The resurgence of analog gear into the modern producer's studio took a giant leap forward last year with Korg's release of the Volca series; consisting of the Beats, Bass, and Keys. These small but powerful machines take the focus off the laptop and back to live performance, for a fraction of the cost of any predecessors. While the Bass and Keys are worthwhile in their own right, and now they've even released a sampler Volca, today we'll be focusing on the drum machine. Featuring 6 analog sounds and 4 digital samples, the Volca Beats brings us back to the days of live performance and packs enough punch to hold its weight against any competitor, past or present.
CUT TO THE CHASE
The good: True analog sound creation with digital control that gives you access through MIDI and allows for parameter changes to be recorded and automated.
The bad: Could benefit from a dedicated panning control, or individual outputs for each sound but of course the price would reflect that. A bigger snare would have also been great!
The deal breaker: At its price point this latest Korg release changes the game completely. What was previously too expensive has now become available for a fraction of the price to any producer interested in getting into analog.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Compact and coming in at under 8 inches wide, just as the others in the Volca series, the Beats features a transparent black plastic shell and black metal top plate with various small knobs tightly packed across the mid section. It also features an innovative touch strip sequencer that's found on the Bass and Keys modules, and similarly the unit is powered by six AA batteries (lasts up to 10 hours and turns off after 4 hours of no use). There's an input if you've got an external 9V power adapter, which makes sense for prolonged studio use. To that end, Korg has included a handy MIDI input that both syncs tempo with the host and allows for automated MIDI control via your DAW. Red under-lighting on all of the analog sounds' control knobs accurately display pattern information as it happens, as do the amber lights on the step sequencer. The screen on the Volca series is small and as such doesn't play a vital role in using the rhythm machine but proves useful when changing sequencer modes and tempo, and loading and saving patterns.
Although it comes with a built in speaker on the backside, you'll want to connect the Volca Beats into a good system through the mini jack output. The kick powers through the sub and can draw comparisons to an 808, with three parameter knobs controlling it to change the pitch, decay and click (essentially the attack). Only that and the snare have three to their own, although the snare is lacking that punch we were hoping for (Apparently there's a decent fix if you're good with a soldering iron and willing to void the warranty). Next is a lo tom, one of the best sounds of the Volca, and hi tom, each with adjustable pitch and a common decay control to provide a wide range of sounds. Open and closed hi hats, also with their own decay control and a common grain knob, round out the analog sounds in good fashion. The rest of the sounds, the clap, claves, agogo, and crash, are PCM (pulse-code modulation – digital) samples that have only one common control. You can speed up or slow down the sample to both extremes, allowing for quite a broad range of additional sounds to compliment the analog set on this little groove box. The best part about these samples is that the change in PCM speed can be recorded into the clip, so the pitch changes and rising sounds can stay in the sequence.
Among the grid of 8 navigation buttons to the right side that includes play, record, move left and right in the sequence and mute, there's a function button that brings up alternative options for the touch strip sequencer such as clear all, so that's a good place to start. From a clean slate you can either enter notes by recording them into the pattern in real time, or you enter step mode and program the notes in via classic step sequencing. Flipping between the two options is effortless as it automatically goes to the sequence of the last touched note. The quick response of the touch strip and active lights along the ribbon easily notify you of what's going on and because it's flat, you can run your finger across the strip and trigger multiple sounds instantly.
One of the highlights of the Volca Beats is the stutter effect section to the left that features two bigger knobs, one for the timing and another for depth, or wet/dry. With the option to apply the effect to either the entire pattern or on each individual sound, the variation it helps create is crucial for such a compact unit that lacks some minor controls mainly because of it's size and price. While the stutter effect features just two controls, you're still able to get a wide range of delay and echo sounds that gives some life to your patterns and like everything on the Volca series, it's fun. By making these knobs much bigger than the rest, it's obvious that these should be used more than the rest.
While it's great as a standalone unit, and even portable enough to take with you anywhere you travel, the Volca Beats fits very nicely into most studio setups and lends itself well to both live and recording environments. Assuming you'll want to get serious professional production use out of this unit, you might want to use the MIDI input and play the Volca through your DAW, allowing for longer patterns and complete control over automation, while still retaining the analog sound. This is one of the keys to the Korg Volca and at its price point makes it a no brainer to add to your repertoire of drum machines.
One of the features that might be missing on the Volca series is a swing control. Although the stutter effect, at short times can create some swing to a pattern, you might want something to globally control it. Well, there's an app for that. Simply download the SyncKontrol iPhone App that was originally made for the Korg Monotribe and plug into the sync input on the Beats and you've got instant control over swing and tempo. Also if you've got the unit connected to your DAW over MIDI you can program the groove that way.
The price of these machines is really what makes them stand out. For a fraction of the cost of similar sounding classic analog equipment, albeit with slightly less depth and intricacy, the Volca Beats delivers on all fronts and what it's lacking is simply a result of trying to keep the price to a minimum. Learn the basics of decay and attack, delays and transposing samples, and practice recording a pattern in real time or programming it into the step sequencer that performs as good or better than the classics. Korg's touch strip ribbon along the bottom brings some fun back into it with a full 16 step sequence available and 10 sounds to choose from, some of which are deserving alone of the small price tag.