The microKORG is one of the great music instrument product hits of recent years. It’s a product that has managed to reach out of the claustrophobic, aging niche of traditional keyboard buyers to a wider audience of rockers and music enthusiasts. It’s not the only keyboard to be “cool” – hello, Moog – but it’s the rare keyboard that’s both cool and cheap, not to mention small. The cheap plastic-y mic and army beige color only added to the appeal, and encouraged people to write on it with metallic pens and apply stickers and make it theirs. And the sound combination – lovely MS2000-style analog modeling with accessible vocoder – hit the market right on the nose.

Korg has already tried to come up with a sequel, the Korg R3, which we saw at NAMM in 2007. Now, I don’t know how the R3 sold, but I do know that while I was impressed by it on paper, it hasn’t really inspired the love and affection the microKORG did. Somewhere on its way to being a more grown-up microKORG, it became a boring grown-up synth. It’s still small, and it still has a mic and vocoder. And theoretically having real keys should have been a selling point, as should the improved MMT synth engine from the RADIAS. But something about that charcoal-colored case and generic design sucked the soul out of the microKORG and failed to connect to people’s hearts in the same way. People liked the microKORG because it seemed eccentric and toy-like, not in spite of it. Then there’s the problem that “R3” is meaningless and impossible to remember. I’m sure the R3 made many people happy, but I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t the phenomenon its quirky stablemate was.

The R3 was positioned as an older sibling. The microKORG XL, which I expect will be unveiled at NAMM and got its specs released today, is the real successor to the microKORG.

microKORG XL Product Page [Korg UK]

I’ve been utterly scooped by the UK again. MusicRadar gets specs, photos, and the first official announcement (Korg, see my side note about that at the end of this story):

Korg microKORG XL: official specs and photo

Korg microKORG XL to launch at NAMM? 

And Synthtopia got the first scoop and video:

Updated: This video is an excellent illustration of exactly how the XL will sound if you’re at the bottom of the ocean. Inside the stomach of a shark. Broadcasting on a satellite phone from inside the stomach of the shark on the bottom of the ocean. (Sorry, I had neglected to watch the video as I was having connection problems, or the sun was in my eyes, or something.)

This time, the strategy is different. Beige is out, as are the endless silkscreened presets printed on the outside. But the tiny keys and retro-inspired design remains.

How do the two compare?

Streamlined controls: The XL has a layout that actually seems to make some sense. Big knobs, oldskool rocker toggles, and no wasted space: just a few, carefully-chosen controls laid out neatly so even big fingers can get around them. There are still dedicated vocoder and arp buttons, and the octave shift, while replaced with a toggle switch, remains accessible. All in all, this looks like an improvement, though I suspect some people will miss the eight buttons for quick access to programs.

Better mic: Okay, the mic on the microKORG was charming – but also seemed liable to break. The XL now has the R3’s more rugged mic and windscreen.

Improved sound engine: Like the R3, the XL will get the MMT “Multi Modeling Technology” from the RADIAS. That means, like the RADIAS, it’s also a PCM-based ROMpler as well as virtual analog synth. I’m of a mixed mind on this one. While the PCM functions should broaden the appeal of the keyboard, I think it was the microKORG’s laser-like focus that made it so appealing. On the other hand, MMT’s virtual analog sounds reasonably good, and you get a much-needed vocoder improvement, with the MMT 16-band vocoder in place of the not-so-fantastic vocoder on the original.

New key action: Korg promises improved action and better proportioning of key size. I’ll believe it when I touch it.

Oddest decision: The two knobs now select presets instead of just one. One selects bank, the other instrument – okay, fair enough. But the one knob is genre (“ROCK/POP”) while the other selects “BASS,” “LEAD,” etc. I think that runs dangerously close to insulting people’s intelligence, which is rarely a good way to reach out to new players. The original microKORG was picked up as a first synth by people because they connected with it emotionally, not because it pandered to them. Clarification: the original microKORG also had a knob with genre labels. Most people ignored it, which I think is probably the right answer. It’s a bit silly, but it’s not a deal-breaker. That said, let’s go have some fun with this idea.

