Beats, Bass, Keys - a drum machine, a bass synth, and a lead synth, analog and $150 each. Now with MIDI.

Beats, Bass, Keys – a drum machine, a bass synth, and a lead synth, analog and $150 each. Now with MIDI. All images courtesy KORG; click for biggie versions.

The rumors are true: Korg has not one, but three pint-sized, $150 analog groove boxes – two analog synths and a PCM/analog drum machine.

Korg established a bit of a formula with the Monotron and Monotribe: pack some vintage sound and quirky personality into a small box, make it all self-contained (with speaker, batteries, simple touch strips), and then make it affordable. The result is cute, little analog boxes that only Korg could make – and at a price only a big maker could pull off.

Volca keeps to that formula, with new synthesis and drum adding step sequencing features and MIDI that make these into bona fide groove boxes. That MIDI in port finally adds what previously required hacking your Monotron and Monotribe to achieve.

$149.99 for an analog groove box, and these things should sell like candy.

And while Roland seemed to ponder recently whether it should remake the TB-303, the Volca boxes look an awful lot like Roland’s classic bass synth, in form factor and mini keyboard. No matter – first indications are that these will sound very different. Like the MS-20 mini earlier this year, the synths also build on a remade classic Korg analog filter design. (The MS-20 mini, as a more slavish remake of an original and a full-fledged synth with patch bay and keyboard, seems otherwise a different animal, but the fact that it also reuses that filter is significant.)

Adding MIDI to me is a pretty significant improvement. So, while the Volcas do have tiny touch strips for when you don’t have a MIDI keyboard handy, you’re no longer forced to perform finger-twisting feats of musicianship – you can use a real keyboard or sequencer as with a “grown-up” synth. It seems that the Volca has lost none of the trademark, lovable oddness, though, in the process.

Video, so you can hear them:

The three Volca models:
Keys, a “lead” synth
Bass, a bass synth
Beats, a rhythm machine

And they create “the distinctive, massive sounds that can only come from a true analog synthesizer.” (Actually, okay, that’s not really what analog does, but it’d take a really long press release to explain what it means to be analog, so let’s just pretend it’s true and move on.)

volcahands

Common features:
Loop sequencer (simple phrase-based storage for self-contained groove creation)
MIDI input (for control and sync, it seems)
Battery-powered
Built-in speakers
Minijack output
Minijack sync in/out (directly, for connecting Volcas)

Note that they no longer contain audio input, so the old monotron remains interesting as an effects box. Those three jacks are headphone, sync in, sync out.

Keys:
Three oscillators, tuned in unison up to three-part chords
Filter from the miniKORG700S, the 1974 Korg model (so before the 1978-vintage MS-10/20 filter in recent Korg outings)
16-step sequencer
Delay effects

Korg isn’t pitching this as a toy, either. They call the new synths “a new chapter in Korg’s long history of analog synthesizers,” and boast that the Lead generates sound beyond what you’d think in its small body.

Bass:
Similar to Keys, but focusing on bass sounds rather than leads, and with an eye, Korg says, to acid techno basslines
Step sequencer, “distilled” from Electribe (well, it works in a similar way)
Three oscillators with a voicing controls for different combinations

Beats:
All-analog sounds – not sampled – reproducing Kick, Snare, Hi Tom, Lo Tom, Closed Hi Hat, and Open Hi Hat
PCM samples of clap, crash, etc. (using PCM for that makes sense, and is in keeping with the retro style of these machines)
Variations for sounds, via controls Click, Pitch, Decay
16-part sequencer

Korg oversimplifies what it means to be analog here, it’s true. but it is fair to say that analog circuitry is a reasonable means to the kinds of sonic ends they’re describing. It’s even more true that having synths for the drum machine means that you can create variations stock samples don’t give you.

But I’m impressed that they’ve got a low price and economical use of controls that make these self-contained, wildly portable, and playable. In a way, the fact that you can run them with a pair of headphones and batteries makes it even more appealing that you can also use MIDI when you need it – you aren’t stuck with a closed box, but you can also play away from other gear.

July availability. US$149.99 each.
korg.com

I have lots of additional questions, so I’ll be getting up close with these here in Frankfurt. Keep an eye out.

I’ll also be looking to some of the boutique makers, not just Korg – yes, to readers saying check out MFB, you can bet I’ll do that. (It’ll just be easier after Messe – Korg returns to Japan, but some of these smaller makers go back to Berlin with me.)

