KORG goes modular – In-depth coverage


We guess this was an obvious step in the evolution of the Volca series. No serious synth manufacturer seems to neglect the modular hype that is currently swamps the electronic music scene. However, it is in fact quite intriguing that KORG takes Volca to the world of modulars, since this segment largely has been offered to those willing to invest a lot on their studio set up. Add to this a new drum synth and you are all set to go with Volca all the way in your music creation.

Korg’s new Volcas will be appearing at NAMM 2019 alongside its new polyphonic synthesizer, the Minilogue XD.

The Volca Modular is technically a semi-modular synth with eight ‘modules’ that can be patched together via 50 patch points. The synth uses tiny jumper wires for connection rather than cables, but it can be connected to other analog gear via CV. It is in fact a powerful mini-modular, featuring eight modules, 50 patch points, a step sequencer, microtonal support and more.

The inspiration for the synthesis is West Coast and includes a complex oscillator, two function generators and two low pass gates as well as a random “woggle” generator. West Coast synthesis may be new to many users, as it’s not focused on the subtractive techniques popularized by mainstream analog synths. It relies totally on building new timbres by manipulating simple waveforms with complex FM or AM modulation and distortion-like tools.

The sequencer has some new playback modes for less repetition and there is a built in reverb as well. The synth makes sound un-patched, but you can re-route the signals and process them to get other interesting sounds.

DETAILS ON THE MODULAR

SOURCE:This consists of a triangle VCO carrier and a modulator. The complex overtones generated by FM modulation are sent through a wave folder circuit to add additional overtones, producing a distinctive sound. This module is important in determining the basic character of the sound of volca modular.

FUNCTIONS:This section consists of two function (envelope) generators. In addition to an ADH generator with attack, hold, and release, there’s a Rise-Fall generator, also known as a slope generator, which not only applies time-varying change to the sound but also lets you patch the end trigger out back into the trigger in as a loop, making it usable as a VCO or LFO.

WOGGLE:This is a random signal generator containing a sample & hold circuit that uses pink noise as its source. Two outputs are provided, allowing it to output either stepped or smooth random noise.

SPLIT:This module distributes one input to two outputs. It can also be used in the reverse direction, combining two control or audio signals into one.

DUAL LPG:This consists of two low-pass gate circuits. Typical of the West Coast style of synthesis, the module packages a filter with an amp, allowing the brightness and volume of the sound to vary together.

UTILITY:This is a mixing scaling module that combines two signals in various ways. It can mix not only audio signals but also control signals, as well as inverting or attenuating those signals.

SPACE OUT:This is a stereo module that applies a reverb-like effect to the audio signal.

SEQUENCES:This module is for connecting to the internal sequencer. You can set the tempo, and select different rhythm divisions to output via the gate counter.

Analog synthesizers in which a simple oscillator such as a saw wave or square wave is modified by a filter are referred to as “East Coast style” because of their origin from well-known American manufacturers. Synths of this style, as exemplified by the MS-20, have continued to evolve toward a goal of being used in many mainstream musical genres, thus being equipped with a keyboard for performance. Their sounds are notable for sharp filters and rich presence, and can be heard in many well-known songs. 

Synthesizers of the “West Coast style” evolved in a uniquely different direction from such musical developments. Pursuing the freedom that is inherent to electronic musical instruments, these were based on oscillators such as FM modulation which generated numerous overtones, and used random and complex control signals and low-pass gate circuits to vary tonal character and volume, so that slight movement of a knob might dramatically transform the sound. While their potential was acknowledged, the resulting sound and its changes were difficult to predict, causing these synths to be used in a more experimental capacity. 

For these reasons, hardware products of this style have been few in number. However, recent years have seen the popularity of modular synths such as Eurorack, as well as DAW plugin instruments that resurrect classic bygone synths of the past. This world-wide movement toward embracing interesting sounds has received renewed attention, spurring a new look at the sounds of this style. Starting from analog, and freely taking in all elements including FM and PCM, the volca series has also focused on this trend. And now, this distinctive “West Coast style” sound has been added to the KORG volca series.

volca modular’s modules are connected via the included pin cables, allowing a diverse range of combinations. The unit’s compact chassis provides 50 patch points. Inputs and outputs are color-coded for recognition at a glance, and the signals are also marked by symbols to indicate audio, control, gate or trigger. Normally, each signal is connected according to its use, but on the volca modular, signal levels are universally compatible between modules, allowing hidden possibilities to arise from patching that defies common sense. Twenty pin cables are included, and also included is a reference sheet explaining each patch point and providing basic examples of patching. 

