volca_1

They really are $149.99. And they really are a lot of fun. Korg’s Volca analog Keys synth, Bass synth, and Beats drum synth/drum machine were naturally one of the first stops yesterday. (See our official write-up and images, which just broke the record set by Korg’s own MS-20 mini to become the most popular CDM launch news story ever. Readers are evidently cuckoo for Korg.)

It’s hard to get a proper feel for sound at a trade show, but I was especially interested to know how these feel – particularly with some compromises keeping price and size down.

Benjamin Weiss of De:Bug, partner in crime in both journalism and music making, joined me. See Benjamin’s video below for some sound recorded in mono from a line out, plus my own video for a sense of scale/feel/finish; I hope to get better sound for you soon. But then let’s get to feel.

Each of the Volca, while clearly related, does take on its own character.

The lead synth on Keys is actually really nice, even if the Bass is stealing some of its thunder online. Hit a sweet spot and it can make some nice sounds. There is some sonic range, particularly with saw and square waves at the ready and poly, unison, and ring options. The Delay, as seen in the monotron, is a big part of its sound. And you finally get a proper resonance control on the filter, unlike some earlier monotrons. I do slightly miss the MS-10/MS-20 filter, but I need to hear more of this.

The Bass synth was at a significant disadvantage on a trade show floor, even with headphones. A test on a club sound system will be more fun and that’ll be our real test. My sense is the Volca Bass will be a distinctive bass synth. And because it has Korg’s own vintage filter, it should also be very different from a 303. (Anyone who says there’s not still room for a TB-303 is nuts; if anything, Volca is even more evidence that the 303 remains special. I don’t expect a Roland remake, to be honest, though I’d be happy to proven wrong. Until then, x0xb0x it is – or the more recent TT-303 project, as pointed out by a reader as an option. Volca Bass should be fun, but it’s not a 303.)

For all this talk about analog sound, the Drums machine is fun partly for its crunchy low fidelity, particularly once you start manipulating the PCM sounds and using the “Grain” control on the analog hat. There are some real edgy sounds to be had.

Feel was a bit easier to evaluate, and the news there to me was pretty good. Most of the controls are still the small, somewhat fiddly pots you know from the monotron, a concession to size. But the layout overall I found genuinely usable. And the overall feel is surprisingly nice: these really feel more expensive than their $150 street might suggest. There are some bigger, nicer knob caps on some of the controls – each one matched to the different controls. The Bass in particular benefits from this – its smaller control complement means it has mostly the nicer, bigger knobs on filter and LFO.

(We now have nice, big images in our write-up from yesterday to compare the controls.)

volca_2

volca_3

These three can be synced with each other, via those minijack connections for sync in and out, or via MIDI. (A multi-port MIDI interface here seems a must.)

The housing, too, seems more sturdy and fit and finish all look better overall. Everything has a bit of nice gloss to it. But the best surprise is the touch strip. It’s been given a complete redesign, with a high-gloss surface that’s nicer to touch and a wider area for your fingers. It’s still a bit frustrating trying to play a synth via a small touch strip, but this maximizes the experience.

Despite their wild popularity in the last days, I’m not sure the Volcas are for everyone. They’re simple gadgets – part of their appeal, but it does mean you have to like these particular limitations – and while they’re alone at the $150 price point, you still have a number of affordable gear choices. But having this addition to your choices is a nice, unexpected gift indeed. We’ll try to grab some more sounds and expect a proper review when these ship.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lemonster Peter Fernold

    Are you sure of the price? In other places they say 150 euro.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000412374804 Igor Warzocha

      that’s not unusual to make the numbers the same while currencies differ.

    • just passing

      European prices generally include VAT (about 20%, give or take a couple of points, across most of the EU); US prices generally don’t. For comparison, DV247.com are listing them for £120.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yes, though US prices *never* include VAT; the US isn’t part of the VAT system.

    • just passing

      I did wonder whether to clarify that I meant “US prices generally don’t include sales tax” as I was writing. I decided I probably didn’t – forgetting the old maxim that there is no such thing as “too pedantic” on the Internet.

      Lesson learned. (That’s my lesson, by me, about being as anal as I possibly can, in case anyone needs it clarified. And by “it” I mean the two word sentence which… has by now completely drained me of the will to live.)

