We the keyboard-playing people are getting to enjoy pretty
great sound for prices creeping ever closer to chump change. Case in
point: the Kross. Ostensibly it’s Korg’s “entry level” synth
workstation, but its sound engine is derived from the flagship Kronos.
By judiciously reducing the feature set and building it in a lightweight
all-plastic enclosure that should result in chiropractors earning a
little less, Korg offers the hobbyist and weekend warrior (whether they
play in bars, churches, or what have you) what seems to be a pretty
The Kross continues Korg’s streak of delightfully
different industrial-design ideas; Starting with the Radias and
continuing through the SV series stage pianos and KingKorg virtual
analog synth, it’s been pretty easy to spot a Korg product based
strictly on its shape. Here, things are comparatively subdued, with the
wildest feature being the red parts of the enclosure and the seemingly
cute but rather sensible built-in carry handle to make the Kross 61’s
sub-ten-pound weight even easier to manage. The panel is all go and
little show, with gold lettering on a gloss black background. In some
lighting conditions, reflections from the shiny panel make it hard to
read the labels. But as with the labels on any synth, the more familiar
you become the less you actually do read them.
Korg placed the pitch and modulation wheels—rather than
their customary joystick—above the keys instead of at the left end,
obviously to keep the footprint tight. It’s up to you whether this is
the “right” or “wrong” place to put them. I found that I adapted to this
positioning without much thought. Above the pitch and mod wheels, two
assignable switches offer a ton of options: locking the pitch wheel,
changing the octave, muting and unmuting Combi layers, toggling
portamento, and on and on.
To the right of the volume knob is a pair of clicky wheels
that scroll you through the sounds. The leftmost wheel calls up
categories that are grouped in a sensibly musical manner, and the right
wheel scrolls through the sounds in that category. The Category wheel
basically bookmarks the first sound in each Category. Moving to the
right, we find the LED-lit buttons that select Program, Combi, and
Sequencer modes, below them buttons that get you into the Global mode
(where you do system-level things like set the velocity curve and damper
switch polarity), set up splits and layers, toggle the master effects,
and mute and unmute the audio input.
Still moving right, we find two buttons for the audio
recorder: Setup and Play/Pause. Worth noting is that the audio recorder
requires a formatted SD card to be plugged into the slot in the back
panel. Formatting must be done on the Kross itself, but it’s easy. Press
and hold Exit while holding Global/Media, page up once using the Page+
button below the LCD, and you’re there. SDXC cards are not supported,
but SDHC cards up to 32GB in size are.
The display itself is well done; the screen layouts and
graphics are clear and easy to read, though they do get packed a bit
dense when you’re using the sequencer.
I was charmed by the step sequencer. The 16 buttons above
the top two octaves of keys correspond to 16 steps; lighting them up
enters a step for the currently selected voice. This is exactly how
Korg’s Electribe groove boxes worked, and all of them (plus countless
other products) derive this scheme from the venerable Roland TR-808.
There’s a reason so many devices cop this way of working. It’s easy for
the uninitiated to quickly understand, and once learned it’s immediate
Shortly after receiving the review until I got a call to
do a pretty unusual gig. A conference of food-distribution executives
were going to be broken into groups of a dozen or so. Each group would
be tasked with writing new lyrics to its assigned well-known pop song,
incorporating aspects of company culture and daily work experience.
Then, each group would elect/conscript a solo performer to perform its
song with the band for the whole assembly, American Idol-style.
Wild set list: “Livin’ On a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, “I Dreamed a Dream”
from Les Miserables, “Oh What a Night” by Frankie Valli and the Four
Seasons, and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” by the Beach Boys. The band’s task was to
perform the songs matching as exactly as possible the original
recordings, as the performers would have only the original recordings to
work from and one 15-minute rehearsal with the band.
Upon setting up at the gig, it became apparent that I was
going to need to secure the Kross to my X-stand with gaffer’s tape, as
it’s so light it felt like it could slide right off at the slightest
provocation, and it’s small enough that I couldn’t slide all of the
stand’s rubber bushings inside the KROSS’ footprint. Nice “problem” to
“I Dreamed a Dream” was a challenge because the original
recording was symphonic, and I knew I’d likely have an inexperienced
singer who needed a rhythmic reference in the absence of the drums, so I
elected to bang out an eighth-note accompaniment on a piano/string
layer, with the strings’ volume tied to the mod wheel so I could swell
them right at the key change when the band also came in. I made up a
quick layer with Program A000, “Kross Grand Piano” and B043, “Legato
Strings 1,” which already included volume control on the modulation
wheel. But I discovered that the mod wheel was also tied to the piano
patch’s brightness, which I didn’t want, so I had to copy the piano
patch to a user program location, assign the mod wheel routing to “off”
in the Program’s Filter menu, and use that version of the piano layered
with the strings. This only took about two minutes, and I hadn’t even
opened the manual yet.
“Surfin’ U.S.A.” has an organ solo and no other keyboard
part, but the organ sound is fairly specific—it has a little bit of
grind and a lot of the top-end rolled off either by the speaker itself
or via EQ. Combi A054, “Rock Organ,” was just the ticket with the mod
wheel parked at about halfway to bring in the layer containing the
What we all remember about “Livin’ On a Prayer” is Richie
Sambora’s iconic talkbox guitar riff, but David Bryan played plenty of
keyboard parts. The intro needs an analog synth pad for the moody
buildup and a bell-like sound for a little riff right before the vocal
enters. Under the verse is a chop-chop-chop part on a percussive analog
synth sound (Bryan’s Memorymoog, perhaps) and fat chord stabs for
accents. Under the pre-chorus are a high string stab/ostinato and a
bright analog poly synth. When the chorus arrives you get out of the way
of the guitar with some high, sparse chords on a thin pad. Even with
Kronos technology baked in, could a $700 battery-operated keyboard cut
The answer is actually a little anti-climactic in a way.
