Here at S+V we spend most of our time telling you about the coolest products for listening to music and watching movies — but many of our staffers and contributors also make their own sounds , and we know a whole lot of you readers are also musicians, whether seasoned pros or weekend hobbyists. And if there's one thing we know about musicians, it's that they love cool new gear.
So since it's the holiday season, we've taken a little detour from our usual coverage to check out a bunch of friendly, affordable, pocket-sized, and — most importantly — fun electronic musical instruments from Korg: the Wavedrum Mini percussion synthesizer ($299.99), the Monotron Duo ($49.99) and Delay ($49.99) miniature synthesizers, and the Kaossillator 2 ($159.99) and mini Kaoss Pad 2 ($159.99) phrase synthesizers.
Studio gear vets Focusrite have been bringing out consumer-friendly versions of their famed gear for a while now; the full-featured little 2-channel iTrack Solo is an appealing little device that can be used as an audio interface or high-quality DAC/headphone amp for either iPad/iPhone (with a 30-pin connection) or via USB with the PC or Mac of your choice.
What's really cool about all of these little Korg products is that they're pint-sized takes on their professional electronic instruments. They may look and be priced like toys, but the company's pack a surprisingly broad feature set and a whole lot of great sound into even the most stripped-down of these little boxes.
The Monotron Duo and Delay are pocket-sized analog synthesizers, following in the footsteps of the highly successful Monotron, which is in turn uses a circuit based on the filter section of the legendary Korg MS-20 synth, a favorite of pretty much anyone who's ever bleeped or blipped.
While the Monotrons are obviously simplified (their front panels offer four or five knobs and a couple of switches, differing somewhat in function among the units in the series), they do sound quite good through headphones or plugged into a bigger system; like the other Korg mini units they also have their own onboard amp and speakers, which have enough juice to make for an enjoyable jam with friends or family, but can't really show off what the little synths are capable of sonically.
The original Monotron is a simple single-oscillator synth; the Duo adds a second oscillator and gives you a cool cross-modulation control, nice for thick drones and lead tones, the Delay (obviously enough) adds a delay for everything from ambience to infinitely repeating runaway feedback a la Radiohead; it also gives you an LFO and a choice of sawtooth or square wave sources. It'll dish out more of a soundscape on its own than the Duo; together they're a very capable little synth setup.
All of the Monotrons use a "ribbon" keyboard, along the lines of the old Stylophone; you slide your finger up and down its flat surface to produce thereminlike glissandos, or you can peck at it to play notes (though it's pretty difficult to play accurate pitches — the Duo makes things a little easier by letting you set the keyboard's scale to major, minor, or chromatic options, but any way you slice it, these are sound creating devices first and foremost, so "close enough for jazz" is often the best you can hope for — unless you practice a lot).
The audio output's perhaps a bit hissy for pro work — but that's the case with the vintage gear the Monotrons recall too. And at $49.99, it's hard to fault these things for anything — they deliver a whole lot more than any vintage synth you could pick up for the money and cheap enough to keep extras on hand. And they're small enough to have one with you at all times so you're ready when inspiration strikes.
The Kaossillator 2 and mini Kaoss Pad 2 are the smallest, most consumer-friendly incarnations of the x-y touchpad controller based sampler and effects processor line that Korg's been producing since 1999.
the Kaoss Pad and Kaossilator have a lot in common with the Monotrons — they're roughly the same dimensions, also run off of a pair of AA batteries, and include onboard speakers for casual playing or reference. But at around three times the price of the little Monotrons, you'll expect that these be a bit more full featured instruments — and you'd be right.
While the Kaossilator is a synthesizer and the Kaoss Pad 2 and effects unit/DJ-style loop player, they share quite a lot — they let you tap to enter tempo (which is how you'll keep in sync with other gear or players, since there aren't any MIDI or USB connectors), they have integrated and intuitive loop recorders which let you keep sampled phrases on hand, or create layered compositions on the fly.
The Kaossilator's a performance synth — it doesn't give you much control over your sounds — you can't tweak knows as you can with the Monotrons — but the control it does give you, via the y-axis of the control pad (the x-axis is generally assigned to pitch) is unite expressive and enjoyable. The 150 sounds on board (of the PCM and modeling varieties — this is a digital, not analog synth) are quite good, and run the gamut from percussion to strings to basses to otherworldly effects. You can record your playing to a pair of loop recorders; the loopers let you can overdub as much as you'd like and you can crossfade between them, DJ-style. You can even save your loops for later use on a microSD card (there's also a master recorder that lets you record full performances, which you can also save to the microSD card), and you can also process external audio sources via an input jack or a built-in microphone.
the mini Kaoss Pad 2 is a different sort of a beast; it's a sample player (it plays back MP3 loops — at the tempo of your choice — from a microSD card slot) that lets you process and loop your samples (or incoming audio via the onboard mic or the 1/8-inch input) with 100 effects; the X-Y and ribbon controllers give you access to two effect parameters at once. Like the Kaossciliator, there's a master recorder on hand to archive your full performances to a microSD card.
