Korg KingKorg Virtual Analog Synth

June 27, 2013

The comeback of real analog synths has partially eclipsed virtual analog synths, which just a few short years ago were the go-to solution for classic electronic sounds and knob-grabbing control. A hardware VA still has advantages, though, a big one being more polyphony for the price compared to the real thing. Plus, the DSP power and sound authenticity have improved dramatically since the days of VAs such as the original Nord Lead. Case in point: the new KingKorg, a light and compact 61-key virtual analog synth. We found out that it has more than a few unexpected tricks up its sleeve. 

 

Overview

In today’s era of two-octave controllers and mini keys, it’s nice that the KingKorg has five octaves of full sized keys. They’re velocity sensitive (with three curves, even), but don’t transmit aftertouch. The front panel is a handsome champagne gold, offset by a generous smattering of vintage-looking knobs. But the front panel is as far as the metal construction goes: the entire body of the synth is lightweight plastic. This makes for a very easy-to-carry 15 pounds, but also makes the KingKorg feel a bit home keyboard-ish—it bounced around when I pounded out “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at a live show. (Your mileage may vary depending on the type of stand you use.) Korg’s standard four-way joystick is here, as well as a dedicated pair of octave-shift buttons. 

Scanning the front panel, there’s a dedicated mic in level for the included vocoder, controls for the familiar Korg tube drive, and high and low EQ boost/cut knobs. Next are dedicated controls for three effects sections: Pre-FX (distortion, overdrive, decimators, and amp emulations), Mod-FX (chorus, flanger, phaser, and the like) and Reverb/Delay. Each of these sections features a large detented knob for selecting the effect type, as well as smaller knobs below for tweaking speed and/or amount. You can also push the knobs (like buttons) to turn effects sections on and off entirely. Though the total number of effects types is limited by this arrangement, the speed and simplicity makes dialing them up a pleasure—you’ll see this kind of attention to user interface friendliness throughout the KingKorg. 

Front and center is a basic but serviceable two-line blue OLED display along with a large knob doing double-duty for program selection when playing and parameter value entry when editing. Beneath the display are eight sound category buttons that instantly jump to grouped sound types. They may be a little superfluous, but could prove handy for neophytes. King Korg also has a Favorites button that lets you store five banks of eight sounds each for instant access using the category buttons—ideal for live performance. 

Next are dedicated control sections for oscillator, filter, amp, LFO, and envelope, and I’ll say it right now: Korg has done a fantastic job giving tremendous control over a powerful synthesis engine using a relatively modest number of dedicated physical controls. The oscillator and filter sections both have their own little OLED displays showing waveform and filter type, respectively. Many of the synth editing controls perform double or triple duty for KingKorg’s multiple oscillators, LFOs and envelopes, but buttons for toggling between them make this easy. The master Shift key also offers handy jump and shortcut options. 


Oscillators

This is where it gets fun. If you’re a synth programming fiend, the KingKorg packs a wallop, and it does so with a deceptively easy and powerful interface. The basic voice architecture consists of three oscillators, one filter, two ADSR envelope generators and two low-frequency oscillators (LFOs). Polyphony maxes out at 24 notes, depending on patch complexity. The KingKorg supports bi-timbral operation, usable as two sounds on independent MIDI channels for sequencing or two playable sounds in keyboard split or layer modes.

The oscillator section features 126 waves including analog models, single-cycle digital waveforms (think Korg’s DW-6000 and DW-8000 synths from the ’80s), and PCM samples. The final “wave” uses the mic input as an audio source, allowing external signal processing through the filters and effects. In addition to standard coarse and fine tuning controls, there’s a knob labeled “Control” that alters the timbre in various ways depending on which wave is selected. With a pulse wave, for example, it controls analog-style pulse width—and has a similar waveshaping effect on saw, triangle, and sine waves, allowing for interesting animation. Some waves add a second control function for further timbral alteration; often this is a harmonic parameter not unlike altering the pitch of a modulating oscillator on a DX-style FM synth. These are begging to be swept with an envelope or LFO—and yes, the “Control” knobs can be modulation destinations.

The KingKorg also features four different noise types (“blue noise,” anyone?), with the control knob affecting filtering, vintage Atari-style decimation, or resonance, again depending on the wave selected. There are dual analog waves (tunable to wide intervals) and “super saw”-style waves, as well as ripped synced waves with the sync frequency swept by the magic “Control” knob. Before we go any further, let’s point that out that unlike most synths, these tricks are available using a single oscillator—and the KingKorg has three. Similarly, there’s “Control”-based ring modulation for subtle oscillator cross-mod sweeps, “Xmod” waves for unsubtle swept madness, and finally VPM (so many acronyms) for more musical but still extroverted cross-mod craziness. The ’80s-style single-cycle digital waves make for all manner of PPG and Ensoniq-style bongs and clangs.

The 30 sampled PCM waves include bread-and-butter acoustic piano, electric pianos, organs, clavs, Mellotron flutes, sizzly brass, orchestral strings, and more. The acoustic piano won’t have you ditching your dedicated stage pianos anytime soon, but it’ll get you through on a rock gig. I was pleasantly surprised by the KingKorg’s Rhodes, Wurly, and Clav patches—they sound great.

