback. Holding down one of the Sample buttons and pressing Hold loops the sample until you press either Sample button again.
Although you can now store two samples, the dedicated sample-mangling patches only allow one of the Samples to be manipulated by the pad at any time. In these patches, the sample buttons don't trigger the stored sample, but simply select the sample to be tortured. A couple of loop-length manipulation patches are available, as before, but there is still no sample editing available for tight looping within the normal effects patches.
The upper position of the sprung lever, labelled Pad Motion, also provides a type of 'sampling' function, but it records your actions on the pad, allowing you the chance to relive any particularly virtuoso hand motion after the fact. You have to hold the lever in position while recording, and thereafter pushing the lever to the Pad Motion position will activate the required modulation. If the Hold button is down during Pad Motion playback, releasing the lever will freeze the effect settings at wherever they've reached. The lower lever position simply mutes the input audio stream, allowing any reverb or delay tail to continue — because the lever is sprung, it's easy to create rhythmic gating effects.
Given that modulation and delay effects are often most effective when synchronised to the tempo of your track, Korg have wisely opted to take bpm-matching facilities much more seriously on the new machine. Pressing the Tap/BPM button accesses the unit's bpm value (for editing via the Program knob) and repeated pressing matches this value to the frequency of the button presses. If this all seems too much like hard work, you can set the KP2 to detect the tempo automatically either from MIDI Clock pulses arriving at the MIDI In port or from the audio itself.
The latter mode, selected by pressing and holding the Tap/BPM button for a couple of seconds, displays the detected bpm of incoming audio, but without changing the active bpm value — the effects keep going at the same rate as before until you press the Tap/BPM button again. Given that the bpm-detection algorithm is understandably a little unreliable in the absence of a predictable four-square beat, it is quite useful to be able to decide which of the temporarily detected tempos you want to use. However, it does mean that the KP2's active bpm won't automatically track tempo changes in the music. I found that I hardly used the automatic bpm detection, as just hitting the Tap/BPM button in tempo was more reliable, and also much quicker than waiting for the automatic mode to engage and detect reliably. Still, it's a useful little feature to have, and at its best it's perhaps a tad more accurate than the manual method.
Once the tempo is set, a range of new bpm-related effects can be used, including various delay patches and modulation treatments such as phasing, flanging, and filtering. A selection of new vocoder effects also join the preset list, although external audio can only access the modulation path for these — the carrier is a synth sound which is controlled from the X-Y pad. That said, the vocoding is well set up and immediately usable, whether you're feeding the algorithm with a vocal signal from the microphone input or with a complete stereo mix. The rest of the added algorithms comprise two sections of controllable sound sources, for which no audio input is required. The former section offers rhythmic drum and bass patterns, which sync to the current tempo. Although these all sound alright in a 'house massive' kind of way, I felt that they lacked the long-term appeal of the effects algorithms — I might use each of these rhythm patches once, but probably no more that that.
The other section of sound sources comprises a range of synths which are much more fun. Almost all of these provide control over pitch and one other parameter from the X-Y pad, and you can, of course, also modulate the overall volume from the FX Depth knob as well. There's oodles of Theremin-style wierdness to be had from these patches, although most provide much more complex sounds than you'd expect of a Theremin. My only complaint with these (and with the vocoder's carrier signal, come to that) is that, in order for the pitch resolution to be fine enough, you can only control a limited pitch range from the pad. However, given the fixed size of the pad, there's precious little that can be done about this problem, unless Korg consider launching a bigger brother for the KP2 sometime in the future...
With its improved real-time controls, tempo options and psychedelic lighting, I have little doubt that the KP2 will shift serious units amongst live performers and DJs. But how does it fare in the studio? To my mind, the main reason to justify buying the KP2 if you passed on the original is the increased MIDI functionality, allowing you to record and edit pad performances, and sync effects to the tempo of your sequenced tracks. The lack of a Local Off facility will bug some users, as this makes it less easy to use the pad and the effects engine separately. There is also no MIDI backup/restore function for the internal samples, which is a bit of a shame given that the internal memory is only 12 seconds of stereo audio at most. The added effects algorithms and synths are an extra sweetener, but probably wouldn't be enough on their own to make you rush, cash in hand, to your local Korg stockist.
However, if you disregarded this unit in its first incarnation, let me ask you to reconsider that decision, because I've never had as much fun with any effects processor as I've had with the KP2. As a controller, the X-Y pad is much more robust and expressive than the three-dimensional beams or trackballs of the competition. I've always felt that one of the main strengths of ribbon controllers is that you can execute controller 'trills', alternating between non-adjacent controller values, where a mod wheel can only produce controller 'vibrato', sweeping though all the intermediate values. This advantage of ribbon control is available in two dimensions with the KP2, and I feel that this gives it a clear edge over all other competing units, such as the Roland D-Beam and Alesis Air FX — you can produce parameter changes with the KP2 which are almost impossible to match on any other real-time controller. On the downside, of course, the KP2's pad only works in two dimensions compared to the three dimensions of, say, the controller field of the Air FX, although the FX Depth control could perhaps be said to provide that third dimension.
Another aspect of the Kaoss Pad which recommends it to me over its competition is the relationship between the size of your movements and the amount of parameter change. Most musicians play a 'real' musical instrument of some sort, and most of these use very small physical actions to make large changes in the sound. The KP2 mimics this kind of control law, which immediately inspires you to apply instrumental techniques to the pad. For example, as a violinist myself, I can use familiar vibrato movements to great effect on the KP2. Keyboard-playing actions also create a variety of stepped effects, depending on the orientation of your hand and the pad axes.
Given that the pad can be touched in more than one place, I was pleased to find that it always seemed to respond exactly as I wanted it to. For instance, with a finger already in place, touching the pad with a second finger wrested parameter control from the first, and removing the second finger returned control to the first. Another bonus for me was that I found that the pad also responded to a plastic pointer (chosen so as not to mark the pad surface), allowing extremely precise control in the studio. And, of course, the icing on the cake is that you can control any MIDI sound source from the pad as well, so it needn't just be your effects treatments which benefit.
If you like using effects so that you can actually hear them (rather than merely sensing them) then it's hard to beat the KP2. Run anything through it and potential sampling fodder simply leaps out of the thing the moment you waggle a finger in its direction. Once you get the hang of how it works (and it's hardly rocket science), the opportunities to abuse unsuspecting audio are vast; rub or tap the pad with any number of fingers, while switching between patches; rapidly retrigger pad movements, mute the input signal intermittently, and reset the bpm value and effects level on the fly; sample through one effect, and then loop the results alongside the input audio through a different effect; or jam along with the track using one of the sample scratching modes or a synth patch.
To put it simply, I can't recommend the KP2 highly enough, unless you're the kind of person who leaves their effects units permanently set to Undetectable Ambience. And as an excuse to 'throw shapes' in the studio like a raving maniac, it certainly beats the hell out of air guitar!