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Sorry, this just needs clarification as many people are confused by it. And sales tax and value-added tax — that’s not just being pedantic; they’re diametrically opposed taxes. One is charged to the producer, one to the consumer (hence the confusion for why people think Korg is charging more in Europe when they aren’t).

    • retroz

      They’re exactly the same. Both are consumption taxes paid by the consumer. The only difference is that one is embedded in the retail price, the other is added to the retail price at the register.

    • Jeffwry

      exactly. diametrically opposed ? eh, if you say so peter.

    • just passing

      After this, er, forthright response, I did a little reading around the difference. And all I can say is that you must be using some definition of “diametrically opposed” of which I was previously unaware. The difference, as far as I can see, is purely a difference of implementation; as a producer, I can appreciate the significance of that difference to you, since you have to fight with it – but as a consumer, 16% of the purchase price is 16% of the purchase price, regardless of what it’s called or where it goes once I’ve had the retailer take 100% of the purchase price from me. And given that there are vastly more consumers than producers (oh, how I wish that were not so! but to get there I wouldn’t start from here), I think the contention that there is any overarching difference between the two models is… well, contentious.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Good God, you’ve managed to hijack this thread… ;)

      Yes, for the purposes of this article, they’re fundamentally different in how you publish pricing. One is a producer tax, one is a consumer tax, one is an international system, one is a country-by-country system, each is described differently when you publish pricing and the *difference* between the two is a common source of confusion. And I have to waste time almost every day explaining that when explaining the price disparity in “street” price on US and European products.

      They are both taxes – there, yes, you’re correct.

    • just passing

      I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to hijack anything. I felt picked on and got defensive, and that was stupid of me.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yes, I’m sure; $149.99 is the street price from Korg in the USA. 150 € is I think the correct EU pricing with VAT, though I don’t have that figure.

  • Geräuschwerk

    Now please Roland, make a new analog 303, and a lot of people will be forever grateful! :)

    • just passing

      I’m not even sure Roland know how. I remember reading about how hard it was to locate components for the x0xb0x; I also remember reading a forum post saying that someone had accidentally stumbled on a way to make the x0x sound even more 303ish by wiring a component (I think a diode?) the wrong way round. So it’s perhaps possible that Roland couldn’t make one, or couldn’t make one cost-effectively because what was dirt cheap then is unobtainium now, or don’t even know exactly how or why it sounds as it does anyway.

      And even if they did, I’d lay £50 on people carping that it didn’t sound like the original one…

  • Blue Monster 65

    $149 each at Sweetwater. Gonna be an interesting summer with the Waldorf Rocket, Bass Station II and now these. Way too many toys for my wallet to be happy!

  • Jeffwry

    “These three can be synced with each other, via those minijack
    connections for sync in and out, or via MIDI. (A multi-port MIDI
    interface here seems a must.)”

    well sure, if you’re sequencing each of them from a DAW. however using them as groove boxes and relying on the internal sequencers and/or live input/playing shouldn’t be an issue if you want to sync them all to your DAW. just sync one via midi, and then sync the rest to that one via the korg mini sync-ports. I think they made the right choice to keep costs down.

  • heinrichz

    dont mean to be a party pooper here but…while very cool gadgets, at this pricepoint i have my doubts about soundquality of filters and oscillators. so at the end of the the day..cui bono?

    • just passing

      But everyone forgets how crappy the 303′s oscillator and filter were, too. In the article, Peter says “Volca Bass should be fun, but it’s not a 303″ – but the 303 wasn’t a 303 either until they started showing up in flea markets for twenty notes a throw, and people started buying and using them because they couldn’t afford anything else. Only then did people work out what they were good for in their own right.

      I’d be truly saddened to see “but it’s not a 303″ or “a cheap 303 clone” go down as history’s verdict on a machine which, had it been launched for £120 in 1981, would have BEEN the 303 – because it would have suffered the same fate as the TB303 did, and Roland would have noticed and axed its own plans for something similar.

    • Buttermonster

      Like your way of thinking, mane!

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yes, absolutely, I agree. I didn’t say it wasn’t as good as a 303, just that it wasn’t the same.

    • Ruin

      oh, go buy a macbeth then for fucks sake.

    • SVMCWD

      “poor” sound = not boring, i’d say.
      it’s never a synth sounding good or bad, it’s always only the one using it hwo makes it sound whatever way, think of it.

  • RexRhino

    These look really cool… But I would have liked to see them will more oscillator waveforms. I worry that it won’t have a very broad range of sounds.

