Sunday, 20 October 2013

Volca Keys Review

As all signs from Korg seem to be pessimistic, it looks like the Volca Bass synthesiser won't be available to pick up and purchase until around mid to late October. One school of thought says that customer demand is the reason, while others report that a lost container of units aboard a shipping vessel are to blame. 

Either way, to salve my need to get twiddling, I found that despite the hype around the Volcas, plenty of shops in and around London's Denmark street had single units of the Volca Keys in stock. As I had recently received a tenancy deposit back, I was allowed to by the powers that be to buy one to hook up to my existing Volca Beats and get fiddling.

First of all, let's get describing. This is a three vco analogue synthesiser with a LP filter, single LFO with three waveshapes and two destinations, portamento, detune and adjustable amplifier envelope. This comes with an analogue delay with rate and feedback control that is reminiscent of the Monotron Delay - even the majority of knobs are taken wholesale from the monotrons. The amp envelope comes with three adjustment knobs (attack, decay/release and sustain) as well as an envelope intensity knob, while the filter has an filter intensity and cutoff/resonance controls. The filter itself is nice and harsh and can really scream at high resonance levels. The Keys also has a portamento option for doing note slides and works well even with the ribbon controller.

Power up!


Once again, the Volca Keys uses a 9V centre positive power supply, where your local Maplin can help if you don't already have a power supply to hand. Otherwise, the slightly budget-looking 6xAA batteries that Korg supply mean that you can start playing right out of the box and the built in speaker does the rest.

Oscillators...oscillating
Boxed in all its glory
The official literature on the packaging describes the VCO shapes as sawtooth, however there is a bit of square-like bite to the wave and it's not entirely unpleasant. Nicely enough, they cover a full six octaves so you can actually use it for nice basslines as well as pads, lead sounds and so on. Control is provided by a two octave, ribbon keyboard that doubles up for function keys to change LFO waves, for example. Perhaps most importantly, as this is a performance synth, the MIDI In functionality is a godsend here so that you can pull of decent chords without resorting to trying to use the. The ribbon is responsive but perhaps not the best for complicated, virtuoso play and could severely need a decent step sequencer. 

Speaking of which, the sequencer has several little tricks to play with that are worth mentioning. The sequencer can be slowed by half or a quarter for recording more lengthy sequences and can either be recorded in quantised steps or in freeflow mode, which Korg call Flux. Flux is very much the way to go for doing more interesting musical stuff where you don't want wholly quantised steps and the additional Metronome really helps to improve your sense of timing (though as a side function, the metronome prevents the delay from working).

The LFO is a fairly simple affair, in which frequency is controlled by a single rate knob and destination amounts for either pitch or filter cutoff or both together. The LFO is limited to three basic waveshapes: a sloping down sawtooth, triangle and square. Sadly no S+H but still very useable for simple and effective modulation and thanks to another trick on the Keys, there are plenty of other ways to change the synth parameters on the fly.

In the Mode

There are several different modes that the Keys can play, though depending on what music you make will depend on whether you can find them useful or not.

Poly mode offers a more-or-less standard three voice polyphonic play and it's only in this mode that you start pulling off three note chords and more interesting cascades. When it comes to chords, it's perfectly possible to hold three notes at once on the ribbon control or to build up a chord by sequencing three lines on top of each other. It's at this point that one of the bigger flaws of this synthesiser becomes obvious - for note-perfect play the ribbon controller is severely inaccurate, even for smaller fingers like my own. As the sequencer on the keys has no full step sequencer (either too-rigid notes or unquantised gibberish), you may find that when you do a bum take the only option is to rerecord. Frustrating if nothing else.

Thankfully, the inclusion of a MIDI in port helps a lot and while your controller's mod wheel may get no use, I'm happy to report that the Volca Keys reacts to pitch bend MIDI quite happily, for those funk bass and lead sounds. By default it's set to MIDI channel 1, but can be set on startup to listen for one of the other 15 channels - easy enough to work with if you just want to jam using the module. My Microkorg plugged in and played straight away!

Shiny shiny, shiny synthesiser...
Notes on the Keys can be detuned against each other using a single knob, though this is probably better reserved for the unison modes, where a bit of detuning creates some wispy strings and dance leads. The Unison mode is nice and phat, whilst I found the the octave and fifth modes a little bit limiting in what I can do with them but when it comes to musical experimentation they are always useful to have to hand.

Unfortunately, there is only proper three-voice polyphonic mode on the keys, which is Poly mode. Yes, there is supposed to be polyphonic play in the polyphonic ring mod mode, but the results are erratic with anything more than one note - blame the ring modulator for this - but the sound is nice for single voice lead lines!

Delay

Remember me?
As I have pointed out, the delay on the Volca keys is very reminiscent of the Monotron Delay, so if you have one of these you will be instantly aware of these and what you can do with it. It can do those lovely space echoes as much as it can do short distance reverb effects and the inclusion on this synth is a great idea for enhancing the keys as a main line synthesiser (though of course chords also benefit from this effect). I have noticed that if you drive the feedback up high on the delay circuit, you start getting some little bitcrush-like artifacts entering the mix, though I quite like this when I'm doing minimal stuff. Just something to be aware of.

Move your body

One of the nicer things on the Keys is the fully-fledged motion record function, which records any kind of tweaks you make across the pattern on most of the knobs - I have noticed that the filter resonance knob is not recorded in motion record, for example. But this does mean that you can make some nice, manual modulation and tweaks outside of using the LFO for modulation. You can turn the motion recorded tweaks on and off as well as include a "smooth" option, which to my ear doesn't seem to do much but I remain happy to be proven wrong! So despite only having one LFO, you can get some very complicated patterns going on with plenty of movement throughout. Even better, the knobs on the unit flash red to highlight where motion record data is being played back and it looks great to watch. The only problem I have come across is if you mess up a particular control's motion sequence, you have to either record over the top of it manually or clear all the motion control for the entire patch.

Conclusion

A much more versatile polyphonic synth than at first glance, especially with the delay and motion control to play with. Its Achilles Heels are the lack of decent, editable step sequencer and problems with accurate play via the ribbon control, but both of these things can be vastly improved with a proper controller with the MIDI in. In this way, I think that you could probably use the Volca Keys quite effectively as a standalone synth with a DAW. While I feel that I am really going to enjoy the Bass more when I eventually get it, the Keys has proved that it has a part to play in the Triumvirate of Volca units.