Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Korg Micro X - new toy!

As fortune often favours the brave, or in my case the persistent and damned lucky, I happened to see a set of posts on Gumtree featuring audio gear, mixers and synthesizers late in the day on Monday. So far so normal, what was different here was that the seller was in the next town away and as I'm based fairly far out from central London I was unlikely to get the usual competition from other eagle-eyed users.

Initially what caught my eye was an eight channel USB mixer with an additional iPod dock for older style connectors - while I can certainly use more connections for my gear, as I no longer have an iPod it would be a wasted feature for me and I passed on it. But looking at the seller's other items (I had to put two and two together - the Gumtree Android app doesn't let you view a seller's page) I noticed that he was selling a Korg Micro X and a Yamaha CS1x. I jumped at the chance and after being picked up from my home station I switched places in the car and drove over to the guy's house. He had it all set up and explained that he was moving to New York after getting signed with a friend, hence the cheap price of £100. So I verified it worked and took it off his hands straight away. I was hoping to take the Yamaha as well, as he was selling it for £70 and I thought I could bargain him down, but it was quite beaten up with several pot caps missing and after trying it out I wasn't so impressed with it. I get the impression that the CS1x is like the Yamaha attempt at a Microkorg, with a virtual analogue engine and sampled keyboards.

So what's the Micro X like? Well for one thing the sole blemish with the unit is the power button, which is permanently stuck on. As this isn't a deal breaker for me I'm not too fussed with it, though I have noticed that after an hour or so the area around the power connector does become hot to the touch - to the point that the plastic starts to smell like the guy's studio. Side point: if you're going to have a studio, for Pete's sake keep it clean and tidy. I had to go over the unit with a soapy cleaning cloth for peace of mind but the smell of his studio (complete with smoke and spilled drinks) has seeped into the plastic - a little memento of sorts. Annoyingly the smell has remained so it just might need some time outside of its old home to get rid and an odor blocking spray or something.

Otherwise, aside from minor scratching on the front panel (some of which were removed with the cleaning cloth) and scratches on the LCD (which disappear when the unit is in operation), all keys, knobs, buttons and XY joystick work as intended and it is I'm remarkably good condition given its age. The seller didn't say how long he had owned it, but even if the unit was bought in 2006/2007 it makes the unit at least five years old. I can't assess whether there are any broken LEDs or stuck pixels on the display but after a couple of hours of playing with it everything seems to work and is perfectly legible, if the actual menus of the synth to control a patch's parameters wasn't so complicated.

I am also glad that I unintentionally kept to my promise of only buying hardware synthesizers that have a gamut of more recent connectivity and here the Micro X excels. You have stereo out jacks for left and right audio but also two additional outs that can be configured under the hood to output whichever part of a combi patch that you want to route to something else. MIDI in and MIDI Out mean that I can control the synth from a larger keyboard but a USB 1.1 connector firmly puts this unit into the modern age. While the menu diving on the unit would make me start to hate programming the admittedly powerful engine (as this is what caused me to get rid of my Miniak), help is at hand in the form of a Windows editor that connects to the synth in real time and allows you a much more visible overview of a patch and what it can do. It is much easier to hook the machine up to your PC and treat the synth with the editor as a VST emulation plus a patch librarian, however this can be a difficult thing to accomplish despite all the so I'm going to devote another post to how I got this set up in the hope that it can be of help to others in the future. I say this as the Micro X is a really future-thinking synth that will remain a part of my arsenal.

Sounds-wise, there's over 900 sounds here - far, far more than I would ever have expected from a two octave-sized synthesiser. This is thanks to the ROM that the synth is based on, which comprises of classic Triton sounds and lots of new, original sounds especially for the unit. As I understand it, most of these are quite similar to its bigger brother the X-50, but for the form factor there are some fantastic pads, strings and polyphonic patches to be had here and even the monophonic sounds sound deep and bassy as you would expect. Plus there are loads of drum tracks, dual arpeggiators, loads of different effects and EQs to choose from, four assignable knobs for quick control and lots more. Yes, you can hear the stepping if you turn the filter cutoff slowly, but it's more than good enough for sweeping motion, for example.

In particular, XY joystick does makes modulation and pitch bend control really easy on the left hand and I wish there were something similar for the Minibrute. Speaking of the Minibrute, I'm not too fussy about the lack of keyboard control either, as I am used to using just two octaves for jamming and pootling about anyway on the 'brute, and now that I have full control over the synth via USB I can get a lot of bang for my buck and I haven't even scratched the surface of what it can do yet. If you see one for cheap and it all works, do consider picking it up!