Sunday, 8 September 2013

Korg Volca Beats - Review!

So much fun crammed into such a little box!
After much waiting after the NAMM 2013 announcement, I finally put down £240 to pre-order the Korg Volca Beats and Bass with a lovely little shop on Denmark street called Wunjo Keys (on the former site of London Pro Audio, more on Wunjo later on). Whilst sitting having a meal with my family in a rare moment of togetherness in our busy lives, I got a call to say that one of the Volcas had arrived and did I want to pick it up?

Well, what do you think I said?


FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

Visually, it really is stunning for its size, which is roughly about the size of two and a half Monotrons end to end (yes, I measured...not the best ruler but there you go). Construction is a see-through black plastic with grey trim, together with gold plated contact pads and rubber toggle buttons. The four character red LED display is clear for showing parameters, though Korg haven't lost their touch for taking liberties with the alphabet when squeezing in mode names onto 4x7 segments. The yellow surface mounted LEDs are very bright indeed, while some of the playback toggle buttons and adjustment knobs are back lit and the hot neon orange logos make this a very striking little box of tricks.

The Volca Beats box itself is solid enough, though you will definitely want to keep this unmolested and unscratched. Yes, some of the comments I have seen about wobbly knobs (ooh err!) are warranted, but this is absolutely nothing to worry about in general operation and I have come to expect this with the price of the unit. This is made to get fun, mass-produced little boxes out to everyone and it does this perfectly.

PLAYING WITH POWER!

A quick word about power requirements: the Volca Beats takes 6 AA batteries and Korg see fit to give you a pack of cheap brand Volta cells in the box to get you started. However, before you end up remortgaging your house to pay for Duracell batteries, it can be driven off of a center positive 9V power supply* and I had bought a couple of variable voltage power supplies from Maplin (code: XX09K) that do the job perfectly for powering my Mini KP2 effects unit, the Kaossilators and the Volcas. You need one of the mini yellow tips (fourth from right in the Maplin photo) that fits both the Kaossilators and Volcas, only the Volcas take a lot more volts, so don't get them mixed up.

* Initially I had thought that the Korg MicroKorg power supply would be sufficient, but this is completely incorrect: the plug will not fit and the MicroKorg power supply is actually center negative. TL:DR, do not use the power supply from your MicroKorg.

BOOM CLACK:

So what about the sounds? The kick, snare, low/high toms and open/closed hihats are all analogue whilst the claps, agogo, claves and crash are PCM samples. Each sound's volume can be adjusted by a small knob between the volume and tempo knobs or can be muted completely on a per-channel basis, so you can bring certain instruments out in the mix if you want percussion sounds or just want the kick / snare to shine through.


The kick drum is the killer here: it's a near perfect recreation of the booming 808 kick, with plenty of movement in delay and pitch to make the sort of music that needs this particular sound. On the other hand, the snare is quite minimal and is best used in conjunction with the claps or crash to beef it up a bit, but this is a very small issue. Just don't expect a phat 909 or loud 808 "tish" snare. Aside from the kick, it seems that the Volca is trying to combine some old classic sounds with other new ones and in doing so means that the Volca isn't simply an 808 clone (for this I can recommend the MFB 522e that I have tried extensively), giving it a unique character of its own. 

Needless to say, you can make some pretty nice hip hop, booty bass, trap, house, minimal and more with this unit and it's going to keep you busy for months tweaking and playing

STEADY EDITING:

Touted as an Electribe style sequencer, this is a straightforward toggle on-off set of buttons and you can either record live performance that quantises to the 16 beats or do a per-instrument step editing mode: use whichever takes your fancy or fits the mood at the time. Patterns can be saved and recalled in eight banks, but it should be worth noting that this only saves the pattern arrangement and not the tempo or drum synth parameters so don't expect total patch recall. It's also easy to delete arrangements as well, either on a per-pattern, instrument or step basis as well, using the editing buttons and corresponding contact pad indicated.

What sets this drum machine apart though are some of the cool performance functions. The stutter function, which has modifiable depth and time, retriggers either all the sounds or the actively selected sound in play and can be good to give a bit of variation to drum loops or created pseudo-delay effects to snares, for example. This can also be set in strict time to the tempo by using the function button to double up the time knob to select this, though some of the elements of the sounds (notably kick pitch and decay) are affected by having stutter on, so you might lose some of the low end. You can also retrigger (Korg calls it Step Jump) any number of beats to create fills, drum/snare rolls and other glitchy goodness - a simple effect but really useful and means that you don't have to reach for an external effects unit to trigger this.

EXTRAS:

I'm not going to go into Mods here (even though that is a super cool aspect of these Korg devices), but there are some surprisingly useful things you can do with your Volca that are worth checking out.

All hooked up: iPod Touch synced to Volca out to Mini KP2
If you own an iPod Touch or iPhone, you can use the included sync cable for the Volca from the iPod headphone out to the Volca Sync In and use the Monotribe Sync Kontrol App to control the Volca directly. It's a free app on the iTunes store that was designed to control the Monotribe, but as both it and the Volcas use the same standard for syncing, you can still use this app. So you can of course daisy chain your Volca to other volcas as well as other Monotribes, so you can jam in a nice long chain of synchronized beats.. 

The benefits this App provides is that you can increase the tempo further than the standard 240 BPM that the Volca alone allows you to use (though I'm not sure exactly what I can do with this musically) and also adds a tap tempo button to increase your control. Best of all, the app also allows you to add swing to the rhythm, so you can do some catchy shuffles that the Volca alone cannot do.

I have found the Sync Kontrol to be a bit idiosyncratic however: the best way I have found to get it working is to plug the Volca into your iPod Touch when it is already playing a pattern and then it syncs up perfectly, otherwise it sometimes just does not work.

CONCLUSION:

The Volca Beats is a lovely little drum machine that combines several different aspects of older Korg and Roland gear into an updated and significantly smaller chassis. Setting up and manipulating patterns is easy and fun and quite simply I cannot wait until the Bass drops (literally as well as figuratively) next week on Friday 13th. Just remember to get your Mini KP2, Monotron or other effects unit to add some much needed after effects to the sound chain as well. 

Beg borrow or steal one, just don't take mine ;)

My unboxing photos are here: