Sunday, 4 December 2016

Monologue: too many mono synths?

After hyping up their November announcement with images of five different coloured bands, Korg unveiled their latest product; the Monologue, a dual oscillator monosynth from the same stable as the Minilogue, though sporting more than a few tricks under the hood.

As the colours seemed to echo those on older synths, the Mono/Poly and Polysix respectively, many fans felt that they were going to be looking forward to a new recreation of these classic synths. Korg’s partnership with ARP over the Odyssey had already born fruit, so there was plenty to suggest this may have been on the cards. That the new product was something completely new and the colours merely reflected the cosmetic choices available meant that some were understandably deflated by the Monologue's unveiling.

Put simply: do we really need another keyboard mono synth?
Monosynths are perhaps one of the easiest and straightforward synthesisers to build. Forget about adding various amounts of polyphony or controlling multiple keyboard signals at once, just make sure your oscillators and filter sounds great for leads and bass sounds and you are pretty much set. If you can, add some additional parameter control in the form of LFOs, sequencers, assignable envelopes semi modular routing, modulators for basic FM and so on. 

Perhaps the ur-monosynth that I think of when someone mentions one is the Minimoog - simple, elegant and capable of a wide variety of sounds with just three oscillators. Yet from of this limited feature set the synthesiser carved its way onto a whole host of different records, though part of its success is surely due to its prominence as the first accessible synthesiser. However there is no denying how easy it is to use a monosynth and how quickly a satisfying patch can be dialled in. 

My collection of hardware synths also reflects the large number of monosynths there are and their variety of features but also how many have been released in the short time that I have been collecting them. 
Proof that Monosynths can come with many different feature sets - and colours
DSI MoPho - a two oscillator, two sub oscillator analogue monosynth in a desktop module with dual LFOs and envelopes together with an assignable sequencer. 

DSI Evolver - a four oscillator (two analogue, two digital waveshapes) hybrid monosynth module with multiple envelopes, LFOs and sequencers, dual low pass and high pass filters and three sets of delay effects.

Loud and proud
Arturia MiniBrute - a monosynth and sub oscillator with an oscillator mixer, LFO, dual envelopes, feedback distortion and arpeggiator, plus a full sized two octave keyboard with aftertouch. 
Micro in name only.
Arturia MicroBrute - similar and reduced features to the Minibrute in a smaller package, with overtone on the sub oscillator, semi modular patch points for the single LFO and envelope and a 32 step internal sequencer. 

Huge sound in a small package.
Korg Volca Bass - three oscillator monosynth with a sequencer per oscillator with a shared LFO and A/DR envelope.

But it's not just these: there's also the Novation BassStation 2, Dreadbox Erebus, Waldorf Pulse 2, Moog Sub Phatty, Roland SH-101, Korg MS-20, Arp Oddyssey - indeed, the internet is awash with lists running into the several dozens of available hardware synths. To release a new monosynth means going into a highlight saturated market, that it either has to ape a former release as a remake or tries to have features that others either don't have or is good value for money. It follows that it is not surprising to see how deflated people get when another mono comes out, as was the same with the Monologue - if Reddit's /r/synthesizers board is any indication of popular reaction. 

Now that the dust has settled and I have tried one out in the flesh, I am pleased to see that the Monologue isn't just a scaled down Minilogue; a smaller version of its bigger brother and made just for the sake of it.

Microtuning - I imagine that Aphex Twin's involvement with the synth actually gave them the impetus to implement this. It is very rare to see any other keyboard scaling on synthesisers other than Western scaling and being able to set, save and recall tunings quickly might just be the breakthrough that musicians are looking for.

Battery power - try finding a full-sized, two-oscillator monosynth that runs on batteries and the list will be pretty small. That Korg were cheeky and didn't pack a power supply is perhaps the biggest drawback of this decision, given that the proper Korg supplies are around £30 plus postage - I can see a gap in the market there.

OLED display - again, a useful feature for a monosynth that has been carried over from the Minilogue.

Motion Sequencing - a very handy feature to have that has been takne from the Volca Keys. While this is admittedly limited to four parameters, this basically means you can record up to four parameters not covered by the LFO - more modulation for complex patches!

16 step visual sequencer - while the venerable MicroKorg has eight buttons for step indicators and the MicroBrute has a longer sequencer but no feedback, having 16 buttons and indicators for each step is immensely useful - especially for the acid-style patterns that suit this machine.

Not to mention that this is a fully featured dual oscillator monosynth with multiple shapes, a full filter, LFO, patch memory and more plus a full gamut of connectivity including MIDI in/out, sync in/out and USB.

In this new release, Korg have actually tried to add some interesting features that are difficult to come across in a hardware monosynth and certainly not something you might expect in its price category. So perhaps there's room in this produce category for store shelves and space in someone's studio for yet another monosynth!

Further reading