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Korg Volca Sample

Digital Sample Sequencer
Published February 2015
By Paul Nagle

Korg Volca Sample

The latest addition to Korg’s cut-price Volca range takes a hands-on approach to sampling.

Korg’s Volcas are cheap, cheerful and known as a source of mainly analogue voices, digitally assisted where necessary. The Volca Sample is new, fully digital and proud, yet it slots seamlessly into a family that is as comprehensive as it is modestly proportioned.

Lacking that all-important ‘r’, the Volca Sample is not a sampler but a sample player. Up to 100 samples can be imported, provided you have access to an iPhone or iPad. Instead of supplying a Mac or PC editor as you might expect, Korg have made a Software Development Kit available. Presumably the hope is that eager users will get stuck in and produce alternate front ends for everyone. It’s too early to report on the success of this approach, but fortunately, other than the loading process, the Volca Sample promises to be every bit as straightforward and intuitive as its siblings.

White Noise

When scrabbling around a darkened stage or studio, the Volca Sample’s white plastic shell should make it the quickest Volca to locate. However, it’s in serious need of a makeover. In particular, the dreary combination of black text on grey background will test even the keenest eyesight in low light. The 16 step keys are almost completely anonymous too, despite being vital for almost all operations. At any moment, these multi-touch keys might be asked to trigger samples, mute or solo tracks, program the sequencer or select patterns and songs.

Rarely has this much music technology been so thoroughly miniaturised, as evidenced by the plethora of LEDs and tiny knobs. The majority of the latter are clear plastic stubs, illuminated from beneath by LEDs that flash when the knobs are touched, or when the pattern is replaying parameter automation. Continuing with the theme of informative visuals, a four-character display shows the precise value of every edit and provides an ongoing reminder of the current mode.

Two knobs, Bass and Treble, stand proud of the rest. These form the grandly titled Analogue Isolator, an instantly accessible EQ offering up to 6dB of bass and treble boost, or aggressive cuts when required. In a busy or chaotic mix, this simple functionality can be a lifesaver.

At just 193 x 115 x 45 mm, the Volca Sample is truly portable and can be powered by six AA batteries or an optional 9V adapter. Battery life is promised at up to 10 hours using alkaline batteries and I confess that when the ‘Battery Low’ message did pop up, it caught me on the hop, but not so much as the Volca’s abrupt power-off seconds later. I then noticed there’s a Global option to disable automatic power-offs, but opted to dig out a suitable power supply instead.

Transport and other operations fall to squishy but responsive rubber keys, while a row of knobs offer unencumbered access to tempo, swing, reverb mix and main volume. As usual a single speaker squeaks its impression of the output, although this is light years from the full steroidal majesty of a bass-boosted Volca Sample through studio monitors.

Regarding sync, there’s no break in Volca tradition. This means you can lock to incoming clock sourced from MIDI or the analogue input. Two 3.5mm sockets provide analogue I/O suitable to network a whole nest of Volcas. If operated stand-alone, tempo is displayed numerically and by an LED that pulses beneath the knob. A Global option can restrict the tempo choices to a ‘normal’ spread of 56 to 240 bpm, with the full range of 10 to 600 bpm available to the more adventurous.

The AudioPocket app offers basic sample recording and editing.The AudioPocket app offers basic sample recording and editing.I’m afraid it’s a mini headphone socket for audio once again, but the good news is that each of the 10 voices can be freely positioned in the stereo field, a clear sign of progress. The output is subject to a low-level background noise, but fortunately it’s not intrusive. With its 32kHz sampling frequency, the Volca Sample is never going to be rated ‘pristine’, but what it lacks in high fidelity it more than makes up for in character. Of all the Volcas so far, this one has the most attitude and already it was answering questions I hadn’t even begun to ask, including that old chestnut about whether size matters.

In Use

Samples are arranged into parts, 10 per pattern, of which eight can play simultaneously. The last pair are ‘choke’ parts, intended for hi-hats, congas or other instances where one voice should naturally exclude another. In performance, parts can be muted or soloed, although soloing has the rather unfortunate side-effect of unmuting other parts on exit. This is the case whether or not they were muted prior to the solo action.

The Func key, as SOS readers will expect, switches the regular functionality of buttons and step keys so they contribute more. For example, when combined with step keys, Func provides a consistent method of selecting parts. Other methods are available depending on mode, and in Live Play mode a part is selected (and triggered) merely by hitting its key.

However you perform the part selection, there’s a 4x3 matrix of parameters laid out to transform the sample — often way beyond recognition. Due to the controls’ close proximity, a fairly sober finger-and-thumb pinch is required to avoid unwanted changes. You’ll also notice that one control in the matrix is opaque. This is ‘sample select’ and the lack of an underlying LED indicates it’s the one parameter that can’t be Motion Sequenced.