  • lemmings

    Does anyone know which knob movements are recordable on the respective volca models? It isn’t clear in any demos or the product specs on korg’s website.

    • squidf

      None of the Knobs are recordable, there’s only midi inputs (no midi output).

      There may be provisions for adding a DIY midi output (such as Monotribe), but I believe there’s major latency issues with knob movements and midi CC on the Monotribe.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      The digital knobs are recordable.

      And MIDI out is hackable.

      You should read the article I just posted. ;)

      http://createdigitalmusic.com/2013/05/hands-on-with-korgs/

  • Sclr

    Peter, how is the midi implemented on the keys and bass verssions? Are the separate oscillators stacked on the same midi channel and notes? Or are they on separate midi channels or have same midi channel with layers on different octaves?
    Trying to wrap my head around the midi on these.
    Thanks!

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Quite curious about MIDI myself; wasn’t able to work it out at the show but I’m researching. I would be really surprised if MIDI notes were addressed to individual oscillators, though. Question I had was what other implementation is there (CC, etc.) and if things are locked to channel 1.

  • Aaron

    ” PCM sounds with the “Grain” control.” The grain controls are on the OH/CL, which are analogue.. not the PCM sounds. PCM has speed/pitch and level.

  • http://twitter.com/omochiwokudasai Michele Ferrucci

    Wondering if it will be possible to add some samples via Mac or PC.. like the Electribe

  • perpetial3

    Are you all not excited for this: “You can also use the “SyncKontrol” iPhone app to wirelessly control tap tempo, swing settings, and synchronized playback with iOS music apps via WIST.”

    • A

      Yeah this is very cool! It’s great forward thinking, using one of the best aspects of CV to overcome one of the worst aspects of MIDI!

      There are a silly number of possibilities with wireless Bluetooth control built into these.

      I wonder if there will be a deeper sequencing app? Like the iElectribe or iMS20 could send pulses on the on steps or something.

      I’d buy wireless WIST MIDI dongles that I could jam on the back of my gear to keep it clocked in a heartbeat.

      Also makes the Volcas a neat general purpose sync option with many modular systems.

  • A

    @peter_kirn if you want the MS20 filter, buy the MS20. ;) The sync out of the volcas will be fun and you can use the ESP too.

    I think it’s awesome and smart korg has it’s own mostly battery powered modular system going on. MS20, monotribe, volcas and monotrons. I hope the monotrons can be software updated for more CV control or we see and updated version, but still, you rock Korg! :)

    How about Monotron DUO as voice expander for the Volca keys…

    I hope we get an external filtering option with the new filter, maybe as a mixer for all the volcas or it’s marked on the PCB to hack in.

  • Gm8hh
  • Greg Lőrincz

    Cheap and analog. I think it’s the beginning of a new era with the new MS-120, Waldorf and the Monotrons.

  • attileus

    Korg, please take my money…a 3 voice polyphonic analog minisynth? I want the V Keys… like NOW! They will sell like hot candy at a Christmas party!

  • Otto van Zanten

    Hey. I’m totally new to electronic music and this seems like the instruments to start out with. I really love the sounds but am not going to use the sequencing all the time. Can I get the bass version, plug in an external midi keyboard (or use the little touch keypad as far as it’s actually usable) and just jam with it like any synthesizer, but just get those awesome phat sounds this machine makes? That would be a great and cheap solution for me. The alternative for that money would be a Monotribe + Midi mod I think, but I think this is better at getting the sounds I like.

  • rvd112

    Very smart 150 a piece, altogether 450 so you have a 450 setup that can only make 3 sounds. And acid come on we’ve been there and it was awesome but you cant really think you could make music with this and think other people will actually enjoy it. I dont say i dont like it but i would love to see Korg make a new ‘analog’ electribe with full specs not the half decent toys since the monotribe. But maybe if you guys will buy these, they reconsider and take it up a step.

    • IllogicGate

      Vince Clarke made the 80s hit “Situation” under the name Yazoo with a drum machine, 2 synths, a vocal, and the occasional 3rd or 4th sound that was probably added in after recording, so making simple tunes with these shouldn’t be hard.

      Or you could use them to mess around with, which is kinda what they’re made for. I think these are really clever–you can have fun little jams with them when you’re bored, or you can plug them into a DAW/sequencer and use their unique sounds in a larger track.