Japanese product page: http://www.korg.co.jp/Product/Dance/volca/
US product page (taking a little bit to come online): http://korg.com/volca

vbeats

vkeys

vbass

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513257310 Michael Walsh

    Nice post, Peter. Thanks for the instant information. Eager to read your thoughts about the new MFB machines.

  • http://twitter.com/SyntheticJuice SyntheticJuice

    If these don’t have that “pop” sound the monotribe suffers on note off, I’ll most likely get all 3 of them. That’s the only thing that bugs me about my monotribe (with the miditribe mod).

  • Hoppa

    Holy sound!
    These look very very promisin.
    People like me can’t afford those expensive analog gear.
    Finally someone started to think about us and do something for us.
    Looking forward to hearing your detailed analysis
    Thanks

  • bob

    a great and fast report…you´re a pro!

  • Sebastian Tomczak

    Fantastic, thanks for posting.

  • Electrosaurus

    Wow, Korg are really mocking their old adversary Roland these days… Good times.

  • Neil DJ-Hombre

    I’m a sucker for all acid sounds, so the bass unit is an instant purchase for me. Korg are pretty clever with their pricing too, as I’m now considering the drum unit and if I’m getting 2 why not go for the whole set?

  • http://twitter.com/thisIsNonplus Nonplus Bobby

    These are not $150 boxes. They must have a Chinese silent partner / shell company producing these at a net loss. #ambivalent. From the video, they look/sound/work pretty great. Thanks for the heads up.

    • retroz

      I expect they’ll be made in China. Korg has definitely done everything they can to cut production costs; eliminating knobs where possible and just using the bare potentiometer shafts, top-mounted I/O jacks, 3.5mm audio/headphone out, etc.

  • Daniel

    SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!1!111!!!!111oneone11eleven

    Such nice toys. I’ve got to get the whole collection. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/lazytrap mute

    WHAT THE F**** KORG!!!? I <3 U.

  • Rationalyst

    Great move from Korg, looks like nifty machines, nice companions for a live set, well-priced also and I like that the instances can communicate with each other. The video motivates me to apply for a job at Korg for producing their product demo songs though :)

    • audiohufter

      …could be they won’t hire you…it Has to look easy, in order to not intimidate the novice user, whilst making the more experienced producer/consumer think he can do Better :) )

  • Joe

    “And while Roland pondered recently whether it should remake the TB-303″ What’s your source?

    • http://betteroffted.com Ted James Butler

      Upvote.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Sorry, sorry – I wrote this quickly and didn’t intend to be provocative with this. Here’s the source. Roland USA wrote a retrospective on the 303.

      http://www.rolandus.com/blog/2013/03/28/tb-303-acid-flashback/

      Having a public statement that the 303 was the best single-oscillator monosynth ever seemed itself suggestive, particularly as Korg was just starting to ship its (more-than-one-oscillator) MS-20 mini monosynth remake. But there’s no indication that Roland was officially, publicly asking whether it should remake the 303. I do agree with Synthtopia, though, that it’s a reasonable question -

      http://www.synthtopia.com/content/2013/03/28/should-roland-bring-back-the-tb-303-bassline-synth/

      - and in many ways it’s a *more* obvious direct remake candidate than the MS-20 mini was (or for the matter the unusual filter that finds its way into this product here).

      But Roland does things Roland’s way, so we’ll see if that ever happens.

      In any event, *users* widely want a remade 303 – and Korg is shipping something in that form factor at a time when Roland themselves don’t. Hope this explains myself; apologies for the poor wording.

  • nn

    they should send a case of these to teh afx

  • http://twitter.com/lazytrap mute

    I wonder if the Sync ports will have hidden CV control on them as has been revealed by Korg to exist on the Monotribe… that makes these even more sexy if you’re like me and have a ms-20mini waiting to be shipped ;) )

  • Duplex

    bye bye Roland.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Doesn’t really have anything to do with Roland beyond the cosmetic. You get a Korg filter and lots of Korg features and a Korg-style step sequencer.

  • Gary

    Korg’s new products are great, it’s been a long time since i have actually gotten excited about new gear, but they are coming out with some great products at excellent prices. Hope they can figure out how to do a cheap modern version of vintage tape echo, that would be awesome. Is possible to make it smaller than an re-201 or stage echo without sacrificing sound quality very much?

