The Korg Volca Keys is tiny for what it can do; it’s only 193 x 115 x 46mm and weighs less than 400g without the six AA batteries that come with it. For serious use though I would recommend getting a 9V AC Adapter, unfortunately not included, but as you can get Volca Keys for only £99 it’s not a complaint. It does have a built in speaker though, so along with its batteries and small size it’s defiantly mobile so you can take it with you on your travels.
Initially you well be impressed by the number of flashing Leds, they are also under the transparent control knobs. You’ll also notice that there’s a mini touch sensitive keyboard on the unit but fear not for serious playing there’s a MIDI input. While we are on the subject of interfacing there are also sync in and out functions which makes chaining them together easy and running alongside other equipment is a breeze.
There are three oscillators all producing a sawtooth wave, they can be used in various ways of polyphony and cross modulation to produce many different sonic variations, these are selected by one of the two larger control knobs, the other gives you control over the octave switching. There is also a detune control, an envelope modulation amount control and a portamento control. If you are unfamiliar with this it slides the pitch between notes and is sometimes called glide. In keeping with korgs other recent offerings this is analog but with some form of automatic tuning so you get the sound but not the problems that you used to get with tuning drift.
Moving on to the filter, this time it’s a recreation of the miniKorg700s, rather than the MS10/20 of the Monotron, it’s not really a question of which sounds better, it’s more of a question of, they sound different. Describing how filters sound in words is not something I am able to do and on first listen comparing them both you probably won’t hear much but if you own both you will become aware of the subtle differences in sound. The only analogy I can really think of, and it is a loose one is it’s like two different people speaking the same word, even though it’s the same word your able to distinguish between who says it. The filter has the usual cut-off, resonance and envelope modulation amount.
While on the subject of the envelope modulation you get one envelope generator with an attack, combined decay/release control and sustain level, while the single low frequency oscillator can produce saw, triangle and square waveforms, it has a rate control and two others to control the modulation levels of the oscillator frequency and that of filter cut-off.
You also get a rather low fi delay, however low fi delay does seem to be the fashion these days. It does add nicely to the sounds that can be produced. If you are in any doubt as to the quality and variation of what this unit can do I would urge you to go on YouTube and listen to some of the demos particularly the Kraftwerk Robots one which is particularly insightful as to the huge differences of sound you can get with what at first appears a limited number of controls!
My favourite aspect of the Korg Volca Keys though has to be the sequencer, you input notes in real time and you can use the flux control to pull everything on to the beat. It can store eight sequences of sixteen steps. You can easily switch between them during playback. Nothing spectacular so far but the clever bit is that it can also store the automation. That is the movements of the controls that you make. Again this is one of those things that you really need to see as words really don’t do this feature justice, but just as a modulator such as an LFO of envelope generator alters things like pitch or cut-off you can do the same by twisting the control knobs. You can do a couple and then do some others as the sequence cycles and come up with the most amazing sounds. You don’t even have to put any notes in as you can just record the automation so any notes you play have the same automation imposed on them. A control knob that has automation recorded also flashes red as the automation is playing just in case you forget what you’ve done.
This feature alone, for me is worth having the Volca Keys for. You can come up with ideas and sounds that you couldn’t even have imagined just by playing around with it. Seriously just by messing around and having fun you can come up with stuff that will have even the most experienced programmers scratching their heads and wondering what you did to make “that” sound. It’s something that will keep you absorbed for hours and then when you switch it on another day you will probably start creating stuff in a totally different direction as the mood takes you.
There are also stories on the internet of people having modded the new Korg range as they did with the previous Monotrons, apparently if you are handy with a soldering iron Korg have provided diagrams and there are even markings in the circuit board where things like separate outputs and control voltage have been added. You will of course nullify your guarantee but if tweaking things is your cup of tea then this could be just what you’re looking for.
For the price of just under a hundred pounds you certainly get a lot of machine and more importantly fun, and a serious music maker into the bargain.