I’m going to make an odd prediction: I think original microKORGs may actually rise in value with the XL’s release. I’m not entirely convinced Korg got what made the original appealing – things like its unusual color, and not things like putting genre on a knob. That said, I think the XL will be a big hit in a way the R3 won’t. For my own mind, I’m most interested to see what they did with the key action. If they nailed that, then the combination with a better vocoder could make this a really fun buy.

There is some competition in this market, like Novation’s Xiosynth and the Alesis Micron. Those two synths have unique sounds of their own that could make them worth buying. But the microSYNTH still oozes personality, and the vocoder as icing really makes people love the thing. For that reason, I think the XL will be hard to beat – especially as people more interested in sound can go to soft synths or trade up to real analog with Dave Smith or Moog.

Price is likely to be a huge factor. I can tell you that it won’t be easy for Korg: economic instability and the surging Yen make cheap pricing a challenge. But I am hopeful they’ll be able to keep list low, because it’ll be good for them and good for us. Stay tuned. February 09 availability is the word.

We’ll be watching – Korg’s US office is just a short Long Island Railroad ride away.

Original microKORG

Side note: Can we just be an honorary UK publication? Hey, CDM’s #1 city for readership is London. (Really, ahead of NYC.) The UK readers were overwhelming in their response (and depth of response) in our recent holiday survey. And you UK press folks seem to get all the scoops. I can just stay up late playing Left4Dead to sync up with your time zone. I’ll be waiting on your response. Remember, the Financial District of NYC was loyal to the crown during the Revolution.

  • http://myspace.com/fallsastar Foosnark

    Ouch. Actually having "POWER POP" printed on the thing is like taking a -6 penalty to Charisma.

  • http://toilville.com peter

    I dunno, consider who actually uses the microkorg these all seem smart choices. Did any of the fifteen thousand brooklyn bands i saw with one in the last few years actually program their patches? unlikely.

  • http://snapshotintime.blogspot.com/ wi_ngo

    Yeah, the categorizing patches by genre thing always bugged me. I would agree with the 'insulting people's intelligence' quip.

    I just noticed my microkorg silently gathering dust in the corner yesterday. Great sound, but the tiny keys were always a bummer for me. The Micron has officially stolen my heart.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Oh, I'm all for presets … there's really nothing wrong with that. And frankly, I'm glad to see all those bands playing with these keys. I love synths. I want other people using synths. I don't expect everyone to be deep into programming.

    There is a thin line, though, at which point people actually find the feature annoying. The previous microKORG also had genre labels, but had the advantage of them not making any sense (see new post).

    At the very least, you might have to distract someone while switching to the POWER POP setting. Allow me to demonstrate:

    "Hey, look! Is that Brian Eno over there?"

    (swallowing pride)

  • StirHouse

    Don't diss the R3 – it is a little beast! The distortion options alone make it well worth the money. I love that thing.

  • Adrian Anders

    @peter

    Not just Brooklyn. Toss a stone in the Northwest and you're bound to hit a electro-pop hipster douchebag with a MicroKorg in one hand, and a MacBook running Reason in the other.

    It was fine in 2003, but in 2008 the trend is running a bit thin. "Oh look, I'm a musician who likes electronic instruments but knows nothing about sound-design. Watch me play this Casio-preset keyboard and sing silly little pop songs about a girl that dumped me in 8th grade."

    Tired.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @StirHouse: Definitely not dissing the R3. I'm personally fascinated by what does and doesn't catch. It seems to be a fashion decision. There's something that's not quite as lovable about the serious-looking R3.

    Then again, given what Adrian is saying, maybe the real "underground" choice is now the R3! ;)

    Anyway, I'll defend both keyboards. I think they're great options. They're not your only option, for sure — well worth checking out the competitors and seeing which fits you best. But I think the microKORG deserves some credit for its popularity. Korg really did a good job with this one, and so they sold a lot of them – including to those people you don't (ahem) really want to listen to! (If instruments were guilty by association with bad artists, jeez, we'd all be in big trouble…)

  • http://www.chromedecay.org J. Schnable

    Ok, maybe it's just a bad photo, but I think I see this in the videos too – is there some weird black plastic base on the bottom of this? Or, did they just photograph it on a piece of plastic just slightly larger than the keyboard itself?

