Thursday, 12 December 2013

Volca Bass Review

Finally got one!!

After waiting since September for my Volca Bass to arrive from Wunjo, with unknown transport delays from Korg cited as the reasons why, I have finally got my hands on a unit after finding one on Gumtree. Found it on Sunday, picked it up on Monday and hooked it up to the rest of the gear.

Appearance-wise, the Volca Bass is similar in layout and keyboard size to the Volca Beats, featuring just one line of faux-keys. Bright red LEDs adorn the buttons and sequencer, while there are plenty of lovely flashing red filter pots that react as the synth is played, so there is plenty of visual feedback to enjoy. These also serve a useful purpose, as the three oscillator detune knobs indicate which oscillators are playing.

Of course, the silver finish on the knobs and panels is an over the top nod to the venerable TB-303 and putting all three Volcas together shows up the bass clearly from the group. I have found the Electribe style knobs quite fun and smooth to use despite feeling a little cheap, probably the cheapest feel of all three of them, though this is to be expected with the price of the unit.

I have to say that Korg have really outdone themselves with the Bass and there are a ton of neat features worth looking at.


Bass Power

As with all the Korg Volca range, six AA batteries or the usual power supply from Maplin will sort you out here to ensure your synth noodling is never hampered by replacement battery woes. Just in case you know what to look for, check the following photo.



1.21 jiggawatts

On playing the bass for the first time, Korg have done well with the synth in placing it in the realms of easily accessible and thick low end. Three oscillators produce either sawtooth or square waves and while you can't adjust the waveform (as with the 303) you can always use the envelope and filter to shape your sound. Interestingly, all three oscillators can have their shape set independently of each other, so you can mix up the sonic possibilities (to quote Nick Batt of Sonic State). Unlike bass units like the Minitaur, which has a low range on the oscillators, these have a whole six octave range and make this unit deceptively versatile. If you wanted, I'm sure you could use this as a lead machine or polyphonic synth stabs as well.

Of course, while these are all well and good on their own, the real power of these three is what you can do with them together. The three can either be combined into a mean unison mode separated into two groups (two oscillators on one line, the third solo) or all three can be played independently.

I haven't found a great many uses for running three separate patterns together as yet, though i have managed to make chord stabs by recording all three patterns separately. Of course, you can also do the same chord effect by using unison mode and setting two oscillators to be pitched several notes above the third and create fifths etc, but this method does give you more control over the range of pitches used at a trade-off of being more fiddly to program



In unison mode, be it two or three voice, this is where the synth really shows its magic. You can detune each oscillator by 0-100 cents or incremental notes up to plus or minus one octave, so you can easily add a sub octave for more beefy low end or detune two of the oscillators away from a third to create thick, evolving bass lines common in drum and bass. While detune does feature in the Volca Keys and there's nothing to stop you creating similar sounds with that, the Volca Bass' detuning is much more refined and flexible.

In control

As with other Volca units, the Bass comes with plenty of standard features common to all three, including a touch sensitive step sequencer, eight non volatile memory banks for saving/recalling patterns, MIDI in control for plugging in to external keyboards or DAW and in/out CV tempo control. In hooking them up with the other Volca beats and Volca Keys they work really well as an ensemble unit of specialist synth boxes, not to mention a great sight to see them blinking together.

I can definitely see people using this as a breakout synth expander or as a standalone bass unit controlled via MIDI. It's solid enough in the low end to provide more than enough of a challenge for other more expensive bass synths, if slightly more unrefined bass is your thing or you want an easily accessible alternative to the Bass station or TB 303.

We {heart} acid

Rather than a bespoke filter, copycat 303 or similar, the Korg filter is supposedly taken from an older synth design. The cutoff knob dominates the front panel, with the resonance taking its place on the left, whilst the filter has a dedicated A D/R envelope shaper with an intensity setting. So you can easily make some more funky bass sounds or quickly adjust things on the fly. The synth does have a sustain setting, though this is tucked away as an option using the function button and a keyboard press, alongside the option to enable the envelope to affect the amplitude instead.

So, can you do acid with this filter? The answer is naturally "absolutely"; the Volca Bass squeals at high resonance and often distorts wildly, but often I have found it to be quite innefectual until the resonance knob is turned toward the 70% mark. The quickest and easiest solution is just to increase the EQ intensity, which allows greater levels of crazy resonance squealing, though when you open up the filter to around 80% you do seem to lose the high pitched resonance effect. It is a little disappointing but it's a real joy to get a slice of the early techno scene at this kind of price.

Light Steppin'

The step sequencer on the Volca Bass has a lot in common with the Beats, where notes are quantised to sixteen steps and can either be recorded live or by using a step edit mode where individual notes can be entered into the sequencer (using the play button to insert rests) and then played back it is surprisingly easy to record bass patterns on the fly but adjusting them does take a but more effort to cycle through all the steps until you get the one you want. Miss the step and it's back to the start again. However, I have found it easier just to clear the active part and rerecord as fast as possible, so all is not lost.

In keeping with the 303, you can also set notes to slide for more of an acid bass sound and in a similar fashion to the note sequencer: just touch the steps where you want the notes to slide and the lights will indicate where in the pattern this effect will occur.

The only limitation to the sequencer is that it inherits the only flaw of the Volca Beats, that bring the pattern length of only sixteen beats. This means that the Volca Keys has a definite advantage over the bass in terms of setting up a longer pattern to play, but that this fits in nicely with the ethos of the range, where one box performs a specific function.



Conclusion


While there is no denying that the Volca Bass has its flaws, these are easily overlooked for people wanting a cheaper alternative to the 303. It's powerful, no-nonsense bass twiddlimg at its simplest and in combination with its Volca brothers makes it even more fun. Dig a bit deeper and the Bass also acts as a credible, all-round monosynth unit all on its own and would be perfect for a music producer who wants the best of both worlds - a synth for DAW use as well as for live play or musical experimentation. My biggest gripe has to be with Korg's supply chain woes, as I have no doubt that there will be plenty of people lining up to buy one of these as soon as they come into wider circulation.