Korg's single-handed analogue revival continues unabated with the release of the Volca range of super-affordable grooveboxes.
Viewed initially as an Internet hoax spawned by wishful thinking, it soon transpired that Korg's Volca range really existed. Not only that but each was priced well below Korg's previous exercise in analogue affordability, the Monotribe. This time it's almost like we're watching history repeat itself as MIDI inputs have been added across the board, but if you were hoping for full-sized hardware and regular quarter-inch jacks, I'm afraid Korg are still working to the 'small is beautiful' brief.
Anyone who managed to avoid the frenzied online speculation might be wondering what on Earth I'm talking about. Korg's Volcas are as follows: Beats (an analogue/digital drum machine), Bass (a three-VCO bass line synth) and Keys (another three-VCO synth, but with alternate voicing options, including pseudo-polyphony). There's some feature overlap but generally each has its own niche. Therefore, after a communal unboxing and LED-gawping, I'll go through them one by one before pondering the inevitable question: can you say 'no' to a Volca?
Spread across my musty carpet, the Volcas are similar but different. They're the same size and weight, which is 193 x 115 x 46 mm and 377g (without batteries). Six alkaline AA batteries are supplied and their life is quoted at approximately 10 hours. By default, each Volca turns itself off automatically after four hours unused, which seems quite a long time. However, if you're going to treat them like conventional studio gear, the purchase of external 9V adapters will be essential. Maybe this is an opportunity for Korg to supply a single unit to feed them all. Judging by the many black lumps on my floor, Korg clearly delight in designing every variation on the theme. The long battery life is great though and you get a rough idea of the amount remaining from the number of LEDs that light up at power up.
Constructed from shiny cases of see-through black plastic, the Volcas eagerly showcase their internal LED action. Each has a flashing tempo control and a small internal speaker that is disconnected when you plug a jack into the 3.5mm headphone socket, which is the single, monaural route to our ears.
In a welcome move for connectivity, you can play each Volca directly via MIDI. Their sequencers automatically sync to incoming MIDI clock, but analogue sync isn't neglected either. Each model has Sync In and Out sockets and a cable is supplied for plugging in to the next in series. It's flexible and ridiculously easy, as is sync'ing to analogue sequencers or LFOs. The clock generates pulses of 5V and one of a small list of global options allows this voltage to be inverted for use with S-trig sequencers such as Korg's own SQ10.
All models have eight pattern memories and you can seamlessly switch between them during playback using a nifty key combination. The Func key provides alternate options for the rubber buttons and the step keys; for example, to write a pattern hold down Func + Memory then choose a destination. The MIDI channel is set and stored at power-up, again by holding the Memory button and touching a step key, one of many combinations that are common across the range. Another is 'Active Step', a fun tool for interactively shortening patterns from the 16-step default. With a quick Func + Play, any beat, bass line or sequence can be broken down as far as a single repeating note if desired.
The majority of knobs used are the tiny plastic stalks that were so tastefully in proportion on the Monotrons. On the Keys and Beats models, they're packed in like rush-hour commuters but remain just about pinchable, providing your fingers are slender, or you're 12. A large proportion of the knobs are in clear plastic, typically with a red LED underneath flashing meaningfully. Korg have pandered well to flashing light fetishists; the 32 amber LEDs of the Volca Beats, especially, had me mesmerised.
Dragging myself back to reality, I found the ribbon-style keyboards to be silky smooth, their gold and black multi-touch surfaces highly responsive. It was a little odd to see the keyboard on the Volca Bass inverted in colour (its white notes are black, its black notes gold), especially as this is the exact opposite of the Volca Keys. In both cases it's a refreshing change to have keyboards that begin with notes other than C. There are one or two other minor discrepancies that prevent the range behaving with complete consistency and I'll mention a few of them as we go along.
It was a tough choice where to start, but with no three-sided die to settle it, I began with the one I fancied the most, the Volca Beats. This is a hybrid drum machine whose kick, snare, hi-hats and toms are analogue, while the clap, claves, agogo and crash cymbal are PCM samples. Each of the analogue voices has at least one adjustable parameter; the kick and snare, being the most sophisticated, have three each. A shared control is provided to adjust the currently selected voice's level.
