They say that good things come in small packages — but just how much synthesizer can Korg cram into the tiny Micro X?
What's small, white and full of tunes? I don't know what you're thinking of, but I'm talking about Korg's Micro X keyboard, first unveiled at the Winter NAMM show back in January 2006 and now to be found on the shelves of music retailers everywhere.
Although it has the word 'Micro' in common with other instruments in the Korg line-up, the more significant family connection is with the X50, a general purpose, entry-level synth that was launched at the same time as the Micro X. In essence, the Micro X is a version of the X50 that has gone through a very hot wash. From what I can see, the two keyboards are more or less functionally identical, with significant differences only to be found in their respective sound sets and the layout and design of some of the controls. This is an obvious consequence of the fact that, whereas the X50 is a metre long and has 61 keys, the Micro X measures two feet and has just 25.
In producing this 'Mini Me' version, Korg's marketing department clearly have their eye on the computer musician looking for a compact controller keyboard and high-quality MIDI sound source to fit into their equally compact home studio. I guess that's why they've also bowed to the prevailing fashion in hi-tech gadgetry and produced the Micro X in both a white and a black version. However, the Micro X should not be seen as a mere plaything that's there to make a style statement. As a synth that can be easily carried on board a plane as hand luggage (security checks allowing), it should also appeal to the peripatetic musician who likes to travel light. And just to underline the instrument's eminent portability, the Micro X comes packaged not in the usual boring cardboard origami, but in a very chunky and very orange moulded-plastic case.
If you still have any suspicions that the Micro X is more big boy's toy than genuine musical tool, a glance at the spec sheet (and indeed at the price label) shows that this is a synth that does, in fact, need to be taken seriously. For starters, it is powered by Korg's 'HI' (Hyper Integrated) sample and synthesis system, the same technology that fuels the company's up-market Triton range. The Micro X therefore represents the cheapest way of acquiring that legendary 'Korg sound'. And what a lot of sounds it offers: 640 single patches, 384 combinations and 40 drum kits, plus a full GM sound set thrown in for good measure. It also boasts 89 different effects algorithms, with the ability to use up to four at once — one as an insert effect, two as master effects, and a master three-band EQ.
For seconders, like any other proper grown-up synth, there's virtually no area of the Micro X that's not programmable. Equipped with a generously-sized, high-quality backlit display and buttons and knobs galore, it's clearly an instrument that is intended to be programmed. On top of this, it has features that you just don't find on Toytown synths — like two individual outputs alongside the usual stereo pair, not one but two separately programmable polyphonic arpeggiators and even esoteric functions like the ability to program your own microtuned scales.
While no-one would claim it's built like a tank, at 2.5kg the Micro X certainly gives the impression of being robust enough for its intended purpose. Some parts, like the knobs and end-cheeks, are a bit lightweight and plasticky, but others, like the joystick-style combined modulation and pitch-bend control, feel reassuringly solid. The keyboard itself has a light, springy action that I really like. While it's velocity sensitive, it doesn't offer aftertouch, which many people will find limiting, particularly when using it as a controller keyboard with soft synths. To compensate, there's an input for an assignable continuous controller pedal which could be employed for the purpose. Alongside this is a jack for an on/off footswitch, which can be used variously for switching programs, turning the arpeggiator on and off, applying modulation to a sound or an effect, or as a tap-tempo control. Unusually (and most welcomingly), the Micro X also offers a third input specifically for a damper pedal.
The remaining connections at the back comprise MIDI In and Out sockets and a USB port which enables you to hook up directly to any computer running Windows XP or Mac OS 10.3 or above. Korg also include an editor/librarian program which can function both in stand-alone mode and as a plug-in from within the majority of popular sequencers. See the box above for more.
The world of musical hardware and software is becoming ever more 'converged', with software programs that perfectly emulate real-life keyboards and hardware synths that can be treated just like software plug-ins. The accompanying editor for the Micro X gives you complete control over every aspect of the synth, either as a stand-alone program or from within any sequencer that supports VST, RTAS or Audio Units — which, indeed, is most of them.
I was using the RTAS plug-in version on a Power Mac G5 running Pro Tools LE V7.1 and ended up being very impressed. The editor is a very slick package that lays the Micro X's architecture bare through a series of tabbed screens. Being able to drag envelopes around and picking parameters from drop-down lists proves so much easier than trying to do the same thing using knobs and the LED display and it actually encourages you to program. The software even provides a virtual keyboard to trigger the sounds from the computer screen.
I'd like to report that my experience with the software was totally without upset, but there were a couple of unexpected quits and the odd freeze. However, these mainly occurred when I was trying to run several versions of a CPU-hungry soft synth in parallel with the Micro X, which was being used as a sound source and a MIDI controller. This underlines the value of keeping your sound sources in the hardware domain and just leaving your computer with the job of triggering and controlling them via MIDI.
Incidentally, the same software is available for the X50 — something to bear in mind if you're interested in a bigger keyboard.
