Incoming: volca fm


The Korg volca fm was released today and mine arrived this afternoon. It’s a three voice six operator FM synthesizer that can also load old Yamaha DX patches. I started it up and went through the preset sequences. I’ve never been deeply into FM synthesis, but to my ears it sounds great. It has the same 1/4 tempo setting as the volca keys, so you can stretch out one measure to last four. Plus it’s the first volca to have an arpeggiator, and it looks like that can be used as a filler for 1/4 tempo sequences. Patch two – musicbox – is set to do that and it sounds fantastic. Sounds like 16th or 32nd notes throughout the four measure sequence.

So, there are five volcas for me to get through now. I’ve been playing around with the beats, bass and keys, but it’s taking a while to get used to tweaking instead of playing. Maybe another week or two and I’ll be able to post something.

I also bought the new Korg Minilogue last month, but that’s still in the box while I find somewhere to put it. I’ve been waiting thirty years for an affordable polyphonic analogue synthesizer. It’s a mystery how they’ve managed to do it. It has its limitations, but for the price it’s amazing. The sound reminds me a lot of my old Casio CZ-101. It’s a very modern-looking, clean-sounding synth, but a lot more versatile. The first patch I got out of it was a really crisp, harmonically rich, FM-like bell sound. Not the kind of sound you’d think was easily achievable with a basic analogue synth.

Korg started the recent analogue revival with the Monotron in 2010. The volcas, the MS-20 Mini, the ARP, then the Minologue followed. There are so many interesting options. Other makers have tried to respond in their own way – both Roland and Yamaha releasing compact digital versions of past synths – but failed to hit the spot in the same way that Korg has. They’re gadgety, but not quite gadgety enough. And they’re not real analogue.

My house is starting to look like a Korg showroom. Even my daughter has one.

U Robot

The last littleBits Synth Kit I’ll be doing for a while.

I’ll come back to it if they release the LFO bit that’s supposed to be in development. A proper ADSR envelope would be nice too. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on prices and try to snap bits up when they’re cheap. One more oscillator, another filter and two more mixers would be useful. Also a second speaker so I can split outputs to different effects.

There’s another problem I’ve found with the kit. The pink connectors at either end of each bit are sturdy, but the supports on the underside of the keyboard and mixer bits break far too easily. The mounting boards are part of the problem – you really have to push to get a bit in then prise and pull to get it out. So I’ve broken the keyboard and a mixer trying to get them from the board. I’ll have to glue the supports back on.

It’s been fun using the littleBits kit, but I think I’ve fallen in love with the Volca Bass. What a fantastic little instrument it is, especially for the price. You can tease so much variation out of it, and it all sounds amazing. There are no effects on the “U Robot” bass at all. I’m not even using all three oscillators, just two of them slightly detuned. The LFO is synced to the tempo and is modulating the filter cutoff with a square wave to give a delay effect.

It’s time to move on to the Volcas in fact. Up until now, I’ve been using the Bass and Beats for backing only – simple sixteen step sequences that run from the beginning to the end of a piece. But the Volcas’ real strength is in their tweakability. It’ll be the same sixteen step sequences as before, but instead of keeping things interesting by playing a melody over the top, I’ll be muting/soloing, tweaking parameters, swapping parts, that kind of thing. My instinct is always to play, to avoid too much repetition. So tweaking without playing is going to be a challenge.

Jelly Tot

I thought I’d try to stick to the littleBits Synth Kit’s natural sound this time and do something robotic, but I veered way off course. I ended up with this vaguely latin-sounding thing. Not one of the better ones.

One more from the Synth Kit, then I think I’d better move on.

A couple of things I’ve learnt using the Synth Kit and two Volcas. First, it’s ok if the Volca Bass is out of tune. The bass in “jelly tot” is a full semitone out with respect to the SQ-1 sequence, and if I hiked the pitch up an octave it would sound awful. But if there’s enough bottom, you can get away with it. This gives you more freedom to move about with the melody.

Second thing, if you do keep the melody moving and interesting, you can get away with those sixteen step sequences for quite a while. In “jelly tot”, the SQ-1 sequence, the drums, and the bass are all simple sixteen step sequences that last about two seconds. The piece is over two minutes long, so they all repeat over sixty times!