Hitting play rewards you with flickering lights a-plenty. When an analogue voice is triggered, one of the clear knobs flashes red. Simultaneously, amber LEDs at the top of each step key flash too, while another LED chases along the bottom marking the pattern's progress. Interestingly, switching to a new pattern occurs on the next step rather than at pattern end. This instantly serves up a viable performance tool for brewing composite grooves. I spent a happy evening in the garden with nothing more than the Volca Beats and my pocket Olympus recorder, harvesting some spiffing loops.
The small four-character display is helpful for indicating the current mode and for dialling in a specific tempo. The Mute button is equally obvious, it temporarily turns each step key into an instrument mute. With a smooth finger-slide across the ribbon, you can mute a range of voices with flourish. For added performance consistency, mutes are maintained across pattern changes and it transpires that Func + Mute engages the Solo function, a detail omitted from the brief owner's manual.
Even through its internal speaker, this is a thoroughly likeable little drum machine and I can whimsically imagine them being whipped out in droves by campfire huggers across the country. But the real fun starts when you connect that tiny output to monitor speakers or a PA. The kick, in particular, is full, deep and has way more presence than anything this size has a right to. Starting short and tight at its highest pitches it plunges towards boomy 808 land as you drop the pitch and lengthen the decay. For extra punch, turning up the click delivers a bass drum that's hard to dismiss.
In contrast, I didn't find the snare so instantly appealing, but it offers a fair degree of control nonetheless. Its 'Snappy' knob sets the level of fizzy white noise and at its minimum setting, with the decay set very short, the snare switches to a credible rimshot. The toms are fairly basic tuneable thumps with a common decay, but the open and closed hi-hats cut through decisively every time. Both hats have individual decay controls and there's a common Grain parameter that adds band-pass filtered grit to the noise component.
The remaining four PCM voices play a vital supporting role even though there isn't much control on offer: you can adjust the level and the sample playback speed but that's your lot. The claves aren't as hard and insistent as we're accustomed to from Roland's drum boxes, but they're a useful, pleasant alternative, while the metallic 'donk' of the agogo can be accelerated into 'struck milk bottle' territory or go all weird and bell-like in the depths. Similarly, mess with the crash cymbal's speed and you'll find a kind of lo-fi gong. The clap is excellent whether in isolation or as a means of bolstering the snare. Again, its extremes of tuning are well worth mining for extra dirt.
Combining all these sounds into coherent patterns involves either real-time recording or two alternate methods of step input. Lacking a metronome, it seemed logical to start somewhere familiar: pattern-making X0X-style. On the Volca Beats this is done by pressing the Step Mode button then selecting each drum using the Part left and right keys. Programming is a matter of lightly touching as many steps as you want to play.
It's quite luxurious to have multiple step modes to choose from and it's the second of these that is the more unusual — on a drum machine anyway. It's actually a step entry mode ('S.rEc' on the display) in which the Part keys now step forwards or backwards through the pattern. On each step you activate a drum — or drums — to play. This technique works particularly well if you already have a clear mental picture of your pattern's shape, but it's also the route to the wackiest and most irregular grooves in the Beats' repertoire.
Lastly, the easiest and most obvious recording method is real time, as you'd expect. Simply hit the Record button and start tapping keys! If you make a mistake, slip into Step Mode without interrupting playback and remove any offending hits, or clear every hit for the selected voice and start over. It's fast and it's addictive but once I'd started to build original grooves, I next searched for some kind of accent function. Curiously, this is something Korg left out, yet to my ears the factory patterns contained hints of dynamics, plus I noticed LEDs that occasionally flashed like crazy. Clearly there was more going on.
This, it quickly transpired, was the effect of the Stutter function. Its two knobs are noticeably larger than the rest, implying they're important, while the labels Time and Depth suggest a delay of some kind. Stutter can indeed sound like a delay, but actually it's a means of rapidly retriggering either the currently selected voice or all voices together. Blimey! A drum machine with repercussions! As you increase Stutter Depth, you get to hear the effect of dynamics on the Beats' voices as each repeat gradually decays. They even die away realistically when you stop the sequencer.