 
 

Filter Fun

The KingKorg benefits from R&D already expended on Korg’s previous dedicated virtual analog synths, and the filters really shine as a result. There are 18 types including Moog-style ladder, Oberheim-style state-variable, Sequential Prophet-5, Korg MS-20, TB-303 and more, with most available in lowpass, bandpass, and highpass flavors. [Korg doesn’t refer by name to other classic synths’ filters—that’s us talking—but it’s easy to tell which filter types are which. –Ed.]

I conducted an informal test, comparing the KingKorg’s Prophet, Oberheim, and Moog-style filters against a vintage Prophet-5 (revision 3), new Tom Oberheim SEM, and Synthesizers.com transistor ladder filter, respectively, and they all fared quite well. Many virtual analog synths with multiple filter models have a couple of winners and a lot of filler, but the KingKorg’s are uniformly excellent.

Though I didn’t have a real one on hand to compare, the MS-20 filter models are deliciously aggressive—crank the resonance and watch small pets run for the hills! The “Acid” filter didn’t sound exactly like a TB-303, but it’s still squelch city and usable in a way that doesn’t hurt your ears. My only real criticism of the filters is that you can’t use two at once in series or parallel; this would’ve been nice for replicating the MS-20’s highpass/lowpass setup. You could work around this by layering similar patches with different filter settings.


 

All Things in Modulation

The KingKorg’s two envelope generators are traditional ADSR affairs, sharing a single set of dedicated knobs along with a button to toggle the controls between envelopes. They’re hardwired to filter cutoff and amplitude, but both can be assigned to alternate modulation destinations using any of six modulation routings. Though hidden behind a menu, they’re knucklehead simple to use with obvious source, destination and amount settings—you won’t have to crack the manual to figure them out. The two MIDI-syncable LFOs are standard fare, offering saw, square, sine and random waves with a single set of shared knobs controlling speed and depth. There’s a Unison button for insta-big sounds, along with menu parameters for detune and stereo spread and finally, an arpeggiator with all the expected note order modes as well as basic user programmability. 


Vocoder

Pressing the dedicated vocoder button instantly transforms any sound into a vocoder-driven patch via the mic jack, but it’s best start with one of the vocoder-specific factory patches. The vocoder is decidedly not finicky about levels: Plug in a mic, turn up the level knob, and you’re ready to robot-rock. Better still, it’s one of the best sounding emulations of an analog vocoder I’ve heard—leaps and bounds better than Korg’s previous efforts in the MicroKorg and MS2000. It’s warm, but has the high-end sizzle and word intelligibility lacking in many digital vocoders.

To CV or Not To CV?

The KingKorg embraces the resurgence of analog synthesis with a CV/gate output for playing analog synths sans MIDI. By default it uses the Hz/volt scaling found in vintage Korg and Yamaha synths, but next to the “MS-20” and “Monotribe” options in Global mode, the “Custom” page also provides for one- or two-volt-per-octave scaling. This is great news for modular and tabletop analog synth owners, as the KingKorg can be the controller for just about any analog gear you have.
 
 
 

Conclusions

The KingKorg sits in a unique place in the market. It has cheaper competition from the Roland SH-01 Gaia, Novation UltraNova, and Waldorf Blofeld and from above with the Access Virus. The KingKorg’s biggest advantages over the low-enders are its full 61-note keyboard and excellent interface. If you’re a sound tweaker or vintage analog aficionado, I can’t emphasize enough how easy it is to get around and create great sounds lickety-split. Some may grouse over the basic ADSR envelopes, minor modulation routing limits, or other minutiae, but Korg has made great choices on what to leave out. The avoidance of “parameter overkill” is exactly what makes the KingKorg such a pleasure to play and program. 

If you mainly play presets and maybe twist a filter cutoff here and an envelope time there, this may not factor into your selection. Either way, the sound quality is excellent and a testament to how far virtual analog synthesis has come: In all of the insanely cross-modded, waveform-shredding noises I could conjure, I never heard a hint of digital aliasing or nasty clipping. My only real nit to pick is the plastic construction—I’d be extra cautious plugging cables in and out of the dainty rear panel, but as mentioned, the 15-pound curb weight sure makes it easy to take to the gig. Regardless, the KingKorg is a great sounding, affordable virtual analog synth that begs you to twist knobs. For a street price of $1,299 for all that it does, you can’t go wrong.


PROS

Excellent virtual analog sound quality. PPG-style digital waves and gig-ready samples add to sonic flexibility. Broad selection of filter types that really do sound like the filters on famous vintage synths. Can process external audio. Genius user interface makes creating sounds a joy. Very light weight.

CONS

Plastic construction feels delicate. Somewhat spongy keyboard doesn’t sense aftertouch. Programs are limited to a single filter type at a time, though you can have two in a split or layer. Maximum of two multitimbral parts.


Bottom Line

The KingKorg ups the ante in the affordable virtual analog synths market with this a great sounding, lightweight synth. 

$1,549 list | $1,299 street

korg.com

 
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