Motion Sequencing is Korg’s established mechanism for capturing edits into a pattern, and very effective it is. The manual suggests a further refinement in which edits can be applied on a per-step basis, inviting comparisons with Elektron’s ‘parameter locks’. However, despite following the instructions (and querying my understanding with Korg), at the time of writing I have yet to confirm this works.

Loading samples requires iTunes File Sharing.Loading samples requires iTunes File Sharing.After a brief bout of editing, I was inspired to wonder ‘where are all the knobby samplers?’ because, with the tiniest of strokes, any sample can be a dull thump one moment, a shrill plink the next. For each of the 10 available parts you can vary the sample’s playback speed, level and pan, plus the start point and length. This degree of control is central to the Volca Sample’s appeal and from typical source material you can extract a bewildering catalogue of new tones. Unsurprisingly, slowing down the playback speed also lowers the pitch and, although the maximum transposition is not stated, I’d estimate it at more than four octaves in either direction. Approaching the limits, samples become gnarly and barely recognisable.

Understandably, the artifacts of slow playback are often unwelcome and, with this in mind, each part’s top end can be progressively shaved and sanitised with the ‘Hi Cut’ knob. Basic pitch modulation is provided too, courtesy of a two-stage envelope and corresponding bipolar amount. With these three knobs you can introduce dramatic pitch drops to bass drums or other percussion, or generate an endless supply of sound effects. A second attack/decay envelope is provided to shape the output.

Of all the features Korg have included, the reverb is probably the least expected. It sounds good — in a distinctive ‘muddy metal tank’ way — and is available to any number of parts simultaneously. Turning the mix knob fully clockwise results in a reverb-only signal that’s straight out of Forbidden Planet.

Continuing the theme of freakiness, no sample player should be without a reverse function. How else would you render speech into satanic gibberish or turn hits into rises? There isn’t much else to say about this except to point out that reverse is available to each part independently.

Last but definitely not least, any sample can be looped. I admit I failed to spot the significance of this until I tried it out and discovered its delay-like qualities, with repeats fading into the sunset like the closing paragraph of a Mills & Boon. With looping active, the sample length and envelope controls set the repeat time and number of decays. Depending on the sample selected, this can produce drones, delay-like cascades or, with very short sample lengths, near-granular pitched howls.

Sequenced Samples

Taking liberties with samples can be endlessly fascinating, but it’s still only half the story. In order to sequence your audio snippets, the Volca Sample contains 10 patterns, each with a maximum of 16 steps. Patterns are made either by recording hits and tweaks in a real-time loop, or in the rather more leisurely Step Mode. In the latter process, triggers are set and unset X0X-style for each part. An alternate mode, Step Record, differs from the others in that it first requires the Volca to be stopped. You then input hits and rests, step by step.

Using a combination of these three modes, I began making and storing patterns packed with god-like kicks, sneezes becoming snares and whale noises torn from Stravinsky. To cut a long story short, I filled the 10 available memories with grooves I liked. From that point, these patterns had to be sacrificed to create more because there’s no way to back them up. A pattern holds every parameter value, plus the motion recording and mute status for every part. It’s therefore worth remembering that this information is not saved automatically when you change patterns or switch off. You must do it explicitly.

If you select (on purpose or not) one of the last six memory locations, Song Mode takes over. Many of the regular buttons become inactive, freeing the Volca Sample to play a sequence of patterns while you get on with something else. A song consists of up to 16 steps, a pattern on each, but with only 10 patterns to arrange and shunt around, six songs might be considered overkill.

Switching back to Live Play mode, Step Jump is a means of interrupting a pattern or introducing manual fills. It forces playback to jump to the step you touch — repeatedly if you maintain finger contact. Similarly, Active Step is a tool for dynamically reducing a pattern’s length from its default of 16 steps. Steps marked ‘inactive’ are skipped rather than muted and since this applies to all parts simultaneously, it can severely disrupt time signatures. If you’ve skipped out of sync with other devices, a manual stop and start of playback is usually the answer and easily achieved.

Sample transfer is a  one-by-one process, in which you need to keep manual track of the destination slots. Sample transfer is a one-by-one process, in which you need to keep manual track of the destination slots. Before I wrap up, I must mention swing. This swing implementation is nothing short of fabulous and by this I don’t just mean it has its own knob. Swing shunts even-numbered steps forwards by up to 75 percent, backwards if combined with Func. It starts subtly, shifts into a loose and lazy feel before finally the notes almost trip over each other. Setting the right amount is best done by ear but, as the swing value is also displayed, you can take note of favourite amounts. Swing, along with its adjacent controls, is global and therefore not stored in a pattern.