Stutter isn't limited to generating echo-like repeats though. At its maximum speed, the resulting triggers create drone-like textures as the voices blend and mulch together. Needless to say, overuse can pretty soon lead to chaos, but it's not necessarily bad chaos. If, at any time, you get a sudden urge for normality, holding the Func key while turning Time will select only perfectly sync'ed divisions. And if all that still hasn't energised your rhythmic tastebuds, the motions of both Stutter knobs can be recorded and stored in each pattern, courtesy of Korg's tried-and-tested Motion Recording. Popular since Electribe days, this 'tweak and memorise' feature is here limited to the Stutter effect and the speed control of the PCM voices, but it's sufficient to add that special je ne sais quoi to any Volca Beats pattern.
Impressively, there's more; in the form of an innocent function called Step Jump. Switch it on and playback jumps to any key you press, then continues from that point once it is released. While your finger is in contact, the step repeats at the current rate, which can be highly useful for adding instant fills or just for moving beats around.
There's a certain familiarity about the Volca Bass and its slightly incongruous silver faceplate and larger controls, including a decently proportioned cutoff knob. I suppose anyone designing a small bass synth-and-sequencer can't be unaware of Roland's famous creation, but Korg can at least be applauded for making a sound that's their own. The filter included — in this and the Volca Keys — is the 12dB low-pass design that appeared in classic synths such as Korg's 700S, 800DV and MS50. It's a diode ring filter (named for the ring of silicon diodes that make up the core of the circuit) and while it's not a filter associated with legendary low end, it gives the Volca Bass a distinct identity. Its resonance, in particular, can really let rip, the characteristic biting distortion sounding wonderful to these ears.
If further evidence were needed this isn't just another stroll down Roland Bass Line Boulevard, the Volca Bass has three VCOs, each capable of sawtooth or square waveforms. A trio of mini pitch controls provide subtle detuning between the oscillators at the mid-point of their travel. They then extend in semitones to as far as an octave either way at maximum rotation. It's an imaginative use of a single control, the display telling you the precise interval selected. Although there is no mixer for the oscillators, they can be selectively muted.
To round off this silvery synth, there's a basic envelope, plus an LFO with triangle or square waveforms to modulate pitch, filter cutoff and level. The envelope has more shapes available than a TB303 with its variable attack and sustain on/off switch. A further switch routes the envelope to level (it's a fixed organ-style shape otherwise). However, when I turned attack and release to maximum, I began to suspect the envelope wasn't analogue circuitry since notes in the release phase were instantly silenced by new attacks.
Now it really shouldn't matter whether envelopes or LFOs are software, and in many cases it doesn't. If you always use a fast attack or keep the Amp EG as a gate, you'll hardly notice. But I'm still daring to hope a software upgrade might adjust the response and mollify those to whom such details matter. Fortunately, the sequencer's Slide function blends notes into each other, 303-style; playing legato from an external keyboard offers the same kind of uninterrupted smoothness.
Whichever waveform combinations you choose, the Volca Bass sounds surprisingly fat and alive. Its greatest sonic richness is obtained by subtly detuning each VCO and you can gain further movement by introducing slow LFO sweeps of the filter cutoff — enough to loosen up the most robotic of bass lines.
Finally, the Volca Bass's sequencer has a couple of special traits that set it apart from the others. Unusually, it permits the recording of separate melody lines for each oscillator. To accomplish this seemingly magical feat, the VCOs are first configured into three groups. In the first of these, all oscillators are independently accessible. In the second, two VCOs are tied but the third is free, while in the last group the oscillators are treated as one. It's pretty flexible, especially when you realise you can switch groups during playback and mute/unmute any VCO at will. Therefore, even if you weren't contemplating polyphonic bass lines, you might like to treat this like having three separate patterns in one. The last twist of this particular sequencer is that Active Step mode works differently to all the others. You can set independent lengths for the separate melody lines; a sure-fire antidote to boring repetition and predictability!
As with the Beats, it's a choice of real- or step-time recording and to get started, the fastest way to wipe the current pattern is the common Func + Step 16 action. Device-specific clear operations are also offered; here they can erase the melody part for the selected oscillator or eliminate slides between notes. The real-time method of recording captures slides across the keyboard as they're played, so there's also a Slide Edit function to adjust or remove them later (in the unlikely event those 303-like whoops start to wear thin). Once again, there's no accent function and, unlike the others, there's no motion recording either. This either encourages or demands interaction, depending on your point of view.
