Saturday, October 22, 2011

Korg Monotribe Review

Yes, the Tempest is here, but till I get one, let’s review something much much more primitive, the Monotribe.

It’s a fully analog monophonic synthesizer, drum machine and sequencer, and it’s Korg’s follow-up to the diminutive Monotron. 

Now the Monotron was a fun little thing, and I bought one as soon as it was released. It was small, and I mean really small, hardly bigger than an Iphone. It sported a single oscillator and a recreation of the famous MS20 filter. The sound was dirty and gritty and vicious, and blatantly analog. There was just one problem. It was impossible to play. Thanks to the awful ribbon controller, there was simply no way to produce a melody or at least a musically sane succession of notes. Yes, I know, some people used stylets to play melodies, but they were far more patient than I am. So, you were basically bound to produce beeps and screechs and crazy effects, and it was not very versatile at that either. So I sold it back.

That said, I knew that the Monotron was only Korg testing the waters for some more serious analog gear, and there it is, the Monotribe.

The construction is good. It’s actually surprisingly good. The Monotron was a cheap piece of plastic, the cheapest you’ll ever see on a synth. The Monotribe on the other hand is bulky and solid, with a nice reassuring metal feel. The knobs feel right and so do the switches. It’s much less portable than the Monotron, but feels more professional and trustworthy, especially since it’s designed to travel along with you.

On the rear, you’ll find a mono line output, a small headphones output, an audio in to process external sound and a couple of sync in and outs, so you can sync the Monotribe with another instrument or an external click.

The filter is still glorious. It isn’t your mellow, warm, round Moog filter, and it sure ain’t digital either. No, it’s an aggressive, buzzing, in-your-face filter, with that special analog flavor.

One issue though, you can’t filter external sound without having it mixed to the oscillator. This is plain stupid and actually is the only thing that makes one regret the Monotron. For all its limitations, the Monotron was able to process sound without adding the oscillator in the mix. Why in the world the Monotribe can’t seem to do that, I have no idea. The Moog LP can filter external sound, and if you want the external sound alone, you just have to put the oscillator volume to zero. On the Monotribe, well, screw you, you can’t. That’s really dumb and renders external filtering largely unusable. Too bad.

The drum machine is limited to 3 sounds, which, uh, is not much. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of much, it’s awfully less. How lesser can you get. A kick, a snare, a hat, and there you have it. To some extent, I like that, it’s primitive and simple and straightforward, but come on, 3 sounds? Not that I was expecting a complete kit at this price, but some sort of cymbal or tom would have been nice.

That said, the drums sound superb. The kick is powerful and warm. The snare has a very pleasing 1978 sound and the hat is crisp without being too harsh. You can’t change the relative loudness of them, so take note that there’s a slight emphasis on the kick. In action, they all click in perfectly, providing that tight, groovy sound we’ve come to expect from a real analog drum machine, as opposed to sequenced samples.

One big issue is that you can’t pass the drum sounds through the filter. And you can’t change the drum tones either. So you’d better like these 3 sounds because you’re going to hear them a hell of a lot. That’s a bit of a shame, really, because, as great as they sound, it’d be useful, to say the least, to be able to introduce some variation in there. But you can’t, at least not without custom modification.

On the back, yup, that’s right, it’s a speaker. While not as bad as the Monotron speaker, it hardly does the Monotribe justice. It’s decent, but the low end of the drums is basically gone, leaving us with the question : why oh why. Why a speaker. I haven’t got a clue. Well, I guess it’s meant to be able to play everywhere without headphones, but why would you do that? It’s not like the speaker is good enough or powerful enough to do an impromptu gig in front of people. And trust me, if you actually do that, it won’t be long until they get bored and start to hit you on the head with it. So, I guess, my real question is: why not using the space that’s wasted with this in order to add something, I don’t know, useful.

Let’s state it once and for all: these Korg ribbon controls are bad. They’re atrocious. If you thought their mini-keys were bad, you haven’t put your flabby finger on this awfulness of a controller. Oh, but there’s improvement there actually. The Monotron was impossible to play. The Monotribe is merely a pain in the backside. Having realized how useless the Monotron ribbon was, Korg has added the option to turn the ribbon into a fac simile of chromatic keyboard. Thank you, but what about simple buttons? Do we really need a ribbon that bad? What about a MIDI IN? Sure, the Monotron was too small to implement MIDI, but the Monotribe? Which brings me back to: why waste valuable space for a speaker, considering the drastic limitations the user faces elsewhere? Ha, well…

All right, I’m complaining a lot here, because there are lots of flaws in the product, but the truth is, I’m glad I’ve bought one and I have no plans to give it back. Why is that? Because it’s so damn fun to play! It’s small, not too expensive, and sounds awesome. There’s a minimal set of features, but just about enough to produce a very decent array of different sounds and grooves, and the mini-drum machine itself sounds very good. You can program an 8-steps sequence on the synth and juxtapose it with a 16-steps sequence on the drums, and introduce some swing if you use the iPod/Phone SyncKontrol application. While it’s playing, you can short the whole sequence to any number of steps or have it skip any particular step. Overall, the simplicity of the controls turns the Monotribe into a nice performance tool, with all the unpredictability of analogue.

Now should you buy one? Well, if your setup is purely digital and you’re looking for some cool, cheap analog flavor, you might want to consider the Monotribe. It’s a luxury of course, because the same amount of moment would get you a second-hand Doepfer Dark Energy, or for that matter, a number of overlooked analog polysynths.  But if you’ve got the cash on hand, it’s a nice little addition to any studio, with a distinctive and punchy sound.

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