Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Today’s studio piece… the often maligned, and quite undeservedly so, Microkorg.
(click on the pics for hi-res photos)

First thing to notice about the MK is the nice retro design… Ok, maybe second thing… the first being the awful mini keys. Why O why? Let’s deal with that right away and move on : the biggest issue with the MK might be the keyboard, and no, making it black don’t change anything.

Admittedly, the MK is really compact, featuring 37 keys where the similarly sized Micro-X only grants a mere two octaves. But small keys are hardly a convenient way to play, and probably didn’t make much for the MK’s reputation among serious keyboardists. Unfortunately, the new MK XL, as seen on the photo below my original MK, will follow the same pattern.

Nonetheless, I like the overall looks… the color scheme, the thin microphone, the wood panels and even the knobs have a great 70’s feeling. The MK is lightweight but decently built – speaking of knobs, they’re solid and reassuring, more so than the brittle-looking ones on my Moog Little Phatty (which is quite a paradox considering the general quality of Moog’s gear).

The big wheel on the left provides quick access to the various patch banks. These are listed by genre (trance, electronica, hip hop….), which isn’t a very bright idea. Much more useful would have been to list the sounds by categories (“pads”, “leads”, “bass” and so on). Actually the XL adds such a wheel, as seen on the official photo below, but still retains the useless genre switch. In the end I would gladly get rid of this big thingie and get more knobs instead.

All editing is done using the two main knobs in the middle in order to assign various functions to the five small knobs on the right. This might seem very impractical, but is in fact quite easy to deal with, because all functions are clearly labeled on the panel. The real issue, programming-wise, rests with the LED screen, so number-ish, so unreadable…. There is something like, you know, being too vintage (ask Moog Music). The new XL, on the other hand, features a nice orange screen, on which, wonder! you can actually see parameters and preset names. Overrall, it has to be said that programming sounds is intuitive enough… I’ve seen a lot worse than this and you would have to be lazy like a hippie walrus to stick with the factory presets.

About the sound structure… very straightforward, but quite complete : you got your two oscillators (sine, saw, square, triangle, vox and DWGS waveforms), with sync and ring modulation (the new XL, apparently, will use a sound structure closer than the Korg R3). The filter generously offers four different modes : -24 dB 4-poles low pass, -12 dB 2-poles low pass, high pass and band pass. Not bad for a “toy”, I would say, given that they're quite good.

Of course, there’s the polyphony… 4 voices only. That’s not much, but I can live with that. Actually, as odd as it might sound, I kinda like limited polyphony… take the Prophet 5 for instance : a lot of classic sounds rely on the fact that only 5 voices are played at any time, and the way the notes use the limited amount of voices. That said, I would agree that 5 or 6 voices would have been more practical on the MK, but hey, what about the Oberheim Four-Voice!

I guess if you’d stop reading this review now, you’d be left with the feeling that the MK is quite a failure. But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about yet, and that’s how it sounds! And it sounds really good. The synth engine, as we saw in the previous episode, is well-conceived and provides the tools to shape up some excellent vintagey patches. Let me be clear. You won’t use the MK for getting the fabled fatness… you won’t get window-shaking basses or piercing leads that make you wanna strangle the cat. What you will get, though, are excellent, vintage-sounding pads and leads, that can do wonders to fill up the gaps in an otherwise dull mix. There is a MK sound… it’s thin, musical and retro. You may program Solina-esque strings or smokey organs, you may come up with a warm electric piano or amazing formant pads. The MK is a solid complement to “big sound”, complex synths, with its simple, engaging sonorities.

There are effects too (chorus/flanger, phaser, ensemble), although I find them a bit superfluous. The XL comes back with a load of 17 Kaoss effects. That may be overkill, but then again, I’m not a big user of on-board effects anyway. I suppose it expands on an already well furbished engine. That said, the MK effects are quite good and when pushed a bit, can generate surprising results. Note that there’s also a decent distorsion.

Then, there’s the vocoder. While far from being the most powerful on the market, it has itself a special lo-fi sound. You’ll find it hard to sing something in there and actually recognize the words. The vocoder is muddy and dirty. Of course, you can get rid of the cheap MK microphone and plug something professional, in which case you’ll be able to get a more precise sound. The trouble is, you’ll also lose that peculiar MK grain. As been suggested by some commentators, the limitations of the original mic might in fact be best suited to those of the vocoder itself. Coupled with a good compressor, interesting textures can be coaxed out of it.

I began this review by criticizing the mini-keys, but on the bright side, the portable aspect is truly a seller. That thing is really tiny, and run on batteries. It’s the perfect tool to bring on holidays with a laptop and build old-school tunes track after track. Sure you can bring a controller on, but the MK is an instrument. It stands on its own, immediately enjoyable, and has personality.

lead 2

In conclusion, I'd say that the Microkorg is a fine, underrated instrument, and a real bargain. It sure has its shortcomings, but remains a very attractive, fun musical toy...


Damien B said...

Des images de taille normale, Alléluia !

khoral said...

Oui, bon, j'apprends à me servir de cet infâme interface blogger!

Damien B said...

Quelle idée d'aller sur Blogger aussi :-)