  • http://twitter.com/sszdl James MK

    These look really, really, really good – I wonder if they’re designed to be hackable, like the Monotron and Monotribe were?

    • Slim Thicknuss

      I’d venture to say that most things aren’t DESIGNED to be hackable, by their very nature they just… are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nick.shepherd.106 Nick Shepherd

    I want the Beats & Bass so bad ! awesome little boxes & really great that they arent that “little” :)

  • http://twitter.com/hellotoot toot!

    Nice one Korg, finally one of the big boys is giving people what they actually want.

    • Modern3

      Really, this is what people want? Right. No thanks, I think I will pass.

    • just passing

      Cool. I hope you get something this MusikMesse that pleases you as much as these have pleased lots of other people. It’s a big world; there’s room for everyone in it.

    • Modern3

      Agreed. I have not seen anything at the Messe that I must have….except for the Apollo 16. That said, I was interested in the Nord 4 until I saw the tired tired retro interface. I will be getting a ‘Analog Four’ and awaiting the release of the ‘Pulse 2′ by Waldord. By the way, good and fair post.

    • http://twitter.com/hellotoot toot!

      Yes it is. Little boxes like this with limited features are a perfect compliment to using a laptop in a live (and compositional) setting.

    • Modern3

      The distinction it that it is hardly what everyone wants. I realise musicians generally have limited budgets, yet this is….well to each his own.

    • http://twitter.com/hellotoot toot!

      I never said ‘everyone’ but I see your point, I phrased my original post badly.
      I meant that there are a lot of people who are happier to see these little boxes than more feature heavy ‘virtual analogue’ efforts of recent years.

      Good luck with the Four, I’d get one if I wasn’t trying to spend less time with screens and menus.

    • Modern3

      Again, I see your points, I suppose I’m more disappointed by this movement toward a retro feel and equipment. The industry seems to be diverging to a path I find regrettable. That said I could not agree with you more, the endless menus are a significant hindrance. I mate of mine is working with a new synth company….small outfit. He showed me a picture of the two prototypes….I’ve never seen anything like it. Large LCD screens, and knobs….and more knobs. Knob per function. He says the aim is no submenus….we shall see. The UI and the synth itself was honestly something out of 2001 Space Odyssey.

      Cheers.

  • http://rekkerd.org Ronnie

    repeat after me: I don’t need these, I don’t need these, I don’t.. I… ugh…

    • just passing

      “i do need these, i do need these, i… think I’m getting this wrong…”

  • just passing

    An alarming thought: where does the advent of the Volca Keys leave the meeblip? Sure, they won’t sound the same; and sure, the meeblip has patch memories and (if you have a programmer and are one of about two dozen people capable of doing it) its DSP code can be completely rewritten – but last week, the meeblip had no real competition in its price range… and now it does, and that competition’s a real analogue synth and has a built in sequencer and (something that can do a vague impression of a) keyboard.

    • http://twitter.com/MeeBlip Meemert Morbius

      I can answer that. :)

      The Volca boxes are great motivators for those of us designing little, inexpensive synths; we’ve just been forced to up our game a bit. It also puts a bit of pressure on companies like Arturia, Dave Smith, Novation and even Moog.

      Peter and I will soon release a new USB-equipped Meeblip Micro with lots of knob and switch inputs for under $50. While it won’t sell a million units, there’s definitely demand for it as a DIY platform.

      We’ve also got some other Meeblip hardware at the production prototype stage that’s comparable to the Volca Keys in some ways, but with a dramatically different sound.

    • just passing

      Oh, I didn’t for a moment think you’d abandon it! And I’m glad to hear there’s shiny new stuff in the pipeline. And that you’re taking it as a challenge :) Will future Meeblips be staying all digital, or adopting a Shruthi-esque hybridness?

    • http://twitter.com/MeeBlip Meemert Morbius

      Things are definitely easier if you add a traditional VCF and VCA, rather than processing everything digitally, so don’t be surprised if we step away from the all-digital bandwagon at some point.

    • just passing

      For certain values of “easier” – you can’t add three more models of analogue VCF with a firmware upgrade, for one thing. :)

    • http://twitter.com/MeeBlip Meemert Morbius

      Definitely. There are some very interesting things you can do with hybrid digital/analog filter circuits, too.