Yes, the Kross gave me what I needed, but I didn’t even have to delve
into programming it. Incredibly, Combi B033, “Majesty Pad” did it all.
By playing softly, I brought out a simple analog pad sound for the
intro. Playing hard copped both the bell riff and the chop-chop thing
convincingly. Playing very staccato and defeating the effects with the
Master FX button got the chop, and bringing the effects back while
playing block chords got the fat stabs. I played the pre-chorus ostinato
hard with my right hand while playing the bright pad softly with my
left. It was uncanny. I don’t know who to thank for this patch, but I
raise a glass to you, sir or madam.
Had this wunderpatch not been available, I could have used
the Split and Layer functions to quickly build what I needed and save
it into the User memory. From there I’d have placed it into my Favorites
for quick recall, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Oh What a Night” was the only song on which I had to
bring in another synth, and not because the KROSS couldn’t give me the
right sound. For the song’s two synth breaks, I needed a Minimoog-like
lead patch, and the KROSS has many good ones in the Lead Synth category
and lots of raw material to build one from scratch if none of the
presets had been right. In rehearsal I just couldn’t manage the patch
change from the piano to the synth and back again quickly enough, even
using Favorites. In the end I had to reach for a second ’board, with the
lead sound waiting for me there.
The Favorites feature is great—lots of synths have some
version of this capability, but I appreciate this simple and
straightforward implementation. Pull up a patch you like, press and hold
Exit, then the Favorites button, then one of the row of buttons
numbered 1-16 (the same ones you use for the step sequencer). Done. Love
it. Four banks of 16 let you store 64 Favorites, so with a little
planning you could easily line them up to match your set list.
The sequencer on the Kross is a 16-track affair with a lot
of capability. It’s far more than a scratch pad, offering fine editing
down to the measure. A couple of things to know:
First, to quantize or
not must be decided upfront as there’s no after-the-fact auto-correct. UPDATE: In fact, you can quantize after the fact, via the Track Edit section of the Function menu.
Second, you can’t save sequences to internal memory, only to an SD card.
Luckily, SD cards are cheap. The capable “mixer,” which offers a couple
of effects sends, uses the Master FX “devices.” Programs initially didn't seem to keep
their own Master FX (which are different from program-level effects) when used in the sequencer. Then, I found that you could indeed bring a program's Master FX into the sequencer via the "Copy from Program" command. In any case, things like tremolo,
rotary speakers, amp simulations—effects that become part of the
essential character of the sound rather than just seasoning—are handled
at the Program level.
Even though it’s more than a scratch pad, it seems that
the sequencer was really made to take advantage of the fact that every
Combi has a drum track and a polyphonic arpeggiator programmed in, so
that using it as a scratch pad would be very quick and easy. The drums
and arp—which in a lot of the Combis function like auto-accompaniment
but way hipper than polkas and tangos—sync to the sequencer clock (which
can be set in real time with either the Tempo knob or the Tap Tempo
button right beside it), making it really immediate to get something
going. Use a Combi as your foundation and add overdubs, then connect a
mic to the input on the back panel (it’s just 1/4" unfortunately) and
record the audio of your sequence plus a vocal or external instrument as
a WAV file directly to an SD card. Darned near instant demo. Nice! Each
sequencer track has three MIDI sync settings: internal, external, or
both, so other hardware can be harnessed in your multitrack creations.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the KROSS. I feel the
same way about it as I did Korg’s PS60—it’s a fantastic choice, and an
absolute godsend on gigs where parking is a long way away from the
load-in (or you’re getting there by public transportation). I liked the
PS60’s keyboard feel better than I like that of the Kross, but in this
price bracket you don’t often get keys that make you wax ecstatic. Its
closest competitor is the Yamaha MX61. On paper, the MX61 seems to have
the Kross beat; the former offers audio interface functionality, more
polyphony (128 voices versus the Kross’ 80), and a larger ROM wave
stockpile. Let your ears in on that part of the decision, however, and
go with the sound you prefer; judging a synth’s worth on ROM numbers is
just plain silly, and there’s no question that the Kross sounds great.
The MX61 doesn’t offer a multitrack sequencer (opting instead to bundle a
“lite” version of Cubase for your PC or Mac) and isn’t as physically
small, although both weigh less than ten pounds. But don’t count the
KROSS out until you’ve played it. I think you might be surprised by what
PROS: Excellent sounds. Highly portable. Able to run up to four
hours on battery power. Light and fast keyboard action. Sequencer is
easy to use. Preset beats and phrases are very musical. Records audio
along with sequences to SD card.
CONS: USB connection and audio input not implemented in a way
that makes the Kross a USB audio interface. So lightweight that you may
need tape or Velcro keep it in place in your stand.
Bottom Line: The Kross offers the sound quality of Korg’s big dogs for
hobbyist money, in a package you can take anywhere. It’s fun to sound
this good so affordably.
Kross 61: $869 list | $699 street
Kross 88: $1,299 list | $999 street