    I sort of have a bad feeling that it IS part of the keyboard, and if so, that's really weird (and FUG). I'm sure from Korg's standpoint, it likely simplifies the injection molding of plastic and overall assembly process.

    I'd rather have a synth of out wood and felt, thank you very much: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2008/09/08/making-m

  • veeble

    Looks hot. Shame they lamed it down a lot with the whole "genre" thing. I guess some masking tape and pens shall sort that out!

  • http://www.goringo.de Cowboy

    Sorry, but the video is no enhancement to the picture. I wonder how anyone can publish something as painful as this at all…

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Cowboy: Uh… yes, indeed, you're right. I had neglected to watch that video while my connection was glitching out this morning. Alternatively, you could just squint at the photo and make "bleep, bleep" noise and simulate this as well.

    Anyway… what do folks think of the keyboard? If you've heard the RADIAS or the R3, you've got basically the same thing here with a smaller keyboard and a microKORG-style interface.

    As a soft synth lover, it's personally hard for me to dump cash on this since I'm pretty happy with virtual analog on my computer; I'd go for some quirky real-analog synth instead. But I can see going to it for the vocoder.

  • dead_red_eyes

    @ Peter – "As a soft synth lover, it’s personally hard for me to dump cash on this since I’m pretty happy with virtual analog on my computer"

    It's pretty much a no brainer when you compare something like the microKORG XL to Urs' Zebra 2. It looks like the keys are a bit larger and sturdier on the new microKORG.

    I still say you should just forget the microKORG and buy a Korg MS2000.

  • Rex Rhino

    Is it just me, or does the chassis look like it incorporates some sort of snap-on cover? Along with the sturdier looking knobs and switches, I imagined this more as the ruggedness microKorg "road edition".

    Also, the R3 (and MMT engine) isn't a ROMpler. R3 doesn't have any ROMpler capabilities, and most likely neither will the microKorg XL. The upgrade to the MMT engine adds improved synthesis and effects, and not ROMpling capabilities. The ROMpling capabilities of the Radius where just a side effect of giving it drum sounds.

    Does anyone know if this will be able to use R3 patches, and the instrument editor will allow full R3 style synthesis?

  • velocipede

    Seems that this microKorg might encourage people to make their own patches and/or access a much greater variety of them. According to the UK site:

    "FREE! Downloadable sound editing software

    You can use a USB cable to connect the microKORG XL to your computer, and use the free sound editing software to organize your sounds and edit all of the parameters from your computer. In addition to the editing software, you can also download and use converted programs from microKORG and the MS2000/MS2000B free of charge."

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  • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

    I'm actually really happy about this as the MicroKorg is one of my favorite instruments. everyone has one and it seems to be cool to diss the MicroKorg. But I love the tiny keyboard, it's easy and fun for me to play.

    I've had a MS2000r but it didn't have the same "personality" as the MK for me, even though they are nearly the same synth

    I thought of getting a R3 in the future, but so long as the vocoder's the same, I'll get one of these.

  • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

    I'd like more than 128 sounds though, disappointing. one thing that annoys me about the MK, so tweakable but not enough space for all the sounds I want to make.

  • Polite

    Just thought I'd mention that I *love* my R3. The sounds on it are surprisingly 'lush' sounding compared even to my Virus A, and three layers of effects you can put on it mean you can get some awesomely huge sounds. The only thing that annoys me is using the menus. Admittedly they are alot easier to use than my virus, once again. Or pretty much any other synth i've had to use with a small lcd screen.

    Plus i totally fell in love with the black and red look. Something about it always made me think of that old sci-fi movie the back hole, with that creepy floaty robot with the helicopter blade hands.

