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Korg Volca Keys: Good Things do Come in Small Packages

In 2013, Korg changed the way we make music once again with the introduction of the Volca series. With 3-note polyphony, classic filter circuitry, and a built-in step sequencer the Volca Keys is more than meets the eye.

Korg is no stranger to tiny synths, having developed the Monotron series, the Monotribe, and the MS-20 mini, just to name a few. It is no surprise then that they would build on their success and introduce a series of portable, battery powered, analog synths with a wide range of features in such a small package. Originally released with the Volca Bass and Volca Beats, the Volca Keys completed the lineup with the ability to produce chords and leads over the drum and bass lines of the Volca Beats and Bass. All three Volcas featured sync in and out connections, as well as MIDI and could be easily synced together to form a larger system.

Analog playground

At 7.5” x 4.5” this tiny synth packs a multitude of features. Its 3 voltage-controlled oscillators (VCO) can be used in a number of different ways depending on the voicing function, including poly, unison, octave, fifth, unison ring, and poly ring. Each selection divides or adds the VCOs in different combinations to create various sounds. The voicing function also automatically switches the waveform from a sawtooth wave to a square wave, where the unison and poly ring modes use the square waveform and the rest use the sawtooth waveform. The poly and poly ring functions allow you to play each VCO separately producing 3 individual notes. These can be played as a chord or sequenced as 3 separate synth lines. Detune, portamento, and eg int can be applied to the VCOs universally, regardless of the voicing settings. There is also an octave selection knob allowing you to play six octaves on the 27-note ribbon keyboard. The voltage-controlled filter (VCF) is based on the same circuitry as the Minikorg 700s from 1976 and features a 12db per octave lowpass filter with peak and eg int settings. The filter can be modulated by the envelope generator and the low-frequency oscillator (LFO), allowing you to add some creative movement to the sound. The LFO can also be used to modulate the pitch of the sound by adjusting the pitch int knob. The LFO waveform is selectable by holding down the function button and choosing either the saw, tri, or square keys on the keyboard in the LFO section. The envelope generator (EG) allows you to shape how your sound changes over time with its attack, decay/release, and sustain controls. By adjusting these settings, you can adjust if the sound fades in and out or starts and stops abruptly. The EG also affects the way the VCF acts when you adjust the eg int in the VCF section. The Volca Keys also includes a delay effect to process your sound even further. This effect can add thickness to your sound or repeat the notes being played. The time knob adjusts the length of time between the played note and the repeated note. The feedback knob controls how many times the note is repeated. The delay effect can be synced to the tempo, as well, by holding down the function button and pressing the tempo delay key on the keyboard. This allows you to dial in the right groove.

Pocket Studio

The Volca Keys isn’t just an amazing portable analog synth, it is a studio in your pocket! On the surface, the 16-step sequencer might seem a bit limited but, Korg has included some useful features such as motion sequencing, flux recording, tempo division, active step, and 8 memory locations that turn the Volca Keys into a performance powerhouse. For example, active step allows you to turn on and off any of the steps in your sequence. This allows you to instantly change your pattern by removing and adding notes on the fly. This feature could also be used in a number of creative ways to create chord changes and variations within one 16-step sequence. You could record one chord per step and then use active step to only play the chord you wanted, for instance, by turning off all of the other steps. You could then turn off the current step and change the chord by turning on a different step. Another interesting feature is flux recording. With flux recording, instead of recording one note per step, it disables the quantization and records whatever you play over the span of 16 steps. If you get creative and turn the tempo down you can record up to 8 notes per step, for a total of 128. Another great performance feature is the ability to adjust the playback speed without changing the tempo setting. By pressing a key on the keyboard, you can change the playback speed of your sequence by ½ or ¼. This is a great way to add variety to your song, especially when using the Volca Keys with other devices like the Volca Bass or Beats. Arguably, the most creative feature is the motion sequencer. This feature will capture tweaks and changes to any parameter on the Volca keys and save them to your pattern. Simply turn on the motion sequencer and hit record. With the motion sequencer, you are not limited to the modulation ability of the EG or LFO, you can manually modulate anything.

Get going

The Volca Keys and the rest of the Volca series are made to travel. With their small size, battery power, and built-in speaker you have the freedom to make music just about anywhere. Their top-facing connections mean they easily fit into a synth case and their low price makes them a great starting point in electronic music composition. The Volca Keys sounds fantastic and can be used for many genres. With a little practice, the Volca Keys can really shine as part of a larger system or on its own. Korg has really outdone themselves with the Volca Keys, providing the perfect balance of price and features. It is small enough to take anywhere, yet it sounds good enough to sit alongside (or on top of) more expensive “professional” synthesizers. With its 6 voicing modes, you can get very experimental and in the poly mode, you can play lead lines over a sequence. The Volca Keys may look simple on the surface but if you dig in and use your imagination you may surprise yourself with what you can coax out of this little synth.

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