If you’re anything like me then you love a bit of synth action. It’s funny, actually. I don’t listen to music with synths in it that much – I prefer the character of acoustic and electric instruments rather than the buzzing, filter-driven sound of oscillators at work. However, there are few things that are more fun to play than a synthesizer. There’s a deep-seated desire (particularly among young men, it seems) to twist knobs and flick switches. Go figure.
Ordinarily, synthesizers of any merit are well beyond the budget of your average music maker. I’m talking about classics here: the Minimoog Voyager XL will run you back a cool $5000; the Prophet ’08 from Dave Smith Instruments is a mere $2100; why not get an EMS Putney VCS3 – that’s only $21000 (and that’s not a typo). All of this is quite disheartening for the synth lover. Even if you could afford a few hundred dollars for a synth – surely it’s not going to be much good, right? Well… not necessarily.
I got a Korg microKorg a couple of years ago (it was AU$899 at the time but your can get them new for as little as AU$400 these days). At the time I was looking for a controller keyboard but I was browsing around the store, playing stuff I couldn’t afford to buy and I stumbled across this mini-keyed wonder. Immediately I doubled my budget and snatched it up.
Different types of music require different approaches to synthesis. Dance music is big on “fatness” with heavy use of unison samples and pulsing LFOs. Progressive rock is partial to watery pads and the occasional screaming lead – choruses and distortion are the order of the day here. Hip hop folks like punchy, crunch basslines and sine-driven melodic leads. Meanwhile, the dubstep crew just want to gate everything. It is this diversity of demands that allows the microKorg to shine. It is truly a flexible beast capable of providing solid sounds for each and every one of the above listed purposes.
In fact, the potential for sounds that lies within this synth is often masked by the light-weight nature of its design. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t give you that “Surely this button controls the universe” feel of epicness. It has nice wooden ends, but if you pick it up it feels like a hollow, plastic toy. The thing can even run on batteries – what on Earth says “I’m not professional kit!” like battery operation? And, yet, plug it into an amp and you will be impressed.
In terms of specs, the microKorg has two independent oscillators, a noise generator and two LFOs. It allows the parameters of these elements to be edited independently but not entirely, freely – there’s no ‘real’ patchbay, though there is a virtual routing system which is fiddly but very flexible. There’s a master envelope/filter section, accessible via five knobs on the top right hand of the keyboard. These knobs offer cutoff, resonance, attack, release and tempo – all of which affect all sounds in a particular patch. You can modify the envelope, EQ, effects, arpeggio, voice, pitch etc etc settings for each individual oscillator via a bit of knob-jockeying. At first, this process seems complex and slow but, as you use the synth more and more, you will find that it all becomes quite quick. It’s only when you try to do something out of the ordinary that you’ll find yourself leaning closely over the screen printed menu on the case looking for the place they’ve hidden the particular parameter you’re after.
Many people have complained about the keyboard on the microKorg. It’s a plastic, unweighted but velocity sensitive affair with keys that are about 3/4 the size (or maybe 2/3) of regular keyboard keys. That’s why they called it the microKorg, I guess. The issue with the keyboard has nothing to do with it’s sensitivity or durability – only the most hammer-fingered player would break it in ordinary use – rather, people haven’t found the undersized keys particularly “playable”. A friend of mine raises this complaint, occasionally. For me, it has never been a problem – in fact, I like the small keys. The issue, I think, comes down to whether you are a trained pianist and a long-time keyboardist or not. I’m not. I quickly became used to the keys. A few of my friends are pianists – they really struggle to overcome the muscle memory they’ve developed in working with fullsized keys. I can see their point of view but this is a personal issue, not a fault with the product in itself.
We can talk all we like about specs and design. In the end, synthesis all comes down to the sound. I’ll readily admit – the microKorg does not have the “sparkle” of a Prophet ’08. It doesn’t rattle your windows in quite the same way as the Minimoog Voyager XL, either. However, it gets damn close to producing comparable sounds to both of these units and pretty much everything in between. There’s no way I can explain the sound adequately in words. You’d have to hear it and make up your own mind. Suffice to say, though, that everyone who has come around to my studio since I bought the microKorg has been impressed by its performance. And, for AU$400, I’m sure you’d be impressed too.
Oh… and it has a Vocoder.