While the volca modular is a semi-modular synth, it is equipped with a full-fledged 16-step sequencer providing a wide range of functions, letting you enjoy automatic performance even when used stand-alone. Using the 16 buttons familiar from the volca series, you can perform step input or use the buttons as a keyboard for realtime recording. The pattern chaining function plays back multiple sequence patterns in succession, allowing you to connect up to 16 sequences with up to 32, 64, or even 256 steps to create large-scale development. 

The motion sequence function records knob movements, letting you add time-varying change to the sound. You can create loops, or use this function live for strikingly original performances. Up to 16 sequence patterns and sounds can be saved in the unit. 
Also provided is an active step function which lets you play back while skipping the steps you specify. You can skip the latter half to produce a short loop, use an alternate time signature to create polyrhythms, and evolve sequence patterns in real time to create a dynamic performance.

The sequencer of the volca modular lets you specify randomization for notes, active steps, and micro tuning. Irregular phrases, rhythms, and scaling that would be unlikely to come to mind can be generated by applying randomness, letting the volca be a source of unknown ideas.
Two new modes added for sequence playback. Two new sequence modes have been added: bounce sequence mode which makes a round trip through the steps, and stochastic sequence mode which gradually proceeds while randomly moving forward and backward. Playing back a recorded sequence in a different form can add dramatic changes to your song or performance.

Although the volca modular is a West Coast style synthesizer, it also provides flexible support for music as a contemporary instrument. You can choose from 14 types of scale including equal temperament. Since you can also specify the tonic key from which these scales start, you can play these scales in any key. There’s also a micro tuning function that lets you individually specify the pitch of each note. You can pursue your own unique music by performing in an original tuning with the pitch of individual notes raised or lowered.

With a sync jack that allows easy connection to a Korg groove machine, you can connect the volca modular to another volca series unit, a minilogue, monologue, or prologue, an electribe, or the SQ-1, and enjoy sessions with the sequencer synchronized to the playback. The CV IN jack for external control is a TRS mini stereo jack that lets you input two signals. The left channel can input a ±5V signal and the right channel can input a signal of 1V/oct (0–+6V) signal which is internally converted to pitch CV within the volca modular. Of course, each of these two signals can also be patched to control a module.

KORG VOLCA DRUM

Alongside the volca modular, Korg has also announced the Volca drum which they describe as a digital percussion synthesizer focused on the creation of sounds and patterns that other drum machines simply cannot create, thanks to its physical modeling-based engine, dual-layer drum parts, comprehensive motion sequencing and sequencer tricks.

So far, the Volca Drum appears to be a surprisingly complex percussion generator. Unlike the analog Volca Beat, the Drum is digital and relies on a physical modeling engine with multiple layers. While it should be capable of standard drum sounds like kicks and snares, Korg also says it’s capable of “some eccentric drum styles unique to the Volca.”

Korg says that, unlike previous percussion-based volcas, the volca drum covers a variety of rhythmic tones, including standard percussive sounds, as well as some eccentric drum styles unique to the volca. They tell us that the volca drum has a flexible DSP digital synthesis engine, making a wide sonic range possible, an integral part of music production.

Based on a simple trigger waveform, wave folder and overdrive are used to add overtones and distortion, and then a waveguide resonator effect brings the sound to life. The six-part DSP synth engine was designed with a completely different philosophy than conventional drum machines, and generates a wide range of unexpectedly different sounds that can be played from the volca-style sequencer.

James Sajeva, Director of Music Technology Brands at KORG USA, Inc, told us, “The volca modular and volca drum installments mark a new era in what volcas can be capable of. volca drum will be a go-to rhythm machine for those looking for fresh and innovative sounds and rhythmic possibilities”