Friday, May 17, 2013

KingKORG First Impressions

This is not a review, since I don't own the instrument. These are my impressions after spending 45 minutes playing it in the shop.

When the KingKORG was announced alongside the MS20 Mini, I can't say that I paid too much attention, being yet another virtual analog (yes, I know, the MS20 Mini itself is just another analog!) and because the official demos didn't impress me.

But I was curious anyway and I'm surprised by how good it sounds.

The online videos don't do it justice. Of course the presets are very generic, which never helps with official presentations.

Interface-wise, it's pretty much one knob per function so in a matter of minutes you're programming very nice stuff. The build quality is quite good, a mix of metal and hard plastic. The keyboard is decent.

First comes the oscillator block. You can use 3 oscillators on a patch, choosing between 127 waveforms covering analog emulation, noise, DWGS (Korg's digital waveforms system), PCM (that is, sampled waveforms) and external audio (which I haven't tested obviously in the shop).

They're an interesting bunch, Korg always provide some very good analog-type waveforms and there's plenty of weird digital stuff as well in order to create more modern sounds. The PCM waveforms are a welcome addition as well, providing nice vintage tones like Tape Flute or Tape Strings to be further processed.

Then the filter section, again very well furbished : 18 filter models, covering low pass, high pass and band pass, all of these coming in various proprietary or third-party models (the usual suspects, Moog, Oberheim, Prophet5, MS20, TB303).

The filter is arguably the most important part of the instrument's character and Korg's skill in devising gorgeous-sounding digital filters shines again. The KingKORG's filters are excellent, they resonate like hell and, depending on the model, can sound warm and deep or thin and raw.

At this point, you can already coax some marvellous patches out of this thing, but the KingKorg, like most polyphonic beasts these days, have something else in stock : you can stack up two patches, each one with its 3 oscillators and 1 filter combination. That opens up great possibilities, like having, say, 50% of the sound using a mix of analog-emulated triangle and mellotron-like flutes with an Oberheim filter, and 50% using glitchy digital waveforms with a Moog filter, etc.

That would be a very decent engine for any instrument, but the KingKORG goes a bit further.

There's the FX section. I'm not usually an avid user of internal effects. Not because I think having built-in effects to beef up the raw sound is cheating, by the way, since this is a very silly argument (most of the synth alumni of the 70's relied heavily of external effects to expand the capabilities of their instruments). It's simply that I usually find the internal effects to be of a lesser quality than what can be achieved externally.

That said, the way Korg implemented the FX block, reminiscent of their vintage-sounding SV-1 piano, makes it an integral part of the sound programming process. That is what the chorus was on the old Roland analog synths, that is what the reverb is in the new Elektron Analog Four, and that is what internal effects should be all about.

What we've got here is a classic assembly of modulation effects (FLANGER, CHORUS, U-VIBE, TREMOLO, PHASER, ROTARY), which all sound very good and are obviously modelled after analog units. Add some unremarkable reverbs, a very nice tape delay emulation, suitably dark and muddy.

Finally, a bunch of amp emulations, distortion, decimation effects. They're all very important to the sound, especially in conjunction with the KingKORG's ultimate rabbit-in-the-hat, the tube drive! At first, I thought it was pretty gimmicky (I could rarely find a musical use for the tube in my old Electribe EMX). But it actually is a great asset. On its regular mode, the tube adds some warmth and power to the overall sound. On its boost mode, you can create some truly musical overdrive, that adds depth without ever being harsh.

Conjugate that with the amp emulation section and the filter and you can programm overdriven, distorted sounds, with rich harmonics and outstanding movement.

One thing I would do at the shop is crank up the tube overload, use the EQ to cut hi frequencies, put the guitar amp emulation to re-furbish the tone with new distorted high frequencies and then use the LFO on the filter with lots of resonance. The deep, warm, evolving tone you obtain is just awesome.

Now, that said, would I buy one?

Well, it's possibly a bit pricey (1299$ at, 1199€ round here, 999£) but it is a remarkably fun synth.

If I didn't already own a main polyphonic synth (Prophet08) and wasn't running low on operating room, I would seriously consider it as a main instrument. It can do vintage stuff, wonderfully so : in that regard, it's a little bit like the MicroKorg's big brother and long lost father. It can do modern electro. It can sound warm and old school, or cold and digital. There's a whole lot of interesting things to discover with the various overdrive/distorsion options.

All in all,not a revolution but a refreshing take on the virtual analog genre nonetheless.

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