    • Chris Grier

      Damn straight! Soooo … howzabout keepin’ us updated on yer progress? I for one am very interested in getting my grubby mitts on whatever hardware you crank out next …

  • bill pullman

    And while Roland pondered recently whether it should remake the TB-303, the Volca boxes look an awful lot like Roland’s classic bass synth, in form factor and mini keyboard. No matter – first indications are that these will sound very different.—-

    I really hate how your writing always safely coddles the corporations/manufactures that sponsor here and give you free shit. can you please become a little bit more opinionated! your readers deserve it…

    • gunboat_d

      ohh, we got a badass over here.

    • Joshua Schnable

      While Peter does get a fair number of exclusive previews and “hands on” tryouts of new gear, he does not get “free shit”. And if heavy handed critique is what you’re looking for, you should totally start your own blog, though. We’d all be fascinated to hear what you think of music making and technology.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Actually, I’m sure I regularly do fail to criticize something I should. But this is an odd example, no? Not sure which is the coddling, or which opinion you wanted.

  • itchy

    roland will be back and when they are. everyone will be buying there stuff to . its a consumer cycle.

  • bill pullman

    censorship too!!! wow

    • just passing

      Sweetie, when the government locks you up for saying what you want, that’s censorship. When you piss in someone’s armchair and they kick you out of their house, it’s called “not putting up with someone taking advantage of you”. You seem to have got away with soiling one armchair so far; I’d suggest that rather than carping about censorship like a whiny overprivileged fratfuck, you might want to quietly enquire as to the location of the cloakroom and the rear exit. In that order.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Heh, actually, comments don’t always refresh instantly. Didn’t block anything; I’ve barely had real Internet access all day.

  • BEARtronic

    I have to have these!….Korg are screaming into the lead. Getting it right time after time. wonderful!

  • perpetual3

    Instant buy! I’ve been waiting for years for these kind of boxes.

    • perpetual3

      You can also use the “SyncKontrol” iPhone app to wirelessly control tap tempo, swing settings, and synchronized playback with iOS music apps via WIST.

      YES!!!

  • http://www.camelaudio.com/ Chris Sciurba

    These look like a whole lot of fun, and at a price that will make them very tempting. Korg really is taking a rather cool direction these days.

  • HoHo

    These look fantastic for the price and I’m sure I’ll grab at least one, but they still seem a bit flimsy. I hope this is an incremental step toward replacing the Electribe series with a new line of performance-oriented analog synth boxes. In my mind, the best thing that could happen is that these sell briskly so that Korg can justify taking the next step and building some larger, multi-voice, programmable tabletop synths and drum machines housed in metal boxes that would survive many years of abuse.

    • bloodynails

      While these Volca series is an interesting direction, it just feels like Korg is trying to milk the current analog resurgence fad (something I personally don’t care for) with as many separate and limited little boxes as they can get away with, after having tested the waters with the monotron/monotribe. And as you add each Volca box, the total cost and the amount of space they take up quickly start to add up.

      Wish they would have just put out a new Electribe instead that combines features of EMX and
      ESX while losing the tube gimmick, and without skimping on envelope controls.

  • wndfrm

    wow. fantastic. i am supremely excited about the used gear / big box clearance market in a year or so =D

  • Volca

    https://www.facebook.com/KorgVolca?fref=ts
    new fun page for future users of Korg volca ;)

  • slabman

    Somebody please make a new analog synth with big knobs – the kind that let you grab and twiddle with finesse.
    Let me just re-emphasise – BIG KNOBS!

  • Christopher Davis

    Somewhere a Roland employee must be kicking themselves. They could have done these years ago and made tons of money. I love how Korg added not-so-subtle jabs at Roland: The 303-style knobs on the Volca Bass. The 808-inspired font and panel graphics of the Volca Beats. I don’t need these at all, but they’re too cheap and fun looking to say no. I already pre-ordered.

  • regend

    So here’s what I have gathered so far. For about 150 each x 3, which equals about $500 after sales tax in California, I get a lead synth, a bass synth, step sequencer, a drum machine, effects, filters, and interesting sync options. This competes with two of Korgs all in one keyboards the microstation at 399 which is geared to different customer of course. I like to see a shoot out with the Yamaha minimo and Casio’s XW-P1.

  • jimmy

    oh no, more thin sounding so called analog toys.

  • slutfxcker

    absolutely horrible sounding toys…unbelievable how many people fall for this crap.