The hugely popular Microkorg — the world's best‑selling synth for the past few years, according to its makers — has gained what Korg describe as a 'big brother'. Will it repeat the success of its sibling?
The latest keyboard from Korg is a fine example of a mysterious Eastern art‑form known as "extracting maximum return from R&D”. With keen Japanese ingenuity, a generous portion of the R3, Korg's vocoder‑equipped, portable synth derived from the powerful Radias 'module plus keyboard' package, has been shoe‑horned into petite, Microkorg dimensions. The resulting Microkorg XL, with its minimal, retro style resembles a scaled‑down model of a classic electric piano — but its sound engine is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Radias. (See /sos/sep07/articles/korgr3.htm and /sos/apr06/articles/korgradias.htm for more on the Radias and the R3).
Weighing in at a mere 2kg, this is a keyboard to secure firmly when playing outdoors. If the goal was to make the smallest self‑contained synth around, Korg have planted one firmly in the net. An external PSU is provided, but the XL can run quite happily from six AA batteries, further boosting its 'take me out' credentials. However, be careful when tossing it into your rucksack. I'm not confident the knobs — especially those big, wobbly ones for Genre and Category selection — would long endure rough treatment. Generally, I felt the moulded black-plastic body looked more classy on the screen or page than it does up close.
With any instrument of this size, producing a playable keyboard is going to be a challenge, and I was intrigued to see how the new 'Natural Touch' version performed. Its 37 miniature keys are chunky and square, with the black notes squeezed in slightly, donating a fraction of the available width to their white brethren. The keyboard action is very light — far lighter than the mini keys of my Yamaha CS01 synth, for example. But if you can adapt to this, you have three full octaves in a package just 55cm long. A sprung octave transpose switch further expands the range.
In common with the earlier Microkorg, there are no pedal inputs of any kind. OK, so you're unlikely to attempt Grieg's Piano Concerto on this keyboard, but a sustain pedal is valuable for so many other purposes, not least when combined with an arpeggiator. The remaining connections are pretty much as you'd expect, with all audio handled via quarter‑inch jacks (that's a stereo output pair, a headphone socket and an external input). Adjacent to the input is a switch to determine whether it or the included XLR mic will be the external source used. A USB socket is your means of direct computer interfacing (about which more later) and MIDI is catered for by just two sockets: Thru has been omitted.
The original Microkorg's geeky panel text and cryptic characters have been superseded by the XL's moody amber display. Commonly‑used parameters are accessed via a simple matrix in which a six‑way switch lines up a row of options for tweaking via three small knobs. The top row is for user‑assignable functions. In the factory patches, these are typically to sweep filter cutoff, adjust filter envelope amount, or maybe boost an effect parameter, but there's a wide array of choices available. The second row is dedicated to key filter parameters and a row for the amplitude envelope is next, followed by another for effects. The penultimate row contains three of the most commonly‑used arpeggiator functions: type, latch and gate time.
If you're thinking that this sounds simplistic, the sixth row takes a bellyflop into the deep end. Labelled 'Full Edit', this opens up every page, parameter and value. If you're already a dab hand at keyhole surgery you'll feel right at home, but for us lesser mortals there are a heck of a lot of options to plough through, including a multitude of synthesis pages, complete with virtual patch cords, arpeggiation, effects and EQ. It doesn't end there either, because Full Edit is also the window to the MIDI and Global setup pages, utilities, controller remapping and more.
Ploughing through all of this with the XL's small and not‑terribly-precise knobs can severely test your patience. Fortunately, the Exit/Shift button, combined with the Octave transpose switch, generates single-value increments or decrements. This is loads of help and even though it doesn't transform editing into a wholly joyful experience, it does give you the tools to get the job done. For live performance, the knobs have a 'Catch' mode, avoiding sudden jumps in value that would otherwise occur when you mess with a stored patch. I'm not sure how much messing the no-frills interface invites, though. Indeed, with space at a premium, a tempo knob for the arpeggiator felt less justifiable than, say, a button for arpeggiator latch.