The Pad makes a great companion to the Kaosscilator or the Monotrons; you can also set up a tiny little virtual turntables setup for DJing with a pair of Kaoss pads. As with the Monotrons, these these are immensely pleasurable to play, and sound good enough that they could easily make their way into pro rigs. And they're hours and hours of fun to just play around with.
Korg's Wavedrum — a flexible drum synth aimed at hand percussionists — has made its way in to the kits of many pro drummers and percussionists, and the Mini brings something of the flavor of that device to the masses. While it doesn't give you the deep editing capabilities of its big sibling, it does come in at a significant $200 chapter, and it adds a cool little clip-on contact trigger that can make anything you can tap or tap on into a second drum, with it's own assignable sound. An onboard looper, effects processor, and a bunch of non-percussive sounds (from tambura to synth pads) let you create full electronic pieces with relative ease (you do have to play the grooves yourself, of course). Need inspiration? There are 100 preprogrammed "patterns" — looped audio snippets — to name along with. It's battery powered (six AA cells), which makes it, like the rest of the little Korgs, suitable for casual jamming (along with the built in speaker, of course)
There's only a single playing surface, but with full kit patches it lets you play an entire drum set, the different sounds mapped to varying velocity levels — hit softly, you get a hi-hat, a little harder, a kick drum, a little more pressure and you get a snare. For single-instrument sounds, dynamics and pad position control parameters like pitch and tone. It's a little hit or miss at first, but once you spend some time with it you can get pretty nice results; the ability to assign a second sound to the clip trigger (I had good results attaching it to a shoe and tapping my foot) lets you get a reasonable drum set groove going pretty easily. I wasn't able to get consistent results without a considerable amount of effort, though, especially from the clip on trigger (which I felt could have used a longer cable for more options). Still, the mini is tons of fun, if not quite ready for prime time.
This is, however, the only mini Korg that I have any reservations about recommending, and mainly because its price puts it within reach of its big sibling, which has dropped considerably from its original ~$1K price point — the Wavedrum is now only $499 (and available for significantly less), and offers pro-level construction, better sound and perfomance, deep editing, and a more flexible playing surface. But you don't get the second trigger thrown in, nor do you get a built-in speaker, so that does increase the appeal of the little version.
OK...you've got a bunch of cool electronic instruments now. Time to start making tracks. The one downside of physical musical instruments (as opposed to their virtual counterparts that live inside Garageband on your iPad) is that you've got to find some way to get their sounds into the device of your choice if you want to record your jam sessions for posterity or as a stepping stone on your quest for fame. Something better than pointing your iPad and its good-enough-for-talk internal microphone at your friends.
Enter Focusrite's iTrack Solo ($159.99), a very interesting little two-channel audio interface with a unique spin — you can use it with your iPad via a 30-pin cable, and it can do double duty as a PC recording interface over USB. That's a lot of bang for the buck as recording interface boxes go, and for the hobbyist who might want to experiment with the musical possibilities of both desktop machine (with a basic Pro Tools installation on a Mac or PC) and iPad (say, for recording into Gargeband) without having to shell out for two boxes, it makes a lot of sense.
The iTrack s pretty minimal unit. One channel gives you a phantom-powered XLR mic input, the second is optimized for instruments and offers a 1.4 inch jack. There are some nifty features — the gain knobs on both channels are surrounded by LED rings that act as meters — they pulse green while to track input level; if they turn red you know you need to turn down the level — it's a nice, welcoming layout for the beginning recordists this is likely to interest. A direct monitor knob routes the input directly to the headphone jack while recording; this eliminates any distracting slapback echo caused by latency in some audio recording software.
Overall build quality is solid given the budget price, with things put together well where they count — connectors are solid, and the big volume pot is smooth and accurate, with very minimal channel imbalance monitoring via the headphone jack (there's also an RCA output around back for interfacing with other audio gear — say a pair of small powered speakers It's a nice little product. And if you get bored of recording (or just want to take a breather) it makes a pretty solid little desktop headphone amp for your iPad, able to drive most anything to reasonable levels, with that nice knob thrown into the bargain.
Sure, you can get plenty of iOS and Android apps these days that give you analog modeling synths, DJ tools, and loopers — but it's pretty refreshing to have nice intuitive physical interfaces too, especially when the price isn't too off-putting.
These little guys are perfect stocking stuffers for the musician (or kid) on your list; alternately, you can put together a pretty capable little ensemble with a few of these units if you're looking to really make an impression. Or, of course, if you're looking to get a pretty awesome present for yourself, you can't really go wrong with all or part of this setup.