    Having said that, i really like the look of the XL, and I only wish that one day i might be able to get my hands on a MS-20 or MS2000. *sighs and stares off into the distance*

  • http://www.batterycollection.net jmelnyk

    i adore the microkorg. if this means korg's stopping sales of the original, then i'll likely be buying a backup for mine.

    what makes me sad about the microkorg is that i, like others, scoffed at it for years because you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an indie band gigging with a nord electro and/or a microkorg. it turned me off. but then i spent some time with it and absolutely love it. it's analog modeling isn't the best but it's usable (and great live for faking parts i recorded with gear worth several thousand). and that's not what its great for anyway. its great because it's fun and inspiring and sounds terrific. regardless of whether it's cool to have one or not.

    schnable – i think it's meant to look like an electric piano (rhodes or wurli). when i first saw the pics of it i was really excited, thinking that that's precisely what it was – korg's micro version of an electromechanical keyboard. but alas, no dice. it is cool looking tho and i do kind of hope rex rhino's right and it incorporates a snap on cover. finding a hard case for the original is a bitch.

  • aaron

    The R3 wasn't a sequel.. the R3 is to the Radius as the MK is to the MS2000. Simple as that. MK was cheap enough to build with a high enough mark up for profit and low enough tag with a great sound for popularity that it made them oodles of money which is why they kept it in production unlike the more expensive and intentionally limited time offering that was the MS20 aniversay synth, MS2k.

    The spin on the retro stylings of the new MK looks more like a Realistic / Radioshack device than any other old synth, but I like it.

    Also.. the used market prices of the MK will most definitely not rise for years to come. Why? Pure and simple.. theres thousands of them out there. Thousands upon thousands. Most owned by hobbists and kids that'll eventually sell them off or give them away. Same reason you can get a DX7 for 200$'s.

  • Rupert Lally

    Had a MK for several years before selling it earlier this year. The sound was good, but the small keys and the user interface were drawbacks. I never understood why they only put 5 controller knobs on there, they could have put double that and reduced the need for as much selecting parameters with the main knob. Personally if you´re going to program a synth with only 4 or 5 knobs, then Waldorf´s Blofield seems a much more logical front panel layout. At least with the XL they seemed to have accepted that most of the people who will buy this instrument will only use the presets and not bother programming the thing.

  • http://www.placeguntohead.com proem

    um,… i have an R3.

    so i guess that lends credit to the new underground choice thing..

    i've had it for a year.

    its great. its also the only hardware synth ive ever bought.

    the motivating factor was definately a fashion choice. i needed a vocoder and the microkorg looked like a toy in comparision. not that i have a problem with toys

    i love toys,

    especially new ones

  • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

    also where are the arpeggiator step buttons? (they doubled as patch selector buttons which seem to be replaced by the second knob.)

    Being able to turn off arpeggiator steps is one of the most fun things about the MicroKorg. you can do it on the R3.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @lilith:

    That's a really good point … in fact, those are gone, which is hugely problematic.

    Based on the feedback here, I think an R3 versus microKORG XL comparison is in order. It seems like there's a lot missing on the XL in terms of control. And the fact that the R3 is about US$550 street means the bar is set pretty high as far as value. (I see you can get a blemished model for $450!)

  • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

    I think Korg had a $100 rebate on the R3 last year, or maybe it was just Guitar Center.

    R3 is looking more attractive and the MKXL less so. If the XL costs more than $300 I'm not sure I want it.

  • http://www.gomakemusic.de Max

    It seems KORG can't decide, which way they wanna go: according to korg.co.uk the "new vintage design is both fresh and nostalgic". At the same time? The name is almost paradoxal too: micro and XL…

  • gas

    For some idea of price comparison, check this Australian retailer's prices for the mk and the mk xl:

    http://www.storedj.com.au/products/product.php?id

    http://www.storedj.com.au/products/product.php?id

    that might not go down so well.

    Waiting for some proper reviews though.

  • http://www.eyensee.tv/etv/index.php/video/1-video/23-aretha-franklins-googly-moogly MuhMusik

    what keyboard is this guy using? http://www.eyensee.tv/etv/index.php/video/1-video

  • http://www.mbirafon.com Giambattista Marcucc

    Yes, Shanable, the weird black plastic base is just horrible, and may get easily broken … (I don't care if it remainds and old electric piano). To me this is the only negative point of microKorg XL. I wonder how Korg designers could do such a aesthetic monstrosity.

