Korg Kross reviewed

July 9, 2014
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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 compelling choice.


Overview

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 and fun.


In Use

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 have.

“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 sampled-in distortion.

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 it?

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. 


Conclusions

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 you experience. 

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


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