Korg MicroStation

April 29, 2011
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microSTATION_topby David C. Lovelace

Someday, fully produced, iTunes-ready tracks will be written and recorded in the back of a limo on the way to the gig, or on a bus on the way to junior high school. Someday is today. This is the youthfully intrepid spirit that orbits Korg’s domination (if not creation) of an ultra-portable synth genre. Combine this with the fact that back in 1988, Korg’s M1 defined the keyboard workstation as we know it, and the MicroStation seems inevitable. Packing a full 16-part synth and sequencer into a form factor just a bit bigger than a MicroKorg XL, it’s a universe in a sardine can.

Those Keys

I’ll contradict the naysayers here: Korg’s “Natural Touch” mini-keyboard is, in my opinion, the best of its kind. It responded swimmingly to the fastest monophonic legato cheats I could hammer out. Sure, if you’re not used to octave spans that measure just over five inches wide, you’ll slip into an odd ninth here and tritone there, but I’ve had a MicroKorg in my studio for several years, and have gotten accustomed to it with no more difficulty than a guitarist gets used to a ukulele. In other words, it’s not a deficiency if you simply think of it as a rather different instrument. Plus, the MicroStation has a full 61-key range, a welcome change in a world of three- or four-octave portables.

Getting Around

microSTATION_rear_panel<--The rear panel offers USB MIDI and an SD/HC card slot for backing up sounds and songs. The pedal input supports switch or continuous pedals, and with the proper pedal, half-damper sustain for piano sounds.

 

Compact size aside, the MicroStation is a straight-ahead five-octave workstation. The upper left of the front panel houses a great-feeling, fullsize joystick that kicks pitch and modulation wheels in the pants for expressiveness. (I realize this is a matter of preference, but that’s mine.) Heading east from there, you’ll see the same performance controls found in Korg’s TR models: four knobs for a total of 12 parameters, switchable in groups via an A/B/C select button. Below that, the “External” button offers preset selection of MIDI control maps for plug-ins, DAWs, and hardware, meaning the MicroStation also amounts to a micro control surface.

In the middle is a two-line LCD yanked right out of the ’80s—the limits within which you work to create on a workstation this tiny and affordable. Printed in a small font to its left, alongside corresponding LEDs, are nine categories (All, Keyboard, Strings/Brass/Woodwind, Guitar, Bass & Bass Split, Synth, Lead & Solo Split, Drum/Mallet/Kits, and a User bank), switchable with the Category up/down buttons directly below. Rubbery, large sequencer transport buttons, a cursor diamond, and Write and Compare buttons complete this middle section. To the right of the display are 16 selection/numeric buttons with a few important functions accessible only by using a “Num Lock” button. This took some getting used to, but what keyboard doesn’t?

You’ll find a conveniently located headphone mini-jack on the left front edge. It’s a bit unfortunate that the included AC adapter is your only power option, since true play-anywhere status could’ve been had by using batteries.

This is mid-grade hardware all around, but it perfectly utilizes every lesson that dozens of other workstations have taught us about form and function. After owning so many Korg workstations over the years, including the M1, O1/W, Trinity, Triton, and TR, helming the MicroStation felt like sleepwalking around a dollhouse version of my own domicile.

Sound

Korg’s EDS-i (Enhanced Definition Synthesis—integrated) sound engine was previously available only in more expensive models such as the M50. Now, manufacturing advances have made this trusted engine available in a fun travel size. Essentially, it’s like Korg pointed a shrink ray at an M50. Under the hood, we’re talking good ol’ PCM sample playback with subtractive staples like filters and envelopes, but with undeniable niceties such as one or two oscillators per voice, each of which can velocity-switch between four multisamples as its “waveform.” (Note that using both oscillators halves the polyphony to 60 voices.) Multitimbral capacity is the full 16-part rack o’ ribs.

microSTATION_editor<--Korg’s software editors are stable and quick, and the MicroStation’s is no exception. It even lets you control the synth as a plug-in in your DAW.

 

The range of available sound genres and flavors is nothing short of stunning, with everything from credible retro electric pianos and Clavs to orchestral strings and brass to heart-pumping dancefloor synths in this auditory arsenal.