  • Angel

    Hmm… The new MicroKorg XL is missing the arpeggiator step buttons and Formant Motion. It looks like, aside from not having a vintage-look and portability, the older R3 has more features! Now I am kind of disappointed…

  • http://nothing.nu LE FORCE

    looks pretty freakin' legit to me- and jetdaisuke was excited as charlie sheen at a strip club when he got his in the mail.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYpPB3ztZLk

    dude reminds me of ralphy right when he finally gets his official red ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass on the stock and this thing which tells time.

    he also composed this incredibly catchy track (in japanese) with nothing but the xl and garage band:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6hjxAFUPJ0

    you guys are hating before you even know what you are talking about.

    look at a high res photo and you will see that there is an ARP button a switch to raise or lower octave on the left below the volume and tempo knobs.

    see for yourself:

    http://www.musiciansbuy.com/MMMBCom/images/korg_m

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  • JamesR

    What about the editing the individual steps of the ARP? How hard is it to modify?

  • Key Figure

    The R3 still wins my heart. The simplified micro korg aka MKXL does have a plastic casing. The keys are much more comfortable then the older micro korg, but they are still too small. They resized them so it's easier for lead lines. I believe leading musicians further away from understanding how to build sound waves by labeling 'genres' and getting rid of "confusing" terms like oscillator is just sad.

    The R3 will still be more expensive for a good reason, it's better!

  • http://www.korg.com Rich F from Korg

    Hi all,

    My name's Rich, I'm a Marketing Specialist from Korg USA. I just wanted to jump in and provide a list of differences between the microKORG and the R3. Feature-wise (and price-wise), the microKORG XL sits right between the classic microKORG and the R3.

    1. The R3 can use Modulation Sequences (recording smooth or stepped parameter movement over a series of steps), the microKORG XL cannot.

    2. The R3’s vocoder has a Formant Motion function, which can record and store 16 chunks of 7.5-second formant data. The microKORG XL can store only a single formant shape (one vowel) using its Formant Hold function, just like the classic microKORG.

    Since the microKORG XL lacks the dedicated Formant Hold button of the classic microKORG, here's how you do it: With the knobs in Full Edit mode, turn knob #1 to "VC FILT," then turn knob #2 to "EF SENS." Then, while saying a vowel sound into the mic, turn knob #3 all the way up to "HOLD." This is a great parameter for one of the assignable knob functions.

    3. Let’s not forget hardware… the full-size keys, individual LCD displays, 8 buttons for presets and arpeggiator settings, and LED-lit knobs make playing and editing easier on the R3 (the XL’s new keys are a HUGE improvement, though).

    4. A point for the microKORG XL here- it takes batteries, and the R3 doesn’t. They both come with power supplies.

    5. Another XL point… The XL DOES have some updated PCM data in the form of acoustic/electric pianos, clavs, organs, and a couple other instruments. Both the XL and the R3 have DWGS waveforms, and the XL sacrifices some of those in favor of this new PCM data.

    6. You can still edit arpeggios on the XL, but this time you’re doing it with the display and knobs versus the 8 buttons that you know from the classic microKORG and R3.

    Here's how: With the knobs in Full Edit mode, turn knob #1 to "ARPSTEP," then turn knob #2 to select the step you want to change, then turn knob #3 to switch the step off or on.

    Note that when you leave Full Edit mode and then come back, it remembers which page you were on. This makes the parameter a little quicker to get to during performance.

    I hope this helps,

    Rich F

  • Rich F from Korg

    I know this thread is old by now, but I accidentally left something off the list and wanted to be complete:

    7. The effects structure is slightly different. Whereas the R3 has two insert effects per timbre plus a master effect (5 effects total), the microKORG XL has two master effects and no insert effects. The R3 also has more effect algorithm than the microKORG, most notably reverb and cabinet simulation.