Since the Microkorg XL's closest relative is the Korg R3, it is with the R3 that I will draw the most comparisons. Architecturally, they are quite similar. Both feature eight voices of Radias‑sourced synthesis driven by MMT (Multiple Modelling Technology) that can generate analogue, formant, VPM (Variable Phrase Modulation) or digital waves, as well as processing external audio. Patches consist of either one or two timbres, which may be layered (in which case the polyphony is halved) or divided into two separate keyboard zones. Alternatively, a patch can operate as a bi‑timbral sound source via separate MIDI channels. This adds up to a very capable sound engine, and it's probably a good idea to refer back to September 2007's R3 review (see link at start of this review) for a full refresher. The physical differences between the two synths are evident, leaving us free to summarise the Microkorg XL in terms of its losses and, in some cases, gains.
As per the R3, two oscillators are processed via two filters, one being smoothly variable between low‑, high‑ and band‑pass modes. Korg's filters sound silky smooth and can be configured for serial, parallel or individual oscillator processing. In common with the Radias and R3, oscillator one is the more feature‑rich and contains the XL's most significant addition: a new combined PCM/DWGS wave generator. The waves on offer include, amongst others, a sampled acoustic piano. I found it slightly weird to play piano via the diddy keys, but when rigged up to a larger keyboard, the piano, short and clunky though its samples are, cut through rather well. Other waves include strings, organ, guitar, electric piano and brass — a collection designed to give the XL considerable scope.
Modulation sources and routing follow the familiar path that Korg have trodden for some years. There are two LFOs and three envelopes, with a six‑way modulation bus to govern how they hang together. For overdrive simulation, the adding of sub‑octaves, decimation, and so on, Drive/Waveshaper continues to be a superb tool. Should you wish to waddle into the realm of the morbidly obese, Unison mode stacks and detunes up to four voices, rattling speakers and disturbing pacemakers in a way that seems somehow totally uncharacteristic of a keyboard this size.
Not every R3 delight has made it onboard unscathed. Sadly numbered amongst the missing are its modulation sequencer, comb filter and formant motion. Formant motion is a cool way to capture audio input and store its imprint for later use, while the R3's modulation sequencer can really energise pads and arpeggios. The effects section has taken a bit of a battering, too — but we'll come to that later. Before then, a final item of good news: the XL gains a selection of nine alternate scales, including one User Scale. These are ideal for those who like to stray away from the Western, well‑tempered path.
It's hard to imagine any user, new or old, getting lost on the Microkorg XL. There are 128 patches on board, selected by two large knobs: Program Genre and Category. These offer eight genres, including House/Disco, Jazz/Fusion, Drum & Bass/Breaks and Favorite (sic), while eight categories encompass Lead, Bass, Vocoder and so on. For the full range of patches, a bank A/B switch performs the necessary multiplication.
Looking directly downwards, it's not always clear where the knobs are pointing to — but I guess a felt tip or dot of paint would soon put that right. I share Paul Ward's reservations about the usefulness of fixed genres and categories (as expressed in the review of the original Microkorg, /sos/Jan03/articles/microkorg.asp) but, as before, you are free to store any type of patch into any location.
I felt that 128 patches wasn't wildly generous by today's standards. If hardware synths are to retain their desirability, they surely can't afford to be complacent in this area. Fortunately, the patches chosen are a good representation of what the XL is capable of. Expect to encounter deep and throaty basses, howling, trashy leads, parpy brass and smooth, mellow pads. And no Korg in recent years could be unleashed without ear‑catching dance‑oriented synths and cunningly programmed arpeggios. Bundle in a plethora of fine vocoders, organs and pianos (you won't find an acoustic piano in the R3 — or even the Radias!) and I doubt anyone will find the Microkorg XL sonically underpowered.