At the heart of the Micro X is 64MB of PCM samples, which, while not over-generous by today's standards, is still enough to provide 642 multisamples and 929 drum samples as the keyboard's raw sonic material. The organisation of the sounds follows the established Korg practice of Programs, Combinations and Multis. As you can probably guess, Programs are basically single instruments, while Combinations involve up to eight Programs, which can be split, layered or velocity-switched to your heart's content. While one arpeggiator is available within a Program, you can employ two arpeggiators in a Combination, using one, for example, to trigger a drum pattern using a drum kit Program and the other to create conventional arpeggios over the top. You can also do the same in Multi mode, wherein the Micro X works as a 16-channel multitimbral MIDI sound source. Incidentally, maximum polyphony is a relatively generous 64 notes, though this may be reduced if you're using more complex sounds.
Although its appearance may suggest it's intended for techno-style music-making, one of the selling points of the Micro X is that it is a keyboard for all seasons. Its 640 preset Programs include a great many 'conventional' instruments — pianos, organs, guitars, strings, tuned percussion and so on. Plus you've got the GM soundset — which doesn't float my particular boat, but it would make the Micro X appealing to people looking for an easily portable instrument to use in conjunction with a MIDI file player. But that's to say that the Micro X doesn't cut the mustard when it comes to more contemporary styles. Also on offer is a wide variety of digital and analogue-style keyboard pads which are both fresh and inspirational. Korg have developed many of these specifically for this keyboard, so you won't find them anywhere else.
The overall quality of the voices is very, very good indeed: the pianos are particularly excellent, the organs are exceptional, the strings sublime. Even the acoustic guitars are pretty convincing. Among the more 'synth-y' type presets there are loads of fresh-sounding and really quite inspirational sounds. Also worthy of a mention are the drum sounds — a bonus here being that you can assemble them into your own kits.
For ease of selection, all the sounds are grouped into logical categories, which Korg have made easy to navigate with the provision of both a data wheel and what they call a 'Click Point'. Looking like the miniature air nozzle you get above your aircraft seat, it's a sort of cross between a joystick, a trackball and a mouse. To help you decide which voice might be right for the job, the Micro X offers an audition button, which triggers the sound with an appropriate musical phrase.
For real-time tweaking, the Micro X provides four controller knobs, plus a button to switch their function between three sets of parameters, giving you fast access to 12 controller parameters in all. Four of these are user-programmable per Program, four control the filter/envelope, and four cover the arpeggiator. When you're using the Micro X as a controller keyboard, the knobs can be switched to control 12 soft synth parameters or DAW functions. You can program and store up to 64 different setups of this type, and to get you started, Korg give you a set of preset templates covering popular software packages and programs such as Reason, Garageband, Cubase and Korg's own Legacy soft synth collection.
Just going back to the arpeggiators for a moment (always a favourite function of mine), there are 256 pattern locations on offer in all. Initially, the 251 writeable user patterns are pre-filled with a superb set of factory programs, ranging from basic 'up and down the scale' patterns to drum patterns, guitar and bass riffs and piano-type flourishes. The preset combinations give you a flavour of just what you can do when you start using the arpeggiators in anger, especially as you quickly discover that many of them respond dynamically to your playing.
The arpeggiators are, of course, totally user programmable, as indeed is every other aspect of the Micro X's sounds and setups, and programming is entirely possible just from the Micro X's front panel, but with pages of parameters to wade through, any sensible person will make use of the bundled editor/librarian software and do their tweaks from the comfort of their computer chair (see the 'Micro X Plug-in Editor' box on the previous page, and the screen at the bottom of this page). I have to say that opening up this editor program is a bit like peeping into what you thought was a shallow ditch and discovering yourself staring into the Grand Canyon. It really brings home just how technically well-endowed the Micro X is, in spite of its small stature.
In times when you can squeeze an entire lifetime's collection of music in a box not much bigger than a tin of sardines, I feel I should be at home with the idea of miniaturisation. Even so, while playing the Micro X through a keyboard amp of decent wattage, I often found it hard to believe that something so small could produce such a big, mature sound. It shouldn't be surprising really, though, because what you've actually got here is the chip from a physically bigger synth wrapped up in smaller casing.
The Micro X certainly has that polished, 'shiny' sound that Korg keyboards are known for, and if that's your bag (not everyone likes it) this keyboard will sell itself to you on its presets alone. But you also get excellent playability through the various real-time controllers, and a superb functional spec too. For me, the icing on the cake is the ability to load and edit sounds directly from within a host sequencer. This means that you can treat the Micro X very much as you might a virtual instrument, only there's no load on your computer's CPU!
Not everyone will be convinced by any keyboard that has just two octave's worth of keys, no matter what it sounds like. But then if you're a player who can do justice to a full set of keys, there's always the X50, which doesn't cost that much more and also gives you just about everything you've read about here. Personally, as someone who works more or less exclusively in the studio, I'd rather have the advantage of the Micro X's compact size. Plus I happen to think that the Micro X looks a whole lot more appealing than the X50 — especially the white version I had for review.
Make no mistake, the Micro X may be physically small but it is every inch a highly capable, hugely versatile synth. If you've always hankered after that 'Korg sound', then you absolutely must give this a try. In short, I loved it, and with any luck someone somewhere has asked Santa to start processing a back order immediately.