In this Volca, Step Mode is more about muting and unmuting steps with notes already present, but the other variant, Step Recording, is present too. It's made initially more adventurous by that inverted keyboard but you soon adapt. Notes are entered one by one, shifting the keyboard (over a range of six octaves) with the Octave knob as you go. Although ostensibly a bass synth, there's no reason to ignore the upper reaches and there are no limits imposed.
Lastly, I turned to the Volca that's the toughest to pigeonhole. Arguably the most attractive of the collection, the Keys' transparent knobs put on quite a show while you wait for power-up to complete. It's another three-oscillator synth with that sweet Korg 700 filter, but its different Voice modes separate it from the Volca Bass. The Voice knob includes two 'polyphonic' settings where the oscillators can be played as simple triads, which is, admittedly, not easy on the ribbon keyboard. It's a similar implementation to that seen on Waldorf's Rocket synth and comes with similar limitations; for example, you can play chords but there's only one envelope and filter. In Poly mode the oscillators are all sawtooth waves, while in Poly Ring mode they are square waves squirted through a ring modulator.
Locking waveform selection to Voice modes obviously imposes restrictions. For example, when the ring modulator is active, any intervals played on the keyboard (or from MIDI) are thoroughly nastified even before you reach for the Detune knob. It would've been nice to have a plain Poly Square mode. The ring mod's atonal output can be twisted further by winding up the filter resonance into howling oscillation, making this the Volca most adept at weird noises!
For conventional monophonic performance, Unison places three sawtooth waves at the same pitch. In Octave mode, one oscillator is transposed an octave higher than the others, while the next click on the Voice dial follows the same principles but for a fifth interval. Finally, for one last trip to the Forbidden Planet, Unison Ring mode gives you three stacked, ring-modulated square waves and is an odds-on space-music and sound-design favourite.
Oscillator tuning takes place automatically and beyond your reach but you do get a fair degree of direct sonic manipulation. Helped by miniature, dedicated controls for the LFO and envelope, the Keys offers more varied and subtle synthesis than the Bass, while being no slouch in the bass department itself. Its envelope also fails the long attack, long release test, which is a more significant weakness on a general-purpose synth. Plus, you can adjust the sustain level as much as you like but won't hear a difference until you retrigger the note.
The Keys' LFO has the most waveforms of all: sawtooth, square and triangle. It offers selectable trigger sync so you can control whether it restarts each time a note is played. It also delivers independent pitch and filter modulation amounts and the fastest LFO speeds indicate yet another route to uncharted strangeness.
Unlike Stutter on the Volca Beats, the Keys' delay is a real digital delay. It's less noisy than that of the Monotron Delay but presumably the hiss is filtered or gated because the delays are duller than its predecessor but similar in quality otherwise. Still, even though it's dirty and imperfect it could be useful in certain situations. Tempo sync is provided too but the delay loses some range and versatility when this is active.
Interestingly, the Keys is the only Volca series to feature a metronome, which is pretty much essential when you realise there's no Step Mode for note entry. Recordings are exclusively real time and if you enable the Flux option, you can indulge in the Monotribe-like experience of free recording without obvious quantisation. It's therefore worth practising on that ribbon keyboard — which, incidentally, is the largest and best laid out of the range. Set the Voice mode to Poly and the sequencer happily reproduces those three-note chords too. Playback may be at regular speed or at half and quarter speeds and, despite the omission of step-time input, I found the sequencer fine for quickly jotting down ideas or chord sequences — admittedly recorded from an external MIDI controller. A handy erase function is provided to wipe specific steps as they hurtle past without losing the whole pattern.
The Motion Recording on this Volca is the most extensive of the range. Practically every knob bar resonance (the Korg 700 filter does not have voltage-controlled resonance) can be tweaked and those tweaks captured in a pattern. To remind you when motion recordings are present, each affected knob flashes as the pattern loops. Recorded motions can be quantised to the step or replayed smoothly and naturally, or even muted, all without disrupting recorded notes. Unlike the Volca Bass you can externally control the filter cutoff over MIDI, but if you do, any subsequent manual knobbing risks giving the poor mite a headache.
While its sequencer lacks the Bass's slide function, there's fully variable and recordable portamento in compensation. Perhaps the only frivolous inclusion is the oscillator's 'EG INT', which I'd personally have sacrificed for a variable pulse width if it were offered. However, for wild pitch swoops it's pleasantly bonkers.