The Microkorg XL has a two‑band equaliser plus two master effects, each with up to 17 different Kaoss‑pad derived algorithms. This is one area where the XL feels like the R3's poorer relation, especially when you realise it doesn't possess a reverb! Warm and airy reverberation has been a Korg trademark for so long it's practically ubiquitous.
The effects include a variety of delays (including a decent tape-delay simulation), which can be coaxed into delivering some impressions of boingy reverb. Putting aside my reverb gripes, though, other effects you'd typically expect are present and serviceable. Alongside the phaser, flanger, distortion, filter and decimator, you'll encounter old friends such as ring modulation and Grainshifter. The latter isn't some large, hungry bovine creature, it's a short sample and loop processor that's ideal for when you've invited Dr Weird to tea.
Naturally, MIDI clock sync is implemented throughout, whether for delay time or within the various modulation effects.
I've long been a fan of Korg gear; the ESX1 Electribe and Radias are amongst my 'desert island' essentials, so I was surprised not to feel more love for the Microkorg XL. I think this was mostly due to the build quality and a keyboard action that never quite reconciled with an RRPMSRP in excess of £400$700. I suppose the XL is small enough to be viewed as a desktop module that just happens to have a basic keyboard attached — for jamming around the house and programming — but personally, I'd consider stretching a little further for an R3 instead. However, if size and battery operability are deciding factors, the XL becomes much more attractive.
In the end, simplicity and portability are what it's all about; the fact that the Microkorg XL also sounds rather good might see it matching the popularity of the previous Microkorg — who can tell? The vocoder is a major plus, and with a useable microphone included, you're ready to produce highly intelligible or seriously twisted results right out of the box.
At times I found it genuinely perplexing that such a wide range of quality tones could be spurted from a keyboard this small and light. So even if, at the current price, the Microkorg XL doesn't tick all the boxes, it's definitely more of a synth than it appears.
Few companies have embraced self‑contained miniature synths with an enthusiasm to match Korg's. The Alesis Micron and Novation Xiosynth could be worth a look, though; both have full‑sized keys and the Xiosynth boasts MIDI controller and audio interface capabilities — and even battery power. But it is the imminent Akai Miniak that could really shake things up. Information suggests that it's based closely on the Micron, boasts a 40‑band vocoder with central microphone, features effects that include reverb, has a sequencer and arpeggiator, is multitimbral and ships with over 600 presets. Although not available as I type this, it is forecast to cost below £500, so is potentially very tempting.
The 16‑band vocoder deserves a special mention, not least because the included XLR microphone dominates the synth visually, standing proudly erect at the centre of proceedings. Getting going is no more complicated than plugging in the mic, selecting a vocoder patch and letting rip. The input level is shown as a simple bar-graph on the display and the only slight downer is the vocoder's resource consumption: when it's active, polyphony drops to just four voices.
The vocoder is your ticket to a funfair world of robot voices, choir‑like tones or eerie whispers. Even non‑vocoder factory patches respond well to voice‑driven articulation. Simply push the dedicated Vocoder button and stand by for voicebox‑treated synth solos, bellowing arpeggios or living, breathing bass lines. Inspiring!
I'm not massively fond of computers for tweaking my synths, but I found Korg's editor/librarian for the Microkorg XL to be an essential tool. It's surprising that this vital program isn't supplied on CD with the synth, but to sweeten the download, Korg have included a bunch of converted MS2000, MS2000B and Microkorg sounds in the package. This is jolly kind, if yet another reminder that there are only 128 memory slots to work with.
I mentioned that you can edit individual parameters using the panel's Full Edit mode, but it's so much friendlier and more intuitive when everything is presented on a computer screen (especially when working with a patch featuring two timbres). The program's graphics are clear, bright and metallic — a far cry from the R3 editor's dour and gloomy brown.
Finally, when downloading the editor I recommend that you also grab the latest USB driver from Korg's site. This provides full MIDI connectivity, and I am pleased to report no communication difficulties whatsoever with my venerable studio computer. Usually, this ageing PC refuses to talk to any of my Korg gear, but on this occasion everything went swimmingly.