Since the 14-year-old kid in me never quite went away, whenever I try out a new synth, the first sounds I fire up are the leads. Within seconds of jamming out with “OperatorLd,” I’d created a fun chorus melody, and soon, seconds became hours with this punchy little pulse wave. “BalladLead” is a soaring sine-and-sawtooth understatement that makes excellent and subtle use of the powerful effects engine. If these descriptions read more like a wine review than one of a keyboard, that’s because some experiences are meant to be savored equally. There’s definitely something for everyone in the MicroStation, no matter what your sound needs are, and no other company has yet packed it all into a keyboard this portable.

I also appreciated the fact that the MicroStation remembered the most recently chosen sound for a given category if I switched to another. For example, after trying out some patches in the Strings and Bass categories, “BalladLead” was still waiting for me when I cycled back to the Lead category.


04-2011 Korg MicroStation by KeyboardMag

In Use

Fighting the urge to complete a song in my kitchen just because I could, I proceeded to squander the portability of the MicroStation by exploring it in the studio. I first wanted to amp up one of the lead sounds, and found editing programs to be relatively painless despite the small LCD screen. What this interface lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in simplicity. How so? For starters, there’s no Edit button. Imagine that every sound is a tree with sets of parameters as branches. At the tree trunk—the preset— you hit the right arrow button to start climbing. Just keep hitting it to get higher up the tree of selections, then hit the up and down arrows to change the value of the branch you’re currently on. If a branch has sub parameters, hit right again to explore those smaller branches. With very little effort, I was able to scroll through functions and make basic adjustments within seconds.

Korg seems to recognize which settings people edit most frequently, too, because the very first OSC parameter, Voice Mode (Poly/Mono), just happens to be the first thing I usually tweak when creating a sound. What’s more, you can use not one but two arpeggiators simultaneously in Program mode, controlling them on the fly with page “C” of the four knobs (Gate, Velocity, Swing, and Tempo). There’s no tap tempo button for the arpeggiator, though.

Once I’d memorized the ripping lead for my future dance hit, it was time to sequence a song. After years of using a Korg O1/W for my scratch recording, I found the MicroStation’s sequencer to be a familiar playground. In addition to the 16 tracks, you get a master track that handles tempo and time signature changes. Sounds for a selected track are chosen using the numeric buttons on the right. You can audition different sounds for a track during playback, and loop sections of a track with the dedicated Loop button. Within a short time I had the makings of a great little groove going, and 127 song locations left to fill up. Maybe I should take it back into the kitchen after all; I might get hungry.

You can sequence on the MicroStation in linear, “multitrack tape” fashion, or press the Grid Seq button to take a more drum machine-like approach. In this mode, the 16 numeric buttons act as pads or triggers with corresponding LEDs. You can work this way with drum parts or pitched material—bass lines, dancey synth hooks, you name it. The vibe is not unlike Korg’s Electribe machines. This is a great feature if your compositional brain thinks in step-based patterns, and makes creating loops a lot of fun.

Using the MicroStation in the heat of live gigs exposed a few hurdles that don’t get in the way of a solid onstage performance—so long as you know about them. For example, to access presets above number 16 (in any sound category) you can scroll up either numerically or by groups, or use the Num Lock button to turn buttons 01–10 into a keypad. In this mode, hitting buttons 07 then 09, for example, would select the sound in location 79. I recommend pre-arranging sounds in the User category according to your set list. This kind of preparation is a good idea on any keyboard, and on the MicroStation, made easy by the fact that Korg offers free editor/librarian software for Mac and PC.

Conclusions

As workstations go, the MicroStation is a capable workstation at an unbeatable price. It’s portable enough for any musician on the go, and has more than enough sounds, sequencing, arpeggiation, drum kits, and general insta-production potential to please anyone. The Micro- Station is great fun for composing, and even for live performance given some practice at getting around the interface. Add that expressive joystick and a full five octaves of playable little keys, and it gets two (tiny) thumbs up!

Specifications

PROS Perfect workstation for portable scratch composing. Lightweight. Full M50-like sound engine at a budget price. Generous effects and full-featured sequencer.

CONS Some strengths (i.e., the small size) can be weaknesses for the untrained. Preset patch entry onstage can be challenging. No battery power option.

CONCEPT An all-in-one, fully integrated musical workstation in a package small enough to use anywhere there’s AC power.

POLYPHONY 120 voices in single mode; 60 voices in double mode.

SIMULTANEOUS EFFECTS 5 inserts, 2 master effects, and 1 global effect; 134 types available.

W x D x H 30.63" x 8.27" x 3.23".

WEIGHT 5.73 lbs.

PRICE List: $850
Approx. street: $600

korg.com/microstation

**Check out this video of sequencing and jamming on the MicroStation.

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