The last feature I'd like to mention is 'Step Trigger'. It doesn't seem like much at first but it's a grower, even though all it does is repeat notes at the currently selected clock division. Play the keyboard and it temporarily overrides sequencer playback, which is rather cool, especially as repeated notes can be recorded too.
The Volcas consist of analogue beats, bass and synth that fit your pocket: both literally and figuratively. Whenever I hit limitations and began compiling wish lists, I quickly took a reality check to remind myself how much they cost!
The Volca Keys was a surprise; a jack of all trades that scored over the Bass model for its sound effects, and that limited but still handy polyphonic mode. The filter used in the Bass and Keys may not be too familiar but it's a welcome alternate flavour to Korg's other mini analogues and, most importantly, sounds fab. The Volca Bass earns kudos for its larger knobs, three-part melodies and independent waveforms so that, in the end, it's hard to choose a favourite between the two synths. By the way, neither are noise free but they're considerably quieter than the original Monotrons. And since the noisiest of all was the Keys, it occurred to me that a useful modification might be a switch to bypass its delay.
Korg's Volcas are an attractive, interactive collection for analogue groove gratification. That they act as MIDI modules too is a bonus. But their real strength will be appreciated by those who jam with them, starting and stopping each freely and tweaking indulgently.
If I had to choose just one of the range, the Volca Beats would be my top dog, made irresistible due to its big kick drum, inspiring sequencer and the convenience of so many usable voices. It's true that out of the three you'd probably have most preferred dynamic control over the drums, so it's a shame this is the one Volca denied this over MIDI. However, it's also the only one with Stutter delivering those mad delay-like effects, which is probably relevant.
It's hard not to dream about what might have been if just a little more emphasis had been given to ergonomics. I doubt there would have been a storm of protest had the unit price been doubled but the Volcas were scaled-up accordingly. I could be wrong though, because Korg's aptitude for making tempting analogues has yet to show any sign of faltering. Even so, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the next instalment will be full sized, brash and confident. Right now, taken individually or together, the Volcas offer unbeatable value for money and any quibbles I've expressed will surely be brushed aside in the rush to grab at least one of them.
Korg's own Monotribe now looks a poor relation to a couple of these sync'ed up, while MFB's 522 and 503 drum machines are both more expensive than the Volca Beats but admittedly have the advantage of swing and individual outputs. Korg win on build quality and sequencer innovation though. MFB also have a range of tiny synths, including the two VCO Nanozwerg.
There aren't many serious synth/sequencer rivals that are comparably priced but I should mention the rather lovely Zira and GorF from the UK's own Vacoloco. Built in small numbers, Zira is a wavetable oscillator synth with an analogue filter and patch memories, whilst GorF is a cute eight-step sequencer. www.vacoloco.net/synths.
Finally, if you're handy with a soldering iron, you really should check out Mutable Instruments, for example the Shruthi, an analogue/digital monosynth, reviewed in the September 2012 edition of SOS.
All three of the Volcas are happily equipped with MIDI. Let's look at each in turn.
The Beats is fairly straightforward: MIDI sync painlessly deactivates the tempo knob, while incoming MIDI notes will happily trigger the voices. True, the notes chosen are spread out rather strangely — don't expect any General MIDI mappings — but the real limitation is a complete insensitivity to velocity. This seems an opportunity missed as, sweet though this pocket drum machine is, sometimes it'd be nice to trigger its voices from more sophisticated sequencers that include swing, triplets and that sort of stuff.
The Bass's MIDI spec is fairly extensive. Played from an external keyboard you can enjoy its response to incoming velocity and pitch bend, plus there are dedicated CCs for the pitch of the oscillators, for each envelope stage and for filter EG amount. But both cutoff and resonance are off limits to MIDI, though; they're exclusively reserved for hands-on tweaking via the 303-style knobs.
As I was expecting, the Volca Keys talks MIDI admirably; notes, dynamics and pitch-bend. Since every control (except resonance) has a MIDI CC assignment, it's a potentially desirable analogue synth module too. Once again a large selector switch changes the range of the keyboard over six octaves (represented as 32' to 1') and it's a bit wacky that this control gets its very own MIDI CC. Maybe someone will think of a use for that! Incidentally, you don't get the MIDI controller lists in the box but from Korg's web site.