Korg have released a trio of pretty amazing pocket analogue grooveboxes that have quite rightly been the talk of the town. We were lucky enough to go hands on with all three.
I love being able to make music in all its forms and genuinely don’t have a preference for how it is made. I’m happy to bang a pattern on an atabaque, lay down a rhythm on an iPhone or tap one out on my Maschine. So I don’t have the same fetishisation of the analogue past that some of my beatmaking friends do. Why quibble about pens when you could just be happy that you’re writing. That being said, there’s something joyful about the physicality of the Volca range. Being able to sit and twiddle with beats for hours on end on the sofa does help change your relationship with your music and playing with the Volca range these past few weeks has definitely been a fun musical journey.
All the units are slightly smaller than an iPad mini and can easily be thrown into a purse or backpack without creating too much additional bulk. I think Korg does a range of carrying cases as I’d be a little concerned about knobs breaking – but in theory they’re easy to take with you. All the units can be battery powered, and have a built in speaker which obviously aids portability, although a DC charger is extra which rankles ever so slightly. The included speaker is tinny but useful for sketching ideas on the go – but you’ll definitely want a pair of headphones to really feel their power. I love that all the units are backlit, which makes them as much performance tools as it does studio ones.
Initially, I was least excited by the Volca Beats – there are already many drum machines on the market. However I’m leading with it as surprisingly it’s the Volca Beats I had the most fun with. The Volca Beats’ headline feature should be it’s bass drum – hewn from an analogue sine wave it creates massive sound, which you need to connect the unit to some monitors or headphones to fully appreciate. Most of the unit uses analogue synthesis to create the drums sounds, but there are 4 PCM samples that you get to interact with in a different way.
“Surprisingly it’s the Volca Beats I had the most fun with.”
The Beats is limited in a way – there are only 8 sounds and there’s only so much you can do to make them your own. That being said, those restrictions create interesting challenges for you to mould the sounds in a way that’s distinctive and unique, without getting lost in hours sculpting sound envelopes. There was a 45 break between the previous sentence and this one as I turned my unit one and couldn’t stop playing around with the drum settings. Anyway the Kick and Snare get “click” and “snappy” setting respectively, which along with the decay and pitch are great ways of getting a range of sounds from punchy to boomy. The high hats sounds great and you can really go to town on getting some interesting rhythms going. And pitching the Toms is a great way to get a slight melody going. The PCM Clap is amazing, although I have reservations about the claves, crash and agogo and ended up using them a lot less.
Performing with the Beats was a tonne of fun (had to take another break to play with it before I send it back). The Beat’s key performance feature is the Stutter control, accessed via two Time and Depth knobs. You can set these globally, and great difficult off-beat rhythms of just lay them on top of the selected part. I really enjoyed mixing this with the PCM speed control and creating cool sounds that helped build tracks to a climax.
“A pocket 303 is a godsend for all those who crave mobile acid house.”
This generated the most buzz when it was announced and quite rightly so. A pocket 303 is a godsend for all those who crave mobile acid house – and they are many in number. The “Bass” is maybe a little misleading and you can do an awful lot with the unit – the three separate voices can been sequenced in loops and work triple shifts in the low medium and high octaves (although they will go through the same filter). You can also layer these sounds and with the different tunings available to you, create incredibly rich, thick sounds.
Playing the Bass is not as much fun as the Beats – the tiny keyboard can be a little baffling, especially as it’s not laid out in the traditional keyboard sense and it can be hard to fight those instincts. The fold out paper manual isn’t the clearest but you can fire it up and sort of push buttons until you start hearing pleasing sounds. Of course the real enjoyable thing with the Bass is playing the actual sounds once they are sequenced and the giant Cutoff knob at the heart of the control panel can create endless pleasure on its own.
The Volca Keys improves upon the keyboard layout of the Bass by adding in “the black keys” making it a little easier for a traditional keyboard player to get going. It’s still not the greatest keyboard in the world though and it really makes you appreciate the MIDI in.
The sounds from the Keys however really are striking and the beep, boops, screeches and squelches are amazing for tweaking out some EDM. The Keys makes an amazing companion to the Bass and Beats – especially as you can sync up all three (or more) up using the supplied 3.5 mm cable. You can record adjustments – like classic filter sweeps and such and Korg have made it relatively to just hit the thing and get a pleasing sound.
The built-in delay is fine for creating simple effects and has a lo-fi charm but if you want to do anything special you’re going to have to look outside the onboard effects.
At £120 each the Volca Keys put amazing analogue synthesis in your hand/studio/pocket. The low price is frankly stunning for the sound quality and if you can stretch to getting all 3 I would definitely recommend it.