AudioPocket

Without access to an iPad or iPhone, you’ll soon become very familiar with the 100 samples provided by Korg. Assuming you’re able to lay your hands on a suitable iOS device, AudioPocket is the app to install. It’s a free tool of the basic but functional variety, and is currently the only way to port samples to the Volca. For this it makes use of iTunes’ file sharing.

The Volca Sample takes all its raw material from just 4MB of flash memory. You’re provided with 100 memory slots, or a maximum of 65 seconds to do with as you will. Having auditioned Korg’s factories, which include solid recordings of classic drums, plus synths, hits and vocals, I took a pen and began noting down which to replace.

To delete samples and free up space you must power up the Volca in an alternate mode or, for a clean slate, the app will happily wipe the lot in a single operation. Naturally I tried this and, in timing tests, found it took around 13 minutes to reload the 100 factory samples. It was an eerie reminder of time spent waiting for games to load on the Sinclair Spectrum, not least because of the occasional failure and need to start over.

At just 193 x 115 x 45 mm the Volca Sample probably offers the highest knob-per-acre ratio of any hardware sampler.At just 193 x 115 x 45 mm the Volca Sample probably offers the highest knob-per-acre ratio of any hardware sampler.The app communicates with the Volca Sample using a 3.5mm stereo lead connecting the iPad/iPhone output to the Volca’s sync input. Here’s where I really missed the fast and convenient card access of the ES1 and ESX1 Electribes. However, the extra work forces you to be more selective and very soon I was trimming and time-stretching to make the absolute best use of the available space, evoking yet more nostalgia for the olden days when my sampler had just 256K of RAM.

Audiopocket features basic sample recording and editing, but management of the available slots is a strictly manual affair. There’s no way to transmit an entire batch of user samples in one go either. I think it’s fair to say that, since the app is essential, it should be slicker. If Korg’s Development Kit bears fruit, we can look forward to apps for other platforms, but at the time of writing it’s iOS or nothing (with rumours that Android is not far behind). The app does, at least, handle a wide range of audio formats. Better still: even though the playback engine is 16-bit 32kHz mono, the Volca Sample was unfased by any sample I threw at it.

Conclusion

To Volca fetishists, the newest member of the gang will be a no-brainer to slot in as leader of the pack. It spanks the Volca Beats in almost all drum box departments and bulges with more sonic gonadry than any other Volca. It achieves all this without sacrificing any of the expected hands-on interaction, which is pretty remarkable. Korg must have asked themselves what features absolutely had to be included, and apart from the MIDI brainstorm it’s hard to fault any of their choices. In this simple, toy-like machine, sample manipulation has become something it always should have been: direct and fun.

I don’t have many complaints (and none are serious), but in an ideal world I’d have a proper editor on the same platform as my samples, ie. Mac rather than iPad. My next one isn’t so much a complaint as a wish. This Volca’s patterns are several degrees of complexity beyond its stable mates, so I’d love more of them, or at the very least a way to back them up. Other than that, it’s a tale of unwavering love for the Volca Sample and its meaty kicks, doingy reverb, twisted looping and swinging swing. With diverse source material and creative knob twiddling, countless sounds lie at your fingertips. If you hesitated over earlier Volcas, doubting their longevity due to size or feature set, the Volca Sample is still undeniably tiny. But close your eyes and you’d never believe it! I think I just talked myself into one.

Alternatives

A second-hand Korg ES1 might be the closest alternative, but I can’t think of anything contemporary that’s comparable. I’ve owned far more expensive sample players that never gave me this many smiles.

MIDI

The Volca Sample has a particularly greedy MIDI implementation with each of its parts allocated a unique channel. Squatting on 10 MIDI channels is spectacularly wasteful and reduces the Volca’s scope for occupying the same port as other gear. It’s also pretty pointless because the samples aren’t transposed by incoming notes: every note triggers an identical action. Fortunately you can completely deactivate note reception, but annoyingly this also disables the reception of MIDI CCs.

Out of interest, I sent a sequence of CC values from an external sequencer corresponding to the sample’s speed parameter. This technique for generating a bass line from repeated transpositions worked flawlessly over MIDI. However, when I captured the incoming data as a motion sequence, the built-in slew of values became obvious. While this artificial smoothing is effective when applied to recorded parameter tweaks, it adds an unnatural (if not totally unpleasant) slide to notes. In Korg’s Electribes, the smoothing process is optional, but I could find no way to turn it off here. Hopefully, Korg will look at this again in a future OS update. Incidentally, the act of motion-sequencing the level parameter (or sending the corresponding CCs from a sequencer) is the only way to add dynamics. Parts are not velocity sensitive.

Published February 2015