Korg Volca Sample reviewed

May 6, 2015

The Korg Volca series has deservedly earned many hardcore fans since its arrival in 2013. Their analog innards and intuitive interfaces made them staples in the rigs of many synth geeks and EDM producers alike, and their portability has let me to take them to parks and coffee shops when my workflow needed a change of venue.

I didn’t really expect another Volca to arrive on the scene this quickly, so when I first saw the Volca Sample I was curious as to how Korg would approach a digital addition to the otherwise analog lineup. After spending some good hands-on time, I came away impressed by how much fun a sample-based drum machine could once again be.

Engine and Sounds

The Volca Sample packs an impressive sample engine into a remarkably small form factor. There are ten instrument slots (with a maximum of eight-voice polyphony), with each sample being processed by a useful array of tools, including sample start, sample length, reverse, non-resonant lowpass filter, speed (pitch), and two attack-decay envelopes for pitch and amp, as well as additional controls for volume and pan. While these are pretty standard for samplers, the fact that every parameter has its own knob encourages experimentation in a big way. What’s even cooler about these features is that you can automate all of them via the Volca’s motion sequencing tools, which makes for some very complex one-bar grooves with a lot of unique character.

The onboard collection of 100 samples covers a broad range of essential sounds for making dance music with a vintage vibe, thanks to the unit’s 31.25kHz sample rate. There are ten kicks including hard-compressed types and the ubiquitous TR-808 sound, which, while quite long, can quickly be shortened with the amp envelope. The 12 snares include classic 808/909 along with some Linn/DMX style offerings. The eight claps also cover the classics, with an old digital drum machine sample that’s perfect for Prince-like claps, along with a lovely finger snap. Rounding out the drums are ten hats, crash, ride, six toms, and an array of now-standard electronic and acoustic percussion. From there, the Volca Sample moves into more musical territory with 40 additional samples of useful chords, stabs, and synth effects that seem tastefully curated for maximum versatility. I was a bit blown away by how such a relatively small sound set could cover everything from house music to old-school hip-hop. Hats off to whoever oversaw the selection process for the factory samples, because they’re all top-notch and fantastic fodder for the Volca’s synth engine.

While onboard audio recording is not present, you can import samples—up to the unit’s 4MB maximum—via a handy iOS app (see “AudioPocket” at XXXXX). There’s also a third-party sample editor app, Caustic, for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, available for free at singlecellsoftware.com.

The Volca Sample also includes two effects that are applied globally to the entire mix. There’s a basic integrated reverb with one-knob control over wet/dry mix and—unless my ears deceive me—what sounds like decay time. It’s a little cheesy, to be sure, but setting the knob between 9 and 12 o’clock delivers that classic lo-fi ambience. Better still, you can select which drums are affected, in an on/off manner that’s rather like having individual sends for each part.

At the end of the Volca’s output chain is a pair of tone controls, collectively called the “Analogue Isolator.” I’ve seen other reviewers call these EQs, but from what I’m hearing, they sound more like crossover filters that are quite handy for limiting the master bandwidth in a decidedly warm and retro way. What’s more, if you manually twist the knobs rhythmically (sorry, no motion sequencing here) you can get pseudo-phaser effects.

Sequencing

The Volca Sample’s sequencing tools build on the previous systems in intelligent and practical ways. For starters, Korg added the swing knob (huzzah!) that was noticeably absent from the earlier units. In addition, the Volca Sample now includes six “song” sequences and ten patterns. The only caveat is that the song memories allow a maximum of 16 one-bar sequences in their chain, and while the assembly process is a tad fiddly, it excels at creating simple grooves with a few fill or breakdowns for added spice.

Creating the patterns themselves is pretty much identical to the earlier Volcas. You can tap out drums in real-time via the unit’s tiny touch panel (with automatic sixteenth-note quantization) or you can switch to classic X0X-style sequencing. I’ve always liked switching back and forth between the two as I work and the Volca method takes only a few minutes to master.

Once you’ve created a pattern, you can switch to motion sequence mode and add automation to each of the drums individually. Getting the hang of motion sequences can be a bit tricky, since the Volca only records movements for one measure before returning to playback. The secret is to slow down the tempo as you record your moves—or do really detailed work in step mode.

The live performance sequencing options are similar to the previous Volcas, as well. You can toggle steps on/off with Korg’s “active step” feature or switch to “step jump” mode and repeat specific steps in real time. In practice, both of these options are great for glitchy, stuttering effects.

For part of my experimentation, I synced the Volca Sample with the Volca Beats analog drum machine and was immediately in groove heaven. While each device is impressive on its own, combining the two units created grooves that beautifully blended analog, digital, vintage and modern.

AudioPocket

With the free AudioPocket app , you can field-record audio directly from your iOS device, import audio into the Volca Sample from your computer in most popular formats, or restore any or all of the factory sounds in case you overwrite a sample slot inadvertently.

The process is as retro as the Volca itself, since you have to plug in a 1/8" cable from your iPhone or iPad’s headphone out to the Volca’s sync input jack. If you’re old enough to remember storing synth presets to a cassette deck, the process feels eerily similar—but it works without a hitch. In addition to transferring samples, you can also update the unit’s firmware.

The AudioPocket is quite clever as it also serves as a taster for potential Volca buyers. Since the app includes the entire factory sound bank with audio preview functions for each, you can download it from the iTunes store and hear exactly what sounds you’ll get if you buy a Volca Sample.

Conclusions

I wasn’t entirely sure that a non-analog Volca was going to be as engaging as the earlier models. Using the Volca Sample changed all that. Though it’s sample-based, it oozes character. The sounds are brilliant, even if you don’t have an iOS device to import your own sampled material. The synthesis and processing amenities cover all of the essentials and then some. The sequencer includes tons of automation tools, and the whole package is addictive and inspirational. If you loved the grungy MPC sound of the early ’90s, this box is a must-have.

PROS

Great collection of usable drums, stabs and sound effects. Sample processing includes start/end, filtering, and attack-decay envelopes for pitch and amplitude. Built in reverb and analog crossover/EQ section. Battery powered and portable. Built-in speaker.

CONS

No onboard user sample recording.


Bottom Line

An affordable, fun, and surprisingly powerful sample-based drum machine for the masses.

$224 list | $159.99 street | korg.com

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